One-shot Wednesday: swamp milkweed leaf beetle

Labidomera clivicollis on Asclepias incarnata | Hickman Co., Kentucky

Labidomera clivicollis on Asclepias incarnata | Hickman Co., Kentucky

Technically this photograph of Labidomera clivicollis (swamp milkweed leaf beetle) doesn’t qualify as a “one-shot”, as I did take a few other shots as well. However, this was the only shot out of the handful that I didn’t throw away. It’s not perfect—the right front and left rear legs are raised awkwardly, and the lighting is a bit harsh. However, the important parts of the beetle are in focus, the composition is acceptable (with all parts of the beetle within the frame), and there is pleasing value contrast between the orange and black body of the beetle, the green plant on which it sits, and the clear blue sky in the background. The plant’s flowers have even added a smidgen of pink. All of the other photos lacked either focus or composition, neither of which are easily “fixable” in post-processing. The difficulty in getting a better photo is a result of the beetle’s refusal to settle down and stop walking and my lack of desire to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for this to happen as opposed to finding the insect I was really looking for (more on that in a future post).

I found this beetle on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in Hickman Co., Kentucky. As the common name suggests, swamp milkweed is one of the main hosts for this rather large beetle (at least, by leaf beetle standards). However, they can and do feed and develop on other milkweeds, especially common milkweed (A. syriaca), and even related genera such as swallow-wort (Cynanchum) and twinevine (Funastrum) (all belonging the family Asclepiadaceae).

Labidomera clivicollis is part of the orange and black milkweed mimicry complex, which includes monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), red milkweed beetles (Tetraopes spp.), large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus), small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii), milkweed assassin bug (Zelus longipes), and others. Most of these insects have evolved mechanisms for avoiding or detoxifying cardenolides (produced by milkweed as a defense against herbivores) and sequestering them within their bodies for their own defense against predators. This represents a classic example of a Müllerian mimicry ring, in which multiple insect species—sometimes from different families and even different orders—share a common warning color. Predators learn to avoid these colors and, thus, avoid all of the species within the mimicry ring.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

One-shot Wednesday: Mallodon dasystomus

Mallodon dasystomus | southeast Missouri (Mississippi Co.)

Mallodon dasystomus | southeast Missouri (Mississippi Co.)

Today’s (slightly belated) edition of “One-shot Wednesday” features a beetle that I saw just about this time last year while blacklighting along the Mississippi River in the southeastern lowlands of Missouri. Mallodon dasystomus¹ is a prionid longhorned beetle (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Prioninae) that is sometimes called the “hardwood stump borer”. It is perhaps one of the most widely distributed members of its group, occurring across the southern tier of the U.S. down through Mexico and Central America as far as northern South America.

¹ Until recently the specific epithet was consistently misspelled in most of the literature as “dasytomus“. A closer look at the Greek root words dasus (δασύς), meaning “hairy”, and stoma (στόμα), meaning “mouth”, shows the misspelling to be nonsensical. I, myself, am guilty of using the wrong spelling in my checklist of Missouri longhorned beetles (MacRae 1994), although I can claim to have been “going with the flow”.

Despite the beetle’s wide geographical range, I searched for it both eagerly and unsuccessfully during the 1980s as I was gathering data for my checklist of Missouri longhorned beetles (MacRae 1994). I eventually published that checklist and included the species on the basis of a few specimens seen in other collections, but I never encountered it for myself until some years later during a visit to Cave Creek Canyon in southeast Arizona. As noted by Linsley et al. (1961), this species is common there and is associated with large, partially dead Arizona sycamores (Platanus wrightii). Although nearly 20 years ago, I still recall seeing the large beetles crawling high up on the trunks and sitting in their emergence holes with only their massively-mandibled heads protruding as they tantalizingly waved their antennae about.

That experience would directly lead to my eventually finding this species for myself in Missouri. Shortly after returning to the state in the mid-90s, I was driving along a road in the state’s southeastern lowlands when I passed a very large, half-dead American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Even at a speed of 40 mph I could see the large emergence holes that immediately reminded me of what I had seen in Arizona, so I hit the brakes, made a quick U-turn, and came back to look at the tree a little more closely. I was convinced the holes were made by this species, and my hunch was proven when I eventually found several beetle carcasses on the ground around the base of the tree. I returned the following weekend with a chainsaw, cut several one-cubic-foot sections of wood from the dead portion of the massive tree’s trunk (with landowner permission), and eventually reared a nice series of adults from the wood. Having uncovered the association of this species with sycamore in the state, I was able to find the species also in several other locations in southeastern Missouri, but I have not managed to find the species in any areas north of the southeastern lowlands in Missouri despite the common occurrence of the host tree.

The beetle in the above photograph landed on the foliage of a large silver maple (Acer saccharinum) next to the ultraviolet light I had setup in wet bottomland forest along the Mississippi River, and wanting to ensure that I got at least one in situ photo of the beetle that is where I shot it. I did try to move it to the trunk of a large, dead sycamore nearby for a more realistically representative photo of how these beetles are usually encountered, but the beetle became quite agitated when I moved it and my considerable patience was never rewarded. I popped it into a vial in hopes of photographs the next morning, but conditions were not to the beetle’s liking and it expired before I had another chance to photograph it. Just the other night I setup a blacklight in a spot not too far from where I saw this beetle in hopes of getting another chance to photograph it. That effort was not successful, but I did find a longhorned beetle species that I had not seen in nearly 30 years! I was successful in photographing that species but (please excuse the teaser) will save those photos for a future post.

REFERENCES:

Linsley, E. G., J. N. Knull & M. Statham. 1961. A List of Cerambycidae from the Chiricahua Mountain Area, Cochise County, Arizona (Coleoptera). American Museum Novitates 2050:1–34 [full text, pdf].

MacRae, T. C. 1994. Annotated checklist of the longhorned beetles (Coleoptera: Cerambycidae and Disteniidae) known to occur in Missouri. Insecta Mundi 7(4) (1993):223–252 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

One-shot Wednesday: pale green assassin bug

Zelus luridus (pale green assassin bug) | Howell Co., Missouri.

Zelus luridus (pale green assassin bug) | Howell Co., Missouri.

As my friend Rich and I set out a week ago Sunday on the final stretch in our quest to hike the 350-mile Ozark Trail in its entirety, I saw this slender, green assassin bug (family Reduviidae) sitting on a tender young leaf of an oak sapling. I already had my camera out but had outfitted with the 65-mm, 1–5× macro lens in anticipation of small beetles that I wanted to photograph on dogwood flowers. Nevertheless, it was still a bit on the cool side, making me think I might yet succeed in getting off some super-closeup shots of this delicate predator. I managed to carefully snip the leaf from the sapling and move the bug up close to the camera for a nice, blue-sky background shot, but one shot is all I got—as soon as the shutter clicked the bug took flight and left me with this single photo. As I have observed to usually be the case, the body of this individual is thickly covered with debris, which I take to be pollen from the abundant oaks at the height of their flowering period.

I’ve seen this species regularly over the years during my springtime forays in upland, oak-hickory Ozark forests. I presume the species is Zelus luridus, based on an online synopsis of the genus Zelus in eastern North America. As true bugs go, assassin bugs are undeniably cool—sometimes large, often colorful, and pure predators! Interestingly, these bugs have adopted a rather diverse array of strategies to assist their predaceous habits, mostly involving modifications of the front legs. Some involve a more typical raptorial design (similar to mantids) with chelate surfaces or even spines on the femora and tibiae, while others have developed flexible, cushion-like structures on the tips of the tibiae to aid in prey handling (Weirauch 2006). Gross morphological modifications, however, are not the only strategy employed by assassin bugs—some groups use secretions either to paralyze or immobilize their prey. Species in the genus Zelus employ the latter strategy—essentially using their front legs as “sticky traps”. The sticky substance is derived from glands on the front legs and is used to coat numerous, microscopically branched setae on the legs called “sundew setae” in reference to the similarity of appearance and function with insectivorous sundew plants. Interestingly, sundew setae have also been found on other parts of the body, at least in first-instar Z. luridus nymphs, leading to speculation that they may also serve some other function besides prey capture. Perhaps these setae explain why most individuals I see are so debris-covered, as with the pollen-laden individual above.

REFERENCE:

Weirauch, C. 2006. Observations on the sticky trap predator Zelus luridus Stål (Heteroptera, Reduviidae, Harpactorinae), with the description of a novel gland associated with the female genitalia. Denisia 19, zugleich Kataloge der OÖ. Landesmuseen
Neue Serie 50:1169–1180 [pdf].

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

One-shot Wednesday: Hawk moths suck!

Hyles lineata nectaring at flowers of Ericameria nauseosa | San Juan Co., Utah

Hyles lineata nectaring at flowers of Ericameria nauseosa | San Juan Co., Utah

I admit it—I give short shrift to Lepidoptera compared to other groups of insects. This is not because I don’t think they deserve attention; they are a stunning group with an amazing suite of adaptations to life on earth. It’s just that they already receive a lot of attention from others, while so many other equally amazing groups of insects remain almost completely unknown and under-appreciated due to the sole fact that they are smaller and less conspicuous. I’m not anti-Lepidoptera; I’m just pro-other Insecta. Every now and then, however, I must give Lepidoptera their due, and since today is Wednesday it’s a good day to feature a hawk moth that I got but a single photograph of on my late August Great Basin collecting trip.

Hyles lineata is not a particularly rare insect—in fact, it is one of the most common and widespread species of hawk moth (family Sphingidae) in North America. What is hard to come by, however, is a good shot of an adult nectaring at a flower. While such shots abound, most feature busy backgrounds and blurred wings. My photo is no different. However, I am a coleopterist, and when I took this shot there were also longhorned beetles present on the same flowers—it could be considered remarkable that I even diverted my attention long enough to attempt a shot. Of course, hawk moths are amazing creatures that have independently arrived at the same flight abilities and feeding habits as the equally amazing but taxonomically distant hummingbirds with their ability to hover motionless while sipping nectar and beating their wings at blinding frequencies. With little time to practice and even less to optimize settings, I’m amazed that I even got an adequate photograph before the moth zipped off to another bush. Yes, hawk moths suck, and that is amazing!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

One-shot Wednesday: The “other” hibiscus jewel beetle

Paragrilus tenuis | Stoddard Co., Missouri

Paragrilus tenuis (LeConte) | Stoddard Co., Missouri

This past summer I visited Otter Slough Conservation Area in southeast Missouri in an effort to find and photograph the stunningly beautiful Agrilus concinnus Horn, or “hibiscus jewel beetle” (MacRae 2004). I was not successful in that quest, but I did manage to snap a single photo of another jewel beetle also associated exclusively with hibiscus, Paragrilus tenuis (LeConte). This species belongs to a much smaller genus of mostly Neotropical jewel beetles that resemble the related and much more speciose genus Agrilus but differ significantly by their antennae being received in grooves along the sides of the pronotum and, for the most part, their association as larvae with stems of living, herbaceous plants rather than dead branches and twigs of deciduous trees. Only four species of Paragrilus occur in the U.S. (Hespenheide 2002), and of these only Ptenuis is known to occur in the eastern U.S. where it has been reported breeding in Hibiscus moscheutos (including ssp. lasiocarpos). I have also collected adults on H. laevis (MacRae 2006), but to my knowledge it has not yet been reared from that plant.

These tiny little beetles (~ 5 mm in length) are normally seen resting on the terminal leaves of their host plants, but they are extremely wary and quick to take flight. As a result, photographing them in situ with a short macro lens in the heat of the day is rather challenging, especially when they are not numerous. I only saw perhaps half a dozen individuals during the visit, and the photo shown here represents the only shot that I even managed to fire off. While I would have liked to have gotten a dorsal view of the beetle, this single shot is nevertheless well-focused and a rather interesting composition.

REFERENCES:

Hespenheide, H. A. 2002. A review of North and Central American Paragrilus Saunders, 1871 (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Agrilinae). Zootaxa 43:1–28 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. 2004. Beetle bits: Hunting the elusive “hibiscus jewel beetle”. Nature Notes, Journal of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society 76(5):4–5 [pdf].

MacRae, T. C. 2006. Distributional and biological notes on North American Buprestidae (Coleoptera), with comments on variation in Anthaxia (Haplanthaxiaviridicornis (Say) and A. (H.) viridfrons Gory. The Pan-Pacific Entomologist 82(2):166–199 [pdf].

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

One-Shot Wednesday—Proctacanthus fulviventris ovipositing

Proctacanthus fulviventris | Dixie Co., Florida

Today I spent the day just south of Florida’s “arm pit” to look for the state’s near-endemic tiger beetle Cicindelidia scabrosa (Scabrous Tiger Beetle). I first found this species last August on a white-sand 2-track through sand pine scrub habitat near Cedar Key Scrub State Preserve (Levy Co.). Although I was happy enough with the photographs that I got that day, the small spot of habitat that I found them in had yielded only a few specimens. My goal this time was to find the species in additional localities  to get a better idea of its precise habitat preferences and obtain a better series of specimens that more fully represents the range of variability exhibited by the species in its pubescence, color and elytral markings. By day’s end I would meet this goal, having found the species at four locations in Levy Co. and further north in Dixie Co. My first stop was actually in Dixie Co. near Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, where I found good numbers of individuals on a white-sand 2-track through pine scrub. A variety of robber flies (family Asilidae) were also seen along the 2-track, but I resisted the urge to photograph them because of the task at hand. Eventually, however, I came upon a female of this rather large species with her abdomen deeply inserted into the loose sand, surely in the act of oviposition. This was too much to pass up, so I set down the net, took off the backpack, and put the camera together. Unfortunately, in the time it took to do this, the fly had already withdrawn her abdomen and was rapidly “sweeping” the tip of the abdomen back and forth over the hole—I presume to cover and hide it. I snapped this first frame (the little bit of motion blur can be seen at the tip of the abdomen), but then I moved carelessly (not my usual habit) when scooting in for a closer shot. This spooked the fly and caused it to fly off, and I was left with this single image.

As much as I like robber flies, I can’t say that I’m well versed in their taxonomy. However, the large size (25–30 mm in length) and overall gestalt suggested to me that it belonged to the nominate subfamily, and cruising through online photographs eventually led me to Proctacanthus fulviventris. The individual seems to agree well with the description of this species provided by Hine (1911), including the bright yellow beard, black femora and red tibiae, and reddish abdominal terga. If my identification is correct, this species—like C. scabrosa—is also a Florida near-endemic whose distribution extends barely into southern Georgia. It’s dark coloration and light brown wings, combined with its large size, surely make it one of the more impressive-looking robber flies, and I’m sorry that I did not attempt to get more photographs of this species while I had the chance, as I did not see it at any of the other locations that I visited on the day.

Incidentally, by my interpretation the scientific name of this species translates to “yellow-bellied spiny-butt”!

REFERENCE:

Hine, J. S. 1911. Robberflies of the genera Promachus and Proctacanthus. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 4(2):153–172.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

One-Shot Wednesday: two-striped grasshopper nymph

Melanoplus bivittatus (Two-striped Grasshopper) nymph | Jerseyville, Illinois

As the heat of summer solidifies its chokehold over the middle and southern latitudes of North America, grasshopper nymphs will begin to ramp up their development. I see grasshoppers commonly in my soybean field trials, where their feeding presents more of an annoyance to me than an actual threat to yields.

I photographed this particular individual on almost this same date last year in one of my Illinois soybean trials, not knowing for sure which species it represented. There was no particular reason for only taking this one single photograph, other than it was perched nicely when I saw it and that I did not feel like taking the time to chase it into another good pose after my first shot disturbed it.

Later in the season I saw numerous adults representing Melanoplus differentialis (differential grasshopper), a common species in this area, and assumed this was its nymph. However, a closer look at the photo suggests it represents the closely related M. bivittatus (two-striped grasshopper). While adults of these two species are easily distinguished based on coloration, the nymphs can look very similar (especially in their earlier instars) and are distinguished on the basis of the black femoral marking—more or less solid in M. bivittatus and broken into chevrons that create a “herringbone” pattern in M. differentialis.

Wing pad size and relative body proportions suggest this is a fourth-instar nymph.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

One-Shot Wednesday: Panorpa helena scorpionfly

Panorpa helena, male | Wayne Co., Missouri

Last month I introduced a new meme called One-Shot Wednesday as a fun outlet for those occasional instances where I was able to fire off just one shot of an insect before it took off. At the time I guess I was hoping it was a meme that I wouldn’t need to use frequently, as I really do like to get more than just one shot of the insects that I photograph. Eventually, however, I decided it might actually encourage me to attempt photographs of insects that I wouldn’t normally try to photograph—not because I don’t find them attractive or interesting, but rather the fear of becoming too distracted and missing opportunities for the types of insects that I prefer to photograph. Freeing myself from the “need” to spend inordinate amounts of time with every subject I try to photograph might actually make me more willing to fire off more shots willy-nilly. Most of these shots probably won’t be anything special, but a few should turn out pretty good—and what better way to get more practice and experience?

Today’s feature is my first attempt at something in the order Mecoptera. I am admittedly a novice when it comes to scorpionfly taxonomy, but after perusing The Mecoptera of North America, an excellent website by Norm Penny (Collections Manager at the California Academy of Sciences and specialist in the taxonomy, biology, and biogeography of the Mecoptera and Neuropterida), I’m fairly confident that this male represents the common and widespread species Panorpa helena Byers, 1962. Penny includes Missouri in the distribution of six species of this monogeneric family, but the three complete bands across yellow wings and presence of an anal horn on the sixth abdominal tergum seem to support my identification (although I suppose examination of the male genitalia would be required for conclusive identification).

Frankly I was surprised I even got this shot. I see scorpionflies commonly in dense, moist woods throughout Missouri—this one was seen in wet bottomland forest along Big Creek in Sam A. Baker State Park in the southeastern Ozark Highlands—and have noted their tendency to flit nervously through dense foliage when approached. I already had the camera out and with the proper lens attached, so I thought I’d take a shot—I got this one reasonably well-composed, focused, and exposed shot before it flew deeper into the foliage. That was good enough for me (I had other quarry on my mind…), so I didn’t bother to try to track it. That was on April 23 (my first official day as a ‘senior citizen’—harrumph!), and it’s interesting to note that this is nearly two weeks earlier than the first date of occurrence (May 4) recorded for the species at Penny’s website.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012