Hooray for iStock—I finally have an ID for my photo

I was all set to make a “One-Shot Wednesday” post today, but sometimes big news strikes and plans must change. The news today was in the form of a random tweet by Alex Wild:

iStock-caption_Wild-20131120

The link in the tweet led me to the following photo on iStock by Getty:

bedbug has captured worm

I was stunned—the photo depicted a scene almost identical to one that I had photographed back in September while visiting soybean fields in Louisiana. For two months I sat on the photo with no idea what I was looking at, but now thanks to Alex I have my answer! Compare the above photo with mine below, and you’ll see that everything matches perfectly—I had photographed a “bedbug” that had captured a “worm”!

Podisus maculiventris preying on Chrysodeixis includens larva

bedbug captures a worm

I considered myself to be fortunate, because there was not just one but two different subjects in the photo, and both of them matched perfectly with the subjects shown in the iStock photo. Gotta love the internet—nowadays names for even the most hard-to-identify bugs are just a click away if you know where to look!

</snark>

Of course, the aggressor in both photos is not a “bedbug” [sic for “bed bug”] (order Hemiptera, family Cimicidae) but a stink bug (family Pentatomidae), specifically Podisus maculiventris, or “spined soldier bug”—perhaps the most common predatory stink bug in North Amerca and ranging from Mexico and parts of the West Indies north through the U.S. into Canada. It is a well-known predator of crop pests and, as such, has been imported to several other countries as part of classical biological control efforts. As for the “worm,” in my photo it is a late-instar larva of Chrysodeixis includens, or “soybean looper, and while I haven’t been able to identify the exact species in the iStock photo it is definitely a lepidopteran caterpillar that appears to related to if not in the same family as the soybean looper (Noctuidae). Now, I concede that “worm” is sometimes used for lepidopteran larvae, but one must also concede that in it’s broadest sense “worm” can refer to members of several disparate phyla such as Nematoda (roundworms), Platyhelminthes (flatworms), or Annelida (segmented worms).

This case, of course, just screams for application of the Taxonomy Fail Index (TFI), which scales the amount of error in a taxonomic identification in absolute time against the error of misidentifying a human with a chimpanzee—our closest taxonomic relative. For example, when TFI = 1 the error is of the same magnitude as mistaking a human for a chimp, while  TFI > 1 is a more egregious error and TFI < 1 a more forgivable one. In the case shown here, one must go back to the common ancestor that eventually gave rise to all of the worm phyla and noctuid moths (~937.5 mya). In addition, since there are two subjects in the photo, one must also go back to the divergence of the main hemipteran groups that contain bed bugs and stink bugs (mid-Triassic, ~227.5 mya). This results a whopping 1.165 billion total years of divergence between the identifications assigned to the subjects in the iStock photo and their actual identity. Assuming that chimps and humans diverged approximately 7.5 mya, this gives a TFI for the iStock photo of 155! I haven’t searched thoroughly to determine whether this is a record for the highest TFI in a single photo, but surely it is a strong contender!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Working with Cerceris fumipennis—Epilogue

Cerceris fumipennis nest littered with Neochlamisus sp. beetles

In Working with Cerceris fumipennis Part 1 and Part 2, I talked about the use of this species as a biosurveillance tool for Buprestidae. These wasps are specialist predators of jewel beetles, which they capture almost exclusively and paralyze with their sting to use as food provisions for their offspring in underground nests. I also mentioned that there are other species of Cerceris, each specializing in its own distinct prey group, and at my site in east-central Missouri I found C. bicornis, a weevil specialist, almost as common as C. fumipennis. Thus, when I came upon this particular Cerceris wasp nest, I wondered it I had encountered yet another species in the genus, for littered around it were case-bearing leaf beetles in the genus Neochlamisus.

The bright coppery coloration suggests Neochlamisus platani

I counted 11 beetles lying on the diggings surrounding this nest, and as is typical with buprestids around C. fumipennis nests these beetles all appeared to represent the same species (I’ve done a little collecting of Neochlamisus beetles in Missouri—the especially bright coppery coloration suggests to me N. platani, a species found on eastern sycamore, Platanus occidentalis). I’ve also noted that C. fumipennis nests littered with beetles on the surface also have beetles—usually of the same species—freshly cached underground, so I decided to dig up the nest to see what might be in it. As I inserted the grass stem and started digging, I heard the distinctive buzzing indicating the wasp was still inside the nest, and when it appeared I noted the distinctive three yellow facial markings that identify it as a female C. fumipennis. As suspected, the nest contained another seven beetles of the same species, and I would later learn that C. fumipennis, while specializing on jewel beetles, does occasionally take other prey. Philip Careless and colleagues recorded two leaf beetles, including Neochlamisus bebbiana, and one weevil as hosts for this wasp at their Working with Cerceris fumipennis website. If my species ID of these beetles is confirmed, this should represent yet another non-buprestid host record for C. fumipennis, although I should also mention that out of several hundred observations this was the only non-buprestid prey I observed around or in a C. fumipennis nest.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Working with Cerceris fumipennis—Part 1

For nearly 30 years, jewel beetles (family Buprestidae) have been my primary research interest. While some species in this family have long been regarded as forest and landscape pests, my interest in the group has a more biosystematic focus. A faunal survey of Missouri was the result of my initial efforts (MacRae 1991), while later research has focused on distributions and larval host associations of North American species (Nelson & MacRae 1990; Nelson et al. 1996; MacRae & Nelson 2003; MacRae 2004, 2006) and descriptions of new species from both North America (Nelson & MacRae 1994, MacRae 2003b) and South America (MacRae 2003a). Research interest in other groups—especially longhorned beetles and tiger beetles, has come and gone over the past three decades; however, I always return to jewel beetles as  my first and favorite group.

In recent years, one species in particular—the emerald ash borer (EAB, Agrilus planipennis) has garnered a huge amount of research, regulatory, and public interest after reaching North America from Asia and spreading alarmingly through the hardwood forests of Michigan and surrounding states. The attention is justifiable, given the waves of dead native ash trees that have been left in its wake. With huge areas in eastern North America still potentially vulnerable to invasion by this species, the bulk of the attention has focused on preventing its spread from infested areas and monitoring areas outside of its known current distribution to detect invasion as early as possible. One incredibly useful tool that has been adopted by survey entomologists is the crabronid wasp, Cerceris fumipennis. Like other members of the family, these solitary wasps dig nests in the ground, which they then provision with captured insect prey. The wasp uses its sting to paralyzed the prey but not kill it, and once inside the burrow the wasp lays an egg on the prey and seals the cell with a plug of soil. The eggs hatch and larvae develop by consuming the paralyzed prey (unable to scream!). After pupation the adult digs its way out of the burrow (usually the next season), and the cycle begins anew. However, unlike other members of the family (at least in North America), C. fumipennis specializes almost exclusively on jewel beetles for prey. So efficient are these wasps at locating and capturing the beetles that entomologists have begun using them to sample areas around known wasp populations as a means of detecting the presence of EAB. Philip Careless and Stephen Marshall (University of Guelph, Ontario) and colleagues have been leading this charge and have even developed methods for transporting wasp colonies as a mobile survey tool and developed a sizeable network of citizen scientists throughout eastern North America to expand the scope of their survey efforts. Information about this can be found at the excellent website, Working with Cerceris fumipennis (please pardon my shameless lifting of the title for this post).

I first became aware of the potential of working with C. fumipennis a few years ago when Philip sent me a PDF of his recently published brochure on use of this wasp for EAB biosurveillance (Careless et al. 2009). My correspondence with him and other eastern entomologists involved in the work suggested that ball fields with lightly vegetated, sandy soil would be the best places to look for C. fumipennis nests, but my cursory attempts to find the wasp at that time were unsuccessful. I reasoned that the clay-soaked soils of Missouri didn’t offer enough sand for the wasps’ liking and didn’t think much more about it until last winter when I agreed to receive for ID a batch of 500+ buprestid specimens taken from C. fumipennis wasps in Louisiana. What a batch of material! In addition to nice series of several species that I had rarely or never seen (e.g. Poecilonota thureura), three new state records were represented amongst the material. A paper is now in progress based on these collections, and that experience catalyzed a more concerted effort on my part to locate a population of the wasp in Missouri. Museum specimens were no help—the only records from Missouri were from old specimens bearing generic locality labels such as “St. Louis” and “Columbia.” Throughout the month of May, I visited as many ball fields as I could, but the results were always the same—regularly groomed, heavy clay, barren soil with no evidence of wasp burrows (or any burrows for that matter).

Near the end of May, however, I had a stroke of luck. I had switched to a flatter route through the Missouri River Valley to ride my bike to work because of knee pain (now thankfully gone) when I saw this:

Practice fields at Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex | St. Louis Co., Missouri

Those are “practice” fields in front of regular fields in the background, and unlike the latter, this row of nine fields (lined up against the levee adjacent to the Big Muddy National Wildlife Refuge) showed no evidence of regular grooming or heavy human use. Only ten miles from my home, I made immediate plans to inspect the site at the first opportunity that weekend. Within minutes after walking onto the lightly vegetated, sandy-clay soil of the first field, I found numerous burrows such as this:

Cerceris fumipennis with circular, pencil-wide burrow entrance and symmetrical mound of diggings.

Only a few more minutes passed before I found an occupied nest, the wasp sitting just about an inch below the entrance to its pencil-wide burrow. The three yellow markings on the face indicated it was a female (males have only two facial markings), and in short order I found numerous other burrows also occupied by female wasps. Some were just sitting below the burrow entrance, while others were actively digging and pushing soil out of the burrow with their abdomen. I flicked a little bit of soil into one of the burrows with a female sitting below the surface, which prompted an immediate “cleaning out” of the burrow—this explains the dirty face of the female in the following photo, but the three yellow facial markings are clearly visible:

Cerceris fumipennis female removing soil from burrow entrance.

After finding the burrows and their occupants, I began to notice a fair number of wasps in flight—leaving nests, returning to nests, and flying about as if searching for a ‘misplaced’ nest. A few of these were males, but most were females, and I also caught a couple pairs flying in copula (or at least hitched, if not actually copulating). Despite the number of wasps observed during this first visit, I didn’t see a single wasp carrying a buprestid beetle. This puzzled me, because all of the Louisiana beetles I had determined last winter were taken by standing in the midst of nests and netting those observed carrying beetles. Finally, I had confirmation that I was truly dealing with this species when I found a couple of beetles lying on the ground near the entrance to a burrow. These would be the only beetles that I would find on this visit, but subsequent visits during the following few weeks would show “ground picking” to be the most productive method of collecting beetles. Across the nine fields, I found a total of nearly 300 nests, and the wasps showed a clear preference for some fields over others—one field (P-6) had about 150 nests, while a few others had less than a dozen. The photo shown in ID Challenge #19 shows a sampling of ground-picked buprestids from P-6 in a single day, and occasionally I would find a real prize like Buprestis rufipes:

Buprestis rufipes laying near Cerceris fumipennis nest entrance.

Coincident with the appearance of large numbers of beetles laying on the ground near nest entrances, I also began to see wasps carrying their prey. Wasps carrying large beetles are easily recognized by their profile, but even those carrying small beetles look a little more “thick-thoraxed” (they hold their prey upside down and head forward under their thorax) and exhibit a slower, more straight-line flight path compared to the faster, more erratic and repetitively dipping flight of wasps not carrying prey. Learning how to discern wasps carrying prey in flight from the more numerous empty-handed wasps prevents a lot of wasted time and effort netting the latter. Nevertheless, there does appear to be some bias towards larger beetles when netting prey-carrying wasps in flight, as evidenced in the photo below of beetles taken by this method, also in field P-6, on the same date as the ground-picked beetles shown in ID Challenge #19. This could be a result of visual bias towards wasps carrying larger beetles, as in later visits (and presumably with a more refined search image) I did succeed in catching larger numbers wasps carrying smaller beetles (primarily in the genus Agrilus).

Buprestid prey of Cerceris fumipennis: L–R and top to bottom 2 Dicerca obscura, 2 D. lurida, 3 Poecilonota cyanipes, 2 Acetenodes acornis, 1 Chrysobothris sexsignata, 1 Agrilus quadriguttatus, and 1 A. obsoletoguttatus

All told, I collected several hundred beetles during my twice weekly visits to the site from late May to the end of June. Beetle abundance and wasp activity began to drop off precipitously in late June, which coincides precisely with the end of the adult activity period for a majority of buprestid beetles in Missouri, based on my observations over the years. This did not, however, spell the end of my activities in using C. fumipennis to collect buprestid beetles, which will be the subject of Part 2 in this series.

Congratulations to Joshua Basham, whose efforts in ID Challenge #19 earned him 12 points and the win. Morgan Jackson and Paul Kaufman were the only others to correctly identify the Cerceris fumipennis connection and take 2nd and 3rd, respectively. In an unexpected turn of events, BitB Challenge Session #6 overall leader Sam Heads did not participate and was leapfrogged by Brady Richards, whose becomes the new overall leader with 59 points. Sam now trails Brady by 5 points, while Mr. Phidippus lies another 3 points back. With margins this tight, the overall standing can still change in a single challenge, and there will be at least one more in this current session before an overall winner is named.

REFERENCES:

Careless, P. D., S. A. Marshal, B. D. Gill, E. Appleton, R, Favrin & T. Kimoto. 2009. Cerceris fumipennis—a biosurveillance tool for emerald ash borer. Canadian Food Inspection Agency, 16 pp.

MacRae, T. C. 1991. The Buprestidae (Coleoptera) of Missouri. Insecta Mundi 5(2):101–126.

MacRae, T. C. 2003a. Mastogenius guayllabambensis MacRae, a new species from Ecuador (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Haplostethini). The Coleopterists Bulletin 57(2):149–153.

MacRae, T. C. 2003b. Agrilus (s. str.) betulanigrae MacRae (Coleoptera: Buprestidae: Agrilini), a new species from North America, with comments on subgeneric placement and a key to the otiosus species-group in North America. Zootaxa 380:1–9.

MacRae, T. C. 2004. Notes on host associations of Taphrocerus gracilis (Say) (Coleoptera: Buprestidae) and its life history in Missouri. The Coleopterists Bulletin 58(3):388–390.

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

MacRae, T. C., & G. H. Nelson. 2003. Distributional and biological notes on Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North and Central America and the West Indies, with validation of one species. The Coleopterists Bulletin 57(1):57–70.

Nelson, G. H., & T. C. MacRae. 1990. Additional notes on the biology and distribution of Buprestidae (Coleoptera) in North America, III. The Coleopterists Bulletin 44(3):349–354.

Nelson, G. H., & T. C. MacRae. 1994. Oaxacanthaxia nigroaenea Nelson and MacRae, a new species from Mexico (Coleoptera: Buprestidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin 48(2):149–152.

Nelson, G. H., R. L. Westcott & T. C. MacRae. 1996. Miscellaneous notes on Buprestidae and Schizopodidae occurring in the United States and Canada, including descriptions of previously unknown sexes of six Agrilus Curtis (Coleoptera). The Coleopterists Bulletin 50(2):183–191.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Eriopis connexa on soybean in Argentina

Eriopis connexa adult on soybean | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

Congratulations to those of you who correctly guessed the identity of the “subject” in ID Challenge #16 as the ladybird beetle Eriopis connexa (family Coccinellidae). This is one of the most common ladybird beetles in Argentina, and during the past few weeks I have seen large numbers of these beetles in the soybean fields that I have been visiting. Coccinellids in Argentina are among the easier the groups to identify to species thanks to the excellent website Coccinellidae of Argentina. Identifying the “meal,” however, proved to be a little more difficult. Most people guessed aphids, a natural choice, but soybean aphids have not yet made it to the soybean fields of South America (thankfully!), so the victims of these predaceous beetles must be something else. There was a clue in the challenge photo that at least one person picked up on (but didn’t make the connection) in the form of small black globs stuck to the hairs of the plant on which the beetle was sitting. These are actually the fecal deposits of the bean thrips, Caliothrips phaseoli (order Thysanoptera, family Thripidae) (which I covered a year ago in A thrips is a thrips…), which for the past two seasons now has built up large populations on soybeans in Argentina. In fact, an adult bean thrips (yes, “thrips” is the correct singular form) can be seen in the above photo (which I did not notice while I was taking the photo). I’ve not yet witnessed these beetles actually feeding on a thrips, but the large numbers of thrips and beetles and near absence of any other suitable prey item makes the association almost a given.

Eriopis connexa larva on soybean | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

Not only are the adult beetles numerous on the plants, but eggs and larvae as well. Larvae are every bit as brightly colored as the adults, with a color scheme that leaves little doubt regarding their association. In the case of this larva, I watched it roam back and forth across the soybean leaf, pausing momentarily and apparently eating something—thrips eggs I presume.

Congratulations to Mr. Phidippus and Dennis Haines, who tie for the Challenge win with 14 points each, while Gustavo and Dave tie for the final podium spot. Mr. Phidippus, however, easily takes the overall win in BitB Challenge Session #5 with a whopping total of 57 points. Mr. Phidippus—contact me for your loot! Dennis Haines and Tim Eisele take 2nd and 3rd overall honors, and full standings for BitB Challenge Session #5 are shown below.

Commentor IDC#14 SSC#10 IDC#15 Bonus SSC#11 Bonus IDC#16 Total
Mr. Phidippus 11 11 9   12   14 57
Dennis Haines 9 4 2   10 1 14 40
Tim Eisele 8 6 2   13   6 35
Roy 5 6 7   10     28
Mike Baker 7   9       10 26
Dorian Patkus     9   11 4   24
David Winter 3   9       10 22
Gustavo             12 12
HBG Dave             12 12
Marlin 12             12
FlaPack 10             10
Laurie Knight 2       8     10
Doug Yanega         9     9
Brady Richards       4   3   7
John Oliver   6           6
George Sims 2 2 2         6
Richard Waldrep   6         6
Arpad Hervanek 4             4
Roxane Magnus 4             4
dragonflywoman       4     4
Wayne K         4     4
itsybitsybeetle         4     4
fatcatfromvox 2             2
Emily Gooch 1             1
Sean Whipple     1         1
Jon Q             1 1

 

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Lord of the flies!

I happened upon a rather interesting scene last week in a soybean field in northern Argentina (Chaco Province). This assassin bug (family Reduviidae) had captured and was feeding on an adult stink bug of the species Piezodorus guildinii—an important pest of soybean in Argentina and Brazil (where it is known by the common names “chinche de la alfalfa” and “chinche verde pequeño”, respectively). Assassin bug predation is always interesting enough itself, but what made this scene especially fascinating was the large congregation of flies surrounding and even crawling upon the predator and its prey. I had not witnessed something like this before, but it seemed clear to me that the flies were engaging in kleptoparasitism—i.e, stealing food. I’ve gotten into the habit of keeping a full set of extension tubes mounted on the camera with my 100mm macro lens—this not only provides the most useful (for me) range of magnification but also serves as a convenient and easy-to-use field microscope. Through the viewfinder I could see that there were at least two markedly different types of flies involved—more abundant, small, brown flies that I presumed (incorrectly, as it turns out) to be some type of drosophilid (vinegar fly), and a few larger, black flies that were completely unfamiliar to me. The flies were apparently feeding on fluids from the stink bug prey but also crawled all over the assassin bug as it fed. The assassin bug seem unencumbered in its feeding by the presence of the flies, but periodically it would slowly wipe its forelegs over its head to dislodge flies that had settled onto it. Just as quickly as they flew away, however, they crawled back.

The assassin bug, on the other hand, I recognized as very likely a species of Apiomerus—a large, exclusively New World genus known in North America as “bee killers” for their habit of sitting on flowers and ambushing visiting bees for prey. The prey selection behaviors of these insects, however, are more generalist than the name implies, as can be seen by these photographs. To verify my generic ID and possibly obtain a species ID, I sent some of these photos to Dimitri Forero at the Heteropteran Systematics Lab at University of California-Riverside. Dimitri is revising portions of Apiomerus (e.g., Berniker et al. 2011) and working on a general phylogenetic hypotheses for the genus. In the past he has been quite helpful in fielding questions from me about these bugs, and within a few hours Dimitri replied to inform me that the assassin bug was, indeed, a member of the genus Apiomerus, likely representing the common, widespread species A. lanipes (ranging from Panama to Argentina), based on its coloration, locality, and relative size. Update 12 March, 3:07 pm—After seeing the last photo in this post (which I did not send to him initially), Dimitri wrote to say the ventral abdominal pattern was not characteristic of A. lanipes. He asked about its size, to which I replied that it was about the same length but maybe a little less robust than A. crassipes (eastern North America). He later added, “I now think that this is A. flavipennis Herrich-Schaeffer, 1848. It is very similar to A. lanipes, but a lot smaller (lanipes is really robust), and with the abdomen with black and white patches, whereas in lanipes the abdomen is always black. I checked some series of specimens that I have here and, I am pretty sure now of the ID. I have material from Argentina as well. In some specimens that coloration of the corium varies, but the original description says it is yellow with a “hairy” pronotum, which fits very nicely your photos.” Apiomerus flavipennis is known from Argentina and Southern Brazil only.

Quite unexpectedly, Dimitri also noted that at least some of the flies could belong to the family Milichiidae. He first became aware of these flies after seeing a photograph of Apiomerus showing something similar and suggested Milichiidae online as a possible source for more information. This remarkably informative  website by milichiid expert Irina Blake, who dubs species in the family as “freeloader flies”, is a model for how websites dealing with obscure insect taxa should be organized and populated (and features on the home page a great photo of ant-mugging flies taken by our favorite myrmecophile). At any rate, I forwarded my photos to Irina and within minutes received her response that the bigger black flies most probably represent the cosmopolitan Milichiella lacteipennis and the smaller flies a species of the family Chloropidae (of “dog pecker gnat” fame) in the subfamily Oscinellinae, noting that she has seen similar (or the same?) chloropids in other photos as well engaging in kleptoparasitism.

Not long after receiving the first reply from Dimitri, I got another message from him with a link to a very interesting paper by Eisner and colleagues (1991), who recorded freeloader flies in Florida preferentially attracted to stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs (family Coreidae) being preyed upon by the orb-weaving spider Nephila clavipes. Olfactory stimuli were already suspected to be involved in attraction of milichiids and also chloropids (Sivinski 1985); however, Eisner et al. (1991) experimentally demonstrated that milichiid attraction was tied to specific components of defensive sprays in several pentatomid and coreid species (including P. guildenii, the prey species in this series of photographs). The defensive sprays of the bugs were generally ineffective at preventing predation by the spiders (and apparently this is the case for A. lanipes and other reduviids as well), thus serving as a signal to milichiids and chloropids not only of the presence of a food source but perhaps also assisting search for mates in a density dependent fashion (Sivinsky 1985). Milichiid attraction to hymenopteran prey, richly endowed with integumental glands themselves, has also been documented; the Eisner study raises the question whether these types of prey are also detected from chemical cues.

REFERENCES:

Berniker, L., S. Szerlip, D. Forero and C. Weirauch. 2011. Revision of the crassipes and pictipes species groups of Apiomerus Hahn (Hemiptera: Reduviidae: Harpactorinae). Zootaxa 2949:1–113.

Eisner, T., M. Eisner & M. Deyrup. 1991. Chemical attraction of kleptoparasitic flies to heteropteran insects caught by orb-weaving spiders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 88:8194–8197.

Sivinski, J. 1985. Mating by kleptoparasitic flies (Diptera: Chloropidae) on a spider host. Florida Entomologist 68(1):216–222.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Gnom, Gnom, Gnom…

I’ve become a big fan of night-time tiger beetle photography since my early August trip to Florida.  Not only does it open up the world of nocturnal species that might go undetected during the day, it also affords the opportunity to see diurnal species engaged in behaviors that are more difficult to photograph during the day.  This female Gulf Beach Tiger Beetle (Ellipsoptera hamata lacerata) came to my blacklight at a coastal salt marsh near Steinhatchee and promptly began munching on a smaller beetle that had also come to the light.  I didn’t get a good enough look at the prey early on to identify it, and by the time I was able to zoom in big with the camera lens the prey had already been macerated to a crunchy pulp.  It was interesting to watch the tiger beetle grasp and chew the prey with its mandibles while manipulating its position with its maxillary parts.




Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Predator or Prey?

Ellipsoptera hamata lacerata | Dixie Co., Florida

Everyone knows that tiger beetles are predators, but look closely at the underside of the head of this female Ellipsoptera hamata lacerata (Gulf Beach Tiger Beetle), photographed in a coastal marsh in Dixie Co., Florida earlier this month.  See the ant head attached by its mandibles to the base of the tiger beetle’s left maxillary palpus?  Detached ant heads latched onto the palp or antenna of a tiger beetle are a fairly common sight—Pearson and Vogler (2001) show the head of an ant attached to the antenna of Eunota togata (Cloaked Tiger Beetle), and Pearson et al. (2006) show one attached to the antennae of Cicindela formosa (Big Sand Tiger Beetle).  I’ve also photographed Cylindera celeripes (Swift Tiger Beetle) with an ant head attached to its antenna.  Pearson and Vogler (2001) and Pearson et al. (2006) both suggest that the ant heads are the result of predation attempts by groups of ants attempting to overpower and kill the tiger beetle, making the ants the predators and the tiger beetles the prey.

Note ant head attached by its mandibles to the base of the tiger beetle's left maxillary palpus.

Although some ants are well known for their predatory horde behavior, I’m not sure I buy this as an explanation for the common occurrence of ant heads attached to tiger beetles.  Tiger beetles themselves often prey on ants, and while I have seen numerous tiger beetles with ant heads attached to them, I have never seen one actually being overpowered by ants (scavenging an already dead tiger beetle, yes—but not overpowering and killing one).  Moreover, the ant heads are nearly always attached to the base of an antenna or palpus—right next to the tiger beetle’s mouth, and almost never on more distal parts of the antennae or other parts of the body.  If the ants were attempting to prey on the tiger beetle, wouldn’t they also (if not even more commonly) be found attached to the tiger beetle’s legs or soft intersegmental membranes?  And how would the ants have come to be decapitated while in the act of attempting to overpower the beetle?  I suggest it is more likely that the ants were prey, latching onto the nearest part of their killer’s body in a last ditch attempt to avoid their inevitable fate.  The antennal and palpal base are about the only tiger beetle body parts that would be within reach of an ant in a tiger beetle’s toothy grasp.  While the rest of the ant was consumed, the head remained because it was firmly attached to the beetle.

I realize that an identification based only on the detached head of an ant may be difficult, but if one is possible it would be appreciated.  The ant head shown in Pearson and Vogler (2001) was identified as Polyergus sp.

REFERENCES:

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Pearson, D. L. and A. P. Vogler.  2001. Tiger Beetles: The Evolution, Ecology, and Diversity of the Cicindelids.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 333 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Predator Satiation

Polistes carolina/perplexus with Magicicada prey | Shaw Nature Reserve, Missouri

I’ve probably used the term predator satiation more often during the past couple of weeks than I have during the entire rest of my life.  Students of ecology know this as an antipredator adaptation in which prey occur at such high population densities that they overwhelm predator populations.¹  This ‘safety in numbers’ strategy reduces the probability that any given individual will be consumed, thereby ensuring that enough individuals survive to reproduce.  With St. Louis currently experiencing the appearance of Brood XIX of periodical cicadas, I’ve gotten lots of questions recently from many coworkers and friends wanting to know more about these cicadas.   Often the first question is “What is their purpose?”  My standard reply begins with a statement that they, like all living organisms, are the products of natural selection, which then presents an opportunity to explain how natural selection might result in such massive, temporally synchronized, multiple-species populations.  A few eyes have glazed over, but I think most have found my answer interesting, often even leading to further questions about where they lay their eggs, what is their life cycle, why are they so loud, how do they “do it” and select mates, etc.  Of course, as an entomologist with a strong natural history orientation, I’m always anxious to introduce people to ecological concepts, and right now the periodical cicada is providing a conspicuous, real-life example of such.

¹ Also called “predator saturation,” although this term might be misconstrued to mean that it is the predators that are over-abundant.

First the eyes...

A few weeks ago, right at the beginning of their emergence in the St. Louis area, my friend Rich Thoma and I observed predator satiation in action.  While hiking one of the trails at Shaw Nature Reserve, we heard the unmistakable shriek and cellophane-sounding wing flapping of a just-captured male cicada.  Tussling on the ground ahead of us was the cicada in the grasp of a Polistes carolina/perplexus wasp, which was repeatedly stinging the hapless cicada on the underside of the abdomen.  The shrieking and wing-flapping grew less frequent as the stinging continued, until at last the cicada lay quiet.  As we approached, the wasp spooked and flew off, but we knew it would be back—we parked ourselves in place while I setup the camera, and before long the wasp returned.  It took several minutes of searching from the air and on the ground before the wasp finally relocated her prey, but once she did she began voraciously devouring it.  As the wasp was searching, we hypothesized that our presence had altered the visual cues she had memorized when flying off, resulting in some confusion when she returned, and thus the long period of time required to relocate her prey.

...then the legs!

We watched for awhile—first the eyes were consumed, then the legs.  As it consumed its prey, Rich remarked that he bet he could pick up the wasp and not get stung—likely the entirety of its venom load had been pumped into the cicada.  Both of us declined to test his hypothesis.  We also wondered if the wasp would butcher the cicada after consuming part of it and bring the remaining pieces back to the nest.  We had seen a European hornet do this once with a band-winged grasshopper, consuming the head, then cutting off the legs from the thorax and flying away with it before returning to collect the abdomen as well.  No butchering took place this time, however, the wasp seemed content to continue eating as much of the cicada as possible—a satiated predator if there ever was one!

Leg after leg is consumed.

One eye and all six legs down, time to start on the abdomen.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011