Science

Sunday, September 18, 2016

HumBug: Uninvited Guests

Posted By on Sun, Sep 18, 2016 at 3:02 PM

The dramatically named phantom hemlock looper moth (Nepytia phantasmaria) or a close relative. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The dramatically named phantom hemlock looper moth (Nepytia phantasmaria) or a close relative.

The black lights of my “light trap” don't make for a regular trap; the insects are free to come and go as they please. That's the trick, though — the lights are irresistible.

Moths, of course, come by the dozens, but there are others. An opportunistic praying mantis seeks an easy dinner. A burying beetle shows up and a really big California prionus (Prionus californicus). And this time of year, the termites.

A burying beetle with a mite on its back. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A burying beetle with a mite on its back.

A California Priornus Beetle, one of the largest beetles in our area. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A California Priornus Beetle, one of the largest beetles in our area.
These are the flying reproductives on their nuptial flight. Their script, dictated by millions of years of evolution is this: Leave the nest, fly, drop to the ground, meet up, shed wings and seek a crevice in the ground to found a new dynasty. But they are drawn like sailors to a siren's song, although it's not the lights that will kill them, but the bats.

A little brown bat. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A little brown bat.
In flight, the termites are clumsy, fluttering creatures, unlike the swift, agile, mammalian hunters, who have learned over the last few weeks that the place where I set up my trap is a target-rich environment. So, early in the evening, the termites come, followed all too swiftly by the little brown bats and maybe others. It is a slaughter. By the time the “flutter mice” leave, there might be one or two termites that aren't flying, but hugging the fabric. If you're quick, you might get a glimpse of the hunter. Photographing them is a different matter altogether. They are so small and quick, my best camera can't pick them up, autofocus, adjust light levels, initiate exposure and initiate flash before they're gone. Yet they aren't big enough to trigger my game camera. So I set the focus to manual, pick a likely spot and wait. I rarely guess right, and my reflexes are seldom good enough to get get a shot. Usually what I get is a dark photo of the forest around me, but once in a rare while I get it right. And that makes me grin in the darkness.



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Sunday, September 11, 2016

HumBug: Like Moths to a Black Light

Posted By on Sun, Sep 11, 2016 at 3:00 PM

The aptly named pale beauty. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The aptly named pale beauty.

Last week I wrote about setting up a light trap in my backyard with only limited success. At the suggestion of some folks in an entomological chat room, I tried it with black compact fluorescent lights rather than Coleman lanterns. The old gas lanterns give off a great deal of heat and frequencies in the lower end of the spectrum but not much in the high end.
A light trap fit for an insect rave. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A light trap fit for an insect rave.
In his research Karl Von Frisch noted that bees couldn't discern between red (low frequency) light and black paper, while they can see farther into the ultraviolet than we can. It is not much of a stretch to figure that other species might be more attracted to higher energy light. I substituted three black light CFLs for the lanterns. It made a significant difference.
Cerambycid Beetle, a yellow Douglas fir borer (Centrodera spruces). - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Cerambycid Beetle, a yellow Douglas fir borer (Centrodera spruces).
Where I had seen about three to five insects attracted to the lanterns each night, now I attracted 30 or more from several different orders, not to mention species. I was able to capture photos of varieties I've been wanting to talk about but had no photos of. For example, in the past I've posted photos of caddisfly larvae, but had no adult forms to include. Several (not of the species of which I have baby pictures) came to my lights last night. The green “pale beauty” (Campaea perlata), and its tan cousin the omnivorous looper (Subulodes aegrotata) have put in appearances.
A trio of caddisflies, all grown up. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A trio of caddisflies, all grown up.
Having said all of that, I remember many more insects that came to the Coleman lanterns when I was a kid. Sadly, back then I did not have any black lights.

I will probably be running these lights every night until the weather gets too wet. I am still hoping for a giant waterbug, giant cranefly, or a ceanothus moth.

And by the way, after my most recent post the co-author of Insects of the Pacific Northwest, Peter Haggard was kind enough to do an identification of the giant lacewing I included in my post. It is Polystoechotes punctate.

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Sunday, September 4, 2016

HumBug: Missing Giants

Posted By on Sun, Sep 4, 2016 at 3:00 PM

This moth is still a mystery, too. Anyone? - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • This moth is still a mystery, too. Anyone?
The last couple of nights I've been running an experiment to answer a question. When I was a kid, I could leave the porch light on almost any night and there'd be a bunch of insects around it in an hour or so. Lately, I've been noticing that there don't seem to be nearly as many, and several of the really big ones I used to see are missing. The Ceanothus moth, giant waterbug and giant cranefly, to name three. I decided to set up my own little light trap. Resurrecting some old Coleman lanterns and a white sheet, I cobbled it together. While none of the big three made an appearance, the lights did attract a few moderate sized moths, a termite and an ichneumon.
A flying termite. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A flying termite.
I did this because there is an ongoing and disturbing current in the online entomological chatter. Apparently insect populations the world over are falling, and it's not just the bad ones humankind has been battling for as long as there has been a humankind, or the big names like honeybees and monarch butterflies. There seems to be an overall decline in the numbers and diversity in the arthropod world.
A DIY light trap. Bugs come and go as they please and the 10-pound hammer is only for self defense. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A DIY light trap. Bugs come and go as they please and the 10-pound hammer is only for self defense.
This rosy beauty is yet unidentified. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • This rosy beauty is yet unidentified.
So I decided to check things out in my own backyard. Yes, despite my best efforts I have yet to attract anything like the numbers I used to see 50+ years ago. And no, this is not a clean well documented scientific experiment because I did not foresee the need to take data on it when I was a kid. It is at best anecdotal evidence but it is enough to give me pause.
A giant lacewing on my front windowsill. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A giant lacewing on my front windowsill.
The afternoon after writing the above, I returned from town only to find a large winged insect on my window frame. At first I thought it might be a cicada but on closer inspection it was shaped all wrong. I took several photos before it just fluttered off and was gone. It turns out to be a giant lacewing (family polystoechotidae). Listed as “rare” in the second edition of American Insects, A Handbook of the Insects of North America North of Mexico. So after setting up a trap in my backyard and staying up past midnight several nights in a row, I find a rare “giant insect” attracted to the wrong side of my house in the daytime. Sometimes I think Mother Nature pokes fun at me.


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Friday, September 2, 2016

Feds Find Improper Care After Fisher Death at HSU

Posted By on Fri, Sep 2, 2016 at 10:10 AM

A resting female fisher in the wild. - HOOPA VALLEY TRIBE, REBECCA GREEN
  • Hoopa Valley Tribe, Rebecca Green
  • A resting female fisher in the wild.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found that Humboldt State University failed to follow laboratory protocols as staff observed the declining health of a dying fisher for nearly a week without calling a veterinarian.

The routine inspection report dated Aug. 3 includes a daily log kept by the animal’s caretakers in the days before the fisher, a rare member of the weasel family, was found dead in its cage:

4/25/16 - "fisher bald patches larger than I last observed, bald patch on belly as well now"

4/26/16 - "fisher appeared to be heaving/retching after exiting box but observed eating right after that. bald patches increasing in size."

4/28/16 - "fisher appears to be thinner and labored breathing wt - 3.67 kg" (Note - was over 5 kg earlier in the year)

(4/29/16 - Fisher not mentioned in daily observations)

4/30/16 - "fisher still breathing heavily. Didn't eat all of canine diet."

5/1/16 - "fisher ate none of yesterday's food, appears extremely weak and wobbly when walking. FM & KC notified" (Note - not veterinarians, and they did not notify veterinarian)

5/2/16 - "fisher found deceased in box. RB notified" (Note - RB is the Attending Veterinarian)

“The Attending Veterinarian was not notified regarding the condition of the fisher over these dates, until after its death,” the report states. “Daily observation of animals by assigned personnel must include prompt communication with the attending veterinarian, or his or her alternate if not available, in the event that any health problems are noted. Failure to consult with a veterinarian could result in suffering and/or a poor medical outcome for the animals.”

The fisher population has declined dramatically over recent decades with the loss of its forest habitat due to logging and, more recently, the threat of poisons used at illegal marijuana grows.  

Richard Boone, dean of HSU’s College of Natural Resources & Sciences, said in a statement that the school is “committed to teaching and research about wildlife so that we can help protect species like the fisher.”

“We were disturbed by this animal’s death, take responsibility for failure to observe proper protocols, and have taken corrective actions to ensure that a mistake like this doesn’t happen again,” Boone said.

According to HSU, where the animal spent most of its nearly 10 years after being dropped off at the campus as a baby, the fisher had health issues.

Jodie Wiederkehr, who runs the Center for Ethical Science out of her home in Chicago, said she is asking the USDA “to launch a full investigation into this incident and levy the largest fine allowable against Humboldt State University of at least $10,000 per non-compliance.”

Wiederkehr said her nonprofit chronicles citations at laboratories across the nation, which she described as a “hidden issue.”

In the case of the fisher, Wiederkehr said she believes the university should be fined and questions how the incident happened in the first place.

“Common sense doesn’t even take over,” she said. “ … No one even thought to contact the veterinarian and say, ‘This animal is suffering.’”

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

HumBug: An Afternoon on the Van Duzen

Posted By on Sun, Aug 28, 2016 at 2:47 PM

Variegated meadowhawk. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Variegated meadowhawk.

Trying to stay up to date with the entomological fauna in my area, I went for an extended hike, braving ankle-deep waters and wading upstream from my usual haunts.
A pale-faced clubskimmer. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A pale-faced clubskimmer.
I saw quite a few pale-faced clubskimmers (Brechmorhoga mendax), one of my many favorite dragonflies. You usually see them flying within inches of the surface at the downstream end of large, smooth flats on the river. As fast as they are, the best I could do was set the camera for a rapid fire series of exposures and blaze away, hoping the auto focus could keep up.
The clubskimmer in action — note its reflection on the water. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The clubskimmer in action — note its reflection on the water.
In contrast to the medium-sized club skimmers, one of the smallest dragonflies in our area, variegated meadowhawks (Sympetrum corrupt) wait on something affording them a good vantage and dash out after smaller flying insects, often returning to the exact same place over and over again. I think the specimen I saw today was the individual I saw last week on the same snag.
Nasty little bugger that bit my foot: a tiny creeping water bug nymph. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Nasty little bugger that bit my foot: a tiny creeping water bug nymph.
Farther up river, something started really hurting on the top of my foot under a sandal strap. I thought it might be a bit of sand or a burr, but when I fished it out I found a tiny creeping water bug nymph. They are not known to attack humans and my foot seemed no worse for wear an hour later.
A darner in the leaves. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A darner in the leaves.
Near the end of the day's hike, I noted a large dragonfly acting like it was seeking a place to bed down. Darners, as a group, patrol an area and seldom land until evening. It headed into a single small bush of coyote brush. I studied the plant for several minutes, seeing nothing. As I was turning to go, like Waldo in the Where's Waldo pictures, it snapped into focus, despite the fact that it has bright blue markings and it had been hanging there in front of me all the time (genus Aeshna). 
A western river cruiser. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A western river cruiser.
Finally, a Western River Cruiser (Macromia magnifica), flitted by me and, like the darner before, acted as if it were seeking a place to land. I've been seeing members of this very large black and yellow species patrolling a foot or so off the ground along dirt roads for over a month now. I stood still and watched as it flitted between low branches landed. On close examination, the picture shows this one has some mileage on his wings. By the time I got home my feet were sympathetic.


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Sunday, August 14, 2016

HumBug: Silver Spotted Tiger Moth Grows Up

Posted By and on Sun, Aug 14, 2016 at 3:00 AM

The early clusters of caterpillars. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The early clusters of caterpillars.
Finally! Early this spring, coming back from the mailbox, I noted a brown glob about the size of my fist on one of my fir trees. On closer inspection, I saw several irregular blobs which all turned out to be bunches of brown furry caterpillars, each a little over an inch long. I wondered what they might be when they grew up.
Pesky earwigs trying to get at my captives. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Pesky earwigs trying to get at my captives.
So the next day I selected a branch on which there were only two individuals and covered it with a jelly strainer sack, choked onto the branch with a rubber band. Over the next many weeks, I periodically moved them when they consumed all the needles on the branch tip, each time emptying the sack of shucked off skins and frass (the technical word for bug poop). I really wanted to know what they would turn into. Each time I had to make doubly certain no earwigs got into the covering. Earwigs are omnivorous and I've had problems with them in the past when I tried to do this. Several times half a dozen or so of these European invaders hid in the folds of the bag where the netting bunched up.
Pupa cocoon. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Pupa cocoon.
Just a week or so ago, I noticed the larvae were gone, replaced by little fuzzy ovals. Yee ha! Since they had pupated, they no longer required any food so I brought them inside and kept them in a jar out of direct sunlight. Last night I noticed one had emerged. It is a silver spotted tiger moth. I turned it loose after a couple of quick photos.
Congratulations, it's a silver spotted tiger moth. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Congratulations, it's a silver spotted tiger moth.
Throughout the many weeks of observation I noted the numbers in my trees decreasing in irregular spurts. I suspect many were devoured by birds. In fact, I think my two were the only ones that made it to adulthood out of perhaps hundreds.
A silver spotted tiger moth in its full-grown glory. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A silver spotted tiger moth in its full-grown glory.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

HumBug: Who's Your Daddy?

Posted By on Sun, Jul 31, 2016 at 3:00 PM

A daddy long legs (Opaline) on the photographer's hat brim, cleaning its, well, long leg. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A daddy long legs (Opaline) on the photographer's hat brim, cleaning its, well, long leg.
Late last night, I took the dogs out for their final walk when I noticed a small member of the arachnid family of Opiliones on a rhododendron leaf. This is what I learned as a little kid as "daddy long legs." Sometimes known as harvestmen, they look like a spider with unusually long legs and a tiny body. There is a popular rumor that they produce one of the deadliest venoms known, but their fangs are just too tiny to inject it. This is not true. No known species of this creature has venom glands and they have tiny pincer like mouthparts rather than fangs. About the only way you could get sick from them is smelling their unusual and unpleasant odor. They are harmless. Some hunt other tiny arthropods and others are scavengers. And although they might resemble spiders from a distance, their bodies are not divided into parts, but are of a single piece.
A cellar spider casts a shadow on a window frame. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A cellar spider casts a shadow on a window frame.
They are not the only animals called Daddy Longlegs. Cellar spiders and craneflies also go by that name.
Cellar spiders are a true spider of the family Pholcidae, which spin webs and hang in them vibrating wildly when disturbed. Although they have amazingly long legs and tiny bodies, they are not closely related to the Opiliones. Like all true spiders their structure is divided into two parts: a cephalothorax and abdomen separated by a constriction.
The lanky crane fly. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The lanky crane fly.
Craneflies are a member of the insect order Diptera (having two wings), family Tipulidae and although they have extremely long thin legs, they are insects and not closely related to either of the others. They have wings.
A cluster of Opiliones. Harmless, but come on. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A cluster of Opiliones. Harmless, but come on.
My late wife hated spiders so much so she demanded I kill any found in the house. She was also justifiably afraid of yellowjackets, as she had been stung repeatedly. One day a yellowjacket was buzzing around inside the house. She demanded I kill it. It led me a merry chase until the tiny chainsaw droning stopped suddenly. Seconds later, when I looked behind my desk a cellar spider had already bundled the wasp in silk. Sally said I could leave that one alone.

And, no — the cellar spider's venom is not particularly potent and craneflies can't bite at all.


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Sunday, July 24, 2016

In Celebration of National Moth Week

Posted By on Sun, Jul 24, 2016 at 4:39 PM

California Ctenuchid, about 20 mm long. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • California Ctenuchid, about 20 mm long.
In observance of National Moth Week, I thought I'd mention a few of our unusual local mothy residents.

Together with butterflies, moths comprise the order “Lepidoptera,” roughly translating to scale wing. A good rule of thumb to distinguish between the two is that butterflies have thin antennae terminating in a club shape, while moths (with a few notable exceptions) have different types of antennae.

Continue reading »

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Williams Grove, Avenue of the Giants

Posted By on Sun, Jul 17, 2016 at 2:27 PM

The male flameskimmer. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The male flameskimmer.
Saturday was the annual picnic of the Redwood Camera Club on the Avenue of the Giants. The majesty and beauty of the Sequoias always makes for an enjoyable ride. This was my first time to visit Williams Grove. It will not be my last. There are many good picnic spots, toilets and river access.

I was, of course, interested in seeing if the insect fauna on the South Fork of the Eel River is similar or different from where I regularly walk along the Van Duzen River. Flowing gently through low elevation redwood bounded valleys the environments are pretty similar.

In my neighborhood, I have been anticipating seeing one of my favorite dragonflies, the pale-faced club skimmer (Brechmorhoga mendax). True to the name “skimmer,” I've watched them tirelessly cruising rapidly just a few inches over a wide flat on the Van Duzen. It is rare to see one land. This day, in this place, however, they were behaving differently. There was a pretty good hatch of a tiny species of mayfly in progress, and many were forming transient groups milling about at head height in the lee of clumps of willow. Recognizable by their overall black coloring and white patches near the end of their abdomen, the clubskimmers were flying through the churning formations over and over, grabbing lunch on the run.

Only occasionally seen at home, there were several flame skimmers (Libellula saturata). The brilliant orange males and brownish females perch on low dead twigs, dashing out to grab an occasional meal that happens by. All the specimens I was able to get close to displayed some wing damage, hinting that they had been around a while.

The big black and yellow Western river cruisers (Macromia magnifica) behaved just as they do in my own neighborhood. True to their name, cruising continually about 15 centimeters above the open spaces of river bar. In flight, they hold their abdomen in a distinctive shallow arch and are one of the largest dragonflies common in our area.

A single bison snake tail (Ophiogomphus bison) put in an appearance. Judging from its bright colors and pristine wings, I suspect it had emerged in the last few days.

Miles apart, I was actually a little surprised to find nearly the same exact range of species in the two environments, although the relative numbers were considerably different.

A buffalo snaketail. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A buffalo snaketail.
The female flameskimmer. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The female flameskimmer.
A western river cruiser in flight. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A western river cruiser in flight.
Palefaced clubskimmers enjoying an inflight mayfly snack. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Palefaced clubskimmers enjoying an inflight mayfly snack.

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Sunday, July 10, 2016

HumBug: Gold Diggers

Posted By on Sun, Jul 10, 2016 at 1:00 PM

A Great Golden Sand Digger wasp on Wild Anise. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A Great Golden Sand Digger wasp on Wild Anise.
In more than 300, trips I have yet to go on a walk down to the Van Duzen River and not see something interesting. Today was no exception.

Because I got a late start I expected all the dragonflies to be perched high up in trees for the night. The puddle I've been watching had finally dried up as the river level dropped. Several Tiger Swallowtails, some honeybees and bumblebees put in appearances on the patches of wild sweet pea and alfalfa that are blooming, but I had the wrong camera to take full advantage of them.

Near the end of the gravel and sand road that parallels the river, I heard a couple of small engines start up and come in my direction. I stepped aside and allowed two helmeted youngsters on small motorcycles to ride sedately by. Something dark flitted by my feet. For just an instant I thought, “dragonfly,” but it was too small, and didn't move right.

I stood stock still and waited. A hint of motion down there drew my eye to one of the biggest wasps I know. A Great Golden Sand Digger (Sphex ichneumoneus) was searching for something among the dry weeds. I thought she might be hunting a cricket, or grasshopper, the preferred prey for stocking their underground burrows where they deposit their eggs. That could make for some dramatic photography. One thing I did notice was that unlike the times I've observed them nectaring on horsemint and alfalfa, her wingbeats were barely audible. Usually they sound like a World War II bomber and I have often wondered if they make so much noise to warn potential predators. They do sport black and orange, aposematic (warning) coloration and, like most wasps, can deliver a painful sting if molested.

This one was so quiet it seemed to be in stealth mode.

I got down on my haunches and watched. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another and then another. Although they are not considered as a social species, I think all these ladies happened to find a neighborhood ideal for their purposes.

I watched as they moved tiny pebbles, dug through sand and disappeared into the ground. They were preparing their burrows for night. They would sleep in the ground, protecting their broods and the hoard of food they'd provided for them. No wonder they were flying silently. There are several known “hyper parasitoids” which prey on the provisions and the larvae of solitary wasps which might follow them to their lairs.

At around 5 centimeters long, this widespread and fairly common species is one of, if not the, largest wasp in our area. Fortunately, they are not at all aggressive and work tirelessly storing paralyzed grasshoppers for their next generation, thereby eliminating them from our gardens.
A wasp at her burrow. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A wasp at her burrow.
ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper

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