Science

Monday, April 24, 2017

Science!

Posted By on Mon, Apr 24, 2017 at 11:31 AM

The March for Science made its way through Arcata with a rising sea of signs. - PHOTO BY MARK LARSON
  • Photo by Mark Larson
  • The March for Science made its way through Arcata with a rising sea of signs.

Local scientists, students of all ages and other advocates for science-based decision making joined more than 600 other March for Science events in cities around the U.S. to both celebrate Earth Day on Saturday and protest the Trump administration's policies and positions with regard to climate change and other issue.

The largely non-partisan Humboldt March for Science in Arcata, following a science expo and rally at the D Street Neighborhood Center, attracted an estimated crowd of 2,000 or more. The march from the Center to the Arcata Plaza and back was filled with creative signs with quotes that ranged from Aldo Leopold to Dr.Seuss. Others were filled with optimism ("Make America Think Again"), science advocacy and humor.
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Sunday, April 16, 2017

HumBug: Dragons and Fairies

Posted By on Sun, Apr 16, 2017 at 3:20 PM

California darner. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • California darner.

On a recent dry day, I took my camera out to the garden and got what may be technically the best dragonfly photograph I have gotten. A member of the mosaic darner group, named for the mosaic pattern on their abdomens, the California darner (Rhionaeschna californica) is one of the first dragonflies to be seen in our area each year.
Volucella bombylans a bumblebee mimic. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Volucella bombylans a bumblebee mimic.
Along with that was a bumblebee-mimicking fly that was so nervous it was hard to get a shot. I tried again another day using a high powered telephoto lens. When I finally got a shot good enough to ID it, I found it to be Volucella bombylans whose young (larva) often live in bumblebee nests.
Calypso bulbosa are best left in nature as they're so difficult to cultivate and you'll most likely kill them at home. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Calypso bulbosa are best left in nature as they're so difficult to cultivate and you'll most likely kill them at home.
When I checked dates in my photo archive and I found my little patch of Calypso bulbosa orchids blooms right around tax day. Every year a marble sized bulb puts up one leaf and a single flower. They are considered very difficult to grow since they appear to be dependent on a symbiotic relationship with a specific soil fungus. When I got there, most were bloomed out but one specimen was still in good shape. This little “Fairy Slipper Orchid” has been a family favorite for generations.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

HumBug: The Birth of a Giant

Posted By on Sun, Apr 9, 2017 at 3:00 PM

California Giant exuvia. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • California Giant exuvia.
Today, near the end of my walk along the Van Duzen River, a little tangle near the tip of a naked willow sprig caught my eye. At first I thought it was a bit of storm deposited flotsam tangled on the end of the branch, but there was a “legginess” to it. Experience told me it was most likely a dragonfly exuvia, the empty husk left behind when the insect abandons its aquatic larval form, climbs out of the water, casts off its juvenile shell and takes to the sky, an air breathing aerialist for the rest of its days.

It was a cast off shuck all right. And although the size was right, long antennae indicated it was something else. Both dragonflies and their smaller cousins damselflies have millimeter length antennae, while this creature's had been at least 10 millimeters long.
California giant stonefly, about 70 millimeters. - ANTHONY WESTAMPER
  • Anthony Westamper
  • California giant stonefly, about 70 millimeters.
Although I'd never before seen this kind of exuvia, I had a suspicion as to what it might be. A few years back I got a picture of a California giant stonefly, or salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica).

A bit of careful scanning of the nearby willows revealed an adult, about 7 centimeters long. Its size, dark wings folded flat over its back and distinct red markings confirmed I had the right species. The largest member of order Plecoptera in our area, it is an indicator that the watershed and river are healthy as the larvae don't just live in the water but actually breathe it through gills.
A smaller stonefly, about 15 millimeters. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A smaller stonefly, about 15 millimeters.
Stoneflies along with mayflies and caddisflies might be considered the “Holy Trinity of fly fishermen,” as they are the primary food for many species of game fish. Most artificial flies are tied to simulate one of them. I imagine the giant must be a tempting prize for a fish as it's one of the largest insect foods they are likely to encounter. 
Very large mayfly, about 20 millimeters. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Very large mayfly, about 20 millimeters.



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Sunday, April 2, 2017

HumBug: Hitching a Ride

Posted By on Sun, Apr 2, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Black burying beetle covered with mites. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Black burying beetle covered with mites.

Hoping to attract one of the huge and impressive Ceanothus or Polyphemus moths that live hereabouts, I've been running a light trap when it isn't raining too hard — so far without luck. You never really know what might show up and last night was no exception. Among the expected looper moths, crane flies and various gnats was a medium sized black beetle.

Black burying beetle showing what it looks like without a coating of mites. You can tell its species by its distinctive orange tipped antennae. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Black burying beetle showing what it looks like without a coating of mites. You can tell its species by its distinctive orange tipped antennae.
I recognized it from a distance as Nicrophorus nigrita or black burying beetle. These beetles are notable for a number of different reasons. They are extremely unusual in the insect world in that both males and females help in rearing the young. Both sexes will tunnel under a small dead animal and, lifting it like a weightlifter doing a bench press, move it a tiny bit at a time to soft earth. Once there, they dig a depression big enough to encompass the carcass, build a chamber around it, strip it of fur or feathers, mold it into a ball with a depression on top, and fill that with regurgitated predigested mouse. Then after the eggs have hatched they call their offspring to the fount where they both proceed to feed their young. There is a very good article on this beetle family in the August 1976 edition of Scientific American, available online.
When I exposed them to light, the mites quickly ran to the beetle's underside. None of them got dislodged in the bustle, either. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • When I exposed them to light, the mites quickly ran to the beetle's underside. None of them got dislodged in the bustle, either.
When I got close, I was amazed to see it nearly covered with tiny brown mites. Their relationship with the beetles is complicated. Researching them I learned they are Poecilochirus mites, which feed on and lay their eggs in carrion. They are phoretic, meaning they like to hitch rides on beetles who are likely to be going their way. Once there, they lay their eggs, which hatch and feed on the carcass. The young will also eat any fly maggots (competitors for the beetle's larvae) and, if overcrowded, will resort to eating the beetle larvae as well.

I posted about this on Facebook and got a record number of likes for me and dozens of replies. Funny how things so disturbing get so much love.


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Sunday, March 26, 2017

HumBug: Come Closer, Said the Fly to the Fly

Posted By on Sun, Mar 26, 2017 at 3:00 PM

A jumping spider preying on a fly. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A jumping spider preying on a fly.
Recently, scientists have calculated that spiders devour between 400 and 800 million tons of insects annually. Right now in my yard, though, on the fence where the white clematis chokes out everything else, there is a massacre going on and spiders are not the center stage players. Golden haired dung flies are chasing and eating flower flies and anything else that moves. Dagger flies (named for their long piercing mouthparts) perch, waiting for some hapless meal on wings to fly into range. Meanwhile, much smaller flies hunt things even smaller than themselves. With mind numbing consistency, I see predatory flies eating other flies.
A dung fly feeding on a larger fly. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A dung fly feeding on a larger fly.

I think the mass of gleaming white flowers beckons to nectar and pollen feeders which are in turn followed by their predators. Like the spiders that hunt them, raptoral flies inject paralyzing venom and digestive juices, making it easy to sip their prey's predigested innards through hollow mouthparts. Many of them can wield this weapon defensively as well as offensively, so it is best to handle them with care.
The first "zombie" fly of the season. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • The first "zombie" fly of the season.
Life for the hunters isn't all gravy, though. Today I saw my first “zombie dung fly” of the season. Attacked by a fungus, probably related to Entomophthora muscae, the infected fly migrates to a high blade of grass, lands, locks up and dies. In a day or two you can see the fungus protruding from between the cracks in its victim's exoskeleton so it can release spores to invade another generation of flies.



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Sunday, March 19, 2017

HumBug: In the Key of Bee

Posted By on Sun, Mar 19, 2017 at 3:00 PM

A honeybee (Apis mellifera) on a blossom. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A honeybee (Apis mellifera) on a blossom.

We've finally had three days of warmish weather and the garden is abuzz with the sounds of busy bees. If you listen carefully, you can hear each species with its own pitch and rhythm. There is, of course, the familiar drone of the honeybee and the heavy bass of the yellow faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii). This is the biggest bee I've seen in my yard and the one with the lowest pitch. This species is actually reared commercially to pollinate certain crops which do best with something called “buzz pollination.” Tomatoes, for example, do not release their pollen unless the blossoms are vibrated at a certain frequency. Honeybees just can't do it as well as these guys.
Yellow faced bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenski), the largest bee in my yard, and fairly common. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Yellow faced bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenski), the largest bee in my yard, and fairly common.
A counterpoint to the above fairly relaxed themes are the large carpenter bees (genus Xylocopa). As big or nearly as big as bumblebees, these are glossy black and much more and active, quickly zipping from one blossom to another even feeding while on the wing. The ones in my yard are not so big as the biggest bumblebees I've seen, but significantly larger than honeybees.
A giant carpenter bee (genus Xylocopa). Although common, this is the first time I've noted them in my yard. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A giant carpenter bee (genus Xylocopa). Although common, this is the first time I've noted them in my yard.
Even more allegro are the mining bees, (Anthrophora pacifica). The same size as those carpenters, these hirsute ladies and gents take the cake for quickness, making getting a good shot all the more difficult.
A male mining bee (Anthrophora pacifica). - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A male mining bee (Anthrophora pacifica).
I'm working on identifying numerous smaller, quieter bees that lend their distinctive higher pitched voices to the choir. Although I'm learning to tell them apart I don't know of any references which use sound to identify them.
Osmia or mason bees, another species which is native but also raised commercially to pollinate crops. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Osmia or mason bees, another species which is native but also raised commercially to pollinate crops.

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Sunday, March 12, 2017

HumBug: Falling Blossoms

Posted By on Sun, Mar 12, 2017 at 4:35 PM

A flower fly on an ornamental plum blossom.
  • A flower fly on an ornamental plum blossom.

It's been a long rainy spell and my plum trees have been waiting in full bloom for a warm day. I kept expecting them to lose their petals but despite sometimes heavy rains and occasional hail, they kept them. I think they're like orchids. The flowers of most orchids can hold for weeks or even months so long as they're not pollinated. On the very day they achieve pollination they start to wither. Once the flower's beauty has served it's purpose, seducing some critter into performing the deed for them, the petals are discarded, nectar production shuts down; the real work of building seeds and fruit gets under way.
An angelwing butterfly photobombed by a bee. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • An angelwing butterfly photobombed by a bee.
Wednesday started out wet, but by afternoon it warmed up. If the sun didn't actually peek through, the sky lit up and flies and bees were out in abundance, accompanied by a single anglewing butterfly. Along with the nectar sippers came predators, as well. One of North America's smallest birds, a ruby crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), took a honeybee right in front of me, landed and repeatedly smacked it against a branch before swallowing it in one gulp. It happened too quickly to even get my camera up. To a bird not much bigger than my thumb, a bee sting must be a terrible danger. But the bees were the largest and slowest moving prey I saw, so I guess it did a quick risk /benefit calculation and went with it. A golden haired dung fly snatched a fly nearly its own size out of the air and dragged it to the grass.
A dung fly dining on what looks to be a flesh fly. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A dung fly dining on what looks to be a flesh fly.
Two days later my trees are starting to leaf out and the ground is littered with petals like tiny discarded petticoats.
A green Gage plum tree - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A green Gage plum tree


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Sunday, March 5, 2017

HumBug: O Hideous Little Bat

Posted By on Sun, Mar 5, 2017 at 3:00 PM

Black gnats on daisy. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Black gnats on daisy.

American poet Karl Shapiro begins his poem "The Fly" with the address, "O hideous little bat, the size of snot." No other group of animals is as reviled as flies. Annually, members of the order Diptera account for millions of human deaths through diseases they spread. The ones that pester, infect and disgust us are really only a small percentage of the 160,000 known species, which is only a small fraction of the estimated 1 million species, the majority of which are unobtrusive and unknown to us. Named for having two wings, unlike other winged insects which have four, the order Diptera is the most diverse in lifestyle. There seems to be a fly tailored to feed on anything organic, living or dead.

Fetid adder's tongue photobombed by a gnat, a moth fly, and a tiny wasp. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Fetid adder's tongue photobombed by a gnat, a moth fly, and a tiny wasp.
The other day, taking photos of fetid adder's tongue flowers (Scoliopus bigelovii), I got one shot with three insects in it. Even bugs photobomb us. Drawn by the flower's dank odor, there was a fungus gnat, a moth fly, and a tiny wasp (order Hymenoptera). From the look of it, the wasp may have been trying to prey on the gnat. So much of what goes on at this scale is unknown to us.
Moth fly, about 2 or 3 millimeters long. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Moth fly, about 2 or 3 millimeters long.
At 2 to 3 millimeters, moth flies look like tiny moths but are truly flies, also known as drain flies and sewer flies. While harmless, they are considered pests when they infest our homes.

Some fungus gnats are small and vaguely resemble mosquitoes, but feed on — you guessed it — fungus. Others, like the tiny, glistening black Bradysia, emerge from soil in potted plants to become household pests.
Fungus gnat, about 6 millimeters long. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Fungus gnat, about 6 millimeters long.
While researching them I was continually referred to the book Flies by Stephan A. Marshall so, despite it's heft (5 pounds 5.5 ounces) and hefty price tag ($88), I ordered a copy. It is a truly great book and a new favorite among my collection of entomological works.



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Sunday, February 26, 2017

HumBug: Beacon Islands on a Dreary Day

Posted By on Sun, Feb 26, 2017 at 3:00 PM

A tiny fly using its long mouth parts to gather nectar from a pussy willow. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A tiny fly using its long mouth parts to gather nectar from a pussy willow.
It was sunny when I went to get my hiking boots but by the time I got dressed and out the door, it was 49 degrees and drizzling. I went anyway. The path down to the river was dark, the only sounds were the gentle “pok, pok” of water dripping from branches. The burning in my fingertips told me it was too cold for insects to be servicing the barely open Indian plum flowers. Down on the flood scrubbed river bar were scant traces of life.
A bumblebee on a pussy willow branch. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A bumblebee on a pussy willow branch.

Near the end of the trail, out in the open, something buzzed furiously around me three or four times then headed off. From the quick glimpse I got I knew it was a bumblebee. It headed for a big pussy-willow about 50 meters upstream. Against the subdued damp earth tones of the river bank, dark overcast sky and somber evergreens, the yellow green of their catkins stood in sharp contrast, beckoning nectar and pollen feeders.

A teensy wasp gets in on the pollinating. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A teensy wasp gets in on the pollinating.

It was busy despite the cold. Insects were there in numbers. I started taking pictures and realized except for a couple of tiny bees they were all flies of one sort or another. Members of the order Diptera they are unique among the orders of insects in having only two wings instead of four. In my opinion it is the most diverse order. They fill the same niches as most of the other orders from parasites and hunters to, in this case, nectar feeders, which provide pollination services to a great many flowering plants. My college entomology professor did his thesis on pollinators of the wildflower Clarkia. To everyone's surprise, the majority of insects to visit the flowers he monitored were various species of flies. It may be true for willows as well.

A black fly pollinating on the same plant. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • A black fly pollinating on the same plant.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

HumBug: Season's Greetings

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2017 at 7:26 PM

Ferelia februalis. - ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Anthony Westkamper
  • Ferelia februalis.

Undaunted by the rain, I was out barbecuing a chicken a few nights ago when, attracted by my porch light, a moth buzzed me. I kept working but noted where it came to rest. Of course I had to investigate, and when I did I noted it was decorated with a lacy black pattern on a pale green background.

A little research in a book I got for Christmas Moths of Western North America led to identifying it as Feralia februalis. No common name is listed. I think I'll call it the February moth.


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