To be a Kid Again

I’ve been an entomologist all my life, as both avocation and vocation. I started collecting when I was ca. 4, while living on the Mexican border of Arizona. I remember well my particular fascination with spiders even then, especially the Latrodectus sp. in our garage.

My formal education thus focused on economic entomology, as I figured that there would always be abundant jobs available in that field–a supposition that proved correct. 

When I left grad school and took a job on a university faculty, my official responsibilities were research and Coöperative Extension, but I specifically asked that I also be allowed to teach, and subsequently not only taught salient topics in several courses not of my own, but put together and taught a graduate level course called “Araneology” (my interest was spiders, so I didn’t wish to dilute my course with in-depth inclusion of other arachnids*).

Eustala anastera (Walckenaer, 1841),
ca. 20mm


I left academia in 1982, selecting vastly better remuneration over academic interests–a choice that in some ways I still theoretically regret**– and took a job in a corporate environment.

At that point, I completely stopped collecting insects and spiders as I realized that my specimens no longer had scientific value to me or anyone, and therefore it was pointless to be killing critters merely to pin them in boxes or to preserve them in alcohol.

(Now, to digress a moment, I have long described myself as being “visually tone deaf.” I have no visual artistic skills (I’m also aphantasic), and–while I know how to operate a camera and take snap shots–I am in no way a photographer.)

(And now I regress) I recently became intrigued by a local spider species, and wished to have photos of it to show others internationally. My cell phone’s macro function is terrible, my old video camera also sucks at macro, and the stereo microscope I have was way too “strong,” even at its lowest magnification. 

Then I remembered the DSLR I had bought as a present for my better half, Carmen, ca. 11 years ago. One of the specific reasons I bought it was the ability to change its lenses, and sure enough, a bit of searching and an $85 investment got me a halfway decent macro lens that did the trick***.

And now I have happily been collecting photographs such as these instead of boxes and vials of dead bugs.

Mecynogea lemniscata (Walckenaer, 1841), ca. 10mm

It’s hard to describe the level of satisfaction I am feeling having rediscovered my youthful passion for collecting critters, and how comforting it is to have found a non-destructive outlet for a lifelong obsession!

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*I have nothing against other arachnids: I had time constraints and wanted my course to focus on spiders.

**When I say “regret” it is with the awareness that life does not have alternate endings: Every tiny happenstance in people’s lives alters their and others’ futures. My life has been immensely rewarding, and there is nothing I would change, as any changes would have prevented me from being happily at the point I am.

***The photos I have interspersed are simply to show how I spend my time–they’re probably lousy, but I wouldn’t know the difference, so please don’t tell me.

****E.g. Just this week I found a spider that I would need to examine closely to make an accurate ID. So I decided to kill her by freezing preparatory to pickling her in alcohol. She had been in the freezer for only a few minutes when I changed my mind, as I really didn’t want to kill her, so I fetched her from the freezer to let  her go. She was not yet frozen, but was already torpid, so I was able to ID her before she warmed up enough to move and then to release her whence she had come.

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To be specific…

One of the most common questions I get asked by people on social media and in person is: “What is this [insect|bug|spider]?” And, that’s a fair question–we humans really like assigning names and putting labels on things.

But what is the “what is this?” question really asking? Or, as the Bard put it: “What’s in a name?” Surprisingly, often merely being told a name is sufficient. I say “surprisingly” because knowing a name usually tells us absolutely nothing. What it does do is to afford a means of subsequently learning something about the organism at hand (and yes, that very same question is asked about plants, fungi, etc.).

But here’s another question that needs to be addressed: What is a species? If you look up the biological definition, you’ll find a lot of wiggle room and/or weasel words. Generally speaking, though, a “species” is defined as a population of organisms that breeds within itself.

Unfortunately for classification systems though, living things almost never read the books about definitions and taxonomic rules*, and instead form a very broad spectrum that is not at all clear-cut. Thus, the observation that “dogs don’t interbreed with cats” is a good one, and does uphold the “interbreeding population” definition. There are, however, myriads of examples where the definition fails and isolated populations..considered to have been distinct species..are found to interbreed when seasonal, geographical, or even morphological barriers are removed.

“But” I hear you ask, “what about our knowledge about DNA? Doesn’t that settle things?” Nope. DNA helps to identify relatives, but even among members one species there is genetic variation. In fact, DNA analysis has recently suggested that Neanderthals (once considered a separate species, viz. Homo neanderthalensis) interbred with and were essentially subsumed by H. sapiens, such that they are now generally regarded to be a subspecies**: H. sapiens neanderthalensis.

The problem, as this illustrates, is that recent speciation is a blurry place. Species that split apart eons ago usually now have sufficient differences that they can no longer interbreed. But speciation is occurring all around us, on a daily basis–zipping along at a breakneck pace rivaling that of continental drift.

Of course, there are a few organisms that are easily determined*** by their gross morphological characters. Unfortunately, these tend to be “living fossils” or threatened species representing a genetic deadend. The tree Ginkgo biloba L. 1771 is one such species. In fact, not only is G. biloba the only species in the genus Ginkgo, it’s the only member of the family Ginkgoaceae, the order Ginkgoales, the class Ginkgoopsida, and the phylum Ginkgophyta! Now that’s one lonely species!

For most species, though, determination is best left to experts. Merely looking at pictures in books or on websites may provide some idea of what the organism in question is called–but it may very well lead the neophyte astray! This is why even (especially?) experts often will not tell you what they think some species is, but instead say something along the lines of “Oh, that could be XYZ, but I’d really have to have the specimen in hand to be sure.”

So perhaps instead of asking “What is this?” a better question might be “Can you tell me something about this?”

*Insofar as we know, there is only one species among the almost 2 million extant on this planet that does this.
** Don’t get me started on the whole sub-, super-, infra-, etc. designations.
**When folks identify organisms to the species level, they are said to “determine” them.

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Old Stuff

First off, that title well describes me, but that’s not what I mean.

No, I just found the columns that I wrote for publication almost 40 years ago. Back then, I was on the Cornell Entomology faculty, having responsibilities for ornamental plants, both nursery crops and woody ornamentals, when I was approached by a friend from Cornell’s Department of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture asking if I would consider writing something for the monthly edition of the New York State Flower Industries Bulletin. I said “Sure. Why not?”, and began to submit some insect-related writings each month, obviously targeted towards the floricultural industry in New York State.

Those who know me will recall I’ve had a long avocation of playing banjo and guitar, and I was smitten at the time by a tune I had recently learned called Beasties in the Sugar,  so I borrowed heavily, and titled my fledgling column Beasties on the Blossoms.

Unlike this blog, Beasties on the Blossoms had a real deadline, so I was honestly pretty good about getting it written on a timely basis, and kept at it from 1980 until I left Cornell for a job in industry in 1982.

About a year after my leaving, I was approached by the editor of Floral & Nursery Times to see if I would be willing to write a similar column for that publication. I agreed (especially as I was to be paid this time!), and some phone calls resulted in my getting permission from Cornell and the N.Y.S.F.I. to continue use of the Beasties on the Blossoms title, as well as this graphic that Cornell had designed for my use, as I hated the thought of having my picture on every column I wrote.

So Beasties on the Blossoms continued for another few years. I was also approached to write columns for Greenhouse Manager magazine and later for Florists’ Review, which was–and apparently still is–the premier publication for the floricultural industry. My association with the former was very brief, owing to artistic differences: I didn’t want my photo used with my column, Beasties Under Glass, and they insisted, so we parted company. My column for the latter, My Favorite Pests, had a photo at their insistence that all their columnists had photos and a signature, and they would make no exceptions. As the pay was good, and I didn’t want to turn down what was a major publication in the industry, I had a photo taken of me and one of my pets:

So what brings this all up? As I found a bunch of original pages and photocopies of most of my my columns, I have set about digitizing them for my family. Because, you know, Google just doesn’t find them!  Isn’t that amazing?  And, since I’m scanning them, I figured I might be able to use some here. After all, I had fun with them, made a (very) little bit of money, and enough people enjoyed them that I was not only encouraged to continue, but got a bunch of speaking engagements from them!

Herewith, my inaugural Beasties on the Blossoms column (click to enlarge):

 

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A Fraudulent–If Cool–Facebook Photo. And a Pet Peeve.

A neat photo of an ice sculpture was posted on Facebook in January 2016 with the comment “Frozen spiderweb found in Nantucket, Massachusetts.”

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This brings to mind a pet peeve of mine–drawings of impossible webs.

An “orb web” is the well known spider web comprising a series of non-sticky silken lines forming a rough frame used to attach the web to something (trees, posts, small children, whatever) and other non-sticky  lines that radiate from the center of the web to support its prey-catching business part.

Typically, after creating the framework and the radial lines, the resident spider starts at the center of the web and goes ‘round and ‘round in a spiral manner, all the while laying a continuous strand of sticky “capture” silk. The capture silk is carefully attached to each radial line as it’s crossed, thus creating a ”net” for capturing prey on the sticky lines.

Now, not all spiders make webs, much less these orb webs, but still, it’s what most people think of when one says “spider web.”

So what’s my gripe?

Look at this illustration…bad_orb

Now look at this photo of an orb web:

sag_photo

See the problems? In the photo of a real web, the capture lines span the gaps between the radial lines. Some species pull the lines really tight, but others leave a little slack, and when this happens, gravity causes the capture lines to sag…downward.  Everywhere.

Look at that photo again, please. Now look again at the illustration.

Take a good look at the drawing of the “spiral” capture lines! Not a chance! How on the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s green earth could the vertical capture lines not only sag uniformly toward the web’s center, but actually sag upwards on the lower half of the web? Plus, of course, the capture lines in the drawing are concentric, not a continuous spiral.

Now do you see the problem with the “frozen web?”

A quick image search found this version of the non-cropped photo, where the giant ice “spider” at the bottom verifies the entire thing’s ice sculpture roots.

ice_sculpture

So please, if you’re going to draw orb webs (or crop a photo to claim it represents a real, frozen web), remember how gravity works on this planet.

(I won’t even get into the fact that there are two entirely different kinds of capture lines on the ice sculpture…look at the 9:00-10:00 position in the top photo–click on the photo to enlarge it.)

Extra points:  What’s up with this photo?

orb-weaver-spider-web

 

Answer:
¡uʍop əpısdn :ʎɐʍ sıɥʇ pəsn sɐʍ oʇoɥd əɥʇ

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Crypsis At Its Finest

Many arthropods are masters of crypsis, either being camouflaged so well that they’re almost impossible to see, or being such good mimics of other organisms that they are very difficult to tell apart.

Today, I want to share some neat info about a moth larva that does a bit of both.

In specific, slightly more than four years ago, I walked out onto our deck to discover this large “inchworm,” i.e., the larva of a geometrid moth (also commonly called spanworms, geometers, cankerworms, or loopers) on the gate:

Now, I don’t have any idea what species this is.  I didn’t kill the larva, so I really didn’t (don’t) have any way to determine it, so we’ll just be happy calling it a geometrid (that means it’s in the family Geometridae).

IMG_8413

Anyway, pretty clearly it’s camouflaged really well to look like a twig; you can imagine that if this caterpillar had been holding onto a branch with its prolegs (the fleshy, false “legs” on the rear segments of most caterpillars) instead of a red-stained gate, I probably wouldn’t have seen it.

It’s hanging belly up so at the right end you can see where its six true (jointed) legs pointed are tucked in and pointed skyward.

So score a very strong point for camouflage.

But this beastie isn’t done–it turned out also to be mimicking a small snake.

If we look at this critter head-on in this upside down shot you can see the faint Y mark of the head’s frontal sutures.  This would be its “face”…if caterpillars had faces.

head_legs

As caterpillars are larval insects, they have six true legs, one pair on each segment of the thorax. The way this caterpillar is hanging, you can see four of them partially: just to the right of the head is the very tip of the leg on its 1st thoracic segment, behind that a bit more of the leg on the 2nd thoracic segment, and then much more clearly both legs on the 3rd thoracic segment, which–perhaps significantly–resemble the forcipules (“poison claws”)  of centipedes. (Click on photo to enlarge)

 

You can also see on the large, 2nd thoracic segment an obvious pair of eye spots.  Remember, the head is that little thing with the Y.  Those dark spots that look to be eyes are primarily on the 1st and 2rd thoracic segments, far from the head.  Let’s turn that photo over and mark it up:

eyespots

 

All of a sudden, we have the face of a snake. (Click on photo to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

But coolest of all, this “snake” defends itself by striking!  Check out this video; watch what happens when I touch the prolegs.  

Despite the fact that this caterpillar is absolutely, completely, utterly, totally harmless, when it first “struck” at me, I reflexively pulled my hand away! (Sorry for the out-of-focus video–it was impossible to see what I was getting…)

Now, I ask you:  How can anyone see stuff like this and not just love insects?

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The Wonderful World of Parasitoids

 

 

Most people who have ever tried to grow tomatoes have certainly run into hornworms. These caterpillars are the larvae of hawk moths.  Strangely enough, the hornworm most commonly found on tomatoes is not the tomato hornworm, Manduca quinquemaculatus (Haworth), but the tobacco hornworm, M. sexta (L.).manduca_larva

As common and large as this pest is, many people never see (or never know they’ve seen) the adult moths.  They are nocturnal and do their very best to look like tree bark when resting during the day.manduca_sexta_adult

Tobacco hornworm larvae can get rather large: the size of an adult’s finger is not unusual.  Owing to their great camouflage, people ofter don’t even see these gigantic critters on their plants until they notice a lot of missing leaves, or they see the suddenly obvious caterpillars looking like this:

Parasitic-wasp-eggs-on-hornworm1

So what are those cute little white tufts?  No, they are not decorations the caterpillar has chosen, they are cocoons.  Each cocoon has been spun by a tiny Cotesia congregata wasp larva which hatched from an  egg laid inside this rather unfortunate hornworm.  The hundreds of eggs in each caterpillar hatch in a few days and the larvae then feed on the caterpillar from the inside for a couple of weeks, causing its ultimate demise.

This killing of the host, BTW, is the difference between a parasite and a parasitoid: a parasite feeds on another organism but does not usually threaten the host’s existence (think fleas or lice–annoying, but not inherently deadly).  Conversely, a parasitoid feeds on its host, and in so doing, kills it–this is the case with these tiny wasps.

In a move straight from Alien, the mature larvae chew their way out of the caterpillar, through its integument (“skin”), which brings us to the photo and video I took on 15 Sep 2015 when I found this caterpillar on our tomatoes.  In the photo, we can see:

  • The heads of several larvae just having chewed their way through the integument
  • Several larvae about 1/4 the way out
  • At least one larva ca. 1/2 way out
  • Fully emerged larvae
  • Larvae spinning silken cocoons
  • Cocoons already thick enough that we can no longer see the larvae within

manduca_contesia

Click on photo to enlarge it & sharpen its text

And, just for fun, here’s a video I made using my son’s microscope.  You can see a larva’s head just emerging through the integument, and next to that one, a larva busily making its silken cocoon.

When all is said and done, we shall have a very dead hornworm and a whole bunch of adult Cotesia wasps:

cotesia_adult

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