Bug-Hunting ‘Round the Redbud Family Tree

(Bringing family together through Buprestids)

I played with grim determination, Jim – Warren Zevon

As an ardent student of entomology I have seldom been accused of being either humble or shy when it comes to finding beetles, especially once my mind has fixated on a target species. From driving back roads for hours until I find a certain tree or microhabitat, to knocking on doors and asking for property permission, to searching lights at gas stations while suspicious customers look on between their cars and the pumps with concerned, confused expressions – as my wife often puts it, “I know no lows.” And so when my heart fell upon the desire to acquire a series of specimens of Ptosima laeta, the brilliantly-marked wood boring beetle that occurs only on Texas redbud trees (Cercis canadiensis) I thought nothing of exploiting my own family tree to get them.

While identifying most insects usually comes relatively easy to me, this is unfortunately not the case when it comes to botany. And while Texas redbud is one of our most familiar natives when in bloom (showing up as an unmistakable purple-painted tree in late February or early March, when almost everything else is still brown and lifeless), it was mid-April and the trees had already shed their magnificent coats, blending back into the now-flourishing growth, inconspicuous. Of course the heart- shaped leaves with their distinct teardrop points are easily recognizable up close, but I had no idea where to find one off the top of my head. Then, as I was heading out of Fort Worth from my weekly meeting with the hand therapist, my wife and I drove past the entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

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Redbud leaves and seed pods

“Pull in there!” I yelled as the lightbulb went off in my brain. The redbuds may not be blooming, but I was reasonably sure I could find a few in there. After all, they would be marked with an identifying sign. So with wife and son alongside me we parked and headed for the Texas native exhibit, which was still in the process of construction. As we walked my wife berated my hyper-enthusiasm.

“I think this place could technically be considered a refuge,” she remarked. “I’m sure they would frown upon you abandoning the marked trails to hoover up bugs.”

“I’ll collect sparingly, as always,” I assured her. “And I’ll tread lightly on the mulch. And by the way, I doubt the green thumbs that keep this place in operation will object to my removal of a small amount of wood-destructive pests. If anything they’d probably thank me.”

“I can see it now,” she said, “a plaque on the wall in the visitor’s center with your long-haired mug on it: For Single-handedly Removing Every Wood-Boring Beetle in the Botanical Gardens.

“Not single-handedly,” I reminded her. “I’m counting on you guys to help.”

“Great, we’ll look like perverts peeping between the branches of redbuds while people are trying to take wedding pictures… at least you didn’t bring the nets and beating sheets.”

“No need when you have six good hands and eyes for detail.”

I did not mean that lightly either. In spite of her nonchalant general disinterest in insects and the like, Amber has found me more rare and unusual specimens than I can sometimes believe. She is a lucky rabbit’s foot in the field, and her fondness for arrowhead hunting has trained her well in picking out slight differences in colors and shapes against similarly hued backgrounds. She is even credited with the finding of a blue and black metallic buprestid I still haven’t been able to identify, although her tendency to “live and let live” is often maddening when she sends me the pictures or text descriptions of imperial moths, Prionus beetles, and cerambycids with the caption: “I let it go..(smiley-face emoji).” And my son is a veritable walking amateur entomologist, among other “ologies” that strike his fancy, which ranges from bugs to space (which he knows more about than I do) to weather to rocks and on and on. A true and rare well-rounded scientist in the making, he has likewise gained an eagle’s eye in the field, although he is even more adamant than my wife that everything be granted its freedom. In actuality this is a very admirable and uncommon ideology, and when it extends even to scorpions and black widows and paper wasps found in and around the house I am assured without a doubt that I have a true future conservationist on my hands.

It didn’t take long to find a redbud. Behind and slightly to the right of a park bench, where a young couple sat basking in the glow of the spring sunshine in the puppy love of adolescence, a bronze plaque reading ‘Texas Redbud, Cercis canadiensis’ seemed to take on a golden glow. It shouldn’t be long now.

“Ok, you guys know what to do”, I said. “Check the foliage, also the outer twigs, trunk, and br…”

But they were gone, Amber behind me on the trail, pointing to the sign that read ‘Please Stay On The Trail,’ and Zev in deep study of the colorful aquatic residents of the koi pond. “Oh well,” I thought. “So much for free labor.” I began by scanning the outermost leaves, looking for a bit of black and orange in a world of green and brown. At a quarter to a half-inch in length, even an insect as brightly colored as Ptosima is easily overlooked. I began to part the branches to investigate the tree’s interior, and in so doing happened to look up and notice the necking love birds had become aware of my presence and were getting nervous, casting wide-eyed glances over their shoulder at the tackily-dressed bum with the bandaged hand who seemed to be lurking in the bushes like Gargamel. Luckily for them, on the next teardrop-shaped leaf sat my beetle, its boldly marked elytra standing out in radiance. It was a sunny day, and the creature was warmed up, so it lifted its wing covers and prepared to take flight. I made a quick assessment of where to place my hands (above and slightly in front of – the key to success when hand-catching the flighty, alert jewel beetles) and grabbed. At last, Ptosima was mine! I slipped a vial from my pocket, popped the specimen inside, and set off to find my family and tell them the good news.

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The target of the bug-hunt: Ptosima laeta

A week later, on my next follow-up appointment, which I had this time intentionally scheduled to allow time for optimal beetle hunting afterwards, I found myself standing in front of this same group of redbuds, this time with my mother, who had been so kind as to chauffeur me to the hand clinic. Unknowingly, she was the next in line to fall victim to my coleopteran schemings.

“How long has it been since you visited the Botanical Gardens?” I asked her over lunch at the Spiral Diner.

“Many years,” she replied. “Not since your dad worked for the city in the seventies.”

“Well, I’ve allotted time in our schedule to change all that. After all, it’s a beautiful place to visit this time of year, when all the flowers are in bloom.”

“Why, what bug are you looking for now?” she said. (Mothers, it seems, are hard to B.S.)IMG_20170418_135501

Once again we parked and made for the redbuds. This time I found a Ptosima instantly, a large specimen on the topside of a leaf, its silhouette given away by the beaming sun as I looked upward from the base of the trunk.

“That didn’t take long,” my mom remarked as a group of people walked by, no doubt wondering at our strange behavior. My mom is always amused by the fact that my quarry is often so small and (at least to her) unremarkable. But she was pretty good at finding insects on the leaves. Soldier beetles, ladybugs larvae, and caterpillars were all pointed out as soon as she had gotten focused on where to look, and as we hunted we spent some time discussing what makes her weird son’s world tick, on the same old inquisitive electricity it had run on since I was my son’s age. In the span of an hour we had the good fortune of finding three beetles, and while some caretakers who were blowing leaves from the trail gave us questionable glances, they only shrugged as they walked by, saying nothing. Another day another vial of borers. By this time it was nearing 3:30, and we had to leave to pick up my son from the school bus stop.

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Mom joins the bug hunt

But the day, as it turned out, was not quite over. At the bus stop we ran into my aunt, whom I knew to possess a large yard full of a variety of well-kept trees, shrubs, and flowers.

“Do you happen to know where any redbud trees are?” I asked.
 As it turned out, she had one growing in her back yard. “Feel free to come over any time and check it out,” she added after I had described the nature of my inquisition.

“Excellent. How does ten minutes from now sound?”

We picked up Zev (who is always eager and willing to go on a bug hunt at a moment’s notice) and got my mom to drive us down to her sister’s house. This time I was free to use my beating sheet, and while I didn’t have one on me, I MacGyvered one out of an old piece of wire-rimmed tent tarp I found stuck on a barb wire fence and set about giving the poor redbud a sound whipping.

Spiders, ladybugs, leaves and loose pods came raining down onto the sheet as I shook and rapped the foliage with a dried stick, but after several rounds of no success I gave up and declared the tree borer-less, in spite of the telltale bb-sized holes on the trunk that marked the emergence points of the adults from their larval chambers.

“Let me take a look,” Zev said, and in the span off ten seconds pointed at an upraised knot on the trunk. “Is that one?”

Sure enough, there sat a Ptosima, perched atop the knot. If it had possessed a tongue it would have probably been sticking it out at me in defiance. “Unbelievable,” I remarked, shaking my head as I ruffled Zev’s hair. “Good job, kid!”

I was now the proud owner of five new redbud borers on my collection of jewel beetles, where a week before there had only been a single one, found dead on the ground some fifteen years ago. And I had owed it all to the cooperative support of my family members, whom I had once again unashamedly exploited for my own selfish interests. But they hadn’t seemed to mind, and so no harm was done, except to the beetles themselves, who, of course, ended up skewered to # 0 rust-resistant insect pins over an acid-free label. But the series was still not complete. I needed a few more samples from a few more locales, as well as examples of the other three species in the genus, P. idolynae, P. gibbicollis, and P. walshii.

The next evening was Physics night at the college I attend, and on my break I took a stroll outside to see what I could turn up in the ten minutes of free time I had on my hands before getting back to a lecture on sound waves. As I passed the break table I glanced at the two trees planted on either side of the entrance doors and much to my surprise discovered they were examples of the now-familiar Texas redbud! There were no family members around this time, and the few students who had congregated around the table didn’t look like likely recruits for a bug hunt. I wondered what the professor was doing after class? After all, I believed I remembered him saying he had a biology major. There was only one way to find out, shameless and beguiling as ever. A borrowed lab smock sure would make a good beating sheet…after all, if there is one thing I have learned, it never hurts to ask….

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