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….

Nature’s VIP Pass: A Lesson In Gratitude

Nature is full of surprises. It is one of the most intriguing reasons for getting out in the field.  You never know what you might find; what small portion of another organism’s life you may get the privilege of being witness to.  Even simple, common events such as territorial displays and the wonderful efficiency of camouflage can bring little moments of awe.  For those of us who are inclined to get out more often than most, we become accustomed to much of this, and take a lot of it for granted.  Squirrels chattering from the boughs of a post oak, crows cawing at our presence, nature’s alarms that warn other creatures that danger is near.  A caterpillar munching on its host leaf, a chorus of frogs, a basking turtle.  We see these things so often that we forget how fortunate we are to be able to share our world with such a diverse and magnificent spectrum of living things.  But take a child who has never been out in the woods (or an inquisitive adult, for that matter) and watch them become immersed in this new world of birdsong and greenery and vibrance that had always gone on somewhere in their own background, formerly unbeknownst to them, and it will serve us as a good reminder to remain grateful for the chance to be out in those wild places for the simple sake of being there, even if we don’t happen to find that sought-after holy grail species we’re targeting.

Such a realization dawned on me yesterday as I was searching for buprestids around a brush pile on my property in Parker county.  It was late afternoon and as I was walking through the high grass, my eye on a dead Craetegus branch that would hopefully harbor one of my constantly coveted jewel beetles, I saw a flash of black raise up above the grassline.  This was followed by the high pitched squeak of a rodent in distress.  As I walked up cautiously to further investigate this unexpected new mystery, I was delighted to find the coils of a large Texas ratsnake in the process of constricting a rat.  The snake’s head was covered by a thick loop of its muscular trunk, and thus I was able to observe it at close range without alerting it to my presence.  From such a front row seat to nature’s theatre I could see the last dying gasps of the rodent as the snake’s body squeezed tighter and tighter, a tiny drop of blood forced out of the nose as the lungs collapsed, welcoming it to the impartial food chain.  The muscles beneath the snake’s keeled black and orange blotched scales seemed to flex, forcing the final breath of life from its victim.  As if sensing it had expired, the snake then poked its head up and looked directly at me, the pearl white chin graced by its red and black forked tongue as it tested the air to identify this interloper.  I quickly backed up, not wanting to disturb its hard earned dinner, and resumed my search for beetles on the other side of the brush pile. TXrat+rat

I didn’t find what I was looking for, but in fact came away with a much greater feeling of satisfaction.  The Texas ratsnake, while one of the most common of finds for a cross timbers naturalist, was a delight and highlight of my day.  It is a rare treat to be able to witness one kill and constrict a rat, and I felt blessed by the fact that I had happened to be in the right place at the right time to see it go down.  These are the moments naturalists really live for, or really should live for at least.  For all the time and thought and attention to the minute details of an individual species’ natural history that go into searching for the rare and obscure, it was a refreshing and eye opening experience to see two very common organisms engaged in such a rarely witnessed part of their lives that goes on all around us and yet we seldom get the opportunity to see.  And while I didn’t have a decent camera onhand and was able only to get a few shots with my phone, the memory I took back with me was irreplaceable.

Gratitude and Discovery On the Wilson Prairie at the Tail End of Winter

Blessings come in the form of warm days on the end of this mixed winter. An alternating cycle of frigid wind and premature blossoms that beget premature butterflies. My son Zev and I found ourselves at the threshold of just such a blessing as March began to cover the tracks of February.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he comments. I know what is on his mind, and I won’t take too many pains to argue. We are going cocooning.

The early evening sun beams down full and bright on this post-work, post-school walk across the field from our house, where a familiar lot full of greenbriar-skirted post oaks grows, a huddle of stately sentinels of the cross timbers, their budding sprigs washing the branches with a pastel hue that suggests a restoration of life to the western edge of the Wilson Prairie. My back yard. A thick crackling carpet of ochres and sepias and mahoganies accumulates over the tops of our shoes. There are cocoons mixed in with them somewhere. And not just any cocoons, but special ones. They are the winter-dormant pupae of the great Polyphemus moth.

A Polyphemus has a lifelong romance with these oaks. From the hard, round eggs, scarcely larger than a pinhead, adhered to the leaves quite generously, to the ravenous larvae, lime-green and built like a three-inch-long living accordion, through the pupal stage spent enclosed in silken protection among the leaves, to the magnificent adult with the wingspan that stretches from palm to fingertips, back to the egg again. Blessed cycle.

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Zev, looking among the leaves

Zev makes for the deadfall, the wild crop of curly hair he inherited from his mother bouncing as he goes forth in unbridled joy, energy, and enthusiasm. A pang of loss for my own naïve, blissful youth is vanquished only by the gratitude of being able to share in his. His sharp eyes scan the ground for anything suspect. A description is all he goes by, for while he has found many a cocoon in his eight years, never before a Polyphemus.

“Look for something the size, color, and shape of a rat snake’s egg,” I suggest, “a fuzzy, ovaline object wrapped in silk, off-white to manila, sometimes hidden in a curled brown leaf.” At first, everything is suspect. He pounces upon mushroom caps, an oak gall, a stray chunk of Styrofoam, with false hope fueled by faith and anticipation. But when he actually does find one he has no doubts. “This has to be one!” he exclaims. “Come quick!”

It is. At the base of a young oak tree with a trunk no wider than my thigh, tucked away safely in the carpet of leaves, the little lepidopteran gift waits with seemingly timeless patience.

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A Polyphemus cocoon

“I found one!” Zev cries, as if its profession marks the point at which anticipation births reality. Carefully, he picks it up, taking care not to roll it from its original position, a testament to the gentleness of his spirit.

“When will it emerge?” he asks as he draws it up close to his face, studying the detail.

“When it is ready,” I tell him. “Most likely in three or four weeks, perhaps longer.” He hands it to me, this newfound little treasure that has just turned the key to a previously undiscovered world that has suddenly joined with his own. I place it in the pocket of my shirt and we continue on our walk beneath the skeletal branches, between the rugose trunks, among the death-dry filings of last year.

The advent of springtime is like medicine to our winter-weary hearts. How many frigid days and windswept crisp nights we have spent over books and the dreaded television, our eyes gazing out past the here and now through the front window, eager for these first green brush strokes of life to come splashing onto the sullen earthen hues of pause and stillness and dormancy. How eager we are now to pluck them up, drink them in in all their diverse wonder.

A little brown skink weaves its way among the substrate, a coppery flash of scales in the sun that delights our eyes for only the briefest of moments before slipping back into the private obscurity of its shy, hidden existence. The cucumber-green, spine-laced tip of a prairie nipple cactus, that tallgrass succulent that looks so out of place here in this oak motte, reaches up for the sunshine from the midst of the sea of leaf litter.

“A cactus! Look, dad!” Nothing great or small escapes the observation of my son, whose senses are in hyper-drive at this point.

A pair of fruit trees, planted by the hand of man, stand in our path, their early blossoms ablaze with a mixture of the pastel hues of soft roseate purple-pink (a peach) and buttercream white (a pear). The day is warm and bright, the scent and color of the blossoms invoke a convention of insects to reap the benefits of their sweet pollen. I take this opportunity to stop in my tracks and study, poring over the bunches of blooms one by one, inspecting each in detail, and in doing so am rewarded by life rejuvenated and celebrated in its amazing diversity. Lady beetles, some familiar orange-spotted-black and others unicolored, scramble over flower heads, their ever-ravenous appetites gobbling up aphids. Paper wasps, honeybees, and metallic bees jostle for position, nectar-drunk and too preoccupied by the bliss of sunshine to pay my presence much mind. A buckeye butterfly spreads its wings wide as it rests on a leaf, the intricately patterned eyespots of purple, blue, yellow, white casting their intricate sheen. There is a false blister beetle and then a crab spider waiting in enviable patience atop a pear blossom, its color matching to a tee, blended in so well that the next bee or butterfly to visit will never know what hit it, perhaps assuming in its final moments that the flower itself has trapped it, brief life passed back into the chain even as it had just begun to enjoy the world once again.

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Buckeye butterfly

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Checkered skipper

Zev joins me in my study but for a few minutes, but soon becomes antsy. There are cocoons at stake. He excuses himself and resumes the search around the tree bases, where the cocoons have long since dropped from their flimsy attachment to the lower twigs several months before in the wake of our first stray norther. No child was ever happier filling an Easter basket with plastic eggs, I can assure you.

We pass out of the grove now, where a gnarled, weathered wild grapevine hangs between two mature oaks, its thick, curling central stem resembling the trunk of a huge snake made of wood. To an 8-year-old it is an excellent swing, and my son takes full advantage of nature’s playground. He stands at its center, bracing himself with his arms on either side of the vine, pushing off as he stares up into the still-bare branches of the understory.

CK-Zev-grapevine“I wonder if there are any cocoons up there that haven’t fallen?” he asks, more to himself than to me. His swinging slows as his concentration quickens.

“I don’t know, I say, “it’s possible.”

Eventually the grapevine swing is abandoned for a walk out in the open field, the yellowed grass razed low by cattle. Zev’s eyes have spotted a second grove of oaks a hundred or so yards away, growing along the edge of a shallow ravine that carves an eroded trench downhill to the pond.

“More oaks!” he shouts, and the hunt is back on.

Beneath my feet, flat, dark green pads of cow-trampled, resilient prickly pear spring up in their constant greenery, with no seeming concern for season, their red-tufted spines seeking out the edges of my sneakers. Late winter grasshoppers, the proof of another mild winter, leap in front of me in discordant, gangly jumps. Zev brings me the dried husk of a dung beetle, its legs rigid. A winter casualty.

“I will add it to my collection!” he states with extended hand, and the little prize joins the cocoon in my shirt pocket. We walk the edge of the ravine, among the post oaks flanked by the greenbriar, but no cocoons are found. The ditch that runs parallel to the tree line is full of water from a recent rain. It stands in a shallow narrow pool, giving the superficial resemblance of a creek. Dense stands of dewberry with their spangled white flowers march along the water line, with the impenetrable tangle of wild plum thrust into their midst, their own tangled branches of disarray clothed in a different shade of floral white.

“Let’s make a bridge!” Zev suggests, and together we hoist a thick, heavy cover-board I have set out to encourage herps across the narrow expanse of space we find in a rare open space in the plum thicket. In no time we emerge victorious on the north side of the ravine.

I already know his plan. Seldom do we venture into this field when Zev fails to explore the coyote den. A group of coyotes graces us with their mournful, discordant singing year-round. As the sun slips over the edge of the Wilson Prairie they break out into that same dirge night after night, regardless of season, with one setting the pace in a brief solo of yips and yaps, revving the engine for what eventually becomes an orchestra of drawn out howls that have rung out across these lands for thousands of years. On warm, pleasant nights we listen from the comfort of lawn chairs beneath the porch, in total darkness. What seems to be dozens of coyotes but in reality is probably only three or four seem to rise in pitch and volume, their lonely echoing canid voices resonating all around us. We have only ever seen one in the daytime, and that less than a week ago as the hardy, grizzle-furred wild dog made its way across the open field on a Saturday morning. It had turned back to watch us with an inquisitive, suspicious glare before deeming us innocuous enough to constitute no further caution and trotting over the low ground to the security of a stand of junipers. Last summer we discovered what we suspect to be their lair, a gaping maw of excavated red earth from the side of the ravine in a tributary gully. It is wide and deep enough for my son to slink inside, and with fearless abandon he adventures in. But not today, as the rains have filled the gully on all sides of us, blocking our entrance. Likewise the coyotes seem to have abandoned this favorite shady shelter, which they probably use more for shelter from the sun than they do actual denning and pup- rearing. The only traces of their presence lie in the scattered paw-prints they have left behind in the mud.

No coyotes today, but we are suddenly delighted by the appearance of a pair of black-tailed jackrabbits as they explode from the grass at our very feet, the long ears, veined and almost translucent pink in the sunlight, twitching and falling as they bound away from us in a zig-zag pattern that has ensured their survival for countless generations.

“Whoa!” Zev shouts in excitement. “We walked right up on them. Now that’s some camouflage!”

“That camouflage is what keeps them from becoming a coyote’s dinner,” I tell him. “Although it looks like we’ve blown their cover to that guy.” I point upward, where the silhouette of a big red-tailed hawk soars like a sharp-eyed predatory kite freed from its string. Perhaps taking note of its shadow, the rabbits disappear before their luck runs thin. Their bounding suddenly stops and once again they melt into the yellow-brown hues of the prairie as if they never were.

A few more feet and we are at the pond now, with its flat, muddy banks crowned by a mass of sand willows and a wild plum thicket eight feet high and so dense one can stand in front of it and catch not so much as a glimpse of the water surface on the other side. This pond is a wonderful little mantra, teeming with an assortment of aquatic, semiaquatic, and water-dependent life that maintains its continued existence on the otherwise dry prairie. We have visited this place many times and in all seasons over the 18 months we have lived on the property. We have stalked basking water snakes in the mornings, creeping as stealthily as our field experience can muster to observe them as they sun on the drooping willow branches that overhang the water. Inevitably one of us attempts to stretch a leg or arm, sending the ever-vigilant serpents sliding effortlessly into the water with hardly a ripple. From my current vantage point I recall a time last summer when I stood on this very spot and watched in humble adoration as a cloud-rich evening masterpiece of magenta and powder-blue and tangerine was mirrored in its reflection on the surface of the water. Twin worlds, one real and the other a mirage, separated only by a thin layer of vast, flat prairie.

For now, though, the water is muddy brown and devoid of reflection, save for that of the overhanging branches of willow. Its surface is broken by a pair of water striders who skim across in expanding ripples, their bodies seeming to defy gravity as the mass of their bodies is distributed on stilt-like legs.

“Water striders,” Zev points out. Nothing goes unnoticed.

And then I get myself into a bit of trouble. “Yeep!” a startled young bullfrog calls as it plops into the water from its former position on the bank. And behind it a little brown amphibian bullet does likewise, although this one makes no noise. “There goes a cricket frog.”

“Where?!” Zev comes running and again I sense a pang of envy jolting forth from the banks of my suppressed memory, to a simple time when the presence of something as commonplace as a cricket frog could so explicitly and wonderfully grab my attention and captivate my thoughts. With the same level of enthusiasm he doted upon the Polyphemus cocoons an hour or so earlier he concentrates on the tiny anuran, who has at this point reached the water’s edge, where it throws itself in and under. Beneath the water it can barely be seen as it kicks off, its long, muscular legs propelling it forward, then pushing it back around to face us. In the work of an instant it had buried itself in the mud, out of sight. Zev takes note of its location and makes a grab, but water and mud is all he gets.

“Dang!” he yells.

It is at this point that I make my mistake: “I bet you can’t catch one,” I say to him, forgetting the dedication, vigor, and determination-fueled energy and persistence of an 8-year-old boy naturalist in the field. In fact, so non-recollective is my memory that I seal the deal on my fate. “I’ll give you two dollars for every one you catch.” These are famous last words. A four-foot tall, gangly little machine fires off into the muddy, wet domain of the cricket frog, instantly taking on their very traits himself. Pants get soaked, shoes bogged down in thick accumulation of red clay that adheres with all the affinity of gorilla glue, and Zev soon has a ball of pond mud in his fist, brandishing it under my nose before opening it up slowly.

“There!” he shouts victoriously, and sure enough, two tiny bulbous amphibian eyes stare up at me from out of the mud ball. “Two bucks, baby!” he laughs, although the joy of his recent winnings are soon overshadowed by a close study of the frog. We watch it breathe, comment on its coloration, habits, and what it might be thinking before releasing it back into the water. Then it’s all eyes back to the shoreline. In the span of a moment he spies another frog.

“Hold my hand so I don’t fall in,” he says, and I support his balance as he leans as far out as possible. Another successful grab. He is getting good at this. In my haste to encourage his exploration of all things natural I failed to include the phenomenon that a small boy can accomplish feats seemingly lost with age. Much like lizard-catching, the pursuit of cricket frogs seems like a pastime tailor- made for the vigor of youth. He catches a third and then a fourth with what has now become relative ease. From their undisclosed vantage points the resident water snakes watch with jealousy as my son turns up cricket frogs with the efficiency of an egret. Washington gives way to Hamilton as Zev nabs a 5th frog.

“Okay, demand is about to exceed supply,” I warn him, but a deal is a deal. The damn cricket frogs are everywhere. It is a plague of Biblical proportions, and I envision a scenario of myself standing on the soup line. “How’d you get here?” the guy behind me asks. “Put my life savings in two-dollar shares of cricket frog stock,” I say glumly as the ladle hovers over my bowl, from the center of which a pair of tiny bulging eyes emerges from a pool of vegetable broth.

“Oh yeah, number seven!” Zev yells, his muddy cupped hand running over with pond water. It is opened and yet another frog leaps from it, plummeting back into the pond.

“OK, that’s enough, kid. You’re definitely abusing the system. The sun is headed down anyway. Let’s head for the house before I’m forced to declare bankruptcy or take out a loan.”

“Fourteen big ones!” he says for emphasis. “A deal’s a deal, daddy-o.”

“It certainly is,” I agree.

IMG_2112.JPGAs we make our way up the embankment and point our mud-caked shoes in the direction of home, the diurnal prairie life is gearing down for bed, making way for the night shift. A gentle breeze has blown in, caressing the flowering edges of the thickets, where a bumblebee hangs on precariously as the flower she is clinging to sways first one way and then the other. Overhead, the resident great blue heron glides over the field as he does every evening like clockwork, a feathered biplane on a silent angled descent as he prepares for a little pond-side hunting of his own. Cricket frogs beware, for he is twice as stealthy as my son and has much more ominous intentions.

As we walk, Zev is reminded once again of the cocoon. “I’ve still got it in my pocket,” I assure him.

“When will it be ready to come out?” he asks again.

“In good time,” I tell him. “We’ll sit it on the back porch in a mesh tent and if we’re lucky we’ll get to see it happen, although I wouldn’t count on it. That’s the great nature of mysterious things. They go on unobserved and in secret, a thousand tiny worlds that exist alongside and yet just outside our own, right under our very noses.”

“Yep,” he nods. The daylight fades on the Wilson Prairie, and a dark world replaces that of light, making conditions ripe for secrets and mysteries to go on in the deepest cover of night. The tinkling trills of a Strecker’s chorus frog begins somewhere behind us, instigating a bevy of others to follow suit, complementing the hummed tune of elation that comes in on the wind from in front of me, where my son walks in the final fleeting rays of sunlight. Blessings of late winter on the cusp of another spring in the cross timbers.

 

Viuda Negra


Ask almost anyone in the United States or Mexico what is the most dangerous spider native to their region and they will more than likely give you the same answer. In Spanish it is called “viuda negra,” which sounds only slightly more ominous than the English translation “black widow,” so named for the female’s habit of consuming the male after mating has taken place, although in reality this is not a chief goal nor is it efficiently accomplished most of the time. Still, the ominous name has struck terror in the hearts of arachnophobes wherever this spider occurs.

fullsizeoutput_c3dAll danger aside, the black widow (Latrodectus mactans) is one of our most beautiful spiders. While the male is a small, thin, spindly-legged, rather dull-colored fellow (a trait atypical in nature, which more commonly favors the male’s gaudy, eye-catching mating display characteristics to the female’s drab one), a female black widow is a gorgeous creature, with an ebony colored body so shiny it reflects light from its almost mirrored surface. The entire animal is black, from the abdomen and cephalothorax to the eight segmented legs. The underside bears some sort of vermillion hourglass shape, its degree of symmetry dependent on species (yes, there are several species of widow). Even the immature stages of this remarkable animal are amazingly patterned, the tear-drop shaped abdomen striped in alternating vertical bands of silver, yellow, and crimson. Occasionally the female retains this early instar coloration, which makes for one very recognizable spider that looks as if it could have crawled from an abstract work of art.

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An adult that retained juvenile coloration

Black widow spiders, for all their eye-catching beauty, possess a nasty reputation that, at least in my opinion, is largely undeserved. This is due largely to their virulent venom, which is a particularly potent cocktail of neurotoxins that hijack the central nervous system, causing little initial pain but later producing a wide range of symptoms, from chills, nausea, and vomiting to intense abdominal cramps, tremors, and – in extremely rare cases – death. Drop for drop, the venom of this potentially dangerous species has been said to be approximately fifteen times more virulent than that of a rattlesnake, although the tiny fangs and equally minuscule venom glands ensure that only a minute fraction of venom is delivered with a single bite. Nevertheless, when one compares liquid volume to human body weight, there is no arguing the fact that these spiders are not to be handled carelessly.

Luckily, the black widow spider is a shy, retiring species that spends the majority of its life on the web and not actively pursuing its prey on the ground, which would bring it into closer accidental contact with people. Although they have been credited as being wildly aggressive spiders, I have not found this to be the case in the field. In 2007 I had the good pleasure of working alongside Mark Neuling, a collector of exotic spiders and other arachnids, as he unloaded several crates of imported stock from Vietnam and Thailand. It was here that I was introduced to the cobalt blue spider (Haplopelma lividum) a stunning, dark tarantula (Mark would argue that it was technically not a tarantula, for reasons I can’t remember) with a dark blue sheen over its body that hails from the humid jungles of the far east. Mark warned me not to get my fingers too close to this species, as they were “super-aggressive.” As we began to unload them from their containers, which were old film vials (don’t ask me how they got them in such a small, tight space) I was taken aback at the ferocity of these big arachnids, which are about the size of our own Texas native tarantula, Aphonopelma hentzi. The spider, after being coaxed from its plastic “burrow,” would immediately dash toward the forceps and attack it, forelegs raised in the classic perturbed spider stance. It would then proceed to throw itself at the instrument, and the immense, dog-toenail fangs made audible grinding noises as they ground at the stainless steel, seeking a point of entry. One careless coworker was bitten after shirking Mark’s warning, and if you have never seen a grown man cry from a spider bite it is not a pretty sight. After the pain and shock wore off, the 270 lb. 6’3” former macho man described the pain as being not unlike having someone bring a ball peen hammer down on your thumb as hard as they could smack it. Indeed, the cobalt blue is a truly aggressive spider, and makes the black widow look like a guest appearance on Sesame Street in comparison.

This in no way means that widows should be treated with indifference. A grain of good sense and caution is never without merit when in the company of any potentially dangerous organism, especially man, but I won’t go there for now. In my own personal experience, the black widow spider is no more or less apt to bite than most of our other native web-building spiders. Two examples of supporting evidence come to mind in regards to their general placidity.

In the summer days immediately following my graduation from high school, I took a job working in an aluminum welding shop. One morning, after putting on my welding helmet and pulling it down over my face, I felt a tickling sensation that traversed from one corner of my forehead to the opposite side of my chin, around the back of my neck, then up in the opposite direction along the same path. I largely ignored this, concentrating on the task at hand and chalking it up to a stray lock of hair (my hair was shoulder-length) blown across my face by the constant expulsion of argon/oxygen gas emanating from the barrel of the welding gun, but the annoyance became so persistent that I eventually took off my helmet and looked inside. There, in the crown, a young female widow had constructed her tell-tale messy web, a non-uniform maze work of irregular diagonal lines criss-crossing each other in all directions. I immediately brushed my hair out onto the table, where the offending spider promptly fell out and was taken and released as a reward for her kindness.

On another occasion, a decade later, my then three-year-old son came running up to me with a small jar, proudly brandishing the “pretty spider” he had caught in the closet. One could imagine my alarm when I took the jar and looked in at a black widow, which had already constructed a web within the confines of her new prison. My concern grew when I inquired as to how he had managed to get the spider into the jar and he replied, “Oh, it was a nice spider. I scooped it up in my hand and it ran right into the jar.” And so goes the trials and errors of parenting, followed by a sit-down lecture on warning colors and toxicology and a concluding explanation as to why we never pick up things we can’t identify. It must have stuck, because to this day my now eight-year-old son has never picked up another black widow, although after the incident it quickly became his “favorite spider.”

While I have never personally been bitten by a widow, I have known people who have. My own uncle was bitten in a very inconvenient place on his body in a port-a-potty, although he played it smart and made a quick trip to the hospital, where he was monitored for a time before being declared none the worse for wear. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the poor coworker who drew the short straw and was given the inglorious task of extracting the spider from the toilet bowl so the doctor could properly identify it.

On another occasion the man that reads our water meter was bitten on the finger by a widow, which found the consistently dark, damp, insect-rich rectangular burrow with the custom plastic roof much to its liking. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten at the time, but my reputation for all things “buggy” must have preceded me, because he rang the doorbell and asked if I could come tell him what kind of spider had bitten him. Sure enough, there she sat on her messy silken throne, which she had spun from one end of the meter to the other. Two plump white egg cases, round as marbles, were fixed just above the meter gage. While not aggressive, mother widows have been known to defend their egg sacs, and such was most likely the case here. After confirming the poor guy’s worst fears, I assured him he wasn’t going to die and suggested he call it an early day and head for the E.R.

These experiences and then some have led me to a rather benign opinion of the viuda negra, and I have since become rather complacent to the presence of this often abundant arachnid, although I do treat them with a great deal of respect. It should be noted that only the female widows are capable of envenomating man, and the male’s danger potential is virtually nil.

Black widows are year-round residents of just about every type of habitat one can imagine throughout most of the state. One of the most common places they frequent are the upper eaves of houses, where their presence causes much concern for homeowners. In my pest control days I received many requests to rid otherwise happy homes of these conspicuous spiders, and no amount of scientific explanation as to their timidity, reclusiveness, and beneficial nature could convince them otherwise. I, on the other hand, employ upwards of a dozen black widows each summer around the eave corners and weep-holes of my own dwelling, where they have never bothered me and doubtlessly help to eradicate countless flies, mosquitos, and other pests.

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Even vertebrate animals like this lizard can fall prey to a widow

In the late summer, female black widows become fat with eggs, and lay their marble- sized round white egg sacs in the far back corners of their webs. These usually number two to three, although one is not uncommon and I have seen as many as four in a single web. As was mentioned earlier, the female does become rather protective of her future progeny, although anyone dumb enough to reach into the web of a living black widow spider and attempt to kidnap her babies deserves what they get in my opinion. The young hatch soon after, and are miniature replicas of the adults in shape and form, although they are almost translucent in color except when viewed under the magnification of a hand lens, whereupon the faded stripes that will signify their first few instars become visible. At least one person I have talked to has given credit to hallucinogenic properties of black widow spider venom, which they discovered only after accidentally ingesting several newborn black widows. Exactly how (or why, for that matter) they were ingested is beyond me and (again speaking strictly from personal opinion) if you have to go that far to get a trip you have bigger problems than baby black widows run amok in your house.

In conclusion, the black widow spider is a colorful and beneficial member of our local invertebrate fauna. Studies have shown that juvenile black widows are an important consumer of the red imported fire ant, although the actual depth of their benefit in this regard remains in question. After all, how many spiders does it take to significantly reduce the fire ant population, and does one want that many widows around? In any event, the viuda negra, when left undisturbed, is a fairly harmless denizen of our fields, woods, and even our own back yards. It can be observed in almost any season, although the peak of abundance occurs May through October. I never kill the widows around my own house, as they have yet to give me the slightest reason to. With any luck this frowned-upon species with the notoriously bad reputation will continue to coexist alongside our own for ages to come.

Resources

DesertUSA. Black Widow Spiders. http://www.desertusa.com/insects/black-widow-spider.html

Evans, A.V. 2008. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders & Related Species of North America. Sterling Publishing

Jackman, J.A. 1999. A Field Guide to Spiders & Scorpions of Texas. Gulf Publishing

An Unexpected Winter Visitor

It was a cold and rainy Sunday last weekend, one of the type that seems to invoke a twinge of seasonal depression into all but the most optimistic of souls. Grey clouds with swollen bellies hung overhead like a pod of whales, inhibiting even the thought of sunshine and driving both herp and herper deep within the confines of some warm, cozy place to await the coming of spring, which at this point feels as if it will never arrive.

It was in just such a position I found myself when a most unusual thing happened. I had a cup of black coffee in my hand and a playoff game in front of me and was contemplating a second bowl of soup. Snakes were the furthest thing from my mind, which in itself is atypical. My wife and my mother were headed out the back door for the grocery store, and had just announced it, when the door creaked and two female voices called out simultaneously, “There’s a snake!”

I am still not sure as to the physics behind how I went from a relaxed sitting position on the couch with one hand balancing my coffee to a dead run for the back door. Football and prescription strength coffee and all the other unnecessary winter evils disintegrated as a rare burst of January snake adrenaline flooded my brain.

Of course, had my frostbitten brain been thawed out sufficiently, it would have quickly come to the conclusion that the snake in question wouldn’t be traveling at a high rate of speed, with the mercury sitting at a torpid fifty-one degrees and dropping, and with darts of stinging rain pelting in from a northern wind that seemed to be blowing in at a forty five degree angle. So why the rush? Old habits die hard, I suppose…

Sure enough, there he lay. It was a juvenile Texas rat snake (excuse me, western rat snake, for those few and proud who care; like I say, old habits and all). And what a poor and pitiful, bedraggled fellow he was! I could only see about eight inches of his head and forebody, for the posterior end of him was still in the hollow of the metal door frame, with his tail somewhere above him. The most logical explanation would be that he had been stowed away as a freeloading tenant somewhere in the comparatively warm hibernatory confines of the attic, and had ventured down to get a drink, for he appeared slightly dehydrated.CK-TXrat-January

I knelt down close to the familiar little winter-stratus-cloud grey & leafless-bark-brown blotched serpent with the chocolate line between his eyes and asked him just what he thought he was doing on such a cold and rainy Sunday undeserving of the company of snakes. To which he responded in typical obsoletus fashion by throwing wide his mouth, although in his amorphous-like state it looked more like a yawn.

“Yeah, I know how you feel,” I told him. “Looks like two more days of this dreary stuff. Not to mention it’s only mid-January. I don’t know how long you’ve been asleep.” To which he responded by turning back over himself and slithering back up inside the door frame, probably before we could discuss a rental agreement. “Stay as long as you like!” I said as I uprighted myself, but then I remembered snakes have no external ear openings, and realized that our conversation had been one-sided.

I turned to go in the house and there sat my mother and wife in the car with the motor running. No doubt they were discussing the woes of a son/husband that talked to snakes in the middle of a winter thunderstorm. I waved sheepishly (my wife would later say ‘creepily’) and turned tail for my own winter hibernaculum, where the coffee had grown cold and the sports commentators were droning on about stats. I wondered if my unexpected winter visitor was having a better time up in the attic. Eventually we both would inevitably doze off, where we would dream of sunshine and green grass and mice and road trips until springtime brought us back to our senses. Perhaps on that day we will meet again, at the threshold of the back door of winter.

Beetle Bomb

It was Wednesday morning and I was already running late to my kinesiology class. The thermometer stood at a fairly frigid (for a Texan) thirty-seven degrees. As I made my way across the campus by way of a sidewalk, my eyes fell upon a shiny purplish-copper-black beetle that was lying torpid on the pavement. I had very few specimens of the ground beetle Diplocheila striatopunctata, which unfortunately goes by no simpler name. Ever the opportunist when it comes to my coleopteran collection, I picked it up, placed it in the top front pocket of my jacket, and proceeded to class. Everything went well until the sudden indoor temperature spike activated the ectothermic beetle’s system, and it began to move. As it did, it struggled against the confines of the wrinkled jacket pocket, and must have come to the conclusion that it had been trapped by some malevolent beast, for indeed it had. A noxious acrid odor suddenly burst forth, emanating from somewhere just below the realm of my nose, permeating the air around me until it was almost unbearable. While I am no stranger to the chemical defensive habits of the beetles in the family Carabidae, I could not recollect the odor from this species being so strong. My nose instantly began to burn, followed by a watering of the eyes. Absent-mindedly I reached my hand into my jacket to make sure the offending insect was still inside, and upon doing so succeeded in gathering a generous acidic coating of the same chemical warfare on my fingertips. Of course, when I pulled my hand out the smell in the immediate vicinity intensified, transferring itself to my pencil, book, and everything else it came into contact with. Noses began to curl. Confused, offended murmurs were exchanged between neighboring students within the fall-out range of the beetle bomb. No one could seem to locate the source, at least not initially, although the girl sitting next to me seemed to be putting the pieces together. Whatever this foreign, blisteringly potent foul cocktail was, it seemed to be emanating from the long-haired nerd with the beetle tattoos on his forearms. A nervous glance occasionally shifted in my direction, suggesting the fear of contagion, followed by an intentionally casual, gradual sliding away of the chairs to the left and right of me. So what was I to do? I suppose I could have excused myself from the classroom and disposed of the beetle, but it was a fine specimen and I didn’t see much sense in sacrificing it due to my ostracism by a classroom of college kids. I could have taken the beetle out and explained the situation to those to whom it might concern, but in all honesty I was having too much fun. The exotic, highly disturbing defensive spray was so unusual, so alien and unidentifiable to my peers that keeping them paranoid and guessing was a sudden tyrannical impulse I could not resist. It may suffice to mention at this point that I am not easily embarrassed. So the beetle stayed, the classroom stank, and everyone patiently awaited the clock.

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Diplocheila striatopunctata, the beetle bomb of the kinesiology class

The beetle family Carabidae is a huge, diverse group of beetles, with 40,000 known species worldwide, 2,000 of which are native to North America, ranking them among the ten largest animal families on earth. They are habitat generalists, occupying almost every type of biome within their vast range except the harshest of deserts.

Ground beetles are, with few exceptions, predatory insects, preying on a variety of invertebrates. This makes them beneficial to agriculture, as their general abundance, coupled with their voracity, aid man in the elimination of such crop pests as army worms and grasshoppers. Other species, such as the boat-backed ground beetle (Scaphinotus), are specialized feeders of snails and berries.

Ground beetles come in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes, from the tiny Chlaenius, to the multi-hued, shiny metallic jewel known as the fiery searcher (Calosoma scrutator). Others, such as the fighting ground beetle (Pasimachus viridans) possess oversized formidable mandibles that, as I can also attest personally, can deliver a painful nip. The black caterpillar hunter (Calosoma sayi) is another coleopteran gem, bedecked in a densely punctate, grooved coppery metallic elytra aligned with symmetrical rows of copper-colored dots that appear to have been applied by a fine tip brush.

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Chlaenius sp.

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Pasimachus viridans, the fighting ground beetle

One thing almost all ground beetles have in common is their chemical defense system, which the lowly Diplocheila revealed to my kinesiology class. While this varies by species in chemical composition and degree of potency, these living stink bombs are well-known by entomologists. When disturbed by a predator (or seized between two fingers by an unscrupulous insect collector) a combination of exocrine gland secretions in the lower back of the abdomen jet out a fine mist of an atrocious concoction through a pair of glands called pygidials. This almost always grants the beetle its immediate release. These secretions vary greatly in toxicity, from noxious to caustic. One species in particular, the bombardier beetle (Brachinus sp.) uses a combination of rapidly decomposing hydrogen peroxide and water converted to oxygen through a boiling process, causing hydroquinone molecules in the beetle’s abdomen to oxidize into benzoquiones. The result is an irritating substance that can literally cause mild chemical burns on human skin, and can even stun, blind, or kill lizards, frogs, and small mammals.

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Bombardier beetle

The number of different chemical compounds used among the multitudinous species of ground beetles is astonishing. In the genus Calosoma alone researchers have identified eleven different ones, including methacrylic acid, salicylaldehyde, and propanoic acid.

Perhaps no one better to testify to the validity of this defensive arsenal than one James Smith, a coworker and personal friend of mine who also happens to be a mildly interested insect observer and beer connoisseur. On one particularly indulgent night of connisseuring, he took it upon himself to go where no entomologist, professional or amateur, has gone before. He taste-tested a Calosoma scrutator.

The experiment started and ended in a few befouled moments beneath Jimmy’s porch light on a hot summer night. He had been entertaining friends around the cooler when a conversation-pausing resonant buzzing hummed into the midst of their circle like an enemy fighter jet, landing with a distinctive splat against the wall to his right. Without further ado, Jimmy seized his chance. He closed his fingers around the beetle before it could scamper away and popped it into his mouth before his better judgment could convince him otherwise. It was a tragic mistake as the entire interior of his mouth went numb, followed by a bitter, choking taste that drowned out all other thought except to retch and spit and contain the urge to gnaw the very arm of the lawn chair he was sitting in. The taste lingered for hours, and no amount of his friend’s recommended fermented hop wash treatment could subdue it, although he “tried his damnedest.”

Fiery searcher

Fiery searcher, Calosoma scrutator

A similar incident was recorded by the late, great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin, who was also an obsessive beetle collector. In a letter of correspondence between him and Leonard Jenyns in 1846, he wrote:

“…under a piece of bark I found two Carabi and caught one in each hand, when lo and behold I saw a sacred Panageus crux major; I could not bear to give up either of my Carabi, and to lose Panageas was out of the question, so that in despair I gently seized one of the Carabi between my teeth, when to my unspeakable disgust and pain the little inconsiderate beast squirted his acid down my throat and I lost both Carabi and Panageas!”

Ground beetles are among the most common of insects, and thus some of the most easily studied. Their color spectrum-encompassing coloration and depth of diversity make them favorites of many coleopterists, and their stunning defensive chemical concoctions, delivered in the form of bombs, gases and blinding sprays, have long intrigued chemists and surprised first-time collectors. I know a certain kinesiology class that will never be the same.

Resources:

Capinera, J.L.  Encyclopedia of Entomology (online)

Eaton, E.R., and Kaufman, K. 2007. Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Entomologist’s Diary. The Little Bombardier. www.entomologistsdiaryblog.com

Evans, A.V. 2014. Beetles of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press.

Linda Hall Library. Scientist of the Day-Leonard Jenyns.  http://www.lindahall.org/leonard-jenyns/

The Coleopteran Gold Rush (…and a chameleon of a beetle)

It was a sunny day in late October, and so I decided to take a brief drive over to the bridge that overlooks the west fork of the Trinity River for my lunch break to see if any interesting invertebrates were hanging out along the public right-of-way in the tree line that skirts the edge of a large tract of bottomland cross timbers forest that is owned by the city dump.  I know, this sounds like a terrible place to try to get away and enjoy nature, even briefly, but in all actuality it is not as bad as it sounds.  I have never seen the gate to the entrance to the place unlocked, let alone open.  Shut out the picture in your mind of some obsessive bug nerd peering into the low bushes with a stinking mountain of refuse in the background, blocking out the sun.  This is just an overgrown meadow lined by stands of sugarberry, bumelia, and honey locust conjoined by inseparable tangles of greenbrier, ampelopsis, and wild grape.  Above them stand their rightful elders: red oak, blackjack, ash, pecan, and willow.  A single patriarchal ancient cottonwood stands in the midst of this line of these mixed ranks of native hardwoods, its skeletal branches, devoid of leaves for several years now, still reaching up to the sun that no longer provides the dried, fibrous trunk with sustenance.  Red bellied woodpeckers and blue jays dart among the canopy above.  Occasionally a majestic blue heron wings by overhead en route to the nearby riverbank for an anticipated leopard frog lunch, its call a deep, guttural chortle on the autumn wind.  Gray treefrogs cling to the lowest branches of the trees as if they had been glued there.  They are so abundant I almost never fail to see one whenever I visit.  Great spotted purple butterflies compete with phaon crescents, eastern tiger swallowtails, and a host of other native butterflies among the low-growing lantana around the T-posts of the fence.  No, the west fork fringe of roadside around the “dump grounds” is actually not such a bad place to be.

The main reason I had been coming here for going on several weeks now had been to beat the lowermost branches of the trees for an exquisite member of the family of jewel beetles known as Buprestidae.  And in spite of all the good real estate (Buprestids as a general rule are fond of dead and – especially – stressed and dying trees) the species I had in mind was found in a slightly different microenvironment: the lowly sugarberry tree.

The sugarberry tree is a great thing, especially when you happen to be a buprestid beetle of the genus Agrilus and of the species macer.  At around ½ inch in length, with an oddly narrow, deeply crevassed elytra that appears to be spray painted gold in the sunlight, one would think they would be relatively easy to spot, but one would be wrong.  When sitting motionless in the dappled shade that filters in between the compound leaves and thin, drooping branches of the sugarberry tree in the bright noon sunshine, Agrilus macer blends in superbly and surprisingly well, so much so that they are practically invisible unless one happens to move.

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Agrilus macer

With beating stick/butterfly net and a white sheet stretched taut across an “X” shaped wooden frame, I set out across the tree line, my heart set on adding what would only be my fourth specimen of this unique species to my insect collection.

I found a tree fairly quickly, its unmistakable chaotic corking limb formation seeming to sprout from its short, twisted trunk from all angles, like a crop of wild hair.  Sugarberry trees are in the family of elm trees Ulmaceae, a huge genus that also includes such common natives as the slippery elm and American elm.  Aesthetically they are not too appealing, at least not compared to some of their more park-popular kin, but to a hungry macer they are the center of the universe, the wellspring of life, where the beetle’s entire life cycle is played out on and in the branches and trunks of the tree.

I placed the beating sheet (as they are collectively called among us bug brains) beneath the tree and gave the outermost branches a few sharp raps.  The goal of this endeavor (which I am certain appears to highway passersby as odd behavior) is to dislodge any invertebrates which may be residing there.  Although it sounds kind of droll, to a beetle or spider or caterpillar enthusiast (of which I am all of the above), it is like playing Mother Nature’s slot machine, and many previously undescribed species have been discovered in this manner, whereas they would otherwise have most likely gone unnoticed.

The slot machines are particularly loose between early June and late August, when most of our buprestid species are in the midst of their emergence and subsequent breeding season.  So yeah, it was a bit late in the year to have expectations set so high as to find one, but the weather sure was more desirable this time of year, as mid-June at high noon on the river floodplain can be one miserable place to be, beetles or no beetles.

The sugarberry produced no macer, although it did produce an emerald green nymph of the predatory pale green assassin bug.  A stand of willows grew at the base of a large, gnarled elder of the same kind.  The flaky, shingled bark is considered a delicacy to the handsomely marked willow long horn beetle, so I thought, “Why not? It’s not Agrilus macer, but it’s worth a shot.”

The first whack of the branch displaced a half-dozen shield bugs, flat, dime-sized pale yellow-green insects with constantly twitching antennae.  While shield bugs as a whole are among the most common of finds on the beating sheet, I had never encountered this particular species before, and so I collected a small series of specimens to study (and hopefully identify) back at home.  The next few strikes to the branches produced more and even more of them.  Their abundance here is a testament to their extraordinary camouflage, as I was unable to visually pick out so much as a single bug on the tree with my naked eye.

Another interesting willow connoisseur that ended up on the sheet in the aftermath of my assault was a stout, blue-green caterpillar around two inches in length, its body bespeckled with a generous sprinkling of raised pale flecks, as if it had been lightly dusted by a can of white spray paint.  The head had a strangely slanted, angled appearance, and the creature’s posterior end bore a curved, wicked-looking (though harmless) sickle of a horn.  This was the larvae of the twin-spotted sphinx moth, a pretty species with underwing eyespots of blue inside pink.  Although a few adults had turned up at my black light earlier in the summer, this was the first caterpillar I had found of the species.  These belong to the family of moths known as Sphingids, or hawk moths, so named for their body shape, when, with wings at rest, somewhat resembles the form of a diving raptor.  While the majority of hawk moth larvae are specialist feeders on vines in the grape family, a significant number of species feed on various hardwoods.  Like Agrilus macer, each species is usually fairly host-specific, and the twin-spotted is no different, feeding mostly on trees in the willow family.

I almost didn’t see it.  In fact, I didn’t at first, but as I knelt down in front of the sheet for closer inspection, there sat something remarkable, looking so out of place among the greens and browns of dislodged foliage that it didn’t even appear real.  Between two long, thin willow leaves sat a tiny beetle, barely 1/8 of an inch in length, that looked as if it had been dipped in solid gold.

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The golden tortoise beetle

I knew its identity the moment I laid eyes on it: it was a golden tortoise beetle, Charidotella sexpunctata, a species that had been immortalized in one of my favorite childhood field guides.  The specimens in the plate photograph had been taken in Arizona, and the range had simply read “Arizona.”  So I had made absolutely no effort to find this species in the field.  And yet here it was, amidst the torn greenery of a common sand willow in the company of sphinx caterpillars and scuttling shield bugs along the banks of the Trinity.  Talk about a range extension!  (I learned after some research that the beetle’s actual range is much broader, and that it is well documented in Texas.)

I fumbled in my pocket for a vial, and as I gently scooped the creature inside I noticed another beetle of identical shape and form as the first, except this one was colored orange with black spots, much like a ladybug.  Into the vial it went as well, along with a sprig of willow to make them feel a bit more at home.

By this time I figured I had better get back to work (the kind of work that actually pays my bills) and so I slipped the vial containing the two tortoise beetles into my pocket and headed for the truck.

Later that afternoon I picked my son up from school, and as soon as he climbed in I handed him the vial.  “Check out these tortoise beetles I found at the river today,” I exclaimed.  “One of them looks like it has been painted gold.”

Zee held the vial aloft, squinted, and then flipped open the lid for a closer examination.  “This bug isn’t gold-colored, but it is pretty,” he commented.  “Metallic purple!”

“What?!” I cried, “you’re crazy, kid! Let me see that!”

Sure enough, one of the beetles still looked like a flat ladybug, but the other was now exactly as my son had described it: a shimmering, shining light purple.

“It changed colors!” I said with a shout.  I imagine I felt not unlike the first Native American that had laid eyes on the green-to-brown pigment shift of a green anole.

Later that evening, my wife balked at the mention of this newfound phenomenon.  “Sure,” she said.  “Color changing beetles…far out, man!”

“I can prove it!” I retorted, and went for the vial.  Again I was in for a surprise.  The gold specimen turned purple specimen had gone through yet another color change!  This time its elytra appeared a soft baby blue.

At the moment I thought I had stumbled onto some incredible scientific discovery previously unbeknownst to the world of insects, but of course a little research into the natural history of this species (this time from a much more reliable field guide) explained how the golden tortoise beetle changes colors for a number of reasons, including its developmental stages, while breeding, and especially in response to foreign stimuli, where the beetle feels stressed or threatened.  This is apparently accomplished through the hydration and dehydration of the elytra, which is layered with a series of tiers of varying thickness.  These layers themselves are composed of even smaller, groove-like layers.  Each tier reflects a different color of light.  The three together produce gold, but when drained of fluid the bottom-most layer (a dull reddish-brown) fills the otherwise transparent wing covers.  The grooves also smooth when hydrated, giving the insect a shiny, metallic appearance.  Deprived of fluid, the shine quickly fades, giving the beetle a comparatively lackluster appearance.  So far this species and a single South American species of tortoise beetle are the only organisms known to science that change colors in this manner.CK-golden tortoise2

While I had failed to find the coveted Agrilus macer, I had come away with a beetle even more golden and (at least in my experience) less commonly seen.  While I hadn’t exactly made any new earth-shattering discovery in the world of entomology, I had experienced a fascinating aspect of the natural history of one of our state’s most beautiful and overlooked species first-hand.

On a side note, being the ever-obsessive beetle head that I am, I returned the next day to this same location to see if I could turn up any additional specimens of golden tortoise beetle.  I didn’t find any, but in a moment of irony I took a whack at a scrubby looking little sugarberry on the way out and to the sheet fell a splendid little gold-dusted buprestid, Agrilus macer!

The Owl & the Cat

The strong do what they will, and the weak suffer what they must                                                                                – Thucydides, the Melian Dialogue

A great horned owl has taken up residence in my backyard.  He calls most nights during the late summer, questioning with ghostly voice, always interrogating: “whooo-whooo?”  he calls, pausing only briefly, impatient for the answer, I suppose.  “Not us!” pray the rabbits, perhaps… but before long one will be disproven.  A rabbit is a fairly silent creature, not prone to much vocalization, but its screams are loud and shrill and long when it is dying.  The great horned owl is a stealthy shadow, with masterful nocturnal vision. He enjoys a grandiose view that my own eyes cannot see as he sits perched twenty five feet above me on the electric pole that skirts the southwestern edge of my property, almost completely concealed in darkness were it not for the dim halogen glow of the porch light.  He calls to the night but answers to no-one.  The owl doubtlessly hails from the thick mass of post oaks and black jacks that lie some three hundred yards away, over a pond on a grazed field he cuts across, death on the wing.

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Great horned owl (photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons, photo by Peter Manidis)

I never see him arrive but before the sun slides behind the low hills his silhouette is usually there.  For all his restless complaint the owl is anything but impatient.  Appearing to be doing nothing, just parked up there like a feathered gargoyle, moving only his head in that remarkable way specific to owls, talons gripped firmly into the dead wood.  Nothing escapes his observation.  Something suddenly grabs his attention; my ears do not pick it up but the owl’s round tufted head swivels away towards the field and he takes to the air, lifting up and out and swooping down like a diagonally-fired missile, his massive five foot tree-trunk grey wingspan making not so much as a whoosh.  In the span of five seconds he is gone, as if he had never been.  I sit on the porch and wonder what may have grabbed his attention.  The faintest squeak of a hispid cotton rat, perhaps.  Or the often raucous, growl-snuffle foraging pattern of the striped skunk.  Great horned owls are one of the only predators of the notoriously and formidably equipped mustelid.  Some scientists have attributed this to the owl’s poor sense of smell, but I like to think of the apex predator as so full of scarcely contained energy, violent indifference, and avian intelligence, that it pays no heed to the skunk’s potent arsenal.  In the same way it would swoop down and scoop up a rattlesnake, not bothering to dodge the venomous strikes of the reptile as it sets about tearing it into bite size pieces with merciless talons and lethal hooked bill.

The owl is gone for the night.  Had he not successfully found and killed and eaten the source of whatever sound that had caused his departure, I suppose he would have returned, although once he leaves he seldom returns until the next night, sometimes two or three.

There is a purring behind me now as I stare up into that starless black space atop the pole where the great horned owl just stood.  I turn, swiveling my own waist and shoulders because I cannot turn like he can.  It is my cat, Traveling Jones.  Jones has been hanging around for years.  My wife found him tearing into the trash one night, a yellow kitten smothered in orange marmalade.  She bought him a can of cat food and thus he has since ever remained with us.  A whining, purring, gentle animal, neutered by some previous owner and so for the most part fully domesticated.  Traveling Jones is my ode to hypocrisy.  He lives outside, although he dreams of coming in, which he gets to do from time to time.  But for the most part he lives out there in the field, the woods, that wide open acreage of bare exposed grass.  The domain of the great horned owl.  Innocuous enough by day.

Jones (or “Mr. Jones,” as my son calls him) gives full credit to the old adage “scaredy-cat.”  Although he catches mice from time to time, depositing their wet blood-grizzled limp forms lying like grim trophies on our door mat, he seems to have otherwise skipped the instruction manual on proper feline behavior.  I have never seen him place any interest in the numerous frogs, birds, and lizards that inhabit our yard.  The killdeer chicks, soft round brown and white balls of unkempt feathers that peep over the low ground in late spring, they should be oh-so-tempting to a cat.  They do not gain so much as a twitch from the whiskers of Mr. Jones.  And he is terrified of snakes, so much so that the extension cord I drag across the lawn to hook up my black lights always cause him to pause, rigid with fear, on one of his routine nocturnal strolls across the yard. “This wasn’t here the night before…oh, no!” The cat lifts a single paw, batting at the air in a series of rapid pats, far enough away as to be more than comical.  After receiving no counterattack of whirring coils and curved fangs, he deems the object of offense harmless and steps over it, albeit cautiously, stepping nervously higher than usual.

Traveling Jones

Traveling Jones

Jones is a tamed beast, but he is far from stupid.  He knows that the owl rules this kingdom of shadows.  An unusually vocal cat by day who begs for food incessantly, howls to be let in daily, and seems to mumble in his weird series of mews, as if talking to himself as he goes along, he is silent on owl nights.  And for good reason. To the great horned owl he is just a skunk without a stink and a stripe.  A tender morsel to be dropped down upon with uncanny stealth and relative ease before being converted into proteins and then energy.   The owl is purity.  But he is not partial; it’s all dinner to him.

Jones thus is ever-cautious.  Ever-cautious, yes, but older and slower than he was the year before.  He is mostly safe atop his own comparatively meager scratch box on the porch, where an overhang shields him well from most sets of predatory eyes.  But he must leave to relieve himself in the high grass at yard’s edge eventually, and this increases his vulnerability.  I am fairly certain the great horned owl is aware of this.  My cat’s days seem numbered.  Eventually the owl will probably win out, because to nature they’re all just predators and prey.

Traveling Jones is no herbivore.  In spite of his species’ centuries of domestication he has not been robbed completely of defense.  He has agility, an excellent nocturnal vision of his own, needle-sharp teeth and retractable equally sharp claws.  But he his no match for a fully grown great horned owl and will more than likely never know what hit him.  It will be over in the span of a fraction of a moment.  That age old dance of life and death, ruthless and unbiased, cold and primeval on its surface and yet so beautifully played out nightly and daily in so many unseen scenarios on a limitless scale, purity and perfection as it has been for eons. Vicious circle.

I rise from my post where I have been sitting cross-legged for the better part of an hour.  The owl has been gone for a while, probably retired back to some dried out hole in the gnarled trunk in the midnight black canopy of an ancient oak in the middle of the woods to the south.  Jones has gone off to the edge of the fence, still silent but eager to explore now that the death from above is out of sight and there is a lull in the previously electric air of danger.  My legs are numb, tingling as the dammed off blood flow begins to recirculate.  “Goodnight, Jones,” I say as I turn the knob on the back door and prepare for sleep.  He gives no reply. Somewhere in the distance far away across the field, beyond the pond, and out into that thick belt of cross timbers, the faintest call of a great horned owl resonates, barely audible but there nevertheless.  Somewhere…”whoo?! whoo!?”

The cat freezes.  The sound does not escape his ears either.  They are set atop his head and erected in such a way as to allow him much more keen aural detection than the flat, lobed ones on the sides of my head can.

Again the predator calls, this time closer, or maybe it is just our imaginations.  “WHOO..WHOOO??!!”  “Not me,” Jones says to himself as he bolts for the sanctuary of the porch.  No, not him.  At least not tonight.

Where Are All Those Butterflies Going?

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Monarch butterfly

Most people are familiar with the famous migratory flight of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  These resilient colorful lepidopterans are a familiar sight twice a year in the state of Texas as they make the arduous journey to their summer fields of Canada and then back to Mexico in the fall.  With their bright “Halloween” colors of orange and black, coupled by their large size, they are one of our more conspicuous species of migratory butterfly.  But Texas holds several additional species less well known that also make annual or biannual trips to warmer haunts with the advent of autumn.  With the gradual cooling of days, a host of different species can be seen flitting over open areas on sunny mornings, some in a leisurely fashion and others at a determined rapid pace that seems to reflect the ever-impatient rabbit borne of the Lewis Carroll novel, Through The Looking Glass.

One of these is the Queen butterfly (Danaus gilippus), a close relative and mimic of the monarch.  Although slightly smaller and of darker coloration, the pattern is quite similar, enough so that very few Queen butterflies fall victims to avian predation.  Birds seem to know well and resist the distasteful toxins of the monarch, which are absorbed into their bodies during their larval stages through the toxic milkweed they consume, and the color and pattern similarities between these two species offer the queen butterfly a VIP pass as it slowly wings its way across fields and abandoned lots, flying low to the ground and seeming to stop to visit every flower.

These butterflies are principally subtropical in nature, and seldom fly far enough north into the United States to constitute a large migration pattern, but they are a common sight in the American southwest April through October.  The rest of the time is spent south of the border, and in the early fall months this is one of the most common species seen in the lower Rio Grande Valley as large numbers make their way to greener winter pastures.

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Gulf fritillary

Another very common and dazzlingly beautiful species that migrates in the state is the Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) This fast-paced flier is mad about passion vine, its host food plant, and thus is a common visitor to flower gardens where this plant is found.  Bright orange on top and brown and silver beneath, they are easily distinguishable from other species.  Gulf fritillaries are not true fritillary butterflies, but rather members of the genus of subtropical butterflies known as heliconians.

One of our most prolific mass-migrators is the American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta).  Inconspicuous when at rest on a twig, after being closely approached they burst forth suddenly in an explosion of orange.  On any given year in the fall snout butterflies can be seen winging their way south, usually in dozens but occasionally by the thousands.

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Top L: Snout butterfly; Top R: Red admiral; Bottom L: Painted lady; Bottom R: Cloudless sulphur

Two other familiar species of butterflies belong to the family known as ‘brush foots’.  The red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is a handsome species, chocolate brown with bright bars of scarlet on the fore and hind wings and white dots or patches on the wingtips.  This species normally overwinters beneath rock overhangs or in dense brush, and during years of high population density large numbers of adults that have overwintered in warmer climates break northward for higher and cooler elevations.

The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) is a cosmopolitan species that takes this same migration pattern to a global scale.  Fast and erratic fliers, these noticeable insects with blue and brown eyespots on the underside of the hindwings and the telltale pink slash of color beneath the forewings are one our most common species, and migratory groups traveling north from their winter haunts below the equator can number in the millions.

A vibrant and easily identified migrator is the cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae).  With its bright highlighter-yellow coloration and zippy, darting flight pattern its presence in a park or backyard is hard to miss.  In late summer large numbers of these butterflies fly northward high in the air.  Their determination is in direct contrast to their springtime behavior, where they can often be approached quite closely as they visit bright flowers or mud puddles.

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Painted lady

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Painted lady, showing undersides of wings

One of our smallest migratory species is the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus).  Skippers are a strange paradox in the lepidopteran world, and appear to be a weird mixture of both moth and butterfly.  They are diurnal, but possess the general stout body structure common to moths.  Of the confusing array of similarly marked species of skipper that flit about gardens, roadsides, and open fields wherever flowers abound in our state, the fiery is an example of a specific migrator.  This species, like many types of lepidoptera, is sexually dimorphic, meaning the sexes can be distinguished visibly by physical coloration, pattern, or other characteristics.  Males are clothed in the brilliant yellow-orange that gives the species its common name, and females are, as is often the case in nature, more somberly hued.  Each September large numbers of fiery skippers can be seen in north Texas as they dance among the goldenrod and dandelions at road’s edge.

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Fiery skippers, male (top) and female (below)

Butterflies, like birds, are well known for their migratory habits, but few think of moths migrating.  However, one of the most epic and amazing migration stories comes from the natural history of the black witch moth (Ascalapha odorata).  Chiefly a subtropical species, the black witch is a truly impressive insect.  Called Mariposa de la muerte or “butterfly of death” in its native Mexico, these bat-like giants with wingspans of up to seven inches fly north across the border in the month of June, their departure coinciding with the southwest’s monsoon season.  During this time, and on through the fall as late as October they can be common visitors to lights across the state.  Their adult stage, which only lasts a month or less, leaves them no opportunity for actual overwintering sites, but the species appears to make a general course across the heartland from Texas to North Dakota, with wandering strays appearing in such unlikely northern places as New York and even Manitoba, Canada.  Unlike butterflies, and in true noctuid fashion, the black witch migrates at night.  One interesting and unsolved mystery of their travels involves huge “fallouts” of black witches dropping to the ground in the middle of tropical storms, where their bodies sometimes litter the sidewalks of coastal port towns along the Gulf of Mexico.  Apparently the moths travel in the eye of hurricanes, a phenomenon whose exact reasons are still unknown.

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Black witch moth

The arrival of fall brings a change of pace to our lives in Texas, bringing cooler temperatures, shorter days, and the beautiful adornment of native hardwoods with cloaks of multi-colored foliage.  It also brings about an influx of butterfly activity, so the next time you step outside and notice an unusual number of butterflies on the wing, stop to wish them well.  They just may have a long way to go.

References:

Brock, J.P. & K. Kaufman. 2003. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. Houghton-Mifflin

The Black Witch Moth: Its Natural & Cultural History – www.texasento.net/witch.htm