Category Archives: Insects, Fish, Frogs

Not Eden Anymore

At Cedar Creek Park, 20 April (photo by Kate St. John)

I remember a time in Pennsylvania when we could bushwhack through dense brush or lie down in a meadow without worrying about black-legged ticks and Lyme disease. In retrospect it seemed like Eden.

Nowadays we have to be careful, especially in May-August when the tiniest freckle-sized nymphs are active. Our best defense is to prevent ticks from getting on our skin. I’ve stopped bushwhacking and I don’t lie down in meadows to look at the sky.

Black-legged tick on a blade of grass (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Eden is over. These stanzas from Mark Doty’s poem, Deep Lane (Into Eden Came The Ticks), describe it perfectly:


Into Eden came the ticks,
princes of this world,
heat-seeking, tiny, multitudinous …

from Deep Lane, Into Eden Came The Ticks by Mark Doty

My husband Rick, a poet himself, recommends Mark Doty’s Deep Lane book (here on Amazon). You can read a bit more of the poem here.

(photo of early Spring in Cedar Creek Park, Westmoreland County, PA by Kate St. John, photo of tick from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

p.s. Indeed the distribution of ticks in PA has changed a lot since 1900. There’s a new study, reported here

Tiny Hemlock Pest Has Hatched

Hemlock woolly adelgid nymphs (photo by Elizabeth Benton, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org)

A week ago I received a message from the USA National Phenology Network that hemlock woolly adelgids would hatch very soon in Pittsburgh and the southern Appalachians. This is worrisome because the nymphs are the active phase of this forest pest.

Hemlock woolly adelgid hatch announcement from USA NPN

Originally from Japan, hemlock woolly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) kill eastern hemlocks in 4-20 years by locking on where the needle meets the stem and sucking the lifeblood out of the tree (closeup at top).

The adults are sedentary, attached to a tree. The nymphs, however, are tiny and mobile. They blow on the wind and hitchhike on clothes, equipment, birds and animals. They spread very easily just after they’ve hatched.

The message above says “You should see active nymphs” but you won’t. At 1/100th of an inch they’re smaller than a grain of sand, almost microscopic. And yet, their effect is devastating.

Hemlock woolly adelgids have already killed up to 80% of the hemlocks on parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Shenandoah National Park. They are eating their way through the Great Smoky Mountains, shown below, and they’re killing hemlocks in Pennsylvania.

Tree death from Hemlock woolly adelgid in the Great Smoky Mountains (photo by Ignazio Graziosi, University of Kentucky, Bugwood.org)

We won’t know how far they’ve spread this spring until they reveal their presence next fall when the females deposit woolly egg sacs on the undersides of hemlock branches.

Hemlock woolly adelgid eggs covered in white “wool” (photo by Steven Katovich, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org)

Right now the nymphs are spreading.

Read more about hemlock woolly adelgids at the USA National Phenology Network.

(photos from Bugwood’s invasive.org, message and map from USANPN. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Warning Colors

Treated soybean seeds (blue), versus untreated soybean seeds at the top. Treated corn seeds (red) versus untreated corn seeds at the bottom. (Image: Ian Grettenberger / Penn State. Courtesy Penn State News)
Neonicotinoid treated (blue) & untreated soybean seeds at top. Treated (red) & untreated corn seeds at bottom, 2015. (Image: Ian Grettenberger / Penn State. Courtesy Penn State News)

During spring planting season …

Nature uses unusual colors to warn of danger.  We do too. The blue and red crop seeds above are warning us that they’re coated with a poisonous nerve agent. Though not as dangerous to humans as to insects, the label says handlers should wear long pants, long sleeves, and chemical-resistant waterproof gloves. “Caution: Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin.

The colored seeds are coated with neonicotinoids, nervous system disrupters that will permeate every part of the plant making it deadly to a wide range of insects. Only 5% of the neonics are taken up by the plant. The rest remain in the soil, run off in the water or disperse in the air. The chemicals persist 5 months to several years.

The picture above tells us more. The rows are actually bar graphs from a Penn State study. The blue soy at top and reddish corn at bottom show the percentage of neonic-treated soy and corn grown in the United States in 2015. 30% of soy was neonic-treated, 92-95% of corn. The percentage is increasing. You’d be hard pressed to find U.S-grown corn that isn’t imbued with neonicotinoids. That’s where bees come in.

April and early May is corn planting time in the lower Great Lakes region. Tractors like this are in the fields of Ohio and Indiana. I see them as I drive to Magee Marsh.

Corn planting in Burleson County near Caldwell, Texas, 2013 (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Blair Fannin)

The seed hoppers contain neonic-treated corn, pinkish red below. (Oh my! The farmer isn’t wearing long sleeves and gloves.)

Meanwhile insects are waking up to forage, fruit trees bloom and honeybees are enlisted to pollinate crops. By 2012 beekeepers noticed large bee die-offs during corn planting season.

To find out why Purdue University conducted a multi-year study, published in 2017, that measured neonic dust deposition up to 1000 m (0.6 miles) from corn planting operations in Indiana. They also compared crop yields of neonic versus untreated corn.

The Purdue study concluded that 42% of Indiana is exposed to neonicotinoids during crop planting, but 94% of honeybees are affected because of their location. “Nearly every foraging honey bee in the state of Indiana will encounter neonicotinoids during corn planting season.” Purdue’s video shows why.

Ironically, the Purdue study found that the benefit of neonicotinoids is declining or negligible. “The common seed treatments produced no improvement in crop yield.” Despite these findings neonics are still in use.

Today we know that neonicotinoids persist in soil and water, and travel in the air during planting season. I wish the chemicals retained their warning colors. We need to see them.

(photo credits:
* bar graph of soy and corn seeds by Ian Grettenberger / Penn State courtesy Penn State News
from “Rapid Increase in Neonicotinoid Use is Driven by Seed Treatments”.
* tractor and corn planting
Caldwell, Texas, 2013 (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photos by Blair Fannin),
* video from Purdue University: Corn seed treatment insecticides pose risks to honey bees, yield benefits elusive.

Click on the captions to see the originals
)

p.s. Since 2014 some best management practices and regulatory agencies advise farmers to control dust to protect bees.

Red Admirals’ Mass Migration

Red admiral butterfly in April in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Monarch butterflies are famous for migrating long distances from North America to Mexico but they’re not the only butterfly that travels far. Red admirals migrate, too.

Red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) occur in Europe, Asia and North America. Though the European population can hibernate, red admirals on this continent migrate south to places where their favorite host plant — stinging nettle — grows throughout the winter. In eastern North American they spend the winter in south Texas.

Over the winter a new generation of red admirals matures to fly north and repopulate the continent. We usually don’t notice them but in the spring of 2012 hot weather came so fast that red admirals passed through Presque Isle State Park in a couple of days on mass migration.

On Throw Back Thursday read about the amazing number of red admirals in 2012 in this vintage blog: Mass Migration.

Why don’t we see them migrating more often? Perhaps they’re traveling high above our heads. According to Wikipedia: “During migration, the red admiral flies at high altitudes where high-speed winds carry the butterfly, requiring less energy.” Oh my!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Today Is Spray Your Clothes Day

Spraying outdoor clothes with permethrin (photo by Kate St. John)

Today is April Fools Day but here’s no joke. Now’s the time to spray your outdoor clothes with permethrin to repel black-legged ticks that carry Lyme disease.

Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis), sometimes called deer ticks, are tiny blood-sucking arachnids that transmit the parasite that causes Lyme disease from small rodents to us.

Lyme disease is debilitating and if not stopped early can ruin your life for a very long time. If you live in Pennsylvania you probably know someone who’s had Lyme disease, maybe even yourself. Pennsylvania has the most Lyme disease cases per year in the U.S. — 10,001 of them in 2018 according to this PennLive report.

The predictions for 2019 say Lyme disease will be even worse in Pennsylvania this year. Black-legged ticks need moisture to survive and the past year has been wet. There will be lots of ticks. Watch out!

So how do we avoid getting Lyme disease?

  • Stay away from places where black-legged ticks live,
  • Keep ticks off your skin,
  • Check your body daily for any ticks that got through those defenses.

Unfortunately most of us can’t stay away from tick habitat. It’s in our own backyards.

Black-legged nymphs live in moist leaf litter or at the edge of wooded areas. Many people catch Lyme disease while gardening. Have you been moving damp leaves lately?

Tick habitais on the edge (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t fool yourself that you’re completely safe in city parks. A 2017 study of Pittsburgh’s regional parks — Highland, Schenley, Riverview and Frick — found infected ticks in all of them. Highland was the worst. Download the study here.

The edge at Frick Park (photo by Kate St. John)

The best defense is to keep ticks off your skin.

  • Stay on-trail as much as possible. (Not possible when gardening!)
  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can see ticks if they get on your clothes.
  • Wear long pants and long sleeves. Before you step off trail, pull your socks over your pant bottoms.
  • To really keep ticks away spray your outdoor clothes — pants, shirts, socks, shoes, jacket, hat — with permethrin. The repellent lasts through six washings. It works really well for me.

And as always, take a shower shortly after coming indoors and check your body for ticks every day. Read more about tick prevention and daily checks at these links.

Get ready for a bad tick year.

Today is Spray Your Clothes Day.

(photos by Kate St. John, map from CDC.gov, black-legged tick diagram from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

(*) Note: The CDC map of Lyme disease shows reported cases, not all cases. Western Massachusetts & the Adirondacks look Lyme-free because of a difference in reporting.

King of All He Surveys

Longhorn Beetle “Whitespotted Sawyer,” Sequoia National Park (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(Back on the continent. This bug is not from Hawaii.)

This whitespotted sawyer beetle (Monochamus scutellatus) looks fearsome but eats only dead or dying pines and spruces. Native to North America, he’s found north of North Carolina across the U.S. and Canada wherever his food grows.

Because they eat dead or dying trees whitespotted sawyers aren’t a problem to standing timber but they mess up the loggers’ convenience. If workers leave cut logs in the forest during the summer the females lay eggs in them and the wood is damaged when the loggers return. The answer is to cut trees in fall or winter and retrieve them before the adult beetles emerge in the summer.

This photo by Thomas Schoch was taken at Sequoia National Park, California where the beetle was perched to admire the view, king of all he surveys.

(featured photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Still traveling, flying home.

Let Me Be The First To Tell You

17-year cicada, Magicicada septendecim (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This spring the longest lived insect in North America will emerge in southeastern Ohio, West Virginia’s northern panhandle, and southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s been 17 years since we’ve seen Magicicada Brood VIII. 2019 is the year.

Juvenile periodical cicadas (Magicicada sp.) spend most of their lives underground, then in the spring of their 17th year they tunnel upward and wait just below the surface until they’re ready to appear all at once. On a mysterious signal, thousands simultaneously emerge at night and crawl up on trees, plants and walls to shed their exoskeletons and dry their wings.  Until their bodies harden they’re completely vulnerable so they’ve evolved a predator swamping strategy on a prime-number cycle. They survive by sheer numbers. They’re so numerous that they can’t all be eaten, and their predators can’t surge their own populations on a 17-year schedule.

You may remember periodical cicadas in 2016 so why are they back so soon? There are 13 broods, each with its own schedule and geographic region. Brood V emerged three years ago in West Virginia, Ohio and the bottom left corner of Pennsylvania. This year we’ll see Brood VIII in a smaller, different geographic area that includes Raccoon Creek State Park, only half an hour away from Downtown Pittsburgh.

To give you an idea of how amazing this will be, check out my photos, video and tons of information at this 2016 article: Magic Cicadas.

Expect Brood VIII to emerge in May and local news reports in the months ahead. Meanwhile, let me be the first to tell you. 😉

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Note: There are also 13-year cicadas but they have a more southern range.

See No Weevil

Filbert weevil on the acorn of a live oak tree, Oakland, CA (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Nut weevils are so small that you have to look hard to find them, but even if you search carefully you’ll never see this one in Pennsylvania.

The filbert weevil (Curculio occidentis) lives in western North America from British Columbia to Mexico. Dressed in “fur,” with big black eyes, a long thin snout, and elbowed antennae he’s only 1/4 inch long and 1/8 inch wide.

His common name is misleading. Like all weevils he’s a plant specialist who focuses on a single host and that host is not filberts. Curculio occidentis eats oaks (Quercus), specifically acorns. He’d never seen a filbert, the European hazelnut (Corylus avellana), until we imported them. Perhaps he ate one in the last century but no one talks about it anymore. European hazelnuts are grown in Oregon while the filbert weevil is found on oaks, mostly in California. Since acorns aren’t a cash crop this bug engenders few complaints unless you care deeply about acorns.

The filbert weevil begins life in an acorn. His mother chews a deep hole in an immature acorn and lays two to four eggs inside. When the eggs hatch the larvae eat the acorn meat, then eat their way out of the acorn, fall to the ground, burrow into the soil, and pupate one or two years later.

Here’s a video of his mother chewing a hole in an acorn, another female barging in on her to take over the hole, then his father shows up to mate with her.

Their lives are exciting but they’re so small that we see no weevil.

(featured picture of a filbert weevil from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video by mwkozlowski on YouTube)

From Parakeets to Jelly Beans

Male rose-ringed parakeet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One thing leads to another:

  • News of a parakeet leads to a food named for pigeons
  • The food leads to the plant it grows on
  • The plant is also cultivated to host an insect
  • The insect creates a sticky substance called lac
  • We harvest the lac to make shellac and use it on …
  • … furniture …
  • … and jelly beans.

The parakeet:  When I learned that rose-ringed parakeets (Psittacula krameri), above, are a nuisance in India because they devastate the pigeon pea crops I wondered … What are pigeon peas?

The food: Pigeon peas (Cajanas cajan) are a tropical legume first cultivated in India 3,500 years ago. The peas are used like lentils as a staple food in Asia, Africa and South America.  I’m sure I’ve eaten pigeon peas without knowing their English name.

Immature raw pigeon peas (left); Mature & split (right) (images from Wikimedia Commons)

The plantCajanas cajan plants are grown for their peas (inside the bean pods) and as the host of a beneficial insect, Kerria lacca.

Pigeon pea plant with seed pods and a flower (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The insect:  Scale insects lead sexually dimorphic lives. The males can fly to find females, but they don’t eat. The females are immobile, permanently attached to their host plant, sucking its sap. To protect themselves the females produce a sticky covering called lac. Kerria lacca females, shown below, use several trees as their host plants including pigeon peas.

Lac tubes deposited by Kerria lacca insect (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We harvest the lac to make shellac.  According to Wikipedia, we “infest” the host plants with Kerria lacca females. When the branches are well coated we cut them (sticklac), scrape, sieve and heat to remove impurities (seedlac), then use heat or solvent extraction to create shellac

Alcohol dissolves shellac and makes it spreadable but the liquid form has a 1-year shelf life.  Shellac is stored as flakes and mixed with alcohol at the time of use.

Shellac flakes in various colors (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The furniture:  Shellac is a superior finish, especially for antiques, but it is fussy.  When I was a kid my father refinished furniture in his spare time and at one point tried shellac. We kids quickly learned “Don’t touch that table!”  Damp glasses left water rings (which faded), alcohol marred it, and household cleaners damaged it.  However, shellac is beautiful.

Restorer applying shellac hand polish to a table (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And back to food:  When mixed with edible alcohol, food grade shellac makes the shiny coating on jelly beans and other candies.

Jelly beans (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One thing leads to another, from parakeets to jelly beans.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)