Fire ants make water rescue… interesting

floating mat of fire ants in Houston floodwater
floating mat of fire ants in Houston floodwater

A floating fire ant mat in Houston this week is one of the lesser known hazards of water rescue. Photo by Omar Villafranca NBC DFW Channel 5.

What’s reddish-brown, rides the water like an air mattress, changes shape like an amoeba, and stings like the devil?  If you answered fire ants floating in floodwater, you’ve probably been in Texas high water before.

Floods bring all sorts of wildlife into close and sometimes uncomfortable contact with people, but none perhaps so uncomfortable as fire ants. When their mounds are flooded, fires ants survive by riding air bubbles to the surface, joining feet (tarsi) with nest mates, and floating.  The ingenious behavior that allows ants to float is the result of special waterproof waxes on the fire ant’s body, as well as via the colony’s ability to close ranks and form a waterproof pocket around the precious queen.

Floating colonies can look like ribbons, streamers or a just a massive blob of ants floating on the water. These fire ant rafts can contain all of the colonies’ members—worker ants, brood (eggs, larvae, pupae), winged reproductive males and females, and queen ants. Besides being a way to survive a flood, rafts are another way fire ants colonize new areas.

Research done a few years ago shows that this behavior does not necessarily involve self sacrifice on the part of the ants. Ants on the top of the raft slowly change positions with the ants on the bottom, supplying the whole colony with oxygen and allowing longer survival. In the laboratory floating fire ant rafts survived from 24 hours to 12 days.

But for Texans sloshing through flood waters, the most important fact about floating fire ants are the stings. Before flooding, fire ant colonies may contain up to 100,000 worker ants.  To my knowledge, no survey has been made of raft sizes in the wild, but they certainly can range from thousands to tens of thousands of ants.  That’s a lot of potential stings.

According to A&M AgriLife entomologist Dr. Paul Nester, author of “Flooding and Fire Ants:
Protecting Yourself and Your Family
,” the other thing to know is that you don’t want to bump into one of these colonies while wading or swimming. Once contact is made, he notes, they disperse explosively, quickly covering clothes or skin.  After that the only thing to do is brush them off as quickly as possible.  Sprinkling water or submerging is no solution as the fire ants will only hold on more tightly.

Soapy water may be the fire ant’s Achilles’ tendon, however.  Research has shown that soapy water spritzed on a floating fire ant raft will sink and kill it.  The soap acts to break the hydrophobic coating on the fire ants bodies, causing them to drown.  Plus, soap is mildly insecticidal against many insects.

So if you live in fire ant country, and you have to be out in floodwaters over the next few days, here’s what I recommend:

  • Give any floating ant rafts you see a very wide berth.  At the edges of these rafts worker ants splay their legs ready to grab any dry object.  If that happens to be a boat, oar or you, they will quickly swarm from the water and sting readily.
  • Be equally careful with handling and moving flood debris, as ants may be hiding within. Use gloves and a shovel or other implement when first moving any flood debris, especially if it has been sitting for a few days.
  • If you are on the water and seeing floating fire ant mats, it would be a good idea to carry liquid dish washing detergent (e.g., Dawn or Ivory) and a sprayer or squirt bottle.  1-2 Tablespoons per gallon of water is sufficient to sink and kill a floating mat.  Soap will also be handy for washing off any ants that get in the boat or on someone.
  • If soapy water is not available, immediately break off contact with the raft and peel off ant-covered clothing. Brush ants off your skin with your hands.  Don’t try to wash off with plain water.
  • If you know you are allergic to bee or fire ant stings, either carry an epi-kit, or else find a different way to serve flood victims. You don’t want to end up in the water as a victim yourself.

A chance to fight malaria

How would you like to save a life today? It’s not as hard as you might think.

In the years since Bill Gates retired his position as CEO of MicroSoft Corporation, he and his wife Melinda have devoted tremendous effort to battling malaria.  Malaria and the mosquitoes that transmit it is the single greatest killer of humans in the world, accounting for most of the 700,000+ mosquito-caused deaths annually.  But unlike many of the other major problems in the world, solutions to the malaria epidemic are available now.

The Gates Foundation is partnering with the NGO World Vision to give away 100,000 bed nets. These nets protect families from mosquitoes that carry deadly diseases, including malaria. Each one is treated with an insecticide solution that kills mosquitoes but is safe for humans to touch. Insecticide-treated bed nets have played an enormous role in the fight to end malaria.

If you are willing to take two minutes to learn more about the fight against malaria, and take a one question quiz, Mr. Gates has pledged to donate a bed net on your behalf to a family in Inhambane province–an area in the south African country of Mozambique where malaria is common.  You can do this at the Gates Notes Bed Net Giveaway website.

On a related note, my wife and I recently watched a film about the malaria problem in Mozambique called Mary and Martha, with Hillary Swank playing an American mom who loses a son to malaria.  It’s a sad but compelling and uplifting film, well worth watching.  And it shows how a simple thing like a treated bed net can make a world of difference for families in another part of the world.

Mealybugs on hibiscus common this summer

striped mealybug on hibiscus

The striped mealybug is recognized by two dark stripes on the dorsum, two tails and numerous, fine hair-like rods covering their body. These mealybugs are feeding on the base and under the sepals of an hibiscus flower. Photo by Anita Steele.

Mealybugs are perhaps best known as pests of indoor plants. But occasionally mealybugs strike outdoors flowers and shrubs. The striped mealybug, Ferrisia virgata Cockerell, is one such pest that has been showing up in Texas gardens this summer.

Mealybugs are pests that feed on plant sap.  Most are white in color, from a white wax produced by special glands on the tops and sides of their bodies. The patterns, form and length of the waxy filaments on mealybug bodies help us identify the different species of mealybugs.  The striped mealybug is identified by two dark rows of punctures on the top (dorsum) of the insect, two long waxy tails on the end of the body, and fine needle-like rods extending out from the body, like a bad haircut.

While feeding, all mealybugs produce a sugary excrement that drops on leaves and stems and makes plants appear sticky. Once a leaf or stem is coated with this sticky secretion, known as honeydew, it eventually turns black as a result of black sooty mold growing on the sugary coating.  The same type of excrement is produced by aphids, scales, and other sap-feeding insects.

Look for striped mealybugs on the stems, under leaves, on flower buds and in the leaf axils of infested plants. Because of their behavior of settling the protected crevices of plants, and their waxy coverings, don’t be surprised if you find these bugs difficult to control with insecticides.

Soaps and oil sprays may provide some control, especially if applied before an infestation becomes heavy.  But good coverage is essential, as soaps and horticultural oil sprays only kill insects that are sprayed directly.  Also, expect to need to spray several times.  If certain parts of the plants are more heavily infested, pruning these stems prior to spraying may be helpful.  Systemic insecticides like imidacloprid or dinotefuran are very effective on most sap feeding insects when applied as a drench to the soil.  These products would be my first choice against a tough mealybug infestation.

Citrus flatid planthopper

Metcalfa pruinosa on unidentified tree trunk. Note the adult on the right side of the trunk. Video grab courtesy Zach Davis.

These poor insects.  Stuck with a name that sounds pretty boring–even to an entomologist. And the scientific name is little better: Metcalfa pruinosa is a type of planthopper, a relative of the aphids, scales, whiteflies, and leafhoppers.  It belongs to the family Flatidae, hence the name flatid.  And it is found on citrus, but also lots of other plants.

For some reason, these little insects seem to be pretty abundant this year, so you may be more likely to see them in your garden.  They may show up on various trees, orchard and citrus trees, grape and other vines, shrubs, and even herbs.

The main thing that would draw your eye to this otherwise obscure insect, is the waxy, flocculent excretions of the nymph, similar to the flocking on a Christmas tree. Among the fluffy wax you can usually find the pointy nosed nymph, and sometimes the grayish to purple-colored adult.

Infestations originate from an adult that lays its eggs inside the stems of host plants the year before. Nymphs hatch in March-April, and take close to two months to develop. There is reportedly only one generation per year, and adults are most commonly seen now, in June.

Adult Metcalfa pruinosa are 5-8 mm-long. Their presence confirms the identity of this species in wax accumulations. Photo via Bugguide, courtesy Sean McCann.

Metcalfa pruinosa is not a pest to worry about in your garden.  Damage they might do to plants is almost always negligible–though they have been reported to  damage buds of freeze damaged citrus, and may cause sooty mold deposits on leaves, in heavy infestations.

If you see waxy colonies of this insect on your plants at home, you probably do not need to do anything. However if their numbers become troubling, try knocking them off the plant with a stiff stream of water, or spray lightly with some insecticidal soap or horticultural oil.

Keep in mind that planthoppers like Metcalfa may be confused with mealybugs or some forms of scales or aphids that also produce a waxy bloom.  Metcalfa wax is lightweight and fluffy and often restricted to the stems of trees, shrubs and vines.  The nymphs, if disturbed, will jump–further distinguishing them from mealybugs and aphids.

Tiniest turfgrass pest

closeup of bermudagrass stunt mite damage

A tiny turfgrass pest appears to be on the increase according to researchers and lawn care experts.

closeup of bermudagrass stunt mite damage

Bermudagrass stunt mite damaged grass (left) is bunchy and brown. Normal bermudagrass is on the right.

The Bermudagrass stunt mite (BSM), Eriophes cynodoniensis, is one of our tiniest arthropod pests of lawns. A relative of the mite that transmits rose rosette disease, the BSM lives inside the leaf sheaths of grass.  In home yards it is pretty common (but not often recognized by homeowners as a pest). Golf course managers, on the other hand, who are expected to consistently provide billiard table-smooth putting surfaces, consider BSM a real threat.

Reasons for the increased reports of BSM may include the loss of some older insecticides, a trend toward higher mowing heights and less irrigation, and possibly the use of newer, more susceptible grass varieties.

The BSM feeds only on bermudagrass (though there are closely related species that feed on buffalograss and zoysiagrass). When the mite feeds under the leaf sheaths the leaves start to yellow and twist. As the grass tries to grow, the gaps between the leaves get shorter and shorter, resulting in a bunchy, “witches broom” appearance. Eventually the leaves and stems die, probably as a result of a toxin injected into the grass by the mite. Look for areas of stunted, green to brown grass, and dead spots in a lawn. You can identify BSM damage by the stunted, tufted appearance of the grass around the edges of the dead spots.

Once you have seen and recognize the damage caused by this mite, you will notice it in a lot more places, especially in sites with poor or no irrigation. In my own yard for several years I commonly saw BSM damage in the median strip between sidewalk and street. Since upgrading my sprinkler system, however, I see fewer signs of these mites.

bermudagrass stunt mite damage

Bermudagrass mite damage symptoms resemble grub damage or poor watering. When inspecting brown spots in a lawn, look for the characteristic tufts of bunchy grass around the edge of brown spots in the lawn.

Dr. J.C. Chong, of Clemson University, got interested in this mite about 10 years ago, and found no one else studying it. Today he has devoted as much time as anyone to studying these tiny pests. His knowledge about BSM is in especially high demand this year, he says.

“I am getting more requests for diagnosis and confirmation from golf courses and high-end landscapes in Florida, the Carolinas and Texas in the past 3 months than the entire [2016] combined.”

According to Chong, the last time anyone bothered to studying control of BSM was in the early 1980s. At the time, the best insecticide by far was diazinon. Now that diazinon is no longer available due to environmental concerns, we have few comparable products.

Part of the problem is that there are few researchers with time or funding to study BSM. Another problem common to turfgrass pests is that it is difficult to know if and where mites will show up in a large enough area to design a good insecticide trial.

Bifenthrin is a commonly available lawn and garden insecticide, and usually provides decent mite control. But experts vary in their opinions the effectiveness of bifenthrin against BSM.  Bifenthrin and a couple of other similar insecticides, such as lambda-cyhalothrin and deltamethrin, carry labels for mite control in turfgrass.  While these products may provide some control, don’t expect miracles, say experts.

Chong himself has had little success with bifenthrin, regardless of timing. In trials conducted between 2011 and 2015, he found an insecticide called avermectin to be the best treatment after diazinon. But avermectin (Avid 0.15EC) is not sold in most garden centers to consumers (it can be purchased online). When using avermectin, Chong recommends multiple (up to four) applications every two weeks.

Perhaps the best approach for the average consumer is to use bifenthrin or one of its similar products in combination with very close mowing and increased irrigation. Before applying insecticide, experts recommend lowering the mower and cutting the grass very close to the ground (scalping). This will remove many of the infested grass tufts (and mites) and open the grass canopy to permit better spray coverage. Bagging your clippings and disposing of them off site will ensure that the mites are not just spread around by the mowing operation.  Also, make sure the area gets well watered until the grass has time to recover.

Despite years of field trials, Chong notes that there is still a lot to learn, especially when it comes to combining insecticides with different cultural practices like mowing, irrigation and varietal selection. Experience with BSM demonstrates that, at least for some pests, it’s not always easy to come up with reliable management recommendations. For a pest like BSM, one pest can lead to a career’s worth of work for some lucky entomologist.

Ticks and summertime

lone star tick female displays white spot in middle of dorsum

Lone star ticks are one of the most commonly encountered ticks outdoors in Texas.  Female ticks are identified by the single white spot (lone star) in the middle of the dorsum.

Everyone who agrees with this statement, raise your hands. “The world would be a better place without ticks!”

Ha, just as I suspected! Everyone who has ever “gotten a tick” raised their hands. Everyone else has a blank look on their face.

For the uninitiated, ticks are eight-legged arachnids more closely related to spiders than insects. While all tick species feed on blood, some feed on wild animals and rarely bite people.  Other ticks readily hitch rides on, and bite humans.  Ticks are most commonly encountered in fields or wooded areas, especially along the edges between forest and open areas.  They are generally not seen in urban sites (except brown dog ticks).

As ticks mature, their lives center around a series of hosts. Ticks typically feed on one host, then drop off to digest their blood meal, shed, and look for a new host. Species of greatest health concern in Texas are known as three-host ticks.  This means that over the course of their lifetime they will feed on three (usually different) hosts. This habit of “feeding around” sets ticks up nicely as disease carriers. A tick that feeds on an animal with a disease can pick it up and transmit it to another host.

Tick-borne Diseases

The most common human diseases transmitted by Texas ticks include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, human erhlichiosis, and Lyme disease.  Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial spirochete. Although present in Texas, Lyme disease is not as prevalent as in the north central and northeastern US.  It is thought to be carried by the deer tick, Ixodes scapularis.  Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a rickettsial bacteria disease, and is carried by both the dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, and the lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum. It is potentially serious with a 20% fatality rate for people who go untreated.  Ehrlichiosis is another bacterial disease, with less than 10 cases reported in Texas each year.  It is less likely to have serious consequences than RMSF, but can still make you quite sick. Human ehrlichiosis in Texas is thought to be carried by the lone star tick.

Although symptoms vary somewhat among the different diseases, any time you know you’ve been bitten by a tick and come down afterwards with a rash or flu-like symptoms (aches, fever, headache), suspect the tick.  If you or a family member find a tick attached to your skin, remove the tick right away.  Instead of throwing it out, though, put it in a jar or Ziploc bag and label with the date and place you think it came from.  If you later have a rash or flu-like symptoms, check with your doctor and be sure to bring your bagged sample. If after 4 weeks no unusual symptoms occur (most symptoms should occur within a few days to two weeks), you can toss the tick with an easy mind.

Currently the University of North Texas is accepting ticks removed for humans for testing.  Follow the instructions on this site and send the living or dead tick along with a form.  Samples may be sent in by any Texas resident, and results are usually available within a week.

Because each of these diseases is caused by a bacterium, they are treatable with antibiotics.  Quick administration, however, is important.  If there is a good chance of tick-borne disease, it is usually recommended that the doctor not wait for test results before starting treatment.

Self protection

Tick app web site

The Tick App is a mobile-device friendly providing essential information for identifying and protecting yourself from ticks.

We may not be able to rid the world of ticks, but we can keep them from biting in the first place. The very useful Texas Tick App offers the following advice:

  • Wear light-colored, full-length clothing whenever possible and cover your exposed skin with DEET repellent (30%).
  • Tuck pant legs into socks to keep crawling ticks atop of clothing where they are visible.
  • For additional protection, consider using repellents containing permethrin (e.g. Permanone®) for application to clothing, or purchase clothing that has been pre-treated with insecticide for protection against mosquitoes and ticks.
  • Check yourself and your family for crawling or attached ticks.  Look thoroughly on exposed skin, clothing and hair.
  • When returning home, wash all outdoor clothing, sleeping bags and blankets in a hot water wash cycle.  Otherwise seal your things inside a plastic garbage bag to kill any wandering ticks.

Side Note:

A recent press article has me answering media calls about ticks.  The current interest stems seems to stem from a scary news story. The article focuses on super abundant ticks carrying a new disease. Unfortunately the story suffers from lack of context.  Powassan Fever, the disease in the story, is not new.  It has been known for almost 60 years. It is a relatively rare disease, with an average of 7 cases in the US annually. Also, Powassan fever, is restricted to the northern states and has never been found in Texas.

The story also predicts a bad tick season for 2017. But tick abundance varies greatly by region, and experts quoted for the story were from Cornell University in New York. A mild winter and moist spring in some areas may indeed set Texas up for above average tick numbers this year; but there’s no evidence of a tick invasion yet. So, don’t let ticks keep you indoors this summer, but don’t ignore them either.

New infographic on biting and stinging pests

striped bark scorpion
Bugs that bite sting or infect - infographic from Methodist Health System

Click on poster for a larger view. And follow MHS on Twitter  at @mhshospitals

Every now and then we get the opportunity to get a little creative with a partner who shares some of our mission. This month our partner is the Methodist Health System, and MHS Publication Specialist, Sarah Cohen.  Sarah posed a challenge to a few of us subject matter experts, and her creative team, to come up with an infographic that would help inform you about the different kinds of pests in Texas that bite, sting and sometimes infect us.

Here’s the final product and a link to the MHS news release.  It does, I think, a pretty good job of summarizing most of the important Texas (arthropod) pests that bite, sting, or pass on disease.  It’s enough to keep you indoors this summer.

Insects and mites that bite and sting seem to both horrify and fascinate most of us. On this website, over the past year, 70% of you explored publications in the category of biting and stinging pests.

But insects and mites need not be scary. Once you know what could be biting you, you can take steps to avoid them.  Knowing that the bites of only two kinds of Texas spiders are dangerous and painful, and that their webs are either cobwebs in secluded, out of the way places (black widows), or no substantial web at all (brown recluse) will have you blasting right through all those icky webs crossing the trail with no fear!  Well maybe not. But I hope this knowledge might at least make you feel a little better.

I really hope this poster doesn’t make you want to stay indoors.  A good insect repellent can protect you against biting mosquitoes, and to some extent, chiggers.  Learning how to avoid fire ants is a basic survival skill for all Texans.  And this poster offers some helpful tips on what to do if you are bitten or stung.  So get out there and enjoy the beautiful outdoors.

Just don’t step on any snakes.


Bed bugs happen: Even in school

kids walking to school with backpacks

A message to all parents with kids in school:  Bed bugs happen.

Bed bugs happen even in your children’s school, and like it or not we’re all going to have to deal with it. That will mean fighting the inclination to go into hyper-protective parent mode. Instead we all need to relax.  Deep breaths.  Eyes closed. Find your center.  Breeeathe… it will be all right.

It doesn’t matter what kind of school our kids attend, there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll hear rumors of bed bugs on campus.  I say this with some confidence because, in case you haven’t heard, these tiny, bloodsucking pests have become something of an epidemic over the past 15 years.  It’s inevitable that sooner or later children who live in infested homes will bring bed bugs to school.  While statistics are few, the numbers of public and private schools reporting problems appear to be on the rise.

Even so, the number of schools with bed bug infestations remain few and far between.  Notice the difference between a report of an introduction (one or a few bed bugs being brought somewhere) and an infestation (an entrenched, actively feeding, reproducing and sustainable community).

Schools get introductions, but almost never get infestations of bed bugs.  Why? Because schools are dynamic environments.  Our kids don’t usually sleep at school (at least not long enough to become a bug snack). On top of that, school children rarely slow down long enough to interest a shy, retiring blood-feeding parasite.  And that’s a good thing.

Schools get introductions, but almost never get infestations of bed bugs.

In fact, until this week, I had not heard of a documented case of a public or private school with a bed bug infestation.  Dr. Marcia Anderson, of the Environmental Protection Agency, enlightened me this week about a few of the schools she has investigated over the years with actual, if isolated, infestations of bed bugs.  In my opinion, however, the stories seems to be a case where the exceptions serve to prove the rule.  And such stories are rare in my experience.

bed bugs were found in this sofa

Classroom reading area with bed bug infested sofa. Photo courtesy M. Anderson.

The cases Marcia reported involved donated sofas. In some of the cases, love seats and couches were brought into classrooms for reading areas.  Children thought the furniture was a good place to toss their backpacks, and eventually bed bugs found their way from backpack to sofa. In these situations, bed bugs were able to survive for a time thanks to students and teachers who would sit for extended times, or even nap, on the comfiest furniture in school.  At least long enough to embolden a bed bug to sneak out for a meal.

In another school, discarded, but decent-looking sofas and love seat were donated to deck out the teacher’s lounge.  Turns out all of the aforementioned upholstered furniture was discarded for a reason.  It had bed bugs.  In a couple of these cases the district had the furniture steam-treated, in one case, repeatedly.  In most of the cases, the problem went away when the furniture was removed… no pesticides needed.

And that’s my point.  Even though bed bugs are easily carried from home to school, we shouldn’t assume that our schools will necessarily get overrun with bed bugs. The chance of a stray bed bug being able to safely take the blood meals required to establish a long-term new home in a school is low.  And infestations are so rare because individual bed bugs don’t commonly survive long when moved to a relatively hostile environment, like a school.

So what should schools be doing about bed bugs?  First, every school should have a policy about bed bugs.  It should involve the following:

  • Kids should not be singled out for notice, or stigmatized, for bringing bed bugs to school.  Kids have a difficult enough time without being labeled as bed bug smugglers.  Instead, the parents of kids with bed bugs should be discretely advised about the problem, and assisted with information about how to make their home bed bug free.
  • Backpacks of kids from bed bug infested homes should be isolated, or treated with heat, and the child encouraged not to put their belongings on, under or next to beds, sofas, or stuffed chairs overnight.
  • Pest control should be asked to inspect trouble spots and vacuum or steam furniture within 5-10 feet of a bed bug sighting.  Pesticides should almost never be needed.
  • Baited interceptor monitors should be placed around trouble spots and left overnight, or better yet, over the weekend.  After a week or two of this kind of sampling (and trapping), the classroom can be declared clear.
  • In the meantime, students, staff and teachers should be educated about bed bugs and what they look like.  When and whether to inform parents about an introduction should be part of the policy.
  • School nurses should be involved in the process.  A nurses office can be a safe place for a child to have their belongings thoroughly inspected or heat treated, or stored for the day.  Items with suspected infestations can usually be safely stored in a large garbage bad or smooth, vertical sided tote box that bed bugs find difficult to exit.

The good news in all this is that bed bugs are not known to carry any disease, and the chance that your child will bring home a bed bug is low.

It’s possible to both overreact, and under-react, to bed bugs.  Overreaction might result in unnecessary disruption and expense for the school, or unnecessary pesticides being used. And you don’t want that.  Under-reaction is usually due to not knowing what to do.  Inquire if your school has a policy for dealing with bed bugs.  If not, suggest that they look at our model protocol for schools (and don’t allow used sofas to be brought to campus).

And now, relax.  Deep breaths.  Eyes closed. Find your center.  Breathe… it will be all right.



Boozy beetle: the Camphor Shoot Borer

Cnestus mutilatus

Every now and then entomologists get calls that border on the bizarre. Last week I received an email from a citizen in far east Texas. He was having problems with what he said were “insects boring into his riding lawn mower gas tank”.  Of course my first reaction was that insects don’t eat plastic, nor do they drink gasoline.  Why should they be boring into a gas tank?  But the caller had photographic proof.  Not only did he have pictures of the holes, he was able to pry about 15 of the crazy insects from the plastic can and take pictures of some of them.

holes in gas tank made by beetles

Two holes (see arrows) in the gas tank of a riding mower made by the exotic camphor shoot borer, Cnestus mutilatus. Photo by Adam Sheffield.

And this wasn’t an isolated case, according to the caller.  His neighbor claimed to have had a similar experience with his mower being damaged by these same little pests the previous spring.

I’ve learned that being good at my job doesn’t mean that I have all the answers; but it does mean I need to know where to go for them. In this case I got lucky.  I put out an email inquiry about gas sniffing beetles to colleagues, and immediately got replies.

Several of my fellow entomologists recalled a publication from 2011 by Chris Carlton and Victoria Bayless at the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum.  They published a scientific note describing cases where a small beetle had been found boring into plastic gas cans.  The authors identified the beetle as a type of bark beetle called camphor shoot borer (CSB), Cnestus mutilatus.  (The finding impressed my Louisiana colleagues enough to have the can permanently stored at the Louisiana State Insect Museum.)

Cnestus mutilatus

Cnestus mutilatus, the Camphor shoot borer, is a stubby little (3-4 mm) insect that normally bores into trees. Photo courtesy Kira Metz, USDA/APHIS.

As happens too often these days, the CSB is yet another insect that’s not native to this country.  It was first reported in the U.S. in 2004, and is now found throughout the Southeast from NC to TX. It normally feeds on a variety of hardwoods, especially sweetgum. In Texas it’s more likely to be found in the eastern part of the state.

One entomologist pointed out that he has noticed these beetles often come to his alcohol-baited traps used to collect other bark beetles.  Most gasoline these days contains alcohol, so, putting two and two together, we can assume that alcohol is likely what’s attracting these little guys to lawn mowers.

How can we use what we know about this insect to prevent it from ruining lawn mowers, and perhaps causing fiery mayhem from Charlotte to Houston?  A glance at the collection data stored on BugGuide suggests that this beetle is active primarily in the spring (March to June).  Storing gas canisters and mowers in enclosed sheds or under some type of tarpaulin may be helpful, especially in the spring. Keeping the outside of the plastic fuel canisters free of spilled gas also might help.

In the case of our caller, his mower was stored in a half open car port setting.  If he could find gasoline without ethanol he might not be plagued any more; but these days that might be harder than building a new shed for the mower.

Coincidentally, this week there’s a new report of an insect that actually does eat plastic.  The wax moth, Galleria mellonella, is a caterpillar that normally bores into bee hives and consumes and digests the hive wax.  According to researchers at Cambridge University, the caterpillars are able to break down the chemical bonds of plastics much like they do wax.  The biochemists are so intrigued about the possibilities of a moth that can live off of our plastic waste that they have patented their discovery.

So a toast this week to bizarre insects!  Boozy beetles and the plastic eating caterpillars may both like to bore, but they are definitely not boring.

Bug blitz is a blast

dainty sulfur butterfly on pin

Marking perhaps the beginning of insect season, last weekend the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) held its first ever “bioblitz”.

Collecting insects during the Bioblitz survey in Lewisville, TX.

Nets and cameras were the tools of the day for the insect bioblitz team.

In case you’ve never heard of a bioblitz, it’s a concentrated effort among volunteers, naturalists and professional biologists to go to the field and document as many species as possible over a certain time period (usually a day).  This year’s LLELA bioblitz included trees, reptiles, birds and insects.

dainty sulfur butterfly on pin

One of the cool things about bioblitz is the chance to learn new insects. This was my first time to see Nathalis iole, the dainty sulfur butterfly.

Our insect group consisted of myself and three other enthusiastic collectors/photographers (actually, mostly photographers–seems like only entomologists want to capture and euthanize insects these days).  Starting out in the prairie area of the preserve, we migrated to the very productive pollinator garden on site.  It was a lot of work, but a lot of fun too.

People often assume that professional entomologists must know a lot about the insects in the natural forests and habitats around where they live.  Of course some professional entomologists do, but many of us (like myself) are only semi-competent when it comes to sight-identifying insects outdoors.  Part of this is because there are just so many of the darned six-leggers out there, and no one can be an expert in all of them.  Part of it is because most entomologists are involved in highly specific work that doesn’t always afford the time to be naturalists.  For example, I and many of my extension colleagues usually focus on insect pests and how to control them.  Many of us are easily stumped when it comes to free-range insect life.

One of the good things that came out of the bioblitz for me was learning more about the iNaturalist tool for making biological observations. Once you establish an account in iNaturalist, you can post sightings and pictures.  The iNaturalist community will even help you identify insects.  I also learned that by adding tags to your pictures, others can search for your postings and make comments.

I’m not always a huge fan of online social networking, but this is a very useful and entertaining tool.  I found it a great way to spend some of the rainy day that followed our collecting day.

After getting home from bioblitz, the real work begins. Several hours were spent pinning insects, reviewing and culling photos, and learning how to post them online. By looking at my pictures and comparing them to iNaturalist images as well as submitting some to the more insect-oriented community, I managed to identify a surprising number of insects to at least the genus level–not bad even for an entomologist.  Some of my collecting teammates were even more productive than I, having dozens of new observations posted to the web within hours of heading home.

If you want to check out some of the postings of all the LLELA blitzers on iNaturalist, try clicking here.  It might inspire you to sign up, get outside and start documenting the insect life in your own backyard.