Saved by a Beetle

I found a history lesson sitting on my sweet peas.

In November 1793 thirty-one year-old Pierre André Latreille found himself locked in a French prison, a priest who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the state. He was destined to follow other victims of the French Revolution, including Marie Antoinette who died on the guillotine just weeks before.

But then something unusual happened. The story goes that while checking on prisoners, the prison doctor found Latreille on the floor studying a tiny beetle. He claimed it was quite rare, Necrobia ruficollis, the red-necked bacon beetle. (Although Latreille had trained as a priest his real passion was natural history and insects in particular.)

Intrigued, the doctor sent the beetle to a local naturalist who confirmed Latreille’s discovery. Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint-Vincent was familiar with Latreille’s work with insects and managed to convince authorities to release Latreille and a cell-mate. The two men were incredibly lucky — within a month the rest of the men were executed.

Out of prison, Latreille gave up the priesthood and devoted the rest of his life toPierre Andre Latreile collecting and naming insects, producing a prolific body of work. Between 1798 and 1850 more than 160 species were named in his honour — including the fly in my garden, Mesembrina latreillii, identified and named in 1830.

Noted scientists described Latreille in glowing terms — “the father of entomology”, “the prince of entomology” and “the foremost entomologist of our time.”

After his death France’s Entomology Society placed an obelisk over his grave. One of the inscriptions reads: “Necrobia ruficollis Latreillii salvator” — Latreille’s saviour — honouring the little beetle that saved his life.


Mesembrina latreillii   (no common name)

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Hitchhiker

So. I’m working on my laptop when this largish beetle crawls down my sleeve and onto my left hand. I immediately stop typing.

First thought: Is it going to bite?

Second thought: Can I get a picture before it does?

I hold my beetle hand steady, push back my chair, snatch the camera with my other hand and head for the door.

Outside I lower my still unbitten hand to the deck and let the hitchhiker crawl off. It sets out along the deck at a good clip. It’s obviously on a mission and not interested in posing.

Known as jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles, they have been on my I-hope-to-find-one-of-these list for some time. I could hardly believe my good luck that this one had actually found me.

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Larvae of this species — known as flat-head or flatheaded borers — live inside spruce or pine and feed on dead or dying wood. Depending on the species, adult jewel beetles eat leaves, nectar or pollen.

A beautiful bite-free beetle. Come back any time.


Spotted-belly buprestid   Buprestis maculativentris

An Afternoon sans Snakes

In town the other day with time to spare I climbed up Snake Hill. Once home to several garter snake dens, the hill hosts few if any snakes now but perhaps on such a warm day I might find some.

I visited the spot where I found the gorgeous clematis early in June. Now the seeds heads are unfurling, like mop-haired cartoon characters, the feathery plumes just beginning to show.

Blue clematis seed head

Blue clematis

Next I set off on one of the trails that crisscross the hill to see what I might see. On my climb I found a couple of cow parsnips. On the pungent white flowers insect sex was, so to speak, in full bloom.

Yellow velvet beetles

The participants were yellow velvet beetles aka flower longhorns. A new beetle to me. They were so busy making little beetles I couldn’t get a good photo of the pile on, but when the heat of the moment passed several quieted down enough to have their picture taken.

Yellow velvet beetle on cow parsnip

What I took to be pollen on this beetle turned out to be very fine yellow hairs. Its species name, chrysocoma, means gold-haired. Good choice.

Walking back to the main trail I spotted a grasshopper. Another find. Not an adult yet (no wings — just stubby bits that foreshadow what’s to come). Best guess? A two-striped grasshopper. The eyes are gorgeous, warm and brown-filled with tiny tan spots.

Two-striped grasshopper

Further along the trail another cow parsnip and another new beetle — a round-necked longhorn. Several of them of varying sizes were wandering around the flowers. No sex this time (but perhaps I came late to the party).

Round-necked longhorn beetle

The striking pattern, reminiscent of a sad face, made it easy to ID. In side view you can see the rounded, almost hump-like neck which gives it its name.

Round-necked longhorn beetle

The black and yellow colours, reminiscent of wasps, means it’s sometimes mistaken for a wasp. But no worry. The adults don’t sting or bite, preferring pollen and nectar.

I found no snakes on my rambles. Still, it was a lovely afternoon on the hill. Gotta do that more often. 🙂


Blue clematis   Clematis verticellaris var. columbiana
Cow parsnip   Heracleum lanatum
Round-necked longhorn   Clytus ruricola
Two-striped grasshopper   Melanoplus bivittatus
Yellow velvet beetle/Flower longhorn   Lepturobosca chrysocoma
(formerly Cosmosalia chrysocoma)

Of Ladybugs and Horse Tales

I sat in the grassy roadside ditch, heavy dew soaking into my jeans and thinking that water-proof pants would have been a better choice that morning.

About then I spotted the little beetle hanging upside-down on the horsetail and thoughts of my soggy bottom disappeared.

An odd-looking ladybug. No sharply defined spots on her beetle body. Instead hers were smudged, as through dew had made the colours run. The bigger blotches reminded me of a pair of brackets or parentheses which — as it turns out — is exactly what the first person to name this beetle thought too.

Parentheses ladybug

That person was Thomas Say (1787-1834), whom I first encountered when I wrote about Say’s Phoebe. From the few accounts I’ve read Thomas was a quiet man who kept to himself, a Quaker who trained as an apothecary but whose real passion was insects.

Known as the father of descriptive American entomology, Thomas identified more than 1000 species of beetles, including the little one sitting beside me in the ditch. In 1824 — 183 years ago — he named it Hippodamia parenthesis.

An odd name. I can understand parenthesis but Hippodamia threw me. A further search took me back to 1758 and Carolus Linnaeus, the man who introduced binomial nomenclature to science. He designed a system whereby every living organism would be assigned two names, a genus (like Hippodamia) and a species (tredecipunctata) — the name he gave to the first beetle he described about 260 years ago: the 13-spotted ladybug.

The species name seemed to fit but still I stumbled over Hippodamia. She was a princess of Greek mythology whose name meant she who masters horses. (Hippopotamus, by the by, means river horse.) How did “horses” possibly relate to ladybugs?

The connection still eludes me. And that’s okay. Not all mysteries need a solution; the unsolved ones leave a gap where curiousity lives.

 

Ain’t She Sweet

Updated October 25, 2017
Oops! Robert Bercha kindly corrected my misidentification of this ladybug. Thank you!

I almost missed this little beauty. The bright red caught my eye but I assumed it was merely another seven-spot ladybug beetle. An introduced species, seven-spots do a good job of controlling aphids and other plant pests. The down side? They have almost displaced native ladybugs in many areas.

This one is a true native: an eye-spotted ladybug beetle, named for the two big “eyes”. The Lost Ladybug Project shows a wide variation of colour in this species —  scroll down to Anatis mali and click on the photo icon — from the typical red shown here to dark brown almost black.

Robert writes:

” … the lady bug in question is actually one of the color morphs of the two-spotted ladybug, Adalia bipunctata.  The Two spot comes with multiple options of spots and bands. What doesn’t change on them though is the little castle shaped mark on the back of the pronotum. Anatis mali, is a much larger (~8mm) Ladybug with a very distinctive and different pattern. You can see more photos here and here: http://www.insectsofalberta.com/twospotladybug.htm and http://www.insectsofalberta.com/eyespottedlb.htm.

Yup, now that I know what I’m looking for — the two little white squares behind the eyes — I’ll recognize this little beetle for sure when next we meet.  🙂

Eye-spotted ladybug beetle

The Lost Ladybug Project began at Cornell University in 2000 as an outreach program with a 4-H program in New York State. It’s geared to helping young people learn more about science, especially biology, by getting them directly involved in gathering data.

Adults can also help by submitting findings and photos to the site.


Eye-spotted ladybug beetle   Anatis mali
Two-spot ladybug beetle   Adalia bipunctata
Dwarf/swamp birch   Betula pumila (?)

Full House

A range of appetites — lust to dust — happening here. The crab spider has snagged a fly for supper and a pair of blister beetles are busy making baby beetles. Meanwhile, almost out of sight, another beetle minding its own business.

Blister beetles (one of the longhorn beetles) are a staple of our roses. Judging by last summer each rose will soon house at least one.

Mating longhorn beetles with unidentified beetle

Although the beetles didn’t pay me any attention the crab spider was more alert and started to drag her meal off the petal.

Crab spider & fly and longhorn beetles

Crab sider and fly

The spider settled down after a few minutes and hauled her catch back up again.

Full house

Next time you pass a blossom take a second look — who’s living in your flowers?


Blister beetle   Lytta spp. ?
Goldenrod crab spider   Misumena vatia
Prickly wild rose   Rosa acicularis        (Provincial flower of Alberta)

 

Sawyer

Most insects avoid us or scuttle out of sight. Not these guys. White-spotted sawyers are big, noisy and show no fear. It’s unnerving when one flies right at you.

This female landed on the steps about an arm’s length away from me. She paused, then opened her hard wing covers (aka elytras) and unfolded her sturdy wings.

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Wing covers open, wings extended. Notice the bent wing tip.

With soft clicking and chuffing sounds she became air-borne again — doing little touch-and-goes on the steps like a novice pilot, each hop bringing her closer to me.

I blinked first: I moved. She ignored me and eventually disappeared into the grass at the end of the step.

IMG_7049 - Version 2
White-spotted sawyers reach body lengths of 20 mm or more (about 0.75 in).

Should you encounter such a magnificent beetle and wish to know whether it’s male or female (assuming you haven’t flown off in a fright), check out the antennae length.

Females, like the one shown here, have antennae about the same length or slightly longer than their bodies.

Males (for whom size seems to matter) have antennae 2 to 3 times their body length. I assure you, you’ll definitely know it’s a male.


White-spotted (spruce) sawyer   Monochamus scutellatus

Spit Season

Yes, it’s that time of year. Shiny, wet, white foam. Blobs of it. Sticking to stems of paintbrush and clover and young poplar shoots.

It’s the work of master bubble-makers — immature leaf hoppers.

These delicate bubbles provide the perfect home for baby beetles, known as nymphs. It protects them from predators (bad taste.) It keeps them at the right temperature (not too hot or too cold). And prevents them from drying out.

This isn’t your average mouth-made spit. Spit bugs (aka spittle bugs) use their needle-like mouthparts to pierce the plant stem and suck up sap. Mixed with air and some of the sappy material, this fluid is forced out the other end of their abdomen. They then use their legs to move it into position. Clever little guys.

The nymph grows and molts several times. The first photo below shows an empty nymph shell (aka exoskeleton) — an adult beetle may have emerged from that, then set off into the non-bubble world.

Smaller foamy clumps may house only one or two nymphs, larger ones a dozen or more. Unless you grow crops or have an infestation on your favourite flowers they don’t do a lot of harm. Much more interesting to watch than waste.

FYI
For an incredible photo of a nymph “blowing” bubbles, check out this one by Canadian photographer Adrian Thysse.


Best guess?  Don’t even have one for this tiny little guy.  🙂