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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Out in the Cold

It’s early morning. Still dark. Outside temperature is about 0° C and there are several Bruce spanworm moths on the window. The other evening, only a few degrees above freezing, we counted nearly 6 dozen on that same window, all drawn to the kitchen light.

As I discovered, these moths are unusual in several ways — not the least of which is their ability to remain active in cold weather.

Greg Pohl, Insect/Disease Identification Officer with Natural Resources Canada, explained how this is possible:

“Winter moths are quite remarkable. They’re adapted to fly at temperatures as cold as -3°C. They put quite a bit of their energy reserves into antifreezing chemicals in the bodies, and they also “shiver” to warm up their bodies and flight muscles to the point that they can fly. So even though they’re “cold blooded”, they have some ability to warm their bodies. They’re very highly adapted to fly late in the fall, and thus avoid many predators. But those survival skills wouldn’t likely be developed in warm-weather day-flying species like monarchs.”

Male Bruce spanworm moth

If not for finding these nondescript moths in such cold temperatures I might have paid them little heed. Lesson learned: sometimes the plainest wrapping holds the biggest surprise.


Bruce spanworm   Operophtera bruceata

Mystery Solved. Sort of.

Last summer I wrote about an intriguing find I discovered on a blade of grass. I wasn’t able to identify the hard, odd-looking, black-as-coal structure but wondered if it might be an egg case of some kind. A short time after that I discovered a second one in the same area — a roadside ditch next to a cow pasture.

Thanks to Alberta entomologist and author John Acorn I now have an answer. It’s probably the egg case of a horsefly or deer fly. (You know, those pesky summer spoilers that can take a chunk of meat out of your arm or leg or wherever they decide to dine.)

A check with Bug Guide confirmed the ID. Apparently these flies deposit their egg masses on vegetation that overhangs water or wet ground (the latter in the case of the ones I found). When the eggs hatch the larvae drop to the ground. (Or into the water, I guess.)

WikiPedia added more to the story …

Both males and females engage in nectar feeding, but in addition to this, females of most species are anautogenous, meaning they require a blood meal before they are able to reproduce effectively. To obtain the blood, the females bite animals, including humans, while the males are harmless. It takes the female about six days to fully digest its blood meal and after that it needs to find another host. It seems that the flies are attracted to a potential victim by its movement, warmth, and surface texture, and by the carbon dioxide it breathes out. The flies mainly choose large mammals such as cattle, horses, camels, and deer, but few are species specific.

And that’s where the story ends for now. I still have questions. For example, how to the eggs get out of that hard case? Does it dissolve after a time? Do they eat their way out? Can they survive in both water and land?

More will be revealed, I’m sure.

Taken for a Loop

This has not been a good summer for moths. Few have come to the porch light or landed on uncurtained windows after dark so it was quite a surprise to find this nocturnal moth feeding in my garden in daylight.

It’s one of the looper moths — named for the caterpillars that curl into loops as they move, rather than crawling. They feed on dandelions, as well as plantain and nettles all of which grow in our yard. Maybe they have been here all along, and I’ve just never seen them.

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I was intrigued by the little tufts of hair along its back and the two white spots. They helped narrow down the identification and certainly make this moth memorable.

Unlike some moths that have a single common name (or none at all) this one has several — two-spotted looper moth, twin gold spot and double-spotted spangle. Take your pick. If you’re scientifically inclined you’ll know it as Autographa bimaculata. Once you get the hang of it, that last one kinda rolls right off the tongue. 🙂


Two-spotted looper moth   Autographa bimaculata

 

 

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.

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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