Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bludging with Beetles: The skin-eaters (Dermestidae)

Not a white box: Skin-eater larva trapped in the bathtub
The Home Bug Gardener has been a busy boy and not all of his time has been spent shovelling snow. Last week the Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of Canada and Alberta graced Edmonton with its presence. For five days (and for many months beforehand) it was bugs, bugs, bugs. Also known as the Local Organizing Committee, the local entomologists get to host the rest of the nation, and that means all work and no play. By the time it was over, I looked up to see nothing but deep drifts of accumulated snow and work to dig through. There must be something better to do.
Mystery dermestid beetle
In just a few short weeks it will be time to celebrate those hardy (or pesky) bugs that snuggle-up with us for the winter (synanthropes) or love the cold (cryophiles): John Acorn's Second Annual Winter Bug Challenge. The challenge is to the birders who will be beginning their Winter Bird Counts next month. John's hope is that we can find at least as many species of arthropods actively enjoying the Alberta winter as the birders can find birds. The hairy larva at the top is one such almost record from last winter. Although we know the family, adults are needed for species identification. Possibly, this is a larva of the Larder Beetle, the only dermestid adult we have on our in-home list. But out-of-doors during the warmer months roam other more or less mysterious dermestids. Literally 'Skin + eating' (derm + este), dermestids like their skin dead and dry. Any proteinaceous scurf will do, including dead insects, dried meats, and meat byproducts like cat food. Since I accidentally kick one of the cat bowls at least once a week, I'm sure we have bits of dry cat food crumbling in corners and toasting in floor vents. In any case, a Larder Beetle or two is not an uncommon find (although we have yet to get a good picture of one).
Carpet Beetle (Anthrenus sp.) enjoying a carpet of Goutweed flowers
But looking through BugGuide, I rather doubt our bathtub-bound hairball is Dermestes lardarius. Looks more like the larva of a Carpet Beetle in the genus Anthrenus, perhaps like the one above enjoying a goutweed flower (the generic name comes from the Greek for flower). Wool is another one of those animal products that dermestids will eat and several are known as 'carpet beetles' from their predilection for woollen carpets. Alas, we have no woollen carpets, but languorous patches of cat fur sprout spontaneously in front of our heat vents. I suppose there are worse ways to while away the winter days than watching a carpet beetle larva transforming cat fur into a scaly beetle.  A jar, some cat hair, and a beetle larva is all it would take. Perhaps not as much fun as watching a caterpillar transforming milkweed into a Monarch butterfly, but this is Edmonton in the winter.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Adventures in spider Misidentification: Wine, weevils, and cobwebs

Intrepid Cobweb Spider makes meal of weevil
October was a dreary month in the Home Bug Garden: frosts and clouds and snow and sleet and rain. Freezing rain does make snow seem more benign, but not any easier to shovel. Not a good time for bugs, but frosty evenings are an appropriate cue for an enophile to switch from summer whites to winter reds. A glass or two of Australian shiraz or New Zealand pinot noirs are pretty fair lubricants for the task of sorting through last summer's pictures and seeing what new records may be lurking among the folders. Unfortunately, although supposedly in vino veritas, I'm not finding many Latin binomials jumping out at me yet.
Theridiidae vs Curculionidae - not the most inspired of identifications
I'm guessing that this small spider is a female Theridiidae, a Cobweb Spider, because legs I are very long and legs III rather short. The other likely alternative, Linyphiidae, should have thinner legs of more uniform length and lots of macro-setae, or at least that is my impression. The beetle is clearly a weevil, Curculionidae, and perhaps a member of the subfamily Entiminae, Broad-nosed Weevils, but other weevils also have short, broad snouts. Well, one good thing about wine. The more one drinks, the less important knowing a name becomes and the easier it becomes to simply enjoy the evening and remember sunnier times. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Not Yet Native of the Week: Queen-of-the-Prairie

Newly emerged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum sp.) on Queen-of-the-Prairie
The last two weeks have been bleak in central Alberta. The sun has been seldom seen and the cold abnormal. The pancake ice on the River is already accumulating in the bends. Except for the leaves flash-frozen on the trees and the still brown jackrabbits, the Home Bug Garden looks very much like it is mid-winter.
Early winter catches plants and pond napping
The pond and bubbler worked their usual  magic with the migratory warblers and sparrows this Fall. Now except for a junco or two the migrants are gone, but the Black-capped Chickadees, House Finches, and a Blue Jay still visit the bubbler in late afternoon. It seems a bath is a pleasure even in the subzero snow. So, I've left the bubbler valiantly bubbling on. I'll have to shut it down before it seizes up, but at the moment it is not going gently into the long winter night.
And it will be a long winter night: 6-7 months until things green-up again. So why wait to start remembering the pleasures of the summer gone? Queen-of-the-Prairie (Filipendula rubra (Hill) B.L. Rob.), also known as Meadowsweet, was one of those pleasures, as it has been every summer since 2005. Planted in heavy clay soil between the pond and the north side of the house, where little else will grow, the single pot has expanded to cover 4-5 square meters and offsets have been moved to three other equally difficult spots.
Meadowsweet grows tall - 2-3 metres - and tends to sprawl
In spite of the feet-of-clay, rather coarse foliage, and a tendency to sprawl, Queen-of-the-Prairie can be quite regal. Our plants get maybe 2-3 hours of direct light in mid-summer, but manage to climb to almost 3 metres some years. A bit of sprawling (towards the sun) and under 2.5 metres is more common.
A royal plume to brighten the July-August garden
The plants are usually in full bloom by the second or third week of July and highly attractive to pollinators. That said, I haven't found any seedlings. Queen-of-the-Prairie is a bog or wet meadow plant, so the conditions may not be right for seedlings, but ours is spreading vegetatively at a moderate pace. I've been considering it for planting alongside the dugout at our pasture in the country, but the Global Compendium of Weeds lists Queen-of-the-Prairie as "casual alien, garden thug, naturalized". I understand the first and third terms - indeed they are defined in the Introduction to the Global Compendium of Weeds. So although Queen-of-the Prairie has become naturalized in eastern Canada, no one is terribly upset, yet. The middle term, "garden thug", is not defined in the Introduction and seems to be a bit of xenophobic editorializing.  
Garden Thug or Endangered Native, it is all in the context
As the Northern Shade Gardener noted in the comments to the last 'Not yet native' post, although the Home Bug Garden isn't blessed/plagued with English Daisy seedlings, her garden recruits a few each year. Weediness is in the eyes of the beholder, and ecosystems would experience constant change even if human beings had never evolved, but who would want to be responsible for introducing an environmental weed? 
Weedy and not yet attractive - the new dugout in our Gopher Hill pasture
Queen-of-the-Prairie is an endangered or threatened plant in several states in the US, its somewhat magical 'native' range. In its naturalized range in eastern Canada, this meadowsweet doesn't seem to have anyone up in arms. So in no sense is Queen-of-the-Prairie a noxious or even an inconvenient weed. Yet, it does not grow in Alberta without human intervention. At the moment, a noxious weed, Canada Thistle, is the dominant plant on the shores of our dugout. We are required, by law, to control this weed. By far the best way to control a weed is to plant something that can shade it out, steal its water, and prevent it from setting seed.
Spider wasp hunting on the disturbed dugout soil among thistle leaves
Tigre beetles and spider wasps find this rather ugly gash in the landscape an attractive hunting ground. No matter, by the end of next year the shore will be filled in with plants and the hunters will need to find another disturbed spot. So, should we try the non-native Queen-of-the-Prairie as a replacement for the thistle? If you follow the links in this post, you will know as much as I do. Consider this the first Home Bug Garden Not-yet-Native-of-the-Week challenge: let me know what you think.