Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Not Yet Native of the Week: Strawflower

Waspy interest in this Australian flower
I had trouble deciding if this was my inaugural Wasp Wednesday or an Australian of the Week, but I haven't been keeping up with the NYN of the Week, so behold Helichrysum bracteatum, the Australian Strawflower, Golden Everlasting, or Paper Daisy. Well, actually, if you check on the USDA website you will find it called Bracteantha bracteata the Bracted Strawflower, which seems a bit of a bract overkill, and if you check the more recent botanical literature it is called Xerochrysum bracteatum.
Golden in the wild, but a rainbow in cultivation
If you've grown strawflowers, then the Golden part of Golden Everlasting may not make much sense, but in the Australian bush the flowers in this complex of species are often yellow (some are white). It would be interesting to see if the colour range in cultivation is being maintained where Strawflower is naturalized in Connecticut and Massachusetts. However, the 'everlasting', 'paper daisy', and all the bract-formations all come from what look like petals, but are actually colourful bracts that when dry make quite nice dried 'flowers'.
Flaming bracts and a ring of golden florets
Like all members of the Asteraceae (aka Compositae), the apparent flower is actually a composite head of mostly tiny florets that each produce pollen and, if lucky, a seed (aka achene). Unlike may composites, the brightly coloured rim of the Strawflower head is not composed of ray flowers, but of sterile, and usually more leaf-like structures called bracts.
Bract-licking Western Yellowjacket
The petal-like bracts, and also the leaves directly under the bracts, on Strawflowers secrete nectar. Nectaries outside of flowers (and remember the true flowers here are tiny and enclosed by the bracts) are called, logically enough, extrafloral nectaries. Nectaries that surround a flower or cluster of flowers are thought to attract natural enemies of the things that like to eat seeds and often the bract-licking insects attracted are ants.
Black ants feasting at peony bracts
 Ants are attracted to Strawflower nectaries, apparently too commonly for us to have thought it worth a picture, but it is questionable how much they help the Strawflower set seed. O'Dowd & Catchpole (1983*) tested this hypothesis in Australia, but although fewer insects were present when ants were around, there was no effect on seed set. It seems unlikely that Strawflowers are simply being generous with their nectar, but perhaps any benefits vary from year to year. In Alberta, Strawflower is an annual, although it sometimes comes back from seed. In Australia, Strawflowers are usually perennials, so they tend to have more than one chance to set seed. But science is very strict about hypotheses: fail the test and the hypothesis should be summarily executed (well, in theory, anyway).
Whatever their function may be, hornets approve of extrafloral nectaries on Strawflowers
*O’Dowd DJ & EA Catchpole. 1983. Ants and extrafloral nectaries: no evidence for plant protection in Helichrysum spp. – ant interactions. Oecologia 59: 191-200.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Adventures in Spider Misidentification: Crying Wolf

Lycosidae or another booboo
Just a week ago it looked like it might be an early spring, but now all is grey and white and brown again. So, I'm continuing this weekend's nostalgic reminiscences of previous seasons' more lively times and I present a small female spider carrying her egg sack behind her across a carpet of green.
Female Wolf Spider with egg sac
 We think this is a Wolf Spider (Lycosidae) mostly because the egg sac is stuck to the spinnerets, but also she has a pair of large front eyes and the general on the ground brown spider with long legs look. I'm not sure that any of these characters are definitive, but the picture was taken with a point-and-shoot camera, so what you see is all you are going to get.
Male Wolf Spider wannabe with aphid
As far as I know, parental care in Wolf Spiders is limited to the females, so this male with its swollen palps lacks the useful egg sac character. Still, this looks wolf spidery to me and the male was hunting in the same area six weeks before the female was found carrying an egg sac. So there could be a cause-and-effect relationship going on here.
Big median eyes, swollen palps, and blurry aphid dinner
A higher quality camera captured this image, so we can at least claim that he seems to have the proper three rows with a large pair of eyes arrangement of a lycosid spider.
Concrete-coloured mystery spider
Lest you think we call all long-legged cursorial spiders Wolf Spiders, I offer this weak defence. We don't know what it is, but it blends into the sidewalk nicely. A few months ago I might have called out 'wolf spider', but now I've learned to look a spider right in the eyes before calling it a name.
Neither lycosid nor Betty Davis eyes for that matter

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lament for a lost Spring

A pair of difficult genera
Winter descended on Edmonton again last week and is still sticking around. I admit Spring was mostly illusion, but nice while it lasted. The jackrabbits, spring bulbs, trees, and bugs weren't fooled, but I gladly deluded myself. Well, no winter bugs this week, so time to reminisce. Here's a pair of tough bugs. Well, clearly a butterfly and a damselfly, and clearly the butterfly is a Crescent and I think the battered old female from last August is a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos (Drury, 1773)). But as noted before, telling a Pearl from a Northern Crescent is no easy job, and in fact they may be the same species.
Putative Northern Bluet eating midge
The damselfly is a male and a Bluet and probably a Northern Bluet Enallagma cyathicerum (Charpentier, 1840). Unfortunately, colour patterns of Boreal and Northern Bluets are very similar including the large blue post ocular spots. Both occur in ponds and lakes in central Alberta and fly from spring into August. Only a good view of the male claspers can differentiate them with certainty.
Male and female Northern or Boreal Bluets

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Bug: One with a dull lustre

Echinacea, crab spider, and dull bug
I have a consistent mental lapse with Plant Bugs. I think this quirk is induced by Lygus, the most common genus of Plant Bug that I encounter. If Lygus were the type genus of the Plant Bug family, then the family name would be Lygidae - easily stretch in a moment of nomenclatorial imprecision into 'Lie-ge-e-de' which sounds familiar to the bug-bemused Home Bug Gardener. So, off to BugGuide and the Lygaeidae - commonly known as Seed Bugs. I often get stuck there unable to find Lygus, but fascinated by the elegant and neat Lygaeidae.
Lygus lineolaris - the Tarnished Plant Bug    
Unfortunately, Plant Bugs belong to the family Miridae, based apparently on the genus Miris, which does not appear to grace Alberta (or BugGuide). Eventually I search for Lygus and get to my goal, which is usually the Tarnished Plant Bug, Lygus lineolaris (Palisot de Beauvois, 1818). Far too abundant, and highly variable in colour, the Tarnished Plant Bug is also annoyingly damaging to shoots of a variety of garden ornamentals and crops. I suppose it deserves its name.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Adventures in Spider Misidentification: Bejewelled by a Shamrock

Fuzzy Cat-faced or Jewel Spider
Amazingly, not everyone likes spiders, but less surprisingly, those that fear spiders tend to react more strongly to the bigger ones than to the smaller ones. In Edmonton, one type of bigger spider that can startle both arachnophiles and arachnophobes is the orbweaver (Araneidae, Araneus spp.). Adult females can be large (bodies 1-2 cm long), stocky, and tend to be brightly coloured or boldly patterned and can be quite attractive, if confusingly variable. Arane is Latin for spider, so I think we can assume these spiders have been capturing peoples’ attention for a long time.
Cat-face apparent with a little imagination
For years, I assumed that all the large Araneus in my garden were the common Jewel Spider (Araneus gemmoides) aka Cat-faced Spider and even once posted one particularly nice picture as such. Alas, it turns out there are at least 8 species of Araneus in Alberta. Our putative Jewel Spider picture was not that, but of the Shamrock Orbweaver Araneus trifolium, another variable species.
Araneus trifolium Shamrock Orbweaver 
 No worries, we actually do have Cat-faced Spiders too and can now tell them from Shamrock Spiders. I suspect the 'shamrock' comes from the four pale spots with dark inner spots (which probably represent dorso-ventral muscle attachments) on the back of the abdomen. In any case, St Patrick's Day weekend seems an appropriate time to repost the picture with the correct name.
Shamrock takes a bit more imagination
So, the Home Bug Garden can boast of at least two species of Araneus, but are there more? Well, my friend John tells me there are about 30 species of Araneidae in Alberta and these are distributed across at least five genera other than Araneus. So, I think we can assume that the Adventures in Spider Misidentification series will have a long run.
Possible Furrow Orbweaver Larinioides sp.
So, here's a small, but interesting orb weaver that seems to be common in town and in the bush. I'm guessing that it is a Larinioides cornutus a Furrow Orbweaver (previously assigned to the genus Nuctenea). These spiders are reputed to overwinter as adults, at least in warmer parts of the world, so perhaps it is worth looking for them now.  
Larinioides cornutus anyone?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Bug: Monster on the Monstera

Brown Soft Scale on Monstera
As the sun slowly inches higher and higher above the horizon and the snow shrinks towards the shadows, some six-legged life is again stirring in the Home Bug Garden. A few flies and spiders seem to be willing to share in the delusion that spring is just around the corner. A small fly with long wings in the genus Sapromyza is the most common, sunning itself on fence, trellis, and garage. With their wings folded, these flies are maybe 5-6 mm long, but half is wings. Their family, Lauxaniidae, seems to be too obscure to have garnered a common name. That may be a good thing, since Sapro + myza seems to be from the Greek for putrid + suck. Somewhat larger (~10 mm) and more elegant is what looks like a small cranefly. I think is a Winter Cranefly (Trichoceridae) [but I was wrong, it was a female Meniscus Midge, Dixidae, Dixella sp.] .
Soft Scale, honeydew, and bay leaf
No true bugs seem to be active outside in the dim late winter sun, but we have our own indoor colony of Brown Soft Scale Coccus hesperidum (Linnaeus). This is a pernicious pest, more for the sticky honeydew is squirts on windows, floors, and leaves, than for the minor damage it otherwise does to the plants. We've completely failed to eliminate the pest in spite of years of squirting insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils. We put the plants outside in the summer, and predators and parasitoids reduce the numbers seemingly to zero. Yet every winter they reoccur in their sticky invincibility.
Tetragnatha on Pitcher Plant 2005
Oh well, the one lone spider, a Longjawed Orbweaver Tetragnatha sp., observed this afternoon is also a survivor. The picture above was taken during the second Home Bug Garden Summer and its relations still inhabit the Garden. That is comforting. The Pitcher Plant, alas, failed to survive its first winter.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

2 for 1: Wednesday Wild Flower + Pollinator of the Week

Two for the price of one: Purple Peavine & Greenish Blue
Purple Peavine, aka Purple Vetchling, Veiny Pea (Lathyrus venous), stretches across North America to just barely make it into central Alberta, but I'm glad it does. A relative of the domesticated Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odorous), but without the selection for large and fragrant flowers, it still makes a fine wildflower.  Disjunct populations also occur on the West Coast; so perhaps, some earlier inhabitants of Alberta also liked these peas and took them with them on their wanderings.
Greenish Blue Plebejus saepiolus from above
The Greenish Blue (Plebejus saepiolus) is just one of the bewildering diversity of tiny 'Blues' that occur in Alberta including the Spring Azure, Western Tailed-Blue, Silvery Blue, Arctic Blue, Rustic Blue, Northern Blue, Acmon Blue, and so on. Every now and then we see enough characters to be reasonably sure of identity, but not often.
Mystery Blue
The caterpillars of the Greenish Blue feed on clovers (Trifolium spp.). Since Alberta has no native species of clover (the closest 'native' species occur in Montana and British Columbia), I suppose that means we owe our Greenish Blues to introduced, 'weedy' clovers. Most true clovers aren't really very weedy, but several are important crops and all a good source of nectar and pollen for bees and other pollinators. So, I prefer to think of clovers as nascent Albertans.
Red Clover - not a 'native'

Monday, March 12, 2012

Myco Monday: False Tinder Conk

False Tinder Conk pokes its nose through a Sunburst of Lichens
This picture shows the trunk of a living aspen (Populus tremuloides) hosting a diversity of ectocommensal Sunburst Lichens and a heart rot.
Xanthomendoza cf fallax
The lichens are members of the genera Xanthoria and/or Xanthomendoza - the latter recently removed from the former - and get their name for an obvious reason. The endoparasitic heart-rot fungus (Phellinus tremulae) is only showing its 'nose' or conk - a woody structure composed of an array of downward pointing tubes that release spores and an upper 'crust'. Presumably the False Tinder Conk is no good for making tinder, but it does make aspen poor neighbours - likely to break and fall on your head in a strong wind.

In Australia, whenever I asked about a 'conk', people would look at me like I'd just kicked a bucket. Apparently, its use for the fruiting bodies of woody polypores is a strictly North American thing. 'Conk' also is slang for a nose or sounds similar to a 'punch on the nose', but derives from  the Greek for a mussel shell (and our word 'conch'). Conks do bear a vague resemblance to both a nose and a mussel shell, and if one of these infested trees broke and landed on your head, the least of your worries would be being conked out.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Friday Bug: A Damsel in distress?

Damsel Bug (Nabis) lurking on Echinacea
I've always wondered why members of the family of rather small and innocuous predatory bugs are called Damsel Bugs (Nabidae). 'Damsel', according to the OED, comes to us as a "Proto-Gallo-Romance dim[inuative] of L[atin] domina lady: see DAME". In the past, a damsel was a young unmarried woman of noble birth, but now a damsel gets by as a literary, archaic, or jocular reference ('damsel in distress'). To me, 'damsel' usually congers up an image of a young woman in a flowing gown, a peaked hat, and wispy veils. Of course, at least half of all damsel bugs are dames, but both their implied nobility and fragility escape me.
Female Lestes cf disjunctus - a damselfly
Pierre AndrĂ© Latreille named the type genus of the Nabidae, Nabis, in 1802. However, rather than resolving the origin of 'damsel bugs', this simply adds to the confusion. The last king of Sparta was a Nabis: interesting, but unilluminating. Also, a group of French post-impressionists who followed the ideas of Paul Gaugin (born in 1848) called themselves 'Les Nabis' - from the word for 'prophet' in Hebrew. Unfortunately, 'Prophet Bugs' they are not (and it would indeed have been prophetical if Latrielle had named his bugs for the painters). 'Nabis' is Latin for a giraffe, but calling these small, short-necked bugs 'Giraffe Bugs' would be stranger still.
Male Lestes congener perhaps confused by his common name
In contrast to Damsel Bugs, Damselflies do have a rather whispy and delicate nature that seems not at all  odds with their common name. Others may disagree (e.g. John Acorn calls them 'flying neon toothpicks') and the origin of generic names does tend to emphasize habits not generally attributed to damsels. The Spread Wing damselfly genus Lestes, for example, comes from the Greek for a pirate or plunderer; the Eurasian Bluets genus Coenagrion appears to be from the Greek for 'common' and 'fierce' (one suspects that mosquitoes must view damselflies in just such terms). Oh well, not all etymological exercises will bear fruit. I think I'll just appreciate their beauty and wait longingly for Spring.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wild Flower Wednesday: Golden Fumitory

Corydalis aurea - a fumitory
Alberta's two species of fumitory (Fumariaceae), Corydalis aura (Golden Corydalis) and C. sempervirens (Pink Corydalis), are attractive if ephemeral delights. Unlike the 'perennial' commercial varieties, both Alberta natives are biennials. 'Corydalis' is from the Greek for a lark - usually credited to the Crested Lark. 'Cory' also means 'helmet', so the bird name probably derives from the prominent crest and the fancied resembles of the flower to the lark's head, well, from fancy.
Golden Lark's Head anyone?
Golden Corydalis is easy to miss in its first year, but the fern-like leaves are attractive. I suspect that 'fumitory' comes from the fancied resemblance of of the finely divided, greyish green leaves of the related Earth Smoke (Fumaria officials) to smoke, but Wikipedia claims the origin of the name is uncertain. Since Pink Corydalis is common after wildfires, perhaps the 'fume' refers to a similar habitat preference in Fumaria. The 'perennial' commercial species have larger and more showy flowers, and the pale blue varieties are especially attractive, but we've had no luck with ours surviving the Zone 3 winters.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Myco Monday: Just another Russula

Russula, possibly emetica
Mushrooms of the genus Russula are relatively easy to identify by their brittle bodies - the stems will snap like a piece of chalk. I suppose that used to be a good character when most people had experience with chalk, but I wonder if so now? Alas, although easy to id to genus, species identification is very difficult, some cause gastrointestinal upset, and some taste very bitter or acrid. Given the poor reputation of most species as an edible (e.g. to quote David Aurora: 'better kicked than picked', 'better punted than hunted', 'better trampled than sampled' etc. or 'Unequivocally inedible and possibly poisonous'), I suppose it is best to leave these to adorn the yard.

I think this mushroom is part of the Russula emetica complex, because of its red, peeling cap, and its mycorrhizal association with the roots of the White Spruce in the front yard. If I needed an emetic, I suppose I might be tempted to try it, but I think I will restrict myself to appreciating its colourful and reliable appearance.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Australian of the Week: Blue-eyed Nymph

Blue-eyed Lacewing from Brisbane

As I was contemplating the dreary grey and white morning, and thinking of blow flies, I realized that I hadn’t had an Australian of the Week posting for quite some time. That series was designed to take me away from winter for a moment, and such a moment is now needed. So, herein I present an oldie but goodie: Nymphes myrmeleonoides Leach, 1814, the type species of the family Nymphidae. The original picture was taken with an old-fashioned SLR camera and captured on a material called ‘colour-slide film’, so this is really a bit of nostalgia. The original slide was digitized on an ancient scanner, so the transfer isn’t the best, but will have to do.
Hatched eggs of Nymphes in 'horseshoe' array 
Nymphes appears to be from the French for ‘nymph’, one of those delightful spirits that animate Nature. And these large, antlion-like nerve-winged insects (Neuroptera) are rather delightful. Nymphes eggs are one of the mysteries that I encountered when I first arrived in Queensland – horseshoe arrays of small white blobs on threads. At first I thought they were fungi, but once I saw the tiny gremlins that hatched out of them, I had a better idea. Alas, we have only another old, scanned slide of hatched eggs to offer, but Tony Knight at the Australian Museum has better pictures on offer.
Golden-eyed Chrysoperla chi
 In Alberta, we have no Blue-eyed Lacewings, but we do have a number (four genera, 9 species) of Green Lacewings (Chrysopidae) that often have delightfully golden eyes. Their larvae aren’t as gremlinish as those of Nymphes or antlions, but have their own bug geeky attractiveness.
Aphid lion - larvae of Green Lacewing
 Members of the Nymphidae currently appear to be restricted to Australia, New Guinea, and Lord Howe Island, but in the Jurassic ranged across most of the World. In the early Eocene, a Nymphes apparently lived in North America (Archibald et al. 2009). Alas, no more.
Chrysoperla oculata

Archibald SB, Makarin VN & J Ansorge. 2009. New fossil species of Nymphidae (Neuroptera) from the Eocene of North America and Europe. Zootaxa 2157: 59-68.

Garland JA & DK Mce Kevin. 2007. Chrysopidae of Canada and Alaska (Insecta, Neuroptera): revised checklist, new and noteworthy records, and geo-referenced localities. Zootaxa 1486:  1-84.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday Bug: Smokey-winged Poplar Aphid.

Chaitophorus  populicola + appreciative flower fly larva
The Smokey-winged Poplar Aphid (Chaitophorus cf populicola Thomas, 1878) has appeared on the Home Bug Garden before under another common name - the Speckled Poplar Aphid - as part of a long post on the rather poor care they receive from their tending black ants. However, they are attractive enough for a Friday Bug and this picture shows what looks like a different kind of syrphid larva feasting away. Perhaps the prevalence of predators of aspen aphids explains why Ives & Wong (1988. Tree and shrub insects of the prairie provinces. Northern Forestry Centre Information Report NOR-X-292) report that none are serious pests except in ornamental plantings. So, unless you have an aspen in your yard (not recommended because the roots seek out water mains), you are free to enjoy this non-pest pest.