Showing posts with label ants. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ants. Show all posts

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Psyllids

 Thanks to everyone who offered supportive emails and comments over the last few weeks. They were much appreciated. Even without family tragedies, I find this time of the year, February through March, the most bleak and difficult in Alberta. The winter has dragged on, the holidays are past, and it will still be two or three months until there is more than the faintest signs of life escaping from the icy shell. Sometimes one has to dig deep to find some winter bug interest.
 The winter weather here derives mostly from the struggle between cold Arctic air masses moving south and warmer, moist Pacific air masses trying to force their way over the Rockies. Every now and then the Arctic air breaks away and drifts further south, bringing storms and snow to the US, but often letting in enough Pacific air to give us a brief thaw and a view of an overly optimistic fly, spider, or lacewing basking in the faint sun. The few days of warmth are appreciated, but the false springs are soon gone and below zero weather reigns again. Under the snow, however, there is a lot going on, and it is always worthwhile to shovel down and see what is up. On our last snow-delving trip to the Moose Pasture, we found something unexpected - a superfamily of tiny (3 mm) bugs we didn’t know we had – jumping plant lice Psylloidea.
 In Australia, I would have called these lerps, or if being more formal, psyllids, but neither is technically correct. A lerp is actually a sugary covering of the larvae of some psylloids and a much appreciated food for some Australian birds, such as the infamous Bell Miner (Manorina melanophrys). You don’t have to go to Australia to see lerps – California is close enough to see the The Redgum Lerp (Glycaspis brimblecombei) devastating introduced gum trees. But fortunately no one has introduced the Bell Miner or it’s similarly aggressive but more flower-loving cousin the Noisy Miner to North America. The latter is slightly larger than a North American Robin, more aggressive than the Mockingbird (but lacks any musical ability), hangs out in gangs, and vigorously beats up and chases away any perceived competitor or threat. But at least they don’t farm psyllids.
'Psyllid' seems to be hanging on as a common name, although the Psyllidae of my youth is now Psylloidea (‘psylloid’ is a bit pedantic) and contains a number of families, depending on the authority. I follow Ian Hodkinson, not just because he did time in Alberta, but because he and J. Bird revised the subfamily Livinae (Aphelaridae) that includes my two snow-bound specimens. These psyllids are not lerpy, instead the larvae form galls on sedges (Carex) and rushes (Juncus). Some Livia species have been collected overwintering on conifers. The two I collected were from the litter of a white spruce under 40 cm of snow. Since psyllid workers don’t seem to have spent much time looking for their bugs under snow, it is possible that, at least in Alberta, this protected winter habitat is the actual overwintering site. Neither psyllid quite fits a described species, but little is known of the biology of psyllids unless they are pests. Seasonal polymorphisms are known in other psyllids and usually related to diapause, so I may have an overwintering morphology of a described species. Galls, polymorphisms, secret diapause sites, I never thought that such tiny bugs would prove such a welcome winter respite!
Thanks to The Atavism in New Zealand for opening my eyes to the new Psylloidea in a November post that prepared me to recognize them (I surely would have ignored them otherwise). While thinking of the southern hemisphere, let me say I’m happy to learn that Bunyip Co and A Snail’s Eye View (and her padymelons) survived Yasi and are back to blogging. I hope that is the last of the giant cyclones they have to experience.

For more on psyllids see:
Hodkinson ID. 2009. Life cycle variation and adaptation in jumping plant lice (Insecta: Hemiptera: Psylloidea): a global synthesis. Journal of Natural History 43: 65–179.

Hodkinson ID & J Bird. 2007.Sedge and rush-feeding psyllids of the subfamily Liviinae (Insecta: Hemiptera: Psylloidea): a review. Joumal of the Linnean Society  128: 1-49.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Deleo delirium: Maleficia delenda sunt!

There comes a time in the course of a home bug gardener’s life when events call upon him to take up politically incorrect tools and use them to defend and preserve all he holds dear. Or to paraphrase Cato the Elder: Passer domesticus delendus est! I guess the exclamation point is un-Latin, but then so are periods, and my Latin muse assures me that the passive periphrastic agrees in gender and number with the object that ought to be destroyed. So, no matter what you think Cato said, don’t think delenda or delendum here, but 3rd declension masculine Passer, and IMHO, they all have to go.

Why, you might ask, would someone who claims to be gardening for biodiversity urge that a bird, the alpha and omega of biodiversity, ought to be destroyed? If you are a blue-birder or have a purple martin house, then I guess you already know the bloody murder that house sparrows (HOSP) wreak. If blood and bird bodies don’t bother you, examples of HOSP attacks can be found here. Remember - don't look if you can't stand the sight of bloody birds.

This morning we pulled a dead red-breasted nuthatch from the nest box where they have been relentlessly worried by the larger, alien, invasive, and thuggish HOSP. (I’m making no pretense at being a scientist this morning.) The opening to the box is (deliberately) too small for a house sparrow and all they can do is get their head in far enough to peck. They can’t possibly use the nest box, but being bird-brained, I don’t expect they care. And that’s not all! The bloody HOSPs ate my peas! AHHH! What is a bird introduced to eat insect pests doing eating my garden plants? Bloody bad biology is what. Shades of the cane toad, the HOSP eats few insects and feeds mostly on seeds and plants!

What to do? You probably need a permit to even look at a bird with murderous intent, let alone wring its neck. Ha! Unfortunately for the HOSP, in Alberta they are considered invasive pests, and the Province offers lots of permit-free advice on how to reduce their populations. Firing off shotguns within city limits and spreading poisons aren’t among the things one can do, but trapping is encouraged. Well, more or less. According to Chris Fisher & John Acorn’s “Birds of Alberta”, HOSPs arrived here in 1898 and “People with a dislike for this introduced ‘avian mouse’ go to amazing lengths to combat the species, but House Sparrows are here to stay.” And that certainly seems to be true – it’s hard to find a block in the City where you can’t hear their constant cheaping. It's enough to make you want to squeeze them until their eyes pop out.

And then there are all the other maleficent pests scourging the garden. Formica fusca delenda est! Based on the number of people in Edmonton who whiten the ant mounds in their lawns with boric acid, I suspect the opinion that the black ant must be destroyed is widely held. Since I have no truck with lawns, though, I’ve held them no animosity. After all, ants really are extraordinary superorganisms, industrious, and often fun to watch. These particular ants appear to belong to the Formica fusca group and they can mess up my tiny patches of lawn all they want – but if they want to hang out in my garden, then they’d better be polite. This year they have been extraordinarily rude and their tunneling has already killed a purple sage and a hens-and-chicks and severely damaged a shrub cinquefoil. I tried soaking them with the hose to encourage them to move to a drier site. That does work sometimes, but not this year – a shovel and Dr Doom were required. That made me feel bad, but not so bad when I started looking around at all the collusion between aphids and ants.

Leaf miners, caterpillars, sawflies, spittlebugs, they are all bad, but there are aphids on everything! Aphididae delendae sunt!

A Gallery of Aphid Destruction

I agree with Gardening Zone 3b – where are the ladybugs and lacewings when you need them?

The natural enemies are out there, but I guess they don't like the cold wet weather any more than we do. Slowly they are coming on.

To paraphrase Betty Davis, there comes a time in every gardener's life when the only thing that helps is a glass of champagne. A couple hours with the squirt bottle of soapy water will have to come first though.