Insect of the Week: the American Dainty

Adapted from pages 374-375 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

Two species of Baccha occur in North America and there are 16 species worldwide, with most of the diversity in the Palearctic and Indomalayan regions. These flies are small and slender, with elongate, petiolate abdomens. They are most similar to species of Ocyptamus, Pelecinobaccha, and Pseudodoros, but are smaller and more fragile in appearance than these flies. Larvae are predators of ground-dwelling aphids.

The American Dainty (Baccha cognata) is 7.2-10.1mm in size, and is readily identified by the narrow abdomen and unmarked wings. The face is black with a small tubercle, the oral margin is not produced, and the scutellum is black. The female ocellar triangle is pollinose. These bugs are common, with flight times from early May to early October (from late March in California).

Baccha cognata is resurrected from synonymy with B. elongata. They are restricted to the Nearctic while B. elongata occurs in Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and the Old World. The species are genetically distinct and females of B. elongata have a shiny ocellar triangle.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Pipiza

Adapted from page 308 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

Pipiza are small black syrphids that vary from having all black abdomens to having paired yellow spots on tergite 2 and sometimes also tergite 3. They can be mistaken for Heringia and Trichopsomyia and so should be checked for a bare anterior anepisternum and katepimeron. Th ere are 52 world species; 11 in the Nearctic and seven from the northeast.

A recent revision in Europe (Vujić et al. 2013) turned much of the original taxonomy on its head and illustrated how difficult this group is. Despite recent work by Coovert (1996) in the Nearctic, taxonomic concepts need to be reevaluated incorporating genetic data. Many problems with current concepts exist but cannot be solved without complete revision. We thus follow Coovert here with the caveat that changes are needed.

Pipiza species are often found flying through herbaceous vegetation or around shrubs. Known larvae are predators of aphids and phylloxera (mostly gall-making or leaf-rolling aphids that create waxy secretions). Characters illustrated below generally work, but male genitalia should be checked for confirmation.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Palpadas

Adapted from pages 120-121 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America

Palpadas are a distinctive New World genus of flies, generally resembling Eristalis, but with a characteristic color pattern consistent throughout most of the species in the genus. The larvae are filter feeders in aquatic environments. There are 83 valid species, only four of which make it into our area.

The Palpada vinetorum is typically 10-13.5mm in length, with a pollinose face and a yellow medial stripe. Their wings are partly microtrichose apically. These flies are fairly common, with flight times in early June through mid-October. Like other Palpada species in our area, this species may be migratory. Flowers visited include Baccharis, Gymnosperma, Lobularia, Miconia, Serjania, and Solidago.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Leafwalkers

Adapted from pages 172-173 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America:

The Yellow-haltered Leafwalker (Chalcosyrphus [Xylotomima] curvarius) is identified by its bright yellow halteres. It is the most distinctive of the orange-legged Chalcosyrphus species, with an entirely black metacoxa. These insects are common, and fly typically between mid-May to late August. Like the two preceding species, they can often be found on hilltops. On hilltops, the males more often land on the ground rather than on leaves or twigs. They are mostly found in hardwood forests but there are a few records from the tundra. There is no genetic variation between Arctic and eastern specimens. One specimen was collected on a large fallen Populus (aspen) log that had been on the ground for about one year.

Meanwhile, the Violet Leafwalker (Chalcosrphus [Xylotomima] chalybeus) is distinctive as it is all black, and has a metallic purple sheen to its body. Its legs are entirelyblack, and unlike the wings of other black Chalcosyrphus, the wings are largely dark brown. These bugs are between 12.4.-16.1 mm in length, and are fairly common, flying typically between mid-May and mid-August. These hardwood forest flies are often seen around fallen dead tree trunks. They are spectacular and glisten with purplish iridescence on a sunny day. They only occasionally visit hilltops. Flowers visited include Rubus and Spiraea. These flies
mimic solitary wasps such as Sphex pensylvanicus and Chalybion californicum.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

Insect of the Week: Laetodon

Adapted from page 38-39 of Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America

Laetodon species are small metallic ant flies (Microdontinae) with a posterior appendix on wing vein R4+5. This genus used to be included within Microdon and was described in 2013 by Menno Reemer. The genus Laetodon includes five species, four of them Nearctic and one Neotropical. Only one species occurs within the area of the field guide. Larvae are presumed to be predators in ant nests but have not been described. 

More specifically, the Laetodon laetus is a small metallic ant fly ranging from 6.0-9.7mm in size. These are small, strongly metallic flies that are green, blue, or purple. The tibiae are orange and the flagellum has a short sensory pit on the outside edge. The eye is sparsely pilose. These insects are rare and local, with a flight time ranging from late March (in Florida) to early October (in Arizona), or late May to late September within the area of the field guide. In Maryland, the records are all from mid-to-late July. Larvae are unknown.

Field Guide to the Flower Flies of Northeastern North America
By Jeffrey H. Skevington, Michelle M. Locke, Andrew D. Young, Kevin Moran, William J. Crins, and Stephen A. Marshall

This is the first comprehensive field guide to the flower flies (also known as hover flies) of northeastern North America. Flower flies are, along with bees, our most important pollinators. Found in a varied range of habitats, from backyard gardens to aquatic ecosystems, these flies are often overlooked because many of their species mimic bees or wasps. Despite this, many species are distinctive and even subtly differentiated species can be accurately identified. This handy and informative guide teaches you how.

With more than 3,000 color photographs and 400 maps, this guide covers all 416 species of flower flies that occur north of Tennessee and east of the Dakotas, including the high Arctic and Greenland. Each species account provides information on size, identification, abundance, and flight time, along with notes on behavior, classification, hybridization, habitats, larvae, and more.

Summarizing the current scientific understanding of our flower fly fauna, this is an indispensable resource for anyone, amateur naturalist or scientist, interested in discovering the beauty of these insect.

 

InDialogue with Thomas Seeley and Nick Haddad: Why is insect conservation important?

The PUP Ideas blog is pleased to announce our new InDialogue series. In keeping with our mission to provide a range of perspectives and voices, each month we’ll be posing a big question to a pair of authors. With Earth Day fast approaching, we’ve asked a series of questions to our natural history authors on issues from the central role of oceans to climate science. Today we asked PUP authors Thomas Seeley and Nick Haddad to sound off on why insect conservation is important, and to reflect on the magnitude of the loss of key populations. Watch this space for more Earth Day posts in the coming days.

Being stewards to the bees

Thomas D. Seeley

There is no doubt that humans are now the primary movers and shakers of the natural world.   We are busy tearing down the planet’s forests and, in one way or another, we are appropriating some 40 percent of the solar energy captured by plants.  But we are not self-sufficient.  We depend on what Edward O. Wilson has called “the little things that run the world”:  the insects and other invertebrates, which together form most of the biomass in terrestrial habitats.  If humans were to disappear from the planet, then life on Earth would certainly go on.  Indeed, it would begin to heal itself.  But if insects were to disappear, then our species and countless others would go extinct, because most of the flowering plants—including those that produce the fruits and vegetables we eat—would die out for lack of pollination.   

There is one insect whose pollination services are especially important to us:  the honey bee, Apis mellifera.  This bees’ paramount value to humans was recently quantified in an authoritative, 59-author paper on the contributions of various bee species to crop pollination.  It reports that honey bees provide nearly half of all crop pollination services worldwide.  Remarkably, this one species’ contribution to humanity’s food production nearly equals the combined contributions of the many thousands of other bee species.  Clearly, the conservation of honey bees merits special attention. 

One way we can support Apis mellifera is by conserving forests.  They provide habitat for wild colonies of honey bees, and these colonies are important to their species’ long-term survival.  Recent studies of the population genetics of honey bees in the southern and western states of the U.S. have found that wild colonies—those living on their own in hollow trees and the walls of buildings—have far higher genetic diversity than the managed colonies in these states.  This is because commercial beekeepers typically replace the queens in their colonies every year or so using queens purchased from large-scale queen producers, and these replacement queens are the daughters of a small number of “breeder queens” (ca. 600 for the entire U.S.).  These practices create a genetic bottleneck in the population of managed honey bee colonies within the U.S. 

Other studies have revealed recently that the wild colonies of honey bees—those not living in beekeepers’ hives—possess effective mechanisms of resistance to a species of parasitic mite (Varroa destructor) introduced from east Asia.  The females of this species feed on the adult and immature honey bees.  They also spread a virus that deforms the bees’ wings and destroys their health.   Approximately 40% of the managed colonies in the U.S. die each year from infections of the deformed wing virus.  The wild colonies are also infested with these mites, but they have better survival because they have experienced strong natural selection for mechanisms of resistance to Varroa destructor.   These include chewing the legs off adult mites and destroying cells of bee brood infested with mites.

Besides conserving forests that support populations of wild colonies, we can help Apis mellifera by revising the practices of beekeeping, to find a better balance between the needs of bees and the desires of beekeepers.  Most of the practices of conventional beekeeping—such as encouraging colonies to grow extremely large, and packing them close together in apiaries—boost the productivity of colonies as honey makers and crop pollinators, but also increase their vulnerability to parasites and pathogens, including deadly Varroa destructor.   To conserve Apis mellifera, we must build a new relationship between human beings and honey bees.  We must revise our methods of beekeeping to bring them more in harmony with the honey bee’s natural way of life.  Only then will we be truly responsible stewards of Apis mellifera, our greatest friend among the insects.

Thomas D. Seeley is author of The Lives of Bees. He is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Following the Wild BeesHoneybee Democracy, and Honeybee Ecology (all Princeton) as well as The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

 

The value of the rarest butterflies

Nick Haddad

When I began writing The Last Butterflies in 2013, I worried that the title was over the top. After all, I was writing about just a handful of the rarest butterflies in the world. The five rarest butterflies number from a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of individuals. Could these be in any way representative of the last butterflies on the earth?

One way they are not representative is in their “value”. Their value might be to ecological systems. However, the earth’s thirty thousand individual Fender’s Blue butterflies might weigh as much as a basketball. These simply cannot be of consequence to interactions with other plants or animals as parts of functioning foodwebs. They are not effective pollinators or herbivores of, or food sources for, other species in their environments. Perhaps their value is in the bigger lessons the understanding of their declines holds for the declines of other butterflies. If so, then knowledge accrued during their decline can provide guidance to avert catastrophic declines of other insects.

Also when I started writing this book, I did not imagine broad implications to other insects that have economic value that can be measured. Data had not yet amassed to support the “insect apocalypse,” a phrase used to refer to catastrophic loss of abundance and diversity of insects. Then in 2014, reports surfaced that Monarchs reached epic low numbers, 97% below their peak two decades earlier. Later that year, a more general survey found declines across butterfly and insect species at the rate of 10% or more per decade. Such broad losses across insects must have substantial cost.

In this context, the rarest butterflies have higher value. Most of what we know about the insect apocalypse is what we know about butterflies. Are the rarest butterflies and Monarchs representative? A chilling picture has emerged. My former student Tyson Wepprich just completed an analysis of butterfly abundances using data collected across Ohio in surveys conducted every week for two decades. He found that butterfly abundances are declining by 2%  / year; abundances are now a third lower than twenty years ago. This is not an isolated case. Tyson reviewed other, decades-long studies in the UK, the Netherlands, and Spain. All of them have found 2%/ year decline in butterfly abundances. It appears that, after all, The Last Butterflies is an appropriate book title.

This rate and magnitude of loss is perhaps the best indicator of the cost of insect decline. Considered together, butterflies are the best known group of the earth’s 5.5 million insects. The less substantial evidence that exists for other insects points in the same downward direction. Like butterflies, those insects are herbivores, prey, and pollinators (and, of course, many are predators). They are exposed to the same levels of habitat loss, pesticides, and climate change. The scale of loss of butterflies, even if it is only partially representative of loss of other insects, will cause catastrophic loss of functioning ecosystems on which we all depend.

Circling back around to the rarest butterflies in the world: what is their value? It is certainly not in their importance within their ecosystem, at least not now. Their decline has generated some value in the sense that is provides some guidance for conservation of other insects, animals, and plants. Their true value, however, is intrinsic; when driven to extinction by global environmental changes, loss of value will be to people, and to the earth.

Nick Haddad is author of The Last Butterflies. He is a professor and senior terrestrial ecologist in the Department of Integrative Biology and the W. K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University. He lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Twitter @nickmhaddad

Five Books to Read in Honor of National Honey Bee Day

August 22nd is National Honey Bee Day and, in honor of the occasion, Princeton Nature would like to recommend five of our most recent titles that will get you buzzing about these vital bugs.

The Bee cover

Bees pollinate more than 130 fruit, vegetable, and seed crops that we rely on to survive. Bees are crucial to the reproduction and diversity of flowering plants, and the economic contributions of these irreplaceable insects measure in the tens of billions of dollars each year. Yet bees are dying at an alarming rate, threatening food supplies and ecosystems around the world. In The Bee, a richly illustrated natural history of the titular insect, Noah Wilson-Rich and his team of bee experts provide a window into the vitally important role that bees play in the life of our planet.

You can also check out Noah Wilson-Rich’s essay about the founding of his beekeeping company, The Best Bees Company, here.

Honeybees make decisions collectively–and democratically. Every year, faced with the life-or-death problem of choosing and traveling to a new home, honeybees stake everything on a process that includes collective fact-finding, vigorous debate, and consensus building. In fact, as world-renowned animal behaviorist Thomas Seeley reveals, these incredible insects have much to teach us when it comes to collective wisdom and effective decision making. A remarkable and richly illustrated account of scientific discovery, Honeybee Democracy brings together, for the first time, decades of Seeley’s pioneering research to tell the amazing story of house hunting and democratic debate among the honeybees.

You can read our Q+A with author Thomas Seeley here.

For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

You can read this op-ed about the importance of fireflies by author Sara Lewis here

Following the Wild Bees is a delightful foray into the pastime of bee hunting, an exhilarating outdoor activity that used to be practiced widely but which few people know about today. Thomas Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, vividly describes the history and science behind this lost pastime and how anyone can do it. Following the Wild Bees is both a unique meditation on the pleasures of the natural world and a guide to the ingenious methods that compose the craft of the bee hunter.

Check out some photographs from one of Thomas Seeley’s bee hunts here

The Bees in Your Backyard provides an engaging introduction to the roughly 4,000 different bee species found in the United States and Canada, dispelling common myths about bees while offering essential tips for telling them apart in the field.

The book features more than 900 stunning color photos of the bees living all around us—in our gardens and parks, along nature trails, and in the wild spaces between. It describes their natural history, including where they live, how they gather food, their role as pollinators, and even how to attract them to your own backyard. Ideal for amateur naturalists and experts alike, it gives detailed accounts of every bee family and genus in North America, describing key identification features, distributions, diets, nesting habits, and more.

Check out our Q&A with authors Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia J. Messinger Carril here.

Dave Smallshire and Andy Swash on Britain’s Dragonflies

Britain’s Dragonflies is the only comprehensive photographic field guide to the damselflies and dragonflies of Great Britain and Ireland. Written by two of Britain’s foremost Dragonfly experts, this fully revised and updated fourth edition features hundreds of stunning images and identification charts covering all 57 resident, migrant and former breeding species, and six potential vagrants. The book focuses on the identification of both adults and larvae, highlighting the key features. Detailed species profiles provide concise information on identification, distribution, flight periods, behavior, habitat, status and conservation.

What does the book cover?

This is a practical field guide covering every species of dragonfly and damselfly recorded in Britain and Ireland up to the end of 2017. It also includes a few species that might occur in the future. Dragonfly biology and preferred habitats are covered in the introductory sections. Detailed accounts describe and illustrate each species, and give details of status and distribution, along with helpful identification tips. Although the book focuses on the identification of adults, there is also a unique guide to the identification in the field of larvae and exuviae (larval ‘skins’ left behind when adults emerge from water). The concluding chapters give tips on photography, conservation and recording.

Who is the book aimed at?

The target readership includes both beginners and experts alike. The book is written in an accessible style and has a user-friendly design, making it easy to understand for beginners, but with the level of detail needed occasionally by experts. Scientific jargon is avoided as much as possible and the book follows a sequence that leads the reader to likely species in a logical order. An e-version gives enthusiasts the chance to carry this wealth of information, as well as other WILDGuidesbooks, in their pocket during excursions into the field.

How is the book illustrated?

Britain’s Dragonflies is lavishly illustrated with over 500 superb color photographs. Photographic guides are often preferred over those with painted illustrations because of their better reflection of reality. We have carefully selected photographs that were taken specifically for this book by ourselves, as well as many by some of the world’s foremost dragonfly photographers. We have used these in combination with graphics specially produced by WILDGuides’ Chief Designer, Rob Still, to summarize the finer identification details.

This is the fourth edition, so what has changed since the first?

As with many other insect groups, Dragonflies are taking advantage of warmer conditions around the globe. Populations have spread generally northwards in Europe, including in Britain and Ireland, and we have seen rapid extensions in the ranges of many species in recent years. Indeed, we have experienced colonizations by species previously unknown in these isles, as populations have built up in continental Europe. For example, the Small Red-eyed Damselfly has spread rapidly across southern Britain following its discovery in 1999. At the same time, powerful fliers such as Emperor Dragonfly and Migrant Hawker have spread north and west within Britain and Ireland. The quality of images available has improved tremendously since the advent of digital photography, allowing us to incorporate even better examples. Our close links with the British Dragonfly Society have enabled us to build on the experience of others to produce what we, and many of the reviewers of previous editions, consider to be the ultimate field guide.

Why did you write this book?

As keen all-round naturalists we built up many years’ experience in running field courses for both professional and amateur naturalists, and felt it was time to put this wealth of experience on paper. Our key driver, as keen conservationists, was in encouraging others to take an interest in this amazing and enigmatic group of insects. The WILDGuides Britain’s Wildlife series has set new standards in the development of photographic field guides,  and provided us with an ideal platform to give Dragonflies the coverage they warrant.

Noah Wilson-Rich on The Best Bees Company

Author with beehive

Wilson-Rich on May 9, 2010, just six weeks after founding The Best Bees Company. Photo credit: Izzy Berdan

Pollinator decline is a grand challenge in the modern world. We are losing 40% of beehives annually nationwide, and more in places with tough winters, which are now at 50% or higher. Can you imagine if we lost half of our population each year? And if those we lost produced food for the rest of us? It’s untenable. I predict that at this rate, bees will be gone in 10 years. Furthermore, we will be without fruits and vegetables, causing global hunger, economic collapse, and a total moral crisis worldwide … if not for beekeepers, who replace those dead bees,

When I finished up my doctorate at Tufts University in honey bee immunology, I needed to find a laboratory, field sites, data points, and funding! It was 2009, in the deepest throws of the recession, so grant funding was more competitive for less resources, and the job market for academia was just as scarce. So I set up a laboratory of my own in the living room of my apartment in Boston, and started a Facebook page offering to install beehives at people’s home gardens and business rooftops in exchange for research funding. I’d volunteer my time to manage the beehives, they’d get all the honey, and I’d get the data.

And so our de factocitizen science journey began. We’d created a new way to engage the general public to own these little living data factories, pollinating gardens and farms, allowing everyone to participate in research.

When I told my apartment landlord in Boston that I’d set up a bee research lab in my living room, I was admittedly nervous. I must have caught him on a good day. He replied not with an eviction notice, but with a big smile and said, “Let’s put those bees in the back alley!” I was shocked. To all of our delight, that little data factory produced more honey that first year than any other beehive I’d ever worked. Over 100 lbs.! We were filling up pickle jars with the stuff! Since honey never goes bad, some of the tenants are still sharing it with their loved ones and the greater community.

The Bee coverThat beehive and this citizen science approach, shifted my research question forever. It moved me away from why bees were dying, as so many researchers ask, and toward what is it about this beehive – this urban beehive – that’s allowing these bees to live and thrive?

With that, The Best Bees Company was born! As we grew, more people and companies got our research-based beekeeping services throughout urban, suburban, and rural towns alike. Meanwhile, the more data we got, the more accurate our maps became. Trends began to emerge for precisely where bees were thriving best.

Nine years later, The Best Bees Company and I oversee 1000 beehives, in 10 greater metro areas, with 65 beekeepers on our team in this little company that we made up. We’ve brought in 25 million pollinators nationwide, enhancing the properties of citizen scientists. That’s 10 million data points, this year alone, a sum of nearly 20 million data points since the first pickle jar beehive. For my team, that scale meant more accurate maps, which we now share with NASA and Google Earth. And now I can report what’s saving bees to you.

You, too, can be part a citizen scientist – If you have a balcony in your apartment, a backyard at your home, you can participate in stabilizing our food system! To become a citizen science client and purchase The Best Bees Company’s beekeeping services nationwide, visit www.BestBees.comor contact info@bestbees.comor (617) 445-2322.

 

Amazing Arachnids: Fishing Spiders

Adapted from pages 296-297 of Amazing Arachnids:

Resting its front feet on the water’s surface, a Dolomedes fishing spider waits along the edge of a small, slow-moving stream. It reads every disturbance, however subtle, on the water’s surface much the way that an orb weaver spider reads the vibrations within its web. In addition to detecting motion with its feet (specifically with the metatarsal lyriform organ), it can also see quite well; its large eyes are not very different from those of its cousin the wolf spider. The fishing spider’s patience is rewarded when an immature grasshopper attempts to leap across the stream and falls onto the surface of the water. Faster than the eye can follow, the fishing spider gallops across the water’s surface and grasps the hapless grasshopper between its two impressive fangs. The spider then returns to the edge of the stream to eat the grasshopper on land, where it efficiently masticates its food and sucks down the liquefied portion until all that is left of the grasshopper is an unrecognizable crumb and a few fragments. 

Dolomedes belongs to the family Pisauridae, also known as nursery web spiders and fishing spiders. In some ways, the fishing spider is the aquatic analogue to the terrestrial wolf spider. This family includes characteristically large, handsome spiders with good eyesight that depend on their speed and strength in order to capture prey. Many of the family frequent moist habitats, but it is the genus Dolomedes that has mastered a lifestyle connected to the water. Despite the fact that some of the species in this genus reach an impressive size (Dolomedes okefenokensis has a leg span of 4 to 5 inches, or 10 to 12.7 cm), they can “row” or even rest their bodies on the water’s surface without breaking the surface tension. The water simply indents or dimples where their legs and body contact the surface. While the spider is on the surface of the water, it

An impressive predator, this mature female Tinus peregrinus fishing spider has captured a fish as large as herself.
She has carried it up into vegetation, where she will masticate and predigest the fish. She must feed out of water or the enzymes needed for predigestion will be diluted out.

is vulnerable to attack from below by underwater predators such as frogs. In this situation, the spider literally levitates by rapidly pushing all its legs downward against the water’s surface to generate the force needed to jump straight up. It then gallops to safety. If the fishing spider becomes startled or frightened by a bird or a wasp, it scrambles underwater, clinging to vegetation so it doesn’t pop back up to the surface. A thin layer of air clings to the hydrophobic cuticle and hairs on the spider’s body, giving it a lovely silvery appearance. It can remain underwater for a good 40 minutes while waiting for the danger to pass. 

Dolomedes spiders must remain vigilant while hunting, because they themselves are hunted. A spider wasp in the pompilid family, Anoplius depressipes, preys exclusively on female Dolomedes spiders. If a fishing spider sees one of these wasps nearby, it takes evasive action, fleeing from the wasp and diving under water in an attempt to escape. But the wasp does something really extraordinary. It actually dives and then swims underwater in pursuit of the unfortunate spider. Once it finds its prey, the wasp stings and paralyzes the spider. The wasp then surfaces with the paralyzed spider and drags it across the water as it skims across in a low flight trajectory. The spider is installed in the nest burrow of the wasp, and a single egg is laid on it. The wasp larva feeds on the still-living, paralyzed Dolomedes until it finally kills the spider. Then the wasp larva pupates.

Unlike the wasp, Dolomedes hunts on the surface of the water. Some authors have written that it hunts underwater, but this has yet to be clearly documented. Instead, it captures its prey primarily either at the surface of the water or on land. Despite this limitation, it can readily catch fish as they swim very close to the water’s surface. The fangs and venom appear to be highly effective in killing the captured fish almost instantly, making it easier for the spider to carry its prey across the water and onto land or up into vegetation growing at the edge of the water. Because spiders ingest only liquefied, predigested food, the fishing spider must eat its prey above the water or else its digestive fluids will be diluted or lost.

Amazing Arachnids coverAmazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

Amazing Arachnids: Tarantulas

Adapted from pages 165-172 of Amazing Arachnids:

Tarantulas range in size from the largest spider in the world, Theraphosa blondi of South America, with a leg span of up to about 10 inches (25 cm), to Aphonopelma paloma, with a leg span of only 0.75 inches (2 cm).

Tarantulas also have a variety of lifestyles and behaviors, from the stereotypically solitary burrow dweller to the subsocial behavior of some communal species, such as the dwarf tarantula species Holothele (from South America) and Heterothele (from Africa). These communal spiders may cooperatively kill prey and young spiders share the kill. Circumstantial evidence suggests that even some species that live in underground burrows may have extended maternal care of young. In a number of instances, young tarantulas well beyond the third instar have been found  sharing an adult female’s burrow, leading to speculation regarding whether the mother shares food with her offspring.

Tarantula

Aphonopelma chalcodes adult male. These large males have a leg span of about 4 inches (10 cm) and are a common sight as they wander during the summer monsoon season (July and August) in southern Arizona.

The tarantulas of the southwestern United States belong to the genus Aphonopelma. These range in size from fairly large species such as Aphonopelma chalcodes, with a leg span of about 4 to 5 inches (10– 12.7 cm), to the tiny Aphonopelma paloma. A number of Aphonopelma are intermediate in size and are restricted to the mountains of southern Arizona. These tarantulas have a leg span of only about 2 inches (5 cm). The males mature in late fall or winter and may be seen as they wander in search of females even when there is snow on the ground. Because these mountain ranges are separated by barriers of low desert, many of the “sky island” populations have been geographically separated long enough that they are separate species.

One of the most common and conspicuous species is Aphonopelma chalcodes, also known as the desert blond tarantula. This handsome spider lives in an underground burrow in the low-elevation deserts of Arizona and may take about 10 years to reach maturity. The male looks markedly thinner and leggier than the female and, in addition, acquires a tibial spur on his front legs with his final molt. The males leave their burrows upon reaching maturity and go wandering in search of females. They are a familiar sight in the southern Arizona desert during the summer monsoon season, cruising at night or during the late afternoon, especially after a summer rain storm.

Hollywood has effectively exploited these fears, conjuring up giant tarantulas, deadly venomous tarantulas, and tarantulas that wipe out entire towns. But these animals have so much more to offer than cheap thrills. Their beauty and their diversity in both appearance and lifestyle defy the imagination and far surpass Hollywood’s wildest dreams. Certainly, they compel our respect, as does any predator capable of self-defense, but they also deserve our appreciation and protection.

We included a photo of one of the largest tarantulas – but what about the smallest? Head to our Instagram to see how tiny tarantulas can be. 

Amazing Arachnids coverAmazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference

Amazing Arachnids: Orb Weavers

Adapted from pages 184-186 of Amazing Arachnids:

A delight to the eye and an engineering marvel, the orb web epitomizes the stereotypical spider web. It is built in a vertical plane, with strong, nonsticky silk radiating out from a central hub like the spokes of a wheel, supporting a spiral of evenly spaced sticky silk threads. A gap in the sticky silk near the hub allows the orb weaver to rapidly climb from one side of the web to the other, depending on which side of the web a flying insect has blundered into. Some orb weavers wait in the center of the web, legs stretched out in contact with the radiating silk lines that convey the vibrations of a struggling insect. Others build a little retreat at one side of the web, maintaining contact with the radiating lines via a signal thread leading to the hub. Lying in wait in the retreat, the spider rests with one leg touching the signal line. At the first indication that an insect has been caught, the spider moves into the web and tugs at the radial lines, testing to see the general location of the prey. It then uses the nonsticky radial lines as a quick pathway leading to the insect. Once the prey is reached, the spider uses large amounts of silk to wrap and immobilize it prior to settling in for the meal.

Many orb weavers build a fresh web every night and eat the silk by the next morning. Experiments with radioactive labeling have shown that spiders are the ultimate recyclers; up to 90 percent of the old silk is recycled into the new web, and such ingestion and reuse of the silk protein can occur in as little as 30 minutes. The spiral silk of the orb weavers owes its stickiness to the addition of little beads of viscous glue along its length, like the beads of a necklace. Neither the radial threads nor the hub threads have this glue, allowing the spider easy and rapid access to all parts of its web.

An orb weaver spider

Surreal in color and form, the spiny orb weaver, Gasteracantha cancriformis, builds its web in trees and other tall
vegetation. This genus occurs primarily in the tropics; however, this particular species is also found across the
southernmost states in North America.

Some orb weavers build a web that remains in place for more than one day. Among these diurnal spiders are some that incorporate a special structure into the web, called the stabilamentum. The stabilamentum is composed of a thicker kind of silk, frequently appearing as a conspicuous white area in the web. It may look like a lace doily, or like one or more heavy zigzags in the web. Another type of stabilamentum consists of a line of silk above and below the resting spot in the hub of the web. The empty husks of insect prey are attached to this line, forming irregular clumps of detritus. Sitting motionless in the open spot in the middle of this detritus, the orb weaver Cyclosa appears to be just one more clump of debris in the stabilamentum. Camouflage protects the spider against predation by birds. Yet a different type of protection from birds may be derived from the presence of stabilamenta.

Orb weavers are more flexible in their ability to react to different circumstances than one might imagine. They build larger webs when they are hungry or if they are in areas of low prey availability than when they are well fed or in areas of high prey availability. Both web design and the timing of its construction are synchronized with the type of prey and its availability, requiring the adjustment of the spider’s circadian rhythm. In addition, orb weavers modify their approach to different types of prey in the web depending on whether the prey is potentially dangerous or not. They seem to know what kind of prey has been captured (perhaps based on the vibrations transmitted from its struggles) even before the spider physically makes contact with the prey. Some undesirable prey, such as stinging insects, are deliberately cut loose and released from the web. Other prey, like stink bugs, may be carefully wrapped so as to avoid eliciting a release of defensive chemicals until the killing bite can be administered in safety.

Amazing Arachnids coverAmazing Arachnids
By Jillian Cowles

The American Southwest is home to an extraordinary diversity of arachnids, from spitting spiders that squirt silk over their prey to scorpions that court one another with kissing and dancing. Amazing Arachnids presents these enigmatic creatures as you have never seen them before. Featuring a wealth of color photos of more than 300 different kinds of arachnids from eleven taxonomic orders–both rare and common species—this stunningly illustrated book reveals the secret lives of arachnids in breathtaking detail, including never-before-seen images of their underground behavior.

Amazing Arachnids covers all aspects of arachnid biology, such as anatomy, sociality, mimicry, camouflage, and venoms. You will meet bolas spiders that lure their victims with fake moth pheromones, fishing spiders that woo their mates with silk-wrapped gifts, chivalrous cellar spiders, tiny mites, and massive tarantulas, as well as many others. Along the way, you will learn why arachnids are living fossils in some respects and nimble opportunists in others, and how natural selection has perfected their sensory structures, defense mechanisms, reproductive strategies, and hunting methods.

  • Covers more than 300 different kinds of arachnids, including ones new to science
  • Features more than 750 stunning color photos
  • Describes every aspect of arachnid biology, from physiology to biogeography
  • Illustrates courtship and mating, birth, maternal care, hunting, and defense
  • Includes first-ever photos of the underground lives of schizomids and vinegaroons
  • Provides the first organized guide to macroscopic mites, including photos of living mites for easy reference