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Insects: a tool to inspire

By Christopher Cloutier, Naturalist (Morgan Arboretum, McGill University) and Teacher (Vanier College)

As a kid, growing up in the big city, wildlife was a rarity to say the least. Gray squirrels, starlings and house sparrows made up the “wild” critters around my childhood stomping grounds, but one group of organisms that never seemed to disappoint were the arthropods. Insects and spiders could be found virtually anywhere and it seemed that back then there were too many to ever count or name. It was from these early beginnings that I began to appreciate nature for both the big and the small. Cementing my interest in this amazing world of creepy critters were my early excursions to provincial parks and tagging along with naturalists who taught me more about these amazing creatures. Today, as an interpretive naturalist and teacher with a love of insects, it has become a passion and a joy to pass on the wonderment which is the “world of the little things” to people of all ages.

Reaching for the next pre-caught monarch to tag, Monarch Melee, 2011, Morgan Arboretum.  Credit: Chris Cloutier

Reaching for the next pre-caught monarch to tag, Monarch Melee, 2011, Morgan Arboretum. Credit: Chris Cloutier

It is shown that insects generate a certain degree of interest from the layperson. Whether it be raising Painted Ladies in the classroom in elementary school, or counting the number of Plecoptera naiads during a stream survey; the fascinating life histories of insects have touched the lives of many people and have been used as a tool to emphasize the underlying principles of conservation, not only for the insects themselves but for the multitude of habitats which they occupy.

For years now I have led many insect-themed interpretive walks and have noticed a very strong showing from the general public. Children and parents alike seem to get the same level of enjoyment from spending an hour or two searching out and discovering something new about the world beneath their feet. With a fondness for Dragonflies, Butterflies and Spiders, these themed walks have become somewhat of a specialty and seem to attract more and more people every year.

Photo: Tom Kingsbury

Photo: Tom Kingsbury

One of the most enjoyable walks which has been held for three consecutive years now is entitled “Monarch Melee”. The activity is in association with the Monarch Watch program offered at the University of Kansas. The idea here, for those of you unfamiliar with the project, is similar to bird banding, except that the bands are stickers and the birds are, you guessed it, monarchs. I begin the workshop with a 30min presentation on the life history of the monarch butterfly, what it eats, metamorphosis, defense, and of course migration. It is amazing how a single insect, although quite charismatic for something other than a Panda or Beluga can make people so aware of the adaptability, perseverance and just general “wow factor” of insects as a whole. The presentation is followed by a tagging session for some pre-caught monarchs. Once the demo is over, we grab our nets and head out to several milkweed patches in search of more.

Photo: Tom Kingsbury

Photo: Tom Kingsbury

So, how does this sort of activity work to inspire people to do their part for conservation? Well, since those activities have been hosted, I know of several families that have since set up some very elaborate butterfly gardens at the homes, including puddling areas, butterfly shelters, hummingbird feeders, mason bee boxes, bat houses and more. People bring me photos of things that they are seeing around their homes, and not just Leptoglossus occidentalis photos anymore, but photos of butterflies and neat birds, spiders, and more. I have even seen kids walking around the Arboretum with binoculars and butterfly nets, yes, butterfly nets!

Photo: Tom Kingsbury

Photo: Tom Kingsbury

I feel that I have been able to open a door, or bridge a gap if you will, for some of these people to become enthralled in nature again, something which our current younger generation is having some difficulty doing. Although my personal role in this “nature revolution” is minor in the big picture, it is enormous in the lives of those inspired to learn more and to do more, just as it was for me when I was a kid. It never hurts to share your passion and of course a little knowledge. It might go a really long way (yes, Monarch migration pun intended!).

Photo: Reaching for the next pre-caught monarch to tag, Monarch Melee, 2011, Morgan Arboretum: credit: Chris Cloutier

, , , Orchids, whiteflies and an impostor…

One of the fringe benefits of running the ESC/ESAB JAM 2012 photo competition was getting a glimpse into what other people where interested in. One of the most unusual images we received was submitted by Marilyn Light, entitled “Trialeurodes sp.”.

Trialeurodes sp. with impostor…

The photomicrograph (a focus-stacked image, produced with Zerene Stacker) shows a fourth stage whitefly pupa case. Whitefly are hemipteran herbivores that are often found feeding on the underside of leaves.The species we know most about is the greenhouse whitefly (Trialeurodes vaporariorum), a pest that damages food crops by feeding on them and by spreading viruses. To control whitefly, growers resort to using the wasp Encarsia formosa. In this photograph we see a species of whitefly that was found on a wild orchid, the showy lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae Walter). The glassy spines are typical of some whitefly pupa, but what is amazing about this picture is that the creature inside is not a whitefly. Looking closer at the lower left of the image you can see the brownish-orange eyes of the head of a parasitoid wasp, with the thorax and abdomen almost filling the case. Marilyn has included the following information with the image:

"Lady Slippers, Cypripedium reginae found along the Jordan Valley Trail, East Jordan Michigan" from Wikipedia

The showy lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium reginae Walter, forms large colonies in fen wetlands. The insect herbivore assemblage of this orchid includes Trialeurodes sp. Cockerell (Hemiptera: Sternorrhyncha: Aleyrodidae) which was first observed by us in 2009 on orchids growing in stressed habitat. Eric Maw, CNC, determined this whitefly to be an undescribed Trialeurodes. Subsequently, we have found isolated infestations in a second orchid population which is less subject to drought stress. The whitefly is parasitized by Encarsia sp. Förster (Hymenoptera: Chalcidoidea: Aphelinidae). During microscopic examination of one 4 th stage nymph (pupa) case that had been removed from a freshly collected orchid leaf on September 22, 2012, I photographed a parasitoid that was soon to emerge. About half of the other cases examined had been parasitized.

Of course, being who I am, I was curious not only about the image, but also about the person who took it. I asked Marilyn to tell me a bit about herself and how the image came to be…

“I am a member of the ESC but do not earn my living through entomology. I am retired from the University of Ottawa Professional Training Service.

My interest in insect population dynamics begins with my experience in 1948-49 during an eastern tent caterpillar outbreak in Montreal: I was 7 years old. My dad showed me the the stages and how to distinguish male and female moths. My first teaching opportunity was with my Grade 2 classmates on the insect and its life history. Ever since I have been learning so I can teach others. In 1951, after the outbreak was subsiding, I observed a large caterpillar walking alone on a twig. It burst when touched, exuding pink fluid. I was to later learn that it had been infected with a virus. I remain fascinated by the delicate balance in nature, between plants and herbivores, and between herbivores, their pests and diseases.

My husband and I have been tracking wild orchid populations since 1985, examining how they are impacted by climatic variables, disturbance, pollinator behaviour, and insect herbivores. The dynamic of insect herbivore populations with their respective biological controls and the orchids is a natural extension of the work.

There is a paucity of information about insect biology except with species of economic importance or conservation value. Our investigations will hopefully serve to fill this gap. We publish regularly in both peer-reviewed and popular media.”

Professional work by dedicated ‘amateurs’! More of Marilyn’s work can be seen in the study, Potential impact of insect herbivores on orchid conservation. (Light, M. H. S. and MacConaill, M., 2011. European Journal of Environmental Sciences: Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 115–124) and Possible Consequences of Walking off the Trail (Light, M. H. S., and M. MacConaill, 2008. Orchids: 77: pp 128-133). She is well known in the orchid community in Canada and abroad, and is author of the book, Growing Orchids in the Caribbean (Macmillan Caribbean, 1995).

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L’univers des insectes aquatiques

Vivez une expérience audio visuelle hors du commun en compagnie du conférencier Étienne Normandin. Musiques, sons et vidéos de la BBC et de « Bugs of the underworld » sont au menu dans le but d’émerveiller vos sens à la beauté et à la fantastique entomofaune aquatique.

Les insectes aquatiques ont été les premiers insectes à apparaître sur la Terre, mais aussi les premiers à utiliser la voie des airs. Dans cette conférence dédiée à un public de tous âges, vous en apprendrez plus sur les particularités des insectes aquatiques ainsi que leurs comportements. Ces insectes peuvent être de fameux architectes, des pêcheurs habiles et d’excellents chasseurs. Ils sont aussi très importants pour l’écologie des plans d’eau et sont de bons outils pour les biologistes.

2 novembre 2012, 19h00

Jardin Botanique, IRBV, Local 354

link: www.aeaq.ca
page facebook: Association des entomologistes amateurs du québec
groupe facebook: Association des entomologistes amateurs du québec

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins
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Reader Photos – Jeffrey Higgins

Jeffrey Higgins has enjoyed the same 2 mile stretch of the Thames River in London, Ontario for ~50 years. He traded his fishing rod for a camera about 5 years ago to celebrates the natural world, and enjoys sharing his photos on his website and on Facebook. Jeffrey submitted the following photos and asked for suggestions about the species ID. If you have a suggestion, please let Jeffrey know in the comments.

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I was out for a walk in the field, but actually stepping into the woods to photograph spiders, when I noticed a tiny critter on my chest. It was crawling up my camera strap and getting closer to my face so I put down the camera and coaxed the critter onto a stick. This caterpillar was very interesting. It had a small floating body hovering over it’s head that seemed more like a pet on a leash than part of the caterpillar itself. I observed this caterpillar for several minutes and took a good number of photos.
I am writing to you in the hope that someone there can identify this bug for me and provide some insight about this strange thing attached to it’s head. It was not merely bobbing about on a pair of hairs but rather, it was raised, lowered, and twisted about in a seemingly voluntary fashion. So cool!
Caterpillar by Jeffrey Higgins

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins (Click to enlarge)

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins (Click to enlarge)

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins (Click to enlarge)

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins

Photo by Jeffrey Higgins (Click to enlarge)

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Backyard moth’er

By Ian Maton,  Member of the The Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild and the Altaleps discussion list, BugGuide editor and contributor to the Moths Photographers Group (MPG)
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Great Tiger (Arctia caja)

My two light traps

My journey into live moth trapping started a relatively short time ago towards the end of 2007.  My brother, who lives in the UK and has been live moth trapping since 1999, frequently encouraged me to buy a light trap and in August of 2007 I finally gave in and purchased a small 12V portable, 6W Heath trap at the British Birdfair while on vacation in the UK.  As this point I should explain that live moth trapping has become quite popular amongst bird watchers in the UK (my other hobby), to the extent that you can now purchase quite a lot of entomological paraphernalia at the annual Birdfair.

My backyard photographic setup

So it was, with some trepidation, that I put my light trap out for the first time in Lethbridge, Alberta, at the end of August 2007.  My camera equipment was fairly basic but I did manage a few photographs and I think it is safe to say that I was completely hooked from that point on.  I was able to identify a few of the moths but, although the situation has improved in recent years, identification guides were hard to find.  In the UK there were already a good number of handbooks to help with moth identification but this did not appear to be the case in North America.  I did buy some of the “Moths of North America North of Mexico” series and the Peterson guide “Moths of Eastern North America” but initially, my main aid to identification was BugGuide.net.  Not being able to separate the moths into their respective families meant that identifying any moth could take me several hours and sometimes involved my scanning through 300 plus pages of Noctuids on BugGuide!  This was not all bad as it forced me to become somewhat familiar with the family names and gave me a great sense of achievement when I did identify a moth.  However, in April of 2010, something happened which dramatically changed all this.

Delphinium Leaftier (Polychrysia esmeralda)

I had started to submit one or two photographs to BugGuide and one of these was Delphinium Leaftier (Polychrysia esmeralda).  While there were pinned images of this moth, there were very few live images in North America and I was contacted by Bob Patterson who asked for permission to display my photographs on the Moth Photographers Group (MPG) website.  Shortly after this it became apparent that I was photographing some moths that were not yet in BugGuide.  Bob created a couple of guide pages for me so that I could upload my photographs to the correct taxonomic spot but quickly suggested that I be given editor privileges on BugGuide.  All this was extremely exciting to me and added an entirely new dimension to my hobby.  In addition to this, Bob put me in contact with Gary Anweiler who, based in Alberta, is one of the premier experts on Noctuids in North America.  Since then Gary has been instrumental in helping me to identify moths.  Always patient and quick to respond I can’t thank Gary enough for his help and advice over the last few years.

Bilobed Looper (Megalographa biloba)

2010 was a very big year for me with regards to moth trapping.  A major highlight occurred in October of 2010 when my wife (I was then working long hours and had convinced her to help out with the moths) picked a Bilobed Looper (Megalographa biloba) out of the trap.  It was immediately identifiable and seemed to be an unusual sighting.   Indeed, Gary Anweiler confirmed that there had been only two previous records in Alberta and only two additional records for western Canada.  I can’t think of a better way to end the 2010 mothing year!

White-lined-Sphinx-(Hyles-lineata)

Since then I have continued to add photographs to BugGuide and I am pleased to say that a good number of them have been picked up and added to the MPG website.  I have also pieced together a database of the moths I’ve seen which now includes 245 species.  2011 was another landmark year when I attempted to record the number of each moth species that had been in my trap.  This had been practically impossible until I become familiar with the more common species I was getting.  Consequently, I can now say that my most common moth in 2011 was, by far, Thoughtful Apamea, followed by Glassy Cutworm, Olive Arches, Bronzed Cutworm and Bristly Cutworm.  This was a very nice personal achievement.  Most recently I have started a blog “Moths of Calgary”.  I have to admit that I got the idea from my brother who created a blog “Moths of Boughton-under-Blean”.  Apart from the enjoyment I get from posting my latest sightings, I’m hoping that it may help to advertise live moth trapping as an interesting hobby in Canada.

So far, the highlight of 2012 was my first Silkmoth seen in the Twin Butte area of Southern Alberta while on a short vacation.  Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora gloveri) is a species that I’ve been trying to see for a number of years and there they were, in daylight, perched on the side of our cabin when we arrived!  Other colourful and unexpected species that I’ve seen include my first backyard Sphinx moth, a White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata) and a Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja).

Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora gloveri)

For me there are two things which make live moth trapping a really great hobby.  Firstly, you never know what you are going to get!  It may be a while before you see some of the more eye-catching moth species but that’s all part of the appeal.  Secondly, it’s something that you can do without venturing further than your own backyard!

While, at first, identification was a bit of a struggle, the sense of achievement gained when I did identify a new moth, for me, more than compensated for the time spent getting there.  Live moth trapping is a fascinating hobby and it is my hope that, over time, it will become a more popular, eventually contributing to the knowledge of moth movements and distribution throughout Canada.

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A Meager Existence Fit for a King

By Christopher Cloutier, Naturalist, Morgan Arboretum
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The Morgan Arboretum of McGill University, with its 245 ha of forest and interspersed field habitats, is home to nearly 50 species of butterflies. Over the past two years I have tried to document all species occurring within the Arboretum and made note of the date of their earliest appearance. Many of the butterflies observed are the “expected” species, such as the Question Mark, White Admiral and the Monarch.

Others, though, were much more exciting finds: the Banded and Acadian Hairstreaks, the Baltimore Checkerspot and the Silver Spotted Skipper to name a few. Of all the highlight species found over the past two years, one that truly stands out is the Hackberry Emperor (Asterocampa celtis).

Hackberry Emperor looking down from a high perch. Credit: Christopher Cloutier

Like many other butterfly species, the Emperor is specific to one type of host plant for its larvae. You guessed it: the Hackberry Tree (Celtis occidentalis). Although the Arboretum lies within the native range for this tree, it is one that is rarely encountered. It is found naturally on the outskirts of the property and nowhere near the main walking trails; that is, until about 10 years ago when the Arboretum planted several trees near the parking lots along the main road. The trees today are no taller than 4m but are growing rapidly. This represents nearly the entire habitat in which the Emperors were discovered back in 2010, and this is the tale of their unusual discovery.

Unlike most of the species which I have documented over the years, this one came as a report from a concerned visitor to the Arboretum. I remember this case vividly as it was quite unique. A visitor to the Arboretum came by the gatehouse to mention that they were seeing a large butterfly up close. In fact, the butterfly was landing on them with regularity every time they passed by a certain location. This was something I had to see for myself. Not knowing what to expect I followed the man to where he encountered this critter and sure enough we were standing right next to the Hackberry plantation. Within less than a minute a butterfly alighted on my shoulder, a species I had never encountered before. I quickly collected it with my aerial net and brought it back to my office for a closer look.

It didn’t take long to discover that this beautiful butterfly was indeed the Hackberry Emperor. After doing a little bit of research, I realized that this was not the first time that this species had been encountered at the Arboretum, but it was the first time in nearly half a decade. I decided to have a little photo shoot with the insect just to get some record shots. I then gave it a sip of grape juice and brought it back to where I first captured it.

Hackberry Emperor refueling after a photo shoot. Credit: Christopher Cloutier

I decided to have a closer look at the Hackberry trees scattered about on the grassy lawn. There were only five trees, not more than twice my height, and I quickly noticed why the butterflies were here. They were breeding. After searching the gall-riddled leaves of the Hackberries, I discovered several clusters of eggs as well as some recently hatched first instar larvae. Again, upon my arrival several adults were patrolling the area trying to frighten me away, or maybe trying to get a closer look at who I was. It didn’t seem to matter what colour clothing I was wearing, they just seemed interested in large silhouettes near their nursery.

Eggs and freshly hatched larvae of the Hackberry Emperor. Credit: Christopher Cloutier

Since this first discovery I have encountered Hackberry Emperors every summer since. They are typically active in mid-June and their activity time extends into July and August. Their dependence on a single tree species makes this butterfly quite interesting. Had we chosen to plant a different species of tree as a windbreak for the parking area, we may not have ever encountered this butterfly again. It seems now that we have made an ideal artificial breeding habitat for this beautiful insect, and hopefully they choose to use it year after year, that is, as long as they abide by our strict “no harassing other visitors” policy.