What’s Crawling in the Lab?

“What’s Crawling in the Lab?” is a blog featuring short stories, pictures, and highlights from the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab.  Topics range from the insects most commonly diagnosed in the lab to emerging arthropod pests and unique and bizarre cases from the lab.

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Fall Armyworms: A Late Summer Surprise in Wisconsin

It’s been hard to miss the recent news headlines about fall armyworms “FAW” (Spodoptera frugiperda). States east of the Rockies have seen historical outbreaks of this insect in 2021, including a bit of fall armyworm activity here in Wisconsin. In some cases, the caterpillars have decimated entire crop fields or home lawns overnight before marching onwards in search of “greener pastures”.

We usually don’t see much of the fall armyworm in Wisconsin and it’s primarily a pest of warmer areas, such as the gulf coast states.  The FAW is native to tropical and subtropical parts of the western hemisphere and the larvae (caterpillars) can feed on dozens of different types of plants—ranging from field crops to fruits and vegetables and even turfgrass. They can be particularly important pests to crops such as corn, grains, and alfalfa.

Fall armyworm caterpillar
Fall armyworm caterpillar. Photo credit: Frank Peairs, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org.

The fall armyworm can’t survive the winters in the US, other than the southernmost areas (e.g., southern Texas and Florida). However, in spring and summer the adult moths migrate northwards and lay eggs. Over the course of many generations and subsequent northward migration, fall armyworms can make it to the upper Midwest and even parts of southern Canada. Historically, fall armyworm has rarely been a notable pest in Wisconsin or the upper Midwest—it simply arrives too late or in too small of numbers to be a concern. To a certain extent, every year is a roll of the dice, but the odds are usually in our favor in Wisconsin and other northern states.

Fall armyworm adult moth
Fall armyworm adult moth. Photo credit: Lyle Buss, University of Florida, Bugwood.org.

This year has been different though, with large numbers being spotted northwards and reports of significant damage coming in from nearby states such as Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio. Many other states ranging from Kansas to the mid-Atlantic region have also been impacted in the later parts of summer. While there have been scattered reports of fall armyworm damage to field crops in southern parts of Wisconsin, the lateness of this pest’s arrival and our declining temperatures have likely spared us from the widespread damage seen in other states.

Under hot conditions (e.g. temps in the 90’s), the life cycle of the fall armyworm—from eggs to adult moths—can take only a few weeks. However, fall armyworms are “cold blooded” creatures and cooler temperatures slow down their growth and development. Depending on how chilly it is, their life cycle can be “stretched out” to take 60 days or longer—leaving them much more vulnerable to predation, parasitism, or exposure to frosts.

Eggs of the fall armyworm
Fall armyworm eggs from a residential yard. Photo submitted to UW Insect Diagnostic Lab in September, 2021.

One study* found that fall armyworm eggs didn’t hatch at all if temperatures were cool enough (though not particularly chilly by Wisconsin standards). That particular study simulated daytime/nighttime temperatures of 21˚C (70˚F) and 8˚C (46˚F)—temperatures that are “in the ballpark” for many parts of Wisconsin by mid-September and are often considered downright “pleasant” by Wisconsinites.  Eggs held at warmer temperatures in the experiment hatched just fine.

For eggs that did hatch this year in Wisconsin, cool temperatures also could have helped us out by slowing down their development. As they grow, fall armyworms pass through six sub-stages (instars). The early instar caterpillars are so small, they simply can’t eat much and cause little damage. It’s not until FAW caterpillars become more mature fifth and sixth instars that they really start to chow down and cause significant damage to plants. Thus, falling temps could help prevent the fall armyworm caterpillars from making it to the destructive late instar stages and could also leave them more exposed to a variety of threats.

Chart showing quantity eaten by fall armyworm larval instars.
Graphic representation of the amount eaten by fall armyworm caterpillars in an early USDA experiment. Early instar caterpillars eat little compared to late instars. Cool temperatures limiting their development could help prevent damage by the FAW. Credit: USDA Technical Bulletin No. 34

The fall armyworm outbreak of 2021 could very well be a “once every few decades” type of event, and our northern location likely helped us avoid the significant problems seen in other states. However, if changing climate gives the fall armyworm a “head start” by overwintering farther north, it’s possible that we could see more of this pest in Wisconsin in the future.


*Barfield, Mitchell, and Poe. 1987. A Temperature-Dependent Model for Fall Armyworm Development.  Annals of the Entomological Society of America. 71(1): 70-74.

Spotted Lanternfly: The Next Big Pest in Wisconsin?

Is the invasive spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula) poised to be a problem in Wisconsin? Only time will tell, but the threat is definitely real.

Spotted lanternfly adult
Adult spotted lanternfly. Photo credit: Emelie Swackhamer, Penn State University, Bugwood.org

What is the spotted lanternfly?
If you haven’t heard of the spotted lanternfly (SLF) before, it may be because this insect hasn’t been spotted in the upper Midwest yet. This invasive planthopper is native southeast Asia and was first spotted in the US (eastern Pennsylvania) in 2014. It has since spread to nearby states in the eastern part of the country. This plant-feeding pest poses significant concerns for both agricultural producers and the general public.

What do spotted lanternflies look like?
Spotted lanternfly adults and juveniles have a unique appearance and can easily be distinguished from our native insects. Adults are roughly 1 inch long with grey and black spotted forewings and bright pink patches on the hindwings; their abdomen is black and yellow. Although they have wings, adults are generally weak fliers and tend to walk or hop. The wingless juveniles (nymphs) are smaller than adults and are mostly black with white spots. When nearly mature, juveniles are red and black with white spots.

In contrast to the conspicuous adults and juveniles, the eggs have a subdued appearance. The small, brownish, seed-like eggs are laid in batches of 30-50 and are covered with a grayish putty-like material. These egg masses can resemble dried mud.

 

What is the life cycle of the spotted lanternfly?
The spotted lanternfly has one generation per year. In late summer, SLF females deposit egg masses containing 30-50 seed-like eggs on trees or other objects. After making it through the winter, the eggs hatch in late spring and juveniles emerge. Juveniles can’t fly, but can walk or hop on plants. The juveniles feed and grow over the course of two months before transforming to adults in mid-summer. Adults are present into the fall as they feed, mate, and lay eggs.

What do spotted lanternflies feed on?
Spotted lanternfies are plant feeders. Their preferred host plant is the invasive tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima), which occurs in its native range in China. However, this pest is known to feed on over 100 different plants. Certain agricultural crops can be attacked, including: hops, pome fruit (apples, pears, etc.), stone fruit (peaches, plums, cherries, etc.), nut trees, grapes, and others. The spotted lanternfly can also feed on a wide range of landscape and forest trees and shrubs which can pose concerns for plant nurseries, homeowners, landscapers, and tree care professionals. Tree and shrub species known to be attacked include: maples, oaks, hickories, walnuts, cherries, catalpa, willows, serviceberry, roses, lilacs, and many others. Spotted lanternflies can feed gregariously and hundreds or thousands of individuals are sometimes spotted on tree trunks or branches.

What type of damage to they cause?
When SLFs feed, they use needle-like mouthparts to pierce plant structures to drink sap. Not only does this wound plants and create potential entry points for disease pathogens, but wounds may continue to ooze for some time—creating an unsightly mess. Significant feeding could cause dieback of branches of trees or shrubs and reduce yields of agricultural crops. The presence of SLF adults at the time of harvest could also pose a potential contamination concern for certain crops. In addition, spotted lanternflies excrete honeydew (undigested sugars) in their waste, which can lead to the growth of black sooty mold on the trunk or base of trees.

Aggregation of spotted lanternfly adults and damage at base of tree
Aggregation of spotted lanternfly adults, oozing feeding wounds, and growth of black sooty mold at base of a tree. Photo credit: Emelie Swackhamer, Penn State University, Bugwood.org

What’s the invasion risk from spotted lanternfly?
There’s significant concern about the spread of the spotted lanternfly. Since the first detection in Pennsylvania in 2014, this insect has already spread to many other states in the eastern US. Overall, spotted lanternflies mostly walk or hop (adults are weak fliers), but they are good at “hitchhiking” which may contribute to their spread; eggs are of particular concern. Egg masses are often laid on plant materials (e.g. tree trunks), but they can also be laid on man-made objects such as pallets, crates, automobiles, trailers, and other items. With their subtle appearance, egg masses can easily be overlooked and could be transported long distances. The movement of eggs could end up playing an important role in the spread of this insect over time.

A 2019 study evaluated potential spotted lanternfly habitat in the United States. The Midwest (including parts of Wisconsin) is expected to be good habitat for this invasive insect, highlighting the importance of early detection of this pest. If you suspect you’ve found the spotted lanternfly in Wisconsin: please take pictures, save any specimens you find, and contact me at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.


For additional information about the spotted lanternfly, check out these resources from the UW-Madison Division of Extension and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

The Summer of Springtails

With the unusually dry weather we’ve had in Wisconsin this year, I would not have predicted that springtails (Collembola), would have been one of the commonest samples at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this summer. In general, springtails tend to thrive under damp conditions. These tiny (<1/10 inch long), insect-like creatures are commonly associated with leaf litter, rich soil, compost, and mulch or plant beds outdoors where they feed on fungi and decaying plant materials.

Photograph of a springtail on a log.
A tiny springtail on a decaying log outdoors—a common place to spot these creatures. Photo credit: Melissa McMasters via Wikipedia.

Springtails are ubiquitous and can be found around the globe under a wide variety of conditions. In many parts of North America, you can even bump into large numbers of dark-colored springtails (snow fleas) bouncing around on the snow in winter.  Springtails are a fairly diverse group with over 15 Families in North America, so there’s a lot of variability in terms of the color and overall appearance.

Indoors, it’s usually too dry for springtails to survive or reproduce unless damp conditions exist. Occasionally, they can be found indoors in association with overwatered houseplants, new construction (due to residual moisture in construction materials), plumbing leaks, and other moisture issues. In many cases, when springtails are spotted indoors, they originated outside and simply snuck in but perish shortly thereafter due to desiccation.

Chart shwoing drought conditions in Wisconsin in June of 2021.
Drought conditions in Wisconsin—June of 2021. Much of the state experienced drier than usual conditions this year, with some parts experiencing extreme drought conditions. Photo credit: US Drought Monitor Program: https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu.

With the lack of precipitation and this year, I haven’t gotten the impression that springtails are necessarily thriving outdoors. However, the hot and dry conditions are likely forcing springtails to sneak into structures or other spots that may be slightly damper, darker, and cooler. When they do make it inside, springtails are often spotted near moisture sources—kitchen or bathroom sinks, showers or bathtub drains, and basement floor drains. Some good news is that springtails are completely harmless to humans, pets and homes, and in most cases won’t survive long.

Hundreds of springtails along a home's foundations.
Hundreds of springtails along a home’s foundation. Photo submitted for a recent case at the diagnostic lab.

The following tips can be helpful when springtails are a problem indoors:

  • Monitor both indoors and outdoors—Visually inspect for areas with lots of springtails and see if potential entrance points into structures are nearby. Indoors, glue board traps from the hardware store or garden center can be helpful tools for monitoring and management.
  • Manage vegetation near the foundation of homes and other structures—Plants near a foundation can hold in moisture and create good habitat for springtails, spiders, millipedes, and insects that can wander indoors. Having a gap of 1-2 feet or more between a structure and plants increases airflow and can decrease humidity.
  • Avoid excessive mulch—A thick layer of mulch can hold in moisture and may create good habitat for springtails and other arthropods.
  • Physical exclusion—Sealing up potential entrance points into a structure can help with many pests, including springtails. Caulk and expanding insulation foam can be helpful in this regard. Inspect and replace weather stripping to make sure that windows and doors seal properly. Pay particular attention to high priority areas such as along the foundation, around window and door frames, and basement window wells.
  • Keep indoor humidity low—Running a dehumidifier and/or air conditioning can help decrease moisture and make it harder for springtails to survive. Repair or correct any drainage, plumbing, or moisture issues that may be increasing humidity levels within a structure. Allow houseplants to dry out between waterings; soil that is kept damp can be a potential hangout for springtails indoors.
  • Insecticides—Since springtails sneaking in from outside don’t survive long, spraying indoors is generally not warranted or helpful. If springtails are highly problematic, treating cracks and crevices on the exterior of a structure may decrease the number making it inside but won’t eliminate them outright.

Hackberry Emperor Butterflies Take the Stage in Wisconsin

Wisconsin is home to roughly 150 species of butterflies. Some of these, like monarchs (Danaus plexippus), are well-known and easily recognizable. Other species can be more subtle in appearance (such as the “skippers”) or may not be particularly abundant. Nonetheless, we occasionally see localized “booms” of certain butterfly species from time to time. This year, the hackberry emperor butterfly (Asterocampa celtis) has taken the stage in some parts of the state.

Hackberry emperor butterfly with wings spread
Hackberry emperor butterfly. Photo credit, Richard Crook via Flickr.

In the last month, I’ve had more reports of hackberry emperor butterflies at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab than any other butterfly species. These reports have primarily come in from southcentral and southwestern Wisconsin. In some cases, hackberry emperors have been spotted by the thousands as they covered rural roads or transformed backyards into temporary live butterfly exhibits.  Hackberry emperors primarily occur in southern parts of the state where the food plant of the caterpillars (hackberry trees) can be abundant; they’re also known from parts of central and west central Wisconsin.

Hackberry emperors are mid-to-large sized butterflies with a wingspan of approximately 2 inches. Their brownish-orange and black wings are somewhat similar to certain other butterflies (such as the “Satyrs”), which can make identifying them a bit more challenging to the uninitiated. Luckily, there’s a distinctive row of black spots on the wings—one distinctive spot on the topside of each forewing and seven slightly smaller spots on each hindwing. When the undersides of the wings are viewed (such as when the wings are folded upwards at rest), these black spots are bordered with a bit of yellow, giving them an “eyespot” appearance.  A close relative and look-alike, the tawny emperor (Asterocampa clyton), lacks the large black spot on each forewing.

Hackberry emperor butterfly with wings folded at rest
Hackberry emperor butterfly lapping salt. Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher via Wikipedia.

Adults butterflies often serve as pollinators when they visit flowers for nectar, but hackberry emperors have slightly different behaviors.  They prefer to head to oozing tree wounds for sap or decaying plant materials in compost piles. They’re also fond of salts and can readily be spotted at puddles (a phenomenon simply known as “puddling”), at dung or carrion, lapping sweat from humans, or on roadways.

Hackberry emperor butterflies on a rural road
Thousands of hackberry emperor butterflies were recently spotted on roadways in southwestern Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Jay Watson, WI-DNR. [Photo used with permission]
After overwintering as partially-grown caterpillars, hackberry emperors complete their development in late spring with two broods (batches of adults) in southern Wisconsin.  We see the first batch of adults in June, with the other in August, so we may see more of this species later this summer. If you’re located in southern Wisconsin, keep an eye out for these abundant butterflies in 2021.

The ABCs Of Tick Season In Wisconsin

As weather gets warmer and the outdoors beckons, people across Wisconsin are spending more time with the activities they wait for all winter long, including picnicking, hiking, camping, boating, fishing and more. While thoughts might be turning to filling the cooler with cold beverages and packing enough charcoal for the grill, there’s another aspect to the season that demands attention: tiny ticks and their potential to cause big problems this time of the year.

Wisconsin is home to only a few common tick species, but some pose significant medical concerns to both humans and pets, such as Lyme disease. However, following the ABCs of tick prevention can help ensure that outdoor activities remain fun and safe for family and friends.

    • Avoid: Given their small size, ticks have limited mobility. To find hosts, ticks often hang out on plants — such as tall, weedy grasses along the edges of trails and in wooded areas with dense vegetation — and they wait for a mammal to pass by.  Steering clear of these areas can help reduce the chances of encountering ticks in the first place.
    • Be aware: Become familiar with common ticks and symptoms of tick-borne illnesses to know what to look for. Anybody bitten by a tick should get it properly identified and consult their health care provider about any potential medical concerns.
    • Clothing: Long-sleeved clothes provide a physical barrier to help prevent ticks from getting to skin. Wearing lighter-colored clothing such as khakis can also make it easier to spot darker-colored ticks. Tucking pants into socks can serve as an additional protection to make it harder for ticks to bite.
    • DEET and other repellents: A number of Environmental Protection Agency-approved repellents (such as DEET) can help keep ticks at bay when properly used. Always consult the product label for important usage instructions, such as application to skin versus clothing and how often to reapply. As another consideration, clothing can be treated with repellent products containing permethrin. These products designed for clothing treatments are often sold at outdoor and camping stores and can provide long-term protection from ticks when properly used. Some outdoor clothing brands even use fabrics impregnated with permethrin to provide protection for extended periods of time, even through repeated washings.
    • Examine: Tick checks can be an important precaution for both people and pets. To effectively transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, deer ticks have to be attached and feeding for extended periods of time, usually at least 24 hours. This time requirement for infection means that daily checks can help find and remove ticks before they’ve had a chance to transmit the bacteria. If a tick is found biting a person or pet, the best removal method is to use tweezers to grab near the tick’s mouth parts and use a slow steady pull to remove it.
    • Family pets: Don’t forget about four-legged friends — pets that spend time outdoors can also be affected by tick-borne diseases. Veterinarians should be consulted to select appropriate preventative tick (and flea) products. Topical repellent sprays are also available for those times people take their pets hiking in prime tick habitat. Pay special attention when selecting products for pets, as there are important differences between products available for dogs and cats. Always check with the veterinarian with any questions. For longer term prevention, Lyme disease vaccines for dogs are also available through veterinarians.

More information about ticks and tick-borne diseases is available through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Entomology and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

This article was previously published on the Wiscontext website.

In Defense of Ground Bees

“Ground bee” season is officially here, but before we get any further, let’s clear up a few things about these insects.  Ground-nesting bees get a lot of undeserved blame for stings that they simply aren’t responsible for.  Despite their claims, many folks have probably never been stung by an actual “ground bee”.  Every year I get plenty of calls about “angry stinging ground bees” in late summer, but these are almost always ground-nesting yellowjackets (Vespula spp.).  Undoubtedly, if you stumble into an in-ground yellowjacket nest, you’ll be forced to make a hasty retreat from the area as the colony defends itself.  But those aren’t bees

Entrance of a ground-nesting yellowjacket nest in late summer. These might be black and yellow, but they aren’t bees… Photo credit: Jeff Hahn, U. Minnesota.

While yellowjackets and bees are related (both belong to the insect order Hymenoptera along with the ants and sawflies), they belong to completely different families.  From a standpoint of taxonomic classification,  mixing up yellowjackets and bees would be like confusing dogs for cats, raccoons, or walruses (all belong to separate families within the mammalian order Carnivora).  We do technically have social, ground-nesting bees that can be ornery if disturbed (i.e., bumble bees), but folks generally recognize bumble bees by their large size and robust appearance.  

A solitary ground nesting bee guarding the entrance to its nest in a city park in Middleton, WI. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

So what about these other “ground bees”?  Most bees (about 2/3 of all bees) are actually ground-nesting species.  In the Midwest, we’ve got around 500 different bee species, meaning there are hundreds of ground-nesting species around us.  Our common ground-nesting bees include species of: cellophane bees, mining bees, squash bees, longhorned bees, sweat bees, and others. For the most part, these ground-nesting bees are solitary creatures that live alone, although many nests can occur in the same general area as shown in the video clip below.  They often prefer sunny, open areas with thin ground cover or bare, sandy soil and can be common in parks and home lawns.  

To a certain extent, solitary bees can be thought of as the insect equivalent of “preppers”.  Each bee digs her own nest—a small, bunker-like tunnel in the ground, which looks like an ant hill.  Not only do the females have to construct these shelters, but she has to gather all of the provisions needed for her young to survive inside—often in the matter of just a few weeks.  The female bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers to create a nutritious substance called bee bread, which they place into small chambers (cells) and lay an egg.  Once the eggs hatch, the young bees (larvae) have all the supplies they’ll need to grow and develop in their survival bunkers.  

Most of these ground bees have a single generation per year.  The adult bees are out and active for a short period of time (often a few weeks), before they’re done and gone for the year.  When they are active, our solitary bees can be excellent pollinators and can be more efficient than honey bees in some regards.  However, their pollination services often go unrecognized and unappreciated by the general public.  While news articles regularly sound the alarm about honey bee declines, we should really be much more concerned about the potential loss of our solitary bee species, as they’re more sensitive to disturbances, pesticides, and other stressors.

Post-jog entomologist next to five solitary bee nests. These bees are extremely gentle and unlikely to sting. This portion of a local park had thousands of solitary bees flying around. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

If you spot ground bees this time of the year, is there any reason for concern? No. Solitary ground-nesting bees are great to have around.  Being solitary nesters, these ground bees don’t have a large colony of  adult relatives to defend and they end up being surprisingly gentle and unlikely to sting.  Overall, they pose little risk to people or pets.  The best thing to do is to simply let them be and appreciate the pollination services they provide. 

If you’d like to learn more about Wisconsin’s bees, check on the Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide or the US Forest Service’s Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees. If you have solitary ground-nesting bees in your yard and would like to teach others about these amazing pollinators,  click the image below to get a  sign to laminate and post:

A yard sign about wild bees

Brood X Cicadas in the Midwest?

Will we see Brood X cicadas in Wisconsin or the upper Midwest this year? Read on to find out: Cicadas—they’re all over the news and soon to be out by the billions. All this buzz is about periodical cicadas, a group of species from the genus Magicicada which emerge once every 17 years (or every 13 years in some cases). Periodical cicadas are only found in the eastern United States and vary by location and the timing of their activity. To help categorize these insects, entomologists refer to each cohort of cicadas as a “brood” and have numbered them with Roman numerals. This year’s cicadas are referred to as Brood X (i.e., Brood ten) and last emerged in 2004.

Two periodical cicadas on a rock
Brood XIII periodical cicadas in Lake Forest, IL in June of 2007. Photo Credit: Janet and Phil via Flickr (CC).

Periodical cicadas are amongst the longest lived insects and their long life span and massive emergences are believed to be a survival strategy—by overwhelming predators with sheer numbers, they simply can’t all be eaten. But the wait for their appearance is a long one.  Periodical cicadas spend 17 years below ground as juveniles (nymphs) feeding on the sap from tree roots, before making their way above ground. Their emergence is associated with soil temperatures, and when the soil has warmed to 64˚F, they emerge. This corresponds to parts of April, May, or June depending on the location on the map. Once they make their way above ground, the cicadas molt and transform into adults.  Shortly thereafter, a raucous mating free-for-all commences. After mating, the females cut small slits into twigs of trees to deposit their eggs. The eggs hatch and the juveniles head to the soil for their lengthy development. Periodical cicadas don’t live long as adults (a matter of weeks), so it’s a long build up to a noisy grand finale.

Ground covered by periodical cicadas
Ground covered by periodical cicadas. When these insects emerge, it can be by the billions! Photo credit: James St. John, via Wikipedia (CC).

With all the attention in the news, many Wisconsinites and other Midwesterners are wondering if they’ll be able to see or hear Brood X cicadas in their area this year. For Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and most of Michigan and Illinois the answer is noalthough they aren’t terribly far away either. Brood X cicadas can be found in over a dozen eastern states, but primarily emerge in three main pockets:

  1. Indiana, Ohio and nearby slivers of eastern Illinois and southern Michigan
  2. Southern Pennsylvania and parts of nearby Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York
  3. Eastern Tennessee and nearby parts of North Carolina and Georgia
Periodical Cicada Brood Map from US Forest Service
Map of active periodical cicada broods of the United States. Map credit: USDA Forest Service. Click map for full size version and additional information.

While we won’t see Brood X cicadas here in Wisconsin, we will see other periodical cicadas in the not so distant future. Wisconsin is home to Brood XIII cicadas, which last emerged in 2007, meaning that the next big emergence in the Badger State is only a few years off in 2024. In the meantime, we’ll still see and hear plenty of our typical “dog day” cicadas during the warm days of summer.  To learn more about Brood XIII cicadas in Wisconsin, check out this post from last year.

The Monarch’s Precarious Position

Endangered. It’s an imposing term and not one to be taken lightly. Monarchs have been in a perilous spot for years and there have been rumblings of potentially listing monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) as endangered by the US Fish & Wildlife Service. After delays, we finally received a decision in December of 2020—“warranted but precluded”.

Monarch butterfly on the UW-Madison Campus. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

In a technical sense, labeling a species as endangered isn’t as simple as merely placing it on a list. There’s a lengthy review process and potential species are evaluated in terms of how pressing their situation is. In the case of monarchs, the “warranted” part of the decision indicates that monarchs are indeed in need of protection. The alarming part is the “but precluded” statement—it essentially means that other species are facing even more pressing situations and are ahead in line. Some consider us to be in the midst of the “sixth” major extinction event on planet earth, although this one differs in that it’s caused by humans. In short, there are a lot of species that will be facing declines and extinction. At the time of the monarch’s decision from US FWS, there were currently 161 other species listed ahead of monarchs in the priority queue.

Unfortunately, since the US FWS decision last December, we’ve had some alarming news come out about monarch populations. First, it’s helpful to understand monarchs in the US as we actually have two main populations: a western population and an eastern population.

The western population can be found in states such as California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah west of the Rocky Mountains (a natural barrier to dispersal). While we may think of monarchs migrating to the area outside of Mexico City, this western population heads from their summer grounds to overwinter in parts of southern California. Unfortunately in January of 2021, the Xerces Society reported that only 1,914 total overwintering monarch butterflies were counted—a 99.9% decrease over the last 30 years. For comparison, a similar assessment conducted  in 1997 estimated over 1.2 million overwintering monarchs. Experts have estimated a critical “extinction threshold” of 30,000 monarchs for this western population to hang on. With fewer than 2,000 monarchs spotted in late 2020, the western monarch’s situation can’t get any more urgent.

In the Midwest, we see the eastern monarch population which ranges over much of eastern North America east of the Rocky Mountains. These are the monarchs that make the long perilous flight to overwinter in the mountains outside of Mexico City. While the eastern monarch population’s situation isn’t necessarily as dire as out west, it’s still tenuous to say the least. An assessment of the eastern population is usually released in late winter and the most recent estimate found a 26% drop in overwintering monarch populations compared to last year. Over the last 20 years, the eastern monarch population has declined by approximately 90%. With larger numbers of butterflies in the eastern population, scientists don’t count individual butterflies to gauge their numbers. Instead they estimate the area occupied by densely-packed overwintering monarchs clustered together by the thousands on pine trees at their overwintering habitat in Mexico. The recent assessment found monarchs packed into an area of 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres). While this may sound like a big area packed to the gills with butterflies, it’s estimated that 6 hectares (14.8 acres) of overwintering monarchs is a “critical mass” needed to maintain the eastern population. Unfortunately, the news of both the eastern and western monarch populations comes as a punch to the gut since their numbers have been trending downwards over time.

Assessment of overwintering monarch butterflies, released 2021. Source: MonarchWatch.  Click for more detail.

While monarchs may be in a tight spot, they aren’t gone yet. With the “warranted but precluded” finding, the US Fish & Wildlife Service now considers monarchs a “candidate” species for listing and will continue to assess the situation as higher priority species are added to the endangered species list. In the meantime, if you’re looking for ways to help monarchs, the Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative was created in 2018 to coordinate conservation efforts of this species in our state—check out their website to see what you can do to help the monarchs: https://wiatri.net/Projects/Monarchs/.

Hindsight: 2020 Trends at the Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab

When the COVID situation reared its head back in March of 2020, I wasn’t sure how it would impact activities at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.  While there was a shift to handling diagnostics mostly remotely, in the end, 2020’s caseload of 2,533 ID requests was just shy of 2019’s all-time record of 2,542 cases.  

With Governor Evers’ Stay-at-Home Order last spring, our attentions were occupied by the unraveling pandemic and caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab was lighter than usual around that time.  However, as Wisconsinites shifted to working from home, it meant spending more time in yards and many Wisconsinites pulled out their green thumbs and established COVID “Victory Gardens”.  As a result, the diagnostic lab saw a record number of cases in July of 2020, with close to 600 ID requests that month alone. 

Monthly caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab in 2020. Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

Outreach activities of the lab saw a dramatic shift as well.  With in-person presentations and workshops off the table, virtual events afforded new opportunities—like a Japanese beetle seminar in July which drew nearly 900 participants. Regular events, like my appearances on WPR’s The Larry Meiller Show also continued through 2020, although I fielded calls from my home’s “reading nook” rather than the WPR studio.  

One of the biggest insect stories of 2020 was the Asian giant hornet.  Last May we learned that Asian giant hornets had survived the winter in the Pacific Northwest.  This of course led to a distinct increase of so-called “sightings” of that insect in Wisconsin, although every  “sighting” ended up being common insects from our area.  Last year, I saw dozens of ID requests for insects which ended up being look-alikes such as cicada killer wasps, pigeon horntails, and great golden digger wasps.  To date, the nearest sighting of the Asian giant hornet is well over 1,000 miles from us here in Wisconsin and poses no immediate threat to the upper Midwest.  Further reading: 6 Things to Know about the Asian Giant Hornet.

Some invasive pests had big years as well.  The viburnum leaf beetle, lily leaf beetle, purple carrot seed moth, and brown marmorated stink bug all increased their footholds in the state. Japanese beetle numbers varied a lot depending on where you were located in Wisconsin.  Some areas saw little pressure during droughty periods, while other parts of Wisconsin saw high Japanese beetle activity.  Gypsy moths had been quiet in Wisconsin for several years, but increased their numbers last year.  I saw a distinct increase of gypsy moth cases in 2020, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on that species in 2021.   

Come fall, we saw some stretches of unseasonably pleasant temperatures in October, November, and December.  During those periods, multicolored Asian lady beetles—which had been lurking in the background for several years—returned to the spotlight.  The multicolored Asian lady beetle activity around Wisconsin was some of the highest of the last decade.  Not to be left out of the fun, minute pirate bugs were abundant in some parts of the state and made warm, sunny fall days a little less pleasant due to their biting habits.  Speaking of biting insects, black flies were abundant in 2020 and made outdoor activities more challenging in June and July.  Mosquito activity varied around the state, although we did see a few cases of the Eastern Equine Encephalitis in 2020.

While we won’t see a big emergence of 17-year periodical cicadas in Wisconsin until 2024, small numbers of out-of-sync “stragglers” did emerge in southeastern Wisconsin last summer. 

A female Dryinid wasp. The forelegs are highly modified into scythe-like claws used to grasp other insects. Photo credit: Ty Londo.

No two years are the same at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and that includes some of the “X-Files” type cases as well.  Some of my favorite cases from 2020 include identifying phorid flies from dead radioactive cats (it’s a long story…), a grim-reaper-esque dryinid wasp, several massive black-witch moths from Central America, and a case involving a black widow spider found in a head of broccoli from the grocery store.  Never a dull moment at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab!

—PJ Liesch
Director, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Fungus Gnats: Tiny Flies Around Your Houseplants

With winter’s arrival, the caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is low, although ID requests continue to trickle in. Recently, dark-winged fungus gnats (Family Sciaridae) are one of the commonest insects I’ve seen at the lab. These tiny (1/16 – 1/8 inch long), dark-colored flies are almost always associated with houseplants.

Adult fungus gnat showing the distinctive, curved “Y” fork in the wings.  Photo Credit: B. Schoenmakers, via Wikipedia.

Despite their small size, adult fungus gnats can readily be identified by their wing venation. Using a bit of magnification, the translucent wings of these insects possess an oblong, rounded “Y” towards the tips of the wings. While the delicate adults gnats may catch our attention, the larvae are at the root of the problem. The slender, worm-like larvae possess a dark head capsule and live in moist environments.

The connection with houseplants has to do with the feeding habits of the larvae. Fungus gnat larvae generally aren’t plant pests, but scavenge on fungal spores. If the soil of a houseplant is kept too moist, it can create ideal conditions for them. An abundance of fallen decaying plant materials (leaves, etc.) on the soil surface can also contribute. Some of the commonest sources of fungus gnats (and other houseplant pests) are “outdoor” plants which were brought indoors in the fall.

Adult fungus gnats may be a nuisance, but are harmless and short-lived. They will often be observed near potted houseplants (where females can lay eggs) or at nearby windows. When it comes to fungus gnat problems, the following approaches can be helpful:

Sticky card traps can be a useful non-chemical approach for monitoring fungus gnat populations over time and capturing adults. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

1) Dry out the Soil: Fungus gnat larvae thrive in damp soil or potting mix. Cutting back on waterings is often the single most important step in dealing with fungus gnats and the mere presence of these gnats is often an indicator of overwatering. Allowing the soil to dry out between waterings decreases survival of the larvae. For succulents and other popular plants that are tolerant of dry conditions, cutting back on waterings can often correct a fungus gnat issue over time without any additional steps.

2) Sticky Card Traps: These traps look like bright yellow index cards, but are covered with a sticky adhesive. When purchased at local hardware stores, garden centers, or online, they usually include small stakes to help place these cards into pots. The adult fungus gnats are attracted to the color of the traps and can become stuck in the adhesive. Used alone, these traps will not eliminate fungus gnats. However, these traps are a non-chemical way to capture adults and can help when used in combination with other approaches. If you have significant fungus gnat numbers, swapping out sticky cards on a regular basis can help monitor for trends over time.

3) Soil Monitoring: If you have lots of houseplants, determining which plant(s) is/are harboring the larvae can be a challenge. One helpful approach is to place slices of potato on the soil surface of potted plants. If larvae are present in a given pot, some may come to the surface to feed on the readily-available starches of the potato. Checking the potato slices for the presence of the dark-headed larvae can help determine where to focus your attention.

4) Cultural Practices: If fungus gnats are really bad, it can sometimes make sense to discard a problematic plant to prevent it from serving as a continual source of fungus gnats. Alternatively, a favorite plant could be washed to bare roots and re-potted in fresh potting mix. When obtaining new plants, it can be helpful to isolate and monitor new plants for fungus gnat or other insect activity before placement amongst other houseplants.

5) Soil Treatments: With severe or persistent infestations of fungus gnats or in cases where watering can’t be reduced, treating the soil is an option to directly target the larvae. The commonest option is to use a product labelled for use on houseplants containing Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). These products are based on a naturally-occurring bacteria that is toxic to fly larvae. Such products can be applied as a liquid drench (e.g., Gnatrol) or as granules (e.g., Mosquito Bits) to the soil surface and watered in. Such products won’t eliminate fungus gnats overnight, but can be effective over the course of several weeks.

6) Sprays for Adult Fungus Gnats: Spraying for adult fungus gnats with is not generally effective or recommended.  Targeting the adults will only provide temporary relief and it is much more effective in the long-run to target the larvae at the heart of the problem.

University of Wisconsin Madison