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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Great Golden Digger Wasp: Another Asian Giant Hornet Look-Alike

With the media craze about “murder hornets” this past spring, I’ve seen a definite increase in reports of Asian giant hornet look-alikes at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this summer.  Many folks recognize the commonest look-alike in the Midwest, the eastern cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus), which becomes active in July around the time that their prey (cicadas) start emerging.  Another look-alike is one that you might not have bumped into before—the great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus).  Similar to Asian giant hornets, great golden digger wasps are large and nest in the ground, which are reasons why they may be mistaken for the former.

If you haven’t spotted one before, great golden digger wasps can be a bit intimidating in appearance as they can easily be over an inch long.  However, their anatomy and appearance are quite different compared to Asian giant hornets.  Great golden digger wasps are mostly black with a rusty-reddish color at the base of the gaster (“abdomen”).  Their legs are the same reddish color and the black thorax and head possess fine golden setae or “hairs” (hence “golden” in their name).  In contrast, Asian giant hornets have distinctive black and yellow stripes on their gaster and a vibrant yellowish-orange head.  Great golden digger wasps belong to the “thread-waisted” wasp family (Family Sphecidae) and have a long, slender petiole (“waist”).  This isn’t as thin and narrow as the “waist” of the related black and yellow mud dauber (Sceliphron caementarium), but still is quite noticeable when viewed from the side.

Great golden digger wasp
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus); note the slender petiole or “waist”. Photo credit: Judy Gallagher, via Wikipedia.

In terms of their biology, both Asian giant hornets and great golden digger wasps do nest in the ground, but the similarities end there.  The Asian giant hornet is really quite similar to our ground-nesting yellowjackets in terms of their nesting behavior.  These are social creatures which start nests from scratch in spring and build up in size over the course of the warmer months.  Colonies ultimately die out in fall except for the “new” queens which overwinter.  With a large colony of relatives to defend, social wasps can be defensive, especially when colonies are at peak size.

In contrast, great golden digger wasps are solitary ground nesters.  Without a large colony of relatives to defend, they’re usually non-aggressive and very unlikely to sting.  Stings are only likely if one were to pick one up bare-handed—in which case you might be asking for it!  Similar to cicada killer wasps, each female great golden digger wasps excavates small tunnels in sandy soil and provisions them with prey for their young to feed on.  In the case of the great golden digger wasp, prey consists of katydids, crickets, and relatives from the “grasshopper” group (Order Orthoptera).  Rather than kill outright, the females inject their prey with a paralytic “cocktail” to keep them alive and fresh for their young to feed on—what a way to go!  In addition to hunting katydids, adult great golden digger wasps visit flowers and can be beneficial pollinators.

Great golden digger wasp on flower
Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) drinking nectar from a flower. Photo credit: Roy Niswanger, via Flickr.

Because they’re unlikely to sting humans, controlling great golden digger wasps is rarely justified and these magnificent creatures can simply be admired.  Ultimately, these wasps are strongly associated with sandy soil, so if you see them in your yard every year and would prefer to not have them around, modifying the landscaping may be a long-term option to dissuade them from an area.


Author’s note: As of August 2020, Asian giant hornets have not been found in Wisconsin or anywhere in the Midwest.  In North America, these insects are only known from far northwestern Washington state and nearby parts of British Columbia. 

See this earlier post for additional details on the Asian giant hornet.

Some Insects Don’t Understand Social Distancing

In the grand scheme of things, most insects (and spiders) are loners.  Perhaps they set a good example for us in 2020 with their social distancing.

Of course, insects have to find a mate to reproduce at some point in their lives*, but out of the 1 million+ described insect species, being truly “social” isn’t the norm.  There certainly are some well-known examples of insects that are eusociali.e., they live together as a colony.  Examples include ants, certain types of wasps (such as yellowjackets and paper wasps), some bees, termites, and a few other interesting examples.  However, there are many insects that are much more solitary in their habits.  If you think of our bees in the Great Lakes region, we have roughly 500 species.  Other than honey bees, bumble bees and a few others, the vast majority of these species are solitary creatures with each female doing her own thing.

Two herds of Cerastipsocus venosus barklice. Photo submitted to UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

Interestingly, there’s a quirky insect that can be commonly encountered this time of the year and it missed the memo on social distancing.  I’m referring to an interesting species of barklouse (Order Psocodea): Cerastipsocus venosusBarklice are relatives of true lice (e.g., head lice and pubic lice) but they’re really quite harmless to humans and tend to be scavengers.  Barklice make up an obscure group of insects and many entomology students simply identify them to “order” level as this group can be challenging to narrow down further to family, genus, or species.

Group of Cerastipsocus venosus juveniles. Note the striped abdomens which make them easy to identify. Photo submitted to UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.iny

If you haven’t encountered Cerastipsocus venosus (aka “tree cattle”) before, it might catch you off guard to find a group (formally known as a “herd”) of these small insects hanging out together on the bark of a tree or a rock in your yard.  The tiny juveniles are particularly striking with yellow stripes on their abdomens.  The adults are larger (up to 1/4″ long) and possess black wings.

A Cerastipsocus venosus adult. Note the black wings, which are only found in the adults. Photo submitted to UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

Rest assured, these barklice pose no threat to trees or other plants in our yard and these native insects simply nibble on lichens, and pieces of dead tree bark.  Every year I get many reports of these insects in mid- and late- summer at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and there’s no need to spray or do anything about these if you spot them in your yard.  These barklice don’t seem to stay in the same place for very long, so perhaps their herds just move along looking for greener pastures.


*Some insects are able to reproduce asexually, and don’t technically have to find a mate…

Cicada Mania in Wisconsin?…Not ‘Til 2024

Perhaps you’ve heard some buzz about periodical cicadas (Magicicada spp.) lately. These insects resemble our typical “dog day” cicadas, which we see in mid-to-late summer in Wisconsin, but they are orange and black with vibrant reddish eyes instead of a dull greenish color. Parts of the US are currently seeing mass emergences of periodical cicadas, which appear by the millions every 13 or 17 years depending on the species. I’ve had a number of questions this last month asking if this was “the year” for us to see them in Wisconsin, but it’s not time for the big show…yet.

Left: A common “dog day” cicada; photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. Right: A peridoical cicada; photo credit: Jay Sturner, via Wikipedia

Periodical cicadas are sorted into cohorts known as “broods”, which occur in particular geographic areas and emerge at specific points in time. For the most part, these insects are excellent timekeepers and some broods have been documented as far back as the 1600’s in the eastern US. There are entire websites and apps dedicated to these insects and their schedules, and scientists have labelled broods with Roman numerals to help differentiate the cohorts.

Map of active periodical cicada broods of the United States. Map credit: USDA Forest Service. Click map for full size version and additional information.

With all the broods out there, some parts of the US do see these cohorts overlap in space, but these can be separated by the years in which they emerge.  In Wisconsin, the situation is fairly straightforward as we only see a single brood: Brood XIII. Brood XIII’s 17-year cicadas last emerged in 2007, meaning that we’ve got four more years to wait until their mass emergence in 2024.

Interestingly, I’ve received a number of photos and reports of periodical cicadas in Wisconsin over the last month or so. I’ve had several confirmed reports from the Lake Geneva area (Walworth County) a confirmed report from southeastern Dane County, and a suspected report from Sauk County.  While most periodical cicadas stick to the schedule, occasionally some of these insects veer off course. These out-of-sync individuals are referred to as “stragglers” and it turns out that Brood XIII has a history of these stragglers. In the late 1960’s, large numbers of stragglers were documented in the Chicago area. Likewise, many of the Chicago suburbs are seeing a similar phenomenon this year. With that said, we did technically see some periodical cicadas this year, but we’ll have to wait a few more years before the real “fireworks”.

6 Things to Know About The Asian Giant Hornet

Asian giant hornets have hit the news recently, sometimes going by the name of “murder hornets”.  Below are six key things to know about these insects and the situation in North America:


1) What is the Asian Giant Hornet?
The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which is also known as the “great sparrow bee” in its native range (or recently sensationalized as the “murder hornet”) is a wasp species native to parts of southern and eastern Asia. The Asian giant hornet is amongst the world’s largest wasps, with queens approaching a length of 2 inches (typically ~1.5 inches). Workers and males are smaller, but still measure over an inch long. Asian giant hornets have a distinctive appearance with a bright yellowish-orange head, a dark body, and alternating dark and yellowish stripes on the gaster (“abdomen”). This species creates subterranean nests, which commonly have a peak workforce of around 100 workers.

A distinctive Asian giant hornet adult. Photo Credit: Washington State Dept. Agriculture, Bugwood.org

Asian giant hornets pose threats as an invasive species in North America. These insects are efficient predators with complex hunting behaviors. While Asian giant hornets prey upon a wide range of insects, they are capable of attacking honey bees. Under the right conditions, Asian giant hornets can decimate hives of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) within a few hours.  Their potent stings can also pose medical concerns for humans.


2) What’s the risk in the Midwest?
Based on the current situation, the risk from Asian giant hornets in Wisconsin and the Midwestern US is extremely low. To date, Asian giant hornets have never been found in Wisconsin or surrounding states. A very small number of Asian giant hornets were spotted in southwestern British Columbia and northwestern Washington state in the second half of 2019. For Wisconsin, these sightings have been roughly 1,500 miles from us. At the time this article was written (early May 2020), Asian giant hornets had not been spotted in North America in 2020. Update 5/27: we recently learned that AGHs have made it through the winter in North America.  This species recently resurfaced, as reported in the New York TimesDespite this recent finding, all confirmed sightings of the AGH are from the Pacific Northwest and these insects pose little risk for the Midwest at this time.


3) What’s the timeline of the Asian giant hornet story?
Asian giant hornets have gotten a lot of attention in the news recently, but these stories really missed the main “action”, which occurred roughly half a year ago. (Imagine if Sport Illustrated took half a year to write about the Super Bowl’s winning team!). The story of the Asian giant hornet in North America began in August of 2019 when a beekeeper in Nanaimo, British Columbia (SE Vancouver Island) spotted these wasps. Three specimens were collected at the time and their identity was confirmed.

Also in August of 2019, a beekeeper in Northern Bellingham, Washington (US) observed Asian giant hornets, but no specimens were collected. Back in Nanaimo, British Columbia, an Asian giant hornet nest was located and eradicated in an urban park (Robin’s Park) in September. A month later (late October, 2019) a specimen was photographed in nearby mainland British Columbia (White Rock, BC). Around that time, the same beekeeper in Northern Bellingham, Washington observed Asian giant hornets attacking a hive. The last sighting of the Asian giant hornet occurred near Blaine, Washington in December of 2019, when a dead specimen was collected and a live specimen was spotted at a hummingbird feeder.

Update June, 2020: Small numbers of AGHs have been reported in North America—but only in the pacific Northwest. 


4) Have Asian giant hornets become established in North America?
The ability of the Asian giant hornet to survive and spread in North America is not understood at this time. In its native range, the Asian giant hornet is associated with forested and low mountainous areas with temperate or subtropical climates.  A key unanswered question at the moment is: have the Asian giant hornets successfully overwintered in North America? Update 5/27: we recently learned that AGHs have made it through the winter.  This species recently resurfaced, as reported in the New York Times.

Asian giant hornets overwinter as queens.  If previously fertilized, queens attempt to establish nests during the spring months. Established nests won’t produce the next batch of queens to carry on their “blood lines” until mid-fall, meaning that responders monitoring the situation in the Pacific northwest will have roughly half a year to hunt down any nests. For this reason, 2020 will be a critical “make or break” year in the story of the Asian giant hornet in North America.

Responders in the Pacific Northwest have plans to monitor for Asian giant hornets with traps and visual methods. If spotted, individual hornets can potentially be tracked back to their nest to allow responders to eradicate the colonies. Full details of the USDA response plan can be viewed here.


5) Health risks to humans are low
By referring to the Asian giant hornet as “murder hornets”, recent news stories have given the false impression that these insects pose a regular threat to humans. Many stories have repeated the claim that Asian giant hornets kill around 50 people a year in Japan, where these hornets naturally occur. In reality, the actual numbers are much lower. Based on publicly available data from the Japanese e-Stat statistics portal, from 2009-2018 an average of 18 deaths were reported annually in Japan from hornets, wasps, and bees combined. For comparative purposes, roughly twice as many annual deaths (average of 35) were reported as the result of slipping and drowning in bathtubs over that same period of time.

Annual Deaths in Japan due to hornets, wasps and bees. Data source: Japan e-State website (https://www.e-stat.go.jp/en)

Nonetheless, Asian giant hornets do have potent venom and 1/4 inch-long stingers, which pack a punch.  Due to their large physical size, a relatively large volume of venom can be injected leading to painful stings. If many stings occur (such as if one were to disrupt a nest), medical attention is advised.


6) Are there any look-alikes?
While we don’t have Asian giant hornets in Wisconsin or the Midwest, we have plenty of other insects that are currently being mistaken for the Asian giant hornet or could be mistaken for these hornets later this year. Panicked individuals thinking they’ve found an Asian giant hornet might end up killing native, beneficial insects which pose little risk to humans—such as bumble bee queens, which are currently trying to establish their nests for the year.

Historically, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab receives many suspected reports of Asian giant hornets every year—all of these have been misidentifications by the submitters. To date, no confirmed sightings of the Asian giant hornet have occurred in Wisconsin or the Midwestern US. However, with the media spotlight on the Asian giant hornet, an increase in false reports is expected at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this year.  Click the diagram below to view a

Asian giant hornets and common look-alikes of the Midwest. Diagram organized by PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. Click for larger version.

full-size version.

 

Some of the commonest look-alikes include:

Cicada Killer Wasps (Sphecius speciosus) These are the closest match in terms of size. However, these solitary ground-nesting wasps are really quite harmless, unless you happen to be a cicada... Because these insects don’t have a colony to defend, they are very unlikely to sting.  This is the top look-alike reported to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab every year. For additional details see this post: Asian Giant Hornets—Nope!

Great Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus) These solitary ground nesting wasps capture and feed katydids and related insects to their young.  Because these insects don’t have a colony to defend, they tend to be docile.

Pigeon Horntails (Tremex columba) These primitive wasp-like insects develop inside of decaying trees as larvae and can be common.  They are not capable of stinging, but females do possess a prominent egg-laying structure (ovipositor).

Elm Sawflies (Cimbex americana) These plump, wasp-like insects cannot sting. The caterpillar-like larvae can feed on elms, willows, birches, and other hardwood trees.

Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.) The Midwest is home to over 20 species of bumble bees. These beneficial pollinators play important roles in the ecosystem. Bumble bees do live together as colonies and can act defensively if the nest is directly disturbed, but these important pollinators are generally docile. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and naturally die out in the fall.

Yellowjackets (Vespula spp. & Dolichovespula spp.) The Midwest is home to more than 10 species of yellowjackets. Common species, such as the German yellowjacket (Vespula germanica) are typically around ½ inch in length. Yellowjackets are social insects and depending on the species, nests can occur in the ground, in hollow voids (such as soffit overhangs or wall voids), or as exposed as papier-mâché type aerial nests. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and die out naturally in the fall.

Bald-Faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) Our largest social wasp in the Midwestern US, reaching lengths of approximately ¾ inch. Bald-faced hornets are technically a type of “yellowjacket” but have a distinctive black and white appearance. These insects create large papier-mâché type nests, which can approach the size of a basketball. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and die out in the fall.

5 Spring Butterflies to Brighten Your Day

Does the COVID-19 situation have you cooped up at home? If so, you’re not alone during these unusual times. With the shift towards working from home, folks are spending more time in their own yards and gardens as well as nearby parks and nature trails. Spending time out in nature can have notable health benefits, but it also gives us a great opportunity to observe the creatures around us—including insects, such as butterflies.

In Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest, summer may be “peak” butterfly season, but a number of species can be active early in the year.  These creatures might brighten your day during these tough times, and this guide will help you identify five of the commonest spring butterfly species in the Upper Midwest:


Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa):
This butterfly is often the first one seen in spring. It’s an easy species to identify given its large size (3-4 inch wingspan) and colors on the upper wing surface—dark wings bordered with a row of small blue spots and pale edges. Mourning cloaks overwinter as adult butterflies amongst leaf litter or in other sheltered spots, so as soon as it’s warm enough they can become active. This butterfly can catch people off guard if they fly while snow remains on the ground. In early spring when flowers haven’t bloomed yet, mourning cloak butterflies are fond of visiting the sap flows on trees caused by the activity of the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Mourning Cloak Butterfly
The mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa). Photo credit: Mike Lewinski via Flickr.

Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma):
Like the mourning cloak, eastern commas overwinter as adult butterflies, so they’re ready to go as temperatures creep upwards. Eastern commas have a wingspan of approximately 2 inches. When spread, the wings are mostly orange with black spots and borders.  The edges of the wings also have a “wavy” or “scalloped” appearance. The most distinguishing feature can be seen on the undersides of the wings when folded upwards: a small pale curved mark in the shape of a comma—hence the name. The closely-related question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) can also become active fairly early in the season and looks similar, but has a “?” shape on the underside of the hindwings.

Eastern Comma Butterfly
The eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma). Photo Credit: Matt Tillett via Flickr.
Eastern Comma Butterfly-Underside
The eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) displaying the distinctive white “comma” marking on the underside of its wings. Photo credit: Ryan Kaldari via Flickr.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta):
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is perhaps the best known migratory insect in our part of the world, but red admiral butterflies also migrate northwards in spring. The migratory behavior means that the arrival date and numbers can vary greatly from year to year, but red admirals can frequently be encountered in spring in the Upper Midwest. These butterflies have a wingspan of approximately 2 inches and have black wings with prominent white “!” marks near the tips of their forewings and a distinctive reddish-orange band cutting across the surface of their forewings.

Red Admiral Butterfly
The red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta). Photo credit: Kenneth Dwain Harrelson via Wikipedia.

Cabbage White (Pieris rapae):
Right around the start of the Civil War, the cabbage white made its first appearance in North America. Today, this European butterfly can be found widely distributed across much of the planet. Cabbage whites are indeed a whitish color with sooty black patches at the tips of their forewings. The forewings also possess black spots—1 spot for males, 2 for females. Their pale appearance and decent size (approximately 1 ¾ inch wingspan) make them easy to identify this time of the year.

Cabbage whites overwinter as chrysalises in the Upper Midwest, so they aren’t active quite as early as the mourning cloaks or eastern comma. However, the warmth of the sun can still lead to early spring sightings. Gardeners and vegetable farmers are well aware of this species since the caterpillars (“imported cabbageworms”) feed on plants from the mustard family—including broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage White Butterfly
A cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae). Photo credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr.

Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon ladon):
If you spot a cluster of small bluish butterflies around a puddle on a hiking trail in spring, there’s a good chance they’re spring azures. These butterflies are the smallest on this list, with a wingspan of only around 1 inch. The beautiful sky blue color of their wings can be seen in flight, but when they land, spring azures tend to keep their wings folded over their body, showing the grey undersides with an assortment of tiny black mark. There are many other species of small blue butterflies in our area throughout the year, but the spring azures are some of the earliest to fly and are wrapping things up for the year as June approaches.

Spring Azure At Rest
A spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon) at rest showing the undersides of the wings. Photo credit: Anita Gould via Flickr.
Spring Azure Butterfly
The beautiful blue spring azure butterfly (Celastrina ladon). Photo credit: Seabrooke Leckie via Flickr.

The Upper Midwest is home to over 150 butterfly species—each unique in its appearance, biology, and distribution. If you’re looking for some additional resources to learn about our butterflies, some of my favorites include: Butterflies of the Northwoods by Larry Weber, A Swift Guide to Butterflies of North America by Jeffrey Glassberg, and the Wisconsin Butterflies website (wisconsinbutterflies.org) by photographer Mike Reese. The Wisconsin Butterflies website not only has wonderful photos and a wealth of information about each species, but users can view and submit butterfly sightings from around Wisconsin.

Insect Diagnostics in the Age of COVID-19

In the last month,  COVID-19 has changed the ways that Americans go about their everyday lives. Here in Madison, WI, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has taken a number of steps in response to the COVID-19 situation such as switching to online classes for the remainder of the semester and having most employees work remotely. The full details of UW-Madison’s response can be found here: covid19.wisc.edu.

Despite the disruptions, part of the Wisconsin Idea is that the activities of institutions like UW-Madison should provide benefits to residents in all reaches of the state. To that end, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab remains open to provide insect/arthropod identification and outreach services to residents of Wisconsin, with some notable changes. Bookmark this page for updates which will be posted as they arise.

General Diagnostics & Questions:
Many of the services of the IDL, such as email photo submissions, remain unchanged. Important points are noted below:

  • Arthropod ID requests (insects, spiders, etc.) can still be submitted to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab
  • Digital photographs are the best way to submit an ID request in the time of COVID-19. See this webpage for required information and tips on submitting insect images.
  • Physical samples can also still be submitted to the diagnostic lab by mail. Per UW-CALS policy, the IDL’s building on campus is locked until further notice and samples cannot be dropped off in-person at this time. Please be aware that processing times will be slightly longer than usual for mailed-in samples, but I will be able to check for mail submissions on a regular basis. Please see this webpage for instructions on how to submit physical samples by mail.
  • General insect questions can still be submitted by email to pliesch@wisc.edu (best option) or by phone. I will continue to have regular email access while working remotely, but phone responses will likely be delayed.  Email will be the best way to reach me for the time being.

Outreach:
The UW Insect Diagnostic Lab regularly provides outreach around Wisconsin via public radio, workshops, public seminars, and other venues. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 situation is impacting in-person delivery of this outreach. See below for additional details:

  • In-person presentations provided by the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab have been cancelled until further notice.
  • If interested in distance education (via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, etc.), feel free to reach out to me by email (pliesch@wisc.edu) to coordinate.

In the meantime, stay safe and feel free to check out the many insect-related blog posts over the last few years to take your mind off of COVID-19: https://insectlab.russell.wisc.edu/blog/

Current auxiliary location of the UW-Insect Diagnostic Lab.

Snow Fleas: When a “Flea” isn’t a Flea

Fleas (Order Siphonaptera) can be an unwanted surprise—no one wants fleas on their pets or in their house.  Our commonest flea on both cats and dogs in the Midwest is the “cat flea” (Ctenocephalides felis), and this same species can also live on a wide range of wild animals.  Cat fleas may be annoying but can be controlled with a diligent multi-pronged approach: chatting with your veterinarian to pick a proper treatment for your pet and regular and thorough vacuuming. In heavy infestations, carpets and furniture may also need to be treated.  While fleas could be encountered anytime of the year, I see the vast majority of flea cases at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab in late spring and summer.  In contrast, cases of fleas are few and far between during the winter months due to the dry conditions and lower temperatures which can be hard on these insects.

There is one type of “flea”, however, that I see regularly through the winter months—the “snow flea”.  Snow fleas (Hypogastrura nivicola   and close relatives) aren’t actual fleas and rather than a pest, these harmless creatures are a beneficial curiosity.  Their cold tolerance and ability to launch themselves into the air account for their nickname.

Up-Close View of a Snow Flea. Photo Credit: Daniel Tompkins via Wikipedia

The snow fleas we’re talking about technically aren’t even insects and belong to a closely related group of arthropods known as springtails (Collembola).  Springtails get their name from the furcula—an anatomical structure on the underside of their bodies, which springs downwards to catapult them up into the air.  Springtails can’t “jump” very far by human standards given their tiny size (less than a tenth of an inch long), yet they can easily launch themselves many times their own body length in a mere blink of an eye (video).

The snow flea is unusual for springtails (and most arthropods) in the fact that these creatures can remain quite active during the winter months.  As discussed in this post from last March, insects and other arthropods have a variety of strategies to make it through winter, ranging from migration to freezing solid in some cases.  The vast majority of arthropods are inactive during winter, but some, like the snow flea, seem perfectly content wandering out on the snow.  With their tiny size and dark grayish bodies, snow fleas can almost look as if someone had dumped out a pepper shaker on the snow.

Snow fleas in their element. Photo Credit: Christa R. via flickr.

Their ability to remain active at frigid temperatures is due to the concentration of specific proteins in their bodies, which serve as a cryoprotectant or natural “antifreeze”.  During the rest of the year, these creatures simply blend in amongst fallen leaves where they scavenge upon decaying materials and help with nutrient recycling.

These creatures are truly a winter curiosity if you haven’t encountered them before.  The next time you’re out snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, keep an eye out for these tiny acrobats on the snow.


Final Note: Overseas, our friends in the UK have different creatures they refer to as snowfleas—insects from the genus Boreus, which we’d call “snow scorpionflies” in our area.

Blister Beetles—Unexpected Wisconsin Connections

Despite being winter, Wisconsin has recently been in the news because of insects—blister beetles—and their potentially deadly impacts on horses.  In addition to their medical significance, these insects have a long and interesting story with some surprising twists.

Margined blister beetle (Epicauta funebris). Photo credit: Johnny N. Dell, Bugwood.org.

Blister beetles comprise a diverse family of insects (Family Meloidae), with over 3,000 species known from around the globe. In the Unites States, we’ve got approximately 400 species, with the bulk of the diversity centered in the dry southwestern part of the country. However, this group is widely distributed across the lower 48 states, with nearly 30 species known from Wisconsin alone.

The common blister beetles species of the Upper Midwest are oblong and typically range from ½-inch to ¾-inch long, although other species can vary in size. Unlike the stereotypical “crunch” of most other beetles—think of accidentally stepping on a May/June beetle—blister beetles have softer bodies and are similar to fireflies in this regard. A few of our Midwestern species are striped or brightly colored, but many common species are dark-colored, being mostly black, grey, or a dark metallic green.

But don’t let their drab appearance fool you. Blister beetles wield a potent defensive toxin—cantharidin. In adult blister beetles, this compound is produced by males, which provide it to females during courtship. Females then use it to chemically protect their eggs.

An antique apothecary jar hints at the long medical history of cantharidin. Photo Credit: Hamburg Museum, via Wikipedia

The properties of cantharidin are well-known, and this chemical irritant and its coleopteran source have a surprising history dating back thousands of years. For example, Pliny the Elder knew of the toxic effects and mentioned blister beetles in his writings. Old medical reference books list a number of potential uses for cantharidin, ranging from the treatment of skin conditions to a supposed remedy for baldness. However, cantharidin might have harmed more than it helped. Dermal exposure has long been known to cause irritation and blistering—hence the common name of “blister beetles”. If ingested, symptoms can be much more serious: severe irritation of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts, kidney and heart damage, and a cascade of other undesirable effects. Human deaths have been recorded in the medical literature and in a recent report, a soldier consumed a single blister beetle on a dare and ended up hospitalized with acute kidney injury.

Surprisingly, cantharidin was also historically deployed as an aphrodisiac—Spanish fly. In the days before the little blue pill, Spanish fly was known for its ability to irritate the urethral lining to produce a “stimulating” effect.  In one historical report, French Legionnaires in North Africa complained of priapism after feasting upon frogs that had happened to eat blister beetles (frogs seem to be unaffected by cantharidin).

Humans aren’t the only creatures affected by blister beetles and horses are especially sensitive. Ingestion of only a few grams of cantharidin can potentially be lethal to an adult horse. Blister beetle poisoning is rare in equines, but can occur if the adult beetles happen to be in an alfalfa field feeding on blossoms at the time of harvest and are crushed by farm equipment. In an unfortunate situation, blister beetles have recently been reported in connection with the deaths of over a dozen horses in Mauston, Wisconsin.

Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, governor of Wisconsin (1901-1906), was known for his progressive politics and impressive head of hair. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Blister beetles have another noteworthy Wisconsin connection from the history books. The former governor of Wisconsin, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, was well-known for his progressive politics as well as an impressive head of hair. His secret?—a hair tonic containing cologne, oils of English lavender and rosemary, and a cantharidin-containing tincture made from blister beetles.

Beetlejuice on the brain?

Elongate Hemlock Scale: The Grinch Trying to Ruin Christmas

Christmas has come and gone in 2019, but an uninvited Grinch may still be lurking to steal the holiday spirit. The Grinch in this case isn’t the green gremlinesque being of Dr. Suess, but a tiny invasive insect known as the elongate hemlock scale (EHS). The elongate hemlock scale (Fiorinia externa) is native to Japan and was first detected in the US in Queens, New York over a century ago. Since that time, EHS has spread to 15 states in the eastern US.

A heavy infestation of elongate hemlock scales.  Heavy infestations can have significant impacts on conifers.  Photo Credit: Eric R. Day, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Bugwood.org.
A heavy infestation of elongate hemlock scales. Heavy infestations can have significant impacts on conifers. Photo Credit: Eric R. Day, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Bugwood.org.

Elongate hemlock scale attacks over 40 species of conifers—especially hemlocks which can be common throughout the Appalachian Mountains, and Fraser firs and balsam firs, which are commonly grown as Christmas trees. Certain types of spruces and pines can also be attacked. Established populations of elongate hemlock scale are not known from Wisconsin, but a recent detection of this pest in the state raises concerns for Christmas tree growers, the plant nursery industry, tree care professionals, and homeowners with conifer trees in their yards. Forested areas are also at risk, meaning the stakes are potentially high with this insect.

While insect activity is quiet in the Midwest this time of the year, we’re hearing about the elongate hemlock scale now due to its Christmas connection. Similar to 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection recently found that fir Christmas trees, wreaths, and other holiday decorations infested with EHS had been shipped to Wisconsin from North Carolina. The picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina provide ideal habitat for Fraser firs—one of the most popular species of Christmas trees. North Carolina grows approximately a quarter of all the Christmas trees sold in the US each year and with elongate hemlock scale established in that state, it increases the risk of movement of this invasive insect around the country.

The Blue Ridge Mountains near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee—the native habitat of Fraser firs. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.
The Blue Ridge Mountains near the border of North Carolina and Tennessee—the native habitat of Fraser firs. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

Elongate hemlock scales look unusual as far as insects go. These insects have traded mobility for defense—they hunker down on plants and produce a waxy coating which helps protect them from predators and parasites. As a result, elongate hemlock scales aren’t easily recognizable as insects since the usual signs of segmentation—body regions, legs, antennae—are not readily visible. Instead, these insects have a vague, oblong appearance. Adult females are small (just under 1/10th of an inch long) and are covered with a waxy brownish coating. They are typically found on the undersides of needles. Males are slightly smaller and develop beneath pale whitish coverings. Mature males do emerge with wings but are weak fliers and travel short distances to mate with the wingless, immobile females.

Two adult female elongate hemlock sales on the underside of a fir needle. Females are approximately 2 mm long. Photo Credit: Lorraine Graney, Bartlett Tree Experts, Bugwood.org

Under their protective coatings, these insects use needle-like mouthparts to suck fluids from plants. With their small size, damage occurs when large numbers of individuals infest plants. Their waxy coverings also limit the effectiveness of insecticides, making EHS a challenging pest to control if they become established.

Because elongate hemlock scale has been detected in Wisconsin this year in Christmas trees and other holiday decorations, a key objective at this point is to prevent this insect from getting a foothold in the state. By all means, continue to enjoy your holiday decorations, but when you’re ready to remove these materials, take the following steps to help prevent this insect from becoming established in Wisconsin:

1) If your Christmas tree or natural wreaths, garlands, or other decorations are from a local Christmas tree farm or elsewhere in Wisconsin, no special precautions are needed for elongate hemlock scale. Because EHS is not established in the state, these materials can be removed as usual at the end of the holiday season.

2) If your Christmas tree or natural wreaths, garlands, or other decorations are from a big box store, grocery store, or similar vendor, or if you are not sure of the origins of these materials, it is advised to check these materials for signs of elongate hemlock scale (i.e., brown spots on the undersides of needles). The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection is advising that infested or suspect materials preferably be burned (check with the DNR for any burning restrictions in your area). Alternatively, such materials could be bagged and discarded as waste. Infested or suspect materials should not be composted or used for wildlife habitat in your yard.


For additional information on elongate hemlock scale, visit the WI-DATCP EHS page and the recent press release about the 2019 EHS detection.

Insects on the Move: Viburnum Leaf Beetle

A perk of being an entomologist is being able to better understand the world through the tiny creatures around us.  However, this can also be a bit disheartening at times.  While vacationing in Florida several years ago, I remember visiting the beach and the first three arthropods I encountered were out of place—a honey bee (originally arrived with Europeans), a millipede from Caribbean islands, and a weevil from Sri Lanka.  I doubt any other beachcombers recognized the international gathering amongst the dunes that day.

A honey bee (Apis mellifera) on a Florida beach.
A honey bee (Apis mellifera) on a Florida beach. Honey bees arrived in North America with Europeans and aren’t native to our area. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Seeing the world this way really reinforces the notion that humans play a critical role in the movement of species around the planet.  Scientists can make their best predictions about invasive species, but there are plenty of surprises in terms of when and where a given species will turn up.  For high priority invasives, designated surveys and inspections are conducted by government agencies to help monitor the situation.  The general public can also play an important role in documenting the presence and distribution of invasive plants, insects, and other organisms.  In Wisconsin, for example, the Wisconsin First Detector Network (WIFDN) uses a network of citizen scientists and a smartphone app to document invasive species.       

White-spotted caterpillar of the purple carrot seed moth (Depressaria depressana) found in Middleton, Wi in July, 2019. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

In some cases, invasive species are simply stumbled upon.  Back in July, I bumped into the first case of the purple carrot seed moth in Dane county while riding some local mountain bike trails.  Along these lines, my wife and I were walking our dogs in early November when I spotted some suspicious damage on a row of viburnum shrubs.  A closer look revealed the distinctive feeding holes and egg pits of the invasive viburnum leaf beetlethe first evidence of an established infestation in Dane County

Egg pits of the viburnum leaf beetle on a viburnum twig.
Egg pits of the viburnum leaf beetle. Females chew small depressions in twigs of viburnum shrubs, lay several eggs, and cover the eggs with pits of chewed plant materials. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

The first established case of the viburnum leaf beetle in Wisconsin occurred in 2014 in northern Milwaukee county and a more detailed account of this species can be found in the original post on this blog.  Unfortunately, this invasive beetle has made some dramatic jumps on the map over the last few years—likely due to human movement of infested plant materials.  Back in 2017, VLB was detected in Oshkosh (Winnebago Co.). In June of 2019 viburnum leaf beetle was spotted in Hurley (Iron Co.) in far northern Wisconsin and was detected across the border in Ironwood, Michigan shortly thereafter. Other detections in 2019, include Racine and Walworth counties. 

Map of the the viburnum leaf beetle in Wisconsin.
Known distribution of the invasive viburnum leaf beetle in Wisconsin as of November 2019. Counties shaded in light blue had infestations known prior to 2019. VLB was detected in dark blue counties for the first time in 2019. Map: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

The viburnum leaf beetle can cause significant damage to viburnum shrubs and is already wreaking havoc in the greater Milwaukee area.  Viburnums, including American cranberrybush viburnum, arrowwood viburnum, and others are widely distributed in both urban and natural settings, meaning that Wisconsinites now need to keep an eye out for this damaging insect in new parts of the state.


To learn more about the appearance, damage, and biology of the viburnum leaf beetle, visit the original post and this factsheet.

University of Wisconsin Madison