Category Archives: Beetles

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?

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.

Red Alert for the Lily Leaf Beetle

Author’s Note: Post updated in October, 2019 with the first confirmed report of lily leaf beetle in Pierce County, WI


It’s been a big year for the lily leaf beetle (Lilioceris lilii) in Wisconsin.  The lily leaf beetle (or scarlet lily beetle) is an invasive Eurasian species that made its first appearance in the state back in 2014.  This species originally showed up in North America around the time of World War II, arriving in eastern Canada with shipments of plant materials.  It eventually spread into New England in the 1990’s and has been moving westward ever since.  True to its name, this species has a fondness for lilies and can cause significant damage to true lilies (Lilium spp.), including both native lilies and cultivated types. Fritillaries (Fritillaria spp.) can also be attacked by the lily leaf beetle, as well as lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum spp.) to lesser extents.  Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), canna lilies (Canna spp.), and calla lilies (Calla palustris) are not attacked.  The damage caused by lily leaf beetle can be severe.  Since its arrival roughly five years ago, some commercial flower growers in parts of Wisconsin have stopped growing and selling lilies altogether.

Severely damaged lily plants
A plant severely damaged by feeding activity of the lily leaf beetle. Photo credit: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

Adult lily leaf beetles are only about a quarter of an inch long but pack a punch when they chew irregular holes and notches in lily leaves, stems, and developing buds.  If there’s a redeeming quality of this invasive insect, at least the adults are a conspicuous bright red color.  However, when disturbed the beetles readily tumble from plants, and land upside down on the ground where they play dead.  Their dark-colored underside makes them much harder to spot when this occurs.

Lily leaf beetle adult
Adult lily leaf beetle (Lilioceris lilii) and damage. Photo Credit: Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

If it weren’t for their destructive nature, one might even consider the vibrant red beetles rather pretty.  It’s hard to say the same of the larvae though.  Lily leaf beetle larvae are a pale yellowish color with a black head capsule and approach nearly half an inch long.  However, as a defensive behavior, the larvae typically camouflage themselves with their own excrement and look more like slimy greenish slugs or ooey-gooey animal droppings than insects.  Just like the adults, the larvae cause significant damage as they chew holes and notches in lilies.

Lily leaf beetle larva
A slimy, excrement-covered larva of the lily leaf beetle. The larvae can cause significant damage to true lilies. Photo credit: Richard A. Casagrande, University of Rhode Island, Bugwood.org

While pests like the Japanese beetle don’t make their appearance until well into summer, the lily leaf beetle can be a threat throughout the entire growing season.  This insect overwinters in the adult stage and the bright reddish beetles can emerge and start feeding early in the spring.  After mating, female lily leaf beetles lay tiny reddish eggs on the underside of leaves.  Eggs are often laid in batches of a dozen or fewer, but the long-lived females can lay hundreds of eggs in their lifetimes.  The emerging larvae start feeding and can be common during spring and early summer.  After gorging themselves for a few weeks, larvae eventually wander from plants to pupate in the soil.  The next batch of adults will be present through the summer and fall months.

Wisconsin map showing counties with known lily leaf beetle activity
Map of Wisconsin with confirmed detections of the lily leaf beetle. Counties that are dark blue had their first official confirmed detection in 2019.

If you haven’t encountered this insect yet in Wisconsin, it’s not too surprising.  The majority of the state has yet to see the lily leaf beetle—but that will likely change in the coming years.  When it was first detected in the Wausau area in 2014, lily leaf beetle was found nearly simultaneously in a number of spots around the county, suggesting that it may have been spread by the movement of infested plant materials.  Human movement of these insects remains an important factor today.  Since its introduction, the lily leaf beetle has steadily been spreading around central Wisconsin through both human and natural movement. Alarmingly, in the summer of 2019, the lily leaf beetle made some significant “jumps” and was detected in Dane and Door counties.  In early October, colleagues at DATCP confirmed the first detection of LLB from Pierce County.  This discontiguous pattern on the map points to human movement as a likely cause.  Unfortunately, these detections represent new footholds in Wisconsin and residents of those areas now need to be on alert for this invasive beetle.

Spring’s Coming…and so are the Insects

With daylight saving time beginning over the weekend and warmer temperatures knocking at our door, spring is finally crawling our way.  Last winter is one we won’t soon forget—the season started out mild before temperatures plummeted with January’s polar vortex.  During the coldest stretch, our coping strategy might have involved layers of blankets and reruns on Netflix, but what about the bugs? Questions regarding the winter impacts on insects have been some of the commonest at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this year.  There will undoubtedly be some impacts of this year’s polar vortex, although many insect species are well-equipped to deal with the cold.  Before we know it, overwintering insects will become active again in the Midwest and many species will simply shrug off the polar vortex as if it hadn’t happened.  For insects that didn’t fare as well in the cold, high reproductive capacities will likely allow their numbers to bounce back relatively quickly.

Thus, 2019 isn’t going to be insect-free by any means and intuitively this makes sense.  We know that every year insects make it through the winter months and become active as temperatures creep up in spring.  Looking at an evolutionary time scale, this year’s cold snap wasn’t the first time that the species in our area have encountered frigid temperatures before, and many creatures are adapted to survive surprisingly cold conditions.   We might have chosen to block it out of memory, but the Midwest experienced a very similar situation a mere five years ago.  Weather patterns in January of 2014 saw temperatures dip to -20˚F and colder in some spots of the Midwest.  The following summer, we still had plenty of insect activity in the region.

Thermometer from a cold and crisp Wisconsin morning. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Since we don’t see insects bundling up with tiny mittens and scarves, how do they make it through the winter?  It turns out that insects and other arthropods have a number of strategies to help them survive.  For starters, insects typically have a particular life stage (e.g., egg or pupa) that is more tolerant of adverse environmental conditions, such as freezing or desiccation.  Passing through the winter as a more resilient life stage is a good starting point.

Some of the other strategies are surprisingly similar to humans.  Just like snowbirds heading to warmer states for the winter, certain insects like monarch butterflies and green darner dragonflies migrate southward to avoid the coldest temperatures.  Our official state insect (the honey bee) doesn’t migrate, and instead chooses to remain active.  Honey bee colonies shiver together as an insect version of central heating to keep the inside of their hive a constant temperature.  Other insects simply seek shelter and overwinter in protected locations to avoid the worst of the cold.  Insects like the multicolored Asian lady beetle, boxelder bugs, and the invasive brown marmorated stink bug are fond of sneaking into man-made structures to spend the winter.  If insulation and central heating make homes warm enough for us, it’s plenty warm to prevent insects from freezing.  In more natural settings, such insects might end up sheltering in rock piles or beneath the loose bark of a dead tree.  Those locations might not be as toasty as a house, but they can still provide adequate respite from the cold—meaning that insects using this strategy should have been well protected from this year’s cold spell.  Similarly, many insects and other arthropods spend the winter below ground or on the surface of the ground amongst a layer of insulating leaf litter.  In addition, many parts of Wisconsin had a solid covering of snow by the time the polar vortex arrived, so creatures such as ticks had a thick layer of insulation from the coldest of the cold.

Another strategy utilized by insects is the production of natural antifreeze compounds (specific alcohols or proteins) which serve as cryoprotectants to help prevent freezing within their bodies.  We know that a cup of water will turn to ice at 32˚F, but dissolve salts or other substances in that same water and it will require colder temperatures to freeze it.  Insects producing high concentrations of these cryoprotectants can remains unfrozen at surprisingly low temperatures, similar to a bottle of high-proof spirits kept in a freezer.  Taking it even further, the common black and brown woolly bear caterpillars seem to embrace the cold and actually allow ice to gradually form within their bodies.  This may sound like a fatal mistake, but by regulating the formation of ice crystals on their own terms, woolly bear caterpillars are able to control where ice formation occurs and limit it to specific areas of their bodies to prevent damage.  If the same caterpillars were unprepared and froze rapidly, their cells might burst like a can of soda put into a freezer.

The ubiquitous woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) is well adapted to winter conditions. Photo credit: Dave Govoni via Flickr.

And then the ash borer
The insect I’ve gotten the most questions about lately has been the emerald ash borer.  While not native to our area, this invasive pest comes from similar latitudes of eastern Asia and the cold-hardy larvae are fortified with cryoprotectants as they spend the winter beneath the bark of ash trees.  These natural antifreeze compounds have their limitations though, and just like sidewalk salt failing to melt ice on a really cold day, the cryoprotectants only work down to certain temperatures before freezing (and death) occurs.  For emerald ash borer, the point at which freezing spontaneously begins to occur (the supercooling point) is when temperatures dip into the range of -13˚F to -23˚F.  This year’s polar vortex did see temperatures fall into and below that range, which would have killed plenty of emerald ash borer larvae, although the insulating effects of the tree bark likely provided some buffering.

The pale end of a surviving emerald ash borer larva sticking out from its tunnel. When larvae are killed by freezing, they typically become discolored. This sample came from the Milwaukee area in early March, 2019. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Emerald ash borer populations will almost certainly take a hit from this year’s polar vortex, but it’s not going to be a knockout blow.  Give it some time and the reproductive capacity of this invasive species will allow populations to rebound.  The news reports of cold-induced EAB mortality in early February might have been encouraging, but scientific models from the US Forest Service suggest that to really knock down EAB in the long run, we’d have to experience arctic blasts on a regular basis—news that many Midwesterners aren’t likely to receive warmly.


Further Reading: For a great read on how wildlife survive the winter, check out Bernd Heinrich’s Winter World

Under the Microscope: Arthropod Trends of 2017

Over 2,500 cases flowed through the doors of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab last year, ranging from the typical June beetles through bizarre creatures that most humans will never see in their entire lives (like the itch-inducing pyemotes grain mite).  Perhaps Forrest Gump said it best when he quipped, “life was like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”  A distinction amongst insects, however, is that the “box” contains 20,000+ possibilities in Wisconsin alone and over well 1,000,000 globally.  With that said, a year at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is like having one humongous, box of really awesome chocolates, without all the calories.

Finding a pyemotes itch mite is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except in this case these microscopic mites were in a farmer’s batch of corn. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

With insects and related creatures, the weather can of course have a big impact and there definitely were examples of this in 2017.  The current cold winter aside, the last two winters had been otherwise mild, giving a few insects suited for warmer conditions a chance to inch their way northward.  Last spring and summer, this meant a bunch of sightings of an otherwise uncommon bee for our area known as the carpenter bee due to its habit of tunneling into unpainted cedar trim and other wood.  In a typical year, I might see a few cases out of the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, but 2017 had regular reports of these bumble bee look-alikes during the spring and summer months.  Similarly, praying mantids often meet their maker at the hands of a cold winter, but were surprisingly abundant in late summer and fall of last year.  Ticks were also extremely abundant last spring and with the rainy start to the summer, mosquito numbers were at an all-time high in some traps.  Mosquitoes were also a big deal in the news, with Wisconsin’s first confirmed reports of the Asian Tiger Mosquito last July.

Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus). Photo credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control

The creature that amassed the most phone calls and emails in 2017 was the notorious Japanese beetle, which likely also benefited from the warmer than average winters these past few years.  For Wisconsin gardeners and farmers, the Japanese beetle is certainly a formidable foe, but at least there are ways to mitigate the damage.  In contrast, there’s another destructive pest wiggling its way into the spotlight in the state, which is much more difficult to control—an invasive earthworm commonly known as the jumping worm.  While they may not be insects, these earthworms are creepy-crawly and can wreak havoc in  gardens and flower beds, so I received a fair number of reports and questions.  What stood out to me in last year was the rapidity with which these destructive worms have been moved around the state (moved—as in humans have moved soil, plants, mulch, and similar materials).  Jumping worms were first found in the state in 2013 (in Madison), but have now been spotted in roughly half of the counties in Wisconsin.  To make matters worse, we don’t have any highly effective tactics to prevent these worms from turning rich garden soil into the consistency of dry, crusted coffee grounds—gardeners beware!

Speaking of invasive species, the emerald ash borer has continued its march through the state and now has footholds in some of our northern counties including Chippewa, Douglas, Eau Claire, Marathon, Marinette, Oneida, and Sawyer counties.  Unfortunately, our greatest concentrations of ash trees are in the northern part of the state (e.g. black ash in swampy areas), and the loss of ash from northern wetland areas could result in significant ecosystem effects.  Other recent invaders like the spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug had busy years as well.

Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) visiting a flower in Middleton, WI. Photo credit: Rick Terrien

In other insect news, it seemed to be a good year for monarch butterflies in 2017, and the rusty-patched bumble bee finally made it onto the federal endangered species list. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of confirmed sightings of the rusty-patched bumble bee in the state as well. Perhaps my favorite “bug” story for the year involved black widow spiders.  It’s not common knowledge, but we do technically have a native black widow species in the state (Northern Black Widow, Latrodectus variolus).  It’s a reclusive species and is rarely encountered in Wisconsin, but reports trickled in once or twice a week at some points during the summer months (details to follow in a future blog post).

With so many cases last year, we’re really only touching the tips of the antennae.  If you’re interested in hearing more of the unusual stories from the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, I’ll be giving a “highlight” talk on May 4th on the UW campus.

 

 

 

Just like Clockwork

We’re all familiar with phenology—that regular progression of plant and animal life through the seasons—to a certain extent.  We might not stop to think about it in detail, but we recognize the crabapples blooming in spring, the fireflies lighting up the nighttime sky in June and July, and the southward flying geese and rutting deer in fall.  When you think of the 25,000+ insects in the Great Lakes Region, there’s a rich diversity of seasonal patterns to pick up on.  Some insect patterns, like cicadas, katydids, and tree crickets calling during the summer months, are hard to miss—although it can be challenging to decipher exactly who’s making that racket (Hint: here’s your translator).  Others are much harder to pick up on unless you’ve been briefed on the subtle clues.  For example, take the tiny foreign grain beetle (Ahasverus advena) which conspicuously pops up in unexpected places in August, September, and October.

To the naked eye, these tiny (1/16 inch long) brownish insects can be a bit tricky to see and it’s hard to tell if they’re beetles, ants, or something else.  Even to budding entomology students pushing the boundaries of what they can interpret under the microscope, foreign grain beetles and relatives might be jokingly referred to as “little brown nothings” and passed over for easier-to-identify specimens.

Foreign Grain Beetles next to a US nickel. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

Around the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, foreign grain beetles are one of my favorite samples when they arrive in late summer and early fall as they give me the faintest sensation of what it must feel like to be Sherlock Holmes.  Picture a client coming in with a Ziploc bag of tiny brown insects.  After a cursory glance and before the specimens even make it under the microscope, I ask, “are you in a new home by any chance?”  The standard reply is often along the lines of, “Well, yes—but how did you know?”  A quick check under the microscope and the specimen’s identity is confirmed.  It’s elementary, my dear Watson.

Up close view of the Foreign Grain Beetle (Ahasverus advena). Actual size: ~2mm long. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

How is there such a reliable association with an unexpected source: newly constructed homes, where intuition wouldn’t have you expecting insects?  The secret to this seasonal pattern lies in understanding the biology of the foreign grain beetle and its relatives.  These insects love to feed on fungal spores—often in musty stored grains on farms.  It turns out that during the construction of a new home, residual dampness in construction lumber, plaster, sawdust, and other materials can lead to the growth of a trivial amount of mold.  Like vultures to carrion, these beetles fly in looking for a fungal smorgasbord.  Eggs are laid and entire life cycles can be carried out in the wall void of a new home after the drywall, insulation, and siding are put up.

Fast-forward to late summer and just like clockwork the proud new homeowners suddenly have hundreds of tiny brown beetles crawling out through nooks and crannies, causing immediate dismay.  While this can be alarming, these insects are harmless to people, pets, and the home, and are simply a temporary nuisance.  As the construction materials lose that lingering moisture, conditions become unfavorable for the beetles and activity drops off over time.  Pesticides often aren’t needed as the beetles already face an inevitable demise.  Vacuuming or sweeping them up and running a dehumidifier are often the remedy in fall until the dryness of winter puts a final end to the beetle activity.

Weathering the Emerald Storm: EAB in Wisconsin

Like a kid watching a summer thunderstorm slowly rolling in and wondering how long until the rumbles would be directly overhead, I’ve had a morbid fascination with watching the progression of the emerald ash borer in the Midwest for over a decade.  Although emerald ash borer wasn’t found in Wisconsin until 2008, my connection with EAB precedes that by a few years.  It turns out my first job as a budding entomologist was as a summer intern for UW-Extension looking for signs of the insect in the state during the summers of 2005 and 2006.  Fast forward twelve years and that storm is finally overhead, at least in my neck of the woods.  I knew such a time would come, but it really hits close to home when the sounds of chainsaws mark the final days of your neighborhood’s ash trees—at least the ones that aren’t being treated. 

EAB Detection and Quarantines as of May 19, 2017. Click for larger version. Image source: WI-DATCP.

At the time of writing, 42 counties in Wisconsin have been quarantined for EAB.  While the southeastern part of the state has already been hit hard (green on the map above), a large chunk of the state has not yet seen the emerald ash borer or has only seen light pressure (click the map above to see more details on this topic). Unfortunately, this means that the emerald storm will only be getting worse over the coming years.  Along these lines, when EAB first arrived in Wisconsin, spread was slow and the annual number of new community-level detections was small.  However, as the populations of this insect have built up in the state, the number of new detections has increased dramatically as illustrated below:

Chart created using data from WI-DATCP on May 22, 2017. Click for a larger version.

Unfortunately, the outlook for the Midwest’s ash trees doesn’t look good and we’ll still be dealing with this insect for years to come.  Ironically, this isn’t the first time that we’ve watched a scenario like this play out.  As the baby boomer generation grew up, they watched as elms were devastated by the likes of Dutch elm disease.  As with emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease had significant impacts on forested and urban areas and led to irreversible changes in the landscape around us.

With all this Doom-and-Gloom, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Possibly—but it may be a ways off.  For the time being, there are insecticide treatments available that can maintain the health of ash trees, although treatments are costly and are only feasible for relatively small numbers of trees.  Biological control is being explored as a potential way to control EAB populations, although results have been limited thus far.  However, with any biological control program, it can take years to work the kinks out of the system and see results.

A long-term plan may be to develop varieties of ash trees that are resistant to attack by the emerald ash borer.  In several locations in Ohio and Michigan, scientists have found a small percentage of “lingering” ash trees that have survived the initial onslaught of EAB and are monitoring those trees over time for continued survival and genetic traits that may help stave off infestations.  Interestingly, one particular species of ash (blue ash, Fraxinus quadrangulata) may hold important clues for long-term ash survival.  In some spots in Michigan, >60% of blue ash trees have survived in areas attacked by emerald ash borer.  While tree breeding programs may ultimately develop a resistant ash variety, this is likely years away and for the time being we’ll have to face the emerald storm.

Larval tunnels of the emerald ash borer beneath the bark of an ash tree. This damage disrupts the flow of water and nutrients and ultimately kills the tree. Image source: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2016 (#5 – #1)

In this post, we’re continuing to count-down 2016’s top insect trends in the state.  This is the final post in a three part series.  Part I (2016’s diagnostic lab statistics) can be found here and Part II (Top Insect Trends Numbers 10-6) can be found here.

#5: The spread of the emerald ash borer increased dramatically in the state last year. Photo Credit: Howard Russell, Bugwood.org.
#4: Fall invading insects, such as boxelder bugs are well known, but the strawberry root weevil and other weevils can sneak indoors during the summer months. Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood.org.
#3: Several scarab beetles, including the rose chafer caused notable plant damage last year. Photo Credit: Clemson University Extension, Bugwood.org.
#2: An elusive adult rabbit bot fly. Photo Credit: Quentin Sprengelmeyer.
#2: An inch long bot fly larva from a mouse. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.
#1: Fierce mosquito pressure in many parts of the state combined with the Zika stories in the news gave mosquitoes the top spot in 2016's insect trends. Photo credit: Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org.

 

5) Metallic Wood Boring Beetles
Two different metallic wood boring beetles (Family Buprestidae) had strong years in 2016. The first, the emerald ash borer, is no stranger to Wisconsinites these past few years. While there were only 3 new counties (Portage, Wood, Sawyer) added to the state quarantine map in 2016, there were over 80 municipalities with their first confirmed EAB infestation last year (out of 227 municipalities with documented EAB finds at the end of 2016). With that said, EAB has greatly picked up steam these past few years and is attacking ash trees at a rapid rate in Midwest.

Another metallic wood borer that seemed to have a good year was the twolined chestnut borer. Unlike the invasive emerald ash borer, the twolined chestnut borer is is native to North America and tends to attack stressed trees (oaks). In these cases, trees might be stressed by factors such as disease, drought stress, winter injury, or damage from other insects. The UW Insect Diagnostic Lab noticed a distinct increase in cases of the twolined chestnut borer this past summer, although the underlying stress might have begun affecting trees several years ago. With the high value of oak trees in the landscape, this insect is definitely a pest that tree care companies should have on their radar for the near future.

4) Home-Invading Weevils
Many Wisconsinites experience or at least are familiar with insects that sneak indoors in the fall, such as boxelder bugs and multicolored Asian lady beetles. There’s also a group of broad-nosed weevils that happen to sneak indoors during the summer months. Species in this group include the strawberry root weevil, the imported longhorned weevil, and others. Once indoors, these weevils tend to stumble around in a slow, somewhat tick-like manner, causing concern to homeowners. But fear no weevil, for these insects are completely harmless. A broom or vacuum cleaner are often the best tools to deal with them. While broad nosed weevils can be somewhat common, reports coming in to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab suggest that numbers of these home-invading beetles were up in 2016.

3) Scarab Beetles
A number of scarab beetles had noteworthy activity in 2016, including several important landscape pests. Scarab beetles can be an extremely common group of insects, with well over 100 species in Wisconsin alone. Perhaps the best known (and most infamous) member of this group would be the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), which seemed to rebound last year after a few quiet years. In parts of the state with sandy soil, the rose chafer was present in high and damaging numbers. Similar to Japanese beetles, rose chafers are fond of feeding on a wide range of plants from landscape shrubs to fruit trees.

Two other scarab beetles were noteworthy in 2016: the Northern masked chafer and the European chafer. This past year marked the first year that the larvae of these beetles (white grubs) had been found damaging turfgrass in the state: Rock County (NMC) and Door county (EC). Previously, turfgrass managers only had to contend with the white grubs of Japanese beetle and the occasional May/June beetle.

2) Bot Flies
[Disclaimer: bot flies are not for the faint of heart! If you’re preparing to eat lunch, you may want to skip down to #1.]
Bot Flies-Click to Read

If you’re not familiar with bot flies, these creatures may seem like something out of a science fiction movie. In their simplest terms, bot fly larvae are essentially large, flesh-inhabiting maggots. When fully mature, the maggots can be over an inch long and are covered with tiny backward-facing spines, making removal nearly impossible from their host. Adult bot flies are very short lived and somewhat resemble bumble bees or certain horse flies in their size and coloration. In a typical year, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab might receive 1-2 reports. For whatever reason, bot flies had a great year in 2016 and several dozen reports came in to the lab. The common species observed in Wisconsin last year were from the genus Cuterebra and parasitize small mammals such as: mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits.  The maggots live and feed beneath the skin of their mammal host for weeks before popping out to pupate.  The mammal hosts generally seem to tolerate their companions, although the concept of bot flies may give you a creepy-crawly feeling.
[Bonus material: there is a bot fly (Dermatobia hominis) in South and Central America that affects humans]

 

1) Mosquitoes
With all the stories about the Zika virus in the news, it was difficult to avoid hearing about mosquitoes in 2016. In addition, with the heavy rains many parts of Wisconsin received last year, it was equally challenging to venture outdoors and avoid mosquitoes. In many parts of the state, mosquito pressure was severe last year, giving mosquitoes the top spot on the 2016 list. If there’s a silver lining to the mosquito story last year, it has three parts:

  • The mosquitoes that were dreadfully abundant last year (floodwater mosquitoes) aren’t important vectors of human disease. Yes, they might have ruined that evening cookout, but at least they weren’t making anyone ill.
  • Reports of mosquito-borne diseases (such as West Nile Virus) were relatively low in the state last year.
  • Zika virus was not a major issue in Wisconsin, as the mosquito species responsible for that disease haven’t been found here [Read more about this topic in this post]

The “New” Japanese Beetle in the Midwest

Move over Popillia japonica, there’s a new “Japanese beetle” in town.

As is typical in a given year, Wisconsin sees a few new invasive species in the state each year.  In 2016, one of the surprises was the arrival of the “two banded Japanese weevil” (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus), often simply called the “Japanese weevil”.  Weevils themselves are technically a type of beetle from the hyper-diverse family Curculionidae, which contains a plethora of weevils, curculios, and multitudes of bark beetles.  When talking to the public, it’s amazing how often the Japanese beetles feeding on landscape plants during the summer are mixed up with the Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis), which invade homes in the fall.  Given the name of this new “Japanese weevil”, I’m expecting this creature to confuse the situation even more.

What is the Japanese Weevil?

The Japanese weevil (P. bifasciatus) is a non-native beetle that feeds on a wide variety of landscape plants, particularly shrubs.  Adult Japanese weevils are ~ ¼” long with a gray or brownish, pear-shaped body with black bands across the wing covers (elytra).  The pale larvae (grubs) live in the soil and feed on roots of suitable host plants.  We haven’t had this pest in Wisconsin long enough to fully understand the local life cycle, but given the pattern in other states, this insect will most likely complete one generation per year, with adult presence and feeding damage occurring during the summer from late June through August.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
The invasive two banded Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Where’s the Japanese weevil from?

Very similar to the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), the Japanese weevil is native to Japan and first popped up in the US in 1914, via the transport of infested nursery stock.  Like the Japanese beetle, the Japanese weevil feeds on a wide range of landscape plants.  When it first showed up in Wisconsin in 2016, the Japanese weevil was found on a variety of ornamental plants in Madison, WI.  How this species got to Wisconsin remains a mystery, but the movement of infested potted plants is the most likely explanation, as this insect is not capable of flight.  While the Japanese beetle is common across many parts of eastern North America, the Japanese weevil has a much more scattered distribution and can be found primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region with scattered cases in the Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

What does this insect mean for Wisconsin?

Luckily, it seems that the Japanese weevil may not be nearly as big of a threat to landscape plants as the Japanese beetle.  When lots of Japanese beetles are present, entire trees can have their leaves nibbled into a lace-like skeleton.  In contrast, when the Japanese weevil feeds, it tends to cut notches out of the edges of leaves.  This damage can resemble the feeding of many caterpillar species, and healthy plants should be able to tolerate the feeding.  Reports from other states suggest that this insect unlikely to cause very severe damage.

The invasive two banded Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
The invasive two banded Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Think you’ve found the Japanese weevil?

If you come across any beetles in Wisconsin feeding on landscape plants that resemble the Japanese weevil, send digital images and/or physical specimens to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab for confirmation, so we can track this new arrival in the state.

Japanese Beetles: 100 Years and Counting

Ask any gardener or landscaper in the Midwest what their least favorite insect is, and the Japanese beetle will probably be near the top of the list.  Think of the plants that this insect feeds on: ornamental trees and shrubs like lindens, birches, crabapples, and roses, fruit crops like apples, pears, plums, raspberries, and strawberries, and garden and vegetable crops like beans and corn, as well as hundreds of other plants.  It’s no wonder gardeners have to be on alert for this insect.

japanese-beetle
Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Madison Entomology

So why the resurgence of Japanese beetle activity in 2016?  Every winter, a common topic I’m asked about is my “insect forecast” for the coming year.  Before winter had even ended, there was good reason to believe that the Japanese beetle would pop back up the state in 2016–and Mother Nature may be the cause.  Japanese beetle larvae (white grubs) spend the winter in the soil below ground.  In July, August, and September, these grubs can be found in the upper portion of the soil where they feed on the roots of turfgrass.  As winter approaches, the grubs tunnel deeper into the soil where they avoid being killed by a hard freeze.  In most parts of Wisconsin, we had a reprieve from Japanese beetles the past two years.  I suspect this may be due to the brutal winter of 2013-14, which had some extended periods of sub-zero temperatures.  It’s quite feasible that this deep frost killed many grubs and led to lower adult populations the following summer (2014).  Given enough time, the Japanese beetle populations were destined to rebound at some point, and the mild (el-Niño) conditions this past winter might have been just what they needed to bolster their numbers.  Unless we face another brutal winter in the next few years, I suspect that Japanese beetle numbers will be up for the foreseeable future in the state.

Ironically, there’s an important milestone to recognize for this invasive pest this year–the Japanese beetle was detected for the first time in New Jersey 100 years ago, in 1916.  Slowly, but surely, this insect spread through many parts of the eastern US, and has been spotted on occasion in isolated spots in the western states.  We also have an interesting history of Japanese beetles in Wisconsin.  Technically, our first detections occurred in the southeast part of the state in the 1960’s, although these populations struggled to take hold.  At the time, this seemed to be a comforting sign–perhaps, our famed “frozen tundra” was simply too cold for them.  However, by the 1990’s, Japanese beetles had gotten a solid foothold in the state and they’ve been around much to the chagrin of gardeners ever since.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
The “new” Japanese Beetle on the block: the invasive Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Interestingly there’s also a new “Japanese beetle” that showed up in Wisconsin this year: the invasive Japanese weevil (sometimes called the “two-banded Japanese weevil”).  Stay tuned more information about our newest invasive species in Wisconsin.