If you’ve spotted small, crunchy beetles in your home this summer you aren’t alone. Broad-nosed weevils (Curculionidae: Entiminae) have been a surprise this summer at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. While I see cases of these insects every year, things have been a bit more intense this summer with a flood of reports from around Wisconsin.
What’s a weevil? Out of the 100+ different families of beetles, the weevils (Family Curculionidae) are extremely diverse with over 50,000 species in this group alone. In terms of their appearance, most weevils might remind you of Gonzo from the Muppets with their very pronounced “snouts”. A great example of this in Wisconsin is the genus Curculio (the “nut and acorn weevils”). Some species in this group can have a snout (technically “rostrum”) as long as the rest of their body.
On the other hand, some members of the weevil family lack the pronounced snout . One such group, the subfamily Entiminae, is commonly referred to as the broad-nosed weevils. Our common broad-nosed weevils tend to be small (around ⅛ – ¼ inch-long) and have pear-shaped bodies with very hard, crunchy exoskeletons; they also have “elbowed” antennae similar to ants. The color of the broad-nosed weevils can vary by species, but many are blackish or grayish.
When it comes to broad-nosed weevils, we have over 100 species in the Midwest alone. In general, these are “outdoor” species associated with plants. The larvae tend to feed on the roots of plants while the adults often chew small notches out of the edges of foliage. Interestingly, a few species in this group have the habit of sneaking indoors during the summer months. Once inside, these insects are completely harmless but can be a minor nuisance as they seem to mindlessly wander on walls or floors.
Conditions in Wisconsin over the last year and a half must have been just right for some of these species, since I’ve had a flood of requests to help identify broad-nosed weevils in homes and other structures during the summer of 2022. Often when I see “weevil” cases it’ll be a handful of weevils indoors, but this year I’ve also seen plenty of reports of large numbers of weevils (hundreds or thousands!). The top three species I’ve been seeing in Wisconsin have been the strawberry root weevil (Otiorhynchus ovatus), the imported longhorn weevil (Calomycterussetarius), and the black vine weevil (Otiorhynchus sulcatus). There are a number of other species in this group that can invade structures as well. Due to the similar appearance of these beetles, it’s often necessary to get a sample under the microscope to help confirm the exact species. If you come across broad-nosed weevils in your home and want to know the exact type, feel free to send in a sample to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab: insectlab.russell.wisc.edu/samples.
While these weevils can be a bit of a nuisance, there usually isn’t much of a need to spray (especially indoors). In the grand scheme of things, good physical exclusion (i.e., sealing things up better with caulk, expanding insulation foam, better weatherstripping, etc.) can go a long way to help prevent broad-nosed weevils from getting indoors in the first place. For the weevils that do make it indoors, insecticide really aren’t necessary and sweeping or vacuuming up these slow-moving pests is the best course of action.
Unbeknownst to most students, employees, and visitors at UW-Madison, there’s a room of flesh-eating beetles on campus.An unmarked door on Bascom Hill leads to the chamber more formerly known a the Dermestarium, which serves a rather peculiar yet specific purpose. No need to worry though—this isn’t 1999’s The Mummy. Rather, these insects are actually quite helpful in the way that they’re used.
Most insects are actually helpful in one way or another and provide ecosystem services as pollinators, predators, parasitoids, decomposers, or in other roles.Humans have also figured out some pretty unique ways in which insects can help us out.For example, mealworms can eat and break down certain types of plastics and are being looked at as a way to help reduce man-made waste materials.In the legal realm, knowledge about insects is used to help solve crimes—a field known as forensic entomology, which dates back nearly 1,000 years.In the case of UW-Madison and many other universities and museums, a specific type of beetle is used to help clean skeletal remains for research, teaching, and display in zoological museums.
The beetles in the UW Dermestarium are known as hide beetles (Dermestes maculatus) and they’re especially fond of dried-out, protein-rich materials such as remnants of muscles, sinew, fur, feathers, and similar materials.Out in nature, such insects do play a role in the natural break down of animals remains—but not right away.Rather, much of that initial work is left to the larvae (maggots) of blow flies (Family Calliphoridae) and flesh flies (Family Sarcophagidae).Hide beetles and close relatives from the “carpet beetle” group (Family Dermestidae) show up days, weeks, or even months later once the remains are drier.
In a museum setting, hide beetles can be helpful in the preparation of skeletal remains.With their small size (roughly 1/4-inch long) , these insects use their mandibles to efficiently remove leftover bits of tissue from tiny nooks and crannies.For a human trying to prepare remains, such a task would be tedious and may not be feasible for some structures (such as the inside of a skull).However, a tank of these beetles can easily clean skeletal remains in a matter of days with relatively little effort required, other than maintaining correct ambient conditions for them.
Interestingly, hide beetles and close relatives like the larder beetle (Dermestes lardarius) can be found in our own homes as well.Their presence poses little risk to humans, but could indicate the presence of a dead rodent or bird in a structure.Such insects can also develop on a range of protein-rich materials ranging from dead insects in a window sill to human and pet foods and they can occasionally be a pest in home pantries. Historically, such insects were notable pests of dried meats and cheeses in storage. If you’re curious to know more about these and other insects associated with our homes and everyday lives, Richard Jones has an excellent book on the topic: House Guests, House Pests: A Natural Hisotry of Animals of the Home.
A more detailed history of UW-Madison’s Dermestarium can be found here.
Serendipity can play a big role in being an entomologist or any kind of naturalist. Sometimes, you’re simply in the right spot at the right time to make an interesting observation or scientific discovery. There’s lots to learn about the natural world around us and plenty of room for discoveries.
Think about birds for a moment. According to the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, there are 441 species of birds known from the state. Birders can spend an entire lifetime learning about the biology and habits of these species and how to identify them by sight, song, and other features. Now, think about insects. Here in Wisconsin, our best estimate is that we have somewhere in the ballpark of 20,000 insect species in the state (let alone all the other arthropods!). During talks to the public, I often joke that birders have it easy—with so many insects out there, you could have ten lifetimes and still have plenty to learn and discover!
With that said, there’s lots to be discovered in the world of insects. Even though I’ve been collecting and studying these creatures for over 15 years, I still make discoveries on a regular basis. This often requires hours of diligent observations and the ability to focus on the tiniest of details, but in other cases it comes down to plain old luck. For example, I’ve written about discovering and collecting specimens of the rare fly, Asteia baeta, in my house after setting up a Christmas tree (no such luck this year…).
A more recent example of entomological serendipity occurred this last July in my own backyard in Dane County. I was enjoying a cold beer on our back deck one warm evening when I noticed a few small scarab beetles on our window screens. Since I keep a lookout for invasive species as part of my job at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, I always have a list of species in mind that I’m keeping an eye out for. In this particular case, the beetles piqued my interest due to their resemblance to the non-native Asiatic garden beetle (Maladera formosae), although we have native species in the genus Serica that can look similar to the naked eye. Just a few weeks before this, I had identified some specimens of the Asiatic garden beetle from a suburb of Chicago, which placed the species on my immediate radar.
Hold my beer, I’m getting some vials. I collected all the specimens I could spot (4), and was able to confirm their identity as the Asiatic garden beetle after tracking down appropriate keys and dissecting out the male genitalia—a surprisingly common and delicate entomological task used to distinguish certain insects that look similar. While I’ve seen a possible report of the AGB on iNaturalist, the specimens from my back deck marked the first specimens of the Asiatic garden beetle collected and confirmed from the state of Wisconsin.
The Asiatic garden beetle first showed up in the United States in New Jersey in the early 1900’s and has spread westward ever since. This species is a notable pest and feeds on a wide range of plants. The adult beetles are “sneaky”—hiding by day and causing most of their damage after dark. They are primarily active on warm evenings (>70˚F) and can be strongly attracted to lights. In this case, not only was I enjoying a cold beer on a warm summer night, but the string of patio lights over our deck likely attracted the beetles from the nearby area. The larvae (white grubs) can be pests of turfgrass, home gardens, and agricultural crops such as corn and potatoes.
At this point, I have many more questions than answers about the Asiatic garden beetle and what the future holds for this species in Wisconsin. To date, only a handful of specimens have been collected (four in July and another specimen in mid-September) and no plant damage has been observed. However, I’ll be keeping a close eye on this species, since reports from nearby states suggest that we may be seeing more of this species and damage in the coming years.
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.
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.
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.
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!
The spectacular fall weather this week has made it hard to work indoors. As Midwesterners, we know to appreciate the current warm spell as winter is just around the corner. If you’re like me, you’ve probably made it outside to take care of yard work, hike, grill out, or simply enjoy the fall colors. Speaking of colors, you’ve probably notices flashes of orange on the side of your home—multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis). This fall, we’re seeing surprisingly high numbers of these lady beetles across Wisconsin.
Just like us, the final warm days of autumn have worked these lady beetles into a frenzy of outdoor activity and our recent weather patterns are the key to this phenomenon. While not native to North America, the Asian lady beetle is an adaptable species and has a good feel for the seasons—it also knows that winter is coming. An important cue for lady beetle activity is the first frost or period of near-freezing temperatures in fall. This sets the stage and when the temperatures creep back up into the mid-60’s or 70’s, it initiates a massive game of hide-and-seek-shelter for these insects.
But why our homes? It turns out that Asian lady beetles don’t necessarily want to invade our homes—they simply look for sheltered spots to spend the winter. In more natural settings, I’ve found dozens of these beetles beneath the loose bark of dead trees or in firewood piles during the winter months.
In their native range of eastern Asia, multicolored Asian lady beetles are cliff dwellers. These beetles use visual cues to actively seek out conspicuous, exposed rock faces with cracks to squeeze into. They’re particularly fond of south or west facing cliffs, which get warmed by the sun in the afternoon when they’re most active. The lady beetles fly to these rock outcrops and examine the cracks and crevices to see if a suitable overwintering site has been found. To us, our homes don’t necessarily resemble cliffs, but to the Asian lady beetles, the basic formula is there: large contrasting objects that stand out in the landscape with an abundance of vertical and horizontal lines resulting from modern design and construction methods. To the beetles, this looks close enough that they’ll fly to structures and wander around seeking out nooks and crannies to slip into as shown in the video clip below from the UW-Madison campus.
From the lady beetle’s point of view, these insects would really prefer to slip into a sheltered crack or crevice, hunker down for the winter, and leave again in the spring. However, when these insects get beneath siding or into a soffit area of our homes, they can accidentally pop out in the living quarters of the home—much to the dismay of the human inhabitants. This isn’t ideal for the insects either, which can face death by desiccation in the dry winter air indoors.
Enjoy these final warm days of autumn, because we’ll all be bundled up inside soon enough—with or without a bunch of lady beetles.
My final two cents: One of the best, long-term approaches to prevent nuisance issues with multicolored Asian lady beetles and other insects (like boxelder bugs and brown marmorated stink bugs) is to have good physical exclusion. This refers to making sure that potential entrance points on structures are sealed up due to good construction methods, caulk, expanding insulation foam, weatherstripping, or similar means.
Given their small general size, multicolored Asian lady beetles can squeeze through cracks or gaps as small as ⅛ inch in size. For perspective, this is about the same height as two pennies stacked atop one another. With that said, if you can easily slide two stacked pennies into a crack or crevice on the side of your house—it’s a big enough opening for multicolored Asian lady beetles to potentially get in!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 beetle—the first evidence of an established infestation in Dane County.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.