Category Archives: Phenology

Busy beetles: lady beetles take to the air and our homes

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.

An adult multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis). Note the black “W” pattern just behind the head which helps identify this species. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

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.

A group of overwintering Asian lady beetles beneath the loose bark of a dead tree. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

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!

 

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.

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

Signs of Autumn: Orbweavers

Without looking at a calendar, certain things tell you autumn is approaching—pumpkin spice encroaches upon your food and beverage options, weekends are filled with football, the leaves are turning various hues, and brightly-colored orbweaver spiders adorn the landscape.

A beautifully patterned shamrock orbweaver (Araneus trifolium) on the side of a Northwoods cabin. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

Like the overwhelming majority of spiders, the orbweavers (Family Araneidae) of autumn are harmless to humans.  There are a dozen or more common species in the Great Lakes Region and these can be good sized as far as spiders are concerned—easily over 1” long when you include their legs.  Our commonest species are from the genus Araneus and include the cross orbweaver, shamrock orbweaver, and the marbled orbweaver.  They can be quite common in yards, gardens, on plants, and on your back patio.  Other common species in the genus Argiope (the “garden” spiders) are even larger, spanning over 2” with outstretched legs.  In addition to their large size, flashy “fall” colors and patterns conspicuously adorn these spiders—yellows, oranges, reds, stripes, polka-dots, and more.

Despite the large size, orbweaver spiders are harmless. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

Their life cycle is another reason why many orbweavers can be so noticeable in autumn.  Our common species overwinter in the egg sac and the young spiderlings usually go unnoticed as they grow and develop the following spring and summer.  By the time they’ve reached maturity in late summer, it’s mating season and the adults have a month or two to go about their business. During that time, they’re easiest to spot sitting in their large circular webs, which were an inspiration for the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web.

Further Reading:
Unfortunately, most folks never take the time to learn about these beautiful and fascinating creatures.  If you ask someone their thoughts of spiders, feelings of fear, disgust, repulsion, and anxiety might come to mind.  In society as a whole, there seems to be a feeling that spiders are something to be loathed or feared, which really shouldn’t be the case. It doesn’t help when the internet has an abundance of myths and preposterous stories about spiders [here’s a good source to debunk some of those myths].  In the grand scheme of things, you’re more likely to be injured by a pet dog than you are to be harmed by a spider.  If anything, spiders should be considered beneficial as they eat an astonishing mass of insects every year.

If you’d like to learn more about spiders, one of my favorite books for the Midwest is Spiders of the Northwoods by Larry Weber.  There are also some great spider blogs out there; my favorites include: SpiderBytes by Catherine Scott and Arthropod Ecology by Chris Buddle. To this day, two of my all-time favorite spider posts are from Chris Buddle’s blog and have the self-explanatory titles of “Spiders do not bite” and “Update: spiders STILL don’t bite”.

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.