Tag Archives: Lab Highlights

Jeep ‘Adventure’ Leads to an Unexpected Insect Discovery in Wisconsin

On average, I see 2 – 3 new, non-native insect species show up in Wisconsin every year through my work at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab (3 so far in 2021!). I’ve mentioned this in previous blog posts, but humans make excellent accomplices in moving species from one spot to another on the globe. This last spring, I saw one of the most interesting cases of my career which highlights this point exactly.

Like any good globetrotting adventure, this story involved a rugged, adventurous mode of travel—a Jeep. This particular Jeep had been imported in late 2020 and after a period of time in the eastern US, it eventually wound up in a small town in central Wisconsin. Unbeknownst to the owner of the vehicle, this Jeep also contained unexpected insect stowaways.

These insects managed to survive for months sheltered within the Jeep and would become active when the vehicle was in use—unexpectedly wandering out of nooks and crannies, much to the displeasure of the driver. Obviously, this isn’t something a new car owner wants to see, so a pest control professional was consulted about the insects and they got in touch with me at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab to figure out what the specimens were. In the initial conversation, the mystery insects had been described as “stink bugs” and I figured that overwintering nuisance insects like the brown marmorated stink bug might have been involved. The photos, however, hinted at something far more puzzling.

The initial photo I received of the mystery insect on a car window.  Limited resolution, but definitely not a stink bug or anything else that I recognized. This certainly was a “we’re not in Kansas anymore” type moment.

By this point, I had been running the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab for six years and hadn’t seen anything quite like the insect in the photo. I requested a sample to get to the bottom of this mystery under the microscope.  I handle so many cases at the diagnostic lab (~2,500 annually), that I can generally identify most specimens to family (or perhaps even genus or species-level) with a quick peek. In this case I was utterly perplexed, meaning I had to run it through a general family-level taxonomic key for the true bugs (Order Hemiptera). In Borror and DeLong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects the specimens keyed out to the Family Heterograstridae.

From the Hemiptera family key from Borror and DeLong’s Introduction to the Study of Insects. The asterisk symbol (*) is always a surprise.

An asterisk is always a surprise when you encounter it in a taxonomic key. It generally means one of two things: you either took a “wrong turn” in the decision-making process (and misidentified the specimen) or it’s something rare or highly unusual. Something seemed amiss, so I consulted a few other keys to further confirm the Family Heterogastridae. In North America there’s only a single genus (Heterogaster) from this family and three species known from the west coast of the US. The specimens in my possession looked markedly different. Because the Family Heterogastridae is mostly a footnote in the western hemisphere, it’s hard to find information on this group of insects.

This is why geographic clues can be so important in diagnostics and why I request this information with every sample at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. Knowing where a specimen was collected and/or originated helps tremendously in learning more about it. Through follow-up conversations, I learned that the Jeep was manufactured in and imported from Melfi, Italy—meaning there was a good chance I was looking in the completely wrong hemisphere for the information needed to identify it.

This led to many evenings of armchair sleuthing. During this process, I’d like to imagine myself as Jason Bourne tracking down members of an international conspiracy while a suspenseful soundtrack blared in the background, but in reality I was mostly just locating pdfs of scientific papers and using Google Translate. Such work could have taken months or even years a few decades ago, but was now possible in the matter of a week or two.

Thanks to Interlibrary Loan and other online resources, I tracked down manuscripts from a half-dozen European and Middle Eastern countries in multiple languages and spent hours pouring over posts on Italian and French insect forums looking for clues. I finally found my answer in a scanned pdf version of Jean Péricart’s Hémiptères Lygaeidae euro-méditerranéens, vol. 1., which identified the specimens as Platyplax inermis—a species associated with Salvia spp. plants in the Mediterranean region.

Map showing reports of Platyplax inermis from its native range. Map credit: iNaturalist.

Having finally identified the stowaway insects and their origin, my work was mostly done at that point. The species happened to be on the USDA-APHIS regulated plant pest list (technically, the entire family Heterogastridae is listed), so I reached out to colleagues at the USDA-APHIS office in Madison to hand off the case. Specimens were sent off to an APHIS field office in Chicago and then off to the Smithsonian for further confirmation, a few specimens are also being deposited in the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection.

While most cases at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab aren’t anywhere near this exciting, even insect diagnosticians get to live vicariously every once in a while.

 

In Defense of Ground Bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A yard sign about wild bees

Hindsight: 2020 Trends at the Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—PJ Liesch
Director, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Fungus Gnats: Tiny Flies Around Your Houseplants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Wandering Horde of…Millipedes

It’s a dark, overcast night as the horde emerges from the nearby woods. There’s no real coordination, but thousands of them—perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands—seem to wander aimlessly through the yard.  Some approach the darkened farmhouse and a few even manage to make it inside…

If this were and episode of The Walking Dead, the protagonists would be in a tough spot, but we’re not talking about zombies in this case.  Instead, the topic is millipedes, which have been surprisingly abundant this summer in parts of the Upper Midwest.

Greenhouse millipede.
Greenhouse Millipede (Oxidus gracilis). Photo Credit: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

Most everyone is familiar with millipedes.  They technically aren’t insects, but they are related as demonstrated by their segmented legs and “crunchy” exoskeleton (both are types of arthropods).  These multi-segmented, worm-like creatures can be common in damp areas and are perhaps most recognizable by their slow walk and their habit of curling into a spiral when disturbed.

Unlike the zombies portrayed in on TV, millipedes are really quite harmless.  Some millipede species have been documented as minor crop pests, but in the grand scheme of things, I mostly think of millipedes as being beneficial detritivores.  Millipedes feed on decaying plant materials and they return nutrients to the soil.  Their feeding also breaks down plant materials into smaller pieces, allowing microbes to more easily assist in the decomposition process.  Millipedes can be especially common in damp locations with abundant plant materials: compost piles, rich soil with high organic content, mulch beds, wooded or prairie areas, CRP land, lawns with a heavy thatch layer, and similar.

Millipede curled up in a spiral
A millipede curled up in a classic defensive posture to protect its legs. Photo credit: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

While mostly beneficial, millipedes can occur in very high numbers under the right conditions and can be a nuisance when they seem to suddenly appear in yards and homes.  Hopkin and Read’s The Biology of Millipedes (1992) describes situations where massive millipede hordes have covered acre after acre of farmland or stopped trains, quite literally, in their tracks.  The Midwest does see large masses of millipedes on occasion and it was a particularly busy year at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab for calls about these creatures.

The reasons behind millipede mass migrations aren’t fully understood, but moisture is often noted as a common factor.  Other potential reasons range from general weather patterns to habitat disruption, competition, and reproduction.  When millipedes do move about, many species shun the sun and prefer to move at night or during very overcast days.  When they encounter a building, millipedes can sneak inside, although this is really accidental—it’s too dry for them to survive indoors and they typically die within a day or two.

Millipedes on a home's foundation
Thousands of millipedes along a resident’s home. From a case submitted to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this summer.

Millipedes can be frustrating when mass migrations occur as there’s not much that can be done to completely stop them.  It’s not uncommon to have cases where hundreds or thousands of of millipedes crawl onto the foundation or siding of a home every night.  If they mostly stay outside, that’s one thing, but this summer I’ve had multiple cases where large numbers of millipedes (hundreds) had snuck under a building’s siding and then rained down through ceiling light fixtures.  This sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, but if you were trying to sell your home it could be a real-life nightmare scenario.  In such cases, there simply isn’t any way to make the millipedes magically disappear.  Insecticides may be tempting but only help to a certain extent because more millipedes can simply show up the next day.

If you’re staring down a millipede horde, one of the most important approaches is physical exclusion.  Inspecting the exterior of a home and physically sealing up cracks, crevices, and other potential entrance points with caulk, expanding foam, or new weather stripping can be a chemical free, long-term solution to at least keep millipedes outdoors.  Because millipedes prefer damp areas with decaying plant material, keeping landscape pants, fallen leaves, and thick layers of mulch away from the foundation of a home could also help reduce hiding areas for millipedes.

Luckily, millipede mass migrations eventually run their course and quiet down on their own.   This year, I saw a spike in millipede reports starting in mid-June and running into early August before subsiding.

Masked Hunter Bugs: Another Kissing Bug Look-Alike

“I think I’ve found a kissing bug and wanted to report it” is a surprisingly common line I get at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

I’ve previously written about kissing bugs, but to quickly recap: these are blood-feeding assassin bugs found primarily in South and Central America.  Kissing bugs tend to be associated with vertebrate nests outdoors but can bite humans and can also carry Trypanosoma cruzia parasite that causes Chagas disease.  Due to this concern, I see a spike in website traffic and “reports” of suspected kissing bugs just about any time there’s national news coverage of these insects. While many kissing bug species exist, the vast majority are restricted to tropical and subtropical areas.  The northernmost species—the eastern conenose kissing bug (Triatoma sanguisuga)—ranges from Latin America as far north as southern Illinois.

Eastern conenose kissing bug adult.
Eastern conenose kissing bug adult. Photo credit: Robert Webster, via Wikipedia

Insects don’t care for geopolitical boundaries, but when humans shade in the entire state of Illinois on a distribution map of kissing bugs, it gives the false impression that these insects are on the tollway marching towards Wisconsin’s southern border.  However, the eastern conenose kissing bug is rarely spotted in the northern parts of its range and there has never been a verified case of kissing bugs from within Wisconsin.

The regular occurrence of false reports can likely be attributed to hype in the news combined with a good ol’ case of mistaken identity.  It turns out that there are a number of common insects that can resemble kissing bugs.  One of these, the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), is regularly encountered in the upper Midwest because these insects sneak indoors in the fall just like boxelder bugs.  Recently, the commonest look-alike I’ve been getting reports of is the masked hunter bug (Reduvius personatus), which can also be encountered indoors.

If you aren’t familiar with masked hunter bugs, there’s a good reason why these insects can sometimes mistaken for kissing bugs—they’re technically kissing cousins.  Both kissing bugs and masked hunter bugs belong to the assassin bug family (Family Reduviidae).  This is a diverse family of approximately 7,000 species worldwide and we have dozens of common species in the Midwest.  The vast majority of these species (including masked hunter bugs) are really beneficial predators of other arthropods and are of little medical importance.  In theory, if you picked up and mishandled one of our Midwestern assassin bugs species, it could bite—likely feeling similar to a wasp sting—although that’s about the worst it could do.

Juvenile masked hunter bug camouflaged with debris.
Juvenile masked hunter bug camouflaged with debris. Photo Credit: Chiswick Chap, via Wikipedia

Masked hunter bugs are readily identifiable, although the nymphs (juveniles) can have you scratching your head if you haven’t encountered them before.  The nymphs are often ¼” – ½” long and camouflage themselves with bits of lint and other debris—as a result, they can resemble miniature walking dust bunnies.  Once you recognize this disguise, they’re easy to identify.

Masked Hunter Bug Adult.
Masked Hunter Bug Adult. Photo credit: JP Hamon, via wikipedia

Adult masked hunter bugs are slender, roughly ¾” long, and entirely dark coloured.  They have long, thin legs & antennae and stout beak-like mouthparts which they use to feed on insects and other arthropod prey.  Several key features help distinguish masked hunter bugs from eastern conenose kissing bugs:

  1. Masked hunter bugs are entirely dark while eastern conenose kissing bugs have red on their body
  2. Masked hunter bugs lack the projecting “conenose” present on the head of kissing bugs
  3. Masked hunter bugs have a bulging, “muscular” appearance of their prothorax (trapezoidal region behind the head) when viewed under magnification
  4. Masked hunter bugs have stout beak-like mouthparts while kissing bugs have long, slender mouthparts when viewed under magnification

Side-by-side comparison of a kissing bug and a masked hunter bug.
Side-by-side comparison of a kissing bug and a masked hunter bug. Photo Credit: Devon Pierret and PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. [Click for full sized version]
When it comes to kissing bugs, we simply don’t have these insects in the Upper Midwest, but we do have look-alikes.  For side-by-side diagrams showing an eastern conenose kissing bug compared to common look-alikes, visit the ID Guide page on this website: insectlab.russell.wisc.edu/visual-id-guides/

Black Flies: Out for Blood in the Midwest

Mosquito season has officially kicked off in Wisconsin, meaning the omnipresence of repellents for the foreseeable future.  If mosquitoes have redeeming properties, it’s that they at least serve as food for a wide variety of animals and can even act as pollinators in some cases.  When mosquitoes bite, they do so with surgical precision that would make a phlebotomist green with envy.  Simply reading about mosquitoes might make you feel itchy, although on the spectrum of biting flies, things could be much more sinister…

Also very active at the moment in Wisconsin are black flies (Family Simuliidae) and our state is home to 30 species of these tiny sanguivores.  Black flies—or “buffalo gnats” due to their hump-backed appearance—are deceptive creatures for their small size (~ 1/8″ long).  You usually don’t notice them as much by sound like buzzing mosquitoes, but when they land to feed, these tiny flies are vicious.  Rather than using needle-like mouthparts to delicately probe for blood vessel like mosquitoes, black fly mandibles resemble the jagged edge of Rambo’s survival knife which they use in a “slash-and-slurp” approach.  These mouthparts slice into flesh to create a pool of blood which they then consume.  If this sounds unpleasant—it is!  Reactions to black fly bites can sometimes be severe, with fever and enlargement of nearby lymph nodes.  In addition, their sheer numbers can take a psychological toll and can be a strong test of one’s fortitude if you must be outdoors during peak black fly season.

Adult black fly taking a blood meal. Photo Credit: D. Sikes, via Flickr.

Of the 30 species in Wisconsin, only a handful actually bite humans.  Other species are “picky eaters” with a strong preference for other animals.  For example, Simulium annulus, specializes on common loons and in “bad” years the constant pestering can force adult loons to abandon their nests.  Other birds, such as purple martins and bluebirds can face high rates of chick mortality when the black flies are bad.  Pets, like dogs can commonly get bites and large pinkish welts on the soft skin of their belly.  Dairy cows can be harassed to the extent that feeding and weight gain is greatly reduced and milk production all but ceases.  In some cases, large animals including deer, cows, and horses have been killed outright by black flies.

With that said, if you’ve ever encountered an outbreak of black flies, you’d likely remember.  If you haven’t bumped into black flies before, you’re perhaps in a good spot on the map.  The larvae of many black fly species tend to be associated with streams and rivers, meaning that geography can play a role with outbreaks.  Within the state, areas near the Wisconsin River and other large rivers and streams tend to see the most intense black fly activity.  Black flies can be even worse to the north.  These insects can be notoriously bad in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in June, and in Canada black flies have even been enshrined in film and a surprisingly catchy folk song.

Black fly larvae in a river. Photo credit: GlacierNPS via Flickr

If there’s good news about black flies, it’s that the adults are short-lived.  Wisconsin tends to see a blitz of activity spanning a few weeks in late spring.  When black flies are active, the best approach is to layer up with long sleeves, break out the repellents like DEET, and use a head net if needed.  If you’re in an area with intense black fly activity, cutting back on outdoor activities until these insects run their course for the year may be the simplest option.

Identifying Insects by Smell, Part 2: Odorous House Ants

When it comes to ants at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, the top species seen at the lab include carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.), pavement ants (Tetramorium immigrans), and odorous house ants (Tapinoma sessile).  Odorous house ants were the most commonly reported ants at the lab in 2018, possibly due to the rainy conditions which can force these ants indoors in their search for food.

Odorous House Ant. The single flattened node is hidden under the gaster. Photo credit: April Nobile, specimen: CASENT0005329, from www.antweb.org.

Identifying ants by sight and smell
The tiny brownish odorous house ant measures in at only an eighth of an inch long, but a few features allow for quick identification.  Ants are generally broken into two main groups depending on the numbers of bumps or “nodes” in their constricted waist.  Odorous house ants are considered “one node” ants, although their single node is flattened and is hidden from view by the gaster (sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “abdomen” of ants).  This is strikingly different than other ants, such as carpenter ants or field ants, where the single upright node can even be visible to the naked eye.  This flattened node of odorous house ants is a key identifying feature but does require magnification to interpret this trait.

Carpenter ant—note the visible node or “bump” in the narrow waist. Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher, via Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the easiest way to identify these ants isn’t by sight, but by smell.  Identifying insects by smell may sound odd, but can be a quick and dirty way to confirm the identity of this ant species, and a few other ants like citronella ants.  When squished, odorous house ants have an odor reminiscent of coconut, although some say rotting coconut or even blue cheese.  This scent fades with older, dried-out specimens but is usually quite noticeable in fresh ants.

Country ant, city ant:
Odorous house ant colonies occur both indoors and outdoors in the Midwest, but the overall location of these ants in the landscape can have a drastic influence on colony structure and behavior.  In natural areas (such as forests), odorous house ant colonies tend to be small (often <100 workers) and the ants are generally “well behaved”.  In urban areas, these ants can produce much larger populations with multiple queens, tens of thousands of workers and many different nesting sites. They can behave like an invasive species in such situations.

When it comes to their nesting habits, odorous house ants don’t produce mounds like other common ants.  Instead, these ants are fond of preexisting cavities—small hollow voids beneath rocks or man-made objects, amongst log piles, fallen leaves, mulch beds, or similar spots.  I’ve even seen them take advantage of the cozy space inside of a fake rock “Hide-a-Key” on several occasions!  Indoors, odorous house ants like to nest in hollow cavities such as wall voids, especially if a moisture source is nearby.  These ants can also easily wander indoors when foraging, making them a common indoor nuisance invader.

SMall black ant—an odorous house ant worker
Odorous House Ant (Tapinoma sessile) worker. Photo Credit: JJ Harrison via Wikipedia

Got dessert?
In addition to their essence-of-coconut scent, odorous house ants are also known for having a notorious sweet tooth.  Ant species vary quite a bit in their food preferences, with certain ants seeming to favor the “keto diet” with a strong preference for proteins or fats.  In contrast, odorous house ants have a particular fondness for carbohydrate-rich materials, such as honeydew from aphids, nectar from plants, or sugary human foods.  As a result, these ants routinely invite themselves to picnics and into kitchens.  However, their sugar-loving ways can also be their Kryptonite and odorous house ants usually respond well to sugar-based baits when they do find their way indoors.

The Stories that Insects Tell

Imagine taking an American history class where many of the important events were reduced to mere footnotes or skimmed over entirely.  Anyone taking the class would be shocked at this notion—I mean, the Civil War was a big deal after all!  When you look at a different field of study—biology—such a trend has surprisingly occurred, with insects getting the short end of the stick.  Insects are the most diverse and abundant animals on the planet and make up roughly 70% of the 1,000,000+ described animal species.  Yet, many introductory biology textbooks skim over insects (and invertebrates in general) in favor of more charismatic megafauna—a trend that has only gotten worse over time.  Insects may be small, but they serve crucial roles in the world around us from pollinating plants to serving as the base of food webs.  Appropriately, E.O. Wilson referred to insects as “the little things that run the world” in his famous call for their conservation.  It’s difficult to conserve these little creatures that run the world when so few people really get to know them.  

With their sheer diversity and abundance,  knowing the insects also helps us better understand the world, and everyday life, around us.  Getting to know the many different insects is a bit like learning a foreign language.  Travel to an exotic country where you don’t speak the local tongue and you’d have a hard time understanding the everyday happenings around you.  As you picked up words and phrases of that foreign language, things will become easier to understand.  Along these lines, if you can recognize the insects around you, it helps interpret the stories they tell.  Truly knowing your insects is like possessing an all-powerful decoder ring to the untold stories that surround us.  

Let’s look to flies to illustrate this point.  To many folks, a small fly found in their home is assumed to be a fruit fly, and a large fly, a house fly.  But there are dozens of different flies that commonly show up indoors—each with their own story to tell.  Fungus gnats hint at overwatered houseplants, moth flies indicate build-up in a bathtub drain, and metallic blow flies can alert you to a mouse trap in need of checking.  Outdoors, other species of flies can provide clues that gauge water quality, indicate the presence of specific plants, or solve crimesbut only if one knows how to interpret their clues.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’d argue that a properly identified insect is worth even more.  

The unusual fly species, Asteia baeta. At only 2mm long, these flies can readily be mistaken for fruit flies to the naked eye. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

This holiday season, my own love of insects led to a scientific discovery that would have gone unrecognized in most households.  A day after setting up our “real” Christmas tree, I noticed several tiny flies at the windows of our home.  My curiosity was piqued and like any good detective, some sleuthing was needed.  I recall an undergraduate professor telling the class, “a biologist without a notebook is off duty” to which I’d add, “an entomologist without vials is off duty”.  So now I was off, vials in hand, on an insect hunt in my own house.  Once the specimens were examined under the microscope, I recognized the flies as a rare species (Asteia baeta) from the poorly-known family Asteiidae.  There isn’t much written about these flies, but they’re known to be associated with fungi, vegetation, and tree sap, which told me that the new Christmas tree was the source.  These flies have only been spotted in Wisconsin a few times and no preserved specimens exist for that family in the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection (I’ll be donating some soon).  Looks like our Christmas tree came with it’s own entomological story to tell this year—I’m glad I knew how to listen.

The source of the unusual flies—apparently our cat wanted to try and hunt for them as well. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch