Our native pollinators were slow to emerge this year in the San Juans because of the cool weather. Usually, we can rely on flies, solitary bees and wasps, and even moths, ants, and others to pollinate our fruit trees. I did see some species of flies out this spring, but again, weather conditions were poor.
We have PLENTY of “pollinators” out in our yard right now. So, in trying to explain to people when they ask me about a decline in native pollinators, I have a few points I like to throw out for consideration.
1) honey bees are poor pollinators to keep on the island. It has to be above 50 degrees for them to come out of the hive.
2) native flies and other insects like moths (which fly at night and we don’t typically see) are better at pollinating in cooler temperatures. While they also won’t be out if it’s rainy and super cold, they can fly in temperature ranges lower than 50 degrees F.
3) the critical importance of native pollinators may not be in their “pollination” services – but their role as pest predators and/or role in the food cycle for other organisms, and for creating biodiversity in our ecosystem, which helps keep everything healthier. I think this part is important. If you look at some of the plants we put in our gardens (native perennials), they actually do not require pollination to survive and reproduce, but do offer pollen and nectar to many insects, spiders, and hummingbirds. Looking further at the food web, we need a variety of native insects for more than pollination. Tachinid flies, syrphid flies, solitary wasps, ants, and even spiders can be pollinators, but also help regulate populations of orchard, garden, and forest pests.
My take on all of this is as humans, our focus has largely been on how to grow food over environmental conservation and maintaining balanced, functioning ecosystems. With climate change, many of our food growing operations may fail. Our fruit trees (at least none that I know of) are not native. In spite of the best intentions, conditions may decline to a point where we can’t produce great fruit here. Weather is only one limiting factor. We have poor soils or no soil in many locations, limited water resources, and the pressures of continuing development resulting in loss of natural habitats. I don’t have the answers for you when it comes to fruit production or any way to personally mitigate climate change, so we may have to figure out a substitute for growing apples, plums, and such.
Let’s go back to the importance of native pollinators though. If you think of our island as a living organism with many different functions, it is important to have all the essential pieces to keep the “body” healthy. These native pollinators (and the native plants they visit), and all the other myriad species of invertebrates, fungi, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, soil, water, etc. are all part of the “body,” a body that has to fight off occasional or repeated assaults from being thrown off balance by exposures to external forces. Just like we need a variety of foods and minerals and other things to keep our body healthy, so does an ecosystem. We need all of these pieces (and that includes our native pollinators and all the other diverse species) to keep our island home healthy.
As to the fruit trees and other food crops requiring pollination, for now, some of these issues can be mediated by planting around your orchard and garden with plenty of diverse native species and providing habitat for all of these native species to develop. Some of our practices of cleaning and sanitizing our orchards and gardens, burning yard clippings, and applying fertilizers and pesticides can adversely affect the biodiversity needed to help our food production thrive.
I imagine it can be frustrating to see an orchard fail to produce fruit. My grandparents were tenant farmers and wholly dependent on growing cotton and corn and the bit of garden and livestock they had around the home on the property they did not own. When it was a drought year, and crops failed, things were utterly miserable. Destitute would be a better adjective. I believe we may have an inherent desire to be “part of the land,” and grow our own food, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, conditions aren’t favorable. Crops fail. Historically, we have tried (and failed) to control some of these external forces – like applying pesticides in amounts that probably will poison us forever.
I’ve gone way beyond the “pollinator” topic here, but it is next to impossible for me to see a one-dimensional issue. We have a much larger and more complex picture before us. How do we either re-create or maintain a healthy functioning system, navigate the perils of climate change, and feed ourselves? I like to believe that protecting diversity in our ecosystems is an important facet of this complex, multi-layered crisis we face.
I found this little green beetle (and another sad little black and yellow beetle missing its antennae) in the pool yesterday. The black and yellow beetle is alive and… well, sort of living in a special habitat right now because of those missing antennae.
The green one was completely waterlogged and lifeless. I had left it on the table next to Drago’s enclosure last night, thinking I’d pin it and keep it in my collection. I am SO GLAD I DIDN’T stick it with a pin! This morning, I found it moving those little legs around at me. It was alive! RIP woke up.
This is a Golden Buprestid Beetle (Buprestis aurulenta). They are a native species in the Pacific Northwest. I have referred to them often as the Rip Van Winkle beetle because they take such a long time to develop from egg to adult. In fact, the record is 51 years!
Why so long? Well, the developmental time depends a lot on the quality of what they’re eating (they develop in dead or dying trees) and miscellaneous environmental factors. When they come out as an adult, they leave behind a little oval hole. I think it adds character to your wood trim if you have them “sleeping” in timber used to build your house.
We had one in our door trim that didn’t make it all the way out and probably had been stuck for awhile before I noticed. It became a fascinating object to show anyone who came to visit our home.
I’m not sure what gives them this beautiful iridescence, but they are undeniably one of nature’s jewels, thus the name “Jewel” Beetle.
The Western Tent Caterpillar is probably one of the most studied and also one of the most loathed insects in the Pacific Northwest. I’m hoping to change attitudes by shining a light on some of the ecological facets of the species and how it connects to the larger food web. We often deem something a pest before really considering the whole picture. Is there anything good about a caterpillar eating leaves off a tree? It depends on a lot of factors. Why not take time to examine the web…and I’m not referring to the tent here either.
It was just last week in my community (San Juan Island), that I heard a story about a woman who fell and hit her head after getting on a ladder to BURN the tent caterpillars out of her fruit trees. Hmmm. Please don’t try this at home. It isn’t safe. Burning the tents out of trees can actually do more damage to the tree than the caterpillars do by eating the leaves.
The photos below show something that happens to the tent caterpillars we may not notice in our panic to eradicate them from our trees. The egg on the caterpillar was laid by a parasitic Tachinid fly. It chose the head, so the caterpillar can’t chew it off its body. The egg is shed when the caterpillar molts, but the fly is already developing inside the caterpillar. It will literally eat the caterpillar from the inside out. So, when you clip off those tents and throw them into the fire, you are also killing the natural and best pest predators along with them. Naturus interruptus! We do more harm than good by intervening.
The Western Tent Moth caterpillars are affected by a few other parasitoids. Braconid wasps also attack them. Some lay eggs on the cocoons. There is also a nucleopolyhedrovirus that infects them when populations are high. In my rush to get this out, I may come back and edit, but I’ve referenced lots of great information below so you can read more about this on your own.
To add to all of this, over the weekend, my daughter and I found some tents in the orchard trees on our property. I might just be the ONLY resident in the San Juans excited to see them. Hmmm. Well, what I found was even more interesting. The tents had dead caterpillars inside and living family groups of earwigs. We also found a super cute jumping spider!
I was curious about this because earwigs are known to be garden pests, I did find some studies about earwigs that are PREDATORY on species of Lepidoptera. While these studies addressed other species of moths, the gist was that the plant species sends out a chemical signal that calls pest predators when it is being attacked by caterpillars. Every plant and pest predator sends and responds (respectively) to various signals, some very specific to each relationship. The plant is calling in the army! It may not always be earwigs, but there are wasps, flies, and others that come to aid the plant when it is under attack. Yes, it is very cool!!!
Oh, and those Western Tent Caterpillars turn into adult moths in mid summer. They are attracted to light. Turn off your outdoor lights. Nature will thank you and you will be less attractive to the mating moths. Many moth species also tend to fly off en-masse when they are mate seeking. These periodic, seasonal pulses of terrestrial invertebrates in our region end up in nearshore marine habitats when they fly out over the ocean.
Various studies have surveyed the stomach contents of Chinook and Coho Salmon, and other fishes in nearshore marine habitats during their first year at sea. Two studies I found reported finding Western Tent Moths and Spruce Budworm Moths (species considered as pests in northern boreal forests) in sampled gut contents. Brodeur et al., (1987) reported the following from one survey, “The incidence of several juvenile coho collected after the storm which had stomachs that were distended with over 100 of these insects exemplifies the ability of these juvenile coho to readily exploit these allochthonous inputs into the marine environment.” They were referring to the “pest” species, (Choristoneura occidentalis) or Spruce Budworm Moth in this instance. In Brennan et al. (2002), sampling of salmon in Central Puget Sound found insect prey included Western Tent Moths (Malocosoma sp.), and that “Lepidoptera in 2002 diets were gravimetrically dominated by tent caterpillar moths (Malocosoma sp.) 51% of Lepidoptera category by weight.” They also reported that Lepidoptera in their samples “were only abundant in 2002.” Coincidentally perhaps, this was a year of a recorded outbreak of tent caterpillars in WA state.
Other studies acknowledge terrestrial invertebrates as a better quality food than marine crustaceans for developing salmon. Periodic, cyclic, or seasonal events resulting in abundant insect flotsam in marine habitats may be missed, or difficult to record, but undoubtedly play a role in feeding fish in nearshore marine habitats.
Take away point here. Even bugs we see as pests have a role in ecosystems. Salmon and other species of wildlife don’t have grocery stores to visit when they need a meal. They rely on seasonal and periodic availability of food. It’s all they have, and it’s important for us to appreciate that.
Please take a moment to scroll through some of the photos below. Definitely check out the fantastic animation by April Randall about the adult moths flying out over the shoreline and being eaten by salmon! Don’t miss checking out those references and reading material too. If you are curious to know more, shoot me an email and I’m happy to send you literature for further reading.
References and Further Reading
Bell, K., Naranjo-Guevara, N., Santos, R., Meadow, R., & Bento, J. (2020). Predatory Earwigs are Attracted by Herbivore-Induced Plant Volatiles Linked with Plant Growth-Promoting Rhizobacteria. Insects, 11(5), 271. https://doi.org/10.3390/insects11050271
Cooper, Dawn & Cory, Jenny & Theilmann, David & Myers, Judith. (2003). Nucleopolyhedroviruses of forest and western tent caterpillars: Cross-infectivity and evidence for activation of latent virus in high-density field populations. Ecological Entomology. 28. 41 – 50. 10.1046/j.1365-2311.2003.00474.x.
Furniss RL, Carolin VM. 1977. Western forest insects. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Washington, D.C. Miscellaneous Publication 1339. 654 p.
Knight, G. A.; Lavigne, R. J.; and Pogue, M. G. 1991. “The Parasitoid Complex of Forest Tent Caterpillar, Malacosoma Disstria (Lepidoptera: Lasiocampidae), in Eastern Wyoming Shelterbelts,” The Great Lakes Entomologist, vol 24 (4) Available at: https://scholar.valpo.edu/tgle/vol24/iss4/7
Rodstrom, R & Resources, Greenwood & Portland, Oregon & John, J & Brown, John. (2017). FOREST AND WESTERN TENT CATERPILLARS Insect Pest Management in Hybrid Poplars Series. 10.13140/RG.2.2.24262.37442.
Witter JA, Kuhlman HM. 1972. A review of the parasites and predators of tent caterpillars (Malacosoma spp.) in North America. Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. Technical Bulletin 289. 48 p.
Additional References***Updated 06.23.2022
Brennan, J.S., K.F. Higgins, J.R. Cordell, and V.A. Stamatiou. 2004. Juvenile Salmon Composition, Timing Distribution, and Diet in Marine Nearshore Waters of Central Puget Sound in 2001-2002. King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, Seattle Wa. 164pp.
Brodeur, R. D., Mundy, B. C., Pearcy, W. G., & Wisseman, R. W. 1987. The neustonic fauna in coastal waters of the northeast Pacific: abundance, distribution, and utilization by juvenile salmonids. Oregon State University Publication ORESU-T-87-001.
Brodeur, R. D. (1989). Neustonic feeding by juvenile salmonids in coastal waters of the Northeast Pacific. Canadian Journal of Zoology, 67(8), 1995-2007.
Brodeur, R. D., Lorz, H. V., & Pearcy, W. G. (1987). Food habits and dietary variability of pelagic nekton off Oregon and Washington, 1979-1984. NOAA Technical Report NMFS 57. U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Service.
Cheng L, Birch M. 2008. Insect flotsam: an unstudied marine resource. Ecol Entomol 3:87–97.
Cheng L. 1975. Marine pleuston: animals at the sea-air interface. Oceanogr Mar Biol Annu Rev. 13:181–212.
Cheng, L., M. C. Birch. 2009. Terrestrial insects at sea. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. 57, 4, (995-997).
DNR TreeLink. Tenting in the Trees. 2012. WSU Extension Puget Sound Stewardship E-Newletter 5:4
Drake, V.A., D. R. Reynolds, Radar Entomology: Observing Insect Flight and Migration (CABI, Wallingford, UK, 2012).
Duffy, E.J., D.A. Beauchamp, R. Sweeting, R. Beamish, and J. Brennan. 2010. Ontogenetic diet shifts of juvenile Chinook salmon in nearshore and offshore habitats of Puget Sound. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society. 139:803-823.
Glick P. 1939. The distribution of insects, spiders, and mites in the air. Washington D.C.: US Department of Agriculture.
Green K., 2011. The transport of nutrients and energy into the Australian Snowy Mountains by migrating bogong moths Agrotis infusa. Austral. Ecol.36, 25–34.
Gutierrez, L. 2011. Terrestrial invertebrate prey for juvenile Chinook salmon: Abundance and environmental controls on an interior Alaskan river. MS Thesis, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.
Hardy AC, Cheng L. 1986. Studies in the distribution of insects by aerial currents. III. Insect drift over the sea. Ecol Entomol. 113:283–90.
Helm RR. 2021. The mysterious ecosystem at the ocean’s surface. Plos Biology. Apr;19(4):e3001046.
Holland RA, Wikelski M, Wilcove DS. How and why do insects migrate? Science. 2006 Aug 11;313(5788):794-6. doi: 10.1126/science.1127272. PMID: 16902129.
Hu G, Lim KS, Horvitz N, Clark SJ, Reynolds DR, Sapir N, Chapman JW. Mass seasonal bioflows of high-flying insect migrants. Science. 2016 Dec 23;354(6319):1584-1587. doi: 10.1126/science.aah4379. PMID: 28008067.
Landry J. S., Parrott L., Could the lateral transfer of nutrients by outbreaking insects lead to consequential landscape-scale effects? Ecosphere7, e01265 (2016).
Locke, A., S. Corey. 1986. Terrestrial and freshwater invertebrates in the neuston of the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(7): 1535-1541. https://doi.org/10.1139/z86-228
Satterfield, Dara & Sillett, T & Chapman, Jason & Altizer, Sonia & Marra, Peter. 2020. Seasonal insect migrations: massive, influential, and overlooked. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 18. 10.1002/fee.2217.
Hello Everyone! Meet my new bug friend, Radar Love ❤️ He must have crashed the wrong party. Radar gone wrong! I found him floating in our pool, in the midst of those raucous “dippers” (the Diplotaxis beetles). Radar Love was so happy I didn’t let him drown, and even happier that I didn’t stick him with a pin and add him to the bug equivalent of a stamp collection. We hung out together for a bit and I took some photos and video to remember him by. Radar Love was released into the forest so he can make more of his kind.
Location: San Juan Island
ID: Geotruipidae (Odonteus obsesus)
Special thanks to my friend, Michelle Sloan Bos and Tyler Hedlund for ID assistance with this. I was rushing to get ready for my special spider outing. More about that later. For now, enjoy this rare and exciting sighting of a most special little beetle that calls San Juan Island his home.
When you study insects, or even birds for that matter, you start to understand you have to get to know plants a bit too. It’s all connected.
Plants (including trees and shrubs) provide food and shelter for many different species of animals. Admittedly, I just don’t know a lot about the parts of plants, beyond things like a tree trunk, bark, limbs, branches, leaves, or stems or flowers, nuts, fruit. The obvious parts.
There are some not so obvious parts. Like these extrafloral nectaries. Huh? Sounds weird. Keep reading.
Extrafloral nectaries (EFN’s) are glands occurring on more than 2000 plant species in 64 families. Extrafloral literally means outside of the flower. When we think of nectar, we usually think of little bees and hummingbirds flying around, visiting pretty flowers to sip nectar and in the process, pollinate all of our plants. It’s just that plants are a bit more complex. These glands are located in various places on plants (including trees and shrubs), and may be found on the laminae of leaves, petioles, rachids, bracts, stipules, pedices, fruit, etc. (Mizell, 2019).
These glandular secretions are a fascinating part of how plants attract and sustain a diverse, ecological community, providing sustenance for a multitude of species, including both pests and predators. You can find ants, aphids, beetles (including ladybugs), bees, wasps, and possibly even birds utilizing this excretory faucet to sip what consists of mostly carbohydrate-rich sugar, but also comprised of a wide array of amino acids and other nutrients.
Why are these important? Well, scientists are still trying to fully understand all of the diverse relationships around extra-floral nectaries. It is thought perhaps, beyond attracting organisms to a food source, they play a role in orchestrating a plant’s defense strategy against predators. They also are believed to provide a source of food and/or beneficial nutrients for various organisms during the off-season – when flowering and pollen sources are not available. They may also reduce conflict between ants and other pollinators by partitioning resources (Villamil & Stone, 2019).
Bentley, B. L. (1977). Extrafloral nectaries and protection by pugnacious bodyguards. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 8(1), 407-427.
Holopainen JK, Blande JD, Sorvari J. Functional Role of Extrafloral Nectar in Boreal Forest Ecosystems under Climate Change. Forests. 2020; 11(1):67. https://doi.org/10.3390/f11010067
Villamil, N., Boege, K., & Stone, G. N. (2019). Testing the Distraction Hypothesis: Do extrafloral nectaries reduce ant-pollinator conflict?. The Journal of ecology, 107(3), 1377–1391. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13135
Yesterday I was the lifeguard. And, I had swimmers needing saving!
Here’s one of the species I used a piece of cardboard to rescue from drowning. This is a beetle in the family Histeridae, also known as a Clown Beetle. I told him no more clowning around without a life jacket. 🤣 Watch as it wrings its hindwings out, rolling them in under the leathery elytra (the outer wings).
I believe this beetle is in the genus Margarinotus. For ID beyond this, I’d need more time and a lot of patience. However, I can tell you I’ve learned some species of Hister beetles are associated with the nests of rodents, birds, and even ants and termites. They are pest predators, meaning they eat other insects at all life stages. They also are especially adept predators of fly eggs. You can often find them in leaf litter, dung, carrion, and under tree bark, or living in those ant mounds where they may be fed by ants, eat the leftovers the ants discard, or in some cases, they eat the ants!
Some other curious tidbits about these beetles include their acting ability. They play dead (Thanatosis) to deter predators. The word Hister is derived from Latin and means “Actor.”
I found this tiny bee who looked to be stuck to a thorn on my Bois D’Arc tree this afternoon. At first glance, I thought perhaps a March fly, and a dead one at that, but it turned out this is a most likely a “he” Nomad bee, and he wasn’t stuck at all, but just sleeping.
I learned something new today about bees that I did not know. My friend, Eric Eaton’s wife (link to Eric’s book about wasps in my Read More section) , shared with me that some bees will often sleep in this manner, attached to a substrate like this thorn or a twig, by their mandibles. Thanks Heidi! 🙂
My bee was definitely gripping the end of the thorn with its mandibles. Before I found out my bee was only napping, I wasn’t certain what was going on. I worried maybe the bee had fallen victim to some weird fungus and was now locked in a death vise. Worries unfounded! The little bee released his grip as I was about to clip the end of the twig (with bee attached) and take it into the house to view under the microscope.
Nomad bees are pretty cool. They are cuckoo bees, cleptoparasites of other bees (usually Andrena bees or Melitta bees) and target the nest provisions gathered by the host bees for their own young. Nomad bees will find the nests of host bees using olfactory and visual cues. The fertilized female will lay her eggs in these nests, where her offspring will develop after devouring the offspring of the host bee, and eating the food the host parent had provisioned.
Check out the video footage of this little bee as he woke up this afternoon and read more about Nomad bees in the attached links in my Read More section.
I found a’nutter weevil! They’ve been everywhere this week! Looks like this may be the Nut Leaf Weevil (Strophosoma melanogrammum). These weevils feed on the leaves of broad leafed shrubs. I saw it on a chunk of rotting alder. It was pretty small and tough to photograph in low light. Probably about 3.2 mm in size. San Juan Island, WA October 13, 2021.
I am very nearly blind when I try to see things up close, so it truly surprises me how I SEE things like the tiny “laundry” line of dead bugs this little orb weaver had strewn along a filmy thread between the boughs of our fir tree. At first, I thought it was just debris, stuck to the remnant of a spider thread, long abandoned. Upon closer inspection, I saw more threads and then my attention focused on the center, where I was able to discern what looked like teeny legs curled up around a body.
I used my clip on macro lens to get a better look. Indeed, there was a tiny spider in the center. I thought it was dead. That’s EXACTLY what the spider was hoping I’d think, and then I’d move on and the spider could enjoy the morning sun, and maybe a tiny bug for breakfast too.
I had a hard time getting decent photos. Even with the macro lens, focusing was tough. The wind would blow at just the WRONG second and I’d have to start all over again. I couldn’t find my tripod, but finally got a decent pole to help me balance, and went out to take photos at different times over a period of 2 days. I even went out last night and took a picture.
It was fairly easy to identify the spider to Genus (Cyclosa), but species ???? . After going through the literature I had, I narrowed it to 2 possibilities, but reached out to Rod Crawford for help. Rod is the curator of arachnids at Seattle’s Burke Museum and this is what he says,
“Yes, it’s a Cyclosa. This time of year all Cyclosa are juvenile, and I for one cannot distinguish between our 2 species (C. conica, C. turbinata) as juveniles. However, C. conica is more common.”
So, my little spider with a laundry line of bugs is either Cyclosa conica or Cyclosa turbinata.
Why exactly do they string the debris along their web lines? Well, again, this debris is usually made up of dead bugs and other tiny bits of debris attached to the silk line. Typically, the spider is positioned somewhere in the middle, using the debris as camouflage against predators. Often, the female spiders’ egg sacks are attached to this “laundry line” too. I think laundry line sounds better than trash line, but I don’t think I get to rename the spider.
There are five species of Cyclosa spiders in North America, north of Mexico. I believe we only have the two mentioned by Rod here. I’m going back out to check on my new friend after I finish my post. Enjoy the day and remember to Be Nice to Spiders!
Enchoria lacteata (Packard) is a relatively small moth with forewings measuring only 0.9-1.1 cm in length. Adults have a remarkable zig-zag pattern on forewings made up of various shades of brown and buff. They are diurnal (daytime) fliers and emerge from late February to May. Sightings are often in grassy areas or edges of moist woodlands. Larval host plants are various species of miner’s lettuce, Claytonia (Portulacaceae). Check out the following link for more information on miner’s lettuce. It’s edible! https://www.ediblewildfood.com/miners-lettuce.aspx
Enchoria lacteata crawling onto my pruning tool.
Enchoria lacteata between my work glove and pruning tool
POWELL, JERRY A., and PAUL A. OPLER. Moths of Western North America. 1st ed., University of California Press, 2009.