Giant Bugs Climbing Desert Trees

They only thrive on mesquite trees, and pass their time by munching on the tree’s tiny leaves.  Because they do their host no damage, and usually crawl on its tops, they are a lesser known insect: the mesquite bug.  Scientifically labeled as Thasus neocalifornicus, they live in New Mexico, mesquite-filled Arizona and, of course, California.

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While large and beetle-like, they are not of the beetle family.  Known colloquially as the “giant mesquite bug” they are scaling tree trunks this time of year, so are more likely to be spotted by the layperson.  While they resemble beetles, they are in fact “true bugs.”

What the difference between a beetle and a bug, anyway?

Beetles are in the largest order of insects, Coleoptera, while true bugs are among one group of Hemipterans.

Structurally, beetles have compound eyes in the head, mouths made for chewing, and antenna with little branches called antennomeres – of which they have up to ten.  True bugs have four large antennomeres and their mouths don’t chew but pierce, or suck.  Beetles bodies are one hard shell, whereas bugs bodies are only hard in the front, where forewings are, then membrane-like near the tips.  Simply put, beetles have a single, rounded shell that is hard whereas bugs tend to look like they have separate parts in a clunkier, more cornered body shape.

Garden Pest Control Starts at Home

Timing is everything, and that’s just as true in pest control as it is in comedy.  Pests can generally be classified in three groups:  plants (weeds), insects, and mammals (usually rodents).  In the garden, all three can take a toll on plant productivity and health.

This time of year, the long sunny days provide the best growing months and the most likely outbreaks of all types of pests.

The number one pest control issue is probably the most benign appearing:  weeds.  Not only do growing weeds eat up nutrients, space and water meant for garden veggies and flowers, but they attract their insect pests.  To control weeds, shallow cultivation of soil works well when they are small; later, hand pulling is the best bet.

Insect pests can be handled in a variety of ways, including natural defenses, hand picking (especially caterpillars) and the “nuclear” option of insecticides.  Each insect pest species should be identified and researched for the most appropriate removal method, but a relatively recent addition to the shelves of pesticides is fairly non-toxic and may be considered a good all-around solution.  The active ingredient is Spinosad, and some formulated products are approved for organic gardening.

For mammal pests, use your keenest of senses – your eyes — to note if flowers or plants are nibbled.  Barriers, regular patrolling, cats, and traps are all useful in your arsenal against these critters.

Drought Means Pests Move Closer

The California drought is bringing all creatures, great and small, closer to humans.

Pests can include almost any animal that is trying to invade human space, including mice, bugs of all kinds, raccoons, and sometimes even more exotic creatures like snakes or mountain lions.

It’s a simple fact that all living creatures need water, even the ones the use very little like scorpions, ants and reptiles of all types.  So it stands to reason that when its scare, any source of water will do.

Throughout the state, reports of wildlife in yards, on golf courses, and in pools abound.

Be aware of the types that will bite.

Ants and mosquitoes seek water sources near houses, and will enter the house if the source looks good.  The way to avoid them is by removing standing water (this goes double for mosquitoes) and sealing trash containers.  Even tiny amounts of water will attract ants, as they don’t need much to live on.  So take care of drips in your yard!  The rule of thumb for mosquitoes is to remember that they can lay eggs in the water that fills only a bottle cap.

Snakes, who also need very little liquid, but do need some, are slithering to a yard near you. They will often hide gardens, where there are bugs and other critters to eat.  They generally will find daytime places to hide, like woodpiles.  Standing water is a treat for all reptiles, and they’ll use sprinkler leavings as well as drippy areas under faucets.

Migrating Monarch Endangered

Why do we see monarch butterflies so rarely these days?  It isn’t because they’ve decided to stay in one place.  They still migrate, but their numbers are down – way down.  In the past twenty years, the population of monarchs has declined by 80% due to loss of habitat.

Monarchs are facing the same challenges as bees, although in the case of bee decline there are multiple factors converging to kill colonies.  Both monarch butterflies and honeybees survive by eating milkweed plants, as well as wildflowers. Milkweed used to thrive and proliferate throughout the Midwestern U.S., but herbicide use has sharply curtailed its territory.  Large-scale argriculture seems to not only have endangered the traditional family farm, but also a variety of beneficial insects.

Monarchs are well known to most of us because they are – or were – such a common butterfly.  Large, and painted in stained glass like orange and black, they are known also as impressive migrators, covering thousands of miles in one season.  These butterflies fly from Mexico to Vermont, but without milkweed it takes many more generations to reach their destination.  Butterflies that used to reach Vermont in one generation now die along the way, and it is their grandchildren who make it all the way north and east.

Dung Beetle a Boon to Farmers and Ranchers

A researcher who has spent his life investigating the habits of dung beetles has a vision of introducing more of these magical critters in his home country of Australia.  His efforts to understand the machinations of this dung-eating wonder have led to a far better picture of pasture production.

Dr. Bernard Doube supervises a dung beetle breeding operation.  He’s an entomologist who both studies and sells the bugs.  His research shows that pasture production is increased by at least 30 percent due to beetle activity.

The beetle feeds on cattle dung, and in this way the soil becomes restructured.  While fertilizer may last only a season, the beetles’ work is much more valuable because it creates a steady 30% increase in soil production capacity.  During the first couple of years of bringing dung beetles to farms, Dr. Doube noted the increase in soil capacity was 50-60%, but it levels off after that.

Dr. Doube would like to import 25 new species of dung beetle to create biodiversity and support their reproduction in Australia.  He estimates a 50 million dollar investment by the federal government is necessary, and popular support combined with years of research may make his dream come true.

 

Wasp Set to Kill Invasive Borer

Ash trees in Colorado are under serious threat from a large beetle called the Emerald Ash Borer.  Forest Service officials have decided to use a predatory pest that eats the beetles’ eggs as a possible solution.

The bug that they’ve recruited is a non-stinging parasitic wasp. The flying insects are only about the size of a red pepper flake, with about fifty to a bottle.  The wasp-filled bottles are being placed all around the Boulder area as a first step to fighting the ash borer.

This type of wasp has been successfully released before to contain destructive bugs.  In this case, the infestation is so severe that officials need to implement protective measures swiftly.

The ash borer does its damage not by chewing the leaves or eating the bark, but by laying eggs inside the tree.  As their young develop, they carve spiral pathways throughout the inside of the tree, disrupting its ability to transport water.

It can take three to five years for the ash borer to kill a healthy tree

“It’s pretty bad,” said John Kaltenbach, a biological control specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture. “It’s probably the worst pest Colorado has ever seen.”

The insect came from wood transported from Asia, and did damage in Michigan for years before being detected.

Man Survives Attack after Hundreds of Bee Stings

Authorities in the area of Kingman, Arizona say it is one of the largest beehives encountered in the area.  Tens of thousands of bees were living in a hive found in a back yard shed by a man working on the property.

The man, who remains unidentified, was stung between 500 and 1,000 times by the huge swarm.  He was doing work in the area of Valle Vista, about 15 miles northeast of Kingman, for a property owner.

The man is in stable condition at Kingman Regional Medical Center.

Apparently, while working in the yard the man entered a shed on the property.  Within was an enormous hive containing what are described as “tens of thousands” of bees.  After disturbing the hive, he ran to his vehicle and in the process got help from two neighbors, who were also stung.

The passersby were not hospitalized, nor was a beekeeper who was recruited by authorities to contain the bees, and stung 23 times in the process.

Officials have sent out warnings to residents of the area to stay inside while the swarm is being controlled.  If going outside, neighbors were told to avoid walking pets in the area and to keep vehicle windows closed when driving nearby.

The beekeeper reported that it would take several days to get the situation under control, due to extensive infestation and sheer number of insects.

Alaska Truly Last Frontier for Bee Research

Bee populations are much studied, and research has accelerated in the last few years due to concerns about rapidly declining numbers.  But in the wilds of Alaska, little in known about how bumble bees live.

A team of researchers spent two years studying the bees’ habitat, health, and behaviors to describe current conditions, or in research parlance “get a baseline”, for future studies.

The threat to bumble bees in the lower 48 is due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has devastated farm-managed bee populations.  Theories about the cause of CCD abound: poor beekeeping management techniques, pesticides, and even aluminum in the environment.

Like their flying brethren in the lower states, the Alaskan bees also test positive for Nosema, a microsporidian parasite associated with CCD.  Their numbers, making up about 10% of the Alaskan bee population, are robust, however.

Lack of prior study makes bee population “normal” impossible to describe in Klondike territory, however.  Researchers hope that by establishing a good description of bee activity now, the trend in bee health can be better understood a few years down the road.

Prairie Dogs Harbinger for Plague in Northern Arizona

When prairie dog colonies disappear suddenly, often the bubonic plague is not far behind.  That is what happened this spring, and the reason public health officials remain vigilant in this part of the state.  Transmission of plague occurs through fleas, but can also come about with contact from infected animals.

Plague is rare in the modern world, largely due to effective treatments (antibiotics) and public health workers who are trained to spot signs of an outbreak.  Only about ten percent of those stricken die from the disease worldwide, and confirmed cases in the last century number only 1,000 individuals.

But northern Arizona, near the Grand Canyon, is a hotspot for the flea that carries Yersinia pestis bacteria, a key vector and pathogen for bubonic plague.  Officials respond to outbreaks among other mammals – commonly rodents – by dusting burrows with disinfectant.   Warning signs are also posted in hiking areas where rodent colonies have died.

Safeguards for hikers include using bug repellant and avoidance of any dead animal.  Plague can be transmitted to humans via flea bites or contact with animals that have died from the disease.

Aluminum in Environment May Harm More Than Humans

It penetrates our environment through acid rain, brought about by burning fossil fuels.  Intensive agriculture also produces it.  Aluminum has been shown to be one of the most toxic metals that exists today.  Its prevalence in our environment has been theorized to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, and a new study suggests bees may be impacted, too.

Bee decline has recently been extensively studied because of their rapid decline, and due to the importance of bees to human life.  Without these pollinators, up to a third of our food supply could vanish.

The recent study was conducted in May, 2013, and published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE), and indicates that the cognitive functions of bees may be damaged by exposure to aluminum.  Researchers used bumblebee colonies in England, setting them up in urban and farm areas, then studied the bees for levels of aluminum in their bodies.

Results showed that both adults and larvae carried high levels of aluminum.  In adults, the levels were 4.6 and 15.5 mg/g of dry weight; in larvae the mean dry weight was 51.0 mg/g.

“Bees rely heavily on cognitive performance to navigate in their environment,” the researchers wrote. “The observation here that the aluminum content of bumblebee pupae is an order of magnitude (or more) higher than levels harmful to humans gives cause for concern.”

 

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