Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2016 (#5 – #1)

In this post, we’re continuing to count-down 2016’s top insect trends in the state.  This is the final post in a three part series.  Part I (2016’s diagnostic lab statistics) can be found here and Part II (Top Insect Trends Numbers 10-6) can be found here.

#5: The spread of the emerald ash borer increased dramatically in the state last year. Photo Credit: Howard Russell, Bugwood.org.
#4: Fall invading insects, such as boxelder bugs are well known, but the strawberry root weevil and other weevils can sneak indoors during the summer months. Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood.org.
#3: Several scarab beetles, including the rose chafer caused notable plant damage last year. Photo Credit: Clemson University Extension, Bugwood.org.
#2: An elusive adult rabbit bot fly. Photo Credit: Quentin Sprengelmeyer.
#2: An inch long bot fly larva from a mouse. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.
#1: Fierce mosquito pressure in many parts of the state combined with the Zika stories in the news gave mosquitoes the top spot in 2016's insect trends. Photo credit: Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org.

 

5) Metallic Wood Boring Beetles
Two different metallic wood boring beetles (Family Buprestidae) had strong years in 2016. The first, the emerald ash borer, is no stranger to Wisconsinites these past few years. While there were only 3 new counties (Portage, Wood, Sawyer) added to the state quarantine map in 2016, there were over 80 municipalities with their first confirmed EAB infestation last year (out of 227 municipalities with documented EAB finds at the end of 2016). With that said, EAB has greatly picked up steam these past few years and is attacking ash trees at a rapid rate in Midwest.

Another metallic wood borer that seemed to have a good year was the twolined chestnut borer. Unlike the invasive emerald ash borer, the twolined chestnut borer is is native to North America and tends to attack stressed trees (oaks). In these cases, trees might be stressed by factors such as disease, drought stress, winter injury, or damage from other insects. The UW Insect Diagnostic Lab noticed a distinct increase in cases of the twolined chestnut borer this past summer, although the underlying stress might have begun affecting trees several years ago. With the high value of oak trees in the landscape, this insect is definitely a pest that tree care companies should have on their radar for the near future.

4) Home-Invading Weevils
Many Wisconsinites experience or at least are familiar with insects that sneak indoors in the fall, such as boxelder bugs and multicolored Asian lady beetles. There’s also a group of broad-nosed weevils that happen to sneak indoors during the summer months. Species in this group include the strawberry root weevil, the imported longhorned weevil, and others. Once indoors, these weevils tend to stumble around in a slow, somewhat tick-like manner, causing concern to homeowners. But fear no weevil, for these insects are completely harmless. A broom or vacuum cleaner are often the best tools to deal with them. While broad nosed weevils can be somewhat common, reports coming in to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab suggest that numbers of these home-invading beetles were up in 2016.

3) Scarab Beetles
A number of scarab beetles had noteworthy activity in 2016, including several important landscape pests. Scarab beetles can be an extremely common group of insects, with well over 100 species in Wisconsin alone. Perhaps the best known (and most infamous) member of this group would be the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), which seemed to rebound last year after a few quiet years. In parts of the state with sandy soil, the rose chafer was present in high and damaging numbers. Similar to Japanese beetles, rose chafers are fond of feeding on a wide range of plants from landscape shrubs to fruit trees.

Two other scarab beetles were noteworthy in 2016: the Northern masked chafer and the European chafer. This past year marked the first year that the larvae of these beetles (white grubs) had been found damaging turfgrass in the state: Rock County (NMC) and Door county (EC). Previously, turfgrass managers only had to contend with the white grubs of Japanese beetle and the occasional May/June beetle.

2) Bot Flies
[Disclaimer: bot flies are not for the faint of heart! If you’re preparing to eat lunch, you may want to skip down to #1.]
Bot Flies-Click to Read

If you’re not familiar with bot flies, these creatures may seem like something out of a science fiction movie. In their simplest terms, bot fly larvae are essentially large, flesh-inhabiting maggots. When fully mature, the maggots can be over an inch long and are covered with tiny backward-facing spines, making removal nearly impossible from their host. Adult bot flies are very short lived and somewhat resemble bumble bees or certain horse flies in their size and coloration. In a typical year, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab might receive 1-2 reports. For whatever reason, bot flies had a great year in 2016 and several dozen reports came in to the lab. The common species observed in Wisconsin last year were from the genus Cuterebra and parasitize small mammals such as: mice, chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits.  The maggots live and feed beneath the skin of their mammal host for weeks before popping out to pupate.  The mammal hosts generally seem to tolerate their companions, although the concept of bot flies may give you a creepy-crawly feeling.
[Bonus material: there is a bot fly (Dermatobia hominis) in South and Central America that affects humans]

 

1) Mosquitoes
With all the stories about the Zika virus in the news, it was difficult to avoid hearing about mosquitoes in 2016. In addition, with the heavy rains many parts of Wisconsin received last year, it was equally challenging to venture outdoors and avoid mosquitoes. In many parts of the state, mosquito pressure was severe last year, giving mosquitoes the top spot on the 2016 list. If there’s a silver lining to the mosquito story last year, it has three parts:

  • The mosquitoes that were dreadfully abundant last year (floodwater mosquitoes) aren’t important vectors of human disease. Yes, they might have ruined that evening cookout, but at least they weren’t making anyone ill.
  • Reports of mosquito-borne diseases (such as West Nile Virus) were relatively low in the state last year.
  • Zika virus was not a major issue in Wisconsin, as the mosquito species responsible for that disease haven’t been found here [Read more about this topic in this post]

Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2016 (#10 – #6)

This post examines 2016’s top insects trends through the eyes of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and is the second post in a three part series.  The first post of the series (2016’s diagnostic lab statistics) can be found here.

#10: Boxelder bugs had a surprisingly good year, despite the rainy conditions. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.
#9: Scale insects, like these lecanium scales, have been very abundant the last two years in Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Ronald S. Kelley, Bugwood.org
#8: Reports of juvenile brown marmorated stink bug indicate that this invasive species is reproducing the in the state. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.
#7: Fungus gnats were very abundant in late summer and fall with rainy conditions seen in many parts of the state. Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood.org
#6: Silk moths, such as this luna moth, were frequently spotted in 2016. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

 

10) Boxelder Bugs:
Many insects (like mosquitoes and fungus gnats) thrived in Wisconsin’s rainy conditions last year. However, heavy rains can also be a blessing in disguise when it comes to certain insect pests. Gypsy moth caterpillars, for example, can be killed off by the entomopathogenic fungus Entomophaga maimaiga under damp conditions. Heavy spring rains the past few years likely encouraged this fungus, which has helped keep gypsy moth numbers low in many parts of the state. Rainy conditions can also encourage a fungal disease of boxelder bugs. With the rainy conditions in many parts of the state, boxelder bug populations were expected to be low last year. Disease pressure from the fungus must have been limited in 2016 as boxelder bug numbers were surprisingly high in many parts of the state, much to the chagrin of homeowners hoping to avoid the tiny red-and-black home visitors in the fall.

9) Scale Insects
Scale insects are truly bizarre creatures. For example, the magnolia scale (#1 of 2015’s top insect stories) can look more like a fungus than an actual insect. As in 2015, many reports of scale insects came into the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab last year, especially during the spring and summer months. The most commonly encountered type was the lecanium scale, which can blend in on twigs and resemble deformed plant buds. Both magnolia and lecanium scales produce copious amounts of sticky, messy, honeydew, which can attract ants and wasps, and lead to the growth of black sooty mold. In many cases, scale insects can be notoriously difficult to control. Luckily, over time there are a number of natural enemies (tiny parasitic wasps) that help bring outbreaks under control. With two consecutive years of high scale insect populations, 2017 may be the year that the natural enemies help bring the situation under control.

8) Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Reports of the brown marmorated stink bug in 2016 were very similar to the previous year. Dozens of sightings of this relatively new invasive species were reported, mostly from the southern part of Wisconsin. Dane County (Madison area) continues to be the hot spot of BMSB activity in the state with additional activity in the Milwaukee/Waukesha area and the Fox River Valley. A few counties had their first confirmed reports of BMSB in 2016: Sauk and Columbia. Also of interest were the first reports of these insects on plants (previous reports involved insects overwintering in buildings). In addition, some of the first observations of juveniles and mating adults occurred in the state. Those observations confirm that the brown marmorated stink bug is breeding in Wisconsin and is likely to continue to increase its numbers in the future. This insect is expected to be a concern for vegetable growers, fruit growers, and home gardeners in the coming years.  For more information on this emerging insect pest, there’s a series of articles available at  Wiscontext.org.

7) Giant Silk Moths
Some of the Midwest’s largest insects had a big year in 2016—the giant silk moths. Wisconsin is home to a number of giant silk moth species, including the cecropia moth, polyphemus moth, imperial moth, promethea moth, and the ever-so-elegant luna moth. Historically, these sizable moths [4-5”+ wingspan] used to be more common in many parts of the country, although their numbers seem to have declined over time. This may be partly due to landscape/habitat changes, urbanization, and accompanying light pollution. Parasites are likely a key factor in this situation.  The parasitic fly Compsilura concinnata, originally imported to control pest caterpillars such as the invasive gypsy moth, also happens to attack and kill a number of wild silk moth caterpillars  and can have significant impacts on their populations. However, numerous reports coming in to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab indicated that giant silk moth numbers might have been up in 2016 compared to the past few years.

If you ever come across one of these majestic and fascinating creatures, consider yourself lucky—adults are notoriously short-lived as they can be a substantial meal for bats. Species such as the luna moth even have special structures to help evade sonar detection by bats.

6) Fungus Gnats
If you noticed plagues of tiny, dark-colored flies in your backyard in late summer and fall, you certainly weren’t alone. Spurred by the rainy conditions, fungus gnats were extremely abundant in many parts of the state last year. As larvae, fungus gnats live in damp, decaying organic materials—rich soil, decaying plants, compost piles, and similar. Fungus gnats themselves are harmless and don’t bite, but could have been a minor nuisance in the backyard. In many cases, fungus gnats were also spotted indoors this fall. In those situations, the fungus gnat larvae could have easily been living in the damp soil of potted plants brought indoors for the winter months. If over watering of indoor plants continued, the fungus gnats persisted indoors as well.

Up Next:  Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2016 (Numbers 5-1) 

State of the Lab Address 2016

What’s been “crawling” in the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab this past year?   Find out in this three part series.

The State of the IDL in 2016

Caseload
It was another busy year around the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. By the end of 2016, the lab had identified 2,444 specimens, slightly up from 2015’s record number of 2,423 specimens. As in 2015, ~95% of these cases came from within Wisconsin, with just over 4% of samples coming from other states and ~1% coming from other countries.

1-Wisconsin Cases-2016
2-USA Submissions-2016
3-World Map-2016

 

Sample Submission
Overall, lab statistics were very similar to other years in the recent past, with roughly half of the lab samples coming in during the months of June, July, and August. The majority of samples consisted of digital images coming in from the general public. County Extension offices and agents accounted for the next largest number of samples, having submitted over a quarter of all samples processed in the lab. Other sources of samples included the green industry, medical and public health professionals, pest control professionals, farmers and agricultural consultants, and other colleagues in the UW system and state or federal agencies.

4-Monthly Chart-2016
5-Types of Samples-2016
6-Who Submits Samples-2016
7-Sample Source-2016

 

Sample Identity
Very similar to 2015, over 90% of the specimens came from five major groups of insects:

  • Coleoptera: beetles, such as Japanese beetles and carpet beetles
  • Hemiptera: “true Bugs”, such as aphids, and boxelder bugs
  • Hymenoptera: ants, bees, wasps, and yellowjackets
  • Lepidoptera: moths, butterflies, and their young (caterpillars)
  • Diptera: “true flies”, such as house flies and mosquitoes
Click for larger view

Outreach efforts of the IDL in 2016 included over 90 public talks at a variety of events throughout the state, over 30 media interviews, and regular appearances on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Larry Meiller Show”.  Numerous articles and other publications came out of the lab in 2016, including a Wisconsin Bee Identification Guide and an urban pollinator conservation guide to help increase awareness of pollinators and pollinator conservation. The services provided to Wisconsin residents by the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and its outreach efforts are one of the many examples of the Wisconsin Idea.

Up Next: Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2016 (Numbers 10-6)

The “New” Japanese Beetle in the Midwest

Move over Popillia japonica, there’s a new “Japanese beetle” in town.

As is typical in a given year, Wisconsin sees a few new invasive species in the state each year.  In 2016, one of the surprises was the arrival of the “two banded Japanese weevil” (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus), often simply called the “Japanese weevil”.  Weevils themselves are technically a type of beetle from the hyper-diverse family Curculionidae, which contains a plethora of weevils, curculios, and multitudes of bark beetles.  When talking to the public, it’s amazing how often the Japanese beetles feeding on landscape plants during the summer are mixed up with the Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis), which invade homes in the fall.  Given the name of this new “Japanese weevil”, I’m expecting this creature to confuse the situation even more.

What is the Japanese Weevil?

The Japanese weevil (P. bifasciatus) is a non-native beetle that feeds on a wide variety of landscape plants, particularly shrubs.  Adult Japanese weevils are ~ ¼” long with a gray or brownish, pear-shaped body with black bands across the wing covers (elytra).  The pale larvae (grubs) live in the soil and feed on roots of suitable host plants.  We haven’t had this pest in Wisconsin long enough to fully understand the local life cycle, but given the pattern in other states, this insect will most likely complete one generation per year, with adult presence and feeding damage occurring during the summer from late June through August.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
The invasive two banded Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Where’s the Japanese weevil from?

Very similar to the Japanese beetle (Popillia japonica), the Japanese weevil is native to Japan and first popped up in the US in 1914, via the transport of infested nursery stock.  Like the Japanese beetle, the Japanese weevil feeds on a wide range of landscape plants.  When it first showed up in Wisconsin in 2016, the Japanese weevil was found on a variety of ornamental plants in Madison, WI.  How this species got to Wisconsin remains a mystery, but the movement of infested potted plants is the most likely explanation, as this insect is not capable of flight.  While the Japanese beetle is common across many parts of eastern North America, the Japanese weevil has a much more scattered distribution and can be found primarily in the Mid-Atlantic region with scattered cases in the Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

What does this insect mean for Wisconsin?

Luckily, it seems that the Japanese weevil may not be nearly as big of a threat to landscape plants as the Japanese beetle.  When lots of Japanese beetles are present, entire trees can have their leaves nibbled into a lace-like skeleton.  In contrast, when the Japanese weevil feeds, it tends to cut notches out of the edges of leaves.  This damage can resemble the feeding of many caterpillar species, and healthy plants should be able to tolerate the feeding.  Reports from other states suggest that this insect unlikely to cause very severe damage.

The invasive two banded Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
The invasive two banded Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Think you’ve found the Japanese weevil?

If you come across any beetles in Wisconsin feeding on landscape plants that resemble the Japanese weevil, send digital images and/or physical specimens to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab for confirmation, so we can track this new arrival in the state.

Japanese Beetles: 100 Years and Counting

Ask any gardener or landscaper in the Midwest what their least favorite insect is, and the Japanese beetle will probably be near the top of the list.  Think of the plants that this insect feeds on: ornamental trees and shrubs like lindens, birches, crabapples, and roses, fruit crops like apples, pears, plums, raspberries, and strawberries, and garden and vegetable crops like beans and corn, as well as hundreds of other plants.  It’s no wonder gardeners have to be on alert for this insect.

japanese-beetle
Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Madison Entomology

So why the resurgence of Japanese beetle activity in 2016?  Every winter, a common topic I’m asked about is my “insect forecast” for the coming year.  Before winter had even ended, there was good reason to believe that the Japanese beetle would pop back up the state in 2016–and Mother Nature may be the cause.  Japanese beetle larvae (white grubs) spend the winter in the soil below ground.  In July, August, and September, these grubs can be found in the upper portion of the soil where they feed on the roots of turfgrass.  As winter approaches, the grubs tunnel deeper into the soil where they avoid being killed by a hard freeze.  In most parts of Wisconsin, we had a reprieve from Japanese beetles the past two years.  I suspect this may be due to the brutal winter of 2013-14, which had some extended periods of sub-zero temperatures.  It’s quite feasible that this deep frost killed many grubs and led to lower adult populations the following summer (2014).  Given enough time, the Japanese beetle populations were destined to rebound at some point, and the mild (el-Niño) conditions this past winter might have been just what they needed to bolster their numbers.  Unless we face another brutal winter in the next few years, I suspect that Japanese beetle numbers will be up for the foreseeable future in the state.

Ironically, there’s an important milestone to recognize for this invasive pest this year–the Japanese beetle was detected for the first time in New Jersey 100 years ago, in 1916.  Slowly, but surely, this insect spread through many parts of the eastern US, and has been spotted on occasion in isolated spots in the western states.  We also have an interesting history of Japanese beetles in Wisconsin.  Technically, our first detections occurred in the southeast part of the state in the 1960’s, although these populations struggled to take hold.  At the time, this seemed to be a comforting sign–perhaps, our famed “frozen tundra” was simply too cold for them.  However, by the 1990’s, Japanese beetles had gotten a solid foothold in the state and they’ve been around much to the chagrin of gardeners ever since.

Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org
The “new” Japanese Beetle on the block: the invasive Japanese weevil (Pseudocneorhinus bifasciatus). Photo Credit: Michael C. Thomas, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Interestingly there’s also a new “Japanese beetle” that showed up in Wisconsin this year: the invasive Japanese weevil (sometimes called the “two-banded Japanese weevil”).  Stay tuned more information about our newest invasive species in Wisconsin.

Free Couch? Think Twice About Bed Bugs

Right around this time of the year in Madison and other college towns across the country, a smorgasbord of furniture and other goods appear along the sidewalk as tenants are frantically moving in and out of apartments. For historical reasons related to the need to register for classes in-person at UW-Madison, many of the leases end and begin in Madison around August 14th-15th each year, leading to an abundance of items on the curb free for the taking.   This is such a well-known and easily observable occurrence around Madison, that some have even affectionately referred to it as “Hippie Christmas”.

Free Mattress_opt
One of the many free items showing up around college towns these days. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

As the old saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and this certainly could be the case with free things on the curb. That free couch along the sidewalk might look like the perfect addition to that larger apartment, and it can be hard to beat the price of that curbside armchair. However, there’s the real possibility of unwanted hitchhikers: bed bugs. While I’m all for reducing waste, reusing items, and recycling, the concern about bed bugs should not be overlooked.

Until the mid 1900’s, bed bugs (Cimex lectularius), been a common pest around the world. With the invention of synthetic insecticides around the time of World War II, these insects had nearly been wiped out. Given time, bed bug populations developed resistance to some of those insecticides. The insecticide resistance coupled with the rise of international travel and the bed bug’s stealthy stowaway tactics, meant that it was only a matter of time before they came roaring back onto the stage. That very phenomenon has happened in the past two decades, and bed bugs can now be found in every US state, and in a wide variety of situations––from student apartments to five star hotels. When bed bugs are detected, they can be eliminated with diligent tactics, although the task can be challenging and is best left to pest control professionals. Costs to eliminate bed bugs can easily be $1,000 or more.

Adult bed bug. Photo Credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org
Adult bed bug. Photo Credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org

Absolutely need to have that nightstand from the curb? A few steps can help prevent issues. The first is to simply know how to look for bed bugs and their telltale signs. Many folks seem to believe that bed bugs are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but this is far from reality. It turns out that adult bed bugs are roughly the same size, color, and shape as an apple seed (as shown above). Juveniles will have the same general shape, but will be smaller. Very tiny whitish eggs (~1mm long) and black spots (from digested blood) on furniture are other classic signs of bed bugs. [A useful guide to identify bed bugs and their signs can be found here]. Before bringing any item in from the curb, examining it thoroughly for any signs of bed bugs is well worth the effort in the long run. Found a smaller item you’d like to grab? One easy step for small items is to place them into a large Ziploc bag and put them in the freezer for 7-10 days as a precaution. Bed bugs, or any other insects present in such an item would freeze during that time.

Bed Bug Signs_opt
Classic bed bug signs: black spots from digested blood and whitish eggs (~1mm long). Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

What if you’ve moved into a new apartment and suspect it has bed bugs? Getting a suspected bed bug specimen properly identified is a crucial step. It turns out that there are a number of nearly identical species that can only be told apart under the microscope. These related species are associated with bats and birds; they don’t pose the same headaches as bed bugs and are controlled differently. If you’ve confirmed that bed bugs are present in your apartment, starting a conversation with your landlord is an important step; ignoring the situation is about the worst thing that could be done in such as case. Overall, it’s much easier for a pest control company to come in and eliminate a small bed bug infestation than a large one. This is especially true of large apartment and condo complexes, where bed bugs can spread from unit-to-unit over time, making control much more difficult. In addition, if you happen to be moving out of an apartment that has bed bugs, it’s best to mark any items being discarded with spray paint so that others looking for furniture will know not to bring those items home with them.

For bed bug questions in rental situations and many other tenant-related topics, the Tenant Resource Center of Wisconsin offers assistance.  Safe moving, happy curbside hunting, and keep an eye out for bed bugs!

 

Buckets of Beetles

Many naturalists will relate to this post: as nature enthusiasts, everyday tasks sometimes end up taking much longer than expected due to fascinating biological distractions just beneath our feet.

As I was mowing the front lawn over Memorial Day weekend, I stumbled upon a prehistoric-looking stag beetle, which is always a neat creature to come upon.  As an entomologist, my first instinct was to pick it up to make a closer examination.  Typically, I run into stag beetles a few times each year and it’s usually the large, “reddish brown stag beetle”: Lucanus capreolus (see image below).  The beetle I found was a bit smaller, darker, and lacked the bicolored legs of L. capreolus, but was still a good-sized insect at over an inch long.  After a beverage break and some Internet browsing, I figured I must have been looking at the closely related Lucanus placidus.  Interesting, I thought, and placed the stag beetle back on a portion of the lawn that had already been mowed, lest it face the wrath of a metallic tornado.

At roughyl 2 inches long, the "reddish brown stag beetle" (Lucanus capreolus) is amongst our largest beetles in Wisconsin. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology
At roughly two inches long, the “reddish brown stag beetle” (Lucanus capreolus) is amongst our largest beetles in Wisconsin. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology

Another pass or two with the mower and I spotted a few more stag beetles.  I was no longer simply stumbling upon these beetles—something else must be going on.  Once again, I stopped mowing to take a closer peek in the taller grass, only to find even more beetles.  Within the span of five minutes, I had found nearly forty stag beetles in the lawn near a low spot where a tree must have previously stood.  As with the first specimen, I gently relocated these beetles and rushed to finish mowing in the dwindling light.

Around 10:30 PM, I wandered back outside with a flashlight to see what the beetle situation looked like.  I had no idea what I was about to stumble upon—hundreds of battling stag beetles!  Male stag beetles use their large mandibles to compete for females, which made my front lawn seem like a combination of the Bachelorette mixed with Gladiator.  It was astonishing to see the sheer numbers of stag beetles present in a single spot at a given time.  In an attempt to count them, I starting placing them into an empty flower pot.  The forty I had spotted earlier seemed like a drop in the bucket—quite literally!  The bucket was nearly full to the brim with 250 beetles, and I eventually stopped counting.  I’d estimate that I spotted nearly 400 stag beetles in a single night.

A handful of battling stage beetles. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.
A handful of battling stage beetles. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

I did eventually confirm that the species of stag beetle in the lawn was Lucanus placidus.  According to the scientific literature, aggregations have been noticed in lawns on occasion.  In Kriska and Young’s “Annotated Checklist of Wisconsin Scarabaeoidea” (2002) an aggregation of 15 males and females was once noted beneath a black oak tree in the state.   I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree used to occupy the low spot in my front lawn, but the stag beetles obviously loved it (note: stag beetle larvae live in decaying wood).  As an interesting side note, the same low spot was also home to the “Dead Man’s Fingers” fungus (Xylaria polymorpha), another biological curiosity in its own right.

It’s amazing what you can find in your own back yard or front lawn if you take the time to look!

Zika: An Issue in Wisconsin?

With mosquito season nearly upon us and all the headlines about Zika Virus in the news, a big question at the moment is: will Zika be an issue for us in Wisconsin?  Based on what’s known about the Zika Virus and the mosquitoes that transmit it, it’s unlikely that Zika will be a major issue for us in the state.  Certainly, we’ll get cases of Zika in the state, but these will almost certainly be from individuals that have travelled to areas with active Zika infestations.  Overall, if we look at the bigger picture, a much bigger concern should be deer ticks and Lyme Disease, which affects thousands of Wisconsinites each year.

The Zika situation is an interesting one.  The Zika virus itself was first discovered in Africa in the 1940’s and has been found in parts of the eastern hemisphere for decades.  It wasn’t until very recently that it popped up the western hemisphere.  Because the Zika Virus is linked to a number of serious health issues, such as microcephaly in newborns, it certainly can pose significant health risks—hence the headlines and the concern.

However, the virus is only half of the story—the other half being the mosquito species (vectors) capable of transmitting the virus to humans.  Two mosquito species are associated with Zika virus and other viral diseases such as Chikungunya and Dengue: the Yellow Fever Mosquito (Aedes aegypti) and the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus).  The good news for us in Wisconsin is that neither of these mosquito species are native to our area, and these species have never been found in the state (additional surveys are being conducted to look for them).  With that said, there may end up being some Zika cases in Wisconsin associated with travel to areas where Zika is widespread, but the absence of the two mosquito vectors responsible for transmission will greatly reduce the chance for transmission occurring within the state.

Estimated range of Aedes albopictus and Aedes aegypti in the United States, early 2016. Map source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Estimated range of the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) and the Yellow fever Mosquito (Aedes aegypti) in the United States, early 2016. Map source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the Yellow Fever Mosquito and the Asian Tiger Mosquito don’t occur here, there still is reason to be vigilant about mosquitoes.  With as many as 60 or more different mosquito species in the state, there are a number of other mosquito-borne diseases that do occur in our area.  Our best example would be West Nile Virus transmitted by the Northern House Mosquito (Culex pipiens).  While West Nile cases can vary dramatically from year-to-year, we’ve historically had issues with West Nile in our area, and human deaths have occurred in the past.

When it comes to mosquitoes in general, there are several approaches to keeping yourself and your family members safe. Around the yard, one of the most important things is to reduce or eliminate standing water to help eliminate mosquito breeding sites.  Toys left out in a sandbox, old tires, clogged gutters, birdbaths with stagnant water and anything else that collects and holds water could be a potential breeding site for mosquitoes.  Using EPA approved repellents, such as DEET, Picaridin, or others when working or relaxing outdoors will offer protection from bites.  Lastly, wearing long sleeves, avoiding outdoor activities during prime mosquito feeding times (dawn/dusk), or simply staying indoors can also protect you from mosquitoes.

 

The Case of the Hitchhiking Bog Wasps

While most of the cases at the Insect Diagnostic Lab involve fairly common insects, I do also see my fair share of unusual cases each year. One of my favorites from 2015 involved a miniature “bog wasp” from the family Eucharitidae: Pseudochalcura gibbosa. Due to their small size, these tiny (~2 mm long) wasps would simply go unnoticed in most cases––that and the fact that you’d most likely have to be wandering around in a bog to find them. So how exactly did these tiny, easily-overlooked “bog wasps” end up being submitted to the Insect Diagnostic Lab?  Simple: a homeowner found several in a second story bedroom of their house. This simply didn’t make much sense, so I knew there must have been a deeper story at play. Whenever I get an unusual case like this in the diagnostic lab, I often have to track down additional pieces of the puzzle before things make sense.

Bog Wasp-Pseudochalcura gibbosa
The tiny, hump-backed wasp: Pseudochalcura gibbosa. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology.

In this case, this particular home was located near Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where there’s certainly an abundance of bogs. As part of their life cycle, the females of Pseudochalcura gibbosa lay eggs on Bog Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum), a common shrubby plant in northern bogs. The eggs spend the winter on the plants and hatch the following spring. However, these wasps aren’t plant feeders, and their presence on Labrador Tea is temporary. What they’re really after are immature carpenter ants (Camponotus sp.) to feed on. After the eggs of Pseudochalcura gibbosa hatch, it’s thought that the wasp larvae hitch a ride on foraging carpenter ant workers back to their nest. Once they’ve dropped off their six-legged taxis in the ant nest, the tiny larvae of Pseudochalcura gibbosa behave much like a wood tick on a dog: they hang off of and feed on carpenter ant larvae and pupae. In some cases, dozens of small wasp larvae may be present on a single carpenter ant larva. Eventually the tiny wasps complete their development and leave the carpenter ant nest to head back to the bog.

Having identified the wasps as Pseudochalcura gibbosa, I was suspicious that a carpenter ant nest was also present in the home and simply hadn’t been found yet. After some detective work, the homeowner eventually confirmed the presence of carpenter ants in the house. With that final piece of the puzzle I had my explanation for how the wasps had hitchhiked from a nearby bog to an upper story bedroom: it’s was all the ants!

Wisconsin’s Top Insect Trends of 2015 (#5 – #1)

In this post, we’re continuing to count-down 2015’s top insect trends in the state.  This is the final post in a three part series.  Part I (2015’s diagnostic lab statistics) can be found here and Part II (Top Insect Trends Numbers 10-6) can be found here.

5) Pollinators
With all the headlines about bees, it’s not surprising to see pollinators in the top insect stories again in 2015.  Similar to other years in the recent past, honeybees and other pollinators have been facing declines.  Unfortunately, Wisconsin saw some of the highest honeybee losses in the country, with over 60% colony loss during the 2014-2015 period.  Some good news over the past year has been the development and release of pollinator protection plans.  A federal pollinator protection plan was released in May with the goals of reducing honeybee losses, increasing the population of Monarch butterflies, and increasing pollinator habitat.  In addition, a Wisconsin pollinator protection plan was announced in 2015, and was just released in January of 2016.   Due to the recent declines and their importance to agriculture in the state and nation, pollinators will continue to be in the spotlight in the future.

A ground nesting bee (Colletes sp.) near the stump of the former President's Oak on the UW-Madison campus. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch
A ground nesting bee near the stump of the former President’s Oak on the UW-Madison campus. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch

4) Spring caterpillars
An unexpected insect trend in the spring of 2015 was the surprising abundance of a number of caterpillar species feeding on plants in the landscape.  Caterpillar species, such as the humped green fruitworm, speckled green fruitworm, eastern tent caterpillar, forest tent caterpillar, gypsy moth caterpillar, and the euonymous caterpillar are typically present to some extent, although their numbers have been low the past few years.  For a number of potential reasons, these species had a great spring and during a period in May and June, caterpillars made up roughly 30% of the cases coming in to the diagnostic lab.  Weather patterns (i.e., rainy weather) and natural predators/parasites/diseases can have significant impacts on caterpillar populations each year, so it’ll be interesting to see if we’re faced with a plethora of caterpillars again in 2016.  Additional details of this story were featured in a blog post last June.

3) Viburnum Leaf Beetle
In terms of a new emerging pest with the potential to impact a commonly planted landscape shrub, Viburnum Leaf Beetle is near the top of the list.  As of late 2014, we only knew of a single infested viburnum bush in northern Milwaukee County, which raised the question: is the infestation small enough to contain and/or eradicate?  Some ground truthing this past spring identified many new infestations in SE Wisconsin, in many cases miles from the original site.  At the moment, the viburnum leaf beetle seems to be centered around the four county area where Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, and Ozaukee counties meet.  While this insect only feeds on viburnums (and related plants like Arrowwood), the damage can be significant.  It may be some time before this pest spreads elsewhere in the state, but if you have viburnum plants in your yard in SE Wisconsin, be weary!  Additional details of this case were featured in a post last June.

VLB Damage
“Skeletonizing” feeding damage from adult viburnum leaf beetles. Photo courtesy of Paul Weston, Cornell University, Bugwood.org

2) Brown Marmorated Stink Bug
Populations of the invasive Brown Marmorated Stink Bug increased dramatically in 2015 and this insect takes the overall #2 spot in this list (up from #8 last year).  This invasive species was first spotted in the state in 2010, and each year a handful of lone adults have been found in Wisconsin.  In the fall of 2015, we had more sightings of BMSB (30+), than in the past 5 years combined! (Spoiler: this trend has continued into early 2016)  At this point, the “hot spots” in the state are: Dane County, the greater Milwaukee area, and the Fox River Valley.  In addition to being an indoor nuisance pest, BMSB can also feed on and damage a wide variety of plants in home gardens, agricultural fields and orchards.  In other places in the country, the first reports of plant damage have typically been noted ~3-5 years after the initial detection of this species.  With that said, 2016 could be the year that BMSB really takes off and starts wreaking havoc for gardeners and agricultural growers alike.  Additional details of this case can be found in this post from last October.

1) Magnolia Scale
While scale insects have already been mentioned in the “sucking insects” section (#9 on the list), one species in particular, the Magnolia scale (Neolecanium cornuparvum), seemed to stand out amongst all other insects in 2015.  This species is often present in low numbers in the state, but the conditions must have been perfect for their populations to explode last year.  During the months of June and July, reports of Magnolia scale were coming in on almost a daily basis.  Being one of the unusual scale insects, Magnolia scale adults look more like a fungus than an insect (note the whitish blobs in the image below).  Not only did this bizarre looking species pummel Magnolia shrubs and trees in many parts of the state, but the honeydew produced by these insects rained down below, attracting ants and yellowjackets and leading to the growth of unsightly black sooty mold.  A number of predators, parasites, and diseases typically keep Magnolia scale in check, but with the extremely high infestations noted last year, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see some Magnolia scale activity into 2016.  If you experienced magnolia scales first hand, there’s a helpful factsheet available here.

Magnolia twig coated with whitish, fuzzy magnolia scale adults.

Department of Entomology

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