Category Archives: Butterflies

Under the Microscope: Arthropod Trends of 2017

Over 2,500 cases flowed through the doors of the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab last year, ranging from the typical June beetles through bizarre creatures that most humans will never see in their entire lives (like the itch-inducing pyemotes grain mite).  Perhaps Forrest Gump said it best when he quipped, “life was like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get.”  A distinction amongst insects, however, is that the “box” contains 20,000+ possibilities in Wisconsin alone and over well 1,000,000 globally.  With that said, a year at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab is like having one humongous, box of really awesome chocolates, without all the calories.

Finding a pyemotes itch mite is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, except in this case these microscopic mites were in a farmer’s batch of corn. Photo credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

With insects and related creatures, the weather can of course have a big impact and there definitely were examples of this in 2017.  The current cold winter aside, the last two winters had been otherwise mild, giving a few insects suited for warmer conditions a chance to inch their way northward.  Last spring and summer, this meant a bunch of sightings of an otherwise uncommon bee for our area known as the carpenter bee due to its habit of tunneling into unpainted cedar trim and other wood.  In a typical year, I might see a few cases out of the southeastern corner of Wisconsin, but 2017 had regular reports of these bumble bee look-alikes during the spring and summer months.  Similarly, praying mantids often meet their maker at the hands of a cold winter, but were surprisingly abundant in late summer and fall of last year.  Ticks were also extremely abundant last spring and with the rainy start to the summer, mosquito numbers were at an all-time high in some traps.  Mosquitoes were also a big deal in the news, with Wisconsin’s first confirmed reports of the Asian Tiger Mosquito last July.

Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus). Photo credit: James Gathany, Centers for Disease Control

The creature that amassed the most phone calls and emails in 2017 was the notorious Japanese beetle, which likely also benefited from the warmer than average winters these past few years.  For Wisconsin gardeners and farmers, the Japanese beetle is certainly a formidable foe, but at least there are ways to mitigate the damage.  In contrast, there’s another destructive pest wiggling its way into the spotlight in the state, which is much more difficult to control—an invasive earthworm commonly known as the jumping worm.  While they may not be insects, these earthworms are creepy-crawly and can wreak havoc in  gardens and flower beds, so I received a fair number of reports and questions.  What stood out to me in last year was the rapidity with which these destructive worms have been moved around the state (moved—as in humans have moved soil, plants, mulch, and similar materials).  Jumping worms were first found in the state in 2013 (in Madison), but have now been spotted in roughly half of the counties in Wisconsin.  To make matters worse, we don’t have any highly effective tactics to prevent these worms from turning rich garden soil into the consistency of dry, crusted coffee grounds—gardeners beware!

Speaking of invasive species, the emerald ash borer has continued its march through the state and now has footholds in some of our northern counties including Chippewa, Douglas, Eau Claire, Marathon, Marinette, Oneida, and Sawyer counties.  Unfortunately, our greatest concentrations of ash trees are in the northern part of the state (e.g. black ash in swampy areas), and the loss of ash from northern wetland areas could result in significant ecosystem effects.  Other recent invaders like the spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug had busy years as well.

Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) visiting a flower in Middleton, WI. Photo credit: Rick Terrien

In other insect news, it seemed to be a good year for monarch butterflies in 2017, and the rusty-patched bumble bee finally made it onto the federal endangered species list. I was pleasantly surprised by a number of confirmed sightings of the rusty-patched bumble bee in the state as well. Perhaps my favorite “bug” story for the year involved black widow spiders.  It’s not common knowledge, but we do technically have a native black widow species in the state (Northern Black Widow, Latrodectus variolus).  It’s a reclusive species and is rarely encountered in Wisconsin, but reports trickled in once or twice a week at some points during the summer months (details to follow in a future blog post).

With so many cases last year, we’re really only touching the tips of the antennae.  If you’re interested in hearing more of the unusual stories from the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, I’ll be giving a “highlight” talk on May 4th on the UW campus.

 

 

 

The Plight of the Monarchs

Just like the bees, the beloved Monarch (Danaus plexippus), is facing declines in North America.  Unlike the bee declines, which seem to be the result of a complex amalgam of factors, a major factor jumps out when it comes to monarch declines: habitat loss.  Simply put, we’ve gotten rid of much of the formerly ubiquitous milkweed in the Midwest.  There’s a number of reasons for this, ranging from continued land development, farm subsidies that have resulted in the cultivation of non-crop land, and heavy use of herbicide resistant crop varieties.  One scientific report suggests that the Midwest has lost nearly 60% of its milkweed over the past fifteen years.

Reared adult monarch prior to release, August 2008; Photo credit: PJ Liesch

We all probably learned the general story of the monarch in elementary school: a spring northward migration, milkweed, eggs, more milkweed, striped caterpillars, even more milkweed, orange and black butterflies, and finally migration down to Mexico after a few generations (there’s a great migration video here).  It’s bad enough that the sole summer food source of the monarchs (milkweed) has been disappearing, but monarchs are actually fighting a multi-front battle, as their overwintering habitat is disappearing as well.  Over the past few decades, much of the overwintering territory in Mexico has been lost, degraded, and fragmented by logging (both large and small scale).  What’s really concerning is that the overwintering territory isn’t all that big to begin with, making the insects vulnerable to extreme weather events.  A brutal winter storm in January of 2002 killed roughly 75% of the monarchs at some overwintering sites.  If monarchs keep getting squished into smaller and smaller areas, all it could take is a few bad winter storms to crash their numbers. Talk about putting all your eggs into one basket. . .

So why the fuss about monarchs now?
Over the past two years, the number of monarchs overwintering in Mexico has been the lowest in the history of the annual surveys.

Monarch Population Chart

With enough support, could we also pull the iconic monarch out of harms way?  Having the assistance of the President of the United States certainly helps.  Just yesterday, the white house announced that the Pollinator Task Force (created in 2014) has released its plan to help pollinators.  The three main goals of the plan are: 1) reduce honey bee losses to sustainable levels, 2) preserve the monarch population in the US, and 3) increase and improve pollinator habitat (full details here).

This isn’t the first time we’ve recognized a species at risk and created a recovery plan.  A classic success story: the iconic bald eagle.  It’s estimated that in the mid 1900’s there were just over 400 pairs of bald eagles left in the contiguous US.  These days, anyone passing through Sauk City, can tell you bald eagles have certainly rebounded.

While the Pollinator Task Force’s plan will take some time, there are things we can all do to immediately provide assistance for monarchs:
1) Plant milkweed to create a habitat for monarchs
2) Get involved with citizen science projects to educate ourselves and others
3) Use caution when using pesticides in the landscape to minimize impacts to monarchs, bees, and other beneficial species