Category Archives: Flies

Black Flies: Out for Blood

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 want to scratch, 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: 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.  The species, 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 2-3 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.

2018’s Top Trends from the Diagnostic Lab (Part 1)

Each year the University of Wisconsin’s Insect Diagnostic Lab receives thousands of arthropod samples and reports from around the state and region, providing a unique perspective into insect and arthropod trends in Wisconsin and beyond.  This post is the first half of a series counting down the top arthropod trends in our area last year.  The second part will be posted in early February and can be found here.


10) Dagger and Tussock Moths:
A few species of fuzzy caterpillars were surprisingly abundant last year and there’s a good chance you might have bumped into these in your own neighborhood.  Two similar-looking yellowish species, the American dagger moth and the white-marked tussock moth, were extremely common around Wisconsin and were two of the most widely reported caterpillars last summer. Another tussock moth associated with milkweed was also surprisingly common in 2018. With many Wisconsinites growing milkweed to attract monarch butterflies, the black and orange caterpillars of the milkweed tussock moth were also noted in abundance around the state last year.

Fuzzy black and orange Caterpillar of the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle)
Caterpillar of the milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle). Photo Credit: Katja Schulz via Wikipedia

9) Fungus Gnats:
Pick any spot on a Wisconsin map and 2018 was most likely a soggy year. Understandably, rain encourages insects and other creatures that thrive under damp conditions. Last year’s rains created great conditions for fungus gnats, which became quite abundant by late summer. While fungus gnats are harmless to people and pets, they can be an annoyance if present in high numbers. Fungus gnats thrive in damp organic materials, meaning that rich soil, compost piles, and decaying plants can produce masses of these tiny, dark-colored flies. The larvae of these insects can also be common in the soil of houseplants.  As Wisconsinites brought their favorite potted plants indoors in autumn to avoid approaching frosts, reports of indoor fungus gnats were common.

Small dark coloured gnats captured on a yellow sticky card trap
Tiny (2mm long) fungus gnat adults captured on a sticky card trap near indoor plants in fall of 2018. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

8) Purple Carrot Seed Moth:
With several new, non-native insects showing up in Wisconsin every year, the impacts of each species can vary significantly. Some exotics, like the emerald ash borer make massive waves, while others cause merely a ripple. The impacts of one of our newest invasive insects, the purple carrot seed moth (Depressaria depressana), are not yet fully known. This European species was spotted in Wisconsin for the first time last summer and the tiny caterpillars love to feed on the flowers (umbels) of plants from the carrot family. Below-ground plant structures (e.g., the taproots of carrots) aren’t impacted, but notable damage to herbs like dill, fennel, and coriander can occur. As a result, this pest may be a concern for seed producers, commercial herb growers, or home gardeners with a fondness for dill and related herbs. The purple carrot seed moth has been reported in 8 Wisconsin counties thus far [Brown, Columbia, Dodge, Kewaunee, Milwaukee, Racine, Sheboygan and Washington Counties], so new county-level reports are encouraged at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

Tiny (<1/4" long) spotted caterpillar of the purple carrot seed moth on dill.
Caterpillar of the purple carrot seed moth. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

7) Odorous House Ants
Imagine the stereotypical black ants zeroing in on sugary foods at a picnic and you’d have a fitting profile of the odorous house ant (Tapinoma sessile). Of the 100+ ant species in the Midwest, the odorous house ant stood out in spring and early summer last year with its sheer abundance. The UW Insect Diagnostic Lab was flooded with calls about these sugar-loving ants during 2018’s rainy spring, especially when these ants wandered indoors. The spring rains may have forced the ants from waterlogged colonies to seek out higher-and-drier locations, making odorous house ants the most commonly reported ant at the diagnostic lab last spring.

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

6) Stink Bugs:
While the Midwest is home to over 50 species of stink bugs, one particular species—the invasive brown marmorated stink bug—stands out to give the rest a particularly bad reputation. If you live in a part of the state with the brown marmorated stink bug, you may have already encountered this species. With its habit of sneaking indoors in the fall, this insect replaced boxelder bugs in some areas as the top home-invading nuisance pest of 2018. This Asian species has made the diagnostic lab’s Top 10 list for several years now and unfortunately doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. In 2018 alone, BMSB was detected in 8 new Wisconsin counties, which hints at potential damage to fruit and other crops in those areas in the coming years.

Adult brown marmorated stink bug
Adult brown marmorated stink bug. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

To see the rest of Wisconsin’s top arthropod trends of 2018, check out part 2, available here in early February.

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

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.

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 of adults. 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.  While the short-lived adults are rarely spotted, larval infestations can be surprisingly common for certain small mammals.
[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]

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 Wisconsin, 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.

Aedes sp. mosquitoes preparing for a blood meal. Photo Credit: Ary Farajollahi, Bugwood.org.

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.

 

Phantom Crane Fly

Many folks are familiar with crane flies, which like to hang around porch lights in the summer and resemble monstrous mosquitoes (luckily, they don’t bite).  From a quick glance, the large insect below generally resembles a crane fly, but has a rather striking coloration to its body.  Is it simply a crane fly dressed up in a tuxedo for a luxurious night out on the town?  Not quite.

It turns out that it’s from a different family of insects called the phantom crane flies.  The particular species in this image is Bittacomorpha clavipes.  Not only does this species have a unique black and white pattern, but segments of the tarsi (“feet”) appear swollen.  These insects occur in the eastern US (including Wisconsin) and are associated with wetlands but aren’t encountered often.

Phantom Crane Fly
The phantom crane fly, Bittacomorpha clavipes. Photo credit: Tyler MacConnell