Tag Archives: Lab Highlights

A Wandering Horde of…Millipedes

It’s a dark, overcast night as the horde emerges from the nearby woods. There’s no real coordination, but thousands of them—perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands—seem to wander aimlessly through the yard.  Some approach the darkened farmhouse and a few even manage to make it inside…

If this were and episode of The Walking Dead, the protagonists would be in a tough spot, but we’re not talking about zombies in this case.  Instead, the topic is millipedes, which have been surprisingly abundant this summer in parts of the Upper Midwest.

Greenhouse millipede.
Greenhouse Millipede (Oxidus gracilis). Photo Credit: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

Most everyone is familiar with millipedes.  They technically aren’t insects, but they are related as demonstrated by their segmented legs and “crunchy” exoskeleton (both are types of arthropods).  These multi-segmented, worm-like creatures can be common in damp areas and are perhaps most recognizable by their slow walk and their habit of curling into a spiral when disturbed.

Unlike the zombies portrayed in on TV, millipedes are really quite harmless.  Some millipede species have been documented as minor crop pests, but in the grand scheme of things, I mostly think of millipedes as being beneficial detritivores.  Millipedes feed on decaying plant materials and they return nutrients to the soil.  Their feeding also breaks down plant materials into smaller pieces, allowing microbes to more easily assist in the decomposition process.  Millipedes can be especially common in damp locations with abundant plant materials: compost piles, rich soil with high organic content, mulch beds, wooded or prairie areas, CRP land, lawns with a heavy thatch layer, and similar.

Millipede curled up in a spiral
A millipede curled up in a classic defensive posture to protect its legs. Photo credit: Joseph O’Brien, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

While mostly beneficial, millipedes can occur in very high numbers under the right conditions and can be a nuisance when they seem to suddenly appear in yards and homes.  Hopkin and Read’s The Biology of Millipedes (1992) describes situations where massive millipede hordes have covered acre after acre of farmland or stopped trains, quite literally, in their tracks.  The Midwest does see large masses of millipedes on occasion and it was a particularly busy year at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab for calls about these creatures.

The reasons behind millipede mass migrations aren’t fully understood, but moisture is often noted as a common factor.  Other potential reasons range from general weather patterns to habitat disruption, competition, and reproduction.  When millipedes do move about, many species shun the sun and prefer to move at night or during very overcast days.  When they encounter a building, millipedes can sneak inside, although this is really accidental—it’s too dry for them to survive indoors and they typically die within a day or two.

Millipedes on a home's foundation
Thousands of millipedes along a resident’s home. From a case submitted to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this summer.

Millipedes can be frustrating when mass migrations occur as there’s not much that can be done to completely stop them.  It’s not uncommon to have cases where hundreds or thousands of of millipedes crawl onto the foundation or siding of a home every night.  If they mostly stay outside, that’s one thing, but this summer I’ve had multiple cases where large numbers of millipedes (hundreds) had snuck under a building’s siding and then rained down through ceiling light fixtures.  This sounds like something out of a sci-fi film, but if you were trying to sell your home it could be a real-life nightmare scenario.  In such cases, there simply isn’t any way to make the millipedes magically disappear.  Insecticides may be tempting but only help to a certain extent because more millipedes can simply show up the next day.

If you’re staring down a millipede horde, one of the most important approaches is physical exclusion.  Inspecting the exterior of a home and physically sealing up cracks, crevices, and other potential entrance points with caulk, expanding foam, or new weather stripping can be a chemical free, long-term solution to at least keep millipedes outdoors.  Because millipedes prefer damp areas with decaying plant material, keeping landscape pants, fallen leaves, and thick layers of mulch away from the foundation of a home could also help reduce hiding areas for millipedes.

Luckily, millipede mass migrations eventually run their course and quiet down on their own.   This year, I saw a spike in millipede reports starting in mid-June and running into early August before subsiding.

Masked Hunter Bugs: Another Kissing Bug Look-Alike

“I think I’ve found a kissing bug and wanted to report it” is a surprisingly common line I get at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

I’ve previously written about kissing bugs, but to quickly recap: these are blood-feeding assassin bugs found primarily in South and Central America.  Kissing bugs tend to be associated with vertebrate nests outdoors but can bite humans and can also carry Trypanosoma cruzia parasite that causes Chagas disease.  Due to this concern, I see a spike in website traffic and “reports” of suspected kissing bugs just about any time there’s national news coverage of these insects. While many kissing bug species exist, the vast majority are restricted to tropical and subtropical areas.  The northernmost species—the eastern conenose kissing bug (Triatoma sanguisuga)—ranges from Latin America as far north as southern Illinois.

Eastern conenose kissing bug adult.
Eastern conenose kissing bug adult. Photo credit: Robert Webster, via Wikipedia

Insects don’t care for geopolitical boundaries, but when humans shade in the entire state of Illinois on a distribution map of kissing bugs, it gives the false impression that these insects are on the tollway marching towards Wisconsin’s southern border.  However, the eastern conenose kissing bug is rarely spotted in the northern parts of its range and there has never been a verified case of kissing bugs from within Wisconsin.

The regular occurrence of false reports can likely be attributed to hype in the news combined with a good ol’ case of mistaken identity.  It turns out that there are a number of common insects that can resemble kissing bugs.  One of these, the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), is regularly encountered in the upper Midwest because these insects sneak indoors in the fall just like boxelder bugs.  Recently, the commonest look-alike I’ve been getting reports of is the masked hunter bug (Reduvius personatus), which can also be encountered indoors.

If you aren’t familiar with masked hunter bugs, there’s a good reason why these insects can sometimes mistaken for kissing bugs—they’re technically kissing cousins.  Both kissing bugs and masked hunter bugs belong to the assassin bug family (Family Reduviidae).  This is a diverse family of approximately 7,000 species worldwide and we have dozens of common species in the Midwest.  The vast majority of these species (including masked hunter bugs) are really beneficial predators of other arthropods and are of little medical importance.  In theory, if you picked up and mishandled one of our Midwestern assassin bugs species, it could bite—likely feeling similar to a wasp sting—although that’s about the worst it could do.

Juvenile masked hunter bug camouflaged with debris.
Juvenile masked hunter bug camouflaged with debris. Photo Credit: Chiswick Chap, via Wikipedia

Masked hunter bugs are readily identifiable, although the nymphs (juveniles) can have you scratching your head if you haven’t encountered them before.  The nymphs are often ¼” – ½” long and camouflage themselves with bits of lint and other debris—as a result, they can resemble miniature walking dust bunnies.  Once you recognize this disguise, they’re easy to identify.

Masked Hunter Bug Adult.
Masked Hunter Bug Adult. Photo credit: JP Hamon, via wikipedia

Adult masked hunter bugs are slender, roughly ¾” long, and entirely dark coloured.  They have long, thin legs & antennae and stout beak-like mouthparts which they use to feed on insects and other arthropod prey.  Several key features help distinguish masked hunter bugs from eastern conenose kissing bugs:

  1. Masked hunter bugs are entirely dark while eastern conenose kissing bugs have red on their body
  2. Masked hunter bugs lack the projecting “conenose” present on the head of kissing bugs
  3. Masked hunter bugs have a bulging, “muscular” appearance of their prothorax (trapezoidal region behind the head) when viewed under magnification
  4. Masked hunter bugs have stout beak-like mouthparts while kissing bugs have long, slender mouthparts when viewed under magnification

Side-by-side comparison of a kissing bug and a masked hunter bug.
Side-by-side comparison of a kissing bug and a masked hunter bug. Photo Credit: Devon Pierret and PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. [Click for full sized version]
When it comes to kissing bugs, we simply don’t have these insects in the Upper Midwest, but we do have look-alikes.  For side-by-side diagrams showing an eastern conenose kissing bug compared to common look-alikes, visit the ID Guide page on this website: labs.russell.wisc.edu/insectlab/visual-id-guides/

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.

Identifying Insects by Smell, Part 2: Odorous House Ants

When it comes to ants at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab, the top species seen at the lab include carpenter ants (Camponotus spp.), pavement ants (Tetramorium immigrans), and odorous house ants (Tapinoma sessile).  Odorous house ants were the most commonly reported ants at the lab in 2018, possibly due to the rainy conditions which can force these ants indoors in their search for food.

Odorous House Ant. The single flattened node is hidden under the gaster. Photo credit: April Nobile, specimen: CASENT0005329, from www.antweb.org.

Identifying ants by sight and smell
The tiny brownish odorous house ant measures in at only an eighth of an inch long, but a few features allow for quick identification.  Ants are generally broken into two main groups depending on the numbers of bumps or “nodes” in their constricted waist.  Odorous house ants are considered “one node” ants, although their single node is flattened and is hidden from view by the gaster (sometimes mistakenly referred to as the “abdomen” of ants).  This is strikingly different than other ants, such as carpenter ants or field ants, where the single upright node can even be visible to the naked eye.  This flattened node of odorous house ants is a key identifying feature but does require magnification to interpret this trait.

Carpenter ant—note the visible node or “bump” in the narrow waist. Photo Credit: Judy Gallagher, via Wikipedia.

Interestingly, the easiest way to identify these ants isn’t by sight, but by smell.  Identifying insects by smell may sound odd, but can be a quick and dirty way to confirm the identity of this ant species, and a few other ants like citronella ants.  When squished, odorous house ants have an odor reminiscent of coconut, although some say rotting coconut or even blue cheese.  This scent fades with older, dried-out specimens but is usually quite noticeable in fresh ants.

Country ant, city ant:
Odorous house ant colonies occur both indoors and outdoors in the Midwest, but the overall location of these ants in the landscape can have a drastic influence on colony structure and behavior.  In natural areas (such as forests), odorous house ant colonies tend to be small (often <100 workers) and the ants are generally “well behaved”.  In urban areas, these ants can produce much larger populations with multiple queens, tens of thousands of workers and many different nesting sites. They can behave like an invasive species in such situations.

When it comes to their nesting habits, odorous house ants don’t produce mounds like other common ants.  Instead, these ants are fond of preexisting cavities—small hollow voids beneath rocks or man-made objects, amongst log piles, fallen leaves, mulch beds, or similar spots.  I’ve even seen them take advantage of the cozy space inside of a fake rock “Hide-a-Key” on several occasions!  Indoors, odorous house ants like to nest in hollow cavities such as wall voids, especially if a moisture source is nearby.  These ants can also easily wander indoors when foraging, making them a common indoor nuisance invader.

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

Got dessert?
In addition to their essence-of-coconut scent, odorous house ants are also known for having a notorious sweet tooth.  Ant species vary quite a bit in their food preferences, with certain ants seeming to favor the “keto diet” with a strong preference for proteins or fats.  In contrast, odorous house ants have a particular fondness for carbohydrate-rich materials, such as honeydew from aphids, nectar from plants, or sugary human foods.  As a result, these ants routinely invite themselves to picnics and into kitchens.  However, their sugar-loving ways can also be their Kryptonite and odorous house ants usually respond well to sugar-based baits when they do find their way indoors.

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

A Wood-Boring Insect Mystery

Imagine it’s August and as you wander in from your backyard, you notice a small pile of sawdust at the bottom of the door frame.  It might not be much sawdust, but you also find a few holes in the wood trim nearby.  It definitely seems to be insect damage, but who’s the culprit?

Unexpected insect damage to wood trim.

If you came up with a list of insects in the upper Midwest that can damage the wood of your home, it wouldn’t be terribly long.  For good reason, termites might be the first insect to come to mind, although our eastern subterranean termites are restricted to isolated pockets and are not commonly encountered in Wisconsin.  A close second on the list might be carpenter ants.  Interestingly, carpenter ants don’t technically eat (e.g., digest) wood and merely excavate soft, rotting wood to create a nesting site.  If anything, their presence in a home might be an indicator of a water damage.  Powderpost beetles can also attack wood and are commonly encountered in old barn beams and log cabins.  Carpenter bees help round out a list of the “usual suspects”.  These wood-boring bees can create good sized holes (a half inch across), although with their preference for unpainted softwoods used for trim, siding, and fence posts, their damage is mostly cosmetic in nature. 

Then another clue comes to mind—the nearby shrubs that had been eaten by some kind of worm-like insect over the past few weeks. 

Larva of a dogwood sawfly showing the whitish, waxy coating. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

When it comes to wood-damaging pests, sawflies generally don’t come to mind.  Sawfly larvae—Mother Nature’s caterpillar copycats—tend to feed on plant leaves.  Species like the European pine sawfly, dusky birch sawfly, rose slug sawfly, Columbine sawfly, pearslug sawfly, and birch leafminer sawfly can all be commonly encountered feeding on plants during the growing season.  One species that was common in 2018—the dogwood sawfly—is unique in that it not only causes plant damage but can also damage wood trim and siding of homes.  The dogwood sawfly is one of our commonest pests of native and landscape dogwoods (Cornus spp.).  When larvae are small,  they have a whitish waxy coating thought to mimic bird droppings and they can often be found curled up on the undersides of dogwood leaves.  As larvae mature, they lose the waxy coating and their black and yellow coloration becomes conspicuous.   

Mature dogwood sawfly larva with classic black and yellow appearance.

So how does this plant-feeding species end up damaging wood?  As is the case with any insect that undergoes complete metamorphosis, the larvae need to pass through the pupal stage to make it to adulthood. Insect pupae, however, are generally immobile can make an an easy meal for any predator that stumbles upon them.  Thus, many insects seek out tucked away spots to complete their pupal stage.  When ready to pupate, dogwood sawfly larvae typically create their own hideaway by chewing small chambers in rotting wood such as twigs, branches, or logs near the shrub they had been feeding on. 

Small chambers chewed into a fallen twig—a “typical” spot for dogwood sawfly to pupate.

If rotting wood is unavailable, the larvae may turn to other nearby wood materials—including wood trim and siding.  This typically occurs when larvae had been feeding on ornamental dogwood shrubs planted close to a home.  In the grand scheme of things, these insects don’t cause that much damage to wood, although homeowners won’t be thrilled if they’ve been caught off guard by this unexpected wood-damaging pest! 

Black Widows: The Hermits of Door County

Spider cases at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab often boil down to clients wondering if they’ve found either a brown recluse or black widow spider.  Wisconsin is home to approximately 500 species of spiders, and essentially all of these are harmless, beneficial creatures that provide us with an astonishing amount of free pest control*.  While we’re outside the native range of the dreaded, but horribly misunderstood brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa), Wisconsin is actually home to a native black widow species—the northern black widow (Latrodectus variolus).  In Wisconsin, these spiders are rare and have been documented in fewer than 10 counties.  Most Wisconsinites will go their entire lives without seeing a northern black widow out in nature and if you’re lucky enough to spot one of these elusive creatures, you’d almost certainly encounter a lone individual.  In contrast, there are several other widow spiders that can be much more common in other parts of the country.

The vast majority of black widow records in Wisconsin are from the east-central counties.  Door county historically stands out as having the most confirmed sightings and perhaps takes the place of Wisconsin’s black widow “capital”—although only a few sightings occur in most years.  The northern black widow doesn’t seem to occur farther north under natural conditions, which suggests an inability to the survive colder winters in the northern part of the state.  Along these lines, Door county’s unique geography and the moderating effects of Lake Michigan may explain why the majority of reports come from that part of Wisconsin.  Similarly, other confirmed reports of the northern black widow tend to be from nearby counties bordering Lake Michigan.  Away from the lake, northern black widows have also been documented in prairie areas in Crawford, Grant, and Sauk counties, where the microclimate on south-facing slopes may favor their survival.

“Scarlet”—the first Northern Black Widow documented in Sheboygan County. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch-UW Entomology

In a typical year, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab might get a report or two of black widow spiders, but 2017 stood out in the sheer number of reports.  For spiders like the black widow, I keep in touch with Dr. Mike Draney, an arachnologist at UW-Green Bay.  During some stretches of 2017, Mike and I were emailing reports of black widows to each other once or twice a week!  These reports generally came from Door county and nearby areas.  In addition, these spiders were also documented in two additional Wisconsin counties for the first time last year: Brown county and Sheboygan county.

It’s possible that winter weather patterns might explain the distinct bump in northern black widow sightings last year.  Leading up to 2017, Wisconsin faced two consecutive mild winters, which might have favored insects, spiders, and other creatures that fare better in slightly warmer climates.  While the state did see an increase in reports last year, it’s not yet known if that trend will continue in 2018 as the state just emerged from a veritable winter season.


*A recent study estimated that spiders around the globe consume approximately 400 – 800 million tons of prey annually. Nyffeler, M. & Birkhofer, K. Sci Nat (2017) 104: 30. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00114-017-1440-1

A Mysterious Tingling Sensation: Bird Mites

If I had to pick the most misunderstood creature I regularly encounter at the diagnostic lab, it’d be bird mites.  Perhaps you’ve never even heard of bird mites—tiny arachnids that suck the blood of the birds nesting in your back yard.  Under the right conditions, those same mites can wander indoors and  inadvertently bite humans.

If you haven’t heard of bird mites before, your first inclination may be to do a quick Google search to learn more.  Unfortunately, the Internet is rife with misinformation about these creatures.  In the age of fake news, here’s another gentle reminder to assess the credibility of online sources.  I’ve encountered websites full of misleading, downright wrong, and in some cases, dangerous management recommendations about bird mites.  I’ve also had to console clients on multiple occasions because they’ve read about bird mites online—only to believe that the mites will be infesting themselves, their homes, and vehicles indefinitely.

Although small (<1 mm long), bird mites can be seen with the naked eye, and their nearly constant movement helps give them away.  Perhaps the best description of their appearance is walking flakes of pepper.  Under magnification, bird mites have a somewhat tick-like appearance with their eight legs and long, prominent mouthparts.  The mites are often whitish in color with some black on the body but can turn darker after feeding.   Each year, I typically bump into 10-20 bird mite cases during the spring and summer months.  The mites can actually be quite common but simply aren’t encountered unless you have a bird nest very close at hand: under a back deck, on a patio light fixture, in a gutter or a damaged soffit area or in a shrub just outside a bedroom window.

Bird mite. Photo Credit: Whitney Cranshaw, Bugwood.org

True to their name, bird mites are parasites that feed on the blood of birds.  These mites are often most noticeable when young birds have just left the nest and the mites wander desperately looking for a blood meal.  Without their avian host, bird mites have a short time to live, but they can make their way indoors where they can crawl on and inadvertently try biting humans and pets.  Although the mites can be an itchy tingly nuisance, they can’t survive on humans or in homes for any significant length of time.  The literature suggests that off of their avian hosts, the common bird mites may be able to survive a matter of weeks under the most ideal of conditions.  In most cases, the conditions off the birds are so hostile (too dry) that survival is limited to a few days at best—especially in a modern home with air conditioning.

As with many pest control situations, eliminating the source of the problem often brings about rapid results and bird mites aren’t any different.  If you’ve found bird mites, removal of the bird nest once the birds have left the nest is the single most important step.  Like flipping a switch, mite activity typically drops off rapidly within a day or two of the nest being removed.  Indoors, desiccation is probably the biggest threat to bird mites, so running your AC and/or dehumidifier may  help hasten their demise.  Vacuuming, using sticky tape, or wiping up mites with a damp soapy cloth can all help eliminate any additional stragglers that made it indoors.  Pest control professionals typically also apply to residual product to nearby areas to help control any residual mites.

If you think you may be dealing with bird mites, contact the local University Extension service in your state/area for advice.

Dairy, Insects, and Illegal Cheese

As National Dairy Month rolls to a close, you might not have realized the connections between insects and the milk, cheese, yogurt, or ice-cream you’ve had in the last month.  While you might not think of any association between insects and dairy, the connections are surprisingly plentiful.  Some of these links are conspicuous—insect pollinators, for example, play an important role in the production of seeds for growing hay crops like alfalfa.  A plethora of caterpillars, beetles, and true bugs can be pests of those same crops and threaten to reduce hay yields.  In addition, many flies, mites, and grubs can directly bite, pester or even infest dairy of beef cattle and farmers have to manage these pests to maintain herd health and maximize milk or beef production.

Alfalfa leafcutting bee (pollinator) on alfalfa flower. Photo credit: Peggy Greb, USDA-ARS.

Other connections can be downright bizarre—perhaps the most outlandish link between insects and dairy is a cheese so engulfed in a legal cloud that it has been sold on the black market at times: casu marzu.  In Wisconsin we’re blessed with enough cheeses to be the envy of other states, but the thought of an illegal cheese is still mind-boggling.

Casu marzu cheese contains live maggots and can’t legally be sold in the US. Photo credit: Shardan; Wikipedia CC.

The cheese in this case, casu marzu, is a soft unpasteurized variety made from goat’s milk.   It’s made on the Island of Sardinia in Italy and has a unique flavor developed by live maggots of the cheese skipper (Piophila casei)—making blue cheese seem wimpy in comparison.  Cheese skippers like to infest protein-rich materials such as processed cheeses and meats (they’re also called “bacon flies”) and get their name from the ability of the larvae to “skip” or fling themselves into the air when disturbed:

Jumping cheese skipper maggots in the diagnostic lab. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology

While cheese skippers have a cosmopolitan distribution, you probably won’t encounter these insects unless you add dairy, meats, or other protein-rich materials to your compost pile (which you shouldn’t do).  This very composting mistake is the reason why I recently received a cheese skipper sample at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.

Waiter, are there flies in my cheese?. . .

Yellowjacket Season

It happens every year in August and September: someone takes their lawnmower over a nest in the ground and really “stirs up the hornet’s nest”.  Shortly thereafter, I get a call regarding these black and yellow stinging “ground bees”.  Technically, these nests are neither the work of hornets nor bees, but rather yellowjackets. [There are actually ground-nesting bees, although they tend to be docile, solitary creatures; see this post from April].

Ground nesting Yellowjackets
Ground-nesting yellowjacket workers at the entrance of their nest. Photo Credit: Jeff Hahn, University of Minnesota

Yellowjackets are a type of wasp, related to paper wasps and bald-faced hornets—all of which can be abundant this time of the year.  In fact, wasps are one of the most common insects reported to the diagnostic lab in late summer each year.  Depending on the species, yellowjackets (Vespula species) can nest in pre-existing cavities in the ground, above ground, or in hollow voids (such as wall voids and soffit areas of roofs).  Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) are the larger cousins of our common yellowjackets, and can produce basketball-sized papier-mâché style nests that can often go unnoticed until the leaves fall off the trees in fall.  Paper wasps (Polistes species) are more slender in appearance than yellowjackets and build the open, umbrella-like nests that often hang from soffit areas.

Bald Faced Hornet Nest
Aerial, papier-mâché style nest of the bald-faced hornet.  If you click to see the enlarged version, you’ll notice the head of a lone worker peering out from the entrance of the nest. Photo Credit: Pat Malone, Trempealeau County UW-Extension

Yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, and paper wasps are what we refer to as social wasps, meaning that they live and work together as a colony.  Each species varies in its particular traits (body size and coloration, nest location, colony size, etc.) and we have dozens of species in our area.  An interesting point about the biology of social wasps is that a queen starts her colony from scratch each spring and the colonies die out in the fall.  A small group of females designated to become queens the following year does make it through the winter in sheltered locations such as rotting logs.  The tiny colonies from spring build up in size throughout the summer, reaching their maximum size this time of the year.  This can give the impression that the insects appeared abruptly, when in reality, the colonies have been there and the wasp populations have built up rapidly over the past few weeks.

Paper Wasp Nest
Paper wasps on their open, “umbrella” style nest. Photo Credit: Jeff Hahn, University of Minnesota

Because the colonies die out in the fall, if a wasp nest is located in an infrequently visited back corner of your yard, simply waiting for a few hard frosts will ensure that the colony has met its demise.  If a colony is located in a spot where you’ll likely have run-ins, there are some reliable ways to eliminate them, but choosing the correct tool for the job can be critical!

To learn more about the biology of social wasps as well as how to manage wasp nests, check out this webpage: https://extension.umn.edu/insects-infest-homes/wasps-and-bees