Tag Archives: The Wonderful World of Insects

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

Sphinx Moths—Hovering at a Flower Near You

If you’ve watched the flowers in your yard or local park recently, you might have noticed some surprising visitors hovering at the flowers—the hummingbird-like sphinx moths.  Several species in the “sphinx” or “hawk” moth group (Family Sphingidae) are known for their day-flying, hummingbird-like behavior.  From a distance these moths can easily be mistaken for hummingbirds as they skillfully maneuver from flower-to-flower sipping nectar with their long mouthparts.

One of the commonest members of this group in Wisconsin is the white lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata).  With a wingspan of nearly 4 inches, it’s easy to understand why this species can be mistaken for a hummingbird as it feeds.  The greyish adults are easy to pick out and a white stripe on each forewing helps identify them in the field.  The caterpillars (hornworms) of this species reach nearly 3 inches in length and can feed on a wide range of plants.  While this species is regularly encountered in the Midwest, this year has been especially good for white-lined sphinx moths in Wisconsin.  In mid-to-late July I received many reports of the caterpillars—sometimes in astounding numbers.  In several instances, “outbreaks” of tens of thousands of these large caterpillars were spotted as they migrated across roadways from agricultural fields.  The multitudes of caterpillars have since pupated and transformed into nectar-loving moths—leading to a recent spike of sightings.

White-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata). Photo Credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; Wikipedia

In addition to the white-lined sphinx moth, several other hummingbird-like sphinx moths have been common this year—the “clearwing” hummingbird moths (Hemaris spp.) and the Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis).

The rusty-colored “clearwing” moths (Hemaris spp.) are smaller than the white-lined sphinx moth, and have a wingspan of approximately 2 inches.  Their shaggy appearance and patches of yellow coloration lend a resemblance to large bumble bees.  Characteristic transparent “windows” in the wings help identify these moths.  Several Hemaris species can be encountered in the Great Lakes region with subtle differences in appearance and biology.  Both the “hummingbird clearwing” (Hemaris thysbe) and the “snowberry clearwing” (Hemaris diffinis) can be common, while the “slender clearwing” (Hemaris gracilis) is associated with pine barrens and is rarely encountered.

The hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) showing the transparent “windows” in the wings. Photo Credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren; Wikipedia

The “Nessus Sphinx” (Amphion floridensis) is another hummingbird mimic that was commonly reported earlier in the summer.  Although somewhat similar in size and coloration to the Hemaris clearwing species, the Nessus sphinx moth has opaque wings and two distinct yellow bands across the abdomen.

The Nessus sphinx moth (Amphion floridensis) in action. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

In addition to being a joy to observe, sphinx moths are a great example of “non-bee” pollinators.  Their unique behavior and anatomy allows them to form interesting relationships with some of the plants they pollinate.  In an extreme example, the Christmas Star Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) from Madagascar possess extremely long tube-like floral structures which contain the nectar.  Upon learning of the unique anatomy of this orchid, the famed naturalist Charles Darwin speculated that a moth with equally long mouthparts must exist to pollinate them.  It took over a century to document, but a sphinx moth wielding foot-long mouthparts was finally observed pollinating the Christmas Star Orchid.

Chinch Bug: How a Tiny Insect Helped the Rise of Dairy in Wisconsin

It was over 170 years ago that Wisconsin was granted statehood.  While much has changed over the decades, some things haven’t—like the omnipresence of agriculture.  It’s hard not to notice agriculture in Wisconsin, be it crop fields, orchards and vineyards, or our famous dairy farms dotting the landscape.  To many, Wisconsin is practically synonymous with dairy, and America’s Dairyland is even enshrined on our license plates.  While Wisconsinites may take our dairy prominence for granted, it turns out we weren’t always the Dairy State—at one point in history, you might have even called us the Wheat State.

It’s easy to understand why Wisconsin has a long history of agriculture.  The region received an influx of rich soil with the last ice age which allowed us to become a top wheat producer in the early days of statehood.  To early farmers in Wisconsin, wheat was a profitable crop in high demand.  For a period in the 1800’s, Milwaukee was even the busiest wheat shipping port in the entire world1.  Fast forward to today and Wisconsin is best known for its dairy production, while states like Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas are known for their bountiful grains.

Quote from J.G. Thompson’s The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin2

It was the mid-to-late 1800’s when the course of Wisconsin’s history was forever altered by a number of factors.  Fluctuating wheat prices and overworked soil might have been the primary drivers, but dry weather and a tiny insect also pulled on the reins of history.  Just as mosquitoes can thrive after heavy rains, other insects thrive under hot, dry conditions.  Droughts of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s set the stage for biblical outbreaks of some of these insects.  Farther to the west, fields in the Great Plains fell victim to swarms of Rocky Mountain locusts so massive that they darkened the sky for thousands of square miles.

Closer to home, the pest delivering a coup de grâce to wheat fields was the humble chinch bug, which thrived under the dry conditions at the time.  Chinch bugs aren’t much to write home about: at roughly an eighth of an inch long, most folks wouldn’t take the time to examine these tiny, black and white insects.  It was by their sheer abundance that these creatures decimated Wisconsin’s wheat fields in the 1800’s.  Using needle-like mouthparts, these insects sucked the life out of wheat plants, leaving behind wilted, yellowed stems.

The chinch bug (Blissus leucopterus). Photo Credit: David Shetlar, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org.

When a pest outbreak occurs in a given year, a farmer might chalk it up to bad luck, bad weather, or other factors and hope things improve the next season.  With falling wheat prices and chinch bugs regularly devastating wheat crops in the late 1800’s, Wisconsin wheat farmers realized that their efforts yielded little profit.  Without an effective way to prevent the ravages of the chinch bugs, attentions shifted to more fruitful possibilities.

The first comprehensive report on the biology and habits of the chinch bug.

Understanding the biology of the chinch bug was crucial to discovering the limitations of that insect’s destruction.  It turns out that chinch bugs are picky eaters with a taste for grasses—wheat, corn, and similar.  Unrelated plants, including forage crops like alfalfa, weren’t affected by these insects and could be grown to feed livestock at the very time that the dairy industry was budding in Wisconsin.  Decades later our dairy prominence is featured on our license plates.  

When enjoying those Wisconsin cheese curds, ice cream, and other dairy treats during national dairy month, chances are you probably wouldn’t have thought about insects—but now you know how the tiny chinch bug helped make dairy a BIG deal in Wisconsin.


1Harbor and Marine Interests. History of Milwaukee City and County Vol I. Ed. W.G. Bruce. 1922. Print.

2J.G. Thompson. The Rise and Decline of the Wheat Growing Industry in Wisconsin. Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin No. 292. Economic and Political Science Series. Volume V(3): 295-544. 1909. Print.

Bobbleheads of the Insect World

During the winter months, I often get reports of intimidating-looking, but harmless and quirky wasp-like creatures known as “wood wasps” (Family Xiphydriidae).  What makes them quirky?—They’re basically the bobbleheads of the insect world, which always reminds me of going to baseball games as a kid.

Having “wasp” in the name can evoke a certain amount of anxiety, and you can already guess that wood wasps are related to the yellowjackets and paperwasps of late summer.  However, the wood wasps belong to an early branch within ant/bee/wasp group (the Order Hymenoptera) and lack the anatomical structures and ability to sting.

Side view of a “wood wasp” showing the scrawny “neck” and “bobblehead” appearance. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab

Wood wasps have a distinct appearance, so once you’ve trained your eye, they’ll be hard to miss the next time around.  These insects tend to be about an inch long with slender, dark-colored bodies and orange legs.  There are often some pale stripes or patches on or just behind the head and in some cases the tips of the antennae can be pale as well.  The most diagnostic feature gives wood wasps their bobblehead status in my book—the bulbous head of these insects is attached by a scrawny “neck” when viewed from the side.  You can even imagine it bobbing back and forth, if only a tiny spring were attached.

You might ask yourself, how are these insect bobbleheads active in winter when most other insects are scarce?  The answer boils down to firewood.  The pale, grub-like larvae of wood wasps live in the wood of dead or dying trees.  When these trees are chopped into firewood, we end up hand-carrying the insects into our cozy winter abode.  If the wood isn’t used in the fireplace right away, the larvae take advantage of the spring-like conditions and transform into active adults indoors.  To those unfamiliar with wood wasps, you can scratch your head for days trying to find the source, but once you recognize them and their origins, moving the firewood to a colder location is the simple fix.

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!

Be Thankful for Insects

As we’re sitting down for the Thanksgiving feast, there’s one thing we should all be thankful for, whether we realize it or not: insects.  It turns out that insects are involved one way or another with many of the foods we’ll be stuffing ourselves with.  Without those very insects, the dinner table would have a drastically different appearance.

Squash Bees (Peponapis pruinosa) inside of a cucurbit flower. These bees are partially responsible for your pumpkin pie. Photo Credit: USDA ARS
Squash Bees (Peponapis pruinosa) inside of a cucurbit flower. These bees are partially responsible for your pumpkin pie and squash dishes. Photo Credit: USDA ARS

Think about the ubiquitous pre-dinner veggie platter at the family get-together.  If you already have seeds of carrots, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower, you can technically grow a batch of these crops just fine.  But with many vegetables, insect pollinators help produce that next batch of seeds.  Then there’s the cheese and cracker appetizer plate.  Being made from wheat (a wind pollinated plant), crackers technically don’t require insects to be produced.  You might also think that cheese (being a dairy product) is also unaffected by insects.  However, insects play a role in the production of alfalfa, which is a common food source for cows.  Without alfalfa, cheese, butter, and other dairy products would be harder to produce, and could be tough to find at the grocery store.  Oh, and without insects as pollinators, we wouldn’t have the almonds on the outside that smoked cheese log anymore.

Some of the items from the main course don’t rely on insects to make it to the table: turkey and potatoes.  Technically, wild turkeys can feed on insects as part of their diet, although they can feed on many other things as well.  If you’ve recently seen The Martian, you’ll remember astronaut Mark Whatney growing potatoes sans insects to survive, so those mashed potatoes would still make it to the table.  Bread and dinner rolls (from wind-pollinated wheat) would still be around.  We could also have certain vegetables that can self-pollinate without insects, such as lima beans (who doesn’t love a great big helping of lima beans…).  However, some big players on the dinner table rely on insects for pollination, including the many types of squash.  One of the most crucial Thanksgiving dishes, the cranberry sauce, wouldn’t be around as cranberries rely on bees for pollination.  It’d be a sad Thanksgiving if there were no cranberry sauce.

As we finish dinner and get ready to watch football, it’ll be about time for dessert and coffee to perk up. Unfortunately, that’s where some bad news comes in.  Without insect pollinators, we wouldn’t have pumpkins to make the traditional pumpkin pie, or some of the spices, like nutmeg, to flavor it.  The whipped cream to go on top?  Well that’s one of those dairy products that could be hard to come by in a world without alfalfa.  Maybe you don’t care for pumpkin pie and prefer apple, cherry or blueberry pie instead?  Those fruits all rely on insect pollinators as well.  Maybe we’ll forget about dessert and go right for that coffee so we don’t fall asleep on the couch.  Just keep in mind that insects are also responsible for the pollination of coffee plants.

When it comes to Thanksgiving tomorrow, be thankful for family, friends, good health, and also the insects that helped put a lot of that great food on the table.