Friday, March 23, 2018

Pinyon Problems? Maybe, Maybe Not

I always seem to be caught off guard by the first insects to emerge in spring, and this year was no exception. The chance finding of a male scale insect prompted me to investigate an ornamental Pinyon Pine in our Colorado Springs townhouse complex, and that revealed yet another insect, or at least signs of one.

Walking in our neighborhood as I do most days, weather permitting, I happened upon what I figured must be a tiny midge or winged aphid, about one millimeter in length, on a wooden fence. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be a male scale insect of some sort. Scale insects generally give the impression of anything but an insect, a small, unmoving, button-like bump on a twig or branch. Mature male scale insects on the other hand often have wings and fly to find females. I was not aware they can appear so early in the season.

Male Pinyon Needle Scale

Back home, I took images of the specimen and tried to match it with something online. Male scale insects are so rarely noticed, let alone imaged, that I was not optimistic. Surprisingly, I found a close match in the genus Matsucoccus, family Matsucoccidae. This is a relatively new family, separated from its previous placement as part of the Margarodidae or "ground pearls." The tiny black and yellowish bug, with white waxy streamers emanating from its posterior, most resembled the Pinyon Needle Scale, Matsucoccus acalyptus, but I was hesitant to jump to conclusions. Our neighborhood is more in the high plains than a forest, though we do have many ornamental conifers.

Sure enough, I noticed a Pinyon Pine between two buildings in our townhouse complex. Now that I knew what I was looking for, I checked for sessile female scales, and managed to find a few. They are barely over one millimeter themselves. It turns out that the life cycle of this species is rather complex, with a lot going on at this time of year.

Adult female Pinyon Needle Scales

Mature females back out of the waxy covering that forms the "bean stage," and render themselves sexually receptive. As near as I can tell, the adult females have this mosaic pattern to them, whereas the "bean" stage does not. Once mated, the female crawls to an appropriate place to lay her oval cluster of yellowish eggs, encased in loose, white, silky webbing. Favored sites for egg laying include the root collar of the tree, in the crotches of large branches, the underside of large branches, or in deep fissures in the bark of the trunk.

"Crawlers" emerge from the eggs roughly five weeks after they are laid. This tiny, orange, first instar immature stage migrates up the tree to begin feeding on needles that grew the previous year. The insects use their piercing-sucking mouthparts to tap fluids inside the foliage. As they feed they begin secreting the wax coating that covers them. That coat turns black shortly after it is produced. The nymphs also molt into their second instar. This is the "bean" stage in which the immobile females pass the winter.

"Bean stage" of Pinyon Needle Scale

Second instar males crawl to the ground in October or November. There they go into a prepupal stage, wrapping themselves in white silken webbing beforehand. Three or four days later the males molt again into the pupa stage, spending the winter there. The female nymphs resume feeding the following spring, molt into adults, mate, and start the cycle anew.

The Pinyon Needle Scale is a native insect, but heavy infestations can severely weaken trees, making them vulnerable to subsequent attack by Pinyon Pine Beetles, Ips confusus, in natural ecosystems. Landscape trees are even more at risk because they are not always planted at appropriate elevations, in proper soils, with proper sun exposure. They are often planted in isolation, too.

Galls of Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge

While looking for the scales, I could not help but notice that many of the needles on the tree on our property were greatly swollen and yellowing. This is the work of an entirely different insect, the Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge, Pinyonia edulicola. It is a tiny fly in the gall midge family Cecidomyiidae. Its life cycle begins when a female lays several eggs in a developing needle in mid-summer. The larvae that hatch crawl to the base of the needle and their feeding activity stimulates the plant to grow needle tissue around them. From five to forty larvae occupy the resulting gall, continuing to feed and grow within it. They pupate in late spring of the following year. The adult flies emerge in mid-June to mid-July.

More Pinyon Spindle Gall Midge galls

Our Pinyon Pine tree seems to be doing ok despite the onslaught, and we tend to underestimate the resilience of plants in the face of insect attack. Our current drought is no doubt undermining the tree's natural defenses, but the insects feeding on it are also not immune to their own predators, parasites, and other enemies. It may be a good idea to keep tabs on the trees in your own yard, but resist the temptation to intervene at the first sight of some insect. Do your homework, ask for expert assistance, and then decide what, if anything, to do.

Sources: Cranshaw, Whitney. 2004. Garden Insects of North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 656 pp.
Furniss, R.L. and V.M. Carolin. 1977. Western Forest Insects. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication No. 1339. 654 pp.
Phillips, Gene. 2018. "Pinyon Needle Scales, Matsucoccus acalyptus," Nevada Division of Forestry

Friday, March 16, 2018

Pollinator Drones Can Buzz Off

It has just been revealed to the media that Walmart filed an application on March 8 for a patent on miniature drones designed to pollinate crops grown by the retail giant for sale in its grocery stores. The company cited evidence of declines in bee populations and the need to supplement the pollination services provided by insects. It is the opinion of this writer and entomologist that this high tech response to a very serious organic and complex ecosystem problem is inappropriate, and troubling in many ways.

© Dave Simonds and
Drones are not alive

The idea of using tiny drones to accomplish the pollination of flowers, at least in agricultural systems, is nothing new. The Japanese built drones specifically for the cross-pollination of lilies. The videos of the machines in action only served to expose how clumsy and blundering they are compared to the direct and delicate maneuvers of bees. It seemed miraculous that the flower parts were not seriously damaged by the bulky and bouncy, propeller-driven craft.

Why are we so eager to replace complex living organisms with feeble facsimiles manufactured in robotics labs? Have we decided that it is acceptable to consider this as a viable “solution” to a much larger problem? I do not recall casting a vote for this myself. How long will we tolerate businesses and corporations to dictate the level of biodiversity we can do without? This is why science is getting an increasingly bad rap. Scientists are fast becoming beholden to investors, shareholders, and other private interests, and less accountable to the public. Independent, transparent, and government-sponsored research may soon be a thing of the past, if it is not so already.

The implied definition of “bee” in this particular instance is the Western Honey Bee, Apis mellifera. If that is not the case, then Walmart needs to speak up; but in the course of clarification, Walmart may expose a willingness to consider all solitary and native bee species as expendable, as long as we are able to pollinate the crops that feed us. Wildflowers and trees and shrubs are a non-issue in this scenario. They are not viewed as anything necessary to human civilization or financial prosperity. Emphasis on prosperity, as the business world tends to equate civilization with exponential fiscal growth.

Drones are not cute and fuzzy

Might it be cheaper to employ drones instead of honey bees? Maybe. Apiculture is itself an industry, with attendant expenses that are passed on to the customer. Many large-scale beekeeping enterprises involve the transcontinental movement of hives to fields and orchards where they are needed to effect pollination of almonds and other crops. This is not a cheap endeavor, and for all I know, some accountant has crunched the numbers for Walmart and declared that bees are inferior to drones from a simple cost-benefit analysis.

Replacing bees with machines cheapens our humanity in many other ways, though. There is no substitute for interactions with other living organisms, though we seem hell-bent on trying to make it so. We erect all manner of filters between ourselves and other humans, even. I am beginning to feel the need to apologize that you are reading this message from a static screen instead of hearing it from my lips, in person, with all the nuances of annunciation and emphasis, all the facial expressions that amplify my concern.

Drones are not specialized like this squash bee to pollinate specific kinds of flowers

Sam Walton’s heirs may literally prosper with every effort to simplify their business, and the lives of their customers, but I prosper most in the chaos that is wild nature. My psyche requires that if I am to be civil to my fellow man. A vast field of corn, uninterrupted by hedgerows, windbreaks of trees, or other hints of what used to be there, is a vast wasteland to my mind and soul. Indeed, farming practices that enhance biodiversity can be cost-saving, too. The more wild, unmanaged pollinators, the more predatory and parasitic insects, the more birds, the more wildflowers (you may call them “weeds”), the less need for fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and other chemical dependencies. The better state of mind of the farmer, too, the more adventures their children can have exploring the acres.

I could drone on, but you get the point. We can continue to impoverish our lives by distancing ourselves from nature, or we can choose to embrace it, despite its unpredictability. The future is in the latter approach. The former has no future.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This Girl!

One sure-fire way to make me smile is by introducing me to any young person who is passionate about something. It matters little to me exactly what the subject of their fascination is, but that they are enthusiastic and eager to share what they know. Young people energize elders who have expertise but have become lethargic and cynical of the future in their fields of authority. Meanwhile, children learn even more from those willing to mentor them.

Earlier this month I had the occasion to meet Miss Abigail Nilson-Bartlett, brought to a membership meeting of the Mile High Bug Club by her dad, Ryan, on February 12. They travelled to and from a Denver suburb to our Colorado Springs meeting location. I am not sure who was happier they did: Me or them.

Abigail, at seven years old, firmly asserts that "I am an arachnologist," and I believe her. She can pronounce the word, and then back it up with information that is not widespread knowledge for anyone outside of arachnology. She keeps a couple of pet tarantulas at home, caring for them judiciously such that they are comfortable and healthy, and handled only occasionally. In fact, she wants people to know that "I have a caring for bugs. When they are hurt I care of them well until they are healed. I am a bug doctor and try to help when I can." Her favorite non-spider arthropod is the "rainbow stag beetle."

She considers her greatest accomplishment so far to be assisting her father in a search for wild tarantulas in southeast Colorado. She met Dr. Paula Cushing, one of the premier professional arachnologists in the world, when she accompanied Ryan to volunteer at the twentieth International Congress of Arachnology that was held in Golden, Colorado in 2016. Dr. Cushing is a tough act to follow, but at least I could provide Abigail with a signed copy of my field guide.

During the course of our Mile High Bug Club meeting I made a presentation entitled "Wasp/Not Wasp," an interactive PowerPoint in which the audience is invited to determine which of two images depicts a wasp. Most slides were of a wasp and a complimentary "mimic" like a fly or a moth, but some displayed two wasps, or two mimics. Abigail participated with great enthusiasm, and was often correct in her answers. After listening to me explain the "nth" example of some wasp or mimic that preys on spiders, she asked why it is that there are so many insects that kill her beloved spiders. I can totally empathize. I often ask that about crocodiles and mantids that are shown over-and-over in the media eating some animal I like a lot more. Anyway, I did my best to explain that every species has its role in the biosphere and we have to respect that even if we don't like it. "Like ecology?" she asked. All of us older people were dumbstruck because we were at least teenagers before we learned that word. "Yes," I replied after regaining my faculties, "that's the framework that everything fits in. Yes."

L-R: Amelia, Ryan, Abigail

Abigail's slightly older sister Amelia is an accomplished gymnast, but is also interested in natural history. Trips to far-flung gymnastic meets allow the whole family to explore new cities and have travel adventures along the way. They recently returned from Santa Fe, New Mexico, in fact.

It has been awhile since I have either made myself available to mentor students and children, or been afforded the opportunity, and I am grateful to the MHBC for providing a way to do that. We have other young people participating in club events, and I hope that continues to expand. I urge my readers to seek out organizations, events, and other avenues through which they can be mentors as well, whether in entomology or any other career or recreational pursuit. We need to repair trust to where it was when we were growing up. We are the village now, but we have to prove ourselves as responsible adults who truly have the interests of children and their families at heart.

Thank you, Abigail, for helping restore my faith in our next generation of human beings, regardless of whatever they become professionally when they "grow up." You already have a mature sense of self-confidence, and social skills I wish I had myself at your age.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

No Good Deed....

Look, I know that the curators at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science are genuinely appreciative of the donation of my insect collection. I am reasonably certain most professional entomologists also applaud my gift to the scientific community. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam could pretty much care less, thanks to changes in the tax laws, and that fact has me incensed.

Packing up
© Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I am a writer, and make an income that barely exceeds the poverty line most years. So, my wife and I file a joint income tax return. We have never itemized, as the Standard Deduction exceeds what we spend in charitable donations. Meanwhile, if you itemize your deductions, you can exceed the Standard Deduction, but only to a certain point (half of your Adjusted Gross Income, I believe).

The hardware alone in which my collection was stored, amounts to more than $13,000. This covers three storage cabinets, the 116 drawers in those cabinets and beyond, the "unit trays" inside the drawers that keep specimens organized, and the pins on which the insects are mounted. I am not even including the fifteen Schmitt boxes I used for temporary storage, which conservatively totals $450.

Claiming a charitable donation of over $5,000 in this case requires an independent appraisal of the collection, and here is where I have to admit mea culpa. In my defense, the collection was in a spare bedroom surrounded by many other items, making it a real challenge for me to get to it, let alone an appraiser. Also, appraisers charge for their services, and I have not had a lot of money to spare for that kind of expense. It could still be done, at the museum, but because of tax changes on the horizon, it is becoming apparent that the exercise would likely be one of futility. Oh, obviously, doing the math, a $5,000 deduction is less than the Standard Deduction, so it is not an option to do this incrementally starting with our 2017 return.

Away they go
© Denver Museum of Nature and Science

I was informed by a former tax preparer that beginning in 2018, the Standard Deduction for married couples filing jointly will nearly double to $24,000, though we will all lose our individual exemptions, so not as rosy as it seems. So, while an appraiser may or may not value my collection over that amount, would it be worth the cost of the appraisal to bother finding out? Not likely.

Part of the problem is that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) uses only FMV (Fair Market Value) to assign value to donations. As you can imagine, animal specimens do not rank highly in that regard because so few species are in high demand in the marketplace. Yes, there is a flourishing consumer trade in preserved insect specimens, usually obtained through dealers, and mostly limited to tropical species from rainforests around the globe. Specimens like mine from temperate regions are rarely as glamorous in appearance, not nearly as large in size, and therefore not valued as much as gaudy "oh, my!" species. There is no catalog that covers all insect species with corresponding price tags.

Appraisers are then left to add value based on the physical condition of the specimen, whether it has valuable data denoting exactly where and when the specimen was collected, and by whom. If the specimen has been identified to species by a recognized authority, then that also adds a bit more value. It is still subjective in the eyes of IRS accountants, and even an exhaustive appraisal is no guarantee your deduction won't trigger an audit.

Arrival at the museum
© Denver Museum of Nature and Science

So, here's the thing. I don't want another invitation to a dinner reception for donors to the museum. The pretentiousness of such events I abhor. I also don't want pity for how this has unfolded so tragically for me in the financial sense, though at this point I truly believe I would have benefited more by insuring my collection and then setting it on fire. I want you to be angry, angry at where our society is placing its monetary values. The only thing I am even half good at is writing, and that sure as hell has no value either, except in advertising and fiction.