Blister Beetles

Meloe strigulosus
Ventral view
San Juan Island, WA 11/2/2019

I posted back in April about an encounter with Blister Beetles not far from my house. You can read about that here ~ (https://cynthiabrast.wordpress.com/2019/04/16/a-blistery-spring-day/ ). Over the weekend of November 2-3, I came across quite a few more of these in the exact same spot as in April. This time I didn’t see any live beetles, but there were at least 25-30 dead in the road.

Meloe strigulosus
San Juan Island, WA
11/2/2019

Ever the opportunist, I scraped up as many that weren’t quite so smushed into a container and brought them home. Out of the 5 I collected, 2 were male, 2 were female, and one missed antennae altogether. Given the number of beetles in the road in this one spot, I believe this was a mating aggregation.

Meloe strigulosus (male)
San Juan Island, WA
11/2/2019

So, I’ve been reading about them and communicating with a two experts on blister beetles. If you don’t know what these are, they are significant because of a defensive chemical in them called Cantharidin. Cantharidin is quite toxic and it’s a blistering agent. This is where they got the name Blister Beetles in the first place.

antennal segmentation of male Meloe strigulosus
San Juan Island, WA
11/2/2019

Since my first sighting of these beetles back in April, I’ve learned quite a bit about them. The ones here (Meloe strigulosus) are black, flightless, tanker-like beetles, carrying around a cargo of toxic brew. They are sometimes a hazard to livestock (actually almost all mammals) that might eat them because the Cantharidin is toxic. Horses, goats, cows, and sheep that eat alfalfa hay can get really sick with colic if there are even parts of dead beetles in the hay.

While we don’t really know exactly how Cantharidin is produced in the beetle, we do know these two things: 1) it’s produced in the male and transferred to the female during mating. 2) the female transfers Cantharidin as a protective coating for her eggs during oviposition. It’s believed that the first instar larvae (called triungulin) are equipped with a supply of Cantharidin as well.

After hatching, the triungulin crawl up onto flowers to hang out and wait to attach to the hairs of a visiting bee, riding back to its nesting site. The later developmental stages of larvae are protected underground or in holes in wood where native bees are developing. They consume the developing bee eggs, larvae and nest provisions (pollen and nectar).

Is there anything good about blister beetles? Well, strangely, the populations of some species of blister beetles are timed to coincide with grasshopper abundance. Adult blister beetles feed on grasshopper eggs. That’s good, right?

What else? Humans have used Cantharidin for years to remove warts and to remove tattoos as well. For ages, it has been used as a sexual stimulant. Even birds called Great Bustards have picked up on this! Read more here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6521026/

Blister beetles seem to be beneficial to some other species of beetles too. There is one beetle that actually has been found to chew on the blister beetle as a means of obtaining Cantharidin for its own protection. Other animals like toads, frogs, and armadillos are known to eat these beetles or use them in some way to confer protection. There is even a nuthatch that uses the beetle to “sweep” the wood where it wants to build a nest to protect it from parasites.

Back to my weekend sighting and collection of a few of these specimens. I had two that were intact enough to pin for my collection. I wore nitrile gloves to make sure I didn’t come into contact with any blistering agent. It’s a good thing I did. Some fluid made contact with one of the fingers of my gloved hand and actually started eating through it. That’s pretty caustic!

If you’re interested in more information about them, I’m happy to email some of my collected literature. There are also links you can check out in my previous post from April.

Thanks for reading!

Honeysuckle aphid (Rhopalomyzus lonicerae) on Reed Canary Grass being eaten by a Syrphid fly larva

Honeysuckle aphid (Rhopalomyzus lonicerae) on Reed Canary Grass
Honeysuckle aphids on Reed Canary Grass

I photographed and filmed these tiny white “lambs” over the weekend (Sept. 21, 2019). There is a patch of Reed canary grass growing in a wetland area near my house and I wanted to see what sort of insects I might find associated with this particular plant.

These “lambs” are actually Honeysuckle aphids (Rhopalomyzus lonicerae). The species epithet, lonicerae refers to honeysuckle. These particular aphids live on honeysuckle in the winter and in grasses (as in the Reed Canary grass) in summer (4,5). The creamy white form (pictured above) are wingless, sub-adults, the apterae (without-wings) ~ Aphid glossary here: https://influentialpoints.com/aphid/Aphid-glossary.htm . There were quite a few of them and they were huddled together somewhat herd-like (see video below) on the grass stems. I did spot an adult or two (photo below), dispersed in other patches of grass, but absent from the groups of young.

Adult Honeysuckle Aphid on Reed Canary Grass
Sept. 21, 2019

The most amazing part to me was the “wolf” disguised in my herd of aphid lambs. This big bad wolf was actually a syrphid fly larva devouring one little lamb after another. It surprised me that they all waited, rather obediently, without resistance, as one after another was sucked dry by the fly-wolf. Note the dried out skins remaining on the leaf when you view the videos of the little lambs I found in the grass below. 🐑

Honeysuckle aphid (Rhopalomyzus lonicerae) on Reed Canary Grass being eaten by a Syrphid fly larva
Honeysuckle aphid (Rhopalomyzus lonicerae) on Reed Canary Grass being eaten by a Syrphid fly larva

Baaad or Good? Give me a thumbs up or down and let me know what you think! Thanks for reading.

****

Reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) is in the plant family Poacea. Historically, reed canary grass has been considered good fodder for livestock, especially in areas too wet to grow traditional hay crops (3). In Washington State, it is now considered a non-native, noxious weed by the Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board (1). However in further review of literature about this plant, I came across one publication contradicting this view. This one cites published research that, in the Pacific Northwest there is evidence that some varieties of this widespread “circumboreal” grass are native to Western North America (2) .

Native? Noxious? Invasive? If you want to read more about Reed Canary grass, please do take a minute to check out the referenced links below.

Honeysuckle aphid (Rhopalomyzus lonicerae) on reed canary grass being eaten by syrphid fly larva (Sept. 21, 2019) San Juan Island, WA

References:

1.https://www.nwcb.wa.gov/weeds/reed-canarygrass

2. https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/graminoid/phaaru/all.html

3.https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_phar3.pdf

4. https://bugguide.net/node/view/358533

5.https://influentialpoints.com/Gallery/Rhopalomyzus_lonicerae_honeysuckle-grass_aphid.htm

Brownlined Looper (Neoalcis californica)

I found this specimen ready to hitch a ride on the car window when I was leaving a dinner on Sunday evening, August 25, 2019. Time of sighting was 7:32 pm. It managed to stay on the window glass as we pulled out of the driveway, but blew off as we began our drive home.

This is a Brownlined Looper moth, Neoalcis californica in the family Geometridae and is the single species in its genus in North America. Its distribution ranges from Southern California to British Columbia. Adults can be found flying between March and October in the Pacific Northwest, but has been documented flying as late as December in California. Larvae of this species feed mostly on conifers, including Douglas-Fir, Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, Grand Fir, Lodgepole Pine (Canadian Forest Service) as well as many broadleaf trees and shrubs (USGS).

First described by American Entomologist, Alphaeus Spring Packard in 1871, this rather nondescript moth was initially named Boarmia californiaria. A description by Packard is found in the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History. Volume 13 https://archive.org/details/proceedingsbost07histgoog/page/n39 or view description attached below.

Neoalcis californica
August 25, 2019, 7:32 pm
San Juan Island, WA
Neoalcis californica
August 25, 2019, 7:32 pm
San Juan Island, WA
Packard’s description of Boarmia californiaria
renamed Neoalcis californica
part 1
Packard’s description of Boarmia californiaria
renamed Neoalcis californica
part 2

References

Bugguide.net. https://bugguide.net/node/view/9696

North American Moth Photographers Group. Mississippi State University Digital Guide to Moth Identification http://mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/species.php?hodges=6435

Powell, J. A., and P. A. Opler 2009. Moths of Western North America. pl. 28.14; p. 208.

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    "BUGGING" YOU FROM FRIDAY HARBOR!

    I love beetles and keep bees! In my free time, I enjoy photography (mostly bugs) and documenting insect species found on San Juan Island. I have limited availability for local, onsite beekeeping consultation and hive inspection, honey bee removal/swarm collection as well as phone/skype consultation. Contact me at cynthiabrast@icloud.com Member Washington State Beekeepers Association

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