The BugWeek Web Team is acutely aware that many, many species of insects and other arthropods are not popular with the human race.
It’s understandable. Regrettable, but understandable.
Some bugs eat our food crops and chew up our decorative plants; others transmit pathogens that cause diseases or make us itch; some enter our living spaces and give us the creeps.
This story isn’t about those bugs. It’s about one group of beetles that many people actually like to see, especially at night — fireflies.
Did you catch the word “beetles” a moment ago?
That’s right. Fireflies aren’t flies at all, though they have wings and are often seen traveling through the air.
They’re all members of the Coleoptera order and, more specifically, the Lampyridae family.
Worldwide, there are about 2,000 species of fireflies. Many of them — not all — produce light, something they do to signal potential mates or attract prey.
It so happens that Florida has more firefly species than any other U.S. state.
And the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology has two of the world’s leading firefly experts. One is James E. Lloyd, a professor who’s now retired but still active in the department, and has studied fireflies since 1962. The other is Lloyd’s successor, Marc Branham, an associate professor who’s been here since 2003 and began studying fireflies in the mid-1990s.
This year, Dr. Branham is also the Conference Host and organizer of a major academic event, the International Firefly Symposium. It takes place Aug. 11-15 at the Hilton University of Florida Conference Center. The symposium takes place every few years, drawing scientists, educators, artists and other firefly enthusiasts from around the globe.
Not surprisingly, Drs. Branham and Lloyd will both be presenting; Dr. Branham will take part in five discussion sessions; Dr. Lloyd will deliver the symposium’s keynote address.
Registration is required to attend the symposium, and much of the material presented there will be technical in nature. The BugWeek Web Team always wants to make entomology accessible to the general public, so we decided to use the symposium as an excuse to sit down with Dr. Branham to talk about fireflies in much more general terms.
We hope you enjoy the following excerpts from our 60-minute discussion:
Q: So, has firefly season started in Florida yet?
A: Yes, right now fireflies are out there, we’re starting to see them at night.
Q: How are fireflies doing in Florida these days?
A: In Florida, the situation with firefly populations is both good and bad.
There are more species in Florida than in any other state in the U.S. That’s one reason why I came here. That’s good.
One of the bad things is, if you ask a lot of Floridians they’ll tell you they haven’t seen many fireflies in recent years — or any. That’s partly because the populations here are localized. It’s a tropical phenomenon — there are more firefly species present, but fewer individual insects present from each species. I’m originally from Kansas, where we have fewer firefly species but you can see thousands of insects from each species. I think that’s what a lot of people think of when they think about fireflies, incredible displays.
Jim Lloyd has worked on fireflies for more than 45 years. He’s been showing me a lot of his favorite study sites in this part of Florida. Time and time again we’ll go somewhere, see nothing, and he says, “well, they used to be here.”
There are a lot of things impacting fireflies. Some of the factors include:
Things drying out – places that used to be swampy aren’t swampy anymore. I’m not sure if this is due to climate change, or if aquifer levels are dropping, or if something else is going on. But in these areas that are drying up, the fireflies can’t find prey anymore, the snails and slugs that the larvae feed on.
I tell lots of people that light pollution at night is playing a big role. When I was a kid, people didn’t use architectural accent lights on their homes, and streetlights were less common. The problem is, fireflies divide up the night into blocks of time, and certain species appear at specific times of night. The fireflies decide to come out based on how dark it is. But if it never gets dark enough, they never come out.
Porch lights can interfere with males and females seeing each other. We have experiments that looked into this – if there’s a lot of ambient light from artificial sources, the fireflies have a hard time seeing each others’ flash patterns.
Q: How widespread is the decline in firefly populations?
A: Over the years, the numbers seem to be declining all across the United States.
It’s believed that a number of species have gone extinct in Florida. There are probably three or four that we can’t find, anyway.
Q: How can the average person encourage firefly populations?
A: If folks would like to have fireflies on their property, there are a couple of things they can do.
One is, decrease pesticide use, because you may inadvertently kill fireflies while you’re targeting other organisms. Another thing is, eliminate the use of man-made lighting in the evening.
I feel strongly that people preserve what they value. However, I think that, more and more, successive generations are not spending much time outside interacting with nature, and as a result I wonder if they will value nature. Nearly every child is a naturalist at some point. I want kids to look for and watch the critters wherever they are. If they develop a positive, personal experience in nature, maybe they will push to conserve it.
Q: Speaking of kids, how do you feel about the practice of kids catching fireflies and putting them in jars?
A: I tell kids that it’s fine to collect them in jars to look at, but they should release them the same night, because it’s good to conserve fireflies. They don’t live long in a jar without moisture.
Q: Final thoughts?
A: We need to talk to our children about conservation and biodiversity. I would hate to experience a summer night without fireflies….
Pronounced “krih-PUS-kyuh-lurr,” this term is an adjective with a simple meaning – “active at dawn or dusk.”
Dawn and dusk are times of day when there’s just a little bit of light, of course.
Many insects, notably certain fireflies and mosquitoes, apparently prefer to be out and about in dim light because it helps them survive, for example by escaping heat stress or avoiding predators that feed primarily during periods of full sun or complete darkness.
Some insect species take things a step further and are only active at dawn OR dusk, not both. Those bugs that get up with the sun are called matutinal, those active only at dusk are called vespertine.
Oh yes, that vampire-lit thing… if you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve been devouring the Twilight book series, you can always say you were “doing some crepuscular reading.”
Photo by Daniel Schwen]]>
It also happens to be one of the most widely distributed, most common, most prolific and most thoroughly despised.
You’ve seen ‘em, you’ve swatted ‘em, you’ve shooed ‘em away from cupcakes, sometimes unsuccessfully.
Yes, it’s the housefly, known scientifically as Musca domestica.
This bug is a member of the Diptera order and the Muscidae family.
Purely from a biological standpoint, the housefly is a marvel. For the human race, it’s also a 24-karat nuisance, and often a menace to public health.
Consider the facts…
Widely distributed? Three words – “worldwide, except Antarctica.”
Common? The housefly is so common that the good folks at the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature don’t even bother evaluating it for their well-known IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
(For comparison purposes, consider that ubiquitous Florida wildlife species including the Eastern gray squirrel, the blue jay, the Eastern mosquitofish and the red imported fire ant all merit a classification as species of “least concern.”)
Prolific? Way back in 1911, entomologist C.F. Hodge supposedly estimated that if one pair of houseflies began reproducing in April and every one of their offspring survived and reproduced, by August there would be so many flies that THE ENTIRE PLANET would be covered 47 feet deep in houseflies. (So far, the BugWeek Web Team hasn’t been able to get its hands on the original publication where that statistic supposedly appeared, so take the assertion with a grain of salt.)
Thoroughly despised? Hey, you don’t see David Cronenberg making monster movies called The Zebra Swallowtail or The Mud Dauber Wasp, now do you? No, but his 1986 version of The Fly is arguably the greatest entomologically based horror flick ever made, in no small part due to the disgusting and disturbing living habits of its namesake.
Shucks, Cronenberg didn’t even cover the fact that the housefly is known to transmit more than 100 pathogens that can cause disease (including salmonellosis, typhoid, cholera, anthrax and tuberculosis), that excrement is one of its favorite food sources, that it poops constantly or that it’s just as happy living in a horse stable or hog farm as your home. Oh, and some housefly strains have developed resistance to popular pesticides going all the way back to DDT, organophosphate and lindane, and including currently used compounds such as imidacloprid, cyromazine, DDVP and permethrin.
You can learn more about the housefly at this Featured Creatures document for the UF/IFAS Department of Entomology and Nematology.
As for the BugWeek Web Team, we’re going to check the classified ads for cheap snow shovels… just in case that 47-feet-deep thing turns out to be true.]]>
In this case, that common term is “pollen basket.”
Let’s back up for a moment — you’ve seen honeybees, right?
When they stop off at flowers to gather nectar, they often get pollen grains stuck to their bodies.
Fastidious creatures that they are, bees are constantly grooming those pollen grains off of themselves, and storing them in a wide, slightly hollowed-out area on their rear legs.
That’s the pollen basket, aka corbicula. You can see it in the photo above — it’s the portion of the bee’s leg with that white and yellow material on it.
As you’ve probably noticed already, when a bee has accumulated a good-sized lump of pollen, you can’t even see the corbicula, really. It just looks like the bee is wearing a big, colorful lump as a fashion statement.
But without the corbicula, presumably, the pollen would just kind of fall away during the grooming.
That would be very bad for honeybees, because they eat pollen.
And we need all the honeybees we can get, right kids?
Incidentally, the term corbicula also happens to be the genus name for a group of freshwater clams. We’re not sure why, but we’re almost positive that molluscs don’t gather pollen.
Photo by Beatriz Moisset]]>
Have you ever opened a book and seen a teeny, tiny yellowish object running across the page? Chances are that was a booklouse, an insect in the Psocid family, part of the Psocoptera order.
(Psocid is pronounced “SO-sudd,” by the way.)
There are many species of booklice and because they’re so small, we’re going to treat them as though they were completely interchangeable.
Booklice are not lice at all. They don’t bite, sting, or vector disease. What they do is eat fungi, decaying plant matter, and maybe, once in awhile, the glue or other chemical components in old books.
The main reason we humans see them in books is that books are often a good place for these bugs to forage for fungus and such, particularly if the humidity in your home is a little high, promoting mold growth on the paper pages of your dusty tomes.
With that in mind, the easiest way to discourage booklice is to lower the humidity level in your home, perhaps by using a dehumidifier.
Psocids also known to infest dry, stored foods, such as flour, oatmeal, beans and nuts, but again, high humidity levels play a big role. (As does accessibility – it’s a good idea to keep dry foods in tightly sealed containers, to keep out booklice, flour beetles and a whole host of stored-product pests.)
Speaking of big, a big booklouse might be one-sixteenth of an inch long. That’s really small. The indoor species that we see in books typically don’t have wings, though there are other Psocids (called “barklice”) that live outdoors and do have wings. You may have seen them on trees – barklice don’t look anything like booklice, despite the similar names.
If you look at a booklouse under magnification, you’ll see that it bears a general resemblance to a termite. But unlike termites, booklice aren’t not social, don’t build elaborate nests, and pose no threat to your home.
And, unless you have an incredibly severe infestation, they’re not likely to pose any threat to your books, either.
You can read more about booklice at this EDIS document from UF/IFAS.]]>
Though this word is identical to the well-known verb “obligate” (pronounced “obb-lih-GAYT”), the pronunciation and the meaning are both a little bit different.
When we’re talking about bugs, the adjective “obligate” usually precedes the term “parasite” or “carnivore” or some other noun that describes an aspect of the bug’s feeding habits or survival strategy.
Ticks, such as the female lone star tick pictured above, are often referred to as “obligate parasites.” What this means, essentially, is that they can’t survive without a host to feed upon. The same goes for fleas. Both of these bugs feed on blood, as you probably knew.
Speaking of fleas and ticks, you should check out our terrific “Operation P.O.P. (Protect Our Pets)” videos on these pests, and learn how to protect dogs and cats from their attentions. You can view the tick video here and the flea video here.]]>
See the cute little insect in the photo? That’s a chironomid. They look a bit like mosquitoes but they’re actually flies.
We’re not sure what species that is, and even insect taxonomists (the folks who decide what species is what) have a hard time distinguishing between all the species in this family, because there are so many of them and many have similar appearance.
You can call them Chironomids. (It’s pronounced “Cairo” like the Egyptian city, followed by “nom” as in “nom-nom, this pizza is delicious,” followed by “ids,” like the Freudian term.)
Anyway, imagine that one cute little insect multiplied by, oh, about 2 million. Now imagine all of them are within the confines your yard.
Let that notion settle in your mind for a moment.
There’s no real danger, mind you – Chironomids don’t bite, or sting, or vector any diseases, so far as we humans are aware.
Nonetheless, these small flies can be a huge pain in the neck for people living in the areas where they’re common, simply because there are so, so many of them.
Commonly called blind mosquitoes or nonbiting midges, Chironomids dwell near lakes and ponds. This is because their larvae are aquatic, and need to grow in bodies of water that feature a muddy bottom.
The adults tend to emerge all at once, and if you live in a place where Chironomids are commonplace, hoo-boy, you will know it.
One BugWeek Web Team member had this to say – “I lived in Lake County for a few months one spring, in a little town called Howey-in-the-Hills. There was a small, stagnant lake down the street from the house where I lived.
“Every morning when I walked outside to drive to work, there would be thousands of these bugs resting on the shady side of my car. It was impossible to get in without stirring them up, and they were so fragile that the least touch would squash them, leaving green streaks behind. I pretty much gave up wearing white shirts because of them.
“In the afternoons, they would fly around in such profusion that it was hard to avoid inhaling them.
“There was a convenience store I used to visit on my way in to the office, and dead Chironomidae were piled up on the windowsills inside the store, a couple of inches deep in same places.
“There are worse things, of course, but it was mind-boggling to see just how many of these insects there were.’”
Read more about Chironomidae at this EDIS document.]]>
By the way, the term is pronounced “oh-THEE-kuh” and the “THEE” part sounds like the “The” in the name “Thebes,” the city in Greece. It does not sound like “thee” as it appears in “I now pronounce thee man and wife.”
(Never let it be said that the BugWeek Web Team is not detail-oriented.)
Anyway, the typical cockroach egg case is dark brown, about a half-inch long and roughly the shape of a tiny eyeglass case, with ridges running down one of the long sides.
In some roach species, the female carries the ootheca around with her until it hatches. In other species, she drops it off in a safe place and goes about her business.
In either situation, empty egg cases are one of the most reliable indicators that a home has a cockroach infestation, or at least a cockroach presence. Look for these artifacts in the backs of kitchen cabinets, shelves and cupboards, if scouting for pests.
The typical praying mantis ootheca has a less definite shape, looking a little bit like a poorly made paper wasp nest. You’re unlikely to see one of these inside the house, of course. But if you do, you can probably kiss your roach problems goodbye.]]>
Why? Because if there’s anything the palmetto bug is known for, it’s the ability to fly… and the Florida woods cockroach, Eurycotis floridana, has no wings.
Disappointed? Surprised? Just thankful for the fact that there isn’t one in your house right now?
Anyway, here’s what distinguishes this roach —
For one thing, it’s big, reaching a maximum length of about 1.6 inches.
For another, it’s relatively easy to identify, due to its very dark brown coloration and the prominent ridges across the upper side of its abdomen.
As its name suggests, the Florida woods cockroach is found almost exclusively in Florida, along with small, southern portions of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
Even though this species is commonly found around human dwellings, it doesn’t usually want to invade our living spaces.
This critter feeds on damp, decaying plant matter. So it typically dwells in and around woodpiles, plant beds with too much mulch, compost bins, sheds, storage areas, and other quiet places where there’s lots of food.
When the Florida woods cockroach does show up inside a home, it’s probably because someone accidentally carried a specimen inside, accompanying a load of firewood or a box of stored items.
Occasionally, this species will enter dwellings when it’s out foraging for food. Or it may look at your home as a shelter from sunlight, cold or rain.
So, if you encounter a Florida woods cockroach indoors, the BugWeek Web Team asks that you suppress the urge to stomp (we know it’s tough) and instead try to relocate the bug.
One removal method that’s worked well for the BugWeek Web Team is to take a paper towel, crumple it slightly, then use the paper towel to seize the cockroach and hold it firmly, just long enough to walk outside. Once there, you can simply throw the paper towel on the ground and let the roach find his or her way out.
This not only helps the cockroach survive its adventure, it helps keep your hands clean – this species secretes a stinky (but basically harmless) chemical when alarmed. One BugWeek Web Team member confesses that she just picks them up bare-handed (though we admit she’s very brave, and occasionally smelly.)
We realize that it’s hard for most people to let a cockroach go about its business unharmed, but Eurycotis floridana performs a beneficial service, so it deserves a little bit of consideration.
You can read more about the Florida woods cockroach in this document from UF/IFAS Electronic Data Information Source, also known as the EDIS online library.
Also, here’s information about managing cockroaches in and around your home.]]>
Setae is the plural version of the seldom-seen singular word seta (“SEE-tuh.”)
Setae are bristle-like hairs found on many insects and other arthropods.
The bristles you see on fuzzy caterpillars are setae, as are the bristles on “hairy” spiders such as tarantulas.
Chemically, setae have little in common with the hairs found on mammals. Setae are composed of chitin, the same complex sugar that’s a building block of arthropod exoskeletons.
Setae can be useful in several ways.
They can transmit environmental information to their owner, such as wind speed. They can aid in proprioception, which is the insect’s understanding of its
body positioning in space. In stinging caterpillars, setae are part of a defense strategy and can deliver an irritating toxin when animals touch the setae.
Matter of fact, the setae on some caterpillars can cause an allergic reaction in people, as you’ll see in this news release about tussock moth caterpillars. And the setae on Eastern tent caterpillars can cause pregnant mares to miscarry, if the mares happen to accidentally ingest the caterpillars while grazing, as described here.
And, of course, setae play a large role in arthropod coloration and appearance.]]>