Wednesday, June 30, 2021

What's This Bug? The Hag Moth Caterpillar.

A closeup of the face of the Hag Moth Caterpillar. Photo by Igor Siwanowicz.
With this creature, it would be easy to say, “It’s so weird” or “It’s creepy looking”, but really it’s none of those things. It is exactly what a Hag Moth Caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium) should look like. Also called the Monkey Slug Caterpillar, these caterpillars are found all over Eastern North America and into the Midwest. If you live in their habitat there’s a good chance you’ve never noticed them as they are pretty small (about 1” in diameter) and they do an excellent job of blending in.

Hag Moth Caterpillar on a leaf.
The elephant in the room with this caterpillar is of course it’s unusual appearance, which is really a cleverly designed mashup of camouflage techniques. It has six hairy appendages that curl out from either side of its body. When not moving, this brown insect could easily be mistaken for a dead leaf. When it’s slowly making its way from one point to another, and its arms are waving around a bit, it could be mistaken for a tarantula. Both are adaptations to avoid predation. But why would a caterpillar from the temperate part of North America hide as a tarantula? According to this article, its because many of the insectivorous birds in that area spend the winter in the tropics and are well aware of the drawbacks to eating tarantulas. 

Stinging Nettle Slug Caterpillars of Cup Moths
While its appearance makes this caterpillar stand out, it’s not the only thing noteworthy about it. The Hag Moth Caterpillar is part of a family of caterpillars known as Slug Moth Caterpillars. These caterpillars have suckers and ambulate like slugs. And while all these caterpillars have the suckers thing in common, their appearances vary wildly. Unusual shapes, bright and often garish colorations, and prominent and abundant spines are characteristics of this family. However, there is something else rather important that cannot be ignored should you come across one – they have spines that are irritating to extremely irritating to very painful upon contact. With the Hag Moth Caterpillar, the spines (and there are lots of them) are under their hair. The level of discomfort that an individual experiences from this family of caterpillars varies from person to person and species to species. By most accounts, the Hag Moth Caterpillar is one of the less-painful species, but when it comes to any of these unusual-looking insects, it’s best to adopt a look-but-don’t-touch position.

The underside of a Hag Moth Caterpillar
The underside of a Hag Moth Caterpillar is just as interesting as its top. For one thing, they have a transparent abdomen, and you can see their open circulatory system in action. Here is a video of a rainforest species of slug caterpillar and an explanation of the “pulsing” that you can see. Although it uses its suckers to move itself around, the Hag Moth Caterpillar still has its true legs (as do all Slug Moth Caterpillars) up near its head and under its thorax. These legs are used primarily to hold onto things. With careful observation of the underside, you can find the little bitty legs of this caterpillar and the clusters of white spines hiding under the hair. 

Adult Hag Moth
The Hag Moth Caterpillar does not metamorphosize into a magical-looking and ethereal moth. It becomes a dark brown and fuzzy flying thing that retains a number of characteristics of its larval stage (but not the stinging trait). It is as unassuming and ordinary as its caterpillar is unusual and extraordinary.

 Take Care.

Submitted by Pam

Two Hag Moth Caterpillars moving around each other.


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Not All Pollinators Are Bees

A bee completely covered in a flower's yellow pollen.Most people learn from a young age that bees are pollinators, and we need them to maintain our food supply. While all that is true (bees are the number-one pollinator after all), they are by far not the only creatures out there pollinating the world.  In fact, there are myriad pollinators at work keeping things going. Sometimes these pollinators are responsible for a specific plant species so their essential work can be overlooked by the world in general. Other times, the way they move through their lives makes them surprising pollinators. In honor of Pollinator Week this week, I’d like to introduce you to some of these lesser-known pollinators.

Chocolate Midges (Theobroma cacao)

A close-up of a cacao flower with a chocolate Midge inside it.
These two words shouldn’t go together – most people like chocolate and loath midges. But if you want chocolate, you’ll have to come to appreciate these particular midges because without them you wouldn’t have your favorite chocolate treat. This midge is the only pollinator of the cacao plant, from which we get our chocolate. They have come to this special job due to several unique circumstances: The cacao plant cannot self-pollinate, and the flowers of this plant are small (dime-sized), with intricate petals that curl down and overlap each other, creating a maze that most insects cannot enter. Also, the blooms either have no smell or an unpleasant one, so they are not particularly attractive to insects. Added to all that, for a long time the thought was that they did not have provide nectar for insects. But, upon microscopic inspection, they found the nectaries on the stems and at the base of the flowers. Why microscopic nectaries? For the little bitty flies that have made it their business to care for the plant, of course. Chocolate midges do not do well in the large-scale farming situation needed to supply the world’s near-insatiable demand for chocolate, so growers have had to resort to hand-pollination but that is not without its drawbacks. Growers and scientists are working hard to find a solution that can replace or subsidize all the efforts of one little midge. Read more about this cool little insect here.
A brown Honey Possum sitting on an orange flower.
Honey Possums (Tarsipes rostratus)

This adorable Australian creature serves as an important pollinator for a number of native Australian plant species. A mouse-sized marsupial, the Honey Possum does not actually eat honey. Instead, it lives on a diet of nectar and pollen, the only marsupial to do so. These cute little guys need up to 7mL of nectar a day and have long bristly tongues that are perfectly adapted to retrieve what they need from the flowers. They mostly spend their time scampering around in trees with their mouths and bodies dusted with pollen. This foraging behavior works perfectly to spread the pollen of their host plants. Honey Possums live in southwestern Western Australia. Their habitat was much broader at one point, but they’ve lost ground due to wildfires and human encroachment. Luckily, there are dedicated conservationists working to keep this unique species around (read more here). Australia is also home to another super-cute mammalian pollinator – the Sugar Glider. These nocturnal animals have become popular in the exotic pet trade in recent years, but they are not domestic animals and should not be kept in captivity. They should remain in the wild, pollinating like the Honey Possum.

A Snow Pool Mosquito on a Bog Orchid. It has two yellow balls of pollen on his head. Photo by Kylie Riffell.
Snow Pool Mosquitoes (Aedes communis) –

I know – “Mosquitoes? As Pollinators?”, but the answer is “Yes!”. For one thing, mosquitoes don’t live on blood. This is a common misconception, but the fact is that only females draw blood and that is solely for the purpose of enriching their eggs. The males, and non-egg-laying females will take advantage of the nutrition found in flower nectar. A visit to the nectar bar often results in pollen becoming attached and then distributed as the mosquito moves away. This behavior has been fine-tuned in one mosquito species, the Snow Pool Mosquito. These guys are pretty widespread across northern parts of the US and one particular native orchid species relies on them for pollen distribution. The Blunt-Leafed Bog Orchid (aka One Leaved Rein Orchid) is a pretty but unassuming flower that these mosquitoes have chosen to care for. The Snow Pool Mosquito will climb right into the orchid to partake of the nectar found on the floral spur and as it laps it up, pollen becomes attached to its eyes and head. As they move away with their new pollen hats, they look like they have devil horns. Granted, this is a small insect in an obscure environment, but it goes to show that even the heavily demonized mosquito can have an essential wildlife function.

A Blue-Tailed Day Gecko with half its body inside a pink flower.
Many Types of Lizards –

With these small reptiles scampering all over the world, it’s no wonder they get some pollinating done. But how does this work since these animals don’t have specially designed tongues or masses of pollen-capturing fur? Scientists in New Zealand have figured that out- In the course of their daily activities lizards will get tree sap and honeydew from aphids on their bodies. When they climb into a flower for a little sip of delicious nectar, pollen will adhere to the sticky substances. And, since one flower is never enough, the next sip can result in pollen transfer. In Mauritius, the Blue-Tailed Day Gecko is one of the many species of active lizard pollinators. In fact, lizards appear to be important pollinators in many island ecosystems. It is believed that lizards have had to adapt to limited (or declining) food sources on their island homes and so they’ve turned to calorie-rich flower nectar.

A Sumatran bull elephant peering out of the jungle

Sumatran Elephants – ?

Okay, I’m not really sure about this one but it makes for a good story. Some say that jungle elephants in Indonesia help to spread the pollen of the world’s largest flower, the Rafflesia. Extraordinarily large flowers have extraordinarily large pollen and need extraordinarily large pollinators. Or so the story goes. There is even a word for this kind of pollination – Elephophily. If any of this is truly true, it could be part of why these flowers are so very rare. 

A short cartoon of pollinators visiting plants, from which crops grow.
Everything in the natural world serves a purpose and even the smallest of creatures means the world to some other living thing. Humans are the only beings on Earth that don’t seem to appreciate this; let’s help change this.  

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam






Friday, June 18, 2021

Summer Codling Moth Control

A shiny red truck parked under some apple trees with a basket of apples, some flowers and a blanket in back. Photo by Jill Wellington on Pixabay.
Summer has arrived and the pandemic has lifted, so this should be a happy time to be out amongst your trees and looking forward to sharing your bounty. Unless you have Codling Moth worries, that is. And if you’re growing the trees that Codling Moths like, then you most likely have reason to worry.

I wrote about Codling Moth control back in March, when keeping the moths from mating was the main concern. Now that summer’s here and the fruit is plumping up fast, the worry has shifted to worms (aka larvae). Even the most diligent and pro-active of growers who took every precaution in the spring has reason to fret – Codling Moths are just that hard to get rid of.

Codling Moth larva emerging from a green apple.
But don't despair - here at ARBICO we have some exceptional weapons in the war against crawlers. There are always the tried-and-true products, but there have also  been some incredible innovations in the area of  biopesticides in the last 10 years or so. These formulations have proven extraordinarily effective and very consumer friendly. Here’s a rundown of some of the best we have to offer that you can put to work on your trees:

Bacillus Thuringiensis v kurstaki (Btk)

Btk under a microscope
This naturally occurring bacterium can be used to control most Lepidoptera pests and we have several products that work well against Codling Moth larvae. Btk insecticides are meant to be sprayed on the plant, where the pest insect will ingest it as part of their feeding behavior. Once ingested, the Btk bacterium will produce a toxin that disrupts the digestive system of the insect and causes it to stop feeding. The insect will die shortly thereafter. This process is extremely effective in controlling caterpillars (larvae), but the beauty of using Btk is that it is species specific and will only affect targeted pests. It not harm birds, bees, beneficials, or any other living organisms, so you can use it freely without worry. We have several Btk products that are labeled for Codling Moth in many formulations (Ready-to-Use sprays, Ready-to-Spray hose-end sprays, concentrates, and a flowable powder). You should be able to find the formula and price that fits your needs and budget. Check them all out here.

Isaria fumosorosea Apopka Strain 97 -

Isaria fumosorosea  hyphal growth

This is another naturally occurring microorganism, but in this case it’s an entomopathogenic fungus and not a bacterium. Spores of this fungus will grow on and spread through plant surfaces and soil. When it encounters a targeted pest,the spores will attach to the pest, enter its body and begin growing inside it. When the pest ultimately dies, the fungus will emerge as part of the decomposition process and continue to release spores and spread infection to the nearest host. In this way, the dead and dying pests continuously propagate the fungus. Like Btk, this biofungicide only works on specific pests and has limited effect on beneficials. We carry PFR-9720% WDG, an OMRI-listed, wettable granular product that can be applied in a variety of ways and combined with most fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and beneficial arthropods.

Cydia pomonella granulovirus (CpGV) -

Cydia pomonella granulovirus under a microscope.In many ways, this is the star of these biopesticides. This baculovirus infects and kills only the larvae of the codling moth. Sold as an aqueous suspension biological insecticide called CYD-X HP, this product offers extremely effective targeted biological control. The baculovirus particles in this product are naturally encapsulated within a protein occlusion body (OB) and, like the spores in PFR-97 20% WDG, they must be ingested to take effect. Once the OBs are taken in, they will release the virus into the pest’s body and it’s only a matter of time before death occurs. The virus will replicate itself inside the body and decomposition will release billions of new viral OBs into the world. They will then spread by rain, or gravity, or larval movement and infect any larvae they find in an ongoing cycle of infection. CYD-X HP contains 1 trillion OBs and only 1-2 OBs are needed for a lethal infection, so this is some powerful stuff. Numerous scholarly articles and popular websites have touted this as a game-changer for growers since it was first appeared on the scene 15 years ago and after you do a little research I think you’ll see why. This is not a cheap product ($165.99 for 6 oz.), but a little goes a long way (½ - 3 fl. oz. per acre) and it is worth every penny if it gives you piece of mind.

A weird animated apple person with a worm coming out of its head.
 Any one of these products should go a long way in alleviating most Codling Moth problems, but it is always best to hedge your bets and implement more than on method of control. Please refer to our Codling Moth Control page for ideas and product suggestions to get you through the summer.

Take Care.
Submitted by Pam




Monday, June 7, 2021

What's This Bug? The Cicada Killer Wasp.

An Eastern Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus) on some rocks.
If you are in certain parts of the US, I don’t have to tell you about the Brood X (Magicicada cassinii) cicada infestation that is currently happening – you’ve seen and heard it by now. With billions of insects emerging and their mating songs reaching up to 100 decibels, there’s just no missing this natural phenomenon. With all the attention that these loud, lovelorn insects are getting, this seems like a good time to introduce to both the cicada-addled and cicada-ignorant to a fascinating creature known as the Cicada Killer Wasp.

Close-up of the face of a Cicada Killer Wasp
There are five native species of Cicada Killer Wasps in the Americas (Sphecius spp), with the most widespread being the Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus). But, before I go any further I want to clarify something about these insects: Yes, they prey on cicadas. But, no, they will not help put an end to the cicada invasion happening right now. The reason for this is simple: Cicada Killer Wasps emerge in July and August to coincide with the hatching of their only prey, the annual-cycle cicadas. By that point in the summer, the Magicicada cassinii cicadas have completed their 5–6-week life span. But this does not mean that there is never an overlap and, if there is, Cicada Killer Wasps will happily prey on any Magicicada cassinii stragglers they come across.

A close-up of a female Cicada Killer Wasp holding a paralyzed Cicada.
Cicada Killer Wasps are similar to other predatory wasps in that they parasitize insect prey to use as food for their larvae. As soon as the females emerge and mate, they get right to work digging burrows for their forthcoming offspring; they can construct an impressive underground system within a few hours. Once that task is complete, they go in search of a cicada. When the hapless cicada is located, the female will paralyze it with a sting (which causes it to emit a particularly loud and screeching buzz) and drags it back to her burrow. This part can take quite a bit of work, as the unresponsive cicadas are much bigger than the wasp and quite unwieldy. When she eventually gets the cicada home, she places an egg under one of its arms and closes up the burrow and creates what is now a cicada tomb and wasp hatchery. The egg will hatch a few days later and begin to feed on the cicada, taking care it keep it alive and fresh as long as possible. Once the cicada is used up, the larvae will make a cocoon over everything and overwinter in their burrow. Adults will have fulfilled their reproductive purpose and be gone by mid-September. To see how these wasps handle cicadas, check out this video.

A female digging a burrow alongside some  pavement
Female busily burrowing
These wasps provide an especially gruesome end for cicadas, but they are harmless to other insects and humans. Adult Cicada Killer Wasps are docile and solitary and survive on flower nectar and sap. The males can get territorial and may dive at a person that gets too close to what they see as their spot, but since they have no stingers they can’t do anything to you. Many people take offense at the burrowing habits of these wasps and want to get rid of them, but their benefits as small-time pollinators and in keeping the cicada population (who can damage trees and plants) down far outweighs the way they displace dirt.

From left: Cicada Killer, Asian Giant Hornet, Southern Yellowjacket & Pigeon Horntail
The biggest problem for Cicada Killer Wasps is their size (up to 2”), which is scary for many people, and the fact that they are mistaken for Murder Hornets (Asian Giant Hornets) and other dangerous stinging wasps. The media has really latched onto the Murder Hornet thing and now people everywhere are fearful of them, but the reality is they are still only located in a small area in the Pacific Northwest. For the most part, what people are reporting as the bogey-man wasp are gentle native Cicada Killer Wasps, because the latter looks a great deal like the former. Which leads to senseless demonization and destruction of an innocent species and a lot of needless, frantic calls to the authorities. The problem has gotten bad enough that scientists in Texas are producing public service messages in an effort to slow the confusion. 
A cartoon wasp buzzing around.

While you are out there this summer listening to the deafening sound of billions of cicada calls or the soothing chirp of a few, keep an eye out for a particular black and yellow wasp. For her, those sounds are the dinner bell for her children.

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Flies – Know Your Enemy

In America, Memorial Day is the traditional start of summer and now that that has passed, we are in it for real. If you spent time outdoors over the long weekend (and most Americans did), you undoubtedly encountered some flies. After all, according to this article, there are 17 million flies for each human being and there are nearly eight billion people on the planet (you do the math, it’s a lot). Not only are their sheer numbers staggering, the variety is as well – there are at least 120,000 species of flies. Since flies first appeared over 200 million years ago, this is an insect that has clearly excelled in evolution and adaption. All of this means that these fliers will definitely be out where you want to be this summer and shielding yourself from their annoying habits and the potential health risks they carry can be challenging. But, as with many things in life, knowledge is power and if you know what types of flies you are dealing with, developing a successful fly control program is within your reach.

House Fly (Musca domestica) -  

Close up of a common house fly (Musca domestica). House Flies have big red eyes, translucent wings, and are grayish-brown with four large stripes running parallel down their bodies. .

House Flies have big red eyes, translucent wings, and are grayish-brown with four large stripes running parallel down their bodies. 

By a large margin, the most common fly is the good ole House Fly. We are all very familiar with these irritating and disease-causing insects; they are a constant in all our lives. House Flies are known as “filth flies” because they feed and reproduce on rotting organic matter, manure and other smelly things. The majority of fly control methods out there work well against them (although none of them get rid of flies completely). These controls include parasitic wasps (ARBICO’s Fly Eliminators®),  smelly liquid traps, sticky traps, and sprays like Essentria IC-3. The downside is that there just so many of them that more keep coming (and humans and their pets keep making new messes for them). In one important way it’s to our advantage that their numbers are large – house flies are second in importance to bees as pollinators and are the primary pollinator for many plants. In the recent past, house flies have made their debut in Antarctica and their story there is yet another climate change cautionary tale (read about it here).With as many house flies as there are, we can be grateful that at least they don’t bite.

Stable Fly (Stomoxys calcitrans) – 

Stable Fly (Stomoxys calcitrans).Stable flies have seven spots in a checkerboard pattern on their abdomen and long, needle-like mouthparts that project forward.
Stable flies have seven spots in a checkerboard pattern on their abdomen and long, needle-like mouthparts that project forward. 

Stable Flies are another filth-breeding fly species. However, unlike house flies that feed on decaying  and sugary organic matter, both male and female stable flies feed on blood. The image above shows a female stable fly engorged with blood. You can clearly see the long, straw-like proboscis she uses to suck up the blood. Stable flies do not generally feed on people (they are livestock lovers), but they will grab a human snack if their preferred hosts are unavailable. These flies are sometimes called Dog Flies because they’ll gather mercilessly around our beloved canines. Stable flies rest in vegetation, so they can be easily stirred up by lawn activities like mowing. This is a fly that can find you even if you live far away from any livestock. They have been known to travel more than 100 miles on their own and, occasionally large numbers of them are picked up by the wind and deposited great distances away in a sudden swarm for that area. Because they are filth flies, the same fly control methods used on house flies can be used on stable flies, but the success rate is not always as good as with house flies. The surest route to acceptable control would be to use the Fly Eliminators, sticky traps and sprays, and add a Bite Free Stable Fly Trap or a Biting Fly Trap.

Horse Fly (Tapadinae) – 

Horse Fly (Tapadinae). Horse Flies are short-bodied, but stout, and are brown, black or yellow. They usually have black splotches or patterns on their wings and stripes on their abdomens. These biting flies have protuberant mouth parts and very large, psychedelic eyes. This is a Greenhead Horse Fly, one of the largest species (can be over 1/2").
Horse Flies are short-bodied, but stout, and are brown, black or yellow. They usually have black splotches or patterns on their wings and stripes on their abdomens. These biting flies have protuberant mouth parts and very large, psychedelic eyes. This is a Greenhead Horse Fly, one of the largest species (can be over 1/2").

Horse flies, like stable flies, are biting flies that seek out mammalian blood. In the horse fly world, however, only the females drink blood (she needs a blood meal to form viable eggs); the males live on pollen and nectar for their short lives. Horse fly bites are especially nasty, as they don’t just break the skin – they cut into the skin with scalpel-like mouth parts, spit into the wound to keep it from coagulating, and feed as long as they can (here’s a video of a female feeding). The extravagant eyes of horse flies can help to distinguish between males and females; males have eyes that wrap-around while a female’s eyes are separated. Horse fly eyes are really beautiful, as are many eyes in the fly world. Check out this article for some truly stunning examples. Horse flies are another fly that can, and will, travel great distances for the blood they need. Don't discount their presence in your yard if there are no horses nearby, they do not need horses to survive and reproduce – just mammal blood. Horse flies are notoriously difficult to control, partly because they bred in watery natural habitats where larval control would be either illegal or unethical. Use everything in your arsenal to keep these suckers at bay - keep areas dried out when possible, use sticky traps generously, douse yourself and your animals in repellents and use traps specifically designed for horse flies  (Epps Biting Fly Trap® or the Biting Fly Trap). 

A picture showing 21 different kinds of flies, from Cluster Fly to Tsetse Fly.
I have chosen to discuss these three flies as they are the ones that you will most likely come across and all have the potential to spread disease.  But, as shown in this image on the left, there are many more flies out there. Most of these flies are not a threat to you or your summer fun and will live out their lives in a few days. I encourage you to take a little time to know and appreciate the benign ones and to protect yourself from the potentially dangerous ones. I also encourage you to check out our full line of earth-friendly fly control.

Keep the fly swatter handy this summer!

A gif of a human face with wings morphing into a fly.
Submitted by Pam

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