Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Ambush Bugs: Hidden Dangers for Pollinators

During an evening stroll in the backyard garden, with a big show of fireflies soon to come, we were admiring a common milkweed's blooms--like frozen fireworks at lawn's edge--when my friend spotted a honeybee on one of the flowers.

Isn't this the way it's supposed to be? You plant native wildflowers and the pollinators show up to feed ever so gratefully. But something didn't look quite right to me. The honeybee wasn't moving. 

Maybe it was memories of blog posts ten years ago--written after standing for hours gazing at the extraordinarily diverse community of insects and spiders drawn to boneset flowers--that caused me to take a closer look at that motionless honey bee. 

There, beautifully, mischievously, mercilessly camouflaged, hiding between the milkweed flowers, were two pairs of ambush bugs, mottled brown, black and white. The smaller of each pair sat atop the larger, apparently mating. Life is short for an insect, so it seems perfectly practical that one of the females, needing nourishment for whatever eggs come of the mating, had chosen that moment to snag the honeybee whose bad luck it was to visit those particular flowers.

Later, I returned to try for a better photo of the ambush bug and its mate.

By then, they had consumed what they wanted of the bee, dropping the remains to land ever so lightly on a leaf, one story down in the tower of milkweed.

Afternote: One could probably spend a lifetime exploring the mechanisms behind the camouflage of an ambush bug, as this quote from the Missouri Department of Conservation website shows:
"The colors of ambush bugs are worth mentioning. They can vary quite a bit within a single species. Most are gold, yellow, leaf-green, tan, brown, or white, often with dark mottled patches or bands. Apparently males are often darker or more spotted than females. It’s not clear whether individual ambush bugs change color like chameleons (and some crab spiders) to match the plants they’re resting on, or if they simply move to (or survive on) plants whose colors happen to match their bodies. It could be that they change color with each molt: young individuals, early in the season, being pale green, matching the new foliage of springtime, while older specimens become gold and black in later molts to match the flowers that develop in midsummer. The temperatures during egg stage may also affect the overall darkness of the insects."

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Witnessing a Gypsy Moth Outbreak Along the Appalachian Trail

I wasn't expecting to run into an outbreak of gypsy moths in New Jersey earlier this week. The aim of driving up to the Stokes State Forest near Delaware Water Gap was to drop off my younger daughter Anna so she could resume her thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. 

After a couple day visit at home, Anna was eager to continue her journey northward towards Maine. When we reached Sunrise Mountain Overpass, she asked if I wanted to hike along with her for a bit. 

It was as if she had invited me into her home, which the AT has been since she began in Georgia back in late February--more than 1000 miles thus far. Everything she needs is in her backpack--designed to be lightweight but still very substantial--as she hikes up and down mountain after mountain, rain or sunshine, cold or hot, following America's verdant eastern spine through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and now just the northwestern tip of NJ before heading into New York state. 

Most of the inspiring vistas she sees along the way are not tempered with a warning about venomous snakes, like this one at the parking lot. New Jersey is unusual in having venemous snakes in the north and south of the state, but not where we live in central Jersey. As for black bears, over three months she has seen only one and heard another. Though she started the hike on her own, there's now a group of companions with whom she camps each night.

As we hiked the rocky trail, we had to look mostly down to avoid the stones, stealing glances at the high quality woodland, free from invasive plants except for an occasional garlic mustard. We soon became aware, however, of an odd noise that sounded like a light sprinkle, despite the clear sky. When I turned back, leaving Anna to head north on her many steps towards Maine, I started taking a closer look at the leaves of oak, sassafras, and maple above. The well-munched leaves were surely a very generous giving of tissue by the trees to the local insect population. 

But what was that sound of rain with no rainclouds in sight? And why was the ground littered with fragments of green leaves? Whatever was eating the trees was being messy about it. 

Then I felt something very light fall on my head. I brushed it onto my hand, gave it a good look, and decided to call it frass, that is, caterpillar droppings. 

On the ground all around, the leaf litter had been in turn littered with this frass, raining down from far above.

Though most of the caterpillars remained unseen high in the canopy, a few were close enough at hand to get a photo. 

Back home, searching the internet, the caterpillar's identity quickly became apparent: gypsy moth, also known as Lymantria dispar dispar, and more recently renamed "spongy moth."

One source described exactly our experience along the trail:
"Gypsy moths are invasive insect pests that can be destructive to trees, especially hardwoods like oaks. In May and June, each caterpillar can grow up to two inches long and consume 11 square feet of leaves. Signs of a gypsy moth outbreak include bare tree canopies, droppings that sound like rain, and leaf confetti on the forest floor."
If you haven't heard of gypsy moths, or haven't heard of them in a long time, it's because this highly destructive introduced species is no longer causing widespread havoc in our forests. thanks to the development of a remarkably successful, low-toxicity treatment. 

Imported into Massachusetts from Europe in 1869 with the intent of starting a new silk industry in America, the gypsy moth escaped into the wild and was soon causing dramatic defoliations of forests. Though oaks are a favorite, gypsy moths threaten a broad range of species, including both hardwoods and conifers. One source alphabetically describes its diet this way:
Preferred: Alder, apple, aspen, basswood, birch, hawthorn, oaks, tamarack, willow, witch hazel
Intermediate: Beech, dogwood, elm, hemlock, maple, pine, Prunus species, serviceberry, spruce, walnut
Avoided: Ash, balsam fir, cedar, red & white, locusts, mountain maple, pine, scotch

According to numerous articles found on the Papers of Princeton website, 13 years of intense spraying led to eradication of the gypsy moth in NJ by 1932, but it reappeared in 1953 and by 1955 had again become a serious pest. In 1965, a small area near Mt. Lucas Road in Princeton was sprayed. As defoliation increased statewide through the 1970s, the most common treatment--carbonyl, also known as Sevin--became suspect due to its effect on honeybees. 

Letters to the editor describe heroic citizen efforts to round up and destroy the moths' egg cases. Elizabeth Carrick, chairman of the Woodfield Reservation Committee, described a successful outing by girlscouts in 1972. In 1980, Preston and Helen Tuttle reported on a hand collection campaign in the Institute Woods that included renowned faculty at the Institute for Advanced Studies:

During the past two weekends. 95 individuals, ranging from Girl and Boy Scouts to world-famous mathematicians, took part In all. 8.791 egg cases were collected or immobilized witn a hand held sprayer containing a mixture of creosote, turpentine and transmission fluid This was used to spray those egg masses that were above convenient scraping and collecting reach Egg masses collected the first weekend were given to the state Biological Controls Laboratory to feed gypsy moth predators being developed by the state.
Destruction peaked in 1981, when 12 million acres were affected by defoliation nationwide. The biggest reason we haven't heard much about this hugely destructive pest lately is the utilization of a low-toxicity bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). First mention of it in local papers appears to have been in 1974. Bt is sprayed on foliage in the spring. When eaten by the caterpillars, it disrupts their digestive systems. By 1990, arborist Sam deTuro of Woodwind Associates, who used to have a regular column in the Town Topics, was combining the traditional chemical spray methods with a new formulation of Bt.

Like the many mountains and valleys of the Appalachian Trail, moth numbers have risen and fallen dramatically through the decades. Gypsy moth numbers in NJ reached a relative low in 1988, only to rise 19 fold in 1989. Another peak came in 2008, prompting aerial sprays of Bt in Princeton. 

Numbers have dropped since then, leading many of us to forget about gypsy moths altogether. For that luxury, we have a state government program to thank. The New Jersey Dept. of Agriculture has been running a gypsy moth suppression program at least since 2007. In 2024, they planned to spray 3000 acres of local and state-owned land. The aim is to prevent repeated defoliation of forests. Trees that can survive defoliation one year may not be able to survive defoliation two years in a row. The state description sounds like what governments are supposed to do--work collaboratively to intervene in safe ways to protect us and our environment. LDD stands for the species name, Lymantria dispar dispar.
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture promotes an integrated pest management approach, which encourages natural controls to reduce LDD feeding and subsequent tree loss. However, when LDD cycles are at a peak, natural controls have difficulty in preventing severe defoliation. In these special cases, the Department recommends aerial spray treatments on residential and recreational areas using the selective, non-chemical insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis.

The Department's LDD Suppression Program is a voluntary cooperative program involving New Jersey municipalities, county agencies, state agencies, and the USDA Forest Service.

17 miles down the trail, Anna was still hearing the curious rain of frass all around, Hopefully the state program of gypsy moth suppression will continue to work--an all-too-rare example of successful containment of invasive species threatening our forests.

Below, some sights seen during my short hike on the Appalachian Trail:

Expanses of sedge meadow that can give healthy forests a natural park-like appearance.

The striped maple, Acer pennsylvanicum, is a little tree that grows all along the Appalachian Mountains.

If you hike northward on the AT with the spring, much of your journey will be graced with the blooms of Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, abundant on rocky slopes.