Friday, May 26, 2017

A Kissing Bug - The Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose

An Eastern Bloodsucking Conenose - a Kissing Bug - found during the Arlington Bioblitz

     Among the neat finds made during the first ever Arlington Bioblitz in 2017 was made by one of our distinguished experts: former Smithsonian entomologist Warren Steiner. I've had the honor to be in the field several times with Warren, and he always makes some fascinating observations and discoveries. But they're usually in his specialty of beetles. This time around it was a true bug.
     Not just any bug mind you, but one with which I've had an interesting past with. He found what is known as Triatoma sanguisuga, formally called the Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose. But I knew it by another name when I first encountered it. My encounter happened several years ago in El Salvador.
     Since my wife's family is from El Salvador (she was born in Honduras however), I was on one of my extended visits. As her family lives in a very humble setting without a lot of the things such as running water one is often accustomed to, you do without a few creature comforts. You also are living among the chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and other regular household creatures who often share your hand-carved habitation. This also includes mosquitoes and other insects.
     The custom is then to use mosquito netting and run a fan. I had taken the normal precautions, but they did not deter a night time visitor, one that went under the mosquitero. I woke the next morning with the customary roosters calling, but with a greatly swollen lip. In fact, it was stiff as cardboard and even affected my speech. I had been "kissed" by a kissing bug!
     Kissing bugs are assassin bugs who have specialized their diet to include blood meals. There are various species throughout the Americas, including the Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose who it is believed ranges throughout the Americas. They in fact need a blood meal in order to lay eggs.
     Normally this is obtained from small mammals, but they will not pass up any blood meal they can, including humans. They are sometimes called Mexican Bedbugs. They often are attracted to moisture, such as from the edges of your lips, thus their common moniker of "kissing bugs."
     The one I encountered had decided to kiss me in my sleep. At the moment it happens, I can attest, you do not feel a thing. But later on you can get some sometimes serious reactions. Some folks get an allergic reaction. I was lucky it seems to just get a fat lip. But the most feared reaction is if you get infected with the incurable Chagas' disease.
     My own family is from Peru, where as in other parts of South America, it is possible to get infected by Chagas', something I was well aware of. So while every one else found a lot of humor in my huge cardboard-like lip and speech impediment, I was a bit concerned. Luckily for me, the South American kissing bugs are much more likely to infect you with the protozoa Trypanosoma cruzi which causes the illness.This is due to their feeding habit, where they often defecate onto the wound which increases the odds of transmission. The Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose does not do so and so has a much less chance of transmission. Lucky for me, as I just had to deal with the disfigured lip for the whole day, but the joking continued for much longer.
     So I was very surprised when Warren relayed that he had found one during the Bioblitz, showing it to me in a cup. I really had thought they were a Latin American thing. Instead they are more widespread, though more common in the South. It may very well have been the same species who snuck into bed with me to steal a kiss. I never thought I'd find another one around here, or that I'd kiss and tell...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Periodical Cicadas Early Emergence

A Periodical Cicada perched

     So the calls and emails have all been coming in. Some people happy and fascinated, others much more fearful, as they think that a great plague is about to strike. The emergence of dozens of cicadas has many people wondering what's going on. Some are aware of Periodical Cicadas, sometimes called locust in a reference to biblical invasions of insects, others are not. 
     Indeed, we are in the midst of an emergence of Periodical Cicadas, but not the natural phenomenon of a great cicada year. The Big One is not due until 2021. Cicadas are insects known for the loud songs of the males. While we have numerous species of annual cicadas that come out every year during summer (many of which take more than one year to mature, but they're staggered in breeding so some are out every year), Periodical Cicada are much different. 
     Periodical Cicadas (Magicicada species) emerge in huge numbers in late spring, generally on 13 and 17 year cycles. There are 7 Magicicada species, of which 3 are local to the DC area. They generally time themselves so they come out in gigantic numbers, thus the reference to biblical plagues of locust and their alternate name. By all coming out (and earlier in the season before predators like Cicada Killer wasps are active) at one time in such huge numbers, they make it impossible for all of them to be eaten. Though a favorite food, they just are too many to all get eaten. Since they come out after such an extended period of years underground, no single predator has adapted to feed on them exclusively. They just overwhelm all the potential hazards, so though thousands die, millions make it. 
     Since their emergence is synchronized over different regions, people have divided these regional  cycles into Broods. There were 23 different Broods recognized at one time, but some have gone extinct. The DC area is part of Brood X. 
     Periodical Cicadas spend the vast majority of their lives underground, usually either 13 or 17 years. The larvae feed for years on the roots of trees for the most part, sucking what they need to survive from them, molting into bigger larvae every year. Though that many feeding would seem to damage the trees, they rarely cause any real damage in this stage. Eventually their internal clocks go off, usually after the ground 8 inches down reaches 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunnier areas thus have them emerge before shadier ones. 
     The larvae (referred to as nymphs) somehow time their climb out of their burrows for the same year (mostly). Some get to the surface before others, but many may just wait until the rest are ready and stay underground, though their burrow entrances of pushed up soil, called turrets, may become noticeable.

Exit holes and a shed skin

     Those that are ready to emerge often wait until just after dark and then climb the nearest thing around them. This is usually a tree, but tall plants and even walls are fair game. They often have better success obviously on less slick surfaces such as rough barked trees. The nymphs climb until they get some altitude and find a good place they can grasp firmly. They then undergo the final molting of their exoskeletons of their lives.

A cicada partially exiting its old skin

     The skin (exoskeleton) splits along the back and slowly a white-colored, very soft-bodied adult cicada crawls out the back. Although the initial separation from the old nymph skin may only take a few minutes (though can take much longer too), the soft adult will cling, often by its abdomen, until its legs and rest of the body hardens and darkens enough to protect and carry its weight. This usually happens by the next morning. It then joins others of its kind, eventually forming massive choruses of males calling for females. Here's a video showing a cicada undergoing its final molt: 

A cicada starts to spread its wings and dry off as it is close to completing its final molt

     After mating, the females insert their rice-like eggs into twigs, preferring ones about the thickness of a pencil. If enough cicadas lay their eggs on a sapling, it can really hurt the young tree. On older trees it often just results in pruning of smaller branches. The small branches and leaves that die off, sometimes even breaking and hanging downwards, is referred to as "flagging." The eggs hatch and the young either fall to the ground or crawl out of the fallen branches until they find some tasty tree roots to feed on, feeding like this for the next 13-17 years. Both young and to a lesser extent adults feed by sucking plant juices, which is typical of this group of insects called Hemiptera. This cycle then repeats itself. 

The damage caused by the cicada inserting its eggs into a twig.

     That's what's supposed to happen and the vast majority of the time does happen. But there are exceptions. Sometimes periodical cicadas emerge either earlier or later, up to 4 years either way. These are referred to as stragglers. This has been recorded as happening since the early 1800's, so is nothing new. 
     The speeding up of development is called acceleration. It is often connected to weather and climatic changes. So for example, multiple hot and cold weather patterns may trick some into thinking it's passed multiple years and come out early. This is what may be happening locally now. Regardless why, we are having an early emergence in some local populations throughout the DC area. 
     So it may seem as though we have tons out now, but they're a very small percentage of the overall brood. Wait until we see the true appearance of Brood X in 2021! Sometimes when enough periodical cicadas emerge earlier (and plus or minus 4 years seems to be the most commonly occurring stragglers), it is believed that new broods may start. But it would take quite a few to emerge and then somehow survive so many years to start a new brood, at least in theory.
     No matter how many emerge, Periodical Cicadas are a favorite food of just about anything. You'll see birds gorging themselves on them, and this may well lead to many more nestling survivors in these times of plenty. Squirrels and other animals that normally don't regularly eat insects may now be seen stuffing themselves and their young with this fantastic food supply. I've even seen copperhead snakes feast on them.
     And animals aren't the only ones. In many cultures, including several Native American Indian tribes, people also feed on cicadas. In some cultures their names translate to "shrimp from land." They are low in fat, high in protein, and quite nutritious. Being arthropods like shellfish, those with that sort of food allergies may want to think twice, but it's not a big deal for others. Having said that, remember that they've been eating off the roots of trees for up to 17 years and so have absorbed in some cases what the trees have been exposed to. This could be mercury or pesticides, but in most cases, they are more than safe to eat. Indeed I always eat them when they emerge in huge numbers. While better fried with butter (and much more shellfish-like), you can also just eat them raw. They are best when they're soft-shelled, white and recently transformed. Otherwise you will have the extra crunch to contend with once they harden and darken as adults. Cicadas have a nutty taste to them. If you don't believe me, try them yourself. Or perhaps you can just be satisfied watch me eat one:

Eating a 17 Year Locust back in 2004

     So what we have now are stragglers from Brood X. I for one really look forward to this fantastic natural phenomenon which is rarely observed in the world, something that reminded people of the stories of insect plagues. For me though this is just a glimpse into the wonderful world of nature for which we have to wait so many years to witness again!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Wild Rice Restoration

A small stand of Wild Rice.

     Wild Rice (Zizania spp.) has long been greatly valued as a food plant by both man and wildlife. Although now usually considered a gourmet delicacy, it once was a staple in the diets of Native American Indian peoples, indeed the most important food for some tribes. While there are three species native to North America, here in the DC area, Zizania aquatica is the Wild Rice we had growing naturally.
     Wild Rice is a tall annual plant in the Poaceae (Grass) Family. It grows in wetlands, usually in slow moving, fresh-brackish tidal waters. Growing in the water, it can still stand 10' tall. It was once a major component of some of our wetlands and rivers. It has since however disappeared from many of the places it was once common, including in Arlington County, Virginia. This is very unfortunate because of its value to both man and wildlife.
     The number of Native American Indian tribes making use of it is incredible. Locally, Captain Smith (of Pocahontas and the founding of Jamestown fame) made note of how common it was and its use by the Algonquian-speaking tribes he encountered, including the tribes making up the Powhatan. He stated that "this they use for dainty bread buttered with dear suet."
     But wildlife of course has been depending on Wild Rice for countless generations. It remains, where it is still found, one of the most important seasonal foods for waterfowl and many other wetland birds. It also provides excellent cover and nesting shelter for them, as well as a host of reptiles, amphibians, fish, mammals, and insects, including as a food plant for at least 5 species of caterpillar. So its disappearance from our local waterways was a major setback for wildlife.
     This is one reason that several local jurisdictions have made efforts to restore Wild Rice back to their wetlands, including Arlington. So last September of 2016, crews from various jurisdictions and environmental groups traveled to Jug Bay Wetlands in Maryland to collect seed to hopefully return this valuable plant to its historical range. Interestingly, Wild Rice had been at low numbers at Jug Bay as well, but had been successfully recovered. 
     Jug Bay's experience restoring it provided valuable lessons to the rest of us who wanted equally successful results in our own parks. Here's a short video documenting some of our rice collecting efforts. Please turn up the volume however, as the GoPro used in recording it was waterproof sealed and thus the sound is a bit muffled:    

Wild Rice, some bagged a week or so earlier so less ripened rice would fall into the water and not be able to be collected. Only a small percentage of the overall rice was bagged for collection, leaving always enough for regeneration and wildlife food. 

A seed head of ripe Wild Rice, bagged and ready to harvest. Note all the empty stems around it which have already released their ripe Wild Rice into the marsh.

Quite a few bags were collected, ready for cleaning, and shows you the great amount of food produced for wildlife, the results of its successful recovery at Jug Bay.

Wild Rice ready to be stored for cold stratification all winter.

     After the successful collecting trip, the Wild Rice was cleaned so just seed was preserved. This was stored in water in a refrigerator. This cold stratification process, while keeping it moist, is essential in getting it to germinate the following spring. The water is changed periodically during the winter storage (it's some really smelly water...) until later when it can be sowed. For Arlington, the original planting site along Four Mile Run where the stream restoration process in partnership with Alexandria was taking place, was not yet completed on the County side. This resulted in us making arrangements with our colleagues in the National Park Service to find suitable habitat that was within Arlington, but owned by the Service. This location, where Wild Rice historically grew, was Roaches Run.
     So after agreeing to help plant some on the Alexandria side together, staff from the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, and the National Park Service (with lots of advice from our friends at the Anacostia Watershed Society), all got together to help each other plant the Wild Rice at Roaches Run. This sort of inter agency partnership and sharing of resources happens all the time, allowing us to share knowledge, staff, and other resources to further all our conservation missions. What follows is a short account of how the Wild Rice was sowed, using mud balls and team work. Please disregard how windy it was that day:

A Wild Rice mud ball ready to be launched into the water at low tide. Note the rice seeds.

     Since this was our first attempt and this plant is an annual, this teamwork will have to be repeated until the rice takes hold. It is our hopes though that we can be successful in restoring huge Wild Rice stands along the tidal Potomac River in our area. This was just the first step in returning this species (and only one of many plants and animals we hope will also be recolonized) back to its historic haunts where it played such a vital role, but we all have to take first steps before we can run. In the future, we hope the natural landscape and all it supports will once again be there for future generations of people and wildlife to enjoy.

Wild Rice grains.