How blue can it be?
We spotted a metallic blue bug, one of nature's most amazing colors, last Sunday.
It was in the Mostly Natives Nursery in Tomales, a Marin County site frequented by many University of California entomologists and staff as they work on their urban bee research and publications. They come by to check out the native plants and the insects.
This blue bug was crawling up and down a Euphorbia (genus Euphorbia, family Euphorbiaceae), an unusual plant in itself because it appears to have green blossoms.
What was this bug?
We asked Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the UC Davis. Kimsey surrounds herself with more than seven million insect specimens, and I swear she can recite the genus and species of everyone of them.
(At least we all think so!)
So, what was this bug?
She and senior museum scientist Steve Heydon initially identified it as a juvenile harlequin bug, family Pentatomidae. Kimsey later said--and confirmed--that it's a bordered plant bug, family Largidae.
How blue can it be?
So you're walking through a sunflower field and you're seeing lots of honey bees foraging on the flowers.
But wait, look over there. Are those beetles?
Melyrid or blister beetles (Melyridae family) and spotted cucumber beetles (family Chrysomelidae) are frequently found on sunflowers.
The spotted cucumber beetle is known as a major agricultural pest, as it eats or damages the leaves of such crops as cucumbers, cotton, soybeans and beans.
Are the melyrid beetles pests of sunflowers? "Yes, in the sense that they are pollen eaters," says Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
However, beetles can also be pollinators. And there's a word for that.
Beetle pollination is called cantharophily. And cantharophily "may be the oldest form of insect pollination," say emeritus professors Penny Gullan and Peter Cranston of the Department of Entomology, University of California, Davis, in their textbook, The Insects, an Outline of Entomology.
As they point out in their book: "Beetles mostly visit flowers for pollen, although nutritive tissue or easily accessible nectar may be utilized and the plant's ovaries usually are well-protected from the biting mouthparts of their pollinators." They mention several families of beetles that can be pollinators--among them Cantharidae (soldier beetles), Cerambycidae (longhorn beetles), and Cleridae (checkered beetles).
And they mention Melyridae, the soft-winged flower beetles, as being pollinators, too.
Cantharophily in the sunflower field.
Oh, the critters we overlook.
If you have flowering artichokes, expect to see honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, leafcutter bees and syrphid flies foraging on them. And a few spiders waiting for dinner.
Don't expect to see a mayfly.
The mayfly habitat is in or around water. Fly fishers use artificial lures that look like mayflies and other aquatic insects.
This tiny mayfly (below) was perched on a flowering artichoke, about 15 feet from our fish pond.
Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis, says it's from the family, Baetidae.
Worldwide, the Baetid family has about 900 described species. The Baetids are unique in that they're among the smallest of the mayflies. In general, adult mayflies have a short lifespan, often living just a day. They're in the order Ephemeroptera (ephemeros is Greek for short-lived, and pteron means wing).
Michael Parrella, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, teaches "Entomology for the Fly-Fisher" every spring quarter. The course focus: "insect life in the aquatic ecosystem; methods and mechanics of fly fishing; what you need to know to match the hatch; and enhancing the fly-fishing experience for the novice and experienced angler."
Parrella, an avid fly fisherman, taught entomology and fly-fishing classes while on a six-month sabbatical last year in Chile.
Chances are he never encountered a mayfly perched on a flowering artichoke!
Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, surrounds herself with more than seven million insect specimens in the museum, plus a few live ones (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and a rose-haired tarantula) in her "petting zoo."
Kimsey identifies about 800 bugs a year.
"I probably do four to five identifications a day (for the general public) between email, phone, mail and walk-ins; maybe 400 a year--I lose track," she said. “Probably another 400 or so for colleagues in my research groups--tiphiid and chrysidid wasps.”
The most common ID question? “Spiders--brown recluse or not, mostly," she said. Carpenter bees come in a strong second. The male Valley carpenter bee is often mistaken for a "golden bumble bee." (Both are pollinators.)
So when Holly Millener of Oroville, Butte County, spotted a strange-looking bug on her lilies, she posted an image on Facebook with a "what-is-it?" query.
“They’re everywhere,” noted Millener, who lives on Kelly Ridge near Lake Oroville.
The "mystery bug" drew guesses on and off-line. Elderberry bug, boxelder bug, soapberry bug, squash bug, milkweed bug, stink bug...
“I have one that looks kinda like that out here except where the yellow (orange) is, it’s red," answered a friend. "Those keep eating the leaves on my squash."
“I have a female boxelder tree and they are all around my yard,” wrote another. “They are a nuisance.”
A UC Master Gardener proclaimed it a boxelder bug and kindly posted a link to the UC IPM Management Guidelines.
Other Facebook friends differed.
“I believe they are stink bugs.”
“Valley elderberry longhorn beetle?"
“I don’t know, but we had them EVERYWHERE when we lived in Chico and Durham.”
Wait, is there an entomologist in the house?
Kimsey to the rescue.
“This is a largid in the group of insects called bordered plant bugs,” Kimsey said when we emailed her Millener's photo. Family: Largidae. Genus: Largus.
Mystery solved. It's a bordered plant bug, so named because of the characteristic orange border around its shield, directly behind the head and outlining the abdomen.
This insect sucks plant juices. It attacks a wide variety of plants, appearing especially fond of Asteraceae, the sunflower family. It is known to overwinter in cracks and crevices around the home.
By the way, Kimsey's skills at identifying insects drew international attention in a landmark case in which she identified insects and their locale from the radiator of a rental car driven by a 44-year-old murder suspect. The Bakersfield jury ended up convicting the defendant, a former vice principal, of five counts of first-degree murder in the July 2003 shooting and stabbing deaths of his estranged wife, three children and mother-in-law.
Kimsey knows her bugs.
It boasts striking colors, but you don't want this bug anywhere near your garden.
This is a harlequin bug, Murgantia histronica, as identified by Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis.
What it does is suck the juices out of your cabbage, cauliflower, collards, mustard, Brussels sprouts, turnip, kohlrabi, radish and other crucifers. You might also find it on your tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, okra, beans, asparagus and beets. And on fruit trees, fruit crops and weeds, plant scientists say.
We saw scores of these harlequin bugs last weekend in a weed patch bordering the Benicia Marina.
They belong to the stink bug family (Pentatomidae) and like the sting bugs, these harlequin bugs could be coming to a garden near you.