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Friday, November 30, 2012

A Plague of Grasshoppers on Figueroa?

Recently, our garden staff has been finding LOADS of grasshoppers, but what are they all doing here? Are grasshoppers good for our gardens, or are they destructive like the plague of locusts (a swarming variety of grasshoppers in the family Acrididae) that appear in the Bible?

On November 14, I snapped a decent picture of a grasshopper hanging out on a pitcher sage plant, Lepechinia fragrans. I thought I'd have a crack at identifying it, and hoped that, through the process, I'd be able to figure out what exactly they're doing in the garden.

Not a bad picture for my camera phone!

Armed with a trusty book, the Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States, I began my quest. It was a long and arduous quest, seriously! I spent almost an hour (okay, I know, I'm prone to hyperbole) going through the pictoral key, comparing my photo with the beautifully drawn pictures, and then cross-referencing with the species accounts, and range maps (they really helped me eliminate quite a few species straight away). Alas, it was all to no avail!

Not to be outdone by a "lowly" grasshopper (am I a dork because I couldn't write lowly without quotes? I don't want the grasshopper to feel bad), I turned to the INTERNET! to be exact. I submitted the above picture to their ID request section on November 20, at 11:55am. Eight days, 10 hours, and 17 minutes later, the quest was over. Thanks to David J. Ferguson for the species identification, and a shout out to my homie Eric R. Eaton for helping too! This is a female Melanoplus yarrowii grasshopper, a.k.a. Yarrow's spur-throated grasshopper.

Okay, so now I had an identification. "So what," you may ask? Well, first and foremost, I felt vindicated. This species wasn't even in the field guide I was using, no wonder I couldn't ID it! Secondly, now that I knew the name, I could find out what this bug was all about.

What I discovered is that this grasshopper is indeed very closely related to the plaguing locusts of yore. I also found out that, in the late 1860s, we had our very own plague of grasshoppers right here in Los Angeles, and it lasted on and off for almost three years. According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology, the grasshoppers responsible for the plague was most likely Melanoplus devastator, though there aren't any actual specimens for us to examine to be sure. Whatever the exact species, these grasshoppers were apparently pretty devastating.

"When they had devoured all vegetation where they originated, they took flight and, flying with the wind moved in great clouds towards the east like the locusts of Egypt, devouring everything in their course. When the destroying hosts reached the Calle de Las Chapules, the vinatero knew his grape crop for that season was doomed. The voracious hopper would not leave a green leaf on his vines, and the vineyardist considered himself fortunate if the destroying host did not devour the bark as well as the leaves." That's JM Guinn, author of The Plan of Old Los Angeles and the Story of its Highways and Byways.¹ The Calle de Las Chapules he is referring to is the former name of part of what is today Figueroa Street. That's right, it was called Grasshopper Street. Next time you're stuck in traffic on Fig, just imagine a massive swarm of grasshoppers descending on your car, I assure you, it will take away any road rage you might have!

Thankfully, the Yarrow's grasshopper I found is not of the swarming locust variety. It does feed on plants, and is likely chowing down on various shoots and leaves out there in our garden. As far as the gardeners can tell me though, they're not causing much damage. So we're leaving them there to live another day, eat some more leaves, lay a few eggs, pose for a few more pictures, and maybe a few of them will become lunch for a hungry bird!

¹ From the Historical Society of Southern California's Annual Publication Volume 3, 1893-96.

*Special thanks to Margaret Hardin, Curator of Anthropology for information on our Los Angeles grasshopper plague; Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology for identification of said grasshopper, and to Jonathan Gillet, Gallery Interpreter, for giving me the lead to the L.A. plague story!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving for the Butter-butt (but not the Butterballs)!

Hold your horses...give me a moment to clarify this title, I'm talking about birds here! When I say "butter-butt" I'm actually referring to a small grey songbird that has a bright yellow patch on its derrière (yes, this really is what dorky birders like myself call this bird when we're out birding). In particular, I'm talking about the below pictured butter-butt, that narrowly escaped death hence the giving of thanks. In contrast, all those Butterball turkeys won't be giving much thanks. But hey, maybe you'll be inclined to give some on their behalf!
If this bird had a speech bubble, what would it be saying?

This is what Museum bird expert, Kimball Garrett, has to say about butter-butts, a.k.a. Yellow-rumped warblers:

"There’s hardly a surer sign of the approach of winter in the Los Angeles Region than the arrival en masse of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) throughout our lowlands in October. These hyperactive 12 gram songbirds breed widely in conifer forests of North America, and migrate in immense numbers to the southern United States (with some continuing as far south as Central America). In our area birds of the western 'Audubon’s' subspecies predominate. One secret to the success of this species is its generalized diet. Our fall and winter birds glean insects from vegetation or the ground, but also sally into the air to catch flying insects; they’ll also take nectar from a variety of flowers (winter-flowering eucalypts are especially preferred) and take their share of small berries as well. You’ll recognize Yellow-rumped Warblers by the eponymous color patch, as well as other yellow patches on the throat, the sides, and (usually hidden) the center of the crown, and white flashes at the corners of the tail. Grayish overall in their relatively subdued basic (“winter”) plumage, males don a brighter black, yellow and white plumage for the breeding season.

Mortality in most small migratory songbirds of temperate regions is astonishingly high over the first year often approaching or exceeding 75%. In urban areas, collisions with human-built structures is an important cause of mortality, with glass windows accounting for a large proportion of these deaths. Some scientists have estimated that up to a billion birds are killed each year in the USA alone by such collisions. The hapless Yellow-rumped Warbler that hit a window by the Dinosaur Hall is, unfortunately, hardly alone."

Hapless as this butter-butt may have been, it was one of the lucky ones, it revived and flew away some hours later. I wonder where it is now, how many insects and small berriers it has eaten since, and if it's learned to stay away from windows? Although, you won't be eating any insects (at least not knowingly) at your Thanksgiving feast, and you probably aren't rejoicing in life after narrowly esaping death-by-window, you probably have a lot of other reasons to give thanks. Go give 'em!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Massive Black Fly aka Mexican Cactus Fly

Earlier this week I was outside being interviewed about Entomophagy, the practice of eating bugs. While they were setting up the camera and sound equipment I took a few moments to see what insects were visiting the bright yellow flowers on the bush I was standing next to. Among the usual honeybees, I saw a massive black fly. This fly was huge (3/4 of an inch in length) and really stood out against the yellow flowers.

It was a Mexican cactus fly, Copestylum mexicanum, feeding on nectar, and this was the first time I had seen them around the Museum!

Here's what Flower Flies of Los Angeles County book has to say about them:
"This is the largest flower fly in Southern California, with a body length of 18mm. It gets its name from the larvae that feed in wet decaying prickly pear cactus. Adults are commonly seen feeding on flowers. Although it resembles some carpenter bees this species looks more like a large horse fly. The Mexican cactus fly is found from the southern USA to Central America, but related cactus-feeding flower flies are found in Mexico and South America. Many other species of the large genus Copestylum are found in our area. None of them resemble the cactus fly; instead they mimic bees and other stinging insects. All feed on decaying organic matter."

*Thanks to Museum Curator of Entomology, Brian Brown, for identifying the fly!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Hitchikers Guide to Los Angeles

Have you ever jumped in your car and realized there was a bug on your windshield? Not a gross squished one, I mean a living one, ready for a hitchiking adventure. When this happens, you might be like me, and decide to spark up the engine and see how long that sucker can stick around for (never speeding of course)! In my extensive experience, the bugs usually manage to "hang on" for much longer than one would expect. Case in point: This bright green katydida close relative to grasshopperstraveled with Nature Lab project manager, Jennifer Morgan, all the way from Palos Verdes to Pasadena, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph!   

Katy "done" did it right!

For a better idea of what a katydid looks like, here's an image courtesy of What's That Bug:

But why are they called katydids? According to Insects of the Los Angeles Basin, "Katydids are so named because of their supposed participation in a legendary love affair. Involved were two maidens: one was fair, the other (whose name was Kate) was more on the stately side. The masculine corner of the triangle, an anonymous lad, fell in love with the fair one and scorned the passions of Kate. When he mysteriously died, the question was: "Did or didn't the proud Kate do him in?" The insect lives today as the deceased's spirit, continually proclaiming the answer each summer night "Kate-she-did," or the variation "Katy-did.""   

So next time you're standing on a freeway overpass, look at all those cars speeding by and wonder, how many invisible hitchikers are passing by under your very nose? Furthermore, what are the conseqences of such movements? What happens to all those insects that are now 70 miles from their home?