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Where Do Bugs Go in the Winter?

Learn How 5 Insects Try to Survive the Colder Months Each Year

When the temperature begins to drop and fall changes to winter, bears go into hibernation and birds will fly south.

But what about mosquitoes, ants, cockroaches, and other pests? Is it true that we won’t see any until the temperature picks back up?

While many people assume that pests “die off” for the season, that’s actually a misconception. Many pests devise a strategy to make it through the winter.

Find out where these bugs go in the winter to survive the cold temperatures and what you can do to prevent infestations in your home or business throughout the year, not just the winter.

5 Insects & How They Survive the Winter

Ants

Ants can certainly ruin a picnic during the warmer months, but is there a concern for ants in the winter?

In short, yes.

For much of the country, it is uncommon to see ants march through a kitchen during the coldest winter months. However, that doesn’t mean they’ve sought out a warmer climate.

Ants are one of the most successful pests when it comes to surviving outdoors, including the property that surrounds your home or business.

two black and brown-colored common ants on a light brown-colored wood kitchen countertop eating an opaque and sticky residue

Throughout the fall months, ants will indulge in a surplus of food with the goal of adding fat to their bodies to survive the winter. Once the temperatures outside drop, their body temperature and productivity decrease significantly.

At this point, ants will return to the colony and prepare to spend time under rocks and in the soil deep beneath the surface.

As winter turns to spring and the temperature rises, ants will emerge from the colony.

At this point, they will have enough energy stored to give them the strength they need to invade your home, business, or outdoor party.

While most of the ant colonies will remain outside during the winter, a satellite colony in your kitchen or bathroom could stay active during the winter.

Cockroaches

Cockroaches have been on our planet since dinosaurs walked the surface. Since cockroaches were able to outlast the demise of the dinosaurs, they are clearly a very resistant pest.

It doesn’t take much for the pest to survive throughout the year. Generally speaking, if a roach has access to a warm, moist environment, it should be able to survive.

So, where do cockroaches go in the winter?

German cockroaches, for example, prefer an indoor habitat with easy access to food and moisture. So, this species will seek refuge in kitchens and bathrooms, especially during colder months.

The American cockroach does prefer to spend its life outside, especially in warmer climates. So, once the cooler temperatures arrive, the pest will move into commercial buildings, restaurants, hotels, homes, and other office spaces seeking warmth and shelter.

Bed Bugs

Bed bugs are almost as resilient as cockroaches when it comes to warm temperatures. But what happens when the air becomes chilly and the temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower?

The pest can withstand temperatures that go below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but not if they are exposed to the cold or elements for prolonged periods of time.  

Bed bugs can succumb to cold temperatures in just a few days. The bad news for us? These insects are naturally indoor pests and our homes and businesses provide ample space and ideal temperatures for the pest to survive during the winter.

Termites

There are approximately 2,700 species of termites found throughout the world. 45 different species of termites call the U.S. their home.

Each species is unique, especially when it comes to surviving extreme temperatures.

Subterranean termites will dig beneath the ground’s surface and into the soil to keep warm. To maintain their warmth, this species of termite lives far enough below the frost line, so they aren’t endangered.  

Conversely, drywood termites will search for shelter in dry wood.

Once the temperatures reach upwards for 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the younger termite swarmers will emerge from their nests to find a mate and a location to build a new nest.

Areas with relatively warm temperatures throughout the year are more likely to see termite activity regardless of season.

Mosquitoes

Spotting a mosquito at your pool party or barbeque can put a damper on the event, especially when they make a snack out of you or your guests.

What might surprise you is that spotting a mosquito in the winter is more common than you realize.

To avoid the frigid temperatures, mosquitoes will survive winter in hollow logs.

Once the weather improves, female mosquitoes will wake from their slumber and search for a blood source. This process will help her to develop eggs.

So, if you were to disturb the log, you could come face-to-face with a mosquito now in search of its next meal.

Year-Round Property Protection

With this information, it’s easy to see that protecting your home or business is imperative.

An infestation can happen quicker than you realize once a cockroach, ant, bed bug or other insect decide to live in your home or office.

Catseye Pest Control has been protecting homes and businesses for over 30 years. We put this experience to work for you with customized plans created to suit the unique challenge your property is facing.

We focus our pest control solutions on long-lasting results, not quick fixes. Our signature programs, Platinum Home Protection and Cat-Guard Exclusion Systems have been perfected to keep pests and wildlife outside throughout the year, permanently.

Your property is one of the most important investments you will make during your lifetime. Keep it protected from unwanted pests and nuisance wildlife.

Don’t wait until you see evidence of an infestation. Contact us today for a free inspection.

This article appeared first on Catseye Pest

Rain on a sunny day: Tropical rainforest cicadas, Dorisiana sp.

 

Massive appearances of rainforest cicadas like Dorisiana cachla can make it rain on a sunny day in a tropical rainforest.

Massive appearances of rainforest cicadas like Dorisiana cachla can make it rain on a sunny day in a tropical rainforest.

 

Over the years, we have visited magical periodical cicadas of Brood II, Brood V, Brood X, Brood XIII, and Brood XIX as they appeared in the eastern half of North America. This week we venture once again some 2,000 miles south to the rainforests of Costa Rica where we previously visited agrarian leaf cutter ants, rapacious army ants, and mutualistic ants protecting Acacia and Cecropia trees. Unlike periodical cicadas that emerge by the millions in prime number years of 13 and 17, several species of cicadas in Costa Rica make their appearances annually. The diversity of Costa Rican cicadas of about 30 species rivals that of eastern North America.

The immature stages of cicadas, called nymphs, spend the majority of their life underground sucking sap from the vascular xylem tissue of roots. Xylem transports water and minerals from the soil to the photosynthetic tissues in the canopy of the plant; however, compared to other plant tissues, xylem is rather low in nutrient content. Bear with me, this is important later. After completing development in their subterranean crypts, a process lasting one to several years depending on the species, nymphs emerge from circular holes in the soil, usually at twilight, and race to vertical structures to climb up and shed their skins. At night tree trunks and other vegetation are festooned with nymphs as they escape their nymphal exoskeletons and emerge as adults. After molting they scramble to the relative safety of the canopy. Once the new exoskeleton hardens, they fly to the treetops to join others of their species in a spectacular throng of cicadas chorusing, courting, mating, and feeding. No social distancing here!

At twilight cicada nymphs emerge from circular escape holes in the soil to scale vegetation and shed their exoskeleton. Next stop will be the treetop to join the chorus and find a mate.

On a recent visit to the rainforest with a group of curious naturalists, we visited a rambunctious swarm of cicadas cavorting in the treetops. Bug of the Week viewers who have witnessed the emergence of periodical cicadas here in the United States will recall the other-worldly sound and volume of a cicada chorus. Their songs can approximate 100 decibels, a noise as loud as a four-cycle lawn mower engine. As we approached a forested ridge near the heart of a cicada chorus, the volume seemed to best that of our periodical cicadas back home. Some of our brave adventurers described the sound of the chorus as “painful”. Witnessing the big boy band in the treetops (only the males sing) was fascinating, but what really sparked my interest was a promise made by our guide who claimed cicadas would be so numerous in the treetops that their “pee” would be like rain. Well, thinking back to John Fogerty’s 1970 lyrical query “I wanna know, have you ever seen the rain, comin’ down on a sunny day”, how could one not resist the chance to experience a cicada shower? Recall that cicada nymphs feed on nutrient poor xylem of plant roots. Cicada adults have sucking mouthparts and they too imbibe xylem fluid, lots of it. Due to the low concentration of nutrients in xylem, cicadas must process vast quantities of sap to gain sufficient nutrients. Their specialized digestive tract enables them to suck copious amounts of sap from the tree and rapidly excrete the excess fluid. Not exactly “pee”, but surely liquid waste. And sure enough, our guide spoke truly. Amidst the cicada chorus in a rainforest on a ridgetop, I did indeed see and feel rain comin’ down on a sunny day.   

High on a ridgetop in a tropical rainforest, cicadas gather to chorus, court, and mate. To sustain these activities, they imbibe large quantities of xylem fluid. Amidst the thunderous din of their serenade, copious excess fluid is excreted and creates a cicada shower. In the cicada-filled rainforest it does indeed rain on a sunny day.

Acknowledgements

We thank Costa Rica Vacations, wildlife enthusiasts Jerri, Parker, Richard, Anita, Maya, and the intrepid guides Mono and Kenneth at Rafiki Lodge and Ale and Gera at Playa Cativo Lodge, for providing the inspiration for this episode.  Huge thanks to cicada sleuth Ale for putting the likely name of Dorisiana cachla on this week’s star. The informative article “Cicada Ecology in a Costa Rican Tropical Rain Forest” by Allen M. Young, and the Cicada Mania Website were used as references for this episode.

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Pest Control Considered Essential Service During Coronavirus Pandemic

Discover the Importance of Pest Control & Why it is an Essential Service

Recent events surrounding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak have left many business owners and employees wondering if their line of work is considered essential.

To clarify, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) published a memo identifying essential infrastructure workers and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic within days of several states shutting down all but essential businesses.

Essential businesses, as described by the government, are allowed to stay open during nationwide restrictions.

Other essential services include, but are not limited to, grocery stores, pharmacies, and medical facilities.

The memo also confirms that pest control is an essential service.

This news comes at an important time, if the Federal Government issues a shelter-in-place, Catseye Pest Control will still be able to help homeowners and business owners.   

Why Pest Control is Important Every Day

The importance of pest control as an essential service for our communities, the surrounding areas, and the nation cannot be understated.

Pests, rodents, and nuisance wildlife have the ability to spread bacteria and diseases like hantavirus and leptospirosis.

The importance of pest and wildlife control goes far beyond removal and exclusion services. 

“Pest Control is extremely important as it is critical in protecting the structures that we live and work in as well as the food that we consume.,” said Catseye Pest Control President Joe Dingwall. “Without pest control, our crops would suffer, our buildings would be at risk of costly damage from wood-destroying insects and rodents, and insects such as mosquitos and ticks would spread more disease.

“It’s a must that we remain operating.”

Problems Caused by Pests & Wildlife During Pandemics

There are a lot of potential problems stemming from pest control.

Rodents contaminate or consume upwards of 20 percent of the world’s food supply. Stinging insects send people to the emergency room and sometimes into anaphylaxis. Cockroaches can induce asthma attacks, and bed bugs can also cause allergic reactions.

These concerns merely scratch the surface of the issues caused by pests and wildlife.

Whether it is a single-family home, multifamily building, warehouse, or medical facility, society cannot afford to have these buildings inhabited by pests and nuisance wildlife.

This is particularly important if the government mandates citizens to stay home.

In situations like what we are currently facing with the coronavirus pandemic, grocery stores, restaurants operating with curbside pickup or delivery, and medical centers cannot afford to fall victim to a pest or wildlife infestation.

Safe Pest & Wildlife Control That’s EPA Regulated

Effective pest control may seem like a DIY solution is the best course of action, however, it could mean the difference between a proper cleaning and disinfecting process, or potentially spreading disease or bacteria.

Catseye technicians are trained, certified in their field, and use personal protection equipment (PPE) that conform with safety requirements established by the EPA and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Using respirators, eye protection, gloves, and other protective gear Catseye is ready to help business owners and homeowners continue the fight against nuisance wildlife and pest infestations.

To learn how we can protect your home or business from a pest infestation and diseases spread by pests, contact our pest and wildlife control technicians today.

This article appeared first on Catseye Pest

Rainforest Ants 4 – The Bodyguards, Part 2: Azteca ants protecting Cecropia trees

 

In disturbed areas along the edge of the dense tropical forest Cecropia is one of the most common pioneer trees.

In disturbed areas along the edge of the dense tropical forest Cecropia is one of the most common pioneer trees.

 

At the base of the petiole where leaf joins stem, a brown patch filled with Müllerian bodies provides carbohydrates and other nutrients for Azteca ant bodyguards.

At the base of the petiole where leaf joins stem, a brown patch filled with Müllerian bodies provides carbohydrates and other nutrients for Azteca ant bodyguards.

Last week we met fierce Pseudomyrmex ants protecting their tropical myrmecophyte home, the Acacia tree. Myrmecophytes are plants that form a symbiotic relationship with feisty ants which serve as bodyguards. Another group of trees common to tropical forests are Cecropias, a collection of several dozen species many of which are pioneer trees found in disturbed areas along roadways, riverbanks, or light gaps bordering dense tropical forests. Eons ago many species of Cecropia formed partnerships with ants in the genus Azteca. This mutualistic “deal” has two parts. Cecropia trees provide several sources of food including glycogen (a carbohydrate storage molecule), proteins, and lipids in structures called Müllerian bodies, found at the base of a leaf’s petiole, and in Food Bodies scattered on the petioles and blades of young leaves.

Undisturbed, Azteca ants patrol their host at a leisurely pace, but with a shake of a leaf workers swarm from within the stem to defend their colony. I could not resist the chance to assess the potency of Cecropia’s defenders. Compared to last week’s attack by ants guarding Acacia, the sting of Azteca was mild. However, to a caterpillar or beetle attempting to eat leaves of Cecropia, a mass attack by dozens of tiny stinging bodyguards might convince an intruder to seek a meal elsewhere.

Cecropia also satisfies the “gimme shelter” requirement for Azteca ants. The hollow stems of Cecropia are the perfect redoubt to house the queen and raise the brood. And what does Cecropia get from the “deal?” Protection. Clever studies demonstrated that Cecropia devoid of their Azteca bodyguards received more damage from marauding chewing herbivores such as beetles and caterpillars. An additional benefit of ant occupation was the removal of aggressive vines capable of smothering young Cecropia trees. The net effect of ant bodyguards revealed in these studies was more rapid growth in trees protected by tiny but fierce Azteca defenders. For a pioneer species like Cecropia, any advantage you can get on your competitors is an important one and Azteca ant bodyguards may provide just the advantage you need to survive in the wild tropical forest.

On the surface of the trunk, small holes allow Azteca workers to enter an exit the colony. Within the hollow stem, workers tend hundreds of eggs and larvae produced by the queen.

Acknowledgements

We thank Costa Rica Vacations, and the intrepid guides Mono and Kenneth at Rafiki Lodge and Ale and Gera at Playa Cativo Lodge, for providing the inspiration for this episode. The wonderful books “The Insect Societies” by Edward O. Wilson, “The Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, and the fascinating articles “Azteca protection of Cecropia: ant occupation benefits juvenile trees” by Eugene W. Sehupp and “Food bodies of Cecropia pachystachya (Cecropiaceae) leaves: structural and functional features suggesting complementary role to Müllerian bodies” by Patricia Gonçalves-Souza and Elder Antonio Sousa Paiva, were used as references for this episode.

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Pest-Proof Your Attic & Basement

Learn What to Do if Your Home has a Mouse or Rat Infestation

Coming across any sort of pest or nuisance wildlife in your home can be an unwelcome surprise, from rats, mice, spiders — even stink bugs want to make your home’s attic their new dwelling.

Failing to follow these preventative steps can encourage rodents to find their way into the attic and/or basement which will lead to property damage that can be quite costly to repair.

Mice and rats, for example, are small in stature but these rodents can cause substantial problems if they move into your home.

Whether your house is newly built or simply just new-to-you, follow these tips to pest-proof your attic:

  1. Eliminate the pest problem
  2. Clean up the affected (and unaffected) areas
  3. Protect your home from future issues by eliminated entry points
  4. Reinforce that protection with Cat-Guard

DIY Methods for Keeping Rodents Out

The first part of keeping rodents away from the basement or attic is simple, but it’s a step many homeowners often forget — a thorough cleaning.

Eliminate any trash or clutter. Mice, rats, and other nuisance wildlife will hide and nest in anything they can find, including trash and debris.

Disinfect the entire space with bleach or other household cleaners if possible, especially if droppings or urine stains were found.

mouse found hiding in a basement next to a can with green paint, hammer, and rusty wrench

While cleaning and disinfecting, place remaining items that need to be stored in sealable containers without points of entry the rodent could use.

Ideally, you would then store these bins on a shelf or storage unit, as opposed to the floor.

By cleaning up your attic and basement, you are creating a better sightline into what needs to be fixed or sealed in order to prevent a rodent infestation.

Homeowners should also keep bushes and tree limbs trimmed back from the house as these can act as a way for rodents to climb and access the higher points of the structure.

Firewood and lawn debris should also be kept away from the house as these can attract nuisance wildlife and act as shelter until they find a point of entry to the structure.

Ensure trash cans are tightly sealed. It also helps if the cans are stored in a shed or garage so that they don’t act as a signal to rodents that your home is a source of food and shelter.

Eliminate Entry Points for Rodents & Nuisance Wildlife

To keep pests and rodents out, it’s important to eliminate entry points to the attic or basement.

Entry points like holes, cracks, and crevices that are 5mm or larger should be sealed immediately. A rat only needs a hole or crack that is approximately half an inch in size in order to get inside!

Did You Know?

Mice only need 6mm (that’s less than one quarter of an inch) to squeeze inside.

Rats only need 12mm (less than half of an inch) to get inside.

infographic displaying the 14 points of entry pests and wildlife use to access homes

As an extra measure, replace loose mortar and weather stripping around the basement foundation. This extra step helps to ensure mice and rats can’t find a weak spot in the foundation to use as a way in and out of your home.

Signs of Mice & Rat Infestations

Whether the rodent has built a nest in the attic, basement, or garage there are a few signs to keep in mind while checking your home.

Droppings are typically an obvious sign, but there are other sings that might be less obvious, especially if you don’t know what to look for.

  • Nests made of shredded paper or fibrous materials in secluded areas
  • Items with chew marks, typically plastics and cardboard
  • Burrows, or tunnels, in insulation
  • Rub marks on walls and corners from grease and dirt on their bodies
  • Scratching sounds in walls, crawl spaces, and attics
  • Urine-stained areas
  • Smells caused by urine, droppings, or dead mouse

Cat-Guard Exclusion System

In the likely event that DIY home seal-up preventative measures are unsuccessful, Catseye Pest Control can help remedy the situation.

The best way to keep unwanted nuisance wildlife out of your home, garage, or other structure is with Cat-Guard, our permanent wildlife exclusion system.

Our solution is natural, chemical-free, long-term, and comprised of three components — Upper Cat-Guard, Lower Cat-Guard, and Trench-Guard.

Upper Cat-Guard protects homes and structures from the first-floor windows to the peak of the building against bats, birds, squirrels and other rodents.

Lower Cat-Guard acts as the first line of defense for the first floor of the home or building against critters like mice, rats, and chipmunks.

Trench-Guard protects homes and other low-clearance areas from animals that tend to burrow under low-clearance areas, like groundhogs and skunks.

The Catseye Mission aims to protect your family and your investment from pests and nuisance wildlife through award-winning customer service.

If you have a problem keeping rodents out of your home, or if you’re interested in our home and wildlife exclusion services, contact our wildlife and pest professionals today.

This article appeared first on Catseye Pest

Types of Weasels in North America

Facts About Weasels Found in North America & How to Protect Your Property

Like many species of wildlife, weasels are seemingly cute animals that can still cause harm and/or property damage in ways we wouldn’t always expect.

That includes the weasels we find right here in the United States.

These small mammals belong to the Mustelidae family, a family that also includes other small critters like ferrets, badgers, and even some species of skunks.

Of the different species of weasels, there are three species that call North America home: long-tailed weasel, short-tailed weasel, and least weasel.

Weasel Habitats & Facts

Weasels found in different areas of North America have some similar features, which can make it difficult to distinguish between each.

Weasels are typically long and thin with a light-colored fur on their belly, short legs, and small heads with rounded ears.

These weasels can be spotted in different areas throughout North America, including the northeastern part of the United States.

Yes — this means those of us living in Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and the surrounding states can encounter a weasel infestation.

They typically thrive in environments with plenty of smaller rodents, which makes a tasty meal for the weasel.

Their bodies don’t store fat, so weasels search for food during most of the day. Weasels will even store food if they have a surplus. This allows the critter to eat when food is scarce.

Weasel sounds have a range of purposes. Loud, high-pitched squeaking is typically used in response to a threat. Low whistles, or trilling sounds, on the other hand can be used as a greeting.

Other weasel sounds range from soft bark-like noises, hisses, to chirps. Loud weasel sounds around your property can become annoying and may even keep you awake at night.

Long-Tailed Weasel

The long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) has mostly brown fur with white or slightly yellow-colored belly fur, the tips of their tails are black.

brown and yellow colored long-tailed weasel with a black-colored tip on its tail standing on dirt and rocks

These critters can be found throughout the United States, apart from southeast California, Nevada, and Arizona.

Long-tailed weasels live in a variety of habitats including woodlands, thickets, and farmland. They usually live in abandoned burrows, hollowed-out logs, or nests under rockpiles.

This can be quite problematic if your property has ever had skunks or other burrowing rodents create dens. If these dens are not properly dealt with, it can be a welcoming invitation for another rodent.

Long-tailed weasels will release a strong-smelling musk during mating season or if feels threatened. Breeding season is from July until August. The litter will be born between March and early April. The litter size can range from one to 12 kits. 

This loner does not hibernate and can be quite active at night — but that does not mean long-tailed weasels won’t be spotted or heard during the day.

Weasels can be quite aggressive and territorial, especially if feeling threatened. If you think your home or property has a weasel infestation, it’s best to leave wildlife control and removal to the professionals.

Short-Tailed Weasel

Short-tailed weasels (Mustela erminea) are the second smallest member of the weasel family.

Much like the long-tailed weasel, the short-tailed weasel, also known as the ermine, is a predator. The critter prefers smaller prey, like voles, shrews, and mice.

The short-tailed weasel has a brown coat during the summer months, but the coat becomes white during the winter months.

Contrary to popular belief, the change in fur color is triggered by the length of daylight, not temperature. This means short-tailed weasels are at risk during periods without snow as the white fur stands out against brown landscapes.

a short-tailed weasel with white fur standing inside its burrow looking out at the surroundings

Except for breeding season, it is very rare to find a male and female together.

Short-tailed weasel breeding season happens from late spring and into summer. Gestation takes approximately 280 days and will result in an average of six or seven kits.

This gestation period allows female weasels to give birth during ideal environmental conditions.

Short-tailed weasel habitats vary from open woodlands, bushy areas, grasslands, wetlands, and farmlands. While the critter prefers a significant amount of coverage and protection, they typically avoid dense forests.

Burrowing in hollowed out logs or under low-clearance areas like decks or sheds, this can be problematic for homeowners and business owners alike.

Least Weasel

Least weasels (Mustela nivalis) are the smallest members of the weasel family. The critter averages 7 or 9 inches in length, including the tail. Like other animals, male weasels are typically larger than females.

Unlike the aptly named long-tailed weasel, least weasels have tails that are quite short and do not have a black tip. They have brown-colored fur on most of their bodies, with the exception of the belly fur, which is white.

brown and white least weasel with a short brown tail perched on a log in a grassy landscape

This small-statured critter primarily feeds on mice and voles. But will also make a tasty meal from insects or small birds if other prey is scarce.

The least weasel can adapt and thrive in a multitude of climates and habitats. They can be found in grasslands, open woodlands, along field edges, and bushy landscapes.

Much like the rest of the weasel family, least weasels are not social creatures and prefer a solitary lifestyle.    

Least weasels will mate from April through July. Unlike its counterparts, this critter’s gestation period is less than 40 days. On average, the litter will have six kits.

Protect Your Property from Weasels

Whether it’s long-tailed weasels, or another member of the family, the critter can certainly help with rodent control. But that doesn’t mean weasels should make a home for themselves in your home or business.

Since weasel habitats include many low-clearance places like sheds, decks, and areas around your landscape, it’s important to exclude wildlife to protect your property.

Cat-Guard Exclusion Systems are a permanent wildlife barrier designed to protect your home, business, and other structures from weasels and other rodents.

Catseye Pest Control’s exclusion services are chemical-free and environmentally friendly. These long-term solutions will defend against critters looking to move into your home without impacting the surrounding environment.

For more information about Cat-Guard Exclusion Systems and a free inspection, contact our wildlife technicians today.

This article appeared first on Catseye Pest

Rainforest Ants 3 – The Bodyguards, part 1: Pseudomyrmex ants protecting bullhorn acacias

  Adorning leaves are nutrient rich, orange Beltian bodies. Acacia ants harvest these morsels to sustain the queen and colony.

Adorning leaves are nutrient rich, orange Beltian bodies. Acacia ants harvest these morsels to sustain the queen and colony.

 

No, this week’s episode is not a revival of the classic Costner- meets-Houston romance, but it is a story about a different type of symbiotic relationship as curious as a previous episode where we met leafcutter ants and their fungus gardens. This week we explore the fascinating relationship between tropical myrmecophytes, plants that partner with ants, and the feisty ants which serve as their bodyguards. Whether it’s in the rainforest of Belize or those in Costa Rica, one common sight at the forest’s edge is a brilliant green acacia tree. At one such site a local guide noted that this remarkable tree was completely unmolested by any type of leaf-munching caterpillar, sucking insect, or large mammal such as the horses or cows that grazed in a pasture nearby. A closer inspection revealed fearsome looking thorns arising from nodes of the branches. Surely these thorns, locally known as cockspurs or bullhorns, helped explain why large grazing mammals avoided the otherwise delectable looking leaves of the acacia. A mouthful of thorns would be a painful experience indeed. However, as I fondled the foliage of the acacia, I was instantly attacked by a furious band of ants that bit and stung my hand with extreme prejudice. Their sting was memorable and my swollen hand throbbed and itched for hours after the encounter. 

Under normal conditions acacia ants patrol leaves and stems at a languid pace. But the pace quickens as workers begin their search-and-attack mode after I rustle the acacia’s branches. Along the trunk, a frenzied mob seeks the source of the disturbance. A momentary touch of a branch is long enough for the bodyguards to attack the nosy human and deliver fierce bites and stings.

Small holes in the thorn allow ants to enter and exit.

Small holes in the thorn allow ants to enter and exit.

The secret weapons of the bullhorn acacia are ant bodyguards, part of a symbiotic deal struck eons ago by acacias and ants in the genus Pseudomyrmex. The deal works like this: A newly mated Pseudomyrmex queen lands on the bullhorn acacia and locates a large thorn. Either by chewing a new hole or by using an existing one, she enters the hollow thorn and lays eggs. Eggs hatch and develop into sterile workers. Workers, the queen, and subsequent broods subsist on carbohydrate rich nectar produced by specialized glands called extrafloral nectaries found near the bases of many leaves. But ants, like humans, cannot live by sugar alone. At the tips of some leaves, specialized structures called Beltian bodies form. These detachable tidbits are rich in nutrients including proteins and lipids. Ants harvest and consume Beltian bodies to round out their diet. By providing room and board, acacia plays the generous host for Pseudomyrmex. In return, fearless worker ants provide maniacal protection of the acacia from caterpillars, sap-sucking insects, probably large herbivores, and, certainly, nosey entomologists.

Nectaries at the base of the leaf’s petiole provide a rich source of energy for busy ants.

Nectaries at the base of the leaf’s petiole provide a rich source of energy for busy ants.

One additional benefit of the bodyguards is their role as vegetation managers. In addition to being devoid of leaf-eating insects, choking vines that ascended and engulfed other rainforest plants nearby were notably missing from the acacia. Why were so many other plants cloaked in vegetation while the acacia remained free of clinging vines? In a clever series of studies, rainforest guru Dan Janzen demonstrated that in addition to protecting acacias from herbivores, Pseudomyrmex also aggressively remove tender tips of encroaching plants that might compete with acacia for sunlight. Room and board in exchange for protection from herbivores and competing plants, all deals should be so good!

Acknowledgements

We thank the hearty crew of ‘BSCI 339M, Mayan Culture and the Interface Between Tropical Rainforests and Coral Reefs, Costa Rica Vacations, and the intrepid guides Mono and Kenneth at Rafiki Lodge and Ale and Gera at Playa Cativo Lodge, for providing the inspiration for this episode.  The wonderful book “The Insect Societies” by Edward O. Wilson and the fascinating articles “Interaction of the bull’s-horn acacia (Acacia cornigera L.) with an ant inhabitant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea F. Smith) in Eastern Mexico” and “Coevolution of mutualism between ants and acacias in Central America” by Dan Janzen were used as references for this episode.

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Rainforest Ants 2 – Rapacious raiders: Army ants, Eciton spp.

  Ferocious soldiers protect the flank of the raiding column of workers.

Ferocious soldiers protect the flank of the raiding column of workers.

  Giant jaws deliver lethal bites to predators and teach a lesson to a nosy bug geek.

Giant jaws deliver lethal bites to predators and teach a lesson to a nosy bug geek.

Last week we met the consummate farmers of the rainforest, leafcutter ants. Once again, we head back to Costa Rica to warm up and visit an insect that rocks in at 9.5 out of 10 on the ferocity scale – army ants, arguably the most rapacious insect predator in the jungle realm. While walking along a forest edge near the Savegre River, my path was blocked by a streaming column of furious army ants. This bustling brigade was only a small portion of a pillaging horde hunting food in one small corner of the forest. Single colonies of army ants contain hundreds of thousands to more than a million workers capable of capturing and eating thousands of assorted arthropods each day. The column consisted of large and small workers busily transporting food to a temporary food cache or colony site called a bivouac. In lesser numbers within and alongside the column were imposing soldiers. These grotesque giants sported huge, sickle-shaped jaws used to defend workers and colony from attack. The jaws of the soldiers are so large and highly modified for grappling and pinching that they are of little use for eating. In a reenactment of a scene in Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”, I tested the ability of a soldier’s jaws to act as a wound suture. They worked just fine. 

At the raiding end of the ant column, a chaotic melee of murder and mayhem ensued as swarms of stinging and biting workers capture other arthropods, primarily insects and spiders. Other unfortunate small animals that fail to escape the approaching horde may also succumb. After subduing victims, workers dismember their prey and transport them in large and small pieces back to a food cache or bivouac to feed developing larval ants, their attendants, and the hungry queen. The bivouac is usually in a protected location beneath a log or between the buttress roots of a large tree. It is formed by thousands of ants linked leg to leg in a protective living cover for the queen and young. However, army ants may set up bivouacs in man-made structures. I have witnessed this event firsthand on a recent study abroad trip to Belize where army ants raided a research station and established a bivouac in an outhouse. This provided quite a surprise when a sleepy student undertook a nocturnal visit to the privy.

Watch and learn why army ants are among the most awesome predators of tropical rainforests.

A night time trip to the outhouse can be especially exciting when army ants set up a bivouac inside.

A night time trip to the outhouse can be especially exciting when army ants set up a bivouac inside.

The life of army ant colonies is characterized by two distinct phases. When the colony is in the nomadic phase, workers hunt by day and bring food back to the colony, but they stop carrying food to the bivouac as night approaches. Bivouacs are relocated periodically when excited workers transport food and ant larvae away from an old bivouac to a new one along one of the outward leading trails. As the old bivouac disintegrates, the queen and her entourage follow a chemical trail through the forest and establish a new bivouac at a different location. The regular relocation of the bivouac in the nomadic phase enables legions of workers to pillage untapped areas of the forest for food each day. Several times a year, the colony enters a stationary phase. During this phase, the colony hunkers down in one location for several weeks. Larvae begin to pupate and the queen lays as many as 30,000 eggs each day. During the stationary phase, raids continue but are less frequent and intense. In a fascinating study, Nigel Franks discovered that during the stationary phase, army ants changed direction of successive foraging bouts. The direction of each new foray differed from the previous one by approximately 123 degrees in a clockwise direction. By searching different quadrants of the habitat sequentially, ants avoid hunting in the same area twice. Foraging in different areas may also allow new victims to repopulate recently searched areas. Over the span of a few weeks, thousands of eggs hatch and hungry young larvae place enormous demands for food on the colony. By now, ants produced during the previous stationary phase have completed development and matured into new workers. With thousands of new workers to forage and the demand for food high, the colony resumes its nomadic phase and it’s time for many small insects and other animals to run for their lives or die.

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks Costa Rica Vacations and the intrepid guides Mono and Kenneth at Rafiki Lodge and Ale and Gera at Playa Cativo Lodge for providing the inspiration for this episode. The wonderful book “The Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson, “The Insect Societies” by Edward O. Wilson, and the interesting article “Army Ants: A Collective Intelligence” by Nigel Franks, were used as references for this episode.

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Rainforest Ants 1 – Tropical fungus farmers: Leafcutter ants, Atta and Acromyrmex spp.

  Leaves and buds of Brazilian fire tree are transported from the treetop to the colony by major workers.

Leaves and buds of Brazilian fire tree are transported from the treetop to the colony by major workers.

 

Last week we traveled to Costa Rica and met a captivating caterpillar in the tropical rainforest. Over the next several weeks, we will visit several species of ants, so called superorganisms of the tropical rainforest, creatures with social structure and specialized roles that, as individuals, cooperate and contribute to the success and survival of their colony. It has been said that on planet earth only two creatures cultivate crops: humans and ants. So, let’s return to the tropical forests of Costa Rica to visit these farmers who are the most important group of herbivores found in tropical forests in the New World, leafcutter ants.

Leaves of a small shrub are disassembled by powerful jaws of major workers. Figuring out just the right way to carry the leaf is tricky business, but once lifted overhead, it’s off to the races and back to the colony.

Night and day members of the worker caste search for nutritious leaves on trees, vines, and shrubs. When scouts find a suitable food source, they direct other workers to the bounty by releasing trail-marking chemicals called pheromones. The amazing jaws of major workers clip small sections of leaves and flowers and carry them to the ground, where they join a rambunctious procession of nest mates. In this parade, intermediate sized workers busily transport leaf sections while smaller workers sometimes hitchhike on leaves and help defend their sisters from marauding predators and parasitic flies. Nearby, large imposing soldiers also defend their sisters and the colony with powerful jaws. As leafcutters remove foliage from a tree, a parade of ants may extend for distances of more than 200 yards as workers carry leafy cargo back to a subterranean nest.

On a nearby tree, flowers and flower buds travel to the ground. Transporting flowers seems relatively easy, but carrying a bud seems to be a challenge. Watch a worker as she finally figures out how to haul a flower bud. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the ant trail, blossoms disappear underground to fuel the nutritious fungus garden.

Ventilation shafts cool the underground ant colony and provide for the exchange of gasses.

Ventilation shafts cool the underground ant colony and provide for the exchange of gasses.

A leafcutter nest is a marvelous structure that may contain several million ants and occupy 600 square meters of forest floor. Sophisticated ventilation systems cool the bustling nest and allow carbon dioxide to escape while drawing in oxygen. Once inside the nest, leaves are delivered to other workers that take the leaf sections and clip them into ever smaller fragments. These fragments are carefully inserted into a garden of living fungus maintained by the ants. Leaves serve as a substrate for fungi, which is harvested as the source of food for the entire ant colony. The fungus garden is meticulously tended by workers. Destructive alien fungi are detected and removed. Secretions produced by the queen and workers facilitate the growth of the cultivated fungus. Fungal strands produce specialized structures called gongylidia. Gongylidia are fed to the developing larvae and distributed throughout the colony to feed workers and the queen. Due to their agrarian life style, leafcutter ants are also commonly called fungus growing ants.

Sharp jaws of the major worker are used not only for cutting leaves but also for defending the colony from vertebrate predators and foolish bug geeks.

Leafcutters don’t leave much behind when defoliating favored plants.

Leafcutters don’t leave much behind when defoliating favored plants.

To support their enormous colonies, leafcutters remove vast amounts of vegetation each day. It is estimated that large colonies may remove more than 500 dry weight pounds of vegetation annually. When nests are established near orchards or crops, leafcutters can strip trees and vegetables overnight, causing significant crop loss. Often, irate farmers destroy leafcutter colonies. One humorous account related by Hölldobler and Wilson of a westerner’s attempt to grow a European style vegetable garden in Belize reported that the gardener “… arose one morning and found our garden defoliated: every cabbage leaf was stripped…of the carrots nothing was seen…into a hole in the mound, ants, moving in quickened step, were carrying bits of our cabbage, tops of carrots, the beans – in fact our entire garden was going down that hole.” However, leafcutter ants play a vital role in recycling plant material and enriching and cultivating tropical soils. For millennia in tropical jungles throughout the New World, legions of leafcutters have been the consummate farmers in the rainforest.

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks Costa Rica Vacations and the intrepid guides Mono and Kenneth at Rafiki Lodge and Ale at Playa Cativo Lodge for providing the inspiration for this episode. The wonderful book “The Ants” by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson was used as a reference.

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A rainforest beauty better for observing rather than touching: Silkmoth caterpillar, Automeris spp.

  Silk moth caterpillars like this Automeris species are spectacular denizens of the rainforest.

Silk moth caterpillars like this Automeris species are spectacular denizens of the rainforest.

 

 

With the return of warm weather, leaves, and insects still weeks away here in the DMV, it’s time to travel to tropical rainforests in Costa Rica to see what’s up with some of our southern neighbors. First stop is the rainforest near the village of Santo Domingo bordering the Savegre River in Costa Rica. Scrambling across the ground near the base of a tree was a magnificent caterpillar. At first glance the identity of this beauty had me stumped, but after picking it up fiery stings to my finger and palm refreshed my memory of its true identity. This caterpillar is a member of the silk moth clan in the genus Automeris. The remarkable color pattern of this extraordinary larva leads me to believe its identity is Automeris metzli, a creature found from Mexico to Ecuador and also on the island of Trinidad, where it munches leaves of oak and less commonly Erythrinaand coconut.

Don’t let these amazing spines and beautiful colors fool you. Handling this lovely caterpillar could result in a spicy and memorable surprise.

False eyespots on the hind wing may help beautiful male (top) and female (bottom) Automeris moths gain protection from hungry predators. These two are Io moths, Automeris io.

False eyespots on the hind wing may help beautiful male (top) and female (bottom) Automeris moths gain protection from hungry predators. These two are Io moths, Automeris io.

You might think that a very large (this one was several inches long) tasty caterpillar would attract the attention of hungry predators. But Automeris caterpillars have a clever defense. Lining their sides and backs are spines loaded with venom. These spikey armaments are called urticating spines. Upon contact by a predator or overcurious human these spines release venom, causing a painful and relatively long lasting sting. For most people this sting resolves without complication but for some it may cause a serious allergic reaction. For me, well, getting up close and personal with this creature was worth some minor discomfort. Urticating spines are employed for defense by several families of moths, including flannel moths and saddleback caterpillars we met in previous episodes. While stinging shock and awe are the defensive syndrome employed by these caterpillars, adult moths use a different strategy. When resting on vegetation or on the ground, the brownish dappled forewings of the moth help it blend with background vegetation, effectively camouflaging the moth. If a predator draws too near, the moth spreads its forewings revealing large vertebrate eyespots on the hindwings. This ruse is thought to startle and frighten would-be predators, allowing the moth to escape or break-off the attack. False eyespots have evolved many times in the insect world and are found on caterpillars including swallowtail caterpillars, Promethea moths, and owl butterflies we met in previous episodes.

A cousin of Automeris metzli called the Io moth is relatively common in much of North America. including the DMV. This beautiful species of moth was once very abundant from New England to the Gulf States and west to the Great Plains. However, in New England and throughout much of its range, Io moths have declined. In addition to loss of natural habitat, the introduction of the parasitic fly Compsilura concinnata to control gypsy moth caterpillars has been implicated in local and regional declines in populations of Io moths and several other moth species attacked and killed by the fly. Habitat destruction and invasive species are but two threats to these charismatic and beautiful creatures throughout their ranges.

Acknowledgements

Bug of the Week thanks Hugh and Bridgette for discovering the gorgeous caterpillar, Costa Rica Vacations, and the intrepid guides Mono and Kenneth at Rafiki Lodge, for providing the inspiration for this episode.  “Automeris metzli Sallé (Lepidoptera: Saturniidae) in Trinidad, West Indies” by Matthew J.W. Cock, “Moth decline in the Northeastern United States” by David Wagner, and “Insect Defenses” by T. Eisner, M. Eisner, and M. Siegler, were used as references for this episode.

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