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An Update on the “Improved Carrion Beetle Trap”

In Coleoptera on June 23, 2013 at 10:48 am

If you read my June 5 post, An Improved Carrion Beetle Trap, I’m sure you’ve been waiting anxiously, with bated breath (please pause, as I digress:)…

From the verb “bate”, alteration by aphesis of the verb “abate”, meaning ‘to reduce’ or ‘lessen’.(1)

Shakespeare is the first writer known to use it, in The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock says to Antonio: “Shall I bend low and, in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness, / Say this …”. Nearly three centuries later, Mark Twain employed it in Tom Sawyer: “Every eye fixed itself upon him; with parted lips and bated breath the audience hung upon his words, taking no note of time, rapt in the ghastly fascinations of the tale”.(2)

…to hear how the innovation worked out.

Let’s just say that some ideas look REAL good on paper.

The entire concept of the trap was to keep the trapper from having to come into contact with the rotten carrion bait.

I built five of the traps, consisting of small canning jars, with a mesh screen lid.  I broke one of them during construction, but placed the others out with my earlier-design traps.

Problem 1:  They don’t seem to attract many beetles.

Problem 2:  Flies seem to somehow penetrate the screen, laying eggs, and infesting the bait with HUGE numbers of maggots, which discourage the beetles.

Problem 3:  The bait containers are glass, with screened lids.  Unlike the previous traps, which are open at top and bottom, these traps collect rainwater, which leaves the bait in a MOST unappetizing condition.  The trapper (me) has been forced to drain the stinking carrion water from the traps, which usually results in the trapper (me) coming back to the house smelling like a disgusting WET corpse, rather than just a disgusting corpse, as with the earlier models.  Those versions, by the way, are catching a lot of bugs, although not the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus) I’d hoped to find in Missouri.

I’ve still got the traps baited and catching a very few silphids; however, this was an idea whose time had not yet come.

For your information, here’s the collection data, through June 20, with 263 beetles identified:

Necrodes surinamensis (12)                             4.56%

Necrophila americana (127)                            8.29%

Nicrophorus americanus (0)                           0.00% (Endangered)

Nicrophorus marginatus (1)                             0.38%

Nicrophorus orbicollis (22)                               8.37%

Nicrophorus pustulatus (6)                               2.28%

Nicrophorus tomentosus (14)                           5.32%

Oiceptoma inaequale (45)                                 17.11%

Oiceptoma noveboracense (3)                           1.14%

Carabidae (16)                                                    6.08%

Cicindelidae (Cicindela sexguttata) (1)             0.38%

Scarabaeide (4)                                                   1.52%

Staphylinidae (12)                                              4.56%

REFERENCES:

1. Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org/wiki/with_bated_breath

2. World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org

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American Burying Beetle

In Coleoptera on June 5, 2013 at 1:56 pm

            I spent some ten hours yesterday, 75% of it on the road, attending the American Burying Beetle Release project at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, in Saint Clair and Cedar counties, north of El Dorado Springs, Missouri.  Had a FINE old time.

            Briefly, the American burying beetle, Nicrophorus americanus, is a “silphid”, or carrion beetle, up to 1½ inches in length, and a truly beautiful bug.  It was formerly found in some thirty-five states; however, over the past fifty years, its range has declined dramatically, and now populations have been determined only in Rhode Island, and in the conjoined states of South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas—seven states in all.

 DSCF3460

            Since learning about these Very Cool Beetles last winter, I’ve set out traps in my Ozark “holler”, hoping to be the first in forty-some odd years to document natural populations in Missouri, but to no avail.  If you’re interested, see my posts, “I Carry On With Carrion” and “An Improved Carrion Beetle Trap”.

DSCF3471

            The Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation is under the auspices of the WildCare Institute of the Saint Louis Zoo, with the personable Bob Merz as director.  Bob and his staff obtained “parental stock” from Arkansas, where the beetles have been documented in the Fort Chaffee area.  They then raised some THREE HUNDRED PAIR of these lovely bugs and brought them over to the Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie for the second year of trying to reestablish populations in southwestern Missouri.

            I arrived at the 4,040-acre prairie, which seems to be jointly administered by the Nature Conservancy and the Missouri Department of Conservation, shortly before the scheduled starting time of 2:00 PM.  Len Gilmore, of MDC, coordinated the workday, with about sixty volunteers present, about three times the number who participated in 2012.  Many of the volunteers were MDC employees, who’d volunteered along with Missouri Master Naturalists, and interested individuals.

Bob Merz (l.) and Len Gilmore (r.) give orientation instructions to volunteers.

Bob Merz (l.) and Len Gilmore (r.) give orientation instructions to volunteers.

            The volunteers were divided into three groups, with each group responsible for placing 100 pairs of beetles in pre-designated spots within the prairie.  I headed out with “Group C” to an area in the southern portion of the preserve, where we found two parallel rows, marked with string, and about twenty feet apart.  Each line was marked about every three feet with florescent marking tape.

Tim instructs.

Tim instructs.

Volunteers digging nest chambers.

Volunteers digging nest chambers.

            The group listened to an instructional talk by Tim, one of the WildCare staffers, who told everyone exactly what to do.  First, we unloaded all the supplies from the zoo van, then began digging square holes at each tape-marked position.  Each hole was about a foot or so on a side, and the grass-covered “plug” was carefully removed from each hole and set aside.  Once the holes had been dug to a depth of about nine inches in the fertile prairie soil, teams of workers with hand trowels followed behind, scooping out fist-sized “bait chambers” in the side of each hole.

Elderly volunteer digging nest hole.

Elderly volunteer digging nest hole.

           

 

Once all the holes had been dug, chambered, and carefully inspected by Tim, a large plastic garbage bag was produced, containing over a hundred dead (but not terribly stinky) quail.  After donning latex gloves, the volunteers quickly stuffed one quail into each of the hundred bait chambers. 

            After another inspection, three large boxes containing the beetles were unloaded from the van.  Each male/female pair had been especially selected, with attention paid to their parental lineages, and each individual beetle was in a separate plastic cubical container, about 6” on a side, with the “engaged couples’” boxes rubber-banded together.   

Releasing the honeymooners.

Releasing the honeymooners.

          One-pair-at-a-time, the workers removed a pair, took them to the nearest nest hole, and removed these beautiful creatures from their individual containers, pushed them into the bait cavity, then replaced the soil plug into the hole, using the remaining soil to completely seal off the chambers.

            Since the rows of nesting holes were perfectly straight, wire mesh was unrolled over the two parallel rows, and staked down, thus protecting the nesting sites from predators.

            Tim was constantly on hand, his red Saint Louis Zoo signifying that he was the brains of the operation, inspecting every facet of the operation, and happily answering questions about the habits and lives of these endangered creatures.

Covering the site with wire mesh.

Covering the site with wire mesh.

            I piped up.  “How do you tell the males from the females?”  One of the MDC guys, obviously NOT a beetle fancier, quickly answered.  “The males are in the boxes marked ‘♂’, and the females are marked ‘♀’.”  “No, fool, I mean if you take them OUT of the boxes, can you tell them apart?”  The MDC guy grinned and pointed to Tim, who explained the difference in the markings found on the “face” of the large beetles.  The males have a somewhat rectangular orange marking, while the females exhibit a more triangular shape.

This is a boy.

This is a boy.

  

This is a girl.

This is a girl.

          We got through very quickly, and returned to the headquarters building, where food was being provided for the volunteers.  Since we’d worked so quickly, we’d have to wait about an hour-and-a-half for the food to arrive, so I skipped the meal and pointed the Jeep back southeast toward the Ozarks and home.

            Hopefully, these 300 pair of beetles will breed and reproduce, creating permanent populations in southwestern Missouri, and helping to reintroduce them to their traditional ranges.  Interestingly, the American burying beetle is one of the few species to exhibit parental care of their young, hanging around and feeding their larvae regurgitated food, much like birds.

Group "C"

Group “C”

            Additional information on the Center for American Burying Beetle Conservation can be found at www.stlzoo.org/wildcareinstitute.

            I’ve just finished constructing several more carrion beetle traps, still hoping to happen upon wild representatives of Nicrophorus americanus.  Should you care, here’s my collection data, so far, through May 31.  No American burying beetles yet.

Necrodes surinamensis

2

Necrophila americana

97

Nicrophorus americanus

0

Nicrophorus marginatus

1

Nicrophorus orbicollis  

8

Nicrophorus pustulatus

5

Nicrophorus tomentosus

3

Oiceptoma inaequale  

33

Oiceptoma novaboracense

0

Various Carabidae  

15

Cicindelidae  

1

Various Scarabaeidae  

2

Various Staphylinidae  

11

 

REFERENCES:

Anderson, R. S. (1982). On the Decreasing Abundance of Nicrophorus americanus Olivier (Coleoptera: Silphidae) in Eastern North America. The Coleopterists Bulletin , 36 (2), 362-365.

Barnhart, M. C., & Brown, R. (2002). A survey for American burying beetles in Southwest Missouri. Springfield: Southwest Missouri State University.

Carlton, C. E., & Rothwein, F. (1998). The Endangered American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier, at the Edge of Its Range in Arkansas (Coletoptera: Silphidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin , 52 (2), 179-185.

Kozol, A. J., Scott, M. P., & Traniello, J. F. (1988). The American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus: Studies on the Natural History of a Declining Species. Psyche , 95, 167-176.

Simpson, K. B. (1991). American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier, (Coleoptera: Silphidae) Survey in Missouri. University of Missouri-Columbia, Wilbur R. Enns Entomology Museum. Columbia: University of Missouri.

An Improved Carrion Beetle Trap

In Coleoptera on June 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm

During the crazy weather of the Winter of 2012-13 here in the Ozarks, I began casting about for some entomological project to keep me occupied, hoping perhaps I could latch on to some small, focused area in which to concentrate my studies in the few years I have remaining.

Discovering beetles crawling all over a well-rotted, roadside deer carcass, I became fascinated with carrion beetles—nifty bugs who “undertake” to devour and recycle dead animals.  I did further reading on the use of insects to determine the time of death in humans, and you’d be surprised at the body of research that’s been done on this subject alone.

As I THOUGHT the weather was moderating in March, I read Bedick, Ratcliffe, & Higley’s 2004 paper which covered sampling methods for the endangered “American Burying Beetle” (Bedick, Ratcliffe, & Higley, 2004) , and modified their suggested trap design slightly.  I put together a half-dozen traps, constructed of PVC, and placed them around my twenty-acre “holler”.  You can see the original trap design on this blog in “I Carry On With Carrion”.

Well, the trap worked pretty well.  It basically consists of one piece of 4” PVC, 18” long, which is buried vertically in the ground, with about 3” exposed.  (The exposed part protects against water running along the ground into the trap.)  At the bottom of the pipe is placed a 6” piece of smaller diameter PVC, into which the bait (well-rotted carrion) is placed.  A mesh screen goes over the top of the smaller pipe, to keep the beetles from actually coming into contact with the bait, and to keep flies from laying eggs on the bait.  Fly larva (maggots), according to what I’ve read, will keep beetles from colonizing the bait.

As I said, the trap worked pretty well.  HOWEVER….

The beetles and flies were somewhat smarter than this amateur entomologist.  They managed to work their way around the screening, despite several innovations I came up with, none of which bear repeating.  This meant I was GETTING beetles, but they were down deep, rummaging around in the VERY-well rotted bait.  To get to them, I had to pull out the smaller pipe, then reach down with my HANDS, and pull out the stinking mess and poke through it to collect the beetles.

Washing my hands six times after each operation still left my hands smelling like corpses.  I needed a better solution.

Here, then, is my NEW design, yet to be tested in the field, which I hope will continue to drag in new silphids (carrion beetles), while keeping my hands clean, unsullied, and sweetsmelling.

Here’s how to build the Sims Model 2 Handsfree Carrion Beetle Trap.  For each trap, you’ll need:

  • 16” length of 3” (inside diameter) PVC pipe.  I went down to the lumberyard and bought an eight-foot section, which will provide SIX 16” lengths.  $12.16 + tax.
  • One half-pint canning jar.  You want the ones that are pretty much completely cylindrical in shape.  They might be called “wide-mouth” jars.  Maybe not.  I had a few lying around the house.  You also need the rings and lids.  Old lids will do.  They don’t have to be completely airtight.
  • One 4-5” square of window screening.  My lumberyard had a bunch of ends and pieces they GAVE me.
  • One piece of string, about 24” long.  I used some nifty florescent green string that I had lying around, just ‘cause it looks cool, and is easy to see.

Here’s the stuff:

Here's the stuff!

      Tie one end of the string to the jar ring.  Center the piece of window screening over the mouth of the jar, and screw on the ring.  That’ll form the screen into the shape shown in the picture.

      THAT’S IT!!!

On my way into town today, I found a freshly-killed squirrel in the road.  This trap has another great advantage in that it lets you handle the bait while it is still fresh, or still frozen, and BEFORE it gets disgustingly stinky.

A squirrel will provide bait for four traps.

A squirrel will provide bait for four traps.

I divided the carcass into four more-or-less equal portions, using a pretty dull hatchet.  Didn’t think it necessary to photograph this part of the process.  I found that ¼ squirrel just about fills a half-pint canning jar.  Filled each of four jars.

Then, I placed the formed window screening on the top of each jar, AND TOPPED IT WITH THE CANNING LID.  I’d already tied the string to the canning ring, and then screwed the ring LOOSELY over the screen/lid, and set the four jars aside, in my woodshed, so that the fresh bait can ripen for three or four days.  The lid keeps the decaying meat from attracting nuisances, and the lid is LOOSE, so that escaping decomposition gases can escape.

DSCF3489DSCF3487DSCF3491

One-fourth of a squirrel, in jars, for ripening.

            After the bait has ripened to my satisfaction, I’ll bury the PVC, as explained above, then take the bait jar, REMOVE THE LID, but retain the screen, replace the ring, and drop the bait jar down into the PVC.     As you can see, the string hangs out the top, so that I can pull up the jar, hopefully with the screen covered with beetles, without having to handle the bait.

DSCF3483   DSCF3486

The jar fits pretty closely into the pipe.                      View from above.

I’ll keep you posted on how well this turns out.

REFERENCES:

Bedick, J. C., Ratcliffe, B. C., & Higley, L. G. (2004). A New Sampling Protocol for the Endangered American Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus americanus Olivier (Coleoptera: Silphidae). The Coleopterists Bulletin , 58 (1), 57-70.

Sims, G. G. (2013).  I Carry On With Carrion.  https://bugsofpopoagie.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/i-carry-on-with-carrion/

Roadkill

In Coleoptera on May 2, 2013 at 2:23 pm

I am not a hunter.  That being said, I’m not anti-hunter, either.  It’s just not something I enjoy doing, and seems like an AWFUL lot of work.  A couple of years ago, after moving to my isolated “holler” in the Missouri Ozarks, I DID kill a turkey; however, the dumb bird wandered down my driveway, and I walked out onto the front porch barefooted, and in my underwear, and shot him from there.

This is to let you know that I have some serious qualms about killing anything I do not intend to eat, which COULD put me at a disadvantage when it comes to procuring bait for my half-dozen carrion beetle traps (See “I Carry On With Carrion”, from earlier this year.)  As you may have guessed, carrion beetle traps should be baited with carrion–rotten meat.  I’ve realized that I can collect as much of this stuff as I want simply by picking up dead animals off the rural highway leading to town.

On any given day, as I travel the seven miles into the village, I’ll see at least a dozen or more squirrels darting erratically across the road.  I do NOT try to hit them, but soon learned that their movements are impossible to predict, so I no longer attempt to swerve around them, inviting exciting and explosive crashes down the Ozark mountainside, as my Jeep cartwheels down the slope bursting into flame and strewing bits and pieces of my 61-year-0ld carcass throughout Douglas County.

When I DO hit one of these creatures, or find a FRESH cadaver in the road (the vultures have not yet arrived), I simply stop the Jeep, make sure he’s REALLY dead, then throw him into the passenger-side floorboard, to take home and put into a baggie in the freezer.  Several times, I’ve been caught in the act by passing motorists, who surely feel that the Sims family has fallen on hard times, resorting to eating roadkill.  When I brought home a fresh, fat fox squirrel yesterday, I looked in the freezer and found that I had two mice, one cardinal, and two frozen gray squirrels.

Time to set out a few more traps, and rebait the ones already in place.  Brett Ratcliffe, of the University of Nebraska, who taught me how to build the traps, recommends leaving the fresh bait outdoors, or in the trunk of your car for three or more days, so as to attain the proper degree of ripe decay.  I usually, however, just bait the traps with fresh meat, and let it “ripen in place”.  I therefore shoved the two mice into one trap, the cardinal into another, then cut the fresh squirrel in half with a double-bladed axe, and put half into each of two traps.  One-half-squirrel is JUST the right size for a single trap.

I still had two more traps to bait, and only two completely frozen squirrels remaining.  How was I gonna cut a rock-hard squirrel into two semi-equal pieces?  My wife was not at home.  I CONSIDERED thawing the thing in the microwave, then remembered daughter Susan’s disastrous experience with a banana in the microwave.  Got out the sharpest of the kitchen knives, a great old big one, with a sorta serrated blade.  I think it’s called a “bread knife”.  Sawed like a madman, and managed to get a little groove cut all the way around the midsection, before I remembered the ELECTRIC knife.  Took a good five or ten minutes to vibrate my way all the way through and get the trap baited.  In the future, I’ve decided to cut the UNFROZEN squirrels in half with the axe, then freeze the individual pieces, in “individual servings”, so to speak. 

Got all six traps set out, with a variety of baits, and can’t wait until the bait gets REALLY odorous, in a couple more days.  There’s a certain endangered carrion beetle (Nicrophorus americana–the American burying beetle) out there that hasn’t been seen in Missouri for many years.  I’d love to be able to find a few of those.  Happily, as I scouted the woods for decent places to set the traps, I came upon several really nice morel mushrooms, which are rather late in appearing this year, due to the crazy weather over the past few months.

I really appreciate having a wife who doesn’t complain TOO much about road-killed animals in the freezer.  Don’t think I’m gonna tell her about the knives, though.

Wipe That Coprophagic Grin Off Your Face!

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm

One of the wonderful things about blogging is the opportunity I have to introduce you to some of the really cool folks I get to meet, and to share some of the neat stuff I come across. I met Kent Fothergill at the Missouri Master Naturalist conference in October, and have been corresponding with him ever since.

Despite my wife’s objections, and total disgust, Kent and I have been e-mailing frequently about dragonflies, beetles, and (especially) dung beetles. Although I’m a confirmed dragonfly freak, he’s opening my eyes to coleopterans, especially scarabs.  He’s recommended several books, which are on the way, and is even sending me a “dung beetle trap”.  After an off-hand comment about collecting them on Boston Terrier poop, today’s e-mails brought me an article on A Dung Beetle Assemblage in an Urban Park in Louisiana and a story about a kid who did a science fair project on frozen versus fresh animal feces for attracting dung beetles.

Kent steered me to the following article.  HOW did the Missouri Extension Service manage to hold this event without my knowledge????

I just love this stuff.

Dung Beetles do the Dirty Work

 Field day looks at nature’s cleanup crew

(From the MU Cooperative Media Group, September 8, 2010)

PhotoKent Fothergill examines traps at recent Dung Beetle Field Day

COOK STATION, Mo. – For people, cowpats are smelly obstacles, but some creatures call them home. “To dung beetles, a dung pat is an ephemeral island in a hostile sea of grass,” said University of Missouri research associate Kent Fothergill at a recent dung beetle field day at MU Wurdack Farm in the Ozarks.

About two dozen people spent the day learning about dung beetles and the helpful role they can play on cow pastures. Dung beetles do more than make short work of cowpats littering pastures. “They improve soil structure, help control flies and other livestock pests, and recycle nutrients that otherwise would be lost,” said Wayne Bailey, MU Extension state entomologist. There are about 5,000 species of dung beetle throughout the world. They all like to eat dung, but some live inside dung pats, others tunnel beneath them while still others, the “rollers,” grab bits of manure, form them into little balls and, as Fothergill puts it, “take their little piece of heaven and run away with it.”

Dung beetles once were far more plentiful on American pastures, but the widespread use of certain drugs to worm cattle turned the manure of treated livestock into a lethal environment for the beetles. In recent years, however, pastures have become more hospitable, with more producers using different wormers or timing treatments so they are less damaging to the beetles. Because modern pastures can support more livestock, native dung beetle species may not be able to keep up with the increased manure production.

In the 1980s, USDA scientists in Texas experimented with importing species from abroad to help pick up the slack. Among the imports was gazella, an African beetle so voracious that just a few hundred of them can dismantle 150 pounds of elephant poop in less than 24 hours. Some farmers pay hundreds of dollars—about a buck a beetle—to buy starter colonies of gazella and similar species for their pastures.

Ralph Voss, an Osage County farmer and self-described “dung beetle enthusiast” talked at the field day about his experience with dung beetles on his farm. Voss encourages producers to swap beetles with other farmers to establish a healthy mix of species. A diverse beetle population—with differing feeding habits based on factors such as time of day, weather and climate, freshness of dung and the livestock’s diet—can promote a more efficient division of labor, meaning quicker removal of manure. However, as yet there is no reliable formula for maintaining a thriving dung beetle population on your farm. Creating ideal conditions for one species may be disastrous for another. That’s why Bailey is working with farmers, extension specialists and researchers such as Fothergill to collect data about dung beetle populations across Missouri.

“The questions are huge,” said Fothergill, who has trapped dung beetles from pastures near MU’s Delta Research Center in Portageville. He sees the cowpat as a scientific frontier awaiting researchers with the funding and fortitude to explore it. “They’re neat little model ecosystems that can help us answer big ecological questions.”

Other speakers at the field day included Tanja McKay, a veterinarian and entomologist at Arkansas State University. Her research team, which collected and studied dung beetles from Arkansas pastures, was featured last year in an episode of the Discovery Channel television series “Dirty Jobs.” Kelly Tindall, research entomologist at the MU Delta Center, told how dung beetles help in grazing systems by improving plant growth, reducing nutrient runoff and making more forage available to livestock.

PhotoSpecies collected included: Dichotomius carolinus (left) Onthophagus sp. (right)

Veterinarian Jody Wade of St. Joseph-based Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. talked about the livestock wormer moxidectin, a “dung beetle friendly” alternative to ivermectin. After the presentations, attendees got to examine the contents of dung beetle traps placed in Wurdack Farm pastures that morning. In just a few hours the traps had snagged a wide assortment of beetle species, from a tiny Labarrus pseudolividus to the walnut-sized Dichotomius carolinus.

Yes, Virginia, I CAN Teach You How to Make a Dung Beetle Trap!

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

One of the greatest joys of life is having interesting friends, and I can truly say that I have been blessed.  My new friend, Kent Fothergill, knows everything, and generously shares his knowledge with me.  I met him in October, when he was giving a workshop on butterflies (Yawn!!) at the Missouri Master Naturalist state conference.  His name seemed vaguely familiar, and I soon realized that I’d seen some of his dragonfly collection records on the Odonata Central website.

Kent has a way of making anything interesting, (I even enjoyed the butterflies!) and I’m afraid he’s gotten me enthused about beetles, even though I’ve yet to collect my first one.  I’ve ordered several books, and am getting REALLY excited about capturing some dung beetles.

As a child of rural Louisiana, I remember often watching these wonderful little bugs rolling their balls of manure around, and realized that I probably haven’t seen one in decades.  Are they disappearing, or am I simply spending somewhat less time watching piles of cattle poop?

I got three babyfood jars, filled two of them about 2/3 full of Boston Terrier poop, and buried them in my yard, even with the surface.

Filled the other one 2/3 full of human feces (don’t ask!), and buried it, as well.  The idea was that the beetles would be attracted to the bait, fall into the jars, then be too stupid to fly out.

Well, they were either smarter than I’d expected, or the bait didn’t exactly pull them in.

Yesterday, a box arrived in the mail, containing what I like to call a “Fothergill Model A Dung Beetle Trap”.  This thing is simplicity itself, and I just spent a Sunday afternoon making ten more, which I plan to bury all over my place, as soon as the bad weather passes through.  Only one step in the trap construction gave me any problems, and I soon modified the design into the “Fothergill B”.  I fully expect that you will immediately drop everything you are doing, and start putting together a couple dozen of these puppies.  Your spouse, if mine is any indication, will think you are a complete idiot.

I first needed some large soda bottles, of which I had none.  After church, my wife drove me to the recycling center, which is closed on Sunday.  I stepped over the gate chain, and proudly marched up to the “Plastics” bin.  These bins seem to have been designed to discourage 59-year-old men in their church clothes, but “fortitude” is my middle name.  I had to sorta crawl over a railing, then lean WAY down into the bin, but managed to come up with ten bottles.

Take the bottle, and (using your wife’s best pair of scissors), cut off the bottom six-and-a-half inches of the bottle.  Save it.  Then take the remaining part of the bottle, and cut off the TOP four inches.  Save it, too.  You’ll end up throwing away about 2″ of the MIDDLE of the bottle.

Okay, we’re on a roll now.
Take the top portion (the spout), turn it upside down, and drop it into the bottom portion.
Once you’ve pressed the two parts together, you can use a couple of little pieces of duct tape to keep everything together.  I have neglected to illustrate this step.  Use your imagination.

If you’ve been able to follow along, you now have a plastic cylinder, with a funnel leading into the bottom of the cylinder.  NOW, comes the technical stuff.  Kent uses little plastic “condiment cups” to hold the “bait”.  On his prototype, he had fashioned a little spiderlike contraption with a circular area to hold the cup.  I spent quite a lot of time trying to fashion this little piece, and ended up swearing a lot.  You are probably much more adept than I, so you can make the piece out of thin wire, as shown below:

Here’s the point where I gave everybody a cussing, and developed the Fothergill “B”. Instead of fooling around, trying to make the spiderlike thing, I simply took one of the plastic cups and made four VERY small holes at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00.The Fothergill BI then sorta shoved two pieces of straight wire (I used wire cut from surveyor’s flags), one each through the pairs of opposite holes, forming an “X”. As you can see, I then just bent the ends down, to keep the whole mess from sliding off the bottle.

 The ONLY drawback I can see is that the …er…bait will probably get all over the wires, but this ain’t a project for the squeamish.
NOW, pour a bit of CHEAP antifreeze into the bottom of the bottle.  Then fill the bait cup with your choice of mammalian dung.  Take the whole affair and bury it, with the top lip of the bottle level with the ground surface.
The idea is that the beetles will be attracted to the bait, then stupidly fall into the funnel, and die in the antifreeze.  Kent says to check the trap at least weekly, but I’m sure I’ll have to look at least a dozen times daily.  By the way, I saved the tops of the surveyor’s flags (with about 3″ of wire left on) to mark the traps.
Should you anticipate rainy weather, an optional “rain hat” can be constructed, as per Kent’s instructions.  Simply take a disposable plastic or styrofoam dessert dish, invert it, and drive three 4″ nails at equal intervals around the perimeter.

Then use the nails as legs to erect a shelter over the trap, leaving an inch or so open at the bottom to allow entry to the beetles.

 Interesting friends make for an interesting life.  I am forever indebted to Kent for the idea, and for the prototype.
Should you decide to construct these traps (and why WOULDN’T you?) be sure to give due credit, and ALWAYS refer to the apparatus as a “Fothergill”.  I hope that someday Kent will be as famous as Mr. …er…Kleenex.
(Note:  In a subsequent message, Kent informs me that the Fothergill is actually based on the design by Mike Smart, and that the Rain Hat is the brainchild of Ted MacRae [see Ted’s “Beetles in the Bush” blog, linked below.].  Since, however, Kent is the Henry Ford of dung beetle traps, perfecting the assembly line, I STILL will refer to them as “Fothergills”.)

Basic Beetling

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Wouldn’t ANY woman love to receive a pair of dead dung beetles from an admirer?

Two years ago, my friend Kelby Ouchley, a retired area manager for the USF&W in Louisiana, posted a beautiful picture of a dragonfly of some sort on Facebook, complete with identification. I sent back a snide (and completely fictitious) comment–something to the effect that his identification was incorrect, since this particular bug was undoubtedly a species found only in an area 100 yards distant from the capture site.

One thing led to another, and soon Kelby had me racing about the Missouri Ozarks, short-handled net in hand, sweating and swearing, and doing my best to snag any and all odonates clumsy or stupid enough to allow a 58-year-old guy to run them down.

I spent HUGE sums on dragonfly guides and gasoline. I became (via the Internet) acquainted with some of the nation’s premier odonate specialists–guys like John Abbott at the University of Texas, Dennis Paulson at the University of Puget Sound, Ed Lam in New England, Steve Hummel in Iowa, Nick Donnelly in New York, George Harp in Arkansas.

I invested in a larger and better net, preservative chemicals and supplies, even a dissecting microscope, so that my ancient eyes could pick out some of the more obscure diagnostic characteristics.

I began posting information on my captures to John Abbott’s EXCELLENT website, Odonata Central (www.odonatacentral.org).

Then, last October, I attended the annual gathering of Missouri Master Naturalists, at a state park near Saint Louis. I was assigned to a workshop on butterflies!!! BUTTERFLIES, a subject in which I had absolutely NO interest.

The workshop leader, Kent Fothergill, however, was one of the most enthusiastic guys I’d ever met. As the workshop progressed, I realized that his name was familiar, and finally realized that he was one of the FEW fools (beside myself) who’d been collecting dragonflies in Missouri and posting the results to the Abbott site.

We became fast friends, and began corresponding regularly. As dragonflies and damselflies disappear during the winter months, he gradually eased me into looking for BEETLES, while I waited for the reappearance of my beloved odonates. Do you have ANY idea how many different types of beetles exist, just in the Missouri Ozarks? One bazillion. And you can’t find them all in just one reference source. You have to buy DOZENS.

In addition, I guess I’d figured that most beetles would be BIG guys, easily seen and identified. WRONG!!! The vast majority of the things I’m collecting are well under 10 millimeters (that’s about four-tenths of an inch!!)

After awhile, Kent sent me a homemade trap designed to trap DUNG beetles. (You might want to check out another post in this blog, “Yes, Virginia, I CAN teach you how to make a dung beetle trap!”)

Much to my wife’s disgust, I’d soon constructed twelve of the gizmos, with a slight modification, and began referring to them as “Fothergill Model B” traps. Set them out all over my twenty-acre “holler”, baited with…er…you know…DUNG. Had to do this while my wife was at work. Also had to sneak into my neighbor’s cattle pasture with a shovel and box, in order to procure bait. Had to be crisp on the outside, and fresh on the inside.  Thought it would be interesting to bait traps with a variety of baits–from cows, horses, Boston Terriers, and humans (don’t ask!!!), and see which attracted the most beetles.  (So far, cow poop is leading the pack!)

Before long, I was up to my armpits in beetles. Not just dung beetles. Ladybugs, a tiger beetle or two. Fat scarabs. Skinny ground beetles.

Before long, I was also being driven into penury by trying to buy appropriate reference books. Beetling is just as addictive as catching dragonflies, and substantially easier. There are so many more of them, and they are, for the most part, rather slower than am I.

A box arrived in the mail two weeks ago. Kent had sent me several specimens of a beautiful dung beetle, Phanaeus vindex. I don’t know if it has a common name or not. While sitting in the hospital waiting room, awaiting my wife, Amanda’s, recent minor surgery, I fell into conversation with her boss, a beautiful and charming woman.

Several days after the surgery, as Amanda prepared to return to work, I presented her with a small box, carefully wrapped, and asked her to take it to her boss, telling her that I’d promised her a small gift. When Amanda returned that afternoon, she was incredulous. “You are an IDIOT!!!  You mean to tell me that you spent two hours chitchatting with a lovely and sophisticated lady, and you were telling her about DUNG BEETLES?!?!?!?”

“Well, she seemed quite interested. We had a very nice talk.  She actually had several anecdotes about dung beetles, from her childhood.”

“THEN, you had the audacity to actually WRAP up a pair of dead dung beetles and send them to her!?!?!?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t do that for just anybody. Did she like them?”

“Well, yes, she actually thought they were beautiful, but I was mortified.”

It’s mid-May now. The dragonflies should be back by now, but this odd Ozark spring weather hasn’t cooperated. I’ve only seen two, and they were blazing past, far too fast and too high to catch. The beetles, however, are still in abundance. I ran my Fothergill B’s the other day, and have 78 beetles, in vials of alcohol, to identify, and probably many more floating around in the traps, just waiting for me to come and get them.

If you have ANY interest whatsoever in beetles, check out the links at the lower left of my blog page. I am NOT the only Weird Bug Nerd out there.  Wonder if the zoo would let me have a bit of rhinocerous and alligator poop?

An “Overwhelm” of Beetles

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm

As many of you know, my primary entomological interest lies in the Class Odonata–the dragonflies and damselflies. I first became affected by this cool group of bugs a few years ago because they’re fun to look at, live in neat places that I like to visit, and are a relatively small group, thus giving me time to pick up a good deal of expertise in the few years I have left on this planet.

During the cooler months of the year, however, there aren’t any odes around to chase, catch, watch, or identify, so a friend suggested I take a look at BEETLES. In order to save embarrasing him, I won’t give you his name, but his initials are “Kent Fothergill”.

Do you have ANY idea just how many DIFFERENT beetles exist, just in North America???? The Peterson Field Guide figures on some 300,000 species, worldwide, and Arnett’s American Insects confidently states that the order Coleoptera (beetles) “has approximately as many species as the entire plant kingdom, including the algae and fungi”.

Arnett’s two-volume American Beetles, which will set you back about two hundred fifty bucks, lists ONE HUNDRED THIRTY-ONE families of beetles, which nifty common names like: antsucking beetles, deathwatch beetles, handsome fungus beetles, and minute marsh-loving beetles. I was curious as to what an assemblage of beetles might be called–you know, like a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows–and came up empty. I think I’ll just go out on a limb and call it an “overwhelm” of beetles.

Just attempting to key out beetles to the family level is a daunting task. They keys, which ramble on for page after page, start out something like this:

1. Notopleural sutures present OR, abdomen with only 3 ventrites; body form hemispherical, minute beetles (length <1.3 mm); OR, small (length <2.6 mm), soft-bodied beetles with wings rolled in a spiral “cigar” manner (i.e., not folded)…GO TO #2

1a. Notopleural sutures absent; abdomen with 4 or more ventrites, wings folded or not, not rolled: Polyphaga (Key D)

This type of thing then continues on for SIXTEEN-AND-A-HALF PAGES, just to get the $%^#@#$ things classified into one of the 131 FAMILIES, not to mention genus or species.

Piddling with beetles, however, puts me in good company–Darwin, Fothergill (http://biologistsoup.wordpress.com/), Ted MacRae (http://beetlesinthebush.wordpress.com), and a host of other interesting folks who have bent over backward to help me take halting baby steps.  For a fun read, I also recommend the guys at the University of Nebraska, who put out the “Scarabs” newsletter, http://museum.unl.edu/research/entomology/Scarabs-Newsletter.htm.

Probably the BEST resource for fledgling coleopterists, however, is the indescribably wonderful Bug Guide website (http://bugguide.net/). You simply take a clear picture (I have a LOT of trouble with that part) of ANY insect (Don’t be wasting their time with pictures of crickets and houseflies, though; try to send them INTERESTING stuff.), and you will probably have a detailed and accurate identification within minutes.

Last year, I grabbed a couple of water beetles from a stream in Ozark County, Missouri. Put them into an alcohol solution and pretty much forgot about them for a year. Figured, “how many families of aquatic beetles could there be?”. Turns out there are more than you want to fool with. After a couple of false starts, and the retaking of several of my craptastic photos, Bug Guide experts determined that they were members of the Dytiscidae, the “predaceous diving beetles”. A bit of back-and-forth e-mailing, and I now think I have specimens of a member of the Platambus species, as well as a 13 mm example of  Thermonectus nigrofasciatus ornaticollis. Take a look. Do you agree?

Platambus sp.
Platambus sp.
Thermonectus nigrofasciatus ornaticollis
Thermonectus nigrofasciatus ornaticollis

do enjoy my beetles, though.  Kent has taught me how to construct and bait dung beetle traps, with which to collect some very nice stuff, and to disgust my wife.  I’m currently reading books on locating and identifying certain types of beetles on decaying corpses.  Not having found any decaying HUMAN corpses, I’ve got a couple of well-rotted deer carcasses staked out, plus a rather fresh armadillo body.  I carry forceps, and rubber gloves, and vials of alcohol with me on my daily walks.  I get a LOT of funny looks from the occupants of passing cars as I dig around in the decaying torsos in the roadside ditches, and I’ve learned to breathe through my MOUTH.

Just getting my collection started, with SO much to learn, but I’m in fine company, meeting lots of good folks, and learning a little more each day.

A small part of my  beginning beetle collection
A small part of my beginning beetle collection
Some Scarabidae.
Some Scarabaeidae.

I’m overwhelmed.

Make Your Own FS1 “Pseudocorpse” Carrion Beetle Trap

In Coleoptera on March 19, 2013 at 11:36 pm

My wife thinks I’m weird. My wife also thinks I have too much time on my hands.

Today, I was e-mailing my friend and Insect Mentor, Kent Fothergill, who’s now living in Idaho. Kent got me interested in beetles a couple of years ago, and I really enjoy studying carrion and dung beetles. I was telling him how I’d taken advantage of the unseasonably warm “tornado weather” here in the Ozarks today by stopping at a rotten deer carcass alongside the road. I picked around through the bones and found quite a few really neat bugs.

Ever since I first saw Gil Grissom in “CSI” a few years ago, I’ve been intrigued by his use of insects to determine how long a human corpse has been, well, a corpse. Thanks to the Miracle of Amazon.com, I’ve even bought several books on the subject, and find them fascinating.

Soooo….I was wondering what sort of beetles I might find on dead bodies during these cold January Ozark days. My deer carcass has just about “returned to dust”, and I’ve been totally unlucky in finding any new roadkill to bring home. I don’t know the guy at the local funeral home well enough to see if he could supply me with any paupers. The books claim that deceased pigs are often used as “stand-ins” for experiments of this nature, but I don’t know any pig farmers, either.

I asked Kent if I could use some “bad” grocery store meat to lure carrion beetles. We both agreed that neither of us was wealthy enough to let ANY meat “go bad” once we’d brought it home. “So,” I say, “could I use the remains of a leftover steak or porkchop, cooked of course, with a bit of meat left on the bone? Would beetles come to cooked meat?”

Kent, modest as always (be SURE to check out his great blog, at www.biologistsoup.wordpress.com), said he had absolutely NO idea. Kent was the guy who sent me instructions on how to make dung beetle traps out of large soda bottles, which I promptly dubbed the “Fothergill Model B Dung Beetle Trap”. Within ten minutes, he’d e-mailed me a modification, which we are proud to call the “Fothergill-Sims Model 1 Pseudocorpse Carrion Beetle Trap (FS1 Pseudocorpse)”.

Here, Gentle Reader, are the complete instructions on building your OWN FS1, complete with illustrations. Enjoy.

1. First I assembled all the materials. It just so happened that I had a cold leftover pork steak in the fridge.

You need a large soda bottle, a piece of wire (I used the wire from a surveyor’s flag), some duct tape, and a little antifreeze. Two cinderblocks, too.

Then I pulled out the pork steak.

Okay, we’re rolling now.

2. Remove excess meat from bait. Under normal circumstances, I rarely leave ANYTHING on the bone; however, this is SCIENCE!

3. Go out to your woodshed. It doesn’t have any wood in it, ’cause you were too shiftless to cut any last summer, but at least it’ll keep the trap out of the weather.

4. Cut off the top of the soda bottle, invert it into the bottom, and tape the edges with duct tape. Pour a bit of the antifreeze into the bottom (this will kill the captured specimens), dig a hole in the dirt floor of the woodshed, and bury the whole affair in the ground, with the rim at groundlevel.

5. Get a wire vegetable rack out of an old refrigerator. If you don’t have an old refrigerator, get the wire rack out of your WIFE’S refrigerator. Tell her somebody stole it.

Wire the porkchop bone to the bottom of the rack, using the wire from the surveyor’s flag.

6. “Okay,” you say, “WHY do we need the wire basket?” Because, Grasshopper, in a few days this bone will be a stinking mess, and will attract all SORTS of animals–coyotes, skunks, weasels, and such.

7. You then turn the basket over, and place it over the trap, with the bone dangling over the opening:

8. NOW, place two cinderblocks on top of the basket, to weight it down. If an animal comes along who’s strong enough to move them, you don’t wanna fool with him, anyway.

Ta-daaaaaaah! Installation is complete. Now, all you’ve got to do is sit back, and let the Bugs Come Rolling In. Ain’t science grand? Patent pending.

Whipping the Beetles Into Line

In Coleoptera on March 19, 2013 at 11:33 pm

Well, since I’m not fabulously wealthy, like Kent Fothergill, who can afford those nifty museum drawers, nor fantastically handy, like Mickey or Skyler McLean, who can BUILD the things, I’ve had my fledgling beetle collection housed in free USPS mailing boxes. (See “Forty-five Cent Insect Collection Boxes” post on this blog). It’s worked out fairly well, but I wanted to add a certain…er…spiffiosity to the collection, without spending a full bag o’ bucks.

While down at my local building supply store, I noticed those short (12″h x 10″w x 10″d) plastic cabinets, each with five drawers, in which nuts and bolts are distributed for sale. Cardboard inserts are normally placed in each drawer to hold each individual nut and/or bolt size, and they seemed like just the thing.

The owner didn’t have any lying around, although he checked thoroughly, and said he’d GIVE me any surplus ones he found (Be sure to buy ALL your building supplies from Mike Roberts, at Mansfield Building Supply!). He did, however, contact his Official Nuts And Bolts Supply Guy, who promised to deliver as many as I wanted, for twenty-five bucks a pop. I wanted THREE.

The plastic cabinet.

The plastic cabinet.

Cost thus far: $75

I then went down to my neighborhood dollar store (I just LOVE Dollar General. You should shop there regularly.) and bought SEVEN sheets of 20″x30″ foam posterboard, at a dollar each. I really only needed five, but figured I’d surely screw something up during the process. $7.45

Cost thus far: $82.45

The cabinets were not EXACTLY as I’d have liked. Each drawer was divided into two sections, front and back, by a short un-removable plastic divider. The front section was 10-3/4″ x 5″, and the back was 10-3/4″ x 5-1/4″. I cut up the posterboard to make fifteen of each size.

I checked out Arnett’s two-volume American Beetles and saw that he had listed 131 families of American beetles. In his American Insects, he claims that twelve of the families “account for approximately 70% of all beetle species. Thus educated, I decided to give each of those twelve species its own half-drawer, since I figured I’d probably catch more of them than the others. I then divided (using a Sharpie pen) the remaining 18 posterboard cutouts into 119 sections, six to some boards and seven to others. I wish I’d noticed that he didn’t consider Cincindelidae to be a separate family, so I could have added another section.

Posterboard cut to size, with family labels attached.

Posterboard cut to size, with family labels attached.

On my computer, I printed out two lists of the species, alphabetized them, and cut out each individual one, as a label for each section drawn on the posterboard. I cut out the second section of labels in blocks of 13 or 14 species, to serve as labels for the drawers.

Cabinet labels, for each drawer.

Cabinet labels, for each drawer.

Glued all the labels here and there. Didn’t count the cost of the Sharpie, nor the glue, nor the scissors, which were just lying around anyway. Total cost: $82.45, including tax.

Moved all the beetles into the drawers, which look substantially better than the cardboard boxes, albeit with a few drawbacks.

Beetles pinned and labeled.

Beetles pinned and labeled.

The fronts of the drawers are open, which might allow insect/environmental damage to the specimens over time. I’d used mothballs in the previous boxes, but don’t know how effective they’d be in the open air.

The drawers do not pull completely out, which means I must actually remove the posterboard bases from the rear half of the drawer if I want to get at the bugs back there.

Before and after.  USPS boxes (top) and plastic cabinetry (below)

Before and after. USPS boxes (top) and plastic cabinetry (below)

In the meantime, I’m being real nice to Kent, so that he’ll leave me his museum drawers, should he (perish the thought!) be run over by a beer truck.

References:

Arnett, Ross H., Jr., American Insects, Second Edition, CRC Press, 2000.

Arnett, Ross H., Jr. & Michael C. Thomas, American Beetles, Volume 1, CRC Press, 2001.

Arnett, Ross H., Jr., Michael C. Thomas, Paul E. Skelley & J. Howard Frank, American Beetles, Volume 2, CRC Press, 2002.