Sunday, September 22, 2013

Official State Insects

Honey bee. © Beatriz Moisset
Did you know that most states have an official insect? Probably not. You may have heard of state birds and state flowers, or even state butterflies. But, who would have thought of state insects! Actually most states have an official insect, or, at least an official butterfly. Some even have both. Just for fun, try to imagine which insect you would select to represent your state. Take a few minutes before reading further or checking this complete list. Think harder; are you drawing a blank? I will tell you later my choice for the state of Pennsylvania.

If you picked the honey bee, you are in the majority. Seventeen states made the same decision, not a very imaginative one. That is almost half of all states with an official insect. Tennessee, not satisfied with two state insects, the firefly and the ladybug, added the honey bee as its official agricultural insect. Kentucky did the same.

The notion that the honey bee could represent a state surprises me because it isn't a native insect. Europeans introduced it to this continent in the 1600s. It is an agricultural species, not a member of the local wildlife. Tennessee and Kentucky seem to be the only ones that got it right when making it their official agricultural insect. It shouldn't be so hard to find a useful native insect to represent each state considering that there are thousands of them.

Monarch butterfly © Beatriz Moisset

Seven states have chosen the monarch butterfly; not surprising considering that the monarch is so well known and loved. Actually three of those states (Minnesota, Vermont and West Virginia) picked the monarch as their state butterfly, in addition to their official insect. I wonder which is truly well known: the butterfly itself or just its iconic image. Most people can't tell a monarch from one of its look-alikes, the queen, the soldier, or the viceroy butterflies. In fact, many see a fritillary and think it is a monarch despite clear differences in pattern and size. Kudos to Kentucky whose official butterfly is the Viceroy! They really know their insects.

Where this list of official state insects gets amusing is when the "insect" in question refers to dozens or even hundreds of related species. The ladybug has been selected by six states ignoring the fact that ladybugs, better called lady beetles, include around 500 species, not all charming or beneficial. Did you know that a few species eat plants, rather than insect pests? They are pests themselves, like the Mexican bean beetle and the alfalfa beetle. Also, did you know that a couple of dozens were introduced from other lands? North Dakota deserves congratulations for choosing the convergent lady beetle. They, too, know their insects.

Convergent lady beetle © Beatriz Moisset

In addition to North Dakota and Kentucky, a few other states show their knowledge of insects, for instance, Maryland with the Baltimore Checkerspot Butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton). This handsome creature well deserves its name because of its checkerboard pattern. South Carolina chose the Carolina mantis, another brilliant choice.

Carolina mantis. © Kaldari. Wikicommons
I promised to tell you my preference for the state of Pennsylvania. The state insect is the firefly, not bad; but with 150 species of fireflies, later on it was narrowed down to the species Pennsylvania Photuris (Photuris pensylvanica). Did you know that some fireflies are diurnal and have no light?

Ellychnia corrusca, winter firefly, diurnal or active during the day. © Beatriz Moisset
I would choose a beautiful little metallic green bee. It is small and goes easily unnoticed to the point that it doesn't even have a common name. Its scientific name, Augochlora pura, means "magnificent pure green bee." The public may not know about this little beauty, but it can be quite common. Mountain mint flowers can act as magnets for this hard-working pollen gatherer. Recently I saw as many as a hundred bees on each bush of mountain mint in a garden with more than a dozen such plants.

The magnificent pure green bee. © Beatriz Moisset

Would you have any suggestions for the official insect of your own state?

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2013

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Buzz Pollination of Fabaceae Flowers

Flower of Senna. Observe the pores at the tip of the anthers
© Beatriz Moisset
It is interesting how several families of plants have evolved anthers that require buzz pollination, also called sonication, independently of each other. The organ that contains the pollen or anther of most flowers splits open when the pollen is ripe, making it available to the flower visitor. Buzz pollinated flowers do it differently. The anther remains closed, except for a pore at its tip. The only way to extract the pollen is by shaking the anther with just the right kind of vibration. Bumble bees are pros at doing this. Honey bees never developed the technique.

Close-up of the anthers © Beatriz Moisset
We are most familiar with the members of the tomato and potato family, Solanaceae. So much so, that some gardeners resort to a tuning fork or just an electric toothbrush to ensure pollination of the tomato flowers. Seeing pollen fly from the anthers during this process is a sight worth seeing. Another family with members that require buzz pollination is the Ericaceae; Blueberries, cranberries, azaleas and rhododendrons use this process.

Senna plant. © Beatriz Moisset
Perhaps, it is less known that some members of the pea family, Fabaceae, in the Caesalpinioideae subfamily also resort to this process. The genera Senna and Cassia, belong to this group. Recently I observed a bumble bee visiting the bright yellow flowers of a Cassia and was able to record the buzzing. The sound is unmistakable, quite different from the buzzing of flying. Watch the video of bumble bee on Senna and pay attention to the sound. You can compare it to that of a bumble bee pollinating an azalea.

Bumble bee, probably the common bumble bee. © Beatriz Moisset

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Beginners Guide to Pollinators and Other Flower Visitor

© Beatriz Moisset. 2013