Sunday, July 24, 2022

Reddish-Brown Stag Beetle


On a recent trip to Alabama while walking through the woods at a historical site my husband spotted this large beetle on the ground. I stopped to pick it up and place it on a nearby wall for a few pictures. I knew immediately what it was having encountered them at home many times. The reddish-brown stag beetle (Lucanus capreolus) is one of the largest beetles in Missouri reaching lengths up to 1 ½ inches. They are indeed reddish-brown in color, with yellow-orange hairs visible around the thorax and along the abdomen. The males possess long mandibles (jaws). Their species name of capreolus comes from the Latin word for roe deer, because individuals who give names to the flora and fauna of the natural World thought those menacing looking jaws resembled roe deer antlers. Even though those jaws look fearsome, they are actually harmless. They are incapable of biting, but rather give a pinch which earned them another common name of pinching beetle. The females on the other hand have shorter mandibles, with more strength and may bite if mishandled.  

The jaws on the male are not meant for capturing prey or for eating, instead they are weapons in the mating game. Females release a pheromone into the air that males from great distances can smell. This will attract numerous amorous males to her all determined to win her attention. When rival males encounter one another, they use those large mandibles to topple over the competition in a form of a beetle WWE smack down. They will lock mandibles and shove each other while twisting and turning attempting to flip their opponent. The winner earns the favor of the female. Soon after mating the female will deposit eggs in the trunks of dying or dead trees. The larvae will feed on the remaining heart wood of the decaying tree. It may take up to 3 years for the larvae to reach the adult stage, when it will only live the for the rest of the season. The only exception would be if it is able to find a warm area like a compost pile, it may survive until the following year. Because of their preference for trees already in a state of decay they possess no threat to living trees. Adults feed on sap flows, in captivity they will readily eat diluted maple syrup or sugar water. Some will feed on the juices released by overripe fruit like fallen apples, or peaches. They do not possess any real ability to chew, instead they consume their food through the hairs near their mouth that capture the juices of their liquidy dinner.

In the larval stage they are a favorite food of raccoons, and woodpeckers that dig them out of the stumps they are feeding within. These would be the little cream filled ones Timone and Pumba favored in Lion King.  Skunks, foxes, birds, bats and frogs all eat the adults. There is a lot of protein in a beetle this large, in fact there is more protein in a large beetle than in a piece of steak the same size! Humans often pose a threat to the survival of stag beetles throughout the World. In many areas of Europe, they are protected from illegal collecting for the pet trade. Believe it or not large beetles are a black-market commodity for unethical insect collectors. This poses a serious threat to existing populations and diversity of beetles all over the World.

In addition to cracking down on the illegal collections of beetles, throughout Europe, woodland areas that are known to have populations of stag beetles need special permitting to proceed with whatever plans they have for cutting and removing trees. This ensures that beetles will survive by being moved to appropriate locations nearby. These beetles tend to bask in the sun and look for warm pavement to sit and soak up the sun’s rays. These forays into the sunshine often result in cars running them over or people trampling them. In some cases, humans deliberately kill them because of those large mandibles and ferocious appearance it gives them, not realizing this beetle is harmless and even beneficial. The constant feeding of the larvae breaks down the decaying trees returning nutrients to the soil. 


Stag beetles have a long and interesting history rooted in folklore. The Germans called them Donnerschroter, which translates to Thunder beetle, because of the belief that these beetles summoned lightning. Other areas of Germany believed these beetles carried burning coals into homes starting fires. Still other cultures call them Devil beetles because of their horn-like mandibles. Other parts of the World refer to them as billywitches, oak-ox, and horse pincher. We can only imagine how those names took root. By whatever name they are referred to stag beetles evoke many emotions, fear, awe and even respect. Cultures all across the world feature myths and folklore about them. Many land managers are beginning to understand the role these beetles play in the ecosystems where they occur and manage their land accordingly, by leaving stumps, and decaying trees. Next time you are considering tidying up your woodland or yard, consider leaving trees in an advanced stage of decay, including logs and stumps. The beetles, and other invertebrates who depend on them, will be grateful.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Orange-Tipped Oakworm Moth

On a recent trip to Waterloo, Alabama, I found this orange-tipped oakworm moth (anisota sexatoria) hanging out on the back of our rental. They are also referred to as the orange-striped oakworm moth or Peigler's oakworm moth, and are found from the eastern edge of the great plains to the east coast, and south to Georgia, Alabama and Texas. They are far more abundant in the Northern regions.

The stunning rusty-orange coloration bordered by a pinkish hue makes this small moth both eye-catching and memorable. Males are larger than females, and much more colorful. The smaller female is lighter in color and blends in more with the oak trees she uses as her host. Some scientists even believe that the male coloration mimics bees and wasps. This would give them a certain amount of protection from hungry birds who might find a moth tasty, but a bee formidable. Females release a pheromone to attract males, sometimes from great distances. After mating, females will lay eggs near the host tree. Oaks are nearly always chosen, especially red oaks.

Examples of Red Oak (Quercus spp.) in Missouri

  1. Scarlet oak (Q. coccinea)
  2. Northern pin oak (Hill’s oak, jack oak) (Q. ellipsoidalis)
  3. Spanish oak (southern red oak) (Q. falcata)
  4. Shingle oak (Q. imbricaria)
  5. Blackjack oak (Q. marilandica)
  6. Water oak (Q. nigra)
  7. Cherrybark oak (Q. pagoda)
  8. Pin oak (Q. palustris)
  9. Willow oak (Q. phellos)
  10. Northern red oak (Q. rubra)
  11. Shumard oak (Q. shumardii)
  12. Nuttall’s oak (Q. texana)
  13. Black oak (yellowbark oak) (Q. velutina)

A couple of reports I read said they will also feed on some maple species, chestnut (which makes sense, as it is a relative to the oak), birch, hickory and hazel. I have no idea if these reports are true, as most information said their host is entirely oaks.

 The excessive hairy scales covering the body would add extra insulation against cooler temperatures, which makes since as the largest portion of their population lives in the Northern regions of the United States. In those areas huge outbreaks can occur giving them pest status. Under normal circumstances there is no lasting damage to trees. They are a late season feeder, so the trees are already fully leafed out and developed. The caterpillars are defoliators and will strip the leaves of their chlorophyll filled green parts in no time. In areas where infestations are excessive the defoliation of trees can weaken them, making them susceptible to other environmental stressors, like disease. In those situations trees may be in danger of dying.  Like all adult silk moths, they do not feed in the adult stage, instead they get all their nutrition during the caterpillar stage. As adults they have very short lifespans, and die shortly after mating. 

 Truly one of natures more beautiful creatures packed in a compact fur cover body. 


Friday, July 1, 2022

Wood Nettle

On a recent trip to Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge, in Mound City, MO to lead a micro-hike for a group of junior naturalists we found a sea of dark green plants growing in the woodlands. These plants were approximately two feet high with large, serrated leaves, and a few possessed delicate tiny whitish-green blossoms. This was the predominate plant in the area, yet none of us were sure what it was. Then we began noticing shiny, egg-like growths on the leaves. What were these plants? What were these growths? One of our hikers pulled out his phone and we soon had an answer. These were wood nettles! The growths? Those were nettle galls! We had our answer, but as with most answers, come more questions.

I was very curious about this particular nettle and how it was related to the common stinging nettle most of us are familiar with. Wood Nettles are native to Eastern North America and are common in moist open woodlands, along streams and in drainage areas. They quickly spread by rhizomes and can become the predominant plant in a given area. Each plant contains both male and female parts and are pollinated by wind rather than insects. This perennial is an important dense cover plant for native wildlife like quail. Whitetail deer forage on the green leaves and seem to not mind the stinging hairs on the foliage. Several butterfly species use this plant as their host, including the comma, and question mark and the red admiral. Other insects, like the tiny gall midges also utilize the nettle. A midge will lay an egg on the plant, when the tiny larvae hatches, it will begin feeding on the leaves. This feeding creates a response in the plant and a gall will form around the larvae. Many weeks later the adult midge will emerge. Midges are one of the largest groups of insects in the world. Most are harmless, some cause considerable damage to crops and still others feed on the midges who are causing damage. In the case of the nettle midge, it poses no threat to the plant.

One of the most notable characteristics of nettles are the stinging hairs each part of the plant is covered in. Wood nettles have both stinging and non-stinging hairs on the leaves and stems. Brush too closely to one, or mistakenly grab one like I did, and you will be left with a painful burning, stinging reaction you will not soon forget. Lesson learned! Individuals who are extra sensitive to the barbed hairs may swell, turn red and develop rashes or welts where the skin came into contact with the plant. This can last for several days in some cases. Fortunately, my reaction was short lived.

The common stinging nettle that we are most familiar with is a European cousin to the wood nettle. Early immigrants knew the forage and medicinal qualities of this plant and brought it with them to the New World. Unbeknownst to them, the native wood nettle was a comparable alternative to the plant they were previously familiar with. As with most non-native plants they can quickly become invasive the common stinging nettle is no exception. While the plants are similar, there are some differences, including the leaf arrangement. Common nettles have leaves that are opposite on the stem, whereas wood nettle have alternate leaves. The wood nettles tend to have wider, larger leaves compared to the much thinner leaves of the common variety. Both species however possess stinging hairs, and some claim the woodland variety packs a more powerful punch.

The history of nettles in terms of human use and benefits dates back centuries in Europe, and much of what was known was lost during the inquisition and the subsequent persecution of the “witches” who possessed the healing knowledge of the flora in their area. Healers and herbalists of the time were feared and persecuted for their seemingly magical ability to cure people from all manner of illness and injury. Often, they were called witches and paid with their lives for doing nothing more than helping humankind. Thankfully, many modern herbalists and healers are keeping the knowledge alive. Both common and wood nettles have many uses. Native people used the leaves and stems to make nettle tea that would facilitate childbirth. Meskwaki and Ojibwa used the plant as a diuretic and to treat other urinary issues. Tonics could be made to treat chronic diseases of the colon. Leaves were applied as a styptic to stop bleeding.

The strength of the fibers within the stems were valued by Native tribes as well as Europeans to make a type of hemp thread that could be woven into cloth. Fibers could also be turned into cordage to make nets for capturing fish, or to weave into pouches and baskets. This cordage is reported to be as much fifty times stronger than cotton cordage. Europeans turned the fibers into a type of paper as well, and just think how many trees could be saved if we still did this! Sufferers of arthritis or rheumatism seeking relief from their discomfort would purposely allow themselves to be stung by the leaves. This generates a response from the immune system that purportedly offers relief that may last up to a week. 

 This wild edible is reportedly delicious if you can get past the stinging hairs. Foraging should be done carefully. Always wear gloves, the hairs on this plant can even penetrate clothing. So why bother? This plant is rich in vitamin A and C, iron, and proteins. The flavor is similar to a salty, fishy, spinach that pairs well in soups with quail eggs and dill. If you steam the plant, there is a floral taste similar to apples or cherry blossoms. Use scissors to clip young shoots or to snip off the young tops, place in a brown paper sack. Refresh in icy water once you are home. Make sure to dry completely before storing, if too much water is left on the leaves, it will cause the plant to wilt, and sour essentially spoiling it. Store in a zip-loc bag with a damp paper towel. Poke a hole in the top of the bag for air flow. The nettles can be kept for a week in the refrigerator this way. Bring out to add to your favorite soups, egg dishes or other recipes. Cooking the nettle removes the stinging hairs, so no worries of an unpleasant culinary experience. Venturing outside for some time in the woodlands often yields not only peace-of-mind, but dinner as well.