Author Archives: aphidman

The Stories We Tell Ourselves to Feel Just or Correct; Plus, Regrets and Happiness

**I’ll come back to aphids a little bit toward the end, I promise.  Meanwhile, since this is my website I’m going to write what I want to.**

Three things came together this past week that prompt this essay. First, I am reading the book A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, second, I watched a crushing, tears inducing, documentary called Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield, and third, I was pointedly reminded of a major failing of my own from about a decade ago.

As human beings we mostly want to feel like we are good, and that what we do or support is done for good reasons, is right, or just. Arguably, there are psychopaths who differ from most of us, but I’m putting them aside. Throughout U.S. history, as documented in Zinn’s book, horrible things have been done by those in power including the displacement and genocide of the native peoples of North America, the capture, commodification, and torture of African slaves, the subjugation of poor white immigrants, the severe repression and disrespect of women, the abuse of children in factories, the invasion of Mexico and theft of its land, the destruction of the natural systems across the whole continent, genocide and war in SE Asia and almost every other corner of the globe, etc.

Many justifications have been put forward over the centuries, explaining why atrocities like these are good things. Concepts such as human advancement, or “progress,” having a higher value in the long run than the human suffering it causes along the way.  Or, that killing and mis-treating Native Americans, Africans, or Mexicans, is fine because they are not equal to white people, or that they are not in fact human (an idea being promulgated even today by Donald Trump, calling Central American refugees ‘animals’). Subjugating women was justified because they were deemed weak and generally less capable, and that the positions and opportunities they were granted by the men in power were the most they could really handle. The U.S. throughout its history has justified invasion of other countries by framing invasion as good for the local population, that the U.S. will bring civilization, freedom, prosperity, or ‘democracy,’ or that invasion is necessary in order to advance human progress.  The destruction of the environment is justified in the name of economic growth, which is taken by most people in rich parts of the world as necessary for human survival. It’s all about the way the story is told. If we tell the story to ourselves and each other in the right way, all sorts of terrible things feel less terrible.

The same trend exists in our personal lives and the choices we make day to day, month to month, about how to live. Although “Generation Wealth” is about a lot more than personal choices, it’s that aspect of the film I want to write about.  The film documents parts of the lives of several people with different stories.  One is a banker who put accumulation of wealth above family, friends, humanity in general.  Another is a business executive who put work above all other goals in life until it was almost too late. There were stories about people who subjugated themselves through prostitution and pornography in their attempt to get ahead, to gain wealth and power over others. There was a 6-year-old beauty pageant winner who was in it for the money, who already viewed her goal in life as money accumulation.

Two stories in the film hit me the hardest. One was the film-maker herself, who had grown up with divorced parents who put their careers first, and who then herself had become very career focused, choosing work over family in a number of ways.  In one segment, she discussed a choice she made about leaving home for a work assignment just weeks after giving birth to a son. Her husband encouraged the trip and was there to look after the family, but still it was an important decision. She decided to go. She interviewed her sons for the film, and a heart-wrenching scene was when her teenage son said that from his perspective, she was gone a lot throughout his childhood.  He said something about realizing that “damage was done.” This was a teenager talking to his mother, saying that she had made poor decisions about being gone so much.  He said these things, swallowed hard, then looked with compassion at the camera and asked her if she was OK.  I bet she was crying. I would have been.  I’ve been in her shoes, choosing between family time and work time.  I chose work very often.  The justification I think many people like me articulate is that “the kids will be OK.” And, we tell ourselves, the money, social advancement, and perceived stability will benefit the kids down the road enough to counter-balance the short-term damage.  We want those things, money, social status, and stability, and justify our aggressive pursuit of them by framing it as good for the kids.  Would the kids be better off if we made decisions to be involved rather than away? Very likely. But instead, we make the decision, tell ourselves that they’ll be OK, and that OK is good enough.

Another core aspect of the film is the idea that accumulation of wealth or achievement of social status leads to happiness, that having what popular culture pushes us to have is the recipe.  Some people are obsessed with money and possessions as that path to happiness.  Others focus on looking and acting the part. One story in the film was of a person who chose cosmetic surgery, and having the right body and face, as the path to happiness.  This came with great sacrifice in terms of surgeries and financial burden that she could not afford. It made for stress in her single-parent-of-two-children household. This belief in looking a certain way as being necessary for happiness was all-consuming for her, and (it was implied) became so for her teenage daughter. This storyline ended with the woman bankrupt, still obsessed with her physical appearance, and with her teenager dead (from suicide).

At last we are coming back to the third prompt to writing this essay: my choices made when my sons were teens, about a decade ago. The reminder of those days came to me last week via a share of an old Facebook post from a friend of one of my sons about the dangerous self-destructive behavior they engaged in as teens.

The driving force behind the most troubling of my choices might have been similar to the woman I just mentioned: a sense that if only I can succeed at being happy, my happiness will benefit my children (I was also a full time single parent). It’s akin to trickle-down economics.  Make myself rich with happiness and my children will reap the benefits.  The woman above sought happiness in cosmetic surgery and the pursuit of physical appearance.  My pursuit was not unrelated: romantic love and a happiness-inducing relationship and/or marriage with a woman.  By pursuing happiness for myself in an intimate relationship, the argument went, I would achieve a happiness that would benefit me and my whole family enough to outweigh the negatives.  What were those costly negative choices I made?  Mainly, to spend a lot of time away from home, leaving young people to fend for themselves and without parental supervision, involvement, and guidance. Were they likely to be OK through it all?  I suppose. At least that’s what I chose to believe.  Was I, in fact, achieving a happiness that was great enough to overcome the negatives of my absences?  Absolutely not.  It was an intensely stressful time, trying to maintain a warm and exciting romantic life while maintaining a more-than-full-time job, a house, property, a pack of dogs, and being a good single parent to two teens.

A key thing in the film, which I know would apply to me, were I interviewed about this story I just old, is the facial expressions of people telling their stories, of why they did what they did. They would explain their rationale for their choices, often with energy and a smile. Then, after they spoke their final sentence, they’d settle just a bit and their face said it all – “I know what I did was wrong, and I knew it at the time.” This applied to the mother of the filmmaker, asked about whether she knew that her choices as a parent hurt her children.  She said she didn’t know this, but the look on her face said something completely different. The cosmetic surgery woman was the same – even when she was making the choices she did, she knew they were wrong at some level, but used a lie to herself to justify them.  Like them, I lied to myself and everyone I talked to about those times. I said that I was leaving home in pursuit of a happiness-inducing romantic life for the benefit of the children and everyone else in my life.  No, that was a lie and a part of me knew it from the start.

While I was away from home, ostensibly pursuing my trickle-down happiness, much unhealthy and self-destructive behavior was going on at home. Dangerous things. Through those things, I could have ended up like the woman in the film, with a dead child.  Luckily, death did not ensue, but death-no death is not a very useful metric.  What would have, could have, been the outcome if every weekend or week I spent away from home, leaving teenagers to fend for themselves and party with friends, I had instead stayed at home? Cooked. Involved them in projects. Taken them hiking in my quests for aphids. Read more books with them. Heck, played more video games with them.

My sons are now OK, but only after suffering the most heart-wrenching and at times life-threatening periods in their early 20s. Could those hard times have been avoided or ameliorated if I had made other choices?  Quite likely. Do I know that my decisions in many situations were wrong? Yes.  Was I fully honest with myself and those around me at the time about my feelings and my justifications for my choices? No.

Sometimes I get going on a rant and then rhetorically ask, “Why did I start talking about this?” This is one of those times.

Two final things before I finish here.  First, regrets. Second, happiness. 

I’ve occasionally talked with one friend or another about the ways in which I let my sons down as a father.  They caution me about needlessly punishing myself for things long in the past.  Another friend once said something to the effect of, the only thing we’ll have left on our deathbeds is our regrets. I disagree with the latter, and the former needn’t worry.  I strongly believe that looking at and recognizing one’s failures is a good thing and does not lead to sadness or deathbed regrets. There is much in my life I could have done better from various perspectives (myself, my brother, sisters, parents, wives, children, etc.), but I know very deeply that I tried as hard as I could at the time. Trying hard was what I could do.  I shouldn’t feel anger or sadness with my past self, but just acknowledge that I’ve learned since then and that I have grown as a result of my mistakes.

Finally, happiness.  Ultimately, Generation Wealth is about people trying to achieve happiness.  They are all conditioned to pursue happiness through acquisition, accumulation, and power.  That fact is not their faults.  It’s a fallacy almost all of us first-world, lacking-for-nothing people cling to dearly. The film was about seeking money, fame, power, and property as means to happiness. But I want to emphasize another common fallacy not dealt with by the film — acquisition of humans, of relationships, as pathways to happiness.  Happiness never results from acquisition of or owning anything. Happiness cannot be given to, or made for, another person.  Happiness comes from choosing. Each of us is responsible for our own happiness.  It can be right here, right now, if we choose.  The trick? How to effect that choice.  Therein lies the real mystery. The place to look for effecting that choice is inside, to grasping our true identity, to understanding our unity with everything.

For a couple other ideas on happiness see the following:

I know the captions are not in English. Just listen carefully, you can do it. 🙂
From Mooji, my guru. I can point you to many others of his talks if you want.

Preparing Physically and Mentally for 2019

The old Bumble walking in the snow near Lakeview.

Outdoors the snow is flying and winter is stamping its authority after an unsettlingly warm January.  The mountains are being energized with deep layers of snow. It’s the fourth consecutive year that our little corner of the world has had a respite from the ravages of climate change and winterless winters.  My little world of aphid research has been productive since the first flakes flew in November, with one Macrosiphum manuscript finished and in press for publication in the first quarter of 2019, another Macrosiphum manuscript drafted and almost ready for submission, specimens sent to collaborators in Poland and Georgia for the beginning of a new project on Macrosiphoniella, specimens of Euceraphis measured and ready to send to England for a possible new species description, and all my major collection curation work done.

Collecting vials prepped and ready for 2019.

Each year my first ceremonial step in preparation for the coming collecting season is cleaning and fillings my vials and applying new labels to them.  I’ve been using the same vials since 1988. And, I still remember the day that my mentor and boss Gary Reed stomped down the stairs to my lair at the research station in about 1989 and gave me the rolls of labels I still use today.  He said he got them from a librarian, that they were high quality label stickers, and that the two rolls ought to last me the rest of my life.  He was right.  I’ve been slicing and applying those labels to slides and vials (and containers of leftovers in the freezer) for almost 30 years now.

As I contemplate another growing season and a headlong rush through another season of pursuing my aphid research, I’ve struggled with a shadow (or more) of despair about the future of humanity and the ecology of Earth. It seems inevitable that massive destruction of the Earth’s natural systems will continue for generations until it is stopped by cataclysm or alien invasion.  Although each of our lives is arguably meaningless under any circumstances, this steam engine of inevitability makes it harder to convince myself of meaning or value in what I do.  This winter even aphid research, my one lifelong refuge, has lost some of its ability to give me direction.

As I hike or pedal my bicycle through forests and valleys, I ponder what might help me live life with some sense of peace while accepting the inevitabilities of human-wrought climate change and ecological devastation. I’ve been blessed this winter with a few glimmers of hope for answers or at least helping hands and, with the sense of irony fully in mind, all have come to me through modern contrivances such as iPhones, Facebook, and YouTube.

Music

Heilung in costume. Photo by Søren Bech from their Facebook page.

A couple months ago Gina heard from a friend on Facebook about a musical group from Northern Europe called Heilung (= “healing” in German) and insisted that I give them a listen.  One listen on YouTube and their work connected with me in a visceral, primal way that nothing before has done. As they describe their work, “Heilung tries to connect the listener to the time before Christianity and its political offspring, that tortured and burned itself into the European mentality and culture of today. Heilung links.  It links the listener to an ancient mind-set and it links people.”  As a human only a few generations separated from Northern Europe, the amplified history of Heilung gives me a way to think about my ancestors beyond the faith in science to solve all human-caused problems, beyond the violence and conquest wrought by Europeans all around the world, and beyond the influence of Christianity and the idea of human supremacy that it spawned. It’s a depressing thing to look back on the past thousand years of European history and realize that it has been a story of losing touch with the natural world and a cleaving to ideas of human supremacy and the need to control everything and everyone within our influence. I think Heilung touches many of its fans because it connects us suddenly and viscerally to a past that our culture has cut itself off from.  As their opening ritual says:

“Remember, that we all are brothers
All people, beasts, trees and stone and wind
We all descend from the one great being
That was always there
Before people lived and named it
Before the first seed sprouted.”

Essays

For many years I have been receiving Science magazine.  I go through spells when I read it with dedication, and long periods when I just don’t muster the motivation.  This week I dedicated myself to a new effort at reading it, by making it a weekly recurring item on my digital to-do list.  The first issue I picked up was from 14 December 2018.  In it, I was blown over the essay from Eileen Crist entitled, “Reimagining the human” (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/362/6420/1242) in which she covers the “trends of more” in terms of “(i) human population, (ii) consumption of food, water, energy, and materials, and (iii) infrastructural incursions into the natural world.” She discusses these in terms of the cultural construct she calls “human supremacy” but that might also be called anthropocentrism.  She finished by saying, “The present historical time invites opening our imagination toward a new vision of humanity no longer obstructed by the worldview of human supremacy. Learning to inhabit Earth with care, grace, and proper measure promises material and spiritual abundance for all.” It’s an excellent piece; go read it.

After sharing Dr. Crist’s piece with friends and Facebook friends, the excellent 2012 essay in Orion Magazine by Paul Kingsnorth was sent to me via iMessage from thousands of miles away. Entitled Dark Ecology (https://orionmagazine.org/article/dark-ecology/), the piece bowled me over even more than Dr. Crist’s essay.  In it, Kingsnorth covers several issues, including an interesting and new-to-me description and critique of what he called “neo-environmentalism.” Too much to summarize here, I urge you to go read his essay.  Most important for me personally, Kingsnorth closed the essay with some admissions that I think are important: “What does the near future look like? I’d put my bets on a strange and unworldly combination of ongoing collapse, which will continue to fragment both nature and culture, and a new wave of techno-green “solutions” being unveiled in a doomed attempt to prevent it. I don’t believe now that anything can break this cycle, barring some kind of reset: the kind that we have seen many times before in human history.”  And, he offers 5 ideas for what to DO in the face of this recognition; what to DO, what direction to take, has been the central conundrum of my life for a couple years now. His 5 ideas, with my favorite of his pithy sentences behind each:

  1. Withdraw. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind.
  2. Preserve nonhuman life. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?
  3. Get your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing.
  4. Insist that nature has a value beyond utility. Value it for what it is, try to understand what it is, and have nothing but pity or contempt for people who tell you that its only value is in what they can extract from it.
  5. Build refuges. Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?

I like this list. Although I think hope is illusory and I don’t like using the word, Kingsnorth’s list gives a little hope – hope that I can find a way to better balance between despair and living this amazing life I’ve been given. I have been in withdrawal for some time. The other four items on his list are seeds for me to think about what I already do and think and how to frame those in a way that helps me move ahead positively. They also give me directions to focus my excess energy, or from which to derive energy when despair encroaches.

Gratefully accepting the ideas and vibes of Heilung, Crist, Kingsnorth, and friends with whom I discuss these things, I feel unexpectedly ready for another spring, summer, and autumn of connecting to nature through the study of aphids and the important little lives they lead.

Collecting aphids in the mountains of Switzerland.

An Incorrect Attribution of Credit

I want to point out that in the following paper I am given credit for “confirming the identification of aphid species studied.”  This is a false statement.  I was never offered an opportunity to provide identifications for this paper.  Table 1 contains many spelling errors which should cast doubt on the credibility of everyone involved.  I herewith declare that I had nothing to do with this paper, and today, 14 December 2018 was the first time I set eyes on it. 

Klein, M.L., S.I. Rondon, D.L. Walenta, Q. Zeb, and A.F. Murphy. 2017. Spatial and Temporal Dynamics of Aphids (Hemiptera: Aphididae) in the Columbia Basin and Northeastern Oregon. Journal of Economic Entomology 110: 1899–1910.

The Pillaging of Public Lands Part 1: Livestock Grazing

[Remember, to see full size versions of the photos, just click on them!]

I try to be cheerful about my aphid research and field work.  I really do.  Sometimes, however, a person has to speak out about injustice and exploitation.  Since my special interest in life is the natural environment around us, I herewith speak out about injustice wrought by our federal government on land owned by we the people. Folks who live in or frequent the forests, sagebrush steppe, and grasslands of the western U.S.A. will know something about the ways in which public lands are exploited by private companies at little to no cost.  However, many U.S. residents and others around the world will have no idea what I’m writing about below.

As a natural historian in the western U.S.A., a major challenge in my work is finding examples of plant communities and ecosystems that have not been severely damaged by one of three things: mining, logging, and livestock grazing.  I’ll cover the latter in this post.

The history, extent, ecology, and politics of grazing on public lands in the U.S.A. is a book-length subject.  In fact, many books have been written on the subject during the past several decades (a quick internet search will show them to you).  There are also many interesting and/or aggravating videos on YouTube.  Have a look.

A very nice primer on the subject was published by The Center for Biological Diversity.  One of the key points made in their report (which you can see by clicking on the image) is that it costs the federal government far more to support grazing than it receives in payments from ranching companies.  In other words, grazing on public lands is a subsidy to the meat industry.

I cannot begin to cover here all the aspects of this issue that interest me.  For this rant, therefore, I will highlight my feelings and observations from one recent trip we did to the Pine Forest Range of Humboldt County, Nevada.

 

Why is the Pine Forest Range interesting to an aphid biologist?

Image from Google Earth.

The Pine Forest Range is mostly federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which is a branch of the Department of the Interior.  The name is a misnomer of epic proportions because the mountain range is in an otherwise desert environment and has actual forest only at the highest elevations and on steep slopes with seasonal water or snowpack.  The lower slopes of the range are at about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) elevation, while the high peaks range from about 7,000 feet (2,134 meters) to the highest, Duffer Peak at 9,400 feet (2,865 meters).  The land one might consider forest is varied, with highest peaks clothed in mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) in some areas, and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) in others.  Some of the lower steep-slope forest patches are a mixture of trees, including whitebark pine, two or three willows (Salix spp.), and aspen (Populus tremuloides).  The unforested ground is composed of various kinds of shrub-dominated systems, meadows, marshes, and grasslands.  Ecologically, places like this are very interesting to me because the plant diversity from bottom to top of the mountains is great, ecological zones varied, and aphid diversity fascinating.  In a single mountain range like this I can find aphids of wetlands, forest, desert, alpine habitats, and specialized habitats such as scree slopes, boulder fields, and mountain-top rock outcrops.  This contrasts with more uniform habitats such as the moist forest slopes of the Cascade Mountains or the Coast Range of Oregon wherein the forest communities are much more dominant and uniform.  One of my dream aphid research projects is to document all species present in a small but diverse site such as the Pine Forest Range.

The Pine Forest Range is also interesting because of the many springs that erupt from mountain sides and create year-round streams of clear fresh water.  This contrast of year-round water in an otherwise desert-like environment can make for fantastic diversity.  In a healthy riparian situation the stream will be surrounded by trees and shrubs, with a dense understory of herbs.  There will be a steep gradient in habitat from stream edge with shade- and moisture-loving plants, through a narrow shoreline forest with plants that are adapted to moderately dry conditions, to the sagebrush and other plants of dry high-elevation desert.  Along with this gradient in plant community, there is a gradient in aphids.  I might find a species of Hyperomyzus (Neonasonovia) on Ribes deep in the shade and overhanging the stream, and it would be the same species as I find in a wet dense forest of western Oregon or the Cascade Mountains.  As few as 10 or 20 meters away from this H. (Neonasonovia) will be Obtusicauda on the sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) or maybe Aphis (Bursaphis) on the Epilobium paniculatum.

On a personal and spiritual level, places like the Pine Forest Range offer the promise of immersion in a quiet, remote, natural setting that appeals to our primordial bonds to mixed landscapes of trees and plains (see “Biophilia” by E.O. Wilson).

The reality of the Pine Forest Range is almost unrelated to its promise.
Our camp site is in one of the most interesting parts of the range, with several springs erupting from the hillside, patches of aspen, seasonal wetlands, and it is within an easy walk of a large patch of mixed forest on a steep slope.

Our camping area. Image from Google Earth.

Some of the springs have associated wetlands, others erupt from rocky substrates and immediately form small streams.  The result is a complex network of wet and dry ground, springs and streams, all leading down slope to the eventual creek that drains that portion of the mountains.  All these habitat types, however, are severely damaged by cattle.  The springs and ensuing streams are almost completely without riparian vegetation, the channels are down-cut with limited meander leading to drainage and drying of nearby former wetland.  All these streams are large enough to be fish-bearing, but no fish are evident.  Similarly, the landscape is essentially without amphibians that would otherwise live there.

The view of a decimated spring and riparian zone, with Duffer Peak in the far distance.

The bogs and wetlands of the springs are severely grazed and trampled by cows.  The open meadows are grazed and trampled to an extremely short stubble height.  From the road, the aspen stands and sagebrush land look inviting, but closer examination on foot reveals that almost no herbs or grasses are left between the trees and shrubs, and that large swaths of the sagebrush have been severely trampled, leaving most plants in tatters scattered across the ground.  The visible hillslopes, far up toward the highest peaks, are badly marred by on-contour trails, with cows traversing the steepest slopes and gathering in the wetlands as far as we could see.

The remains of a wetland fed by a nearby spring. The deep cow footprints in the mud are called “pugs.”

During our day-hike to investigate the area, we explored a dense forest slope south of camp.  Once again, although it looked inviting and fascinating from a distance, upon entering the forest we found that the understory had been almost completely trampled and grazed by cattle, resulting in a depauperate community and a soil surface that was churned to powder.

Several species of plants exist in this area only nestled within the protective stems of willow thickets like these.

As for aphid collecting, many of the plants I was interested in were present, but most had been grazed and trampled to such an extent that the only evidence of their presence was tiny basal leaves or dry stalks that had somehow dodged the cows.  Other species were present but had been driven back to protected sites among the stems of the willow thickets.

Bottom line is that this area is NOT a natural place.  It is a ranch and it is managed for the purpose of raising cattle.  While on paper these public lands are meant for multiple uses by the public, only one use dominates: grazing.  Other uses, such as communing with nature and our spiritual self, studying natural history, and even hunting and fishing, are severely limited by the cows and their impacts.

Our camping area: beautiful landscape in the background, camping area in the middle, and destroyed habitat in the foreground. Aphids don’t stand a chance here.

Additional thoughts

As I walked through the landscape near our camp in the Pine Forest Range one thing that came to mind is how the local Native Americans might feel. Before colonization surely the area where we camped was a fabulously useful site for fishing, hunting, and gathering.  It was likely considered sacred.  How might a person transported through time from year 1500 feel, standing at the site of our camp and witnessing the destruction of such a place?

Public land grazing represents a public subsidy of the meat industry.  Meat, milk, and egg production as a category is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  As noted in a recent article in The Guardian, “Raising livestock for meat, eggs and milk generates 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the second highest source of emissions and greater than all transportation combined. It also uses about 70% of agricultural land, and is one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.”  Our public funds that support grazing subsidize meat production (contributing to low meat prices and encouraging meat consumption), support all the inhuman cruelty that comes with large-scale meat production, and directly contribute to climate change.  Is this how we want our public lands and public funds used?

Mina did her duty for the weekend, protecting a little piece of public land from the cows.




Cycling Injury? Do aphid field work instead!

(Remember to click on the photos for the full-size versions!)

I’m an avid bicyclist, and have been since 1983.  I pedal my bikes a combined total of about 7,000 km per year, down from my younger years of far beyond 10,000 km per year.

Biking in Idaho, 2013.

Each block of spare time, therefore, is a choice between major hobbies: cycling, or aphids? Aphids or cycling?  On April 11, cycling got the nod.  On my way out of the neighborhood, I glanced behind me at the wrong time and collided with a little rock in the road.  Little, yes.  But, big enough to bring me down hard on my left shoulder and elbow, resulting in a cracked clavicle, cracked humerus, severely sprained forearm, and third degree AC separation.  Today is June 10 and my arm is still only about 20% functional.  Instead of being 100% despondent, I decided to focus all my now-free-time on aphid field research, and what a spring it has been already!  (Resulting in only 80% despondency!)

Field season actually started with 3 weeks in Germany (May 1-24) vacationing and of course collecting aphids every chance I got.

A fabulous beech tree near Dresden.

Mostly, those collections were expected and fairly easily guessed based on host plant, location, and time of year.  But, I think I got a few good samples of Macrosiphum on things like Rubus, Fillipendula, and Rosa, plus some other oddball species I didn’t recognize on Rosa and Malus.  Tragically, I did not find the early spring forms of Macrosiphum melampyri and Macrosiphum prenanthidis, which I had really hoped to find.

Getting back home on May 25, field season started immediately.  So did travel season for my paid employment (see http://www.nwpotatoresearch.com/).

As you may guess, I have many possible field work goals bobbing around in my head at any given time.  Given my busted arm, I decided to pursue every one that I could possibly pursue.  The results are as follows as of today:

Macrosiphum ‘californicum’ on Salix (willows): I have pursued the Macrosiphum on Salix for about 27 years.  The dogma is that there is one species, M. californicum, across all of North America that feeds all year on Salix.  Based on all my samples across the U.S. and Canada I am confident that there are at least two Macrosiphum species on Salix. Yet, I had never seen the early spring generation (fundatrix) and only twice the ovipara (egg-laying female) and male of any of them.  The Macrosiphum on Salix seemed like so many other aphids – appearing out of nowhere mid-season, a sort of spontaneous generation.

Macrosiphum fundatrix on willow, Warner Mts., June 2018.

Last fall I collected the fall forms of one of these species in Colorado, and then nearly identical specimens in our local Warner Mountains (Fremont National Forest, Oregon).  Yesterday, I finally collected the fundatrix at that same site.  Halleluiah! Maybe in another 20 years I’ll understand the other species on Salix!

Aphis on Veratrum (cornhusk lily): in about 2010 we were walking through the forest near Hayden, Idaho when I had the realization that perhaps the Aphis that appeared out of nowhere every spring on Veratrum was one of the species that overwinters on Holodiscus (oceansprays, Rosaceae).  Since that time I have been building a set of specimens from both plants that support the idea.  Yesterday, I was finally able to collect some material from Holodiscus at Can Spring in the Warner Mountains and initiate a bagged host plant transfer.  This will almost certainly confirm my hypothesis of host plant alternation.  One of the difficulties of this field work is that the spring forms of this Aphis occur on Holodiscus on high elevation rocky outcrops that get warm far earlier than surrounding terrain, resulting in very difficult spring collecting due to snow-pack on roads.  Luckily, I knew of this particular outcrop that is easily accessible and likely infested.

Aphis on Holodiscus, transferred to Veratrum.

Aphthargelia migrating to Polygonum bistortoides (bistort): I noted in a post last year that I had discovered a new host plant alternation biology in Aphthargelia.  My goal this year was to conduct a host plant transfer to confirm the hypothesis of heteroecy.  Sure enough, with all my extra field time I found a patch of primary host, Symphoricarpos oreophilus (?) infested with Aphthargelia ‘symphoricarpi’ and initiated a host plant transfer in my house on a potted Polygonum bistortoides and in the field yesterday on a P. bistortoides in the shade of an aspen in the Warner Mountains.

Aphis (Bursaphis) on Epilobium paniculatum: Ten years ago, I thought there was a single undescribed species of Aphis (Bursaphis) on the fine willow herb known as Epilobium paniculatum in western N. America  Since moving to Lake County, Oregon, I’ve become convinced that there are in fact two species: one that lives all year on E. paniculatum and one that migrate from Ribes.  On Saturday, on my way home from an Oregon Potato Commission meeting, I finally found a site where Aphis (Bursaphis) were settling on E. paniculatum surrounded by Ribes cereum covered with Aphis (Bursaphis) in the process of emigrating.  I suspect I’ve figured out yet another complex biological/ecological/taxonomic situation!

Macrosiphum on Oplopanax horridum (devil’s club): In 2011 I collected for the first time a Macrosiphum species living among the fruits of a specialized forest plant called Oplopanax horridum – devil’s club.  This plant lives in shady and wet forests of the Cascade Mountains, producing a single tall (i.e. 2 -3 meters) woody prickly perennial stem with large deciduous leaves and red berries each growing season.

Macrosiphum fundatrix on Oplopanax near Imnaha, Oregon.

The Macrosiphum that I’ve found on it is very similar morphologically to Macrosiphum euphorbiae (potato aphid), but anyone seeing this species in life would be sure, like I am, that it is distinct.  This month, I had to travel to Portland for a meeting dealing with potatoes and my paid employment, taking the opportunity to stop in the mountains between Sisters and Salem to look for aphids.  In the deepest darkest habitat of O. horridum, I finally found the early spring generations of this aphid, the fundatrix and the winged and wingless viviparae.

In the end, I salute cyclist’s disease!

Oplopanax and Lysichitum americanum.




Collection Building and Maintenance: My Practice

Like the adage about the old man planting trees whose shade he won’t live to sit under, I spend much of my spare time collecting, assembling, curating, and otherwise maintaining a massive collection of aphids most of which I will not live to study.  My plan all along has been to build the best collection I could, given the constraints of funding, person-power, time, and space, and then donate it to major museums around the world to benefit science for decades or centuries to come.  In these times of extreme domination of global politics by the wealthy and multi-national corporations, the running rampant of capitalism, the extreme poverty of parts of the world together with extreme income inequality in other parts of the world, the continued plunder of the Earth’s natural systems, the great influence of the military industrial complex, the increase in the police state in so-called free countries, etc. and so forth, one can sometimes feel that any task with a long-term pay-off is wasted effort.  In order for a thing like an aphid collection to be useful in decades to come, human society has to survive intact with its ability to conduct and appreciate science.  Some days, watching my Twitter feed, I wonder whether human society will collapse in the coming century and lose its interest in biodiversity or simply lose its capability to be concerned or do anything about it.  In times like this I get creeping feelings that all my work on my collection is for naught because we may be at the end of an era of human society wherein study of the natural world is supported or believed to be worthy.  By the time I die, or by the time 2100 rolls around, will biodiversity collections be a ghost of the past, destroyed or neglected like the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the pyramids of Egypt, or history books in the U.S.A.?

These are the thoughts that wriggle through my consciousness as I tend my collection of aphids.  Nearing 10,000 slides, that has been a lot of sample processing, label writing, identification, and collection curation.  This winter, I am tackling a long-overdue task of re-labeling a few hundred slides from my graduate school days when I believed I would carve off a bunch of Macrosiphum species to form a new genus, “Robinsonaphis.”  Having been correctly dissuaded from this move by my wiser colleagues and mentors, this aphid genus was never published.  But, my collection has many slides in it optimistically labeled with this genus name back in 1996.

Relabeling slides from the early 1990s.

And as in every winter, I am databasing all the slides I make, electronically filing them before filing them in the real world.  The main reason for this databasing is to make my collection accessible to colleagues while I’m alive, and to make it easier to divide and use in the Canadian National Collection, the British Museum, and U.S. National Museum after I die.  For my everyday work the database is rarely used.

In the middle of typing in the slide label data for another box of new slides, December 2017.

My aphid collection could be exceptionally useful to people carrying on the torch of aphid diversity, biogeography, ecology, and systematics for centuries to come.  But, equally likely, it could be meaningless after the collapse of civilization as we know it, possibly within this century.  So the question: continue to do my best with it, or give up in despondency?  I choose to forge ahead.  My aphid collection is the tree under whose shade I’ll never sit.  It is my practice.

Our favorite Ponderosa pines in the Warner Mountains. The cut-to-lengths and grapple pilers are there as we speak. Will these trees survive this winter’s plunder?




2017 Field Season: Bookended with snow-related lamentations

Bookend 1: Wisconsin and Back

(As with all photos on Aphidtrek, remember that to see the full size version, simply click on the photo in the text.

Remembering that we live at high elevation (1500 m) nestled among mountains and desert, the collecting season doesn’t really start until May.  This year, we kicked off our season in earnest with a cross-country drive to Wisconsin and back from mid-May through early June.  Leaving home the weather was bad, unseasonably cold, and before long it was snowing.  The snow followed us most of that day to Idaho Falls, where fortunately we had planned to stay under a roof instead of in a tent.  Each subsequent day of driving across the country was met by long periods of temperatures just above freezing, wind, and snow.  When finally we reached Wisconsin, the snow was subsiding to a period of cool cloudy weather.

Ultimately the purpose of the trip was two-fold: 1. to visit my relatives in Wisconsin, and 2. to see the forests and plant communities (and of course their aphids) of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.  When we scheduled the trip, we knew that mid-May to early June was a gamble – that spring might not have arrived yet in those northern forests.

Northern Minnesota camp. Spring was just beginning here.

We did not win that gamble.  Some of the most interesting areas of Minnesota that we saw had obviously been covered in snow only a couple weeks previously, and buds of trees were just starting to open.  So, aphid collecting was mighty slow, with no success at finding any of the rare Macrosiphum I had hoped for.  A bright spot was adding two samples of Hyalomyzus monardae to my collection, a species that I had studied and written about, but that I had never seen in life.

This season-opening trip provided important samples only during the home stretch, as we reached the western edge of North Dakota and through Montana.  The best example of an interesting site was the Burning Coal Vein area of the Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota.  As we drove south from the freeway we joked that the campground would be vacant apart from us, and that there would be sunshine, fire wood, and large well-kept camp sites with mowed grass and great views.  All of this turned out to be true!

Burning coal vein area of the Little Missouri National Grasslands.

At this site I was able to collect multi-species samples from each of three sagebrush species – this being a goal of mine to explore possible host specificity at the species level among species of Epameibaphis, Pseudoepameibaphis, Pleotrichophorus, and Obtusicauda.  Another great opportunity was finding a species of Macrosiphum that should be published any day now on Linum lewisii.  This was a new state record, greatly expanding the known range of this species from previously known New Mexico and Oregon, and just in time to make it into the paper during the review process!

 

Mid-Season

Most of our summer was spent near home with either local camping or one-day hiking outings from home. The high point of the summer was our stay at Lee Thomas Camp in July.  This campground is at about 1800 meters elevation, next to a large meadow and the head-waters of the Sprague River.  On this weekend I found, and for the first time correctly identified, the plant Lonicera cauriana.  And on it, found for the second time an undescribed species of Macrosiphum, thereby adding to the list of species associated with Caprifoliaceae across the Northern Hemisphere.

An Aphthargelia species on a yellowing leaf of Polygonum bistortoides.

Also on this trip we discovered and hiked much of the Hannan Trail, one of the few trails in the Fremont National Forest that is well-maintained.  Along it, I found my first sample of Aphthargelia cf. symphoricarpi on a secondary host, Polygonum bistortoides.  This find completely re-opens my work on Aphthargelia, published in 2013.

 

 

Bookend 2: Colorado and back

I don’t want to gloss over all the other interesting finds in 2017, but I need to wrap up this piece somewhere!

Anyway, our big season-end trip every year is to the Southwest, to partake in the annual field conference of the New Mexico Geological Society.  This year, that conference was actually in southwestern Colorado and based in Ouray.  As the departure date loomed (September 21), so did the first cold snap and snow of fall.  We left home in cold clammy weather, which only got worse as we drove through eastern Oregon and into northern Nevada.  By the time we reached our intended first night in Eureka, it was about -1 C and snowing.  We ended the day in a motel, in their only dog-approved room, and with only a space heater to keep us warm (the heater was actually more than enough, thank goodness).  Ever hopeful, I woke the next morning thinking of the aphid possibilities outside town.

Smooth rocks in southern Utah.

Throwing open the curtains, we saw 5 cm of snow on the ground, and even more on the hills surrounding town.  Another day of camping, hiking, and collecting thwarted, we carefully studied the weather patterns and decided our only hope for avoiding the snow was to head south, far from our planned route.  Long story short, we found that camping was possible near the southern border of Utah, and saw some great places, traveled some good roads, and made it to Colorado without further snow.  It was cold, but at least it didn’t snow.

Well, hold on now… Actually the final night of camping on Molas Pass near Silverton was affected by snow, but fortunately not while we camped.  That night was defined by near-winter conditions on the mountain, no aphids due to the lateness of the season, and a dog finding a porcupine.  Again, long story short, we ended the night camping at the pass while the dog spent the night in a veterinarian hospital, and we cooked an elaborate meal in the dark, by a roaring fire.  It wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be.

Mina on her way to the doctor for porcupine spine removal.

Next day, we finally arrived in Ouray, and checked into a small hotel room but in a very nice little town.  The dogs were happy to be in out of the cold (as was I), the weather relented (except for daily rain showers), and finally some real aphid collecting was possible!  While Gina attended the daytime conference events, I took the dogs aphid collecting.  The days we were in Ouray led to very interesting collections of Macrosiphum oviparae and males on Salix, Illinoia on Thalictrum and an unidentified Asteraceae, truly mysterious specimens of Macrosiphum on a species of forest floor Viola, a find of two recently documented species on Iva axillaris (one a Capitophorus, the other a Pleotrichophorus), and many other interesting and puzzling samples.  It was a good stay in Ouray.

Although the trip was trying at times, and tested our patience, it ended with a few good nights of camping en route home, some more useful samples, and we even took time out for some hiking in new places.

Hiking near camp in Utah on the way home, near Salina.




Almost Endless Winter of 2017, and a Time for Pseudoepameibaphis

Here in Lakeview (south central Oregon) we are finally emerging from a wet and snowy winter.

The valley north of Lakeview on 29 January.

The mountains and valleys here have seen tremendous water and snow, with all of our temporary streams still running hard with snow melt in mid-May.  In fact, we had yet another 3-4 cm snow fall overnight this weekend (12 May).  The trees are starting to grow leaves, and the aphids are waking up.  Probably, collecting season will start with fundatrices of some species within a week (hold on a minute, I just went outside and found a fundatrix of Rhopalosiphum oxyacanthae on the Sorbus tree).  My final collections of 2016 were in mid-October.  Looking at this in terms of collecting season length in this high elevation area, our season is just about 5 months per year.  So, what does an aphidologist do all winter, between stoking the fire in the woodstove and shoveling snow?

Rhopalosiphum oxyacanthae on Sorbus. There’s a single fundatrix and some of her offspring on this leaf.

Slide mounting 2016 specimens kept me busy until December sometime.  The collection is up to 9118 slides now.  A part of slide-making is of course identification of all that material to the degree possible with a reasonable amount of effort, but with an eye toward getting material filed away for future study.  I make slides into 100-slide boxes where the balsam is allowed to harden and I spend my evenings identifying material I mounted in the past day or two.  Once the box is full of slides and all identifications made, both things occurring within a day or two of each other, I put the full box in a warm place to harden for another month or so.  One of my main points is that all material is identified as it is mounted and labeled, allowing quick and efficient filing in the collection.

In the process of all this, some genera end up with long rows of slides with only a genus name on each.  This usually results from poor species-level taxonomy, or my decision that making species identifications as I mount the specimens will take too much time and bog down the process.  Most commonly, the former situation is the case, i.e. I think making species identifications is simply not possible with the current literature and comparative specimens at hand.  Winter, therefore, is a time to sort such slides to what I think might represent species.

Since moving to Lakeview, I have been focusing a lot of effort on collecting from sagebrushes (i.e. Artemisia shrubs) and learning to recognize the various species we have in the Northwest and south through Utah and New Mexico (alas, I have almost no material from the species of sagebrush limited to California).  Concentrated field work like this has led to many new slides and a desire to sort out the taxonomy of some challenging groups, especially Pseudoepameibaphis, Epameibaphis, Obtusicauda, and Microsiphoniella.  After finishing this year’s aphid manuscript (describing two new species of Macrosiphum) back in February, I’ve spent most of my aphid research time sorting my material of these four genera of sagebrush aphids.  All four have very poorly developed species-level taxonomy, in my opinion, and almost no understanding of ecology or niche use in the field.

Just this weekend I finally finished sorting, re-sorting, and then sorting again my slides of Pseudoepameibaphis. Current understanding is there are 4 species in this genus.  My sorting points to 5 taxa that are pretty easy to recognize, plus another large series of slides that seem to fit none of those and that don’t necessarily share distinctive features with each other either.  There seem to be some associations to host-plant of possibly-distinct groups of specimens (e.g. one semi-distinctive form from Artemisia arbuscula, ‘low sage’), while other apparently morphologically uniform sets of specimens seem to use several different Artemisia species.  I have examined the types of the accepted species, and due to very poor mounts and odd collecting times of year, they are of little use in many cases.  In a way this is a problem, but in another way it is freeing to allow study of the genus almost de novo.  Pseudoepameibaphis is a perfect example of a very interesting group that is poorly known, with many taxonomic, phylogenetic, ecological, and biogeographic questions that could be answered with concerted study by a Ph.D. student for a 4-year thesis project.  Anyone interested??

All three boxes of my Pseudoepameibaphis slides, sorted behind little note cards.




Winter Rim: Aptly named end to the 2016 collecting season

Many trips have come and gone this year without details provided on AphidTrek, but the last one was a good one, October 7-9. Rain and cold and even snow have already started in SE Oregon, but we had one last warm weekend to hit the hills for camping. We wanted to try Winter Rim, an amazing forested plateau rising above the salty and dusty basin called Summer Lake. Winter Rim sits atop a fault block that rises about 850 meters above the salt lake below.

The Summer Lake basin from near our Winter Rim camp.

The Summer Lake basin from near our Winter Rim camp.

The place is aptly named, with the season already done for almost all the plants and aphids. 

The plateau gently descends to the west toward a huge wetland called Sycan Marsh. From the Rim to the wetland the forest is seasonally wet in many places, demonstrated by patches of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), swaths of Artemisia cana, and springs with broken-down cattle exclosures. We found a beautiful camping spot on the edge of an expansive seasonal wetland, within 100 meters of the Rim overlook. Perhaps with a bit too much confidence in the weather forecast for warm and still weather, we set up camp under the ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) marked by the influence of wind. All in all it turned out OK, the wind only flowing through at about 10-15 kph most of the time.

Our camp spot set among the pines showing wind-induced asymmetric canopies.

Our camp spot set among the pines showing wind-induced asymmetric canopies.

The aphid collecting was slow, but was the best I could have hoped for: after 26 years of field work pursuing it, I finally confirmed the fall sexual cycle of the undescribed Macrosiphum that feeds on Geum triflorum in the Northwestern U.S.

My favorite un-described Macrosiphum, which lives on Geum triflorum in the dry forests of the Northwest. These are from central Idaho in 2012.

My favorite un-described Macrosiphum, which lives on Geum triflorum in the dry forests of the Northwest. These are from central Idaho in 2012.

  Our camp spot was right in a middle of a large tract of Geum, already settled into its overwintering stage– a set of fully developed slightly reddish leaves enveloping next year’s spring growth. From previous work, I knew that this aphid was late to produce sexuales, and that they must occur on these overwintering leaves. Sure enough, the aphid and the signs of its habitation were everywhere around camp. I was able to collect several adult oviparae and even a yellowish apterous male!

Geum triflorum ready for winter on Winter Rim, October 8, 2016.

Geum triflorum ready for winter on Winter Rim, October 8, 2016.

Even in such a wintry place, where almost everything is dormant, this aphid was still only half way into its sexual stage, with many nymphs still developing on the leaves. 

So, not only was the trip a great bookend to the 2016 season, it was also a lovely bookend to 26 years of field work on one of my favorite aphids. Now, it’s time for 6 months of slide mounting, measuring, and writing.  Happy winter, all you aphids, until 2017!




Exploring our local mountains, June and July 2016

As is usual in the summer, our work lives, the garden, and Aphidtrekking have kept us very busy and mostly away from the keyboard to write for Aphidtrek.org.   Just a taste of some of the interesting aphid-related things we’ve done and seen are below.

Late May

We camped in a very remote place in northern Nevada called Yellow Rock Canyon.  In addition to some of the most nail-biting trail driving we’ve ever experienced, I also got to explore the aphids living on four kinds of sagebrush all in one locality (Artemisia tridentata both Basin and Wyoming, Artemisia cana, and Artemisia arbuscula).  Sagebrush aphids are very diverse, a great majority having been described from Artemisia tridentata.  My suspicion is that like me, many previous collectors did not know the sagebrush species well enough, and lumped species and subspecies of potential ecological importance into that single name on their slides.  Now that I am learning to recognize all the sagebrushes, I am eager to look for apparent host-specificity among the plethora of aphids.

Yellow Rock Canyon area, Nevada. Note the amazing rock calved off of the cliff, still leaning against it.

Yellow Rock Canyon area, Nevada. Note the amazing rock calved off of the cliff, still leaning against it.

Early June

We spent a cool, spring-like weekend in the northern Warner Mountains, at an old mostly-abandoned campground.  All weekend long we saw one vehicle drive by on the road.  I was lucky enough to find several of my target study species here, including undescribed species on Potentilla gracilis, Geum triflorum, and Holodiscus discolor dumosus.  We also walked a very good hike to Cook Peak, going high enough to have to clamber around a remaining snow field obstructing the trail.  This is one of several hikes we’ve done in the area on nice days, on national recreation trails, and saw no other humans all day.  If you want to hike in peace and solitude, come to the Warner Mountains of Oregon.

Hiking Cook Peak in the Warner Mountains.

Hiking Cook Peak in the Warner Mountains.

Early July

Our long-weekend trip in early July was to the Warner Mountains again, this time near Crane Mountain.  One of my goals was to collect on the vigorously growing wildflowers in Dismal Swamp where I know of a very strange and probably undescribed species of Uroleucon (Lambersius), plus I wanted to look for Potentilla fruticosa and the elusive aphid Myzaphis canadensis.  I found the former, but alas, the latter was not present.  We also wanted to hike to the summit of Crane Mountain, the highest point in the Oregon portion of the Warners.  To our surprise, the hike was not terribly steep, most of it being on an old road that serviced a fire lookout tower that used to stand atop the mountain.  The ridge at the summit was yet again a site of Holodiscus heavily infested with a few aphid species that were just beyond the fundatrix stage.  Also, it was further proof of the migration of Uroleucon (Lambersius) erigeronensis up elevation gradients as the season develops — in this site there was a small yellow-flowering composite that was uniformly infested with alate Uroleucon and their offspring.

The view south from Crane Mountain. The darker green shrub in the foreground is my favorite, Holodiscus discolor dumosus.

The view south from Crane Mountain. The darker green shrub in the foreground is my favorite, Holodiscus discolor dumosus.

Late July

Our most recent trip was into the South Warners in northern California. Saturday was a long and busy day, with a hot-air balloon ride in the morning in Alturas (we thought we were merely crew, but got to ride as well!), followed by an afternoon hike on the Summit Trail into the South Warner Wilderness.  This was a site for the aphids — almost every likely plant had aphids and in overwhelming abundance.  One drawback was that three of the most polyphagous aphids native to the West were also very abundant on many plants — Aphis helianthi (now we are to change to the name Aphis asclepiadis), Macrosiphum euphorbiae, and Uroleucon (Lambersius) erigeronensis.  Excitingly, it was the second weekend in a row I found a Macrosiphum living on Monardella occidentalis — a beautiful mint shrub.  No aphids have previously been recorded on this plant.

The Owl Creek area in the South Warner Wilderness. This is a mountain wetland and vast field of Veratrum dotted with shrubs of Potentilla fruticosa and Symphoricarpos.

The Owl Creek area in the South Warner Wilderness. This is a mountain wetland and vast field of Veratrum dotted with shrubs of Potentilla fruticosa and Symphoricarpos.