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.  More than 12,000 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 donate to the California Academy of Sciences 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!



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   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.

Borrow or Publish

My aphid collection is over 8,000 slides, with probably at least 20,000 specimens (being entirely funded by my personal bank account, I conserve money and time by mounting 3 or 4 specimens on each slide) of over 600 identified species. In that collection are many interesting finds – apparently undescribed species, strange host associations, apparent range expansions, new North American records, unidentifiable material, specimens intermediate between recognized species, plus many specimens that beautifully support existing descriptions. I could probably stop collecting now and publish papers the rest of my life based on my collection and material borrowed from other major collections.

The thing is that publishing papers takes a lot of time and effort, and actually costs a lot of money for “page charges” in most journals ($40-70 per page). Plus, who really cares about the natural geographical or host ranges of obscure aphid species… maybe 4 or 5 humans on the planet at any given time? Also, I get frustrated with digging up all those inane details about previous papers saying this or that, or using this or that name. In the end, none of it matters anyway because the world will end with the eventual nova of the Sun in a few billion years. Bottom line is that one big reason for this website is to tell people who care (those 4 or 5 on the planet, in case a couple of them are interested) what I know about the aphids I have studied all over the western U.S. and Canada (plus some other places) and do it in my own words and on my own terms. I promise not to coin new names, sink other people’s species inappropriately, move species willy-nilly from genus to genus, etc. I will simply tell you what I know, what I have seen, what specimens I have, show you some pictures, suggest possible interesting research angles, and whatever else comes to mind that does not violate the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. I don’t care about publication credit, so feel free to follow up on any of my suggestions and pay those page charges for official publications that I am too lazy and cheap to pursue myself.

I decided in 2014 to take this approach as I was walking through the forest somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. I have so much material in my collection, and have seen so many aphids living their lives in the wild, that there is no realistic way I could publish it all in my lifetime, not to mention the fact that I don’t want to hassle with the details and scientific rigor such as borrowing all possible material from across the continent, digging through historical records, and heaven forbid, handle the messy and opaque rules of nomenclature that I am so rusty on.  This is all apart from the financial expense of page charges and the like for publications. Jeepers. So, why not just openly share everything I have and know about aphids, in case anyone cares, or maybe wants to take all the messy steps that I cannot or will not to finish the research and publish?

Logan, Utah; George Knowlton; Pine Forest Range

Any of you who know about aphids of North America (i.e. approximately zero in the ecological scale of things) will know that G.F. Knowlton is one of the leaders of the field in the early 20th century, leaving us with much good, and not so good, research and taxonomy.  For many years I have hoped to visit his collection, housed at Utah State University.  Thanks to a Toastmasters event that Gina needed to attend, we both visited Logan over the weekend of May 19-22, and I had the chance to look through Knowlton’s collection for about 6 hours.  It was housed in slide boxes, similar to my collection, but the unidentified material was almost all lumped into 17 boxes without sorting to genus.  I was interested to see that Knowlton collected mostly in towns and cities, and perhaps easily accessible countryside.  I saw few slides from really challenging places such as we like to visit (see below).

Some co-type material of a poorly known Macrosiphum aphid.

Some co-type material of a poorly known Macrosiphum aphid.

It was good to see the material from his earliest days (1920s), in which he wrote enthusiastic notes on the slide labels about biology, host plants, etc.  Some of the slides in the collection are badly prepared in a way that is so bad it is hard to describe.  Others are very nicely done.  I managed to find almost a full box of Macrosiphum in the undetermined material, some of which were very interesting specimens.

One of my goals of the trip was to collect in Knowlton’s old stomping grounds around Logan.  With a couple hopefully rain-free afternoons looming, I set out for a couple hours into Logan Canyon.  My overall impression is that the Canyon would be almost unrecognizable to the 1930-ish Knowlton from a botanical perspective.  Other than the shrubs and trees, almost all the plants visible this time of year were invasive weeds, from a series of grasses dominating the roadsides and understory, to dyers woad (Isatis tinctoria), to things like burdock (Arctium) two meters tall, and entire wet openings filled with Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense).  Although the landscape was very green and lush, a closer look betrayed the fact that the weeds were the greenest part, and the native plants struggled to show their heads in the shadows and forest understory.  In places where I’d expect an understory of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja), Agastache (horse mint), Delphinium (larkspur), and various composites, I found grasses.  Epic grasses. Grasses so big that the snowberry struggled to see the sun through grass litter laid down last season. The weeds were well into their season, but the native plants were just getting started, and the extremely few aphids I found betrayed this fact, e.g. just-mature fundatrices of Nasonovia (Capitosiphon) crenicorna on Geranium and Pleotrichophorus on Achillea.  This was perhaps a place that inspired the rule we often see in the National Forests: “weed-free feed required beyond this point” except that the rule is way too late to have an impact in Logan Canyon (and the nearby Blacksmith Fork Canyon).  The whole outing made me appreciate the Lakeview area, where even heavily used cattle pastures are waving fields of camas lily and other native plants this spring.

The final leg of the trip was a one-night-camp, destination TBD (to-be-determined) on the way home.  Several hours of map-gazing and Google Earth-ing turned up no good ideas for the second half of the trip home, so off we struck, hoping for inspiration.

The Pine Forest Range from space, thanks to Google.

The Pine Forest Range from space, thanks to Google.

After a dud of an exploration of a terribly overgrazed canyon, where the stream was nothing but a matrix of cow footprints, with cow eyes watched us from behind every bush, somewhere between the 400- and 500- kilometer mark of the drive we saw a sign pointing into the Pine Forest Range of mountains in northern Nevada toward Onion Lake and Blue Lake (U.S. Bureau of Land Management territory).  The road was wide and smooth and seemed not to go through any ranch homestead’s backyard (a common problem with roads in the remote parts of the western rangeland).  We stopped in the paved highway for a few minutes to ponder (no traffic in sight for kilometers in either direction).  In the end, “Why not!”  Off we drove into the hinterland, the sign giving us confidence of good roads and sights to come.  Bear in mind that the nearest town with an actual Main Street and things like a store and gasoline was Winnemucca, Nevada, about 109 km behind, or our home metropolis of Lakeview, Oregon, about 236 km ahead (we had recently passed a sign that said: “Next Gas 179 Miles” (that’s 288 km), that ‘town’ being Adel, Oregon that consists of a store-gas station-restaurant-tavern and precisely zero streets).  We drove up a remarkably smooth dirt road for about 30 minutes to a potential camp spot, and waited for a bit to see of a rain shower would pass.  Unfortunately, the mountain was creating the rain shower and it was not moving.  So, up we climbed on the road.  The landscape became more breath-taking with every moment, as did the lateness of the hour.  About 90 minutes before sunset we picked a flat spot in a “saddle” at about 2200 meters elevation, and set up camp.  By the time we had the tent set, the campfire going, and dinner almost done, the drinking water was starting to solidify and snow was threatening.  But, the weather retreated, and we had a good sagebrush campfire ‘til late into the night.

Next morning the frost was thick and the drinking water partly frozen, but we were well-rested under the many kilograms of bedding atop the lovely air mattress in our tent. As with every camping morning, I got up early to make tea, coffee, and breakfast, then struck out for some aphid-hunting and botanizing.  There were three different sage brushes in the area, at least two species of Ribes, at least one Symphoricarpos, two species of Tetradymia, an Amelanchier, and my favorite, nestled in the rock outcrops, Holodiscus ‘dumosus.’  The aphids were just getting started at this elevation, but I managed to find some presumed fundatrices of Pseudoepameibaphis, Pleotrichophorus, and Obtusicauda on the sagebrushes, plus some immature fundatrices of something green on Holodiscus.  There was much potential in the area, but ideal collecting season is still at least a month away in a site like that.

Our camp spot down slope and the white bark pine forest far in the distance.

Our camp spot down slope and the white bark pine forest far in the distance.

The drive home took us through the rest of the ‘road’ across the mountain range to the valley beyond (this is an area known as ‘basin-and-range’ wherein there are frequent narrow and steep-sided mountain ranges alternating with dry salty valleys).  We passed along the edge of the Pine Forest, which is extremely unusual in being a forest of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis). I really look forward to going back to explore the botany and insects in a whitebark pine forest at elevations of 3000 meters, one of the 5 or 6 whitebark pine areas in Nevada.

Devils Garden, Fremont-Winema National Forest

Devils Garden, Fremont-Winema National Forest

6-8 May 2016

We desperately wanted to get out this weekend, and in the face of a harsh weather forecast for thunderstorms near home in Lakeview but dryer to the west, we cast about for a place to try that A. would not be snowed in, and B. was interesting and would probably not be washed away during a thunderstorm. Looking at the map west of home, I found the words Devils Garden in a little sliver of national forest land north of Dairy, Oregon (Klamath County). On Google Earth, it showed as a round eruptive center from past volcanic activity, and it appeared there were some dirt roads right to edge of the rocky outcrop, which is about 1 kilometer in diameter.  So, off we drove on Friday, once we cleared our day of conference calls, shopping, and tending the greenhouse.

Devils Garden from the forested perimeter.

Devils Garden from the forested perimeter.

About 2 pm we arrived at the edge of Devils Garden, and saw that we had made a good choice, assuming the storms didn’t make it that far west.

The volcanic tuff is a mixture of rock types cemented together that then fall apart to form all sorts of bizarre formations. Gina and Bumble in one of them.

The volcanic tuff is a mixture of rock types cemented together that then fall apart to form all sorts of bizarre formations. Gina and Bumble in one of them.

The circular feature of ash flow tuff was clearly visible from the highway, and we just had to find a way down to it and select a camp site. Much rolling down sandy and muddy roads later, we emerged on the edge of Devils Garden.

Unsure about a camp spot, we got out to walk around. It’s an amazing gem in southern Oregon, with unusual plants amongst very cool rocks and formations. We walked for quite a while, exploring the formations and biology. Wasn’t long before I was hopelessly “turned around” and lost. Fortunately we had a cell signal and we both had our phones. We texted back and forth to locate each other and head back to the truck. Even Gina, my human compass, had a hard time walking back to the truck, and we both learned something about “walking in a circle” when lost.

Under what looks like sand at Devils Garden is usually bedrock, hence the few plants.

Under what looks like sand at Devils Garden is usually bedrock, hence the few plants.

Our camp spot chosen (with wild onions all around) we set up, cooked fajitas, and had a campfire all evening. Next morning I set off to look for aphids, which was a challenge. There were many promising plants and habitats, but few aphids found.  Along the forest edge were many large and healthy patches of Geum triflorum, on which feeds an un-described species of Macrosiphum, but many plants inspected turned up no aphids. In one rock outcrop in the forest I found a site with 3

Geum triflorum growing around a long-abandoned campfire ring.

Geum triflorum growing around a long-abandoned campfire ring.

species of Prunus: P. emarginata, P. subcordata, and P. virginiana. Much hunting, but no aphids on any of them. There were at least 3 species of Ribes in the area, and I did manage to find some Nasonovia (Kakimia) and Aphis (Bursaphis), but they were scarce.  Two species of sagebrush scatter the area, but even they were very lightly populated with Pseudoepameibaphis. Purshia tridentata was everywhere, from dense forest to rock outcrops and open gravelly slopes, but only a couple aphids and psyllids were found. I managed to find one Braggia fundatrix on one of a few species of shrubby Eriogonum, a couple late-instar nymphs of Macrosiphum on a fern (which I was able rear to adult at home), and some fundatrices of Acyrthosiphon macrosiphum on Amelanchier utahensis on the edge of the forest. There is a drainage on the southeast side that is a dense aspen grove filled with Smilacina and Vicia in the undergrowth (no aphids, though!).

The final highlight was sitting back at camp reading up on the various unfamiliar plants seen during the day. One was Leucocrinum montanum, a lily that was the first known host of an aphid I have studied extensively, Abstrusomyzus leucocrini.

Leucocrinum montanum, a species known as star lily.

Leucocrinum montanum, a species known as star lily.

I had never seen the plant before except in photos.  Unfortunately, much searching both above and below ground turned up no aphids. Along the way of reading and resting at camp, we were visited by a solo pronghorn. It walk along the nearby dirt road, stopped to watch me, then when Gina moved in the bushes (she was studying the soil, her wont), the pronghorn bolted out of sight.

The whole site is probably affected by the severe drought the region has faced over the past couple years. The wet winter and spring make the plants look good, but the drought has left its mark on the aphids.  In many places these plants would have ended their life cycle last fall far earlier than aphids are adapted to, causing a terrible crisis for the aphids. But, I expect that by mid-summer the aphids will likely recover from their current population bottleneck, and may be extremely abundant in the fall.

By Sunday morning, no rain had come, the weather had been mostly mild and not very windy, and we headed home fully satisfied with a weekend away from home.

A Day off from Work, a Beautiful Spring Day April 7

We had some unusual, almost summer-like weather this week, and it was too good to sit it out at my desk.  An annual leave request complete and I was on my own for a day – or actually Bumble the dog and I were on our own.

The road and forest only 16 km from home across the valley, Bumble exploring up ahead.

This being our first spring in the Lakeview area, we stayed local to explore since everything is new.  My first target of the day was low-land Ribes growing on the edge of the valley.  Based on my reading today, it seems in this area there are two Ribes in this habitat, R. velutinum and R. cereum, the former with spines, the latter without.  Despite much searching, no aphids were found on either.  It was a very dry year in 2015, possibly explaining the paucity of Aphis (Bursaphis) and Nasonovia (Kakimia).  Along the way of this first leg of our exploring, I found one adult fundatrix of Pleotrichophorus on Artemisia arbuscula.  Somewhat surprisingly, I found a second-instar (-ish) fundatrix of Acyrthosiphon purshiae on its host, just breaking bud, Purshia tridentata.  There were a few surprise plant finds too, including a patch of Ribes aureum along the streambank, and what seems to be a species of Primula growing in a seasonally wet draw.  Along the stream grows a native Rosa, and on it I found a red Macrosiphum (?) fundatrix nymph.  It is now in a jar on my desk, where I hope it matures to adult. On the one hand, it could be M. rosae, an unlikely event since this species usually does not overwinter as eggs in natural systems in western North America.  On the other hand, it could be M. valerianae, potentially over-wintered on rose and soon migrating to the nearby Zigadenus (a.k.a. death camas).

Ribes cf. velutinum in the greater Lakeview valley. A few flowers were just starting to open, attracting bumblebees, a welcome sound in spring.

Ribes cf. velutinum in the greater Lakeview valley. A few flowers were just starting to open, attracting bumblebees, a welcome sound in spring.

Purshia tridentata just sprouting leaves. Psyllids were common on this plant today, as is typical almost everywhere.

Purshia tridentata just sprouting leaves. Psyllids were common on this plant today, as is typical almost everywhere.

I think this is a species of Primula, but I confess that I did not tackle the keys in "A California Flora," preferring my comfortable key in "Flora of the Pacific Northwest."

I think this is a species of Primula, but I confess that I did not tackle the keys in “A California Flora,” preferring my comfortable key in “Flora of the Pacific Northwest.”


Zigadenus, soon to bloom. Unlike normal edible and nutritious camas, this is death camas and is aptly named.

Our second stop of the day was Goose Lake State Park on the California border, about 20 km from home.  We had never visited, and I wanted to see what was there in terms of ecology and botany. Like most state parks, it turns out to be a heavily managed landscape dominated by exotic invasive plants other than the trees and shrubs.

Aphis (Bursaphis) cf. costalis on Ribes aureum, Goose Lake, Oregon.

Aphis (Bursaphis) cf. costalis fundatrix on Ribes aureum, Goose Lake, Oregon.

Despite this, I found a cluster of Aphis (Bursaphis) fundatrices (probably the species “costalis,” which is poorly understood) on Ribes aureum growing among the cottonwoods.

Abandoning the creepy managed space of Goose Lake state park, we ventured back to Lakeview and drove about 2 km up Bullard Canyon, which leaves downtown on Center Street.  There I wanted to collect the early spring forms of a mysterious Macrosiphoniella on an herbaceous Artemisia (success!), and hoped to find the fundatrices of a mysterious Braggia on Eriogonum along the roadside (success!).  I had found both aphids in the area last fall, and want to study them in more detail.

Braggia fundatrix in Bullard Canyon 7 iv 2016 1

A Braggia fundatrix in Bullard Canyon. In the fall I collected this aphid and had a hard time identifying it to species. I am therefore highly motivated to collect more!

Happy with these finds, and some wading in the stream for the Bumble, we headed home for lunch.  After which I took my mountain bike and rode to the radio antenna towers outside town.  Lakeview sits at about 1,463 meters above sea level, and the radio towers above are about 1,950 meters.  It’s a tough ride to the top, but worth it.  As you can see in the photo, there is still a lot of snow on the north-facing slope.  Under all that snow is one of my favorite plants, Agastache urticifolia, and if I am lucky, one of my favorite un-described Macrosiphum species, only about 15 km by road from home (home is actually only about 2 km as the raven flies).

The radio antenna towers and snow int he hills above Lakeview. It might be a month or more before the snow melts and Agastache starts to grow!

The radio antenna towers and snow int he hills above Lakeview. It might be a month or more before the snow melts and Agastache starts to grow!  It was about 23 C up there today.

The final stage of our vacation day was looking for aphids around the garden — one should never neglect that!  Few aphids are evident this time of year, but Myzaphis rosarum fundatrices are nearly developed to adult on Potentilla fruticosa outside my office window, and the seemingly omnipresent Rhopalosiphum oxyacanthae hatched a few days ago on both Sorbus (mountain ash) and Malus (apple) in the garden.

Rhopalosiphum oxyacanthae fundatrix nymphs on our beleaguered apple tree.

Rhopalosiphum oxyacanthae fundatrix nymphs on our beleaguered apple tree.

It was a good day.  Bumble is happily tired, and samples await processing in the coming days!

Juniper Mountain 1-3 April 2016

Our first full weekend outing of 2016 was to Juniper Mountain in Lake County, Oregon the first weekend of April. (As always on Aphidtrek, click on the photos to enlarge.) Just to put this place into perspective, Lake County is one small piece of eastern Oregon.

This is the view from camp toward evening. In the distance is Hart Mountain. Probably fewer than 50 humans live between the camera and the mountains in the distance. The sagebrush steppe shown here is typical.

This is the view from camp toward evening. In the distance is Hart Mountain. Probably fewer than 50 humans live between the camera and the mountains in the distance. The sagebrush steppe shown here is typical.

It is comprised of 21,432 square kilometers of land, in which about 8,000 humans live. That much land is about two thirds the size of Belgium (30,528 square kilometers).  About 70% of Lake County is owned by the federal government and is open to the public for recreation.

This time of year we stay in the desert lowlands which are managed by our Bureau of Land Management. Later in the year we will climb into the mountains and camp on Forest Service lands amongst the pines and firs.

On this trip we drove about 100 km north of home on our major highway, then turned off into what we call dirt roads, into the hills and desert, to reach Juniper Mountain.

The motorized and un-motorized vehicles ideal for our kind of camping.

The motorized and un-motorized vehicles ideal for our kind of camping.

Another 15 km or so along roads of rock, dirt, and mud found us a campsite amongst the junipers and sagebrush with a view of thousands of hectares of uninhabited land.

This kind of trip requires a special kind of vehicle; for us, a Toyota pickup truck, and for me, a mountain bike for further exploration. No maintained campgrounds here, we make our own camp, dig a fire pit, and park the vehicle in the trees.

The inland parts of Oregon are mostly dry, near-desert sagebrush steppe. This campsite is dominated by two species of sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata and Artemisia arbuscula, the latter known as ‘low sage’ and former as ‘big sage.’ The elevation here is about 1600 meters, going up onto Juniper Mountain behind camp, which peaks at about 2,020 meters. This kind of habitat sees a long cold winter and a dry hot summer. The sagebrush steppe is interrupted in places like this by stands of juniper trees, which utilize certain soil/geological types that suite their need for abundant subsurface water.

The junipers grow in certain soil- and aspect microclimates. Our camp site is the shiny speck in the trees in the center of the photo.

The junipers grow in certain soil- and aspect microclimates. Our camp site is the shiny speck in the trees in the center of the photo (click on the photo to enlarge).

As is our way, the first trip of the year was an especially nice weather weekend, sunny, not very windy (mostly less that 15 kph), and warm for this time of year (near 0 C at night, about 17 C during the afternoon).

Buttercups (Ranunculus) are common in this kind of habitat in early spring.

Buttercups (Ranunculus) are common in this kind of habitat in early spring.

It feels like good aphid collecting conditions, but here, spring is just beginning.  Only a few specialized herbs are in bloom, the grasses are just starting to grow, and the shrubs breaking buds.  In another month, this landscape will be full of the colors of desert flowers, including Lupinus, Delphinium, Castelleia, Eriogonum, Crepis, and much more. But this weekend, it takes a little hunting to find most of these plants just pushing through the dry dusty soil surface.

The sagebrush steppe is home to many species of Phlox. This one blooms early in the spring.

The sagebrush steppe is home to many species of Phlox. This one blooms early in the spring.

Aphids are few this time of year, but easily detected. The fundatrices of Obtusicauda, Pleotrichophorus, and Pseudoepameibaphis hatched a couple weeks ago from their overwintering eggs on Artemisia and are about 10 days from maturing to adult and beginning the new aphid season in earnest. On the psyllid side, over-wintered nymphs of Craspedolepta are growing again on Artemisia and heading toward adulthood in a few weeks.  I don’t collect my bugs this time of year, preferring to stick with collecting adults when they are ready, but a walk through the early spring landscape is just as interesting as any time– it helps put into perspective everything that is to come throughout the growing season for this place.

We seek out places like this to study nature, doing our natural history thing, but equally we come here to enjoy the quiet, isolation from human noise, and soak in some amazing  wild lands of the west.

The road that goes past Juniper Mountain, through a landscape that is shaped by drought and fire.

The road that goes past Juniper Mountain, through a landscape that is shaped by drought and fire.