November 3 – The Beetles Get Buggy

Today’s factismal: Beetles may represent 40% of all insects and 25% of all animals.

If there’s one thing that drives entomologists (“people who study cut up things” – insect scientists) buggy, it is when someone calls a bug a beetle or a beetle a bug. That’s because the word “bug” (or “true bug” in entomologist-speak) and the word “beetle” each have specific meanings that help scientists understand what is being discussed.

Lady bugs are beetles (Image courtesy US FWS)

Lady bugs are beetles
(Image courtesy US FWS)

Let’s start with the bugs. Not every insect is a bug; indeed, there are only about 80,000 known species of bugs out of some million or so species of insect. So one out of every twelve insects that you meet will be a true bug. But what a lot of true bugs you can see! There are aphids and bedbugs and water bugs and cicadas. The one thing that all true bugs have in common is a mouth that is made for sucking. Aphids and cicadas suck the juice out of plants (that’s why they are pests), water bugs suck the juice out of other bugs, and bed bugs suck the juice out of you!

A wheel bug is  real bug (Image courtesy US FWS)

A wheel bug is real bug
(Image courtesy US FWS)

Where true bugs are (relatively) rare, beetles are incredibly common. There are about 400,000 known species of beetle, with more being discovered every day (more on that later). Perhaps the best-known beetle is frequently called a bug: the ladybird beetle (aka, the lady bug). But the beetles includes other fascinating critters, such as the scarab, the weevil, the stag beetle, and the firefly. They live in environments ranging from Alaskan tundra to Amazonian rainforest, from dry desert to under the water of a lake, and from deepest forest to the middle of a city. And they are similarly varies in what they eat, with foods ranging from detritus (leaves and dung) to other insects to small animals, snail, or worms. About the only thing that all beetles have in common is that the front pair of wings has hardened into a shell that covers and protects the rear wings when the beetle is at rest.

But the most fascinating thing about all insects, be they true bug, beetle, or something else, is that we are still discovering new species! Some people think that there may be as many as one million more species of insect left to discover. But the entomologists can’t do it all themselves; they need your help. When you spot an unusual insect, post a picture of it on the Bug Guide website along with when and where you saw it. The folks there will help you classify the critter and let you know if you’ve seen something truly new:
http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740

August 25 – All Natural

Today’s factismal: The berries of some species of viburnum are highly prized for jams and jellies but the berries of other viburnum species can kill you.

One of the prettiest plants in many a Northeasterner’s garden is the viburnum. This fast-growing shrub has showy flowers with an enchanting fragrance and berries that, while always colorful, range from delicious to deadly. But if you leave the berries to the birds, you’ll still appreciate the plant for its plentiful shade and the gentle arcs of color its leaves and flowers make. Or at least, you will until the viburnum leaf beetle gets to it!

Viburnum in flower (My camera)

Viburnum in flower
(My camera)

As with so many other pests, the viburnum leaf beetle is an invasive species. It was accidentally introduced into North America in 1947, and has slowly been munching its way across the country. The viburnum leaf beetle is an ugly little critter and leaves tell-tale scars on the plants it attacks. While the adults eat the leaves of the viburnum, the larvae feed on the plant from the inside. That’s because the female viburnum leaf beetle plants the eggs into the plant by chewing a series of small round holes on the bottom of twigs before placing the eggs inside and sealing them up with her poop mixed with sawdust to wait out the winter. The larvae emerge in the spring and begin gnawing on leaves before dropping to the ground to pupate after which they emerge and once more begin eating their fill of viburnum.

An infestation can denude a viburnum plant fairly quickly, and repeated infestations can kill it entirely. Because the pest is spreading, both entomologists and botanists are seeking help form concerned citizen scientists like you. If you’d like to help track the spread of the viburnum leaf beetle, head over to Cornell’s Viburnum Leaf Beetle website:
http://www.hort.cornell.edu/vlb/

August 4 – All In The Family

Today’s factismal: An ant queen can live for thirty years but the fertile male ants known as drones die after just a few (very happy) weeks.

Ants are among the most successful of all critters on Earth. They’ve been around since the Cretaceous, and unlike the dinosaurs, they are still around today. Most ants aren’t very fussy about what they eat (what science-types call “generalistic omnivores”), though a few species (such as the all-female Mycocepurus smithii that grows fungus for food) are very picky indeed. They live in a wide range of environments that include deserts (Cataglyphis bicolor), rainforests (Ectatomma tuberculatum), prairies (Lasius neoniger), and sidewalks (Tetramorium caespitum); about the only places that they won’t live is on ice or under the sea. They are so successful that they make up about one-quarter of all animals on land by weight.

Leaf cutter ants in Thailand (My camera)

Leaf cutter ants in Thailand
(My camera)

Though they are frequently used as villains in bad science fiction movies (e.g., Them!, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Phase IV), they would prefer not to attack people (we’re too big to eat and we taste nasty). And ants do a lot of good in the ecology. They help to reduce the amount of detritus in their environment by turning it into fertilizer via their alimentary tracks and aerate soil by digging their colonies. If you’d like to learn more about these fascinating critters, then head over to AntWeb where they’ve got the goods on the formidable formicidae!
http://www.antweb.org/

June 7 – Dragon Flight

Today’s Factismal: Dragonflies are the fastest flying insects; one was recorded moving at 60 mph!

The dragonfly is a graceful little critter with a weird lifestyle. As adults, they have long, narrow bodies with two sets of transparent wings and bulbous compound eyes. They are predators, and their bodies are shaped for speed and maneuverability; dragonflies are famed for their ability to flit upwards, downwards, forward, back, and side to side with ease. They are also the fastest known flying insects. When just flitting about, they average 10 mph, but can speed along at up to 30 mph for short bursts. And one dragonfly was even recorded going 60 mph for the length of a field!

A dragonfly at the Atwater Prairie Chicken Preserve (My camera)

A dragonfly at the Atwater Prairie Chicken Preserve
(My camera)

But their speed and grace in the air is actually a fairly minor part of their life story. They start as eggs laid on a submerged reed or other water plant. Once the eggs hatch, the dragonfly nymphs begin to swim about, feasting on mosquito larvae and other goodies. The dragonfly nymphs absorb oxygen from the water using gills that are conveniently placed in their butts; they also have a form of jet propulsion that uses water jets from their butts to speed them away from things that think they might be tasty. After a period lasting from two months (for the smaller dragonflies) to five years (for the big ones), the nymph climbs out of the water and molts its skin, becoming a full-fledged adult complete with wings.

A dragonfly at the Brazos Bend National Wildlife Refuge (My camera)

A dragonfly at the Brazos Bend National Wildlife Refuge
(My camera)

There are more than 5600 different species of these lovely little creatures which are found on every continent except Antarctica. If you’d like to help scientists track them, then head on over to Odonata Central. The entomologists at Texas A&M are trying to discover exactly where each species lives, and your field reports can help them do that.
http://www.odonatacentral.org/index.php/PageAction.get/name/HomePage

April 23 – Imago that!

Today’s Factismal: An adult butterfly is called an imago.

Butterflies are weird little critters. They have taste buds in their feet, which they use to decide if the leaves they land on would make a good home for their children. They have eyes that see in the ultraviolet and infrared, so what we see as a white pansy is actually a multicolored neon “Eat Here!” sign to them. And they have noses on the end of their antennae, which they use to sniff out flowers that are full of nectar.

A butterfly tastes its landing place with its feet (My camera)

A butterfly tastes its landing place with its feet
(My camera)

But the weirdest thing about butterflies is that they have four different life stages. They are laid as eggs, each about the size of a grain of salt. After fertilization, the female butterfly lays the eggs on a leaf that she’s tasted with her feet to make sure that the caterpillars will be able to eat it. As she places each egg onto the leaf, the female butterfly glues it into place with a special secretion. She then flies off, never to see her children again.

A butterfly seeking a good place for its eggs (My camera)

A butterfly seeking a good place for its eggs
(My camera)

A butterfly in its egg is called an embryo. If it is winter, then the embryos rest in their eggs for a bit in a process known as diapause; this allows the caterpillars to hatch in the springtime when leaves abound instead of in the winter when they have nought but snow to eat. In the other seasons, the eggs hatch after a few weeks, giving rise to beautiful, bouncing, baby caterpillars.

An oversize caterpillar (My camera)

An oversize caterpillar
(My camera)

Technically called a larva, each caterpillar crawls along the leaf, eating as it goes. Though some species like to nibble on aphids and the like, most prefer the taste of leaves and other plant matter. Some of the caterpillars prefer to eat plants that contain toxins which then makes the bug taste bad; the most famous example of this is the Monarch Butterfly, which feeds on milkweed. All of this munching leads to rapid growth spurts; at the end of each one, the caterpillar has outgrown its old skin and must shed it. After the caterpillar has grown large enough, it starts to develop wings (and you thought Disney was kidding).

An adult butterfly (imago) emerging from its cocoon (My camera)

An adult butterfly (imago) emerging from its cocoon
(My camera)

Once wing development has begun and the caterpillar has grown fat enough, it spins a cocoon and turns into a pupa. Popular wisdom to the contrary, the caterpillar does not dissolve into a puddle of goo in the cocoon. Instead, it sheds some appendages and grows others. The wings continue development, appearing as origami-like folds of thin tissue. After a few weeks, the pupa has matured into an adult butterfly known as an imago (“image”).

An imago taking a rest (My camera)

An imago taking a rest
(My camera)

If you’d like to learn more about butterflies and help scientists as they learn more about them, too, then why not join one of these citizen science projects (or start one in your neighborhood)?
eButterfly
Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network
Los Angeles Butterfly Survey
Loudoun Butterfly Count
Maine Butterfly Survey

February 14 – Isn’t that sweet?

Today’s Factismal: It takes ten million trips before honeybees collect enough nectar to make on pound of honey.

Life isn’t easy if you are a honeybee. Either you are a male, doomed to a short life filled with taunts of being just a drone, or you are a female, doomed to a life stuck in the hive laying egg after egg, or you are a worker, doomed to a longer life filled with finding nectar to turn into honey to fill the comb. But the workers do have a way to make life a little better by making it easier to find nectar; they dance.

A honeybee sipping nectar from a flower (My camera)

A honeybee sipping nectar from a flower (My camera)

As Martha Graham will tell you, dance is a way to talk and to share ideas. And the dance of the honeybee (called the bee dance or the waggle dance by entomologists ) is remarkably good at doing that. To perform the dance, a worker flies from the flower back into the colony and starts to waggle its abdomen as it crawls up the comb. The angle that the dance makes tells the other bees the direction to fly in order to find the flower, and the length of time that the bee waggles tells the other bees how far away the flower is. Even better, the number of waggles that a bee makes tells the other bees how good a source of nectar it is.

The "waggle dance" tells other bees where the nectar is

The “waggle dance” tells other bees where the nectar is

Because it is dark in the hive, the other bees cannot see the dance. Instead, they place their antennae on the lead bee’s abdomen, forming a conga line of workers. And because there is more than one flower patch in the world, there can be several competing waggle dances going on at the same time. Bees have been known to crash through each other’s waggle dances in attempts to capture more workers for “their” flowers, and even to lie about the quality of the flowers by increasing the number of waggles!

Though the waggle dance has been known since the time of Aristotle, it wasn’t recognized as a language until very recently. By carefully watching how bees reacted when they were given feeders full of sugar water, etymologists like Karl von Frisch were able to carefully decode the dance and other honeybee behavior. For his work, von Frisch was given the Nobel Prize in 1971.

Bumblebees also make honey (My camera)

Bumblebees also make honey (My camera)

And etymologists continue to learn more about how honeybees communicate and other mysteries of the species. If you’d like to help, then why not join the Bee Spotters:
http://beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/

February 10 – Monarch of the Air

Today’s Factismal: Every year, Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the Great Lakes and back again; the journey takes four generations to complete!

Perhaps the best known of the 24,000 species of butterflies is the Monarch. This lovely insect is found in gardens and parks all across North America, and is even an occasional visitor to places like the Bahamas, Australia, Europe, Thailand, and the Canary Islands. This is a butterfly that gets around!

A Monarch after a rain shower  (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch after a rain shower (Image courtesy Journey North)

And it is no wonder that the Monarch is found in so many different parts of the globe. Even when it stays in its own backyard, the Monarch migrates from its winter home in central Mexico up to its summer home in the Great Lakes region. That’s a journey of more than 2,000 miles. Because the Monarch can only fly about ten miles per hour, it takes the butterfly nearly two months to make the trip. But, because Monarchs only live for a month and a half on average, that means that no individual actually makes the complete migration.

A Monarch butterfly flock in migration  (Image courtesy Journey North)

A Monarch butterfly flock in migration (Image courtesy Journey North)

Instead, what happens is that the females that start out in Mexico will lay eggs along the journey. Those eggs hatch into caterpillars that feast on milkweed and other noxious plants; the accumulated poisons in the caterpillar make it an unpalatable meal for birds, which makes the caterpillars safer. After the caterpillars change into butterflies, they continue the migration until the second generation arrives in the northern range. There they lay eggs for the third generation that will live in the area until it is time to head back south. The third generation lays eggs somewhere during the migration back to Mexico and it is that fourth generation that will complete the migration and spend the winter in a sort of suspended animation known as diapause; this lasts until the end of winter, when the migration cycle begins again.

Monarch butterflies in diapause  (Image courtesy Journey North)

Monarch butterflies in diapause (Image courtesy Journey North)

There is still much to learn about the Monarch migrations. If you’d like to help by spotting the butterflies in your area, then why not take a look at the Journey North website?
http://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/