November 10 – Beetle Bailing

Today’s factismal: Beetles represent about 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

October 29 – Zombee Jamboree

Today’s Factismal: Bees and ants really can turn into into zombies.

If you think that zombies are just found in the movies, then think again. There are real live zombies out there, and they may be in your neighborhood. But what is a zombie, really? And how did it get that way?

Put simply, to a biologist a zombie is any animal that no longer acts under its own control but is instead controlled by a parasite. The best known example of this in the animal kingdom is the poor leafcutter ant. In forests across Brazil, Thailand, and Africa, leafcutter ants are regularly attacked by a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“Single fruiting body poking out of the head”, which describes how it reproduces). This disease primarily preys on leafcutter ants that make their homes in masses of bound together leaves, far above the ground.

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it (Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it
(Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

As soon as an ant has this disease, it begins to twitch and thrash until it either falls out of the nest or is thrown by colony members who don’t want to catch it themselves. The infected ant finds a leaf, grabs on with its mandibles, and has its brain eaten by the fungus. As soon as the fungus has nibbled all of the goodies to be found in this ant, it then cracks open the ant’s head and grows a stalk with a fruiting body on the tip. The fruiting body releases spores and the whole cycle starts all over again.

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane (Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane
(Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

And it isn’t just funguses that can cause this behavior. There are bacteria, wasps, and even flies that do this. Most ominous of those is the fly Apocephalus borealis, which turns honeybees into zombies. This “scuttle fly” is much smaller than a honeybee, but is capable of infecting dozens of honeybees with its eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae that then eat their way to the bee’s brain and drive it insane. (Bwah-hah-hah!) The bee then does stupid things, like flying at night or in the rain, which spreads the larvae further than they could go on their own. The larvae finally finish off the bee and eat their way out of the poor, dead, bee.

This is a severe problem for people because we rely on honeybees to fertilize many of the crops that we eat. Without honeybees, we’d be very hungry indeed. If you’d like to help spot zombees and track the spread of the zombee apocalypse, then join the ZombeeWatch:
https://www.zombeewatch.org/

August 29 – Something to Wine About

Today’s factismal: If a ladybug gets into the grapes when you make wine, it can make your Riesling taste like a Sauvignon blanc.

Ah, ladybugs! One of the joys of youth (“lady bug, lady bug, fly away home!”) and the joy of gardeners everywhere (at least until the gardener realizes that the lady bug is eating the plants and not the aphids), these amazing little critters never cease to amaze. They are full of contradictions and confusions, as you might expect for a group of beetles that includes more than 6,000 species spread over six continents.

A nine-spotted ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A nine-spotted ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

For example, their name. In England, they are lady bird beetles, named for Mary (“Our lady”) due to their red color which resembles the red cape that Mary is often depicted wearing. In Germany, the name is “Mary’s beetle” (marienkäfer). In Eastern Europe, they are called lady flies. In Scandinavia, they are lady cows (that last sounds a bit disrespectful). And in America, they are called ladybugs. But to a biologist, they are coccinellidae (“red backed beetles”).

And then there is what they eat. Though most species of ladybug feast on spider mites, aphids, and other insect pests that feed on plants, there are several species such as the Mexican bean beetle and the large leaf-eating ladybird that prefer to skip the middle-bug and eat the plant themselves! And even the ladybugs that prefer to gnaw on other insects can turn into pests once the aphids have run out; they have even been known to nibble on humans! (No word on if SyFy will turn this into a TV movie – “Ladybugtopus”.)

And then there is the ladybug’s color. Though most ladybugs are red with black spots, some are yellow or orange with black spots and a few are even black with orange spots. But in all cases, the purpose of the color remains the same; it is a warning to other critters not to eat them because they taste nasty. And that nasty taste can sometimes affect people, too. When grape pickers annoy the ladybugs, the beetles release chemicals to scare them off. If those chemicals don’t get washed off before the grapes are pressed they can make the juice bitter and like ammonia; this effect, which can make a sweet wine taste like a dry one, is known as ladybird taint.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A multicolored Asian ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

But the most confusing thing about ladybugs is how they respond to changes in their environment. In addition to the shifts in temperature and moisture caused by changes in climate, the ladybug is being stressed by (believe it or not) the ladybug! During the early part of the last century, many organic farmers introduced non-native ladybugs in an attempt to control aphids and other plant pests. Unfortunately, the non-native ladybugs had few predators and so soon started crowding out the native ladybugs. As a result, many ladybugs are becoming rarer. But biologists don’t know how rare they are.

A transverse ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A transverse ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

And that’s where you come in! The next time you are outside, look around for ladybugs. If you see one, report it at the Lost Lady Bug Project. Your garden will thank you!
http://www.lostladybug.org/index.php

October 27 – Berenice

Today’s Factismal: Bees and ants really can turn into into zombies.

If you think that zombies are just found in the movies, then think again. There are real live zombies out there, and they may be in your neighborhood. But what is a zombie, really? And how did it get that way?

Put simply, to a biologist a zombie is any animal that no longer acts under its own control but is instead controlled by a parasite. The best known example of this in the animal kingdom is the poor leafcutter ant. In forests across Brazil, Thailand, and Africa, leafcutter ants are regularly attacked by a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (“Single fruiting body poking out of the head”, which describes how it reproduces). This disease primarily preys on leafcutter ants that make their homes in masses of bound together leaves, far above the ground.

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it (Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

A zombie ant and the fungus that killed it
(Image courtesy Maj-Britt Pontoppidan et al)

As soon as an ant has this disease, it begins to twitch and thrash until it either falls out of the nest or is thrown by colony members who don’t want to catch it themselves. The infected ant finds a leaf, grabs on with its mandibles, and has its brain eaten by the fungus. As soon as the fungus has nibbled all of the goodies to be found in this ant, it then cracks open the ant’s head and grows a stalk with a fruiting body on the tip. The fruiting body releases spores and the whole cycle starts all over again.

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane (Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

A zombie honeybee and the maggots that drove it insane
(Image courtesy ZombeeWatch)

And it isn’t just funguses that can cause this behavior. There are bacteria, wasps, and even flies that do this. Most ominous of those is the fly Apocephalus borealis, which turns honeybees into zombies. This “scuttle fly” is much smaller than a honeybee, but is capable of infecting dozens of honeybees with its eggs. The eggs hatch into larvae that then eat their way to the bee’s brain and drive it insane. (Bwah-hah-hah!) The bee then does stupid things, like flying at night or in the rain, which spreads the larvae further than they could go on their own. The larvae finally finish off the bee and eat their way out of the poor, dead, bee.

This is a severe problem for people because we rely on honeybees to fertilize many of the crops that we eat. Without honeybees, we’d be very hungry indeed. If you’d like to help spot zombees and track the spread of the zombee apocalypse, then join the ZombeeWatch:
https://www.zombeewatch.org/

June 16 – My Queen!

Today’s factismal: Female cuckoo bumblebees orchestrate coup d’etats in the hives of other bumble bees and then enslave the workers to feed their meglomaniacal horde.

Things get weird in the insect world. Consider the humble bumblebee (or the bumble humblebee if you live in Britain). Though they all get lumped together by the casual observer (i.e., “that small insect with a big stinger that makes honey”), there are actually significant differences between the 250 known species of bumblebee worldwide, about 50 of which live in the USA. Though most bumblebees are about an inch long, the resemblances stops there. They have a bewildering variety of color schemes (usually in alternating strips of black and something bold) and flower preferences (from cactus to roses to pines) and nesting sites (from old bird’s nests to mouse holes to wooden eaves) and temperature range (from near-arctic to warmly tropical).

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets) (My camera)

A bumblebee with loaded corbicula (pollen baskets)
(My camera)

But perhaps the weirdest thing that bumblebees do is prey on other bumblebees. There is an entire group of bumblebees known as the cuckoo bumblebee. The 29 different species in this group don’t hunt for nectar to make into honey; instead, they look for colonies of other bumblebees to take over in a coup d’etat. What happens is a recently-fertilized female cuckoo bumblebee will seek out a flower with the characteristic pheromone left on it after it has been the meal for a bumblebee. She will then feed at that flower, covering herself with the odor of the plant and the pheromone. Next, she finds the bumblebee nest which is always nearby due to their limited flight range. Using the scent of the flower as a disguise, she sneaks into the nest and sidles up to the queen. With a sudden leap, the cuckoo bumblebee stabs the queen to death after which she emits a pheromone that calms the remaining bumblebees and turns them into her loyal slaves. The usurping cuckoo bumblebee then spends the rest of the season pumping out baby cuckoo bumblebees, which are tended to by the enslaved colony; the cruel kingdom only ends when winter comes, killing all of the bees (sounds like a Game of Thrones episode, doesn’t it?).

Two bumblebees doing their job (My camera)

Two bumblebees doing their job
(My camera)

Of course, that’s not the only weird thing about bumblebees. Another one is that we still don’t know the range of the various species of bumblebee, nor are we sure if their numbers are increasing or not. If you’d like to help answer those questions, then why not join the folks at Project Bumble Bee?
http://www.xerces.org/bumblebees/

January 13 – Leapin’ Rhaphidophoridae!

Today’s factismal: The noise given off by crickets is called stridulation (“shrill sound”).

There are a lot of people who don’t like crickets of any sort. They think that the crickets are dirty, filthy, disgusting critters with no redeeming social values whatsoever. Obviously, they’ve confused  crickets with politicians (or cockroaches) because crickets are among the most useful insects out there. Crickets clean our houses and fields by feasting on dead plants, fungi, and even eat their own dead. They help aerate the soil by digging burrows and fertilize it with their droppings. And while they do all this, they chirp a happy song in a process that scientists call stridulation (from the Latin for “shrill sound”).

A male field cricket. Despite their fearsome look, the spurs on his legs are not used to make sound! (Image courtesy Luis Fernández García)

A male field cricket. Despite their fearsome look, the spurs on his legs are not used to make sound!
(Image courtesy Luis Fernández García)

They do this not with their vocal chords (because they don’t have vocal chords – Jimminy was really a mute!) but by rubbing one wing against the other. The wings of a cricket are covered with fine serrations like a knife; when these flick against the wing, it acts like a big drum that makes and amplifies the sound. In many species, the rate and character of the chirping can be used to tell what the cricket has in mind. A male cricket’s “calling song” is loud and fast and intended to lure females near and drive males away. If another male gets too close, an aggressive “go away” song is heard. But if a female cricket wanders by, the male will sing a low and quiet courtship song. And if he is lucky in love, then he celebrates with a short “copulatory song” (usually sung in locker rooms).

But crickets in America are facing their worst nightmare right now. All of the best places to live and all of the good foods are being taken over by a pair of invasive camel crickets (weta) from Asia. In one survey done by citizen scientists like yourself, up to 88% of the houses had one of two species of Asian camel crickets while only 12% of the houses had a native camel cricket (which gets along better with our native crickets than the invaders do). So what can you do?

A Camel cricket, close up and personal(Image courtesy Your Wild Life)

A Camel cricket, close up and personal
(Image courtesy Your Wild Life)

Count crickets! Winter is the perfect time to look around and see what sort of cricket lives in your house. That’s because crickets and camel crickets have moved in from the cold and are easier to spot than they would be in a field or on a tree. If you spot a cricket or a camel cricket, take a picture of it and send the picture to the Camel Cricket Census. they are now in their third year of collecting data and hope to have results for the whole of the United States very soon. To reach them, chirp at:
http://crickets.yourwildlife.org/

December 10 – Stink, Stank, Stunk

Today’s factismal: Pâté made with stink bugs and chicken livers is considered a delicacy in many parts of the world.

It is the holiday season once again, and we all know what that means – parties! And one of the most traditional of all holiday parties is the potluck supper, where everyone brings a dish to share with the others. If you’d like to stand out this year from the endless parade of green bean casseroles and turkey à la King casseroles, then may I suggest a nice chicken liver and stink bug pâté? According to those who have tried it, the roasted stink bugs add a certain bouquet to the mix and raise it from the ordinary into something truly unusual. (I wouldn’t know – I’m allergic to insects.)

Eating stink bugs isn’t as strange as it might sound. Not only are insects a good source of protein, by eating them we take back a little of the food that they have stolen from us. And that’s exactly what most stink bugs do – steal food. That’s because they are “true bugs”, with a mouth designed like a hypodermic syringe that can pierce through tough plant or animal skins and suck out the juicy insides.

Brown marmorated stink bugs, ready to be made into pate (Image courtesy USDA)

Brown marmorated stink bugs, ready to be made into pâté
(Image courtesy USDA)

Among the most noxious of the stink bugs is the brown marmorated stink bug. This critter isn’t so bad in its homeland of China and Japan, where a wasp likes to use it as food (see – I told you they were tasty!). But it is spreading rapidly here in North America after being accidentally introduced in 1998. It is now found across the entire eastern United States. Though it is naturally most active in the spring and summer, they can be found more easily in the winter when they migrate into homes to hibernate. They will crawl through open doors, windows, soffits, and just about any opening that they can squeeze their body through in the fall and then wait for spring, snug as a bug in a rug (mainly because they are). If the house warms up enough, then the stink bug may become active and head for the nearest light fixture, which is your chance to catch them.

If you aren’t interested in roasting the stink bug for diner (and I can’t really blame you), then you could always report it to the folks at the Stop Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs web site. They’ll use your information to help the USDA and other agricultural groups fight back against this new pest. To report a bug, scitter on over to:
http://www.stopbmsb.org/