Try Your Hand At Introductory Entomology, Part II

And now, an excerpt from my second mid-term exam for the BIO 453L class. Good luck!


8. Australia was able control its infamous bush fly problem by importing several species of:
a. Dung beetle
b. Robber fly
c. Orb-weaving spider
d. Green lacewing

9. In your new job as a forensic entomologist, you receive a sample of insects collected by police from a body discovered in a park. The sample contains mostly beetles in the family Dermestidae and moths in the family Tineidae. It is autumn and the weather has been cool. Would you estimate the PMI (=time of death) to be:
a. Within a day.
b. Within 2-3 days.
c. Between 4 days and 2 weeks.
d. More than 2 weeks.

10. Which insect order is indispensable, as cacao’s required pollinator, to the production of chocolate?

The daily life of an entomologist

I know some of you young folks are thinking of becoming professional entomologists. That’s a fine career choice. Intellectually stimulating. Full of adventure and intrigue. Before you decide to embark on such an unusual professional journey, though, you’d do well to know how full-time entomologists spend their days:

The daily life of an entomologist. In our very wildest dreams.

Ha! Just kidding.

For a glimpse at the actual daily activities of a university entomologist, have a look at McGill professor Chris Buddle’s schedule:

A better way to barcode museum specimens

In today’s Zootaxa, Jolley-Rogers et al propose a novel way to electronically tag insect collections:

A new, ultra-small, light-activated microtransponder (“p-Chip”) has been integrated into the heads of entomological pins to improve efficiency in collections management and research through radio frequency identification (RFID) of insect specimens. These specimens are typically small, fragile, numerous and especially difficult to track. Globally, the majority are not currently recorded in any database. The application of unique identifiers has previously proven time consuming and difficult. Permanent and integral to the specimen, each p-Chip transmits a unique serial number allowing tracking without contact and reducing the risk of damage to specimens and repetitive strain injuries (RSI) in curators. The p-Chips and the specimens they tag can be linked immediately to biodiversity web services and collections databases. Specimens can be rapidly assigned to groupings as they are sorted and their taxonomic identity refined; and accurately tracked through high throughput methods and analyses. Quite importantly, with the p-Chips, the profile of the pin head is unchanged, and there is no discernible tactile difference from standard entomological pins.
Also. Jolley-Rogers? Really? I need to coauthor a paper with this guy.

DIY Entomology Equipment

The following is a guest post by Tucker Lancaster of the Blue Egg Blog.

Flipping through the glossy pages of a Bioquip catalogue, you would think that entomology is a rather expensive pursuit. But, it doesn’t have to be. As an amateur entomologist, I’ve never had money to blow on equipment. Therefore, the majority of my collecting arsenal is home made from commonly available materials. I thought that I would share some of my creations here in the hope that will help others plunge into this exciting hobby without breaking the bank.

Let’s start with collecting equipment. When gathering small insects, such as ants, it is all to easy to accidentally squish your prize. That’s where an aspirator comes in. Though this is not a particularly expensive tool to buy, it is possible to make your own.

As you can see, the mechanism is quite simple. Two pieces of clear vinyl tubing are stuck through holes in the lid of a small jar or vial, and one is covered with a thin piece of cotton to prevent you from inhaling the insects you’re collecting. I used a small piece of cotton from a makeup remover pad, but something thinner would be easier to suck through. For example, fine wire screen or a square from an old pair of tights might work better. Just make sure the holes are small enough! To use it, you point the smaller tube at an insect and suck hard on the other. This pulls your query through the tube and into the vial, where they can be easily collected. This design was inspired the aspirator sold by Bioquip, and operates on the same principles.

Next up is one of my favorites, the Berlese Funnel. (more…)

The Vastness of Bugspace

.002% of the world's known beetle species

I woke this morning to see I’d been linked by astroblogger Phil Plait, reminding me of a pontification I’ve been meaning to pontificate.

All fields of science are more unknown than known. That’s pretty much a given considering the span between the enormity of the Universe and the subatomic details of its smallest particles. But not all fields are unknown in ways where non-professionals readily step up to make contributions. Astronomy and Entomology have this in common: regular people, working in their yards, have the ability to discover fundamental new things.

Space is huge. BugSpace is also huge. Maybe there are three million insect species. Maybe there are 5 million. Or, 15. Or, 80. No one really knows. In any scenario, though, a majority of species remain in the dark. For those species that are known, most have only a name and a location. Their food, behavior, chemistry, and genetics are simply undocumented. Thus, we know little about the species we know exist, and nothing about the rest.

But these are just words. You can catch a glimmer of the vastness of BugSpace yourself right here on the internet.

One of several subgenera of sweat bees, a partial list, from BugGuide.net.

BugGuide.net serves one region, North America, that ranks among the least biodiverse of the continents. And, it contains only a fraction of the described species that occur here. Yet, have a surf through BugGuide’s database and see how quickly you get lost. Here’s a random starting point if you need one. A staggering number of bugs are out there!

Insects are large enough that most can be seen with the naked eye, and with a little magnification their features can be examined. A hand lens, digital camera, or  microscope renders the untapped diversity of insects accessible to nearly anyone. Thus, entomology is both unknown and available to the amateur, and that means discovery is ripe for the picking. Just last week, for example, a citizen-scientist rediscovered a species of lady beetle thought extinct in New York.

As another similarity between the disciplines, light pollution is terrible for both astronomers and insects. But that’s a topic for another day.

A Major New Fossil Deposit, with a Note on Taxonomic Caution

PNAS yesterday carried breaking news by Rust and colleagues of extensive new fossil Indian amber deposits dating to about 50 million years ago and holding exquisitely preserved fossils. How important is this find?

It’s huge.

Not only does the discovery add an older record to bridge the excellent Dominican (15 mya) and Baltic (40 mya) deposits with the various and spotty Cretaceous deposits (65-140 mya ), but it provides insight on the history of the Indian subcontinent as it migrated from the south. The fossils will give biologists grist for years of testing hypothesis about what happened to India on its northward journey, and for examining broader patterns of evolution in the contained taxa. This is big, exciting stuff.

But enough praise for the research. I always find some nitpick to rant about, and Rust et al are no exception. (more…)

Ants from the Grave of Thomas Say

Tapinoma sessile Say 1836

Among the first species that students of North American ants learn is Tapinoma sessile, the odorous house ant.

This small brown insect lives in nearly every temperate habitat across the continent. Sonoran desert washes? Check. Alpine meadows in the Sierra Nevada? Check. Wheat fields in Nebraska? Check. Long Island suburbs? Also. My kitchen? All over the place.

Tapinoma sessile was named by Thomas Say, a naturalist living in the utopian settlement of New Harmony, Indiana in the 1820s. Say is widely considered to be the father of American entomology, first discovering and describing more than a thousand of our familiar insects: the Colorado potato beetle, thief ant, cinch bug, several malaria mosquitoes, some cicadas, parasitic wasps, and so forth. Tapinoma sessile was among his final creations, published posthumously in 1836.

Scientific names of most species are stabilized by anchoring them- in a legal framework- to physical specimens kept in museums. These key name-bearing specimens are called types, and they are useful in resolving arguments concerning the validity of names, or whether a particular name ought apply to a particular population of organisms. As you might imagine, types are important. Without them taxonomists lose the connection between the names and the corresponding flesh-and-blood organisms.

Until recently, Tapinoma sessile has had no type specimen. Say’s collection was mostly lost in the years following his death in 1834. With it vanished any trace of the insects Say looked at when he penned his description of the ant. The odorous house ant has been taxonomically adrift ever since.

Where I am going with this? (more…)

A few dead insects…

I had an assignment this weekend to shoot preserved insects as if in a museum display collection. Dead bugs aren’t normally my thing, but there’s something to be said about subjects that stay put and allow me to arrange lighting without scurrying off. I pinned the insects in foam-bottomed trays and reflected the strobe off an overhead white board. More photos below.


Monday Night Mystery

Alright, Sherlock.  What’s going on here?

Five points each for the identity of the big round thing, for the insect at the top, and for the insect at the side. Ten points for describing the story.

And a freebie point to anyone who comes up with an idea for what to do with all these points.

This scene was photographed in the fall in southern Illinois. Here are close-ups of the critters:

mystery wasp #1

mystery wasp#2