What all the Buzz is About

 

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Blue-banded bees (Amegilla cingulata) on a mountain devil (Lambertia formosa).  Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin.

 

Honeybees get a lot of buzz, but what about nature’s bigger buzzers? Those adorably-awkward bumbling bees that spend their days bumping into flowers. They are fuzzy, they are loud, and they are often joyfully colorful. The blue-banded bee from Australia is no exception. In fact, I dare you to find a more magical-looking bee!

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Blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata). Photo by Srikaanth Sekar.

But there is more to the blue-banded bee than resplendent blue butts.

Blue-banded bees aren’t technically bumblebees (bumblebees belong to the genus Bombus, while blue-banded bees belong to the genus Amegilla), but these furry flyers share some common traits. Notably, both blue-banded bees and bumblebees have the ability to shake pollen out of flowers using a technique called “buzz pollination”.

Buzz pollination (also called sonication), is a feat of strength and endurance that honeybees just can’t match, and it is critical to the 20,000 or so species of plants that depend on it for reproduction.

Flowers that have evolved buzz pollination are unique. They don’t simply put their protein-rich pollen out like cookies on a table for any Tom, Dick, or hairy insect to eat. Making pollen takes time and energy! So these flowers keep it tucked inside tubular stamens that few but the biggest bees are able to access.

To accomplish this a bee will typically grab a stamen with its jaws and vibrate its flight muscles hundreds of times a second. It has to hold on tight though, otherwise the vibrations could send it flying off the flower! Bees experience some totally tubular forces 30 times greater than gravity as they buzz for pollen. That’s near the limit of human endurance, and definitely more than Taylor Swift has ever accomplished, even in her most shakiest offiest of days.

Take a look at this video!

Some plants, like corn, ragweed, and oak trees, cast their pollen to the wind in order to reproduce. Others depend on pollinators like bats, birds, butterflies, and bees to act as their personal pollen distributors. Many flowers use nectar as a lure, and advertise widely to insects and birds to come and eat. But flowers that depend on buzz pollination are looking to attract very specific bees and insects, a relationship that was shaped over the course of evolution. Over time, as their pollen became more difficult to access, natural selection favored bigger bees that could shake their flowers harder.

Many of our important crops evolved in this way, such as cranberries, tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants.

That’s why big bees are so agriculturally important. Take Australia as an example. While surprisingly not the birthplace of Koala Yummies, Australia also sadly does not have any native bumblebees. For that reason greenhouse-grown tomatoes there are currently hand-pollinated using an “electric bee” (basically a tuning fork that releases pollen via vibrations in a similar way to bees).

In order to combat the extra time and money that hand-pollination requires, some folks in Australia have suggested importing European bumblebees to do the job. But what if these non-native bumblebees escaped their greenhouse enclosures into the surrounding environment?

As this Simpsons clip explains, that could spell ecological disaster.

Not to fear, though, because it turns out there is a better solution right in Australia’s backyard: the native blue-banded bee! Hard to imagine that these Aussie stunners were ever overlooked in the first place, but recent research has shown that they are quite successful in pollinating greenhouse tomatoes, thank you very much. In fact, they may even be better at it than bumblebees!

Bumblebees use their flight muscles to shake pollen out of flower anthers, but it turns out that blue-banded bees use a technique that’s infinitely more hardcore, but familiar to metal fans: headbanging. With a headbanging rate of  350 times per second – which could put even the most die-hard metal fans to shame – blue-banded bees can shake flowers at a greater frequency than bumblebees.

The blue-banded bees’ vibration also makes pollination more efficient, enabling them to spend fewer time on each flower while collecting more pollen.

Did I mention they are cute too?

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Female blue-banded bee. Photo by James Niland.

What a win-win! And a reminder of how important jumbo bees are, wherever they are found.

So the next time you hear a big ol’ bee buzzing furiously on a flower, you will know that they aren’t having a panic-attack, they are carrying on a long and glorious tradition of shaking out their pollen snacks, and in the process, ensuring the survival of thousands of plants, many of which we know and love.

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Bugs Got to do With It

Every now and then someone will ask what I do here in the Entomology Department at the California Academy of Sciences. Sometimes I say, “just lookin’ at bugs” or I stare blankly at them, slowly back up, and then run away. But usually I relate it to working in a library, only instead of books the walls are stacked with row upon row, millions upon millions of preserved insects. Researchers from all over the world “check-out” or borrow certain groups of insects, specifically ones in their area of expertise, for identification and study.

But there are some peculiarities to working in an Entomology collection. Translation: things sometimes get a little weird.

On a typical day I might peer into my microscope and see something like this:

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“Someone identify me!”

These googley-eyed chaps are an assortment of insects in the order Homoptera. The so-called “true-bugs”, insects in this very large order suck up plant sap with a pointy beak-like mouth, and include such well known insects as cicadas and aphids, as well as the ones you see illustrated here, commonly known as leafhoppers and planthoppers.

See this little guy with the bristles on his hind leg?

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That’s a leafhopper in the family Cicadellidae. If you’ve ever walked through grass on a spring day, you’ve likely seen these guys in action, doing what the do best: hoppin’! They are by far the most common Homopteran family I see under my microscope. Not only that, some of them have amazingly beautiful colors.

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Rhododendron Leafhopper (Graphocephala fennahi)

 

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Red-banded Leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea)

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Leafhopper (Versigonalia ruficauda)

Several years ago, Entomologists at the Academy began a project to map arthropod diversity on the Island of Madagascar in order to identify conservation hotspots there. Sounds straightforward, but it’s actually quite revolutionary! Until recently, insects were typically overlooked in conservation assessments, despite the fact that they make up the majority of life on the planet.

Biologists in Madagascar collect thousands of specimens that they then ship to us at the Academy. Big bags labeled “Coleoptera”, “Lepidoptera”, “Hymenoptera”, etc. brimming with vials of specimens preserved in alcohol come pouring into our lab. That’s where my job comes in, because I get to wrangle the miscellaneous Homopterans and sort them into smaller and more manageable groups that can then be shipped to taxonomists all over the world.

Here’s a bright pink specimen that belongs in the family Flatidae. They often come in shades of bright pink or yellow and, like their name implies, they are pretty flat.

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Colorful specimen in the Family Flatidae (Homoptera)

Once I pull out all the Flatidae specimens from the samples, I’ll be sending them off on a tropical vacation to Hawaii, where a man who just-so-happens to be a Flatidae specialist lives and works. In time he will hopefully identify them to species!

Here’s a nymph that is possibly in the Hemipteran family Pentatomidae. I’ve never come across anything like it in our Madagascar (or any), sample that I have looked at. It’s possible it could be a new species, but we won’t know until after we send it to a guy at the San Diego Natural History Museum.

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With over 1 million described species and counting, we rely on these taxonomists to look over the insects that have been collected and identify them. Maybe they are new species! Or maybe species that we already knew about, but maybe from a new location we didn’t previously know they existed.

Once all of this data is collected for insects (as well as for reptiles, amphibians, plants, and mammals), it can then be used to help conservationists propose locations for protected areas in Madagascar that will preserve the maximum number of species.

This kind of work is valuable, not just for Madagascar, but for the world. Although insects are easily overlooked, the overwhelming vastness of their numbers means that they fill countless niches in the environment and provide important ecological services. Some, like the role bees play in pollination, are well-known. Others, like the fact that we owe the existence of chocolate to a tiny little fly, may not be so well-known. But knowing it is vital, and we still have so much to learn about the biodiversity of the planet, from insects to lichens found up high in redwood trees.

That’s why museums like the Academy of Sciences are so important – not only do they house the records of life on the planet, but they also provide indispensable resources for the taxonomists who are able to tease apart and illuminate the tiny worlds all around us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wood Vibrations

Take a stroll through nature on a sunny day and you might hear a variety of birds calling, bees buzzing, goats yelling, and squirrels making squirrly noises. But what you probably won’t hear is this little guy talking to his friends:

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“I really do have friends”. Tiny treehopper on a stem. (Photo found on Flickr Creative Commons)

Treehoppers (family Membracidae), are actually quite social. But instead of shouting, “Hey you!” or “Watch out for that spider!”, treehoppers talk to each other by vibrating the plants they live on, an almost otherworldy form of communication that some scientists have called a secret society of sound.

While vibrations might seem like a strange way of communicating, in fact many reptiles, birds, and even a few mammals (elephants included!), have been found using the same technique. A particularly large percentage of insect species communicate via vibrations as well, but treehoppers, small and dorkily camouflaged like thorns, are a fascinating group.

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“oh hai”. Stylocentrus ancora sp. Family Membracidae. (Photo by Art, Flickr)

Finding them is hard enough, since they are most likely to be mistaken for thorns, if they are even seen at all. But getting a glimpse into their mysterious world is even more challenging.
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Whatcha doin’ over there? Treehopper on a stem. Family Membracidae. (Photo by Yogendra Joshi, Flickr)

 When insects like cicadas communicate, it’s hardly a secret. That’s because they have specialized noise-generating organs on their bodies called tymbals that they use to produce exceptionally loud songs that permeate the forest. But inscects like treehoppers that rely on plant vibrations for communication generally do not have such noisy organs. Many of them simply grab onto a plant stem and shake (or tremulate if you’re fancy!).
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Treehopper tremulatin’. Family Membracidae. (Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

The vibrations this produces are quite low in frequency, often below the threshold of human hearing.
But fortunately, there are some wonderful people in the world, like Rex Cocroft, a researcher and professor at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who has found a way to tap into this vibrational soundscape. Using a hairclip, he is able to attach phonograph needles and laser vibrometers (which can measure vibrations based on reflected light…don’t ask me how!), to a plant. Once recorded, the signals can be played back as airborne sounds. So now, at long last, we can actually listen to some treehopper conversations.
Here’s the translation for those that don’t speak treehopper:
Membracidae courting

(Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

But why vibrate when you can just make noise??! There are actually a number of advantages. Seismic waves don’t weaken as rapidly as air-borne sound waves and can therefore travel further (believed to be up to 16 km in elephants!). That’s handy for big animals that need to communicate over vast distances, but if you are very very small and find it difficult to produce loud airborn sounds, especially in a loud and squawky rainforest, it’s also super handy because even you can produce low-frequency signals capable of traveling the length of a plant or plant stem.
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Buffalo Treehopper: Stictocephala bisonia, Family Membracidae. (Photo by Brad Smith, Flickr)

But do treehoppers really have much to say? Studies reveal that, yes! They do! Treehoppers use vibrations for a variety of reasons, such as attracting mates, or to announce the discovery of a good feeding site to their hungry compatriots. Baby treehoppers (nymphs), often feed and congregate together for safety. If they sense an approcahing predator, they will signal vibrational alarms, to which adult treehoppers respond by rushing to their defense.
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“Halp!” Umbonia crassicornis nymph. Family Membracidae. (Photo by Carlos De Soto Molinari, Flickr)

Vibrational signals might also have the benefit of reducing predation risk, because the messages being sent around are directed along specific plant stem pathways rather than being broadcast throughout the forest. But of course nature is never that simple, and many predators (particularly other insects and spiders), can also sense the treehopper’s vibrations and may eavesdrop on them, most likely in hopes of making them their next meal, but possibly also to catch up on the latest treehopper gossip.

A beautiful treehopper: Platycotis vittata. Family Membracidae. (Photo by Matthew Cicanese, Flickr)

 A treehopper’s world is a hard place to imagine. Not only are they talking to each other most of the time via vibrational signals, they also live in a complex environment where natural vibrations from wind and rain and other animals are common, and perhaps quite noisy. The howling wind, the creaking of old branches, the thud of heavy raindrops against leaves, even the songs of birds and the pitter patter of insect feet on plant stems. Treehoppers can likely hear (or feel), all of it. But there is still much to learn, and study, about these ancient insects.
According to Rex Cochroft, in a wonderful piece on the subject on NPR, “because forest leaves tremble, even with the sound that we make even when we speak, treehoppers have always been listening to us. We have just begun listening to them.”
Special thanks to all the amazing photographers from Flickr creative commons for allowing the use their wonderful images!

Tigers in the Night

Like a psychedelic flutter of love, a unicorn picnic, or a traveling band of kitten actors, butterflies spread happiness wherever they go. But as far as insects in the order Lepidoptera go, butterflies are just the tip of a very big iceberg. And perhaps – dare I say it – what’s hidden underneath is even more amazing.

Lepidoperans – also known as butterflies and moths – are an extremely large and diverse group of insects, with nearly 180,000 described species. “Lepis” means “scale” in latin, and “pteron” means “wing”. At the microscopic level, it’s easy to see how they got those fancy names:

Boloria (Clossiana) euphrosyne

Pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly (Boloria euphrosyne), wing close-up. (Photo by Gilles San Martin)

Those scaley-looking things on this butterfly wing are, in fact, scales! More accurately, they are modified hairs, but we call them scales anyway, and lepidopterans are covered in them. These tiny structures overlap slightly like shingles on a very colorful house, and are what give butterflies and moths their diversity of colors and patterns.

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Sunset Moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), wing scales. (Photo by Macroscopic Solutions)

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Sunset Moth (Chrysiridia rhipheus), wing scales. (Photo by Macroscopic Solutions)

Many of these colors and patterns are familiar – like the striking orange and black of a monarch, or the iridescent blue of a morpho butterfly lilting through the rainforest. They are familiar because, for the most part, butterflies are up and about when we are.

Although some moths are active during the daytime, the majority of moths are hidden from our normal waking life. But wait until the twillight, or until the stars come out. Check your porch light, or better yet, grab a white sheet, a lamp, and a beer, and you can see the myriad moths that make up the underside of the Lepidoptera iceberg.

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Mangina argus, subfamily Arctiinae, Nepal. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Mangina argus, from Southeast Asia, is a particularly lovely member of the nightime set. This species has two noteworthy distinctions: 1) It may possibly have the funniest genus name ever. And 2) It has striking pink and silver markings reminiscent of a butterfly. Except that it isn’t. It’s a moth.

Moths make up roughly 80% of all known Lepidoptera (that’s almost 160,000 known species, compared to roughly 17,500 butterflies). Most of them are cryptic, but some of them are colorful. The beauty of moths lies in their incredible diversity. Don’t try to pin them down! (Unless you are starting a moth collection of course…)

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Utethesia bella, subfamily Arctiinae, Florida. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

There are more species of moth in the United States than birds in the entire world, and more moths in Texas alone than there are species of mammal in the entire world. Take that, pandas!
In terms of charisma, the pandas of the moth world might be those in the subfamily Arctiinae, commonly known as tiger moths. They are an incredibly diverse group, with 11,000 species found all over the world. Like the beautiful day-flying Bella moth pictured above, their playful, often beautifully geometric patterns seem like something out of a surrealist’s dreamworld. Or a Joan Miro painting.
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Chionaema sp., subfamily Arctiinae, Assam. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Chionaema perornata

Chionaema perornata, subfamily Arctiinae, Assam. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

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Chionaema sp., subfamily Arctiinae, Assam. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

For potential predators, however, tiger moths look less like a dreamy painting, and more like an unwise snack. Their bright, bold colors – otherwise known as aposematic coloration – advertise that their bodies are infused with poisonous chemicals, such as cardiac glycosides and pyrrolizidine alkaloids, aquired from plants in their environment.
Like other creatures with warning coloration, such as poison dart frogs, coral snakes, Niki Manaj, and flamboyant cuttlefish, tiger moths have a certain dangerous beauty.
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Halysidota masoni, subfamily Arctiinae, Cuernavaca, Mexico. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Automolis harteri

Automolis harteri, subfamily Arctiinae, Brazil. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

A particularly lovely species is Anaxita decorata. Commonly known as the decorated beauty, it graces Central American evenings like a flying sunset, with bold silver stripes in a wash of vermillion and gold.
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Anaxita decorata, subfamily Arctiinae, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

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Anaxita decorata, subfamily Arctiinae, Oaxaca, Mexico. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

The bright warning colors of tiger moths may serve as protection from daytime predators. But what happens when the lights go out? And bats get the munchies?

Automolis critheis, subfamily Arctiinae, Panama.

Automolis critheis, subfamily Arctiinae, Panama. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Well, many species of tiger moth have found a way to warn predators at night too – not with sight – but with sound. These species can produce ultrasonic clicks that warn approaching bats that they are distasteful. One species (that is actually tasty), Bertholdia trigona, can produce clicks at such a high rate (up to 4,500 per second), that that it can even jam bat echolocation, resulting in up to tenfold decrease in bat capture efficiency.
Haploa clymene

Haploa clymene, subfamily Arctiinae, Virginia. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Haploa contigua

Haploa contigua, subfamily Arctiinae, Wisconsin. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Whether vibrant like tiger moths or so cryptic they blend into the trees, moths truly are among the most intriguing insects. If you want to explore the hidden netherworld of moths for yourself, you are in luck! They are super easy to observe. All you need to do is go outside at dusk or later and set out a white sheet and a light, then sit back and shout, “come to me my moth-y friends muahahahahaha!” Learning to identify them is fascinating, and with National Moth Week coming up in July (yes you read that right, National Moth Week!), anyone can join in the fun.

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Halysidota intensa, subfamily Arctiinae, Peru. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

A Very Spider-y New Year

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Anansi, the original Spider-Man.

This holiday season, while you are sitting beside the fire with your loved ones, why not tell them the story of the original Spider-Man? It’s true! Before we had Marvel and Tobey Maguire, the Ashanti people from modern-day Ghana had Anansi, a beloved, intelligent, and often devious little arachnid whose fame eventually spread all over West Africa and into the Americas. Sometimes depicted as a spider, or half man-half spider, Anansi was a mythological spirit who, despite his diminutive size, was believed to have created the sun, stars, and moon, and to have given night and rain to the people.

More often though, Anansi was seen as a trickster, who used his intelligence to accomplish some very impressive feats. In one popular tale, a seemingly bored Anansi went to his father, the sky-god Nyame, to ask for stories (since at that time there were none on earth). Since his father was a reasonable guy, he asked only for a random and dangerous assortment of creatures in return, including a Python named Onini, Osebo the Leopard, and some hornets.

anansi tigerAnansi being an astute arachnid, he was able to come up with all sorts of fake stories to trick the animals into being captured. Nyame was so impressed that he crowned Anansi god of stories. And so, despite his often selfish behavior, Anansi is celebrated for bringing stories to the world, and as a symbol of hope that even the little guy can overcome seemingly impossible odds…and of course, annoy a lot of animals much bigger than him in the process!

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Anansi annoys a tiger and what appears to be a kangaroo?

Which makes sense, because, despite their relatively small size, spiders often do loom large in our collective imaginations, whether we fear, respect, or even love them.

But, as long as you don’t try to jump out of a moving vehicle to get away from one, the overwhelming majority of spiders currently known to science (over 34,000 species), are actually harmless to humans. Unlike Anansi, real spiders don’t talk their way into getting what they want, but they do have an infamous trick: venom. In most species this venom is only harmful to their food (insects and some mammals, birds and reptiles), and in the cases where the bites are harmful to humans, even black widow, Australian funnell web, and Brazilian wandering spider bites are treatable with antivenom and rarely result in deaths in healthy adults.

Not only that, there are some truly beautiful and amazing spiders in the world.

'Small Wonder' Copyright Kevin Council. All rights reserved.

Orchard Orb Weaver (Leucauge venusta), just hangin’ around lookin’ fancy. Photo by: Kevin Council.

With flashes of gold and silvery white in a sea of blue-green, the sunny Orchard Orb Weaver (Leucauge venusta), is one such species. Even it’s name, venusta, means beautiful in latin.

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Orchard Orb Weaver (Laucauge venusta).

Members of this species can be found in open, light areas from Southern Canada, along the Eastern US, all the way to South America, hanging upside-down on one foot-wide orb webs built low to the ground on trees and shrubs.

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Orchard Orb Weaver. (Leucauge venusta), close-up! Photo by: Chuck Wulmer

Across the world, but in the same genus, Leucauge decorata spins its orbs in the forests of Southeast Asia and Australia. It’s a unique-looking species, with a long separation between the spinerets (the silk-producing organs), and the tip of its pointy abdomen, and painted in brilliant silver, green, and gold.

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Leucauge decorata. Taken at Kaeng Krachan National Park, Thailand. Photo by: Rushen

Spiders in the pantropical genus Thwaitesia are also harmless to humans. Commonly called mirror spiders or sequined spiders, they spend their days glittering through the foliage in tropical forests around the world, where their epic shininess is most likely confusing to predators among the wet leaves, flowers, and sunshine of the rainforest.
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Beautiful Macro shot of a mirror spider (Thwaitesia sp.). Photo by: Heng Wang Tan.

But to the human eye, they sure do look like tiny disco balls! The glittery spots, which look like pieces of mirror glued to the spider’s back, are actually composed of reflective guanine, a compund well-known for its presence as one of the four main bases found in DNA and RNA. It has a slightly less classy association too – as one of the components in many seabird and bat droppings – a white, amorphous substance called guano.

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Mirror spider (Thwaitesia sp.).

But spiders and scorpions produce a special, crystalline form of guanine, which just so happens to be a beautiful by-product of protein metabolism in their cells. Crystalline guanine, which is also found in the scales of many fishes, is used in various products like shampoos, eye shadow, nail polish, and even metallic paints. So if you were wondering how to get that pearly, mirror spider-like glow, look no further than your local drug store!

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Mirror spider (Thwaitesia sp.), from Australia. Clearly wondering if anyone else could be this fabulous. Photo by: Robert Whyte.

Did you ever wish you knew when a spider was planning to attack you in a fit of rage? Well, the mirror spider has a solution for that too, because its iridescent spots can expand or contract depending on how agitated the spider is, a trick that is likely used as a form of communication between members of the same species, and also seen in certain tortoise beetles (click if you’ve ever wanted to see what a happy versus a furious tortoise beetle look like), as well as cephalopods, which can relax and contract their chromatophores in order to change color.
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Mirror spider (Thwaitesia sp.), from Australia. Photo by: Robert Whyte.

And finally, we have an imaginary species of spider in the genus Griswoldia, which belongs to a family of harmless wandering spiders found primarily in Australia and South Africa. Real spiders in this genus are actually rather small and cryptic. This one was inspired by Anansi’s wonderful color pallete and larger-than-life personality, which reminds us not to overlook the smaller and more maligned creatures on the planet, because if we give the little guys a chance (and forgive their shortcomings), we just might find them wandering into our hearts… and also possibly our shoes!

Griswoldia psychodelia (imaginary). Illustration by Rachel Diaz-Bastin: https://www.etsy.com/listing/216293473/south-african-spider-illustration?ref=shop_home_active_1

Griswoldia psychodelia (wishing this were a real thing). Illustration by: Rachel Diaz-Bastin.

A big thank-you to the following photographers for allowing me to use their beautiful images!:

Kevin Council: https://www.flickr.com/photos/45014657@N04/

Chuck Wulmer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cwulmer/

Rushen: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rushen/

Hen Wang Tan: https://www.flickr.com/photos/spintheday/

Robert Whyte: https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertwhyte/


Inconceivable Weevils, Part II

In my free moments at the California Academy of Sciences, looking through drawers of natural history specimens and ogling all the amazing insects, there is one drawer….ONE DRAWER…that always makes my eyes shine like Indiana Jones in a secret treasure chamber…Behold the mighty, tiny, Pachyrhynchus weevils:

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Pachyrhynchus postpubescens, Philippines

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Pachyrhynchus tabafolius, Taiwan

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Pachyrhynchus lorquini, Philippines

With rainbow-hued swirls, metallic stripes, and turquoise polkadots, it’s easy to imagine someone painting these intricate and colorful weevils with a very small paintbrush. That’s why here at the Academy we affectionately refer to the dozens of weevils in the Pachyrhynchus genus as “Easter egg weevils”.

Each species of Easter egg weevil has their own unique pattern and color. Take a look – chances are you will get the urge to fill up a tiny basket with them!

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Unlike easter eggs, Pachyrhynchus weevils are mobile, but they don’t move around very fast! In Taiwan and the Philippines, they can be found bumbling around their rainforest habitat, munching on leaves, and generally looking fabulous.

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Pachyrhynchus sp.

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Pachyrhynchus sp.

But behind those shining colors are some truly amazing optical tricks. Look closely at the colored patches, can you see the sequin-like scales?

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Metapocyrtus sp.

Much like the scales on a butterfly’s wings, the colorful bands and patches of iridescence on Pachyrhynchus and some other genera of weevils come from scales that are layered on the outside of their exoskeleton, like shingles on a house.

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Pachyrhynchus orbifer, Philippines

Within each scale there are very small (nanometer-sized) structures that refract light of different wavelengths. Some colors, like red, have long wavelengths, while others, like blue, have short ones. The way the different wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum interact with the nano-sized structures inside the weevils scales determines which wavelengths are absorbed and which are reflected, and therefore determines which colors we see glittering off of them.

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These are what scientists refer to as structural colors, and these Pachyrhynchus weevils have got em’ for dayz!

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Pachyrhynchus yamianus, Taiwan (Orchid Island)

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Pachyrhynchus postpubescens, Philippines

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Pachyrhynchus pulchellus, Philippines

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Pachyrhynchus lorquinii

But scientists have discovered that some weevil scales not only look like gems, they act like them too.

Photonic crystals are an ordered arranegement of nanostructures that have the ability to direct photons of light in a selective and predictable pattern. Diamonds are a great example, opals come pretty close, BUT some living organisms possess nanostructures that are arranged like a photonic crystal as well.

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Pachyrhynchus moniliferus chevrolati

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Pachyrhynchus lorquinii, Philippines

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When photonic crystals are organized in one dimension they create the metallic and polarized reflections of, for example, the skin of cephalopods and fishes, the elytra of jewel beetles, scarabs, and the breast feathers of birds of paradise. Two-dimensional photonic crystals create the coloration of peacock feathers (along with pigmentary colors).

THREE-dimensional photonic crystals are rare in nature. But the scales found on some insects have them, including…you guessed it…Pachyrhynchus weevils!

Pachyrhynchus argus_lateral

Pachyrhynchus argus, Philippines

Pachyrhynchus argus looks like it is covered in bejewelled cheerios, but it is on the microscopic level that this species really shines. It turns out that their scales contain structures that resemble the structure of opals. Synthetic opal is currently very hard to manufacture, but these guys make it to perfection.

In the IN-famous words of El Guapo, “That’s a good trick!”

Pachyrhynchus argus_dorsal

Pachyrhynchus argus, Philippines

But the most coveted type of photonic crystal is one structured like a diamond. Because this type of crystal can reflect a wide band of colors, has high reflectivity, and is better able to control the flow of light through it, scientists hope to use it to develop more-efficient solar cells, telecommunications, optical computer chips, and basically all manner of tiny electronics.

Synthesizing a 3-D photonic crystal with this shape is currently extremely difficult.

Entimus imperialis_dorsal

Entimus imperialis, Brazil

Entimus imperialis, otherwise known as the Brazilian Diamond Weevil, is covered in rows of brilliant spots on black elytra. They certainly look like diamond-encrusted jewelry pins, and as it turns out, the scales inside each of the concave pits contain large areas of three-dimensional photonic crystals, shaped just like a diamond!

Real diamond is formed when carbon is subjected to extremely high heat and pressure miles below the earth’s surface, so it’s not exactly the same, of course. But the scales of Entimus imperials – an ordered, three-dimensional lattice of chitin in a diamond shape – could be the key to learning how to manufacture structures like this.

Entimus imperialis_lateral

Entimus imperialis, Brazil

These amazing weevils are just a franction of the over one million species of insects and roughly 60,000 species of weevils described to science. With the estimated millions more insects to be discovered – shiny ones, cryptic ones, big ones, small ones – who knows what we have left to learn from their fascinating biology.

Pretty Pretty Parasite

Next time you are in the garden, and you see something that resembles a tiny, flying rainbow whiz by, rest assured you are not hallucinating! The mirror-like, prismatic color of Chrysidine wasps it only easy to miss because they are so small, so let’s get a closer look!

Chrysis sororOK ok, now, if you are wearing your expensive L.L. Bean socks then I advise not to look at these next pictures, because these Chrysidine close-ups are gonna blow em right off!

Chrysis_splendens_notaulus_dorsal_close_UP_330Chrysis_splendens_head_mesosoma_dorsal_close_UP_330Chrysis_splendens_head_mesosoma_dorsal_330

Stunning? Yes. But behind that shimmery sheen, these wasps have a dirty little secret: they are cleptomaniacs! Well, cleptoparasites to be exact, a term that describes any animal that steals food from another, whether they are members of the same species or not. Female Chrysidines lay their eggs in the nests of other species, such as wasps and bees, thus saving themselves the time and energy of procuring provisions for their young. This strategy has earned them the common name “cuckoo wasp”, after the birds which pull the same trick.

But Chrysidines take it one step further. Not only do they pawn off their parental duties, once their larvae hatch they proceed to gobble up the host’s larvae and food provisions, not necessarily in that order!

Chrysis_splendens_habitus_lateral_330Another common name for Chrysidines is “jewel wasp”, and it’s easy to see why. But it does make you wonder why a species that relies on sneaking undetected into the burrows of ground-nesting bees and wasps would be decked out in such bold colors. But, it is dark down in those nests, so once they are inside the colors probably aren’t too noticeable.

But Chrysidines do get caught sneaking around a lot, and their tough, highly structured, and multi-layered exoskeleton provides protection them from the bites and stings of angry hosts. In fact, it has been suggested that those metallic blues, oranges, pinks, and reds have no specific purpose, and are instead a by-product of light refracting through the open spaces in the many layers of cuticle that make up the Chrysidine exoskeleton. “Oooops, I’m accidentally fabulous!”

Chrysidines can’t sting, so passive forms of defense are all they’ve got. Their ability to tuck their head and legs into a tight little ball when they are found out, much like armadillos, hedgehogs, and pillbugs, is a strategy that is as practical as it is unwittingly adorable. The cupped shape of the inside of their abdomen allows them to do this.

ChrysidiniThere are so many situations in life where I wish I had evolved the ability to curl up into a perfect little ball.

It’s amazing to think of all the tiny insect dramas that are playing out in the garden and beneath our feet. And with roughly 3,000 species of Chrysidines found all over the world, you can find them practically anywhere, but they are especially abundant in desert regions as well as the warm Mediterranean climate of California. In fact I found this little guy in death throes on my windowsil!

WaspLSo next time you see one of these colorful little ninjas in your garden, just remember there is more to them than meets the eye!

Special thanks to Iziko Museums of South Africa at waspweb.org as well as Laurie Knight for letting me use their stunning images!

More of Knight’s amazing photos can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laurie-knight/