How to See Insects

Fascinating creatures, miniature works of art, critical links in the web of life — bugs are so much more than pests.

(Repost): Original Post: https://baynature.org/2019/05/01/how-to-see-insects/

May 1, 2019

I remember the first time I saw a Madagascan sunset moth. I had just started a job in the entomology department at the California Academy of Sciences, and had decided to begin looking at some of the 7-million-plus carefully pinned insects housed there. I must have made a sound when I saw their iridescent wings come into view through the glass-topped drawer, some sort of quiet gasp muffled by the hum of the collection room cooling system. It did look like a sunset – the once-in-a-lifetime tropical island kind.

As I made my way through the rest of the butterfly and moth drawers the variety of species seemed endless. Many were from far-away places, but some were from North America, like butterflies in the family Pieridae in the richest shades of yellow, ochre, and red; and tiger moths with markings that resembled Joan Miro paintings.

Madagascan sunset moth
The Madagascan sunset moth, Chrysiridia rhipheus, from Charles D. d’Orbigny’s Dictionnaire universel d’histoire naturelle (1849) (Wikimedia Commons)

I got my degree in wildlife conservation biology, and focused on learning about the larger — and what I had assumed were most “charismatic” — animals on the planet. But now a whole new universe was coming into view, right under my nose and mind-bendingly vast. Science has described roughly a million insects, and we suspect there are untold millions more yet to be described, sprinkled throughout all habitats from tropical rainforests to Arctic ice.

Entomologist William Shepard, a museum associate at the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley and the University of Missouri, has described dozens of new insect species from all over the world, but he has a particular affinity for riffle beetles in the family Elmidae. These small beetles are often found crawling on stones or sticks in the so-called “riffle” zones of streams, where fast-moving shallow water runs over rocks, but some have adapted to life in still water. There are 1400 species known world-wide, 100 species found in North America alone, and likely many more that have not yet been discovered. “As a child I always loved playing and fishing in streams,” Shepard says. “Then in graduate school I discovered that there were beetles that loved the streams as much as I did.” According to Shepard, most professional entomologists he knows simply never outgrew the “insect” phase of their childhood, during which the joy of discovering and learning about insects took hold and never let go.

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The tortoise beetle Polychalca variolosa. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

But insects can be easy to overlook for many of us. Perhaps that’s why it feels so eerie to hear that this enormous yet enigmatic world is in trouble. Worrying news of an impending insect apocalypse hit the headlines in late 2017, after a German study showed that the total mass of local flying insects had fallen by 80 percent in three decades. And then another paper, based on the review of dozens of studies, warned that over 40 percent of all insect species were in decline and that “insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades”.

Insect pollinators are an essential component of every environment, needed for the reproduction of at least 80 percent of our flowering plants. The resulting seeds and fruit provide food for countless animals including humans. Without pollinators, many fruits and vegetables would disappear and mainly wind-pollinated crops such as corn and wheat would remain. Bees, butterflies, and moths get a lot of the pollination buzz, but flies (even male mosquitos!), pollinate as well. The cacao plant has small complicated flowers that only one species of fly is able to navigate. Insects also perform essential sanitary services, helping to decompose dead plant and animal matter and recycle it into the soil.

But insects, I’ve come to realize, are also something more unquantifiable: they are works of art.

But insects, I’ve come to realize, are also something more unquantifiable: they are works of art. There are weevils that live in the Philippines that are covered in iridescent scales like butterfly wings. We lovingly call them Easter egg weevils due to the variety of patterns and colors that look as though they were painted on. One species in this genus has scales with a microscopic structure just like opal. Another weevil, the Brazilian diamond weevil, has scales set in pits along its body that have the same microscopic structure as diamonds.

A Mongolian tiger beetle, Cicindela coerulea nitida. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

Insects also inhabit sensory worlds that we are only just now beginning to understand. The scarab beetle Chrysina gloriosa’s exoskeleton gives it the rare ability to create and reflect circularly polarized light. Only mantis shrimp are known to see circularly polarized light, but scientists have hypothesized that Chrysina gloriosa can see it too, in which case these beetles would look even brighter and luminescent to each other than they do to us, or to their predators.

Private communication channels are not unique to Chrysina gloriosa, either; even the common cabbage white butterfly, a garden pest which looks to us like a nondescript white moth, uses very specific ultraviolet signals in order to convey mating readiness to each other.

Treehoppers in the family Membracidae talk to each other by vibrating the plants they live on, a form of communication that some scientists have called a secret society of sound. The vibrations they produce are quite low in frequency, often below the threshold of human hearing. Scientists are only beginning to understand what they are saying.

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The flower weevil Eurhinus festivus. (Photo by Rachel Diaz-Bastin)

It’s hard to imagine losing such amazing creatures, especially when we are just beginning to scratch the surface of knowing them. The good news is that some insects like local pollinators can survive, even thrive, in small patches of habitat. Growing pesticide-free native nectar plants can improve the health, abundance, and diversity of local pollinators, even if it’s only a small flower box in the city. Butterflies often need specific host plants to feed on during their caterpillar stage, for example the caterpillars of monarch butterflies feed exclusively on the leaves of various milkweeds. Replacing lawn with native nectar and host plants and even leaving some areas of the garden untidy with open sandy ground, brush piles, and old tree stumps can be wonderful habitat for a variety of native bees.

It’s possible to make lifestyle changes that can help globally as well. Avoiding plastic cups, straws, and packaging, can help slow the stream of plastic pollution entering the environment. And cutting down on beef and palm oil consumption – two huge drivers of deforestation – can help insects and wildlife more broadly.

There is not one clear-cut solution, in part because there is still much to be learned about basic insect ecology and population numbers. But citizen scientists are helping to fill in these knowledge gaps. Indeed, it is due to the observations of citizen scientists that we have been able to track the decline of the Western monarch and know we must act now to implement urgent conservation measures. But there are so many more insect species hidden from the headlines. That’s why it’s important not just to recognize the ecological importance of insects, but also their intrinsic worthiness as charismatic inhabitants of our planet, like whales, tigers and pandas. Losing even a fraction of them would mean losing countless wonderful species, including many we haven’t discovered yet.

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A pipevine swallowtail butterfly in the East Bay hills. (Photo by Franco Folini, Flickr CC)

Shepard’s research has illuminated this phenomenon in a striking way. The velvety black and blue pipevine swallowtail is a beautiful California native butterfly whose caterpillars feed on the green foliage of the California pipevine plant. Planting this native plant is a great way to help this butterfly flourish, but it does so much more. In research to be published later this year, Shepard and his colleagues document a veritable Serengeti in miniature inhabiting the U-shaped flowers of the California pipevine plant, with over 2,000 species of arthropods (insects and arachnids), including vast groupings of pollinators, predators, scavengers, and insects that are just looking for a place to hide. And they are still identifying more species.

Whether you’ve had a lifelong love affair with insects or became fascinated with them later in life, there is always the feeling that there is so much more to know. Insects make up 80 percent of all known species on the planet, and there are estimated to be 200 million individual insects for each human! There aren’t nearly enough entomologists to study them all. Even after 10 years working in an entomology collection, I’m still seeing species that I’ve never seen before. Sometimes while sorting specimens, I’ll put a very small insect under the microscope and what had looked like a brown speck to the naked eye reveals itself to have the most interesting mottled cryptic patterning, or a dusting of what looks like glitter, or impossibly shiny golden fuzz. I love knowing that there are these amazing creatures hidden all around us, even if we don’t always notice them, or haven’t noticed them yet. Even if we have only scratched the surface of their world.

“There will never be an end to knowing about insects,” Shepard says.

About the Author

Rachel Diaz-Bastin is a scientific illustrator and curatorial assistant at the California Academy of Sciences and former Bay Nature editorial intern.

A ladybug for most seasons

 

It was a typical misty morning in Golden Gate Park when entomologist Kristen Vollrath spotted a fluffy white insect ambling about on a concrete barrier behind the California Academy of Sciences. She scooped up the unidentified insect and brought it down to the entomology department where it was given the nickname “popcorn” due to its puffed appearance.

At first we thought popcorn might be a mealybug, a plant pest belonging to the family Pseudoccocidae. But popcorn was no mealybug! By the end of the week, the fluffy little nubbin transformed into it’s adult form and revealed its true identity: a ladybird beetle related to the red and black-spotted “ladybugs” we commonly see in the garden.

But how were we fooled so easily? It turns out that Popcorn was a special species of ladybird beetle (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri), whose larvae masquerade as the mealybugs they prey on, a form of “aggressive mimicry” that allows them to get close to their prey before gobbling them up. Commonly known as mealybug destroyers, these humble yet murderous little beetles were brought to California from their native home in Australia for a very specific and heroic purpose: to save the citrus!

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“You’re welcome”. Mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri) adult

If you were a citrus grower in 1860’s California, you would have had a lot of bugs to contend with. And I do mean bugs! True bugs to be exact, the order of insects that have what entomologists call “piercing or sucking” mouthparts. Don’t laugh! These specialized mouthparts allow true bugs to pierce plant tissues with their tiny beak-like rostrum and suck up the juices. Aphids are a well-known true bug that, along with many other plant-feeding true bugs, can cause all sorts of garden mayhem, including foliage wilt, leaf drop, and the stunted growth or even death of the plant.

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Aphid feeding on a plant. See the pointy mouthparts?

In the late 1860’s the California citrus industry was facing an economic crisis brought about, not by aphids, but by an invasive species of true bug from Australia, the cottony cushion scale (Icerya purchasi). Insecticides had little effect on these puffballs, and growers, at their wits end, resorted to pulling up infested trees and burning them.

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“But I’m just a lil’ poof”

Luckily there were a couple entomologists around to save the day! Albert Koebele, under the appointment of noted federal entomologist Charles Valentine Riley, had recently been transferred from his position in Washington D.C. to Alameda, California where he was studying insecticide effectiveness as well as local insect pests. He soon set his sights on fighting the cottony cushion scale scourge.

Curiously, citrus trees in Australia were largely unaffected by the cottony cushion scale even though the insect was native to the region. Riley noted this and reasoned that there must be natural predators of the cottony cushion scale in Australia that kept their numbers at a reasonable level.

And so in 1888 Riley sent Koebele on a mission to Australia to investigate potential cottony cushion scale predators that could be brought back to California. In addition to a species of parasitic fly, Koebele returned with a species of ladybird beetle called the vedalia beetle (Rodolia cardinalis).

Vedalia beetle

“My appetite will save the day!” Vedalia beetle (Rodolia cardinalis)

Koebele initially released the vedalia beetles on a tented orange tree infested with cottony cushion scale insects. In a few months the beetles had multiplied prolifically and devoured their prey. When the tent was opened the beetles spread to nearby trees and soon the entire orchard was free of the cottony cushion scale! As word of the amazing results spread, citrus growers from throughout the state came to gather the vedalia beetles and release them into their orchards. They spread rapidly and by 1890 California was almost entirely free of the cottony cushion scale and all of it’s gosh-darned cottony-ness.

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Happy orange tree

This idea – using nature to fight nature – is known as biological control or biocontrol, and this instance is regarded as the first successful implementation of it in the world. It can be very tricky, and, as usual, The Simpsons provides the best illustration of poorly thought out biocontrol.

In this case, however, Koebele used his entomologist know-how to implement a truly elegant solution and was seen as a local hero for growers in the state.

But his work was not over.

Several years after the cottony cushion scale had established itself in California, the citrus mealybug (Planococcus citri), another species of true bug with a deceptively cute name, was accidentally introduced from Asia around the world where it made itself quite the agricultural pest.

Mealybugs (family Pseudoccocidae), sometimes known as scale insects, are wingless as juveniles, have soft exoskeletons, and are coated in a waxy layer of protection that gives them their popcorn or puffed rice-like appearance. Males eventually change as they age, growing wings and losing their ability to feed and looking somewhat like gnats, whereas adult females retain their juvenile appearance and attach themselves to the plant where they secrete a powdery wax layer used for protection while they suck the plant juices. The female deposits masses of eggs on plants. The masses, known as ovisacs, are covered in fluffy, cottony layers of wax filaments. Juveniles feed on plant sap, which further damages them.

Citrus mealybug

Citrus Mealybug (larva or adult female)

Although citrus mealybugs attack a wide range of crops as well as wild and ornamental plants, the damage they do to citrus, like causing oranges to become lumpy and discolored and possibly fall off the tree, was a nightmare for growers in California. In 1891, they pressured Riley to send Koebele back to Australia to gather more predators that could combat the growing number of mealybugs. He ended up bringing back another species of ladybird beetle, except this one was a truly cunning beast. It came to be known as THE MEALYBUG DESTROYER…aka our little popcorn!

mealybug destroyer destroying mealybug

mealybug destroyer munchies

The mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri), like the name implies, have a voracious appetite for mealybugs. To aid them in this venture, they employ a treacherous trick, which scientist’s refer to as “aggressive mimicry.” As juveniles, mealybug destroyers look very similar to mealybugs, a real-life case of a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that allows them to get close to their prey while appearing harmless.

Cryptolaemus montrouzieri larva

Mealybug destroyer Larva

Adult mealybug destroyers are predominantly brown and have no spots, unlike many of the often brightly-colored ladybird beetles (Family Coccinellidae). Female mealybug destroyers lay their eggs among the cottony egg-sack of adult female mealybugs. The larvae, whose waxy coating makes them superficially resemble mealybugs, feed on mealybug eggs and larvae. It takes almost another month for the beetles to go through their pupal stage and become adults, at which point they continue eating mealybugs as well as laying hundreds of eggs among mealybug larvae for the rest of their 2-month lifespan.

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A (very accurate) depiction of a juvenile mealybug destroyer sneaking up on it’s prey. Cartoon by Rachel Diaz-Bastin.

As hoped, the mealybug destroyers devastated the citrus mealybug populations in citrus groves. But sadly these little chaps from down under got too chilly anytime it dipped much below 50 degrees ferenheit and (just like Springfield’s ill-fated gorillas), were unable to survive the winter in most areas. As a result, techniques for mass-rearing the beetle were developed for its release into groves where they could do their job during the warmer months.

In the Midwest, the mealybug destroyer is actually still used to protect ornamental plants from various species of mealybugs in greenhouses, where they stay nice and toasty year-round. They are also used for pest control in the warm wonderland at the San Francisco Conservatory of flowers in Golden Gate Park.

But, just like Kristen, you can sometimes find them out and about in coastal areas like San Francisco, where the fog provides a blanket that allows them to live much longer and fight their tiny battles in the wild, far away from their native homeland.

 

 

Thank you to Flickr creative commons folks for allowing the use of your wonderful images!:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/treegrow/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/35142635@N05/

 

 

 

 

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.

mystery hemip vial

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.

sunset moth orange scales

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

butterfly scales turquoise

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.

Argina argus 2

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…)

Utethesia bella

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.
Chionaema spp.

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

Chionaema perornata

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

Chionaema sp. 1

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.
Halysidota masoni_2

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.
Anaxita decorata

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

Anaxita decorata folded wings

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.

Halysidota intensa

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

A Very Spider-y New Year

anansi the spider

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!

anansi funny

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.

orchard orb weaver CC

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.

orchard orb weaver CC close up

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.

leucage decorata CC

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.
MirrorSpider

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.

thwaitesia normal

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!

thwaitesia xmas 1

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.
Thwaitesia xmas 2

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/