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:

Assorted Homops smaller

“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?

Cicadellid smaller

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.

cicadellidae 1

Rhododendron Leafhopper (Graphocephala fennahi)


Cicadellidae 2

Red-banded Leafhopper (Graphocephala coccinea)

cicadellidae 3

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.

flatidae micro

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.


















Forests for Sale

“When I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel just as if all the works of some great writer have perished”  ~ Theodore Roosevelt

The Sumatran tiger. I do believe if they are lost our planet will have been depleted of one of its finest works of art.

Unfortunately, palm oil plantations are primarily and increasingly found in the clear-cut primary rainforests of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea, areas of extremely high biodiversity. And we aren’t just losing the critically endangered Sumatran tigers, elephants, and orangutans, but also incredible numbers of plants and insects found nowhere else in the world. Here is a spectacular but very rare Stag Beetle (Cyclommatus chewi, Family Lucanidae), from the forests of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo):

Not only are we losing the species currently described by science, but also the ones that have never even been seen by a human eye.  Approximately 1.2 million species of insect are currently known to science, and estimates vary as to the number of insect species left to be discovered, but range anywhere from one million to thirty million more. So even conservatively, we barely know half of what we are losing.

Companies like Cargill (The largest privately owned company in the US, infamous around the Bay Area as the company trying to block salt pond restoration efforts in favor of development), own, operate, and purchase from many palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia. The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), is high yielding and cheap to grow. Also, because of relatively new trans-fat labeling regulations in the US, many food organizations are looking for alternatives to partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Palm oil is high in saturated fat, but it is, however, free of trans fats. Roughly half of all items on grocery store shelves now contain palm oil, from packaged food to body lotion to lipstick. On paper palm oil doesn’t sound so bad, who doesn’t want a trans-fat free oil that is efficient and cheap to grow? The problem is that the majority of agribusinesses manage their palm oil plantations in a highly unsustainable way simply because it’s cheap and they can get away with it.

These huge corporations participate in land-grabbing, the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, and are allowed free reign to manage them. This results in environmental devastation as huge swaths of forest are cleared, and often burned wholly to the ground. Many of these pristine forests lie atop peatlands. Composed of an accumulation of partially decayed plant material, peat is nutrient and carbon-rich.  However, when burned, peat forests release gigantic amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and it is exactly this burning that has given Indonesia the title of third largest CO2 emitter in the world. In place of forests palm oil monocultures are planted, which have been likened to parking lots in their ability to sustain animal life.

The environment suffers undoubtedly, but so do local indigenous communities who are forced off their ancestral lands or coerced into living and working on palm oil plantations. Indeed there are more than 600 documented cases of social conflict in Indonesia related to palm oil.

To combat all this negative press, many corporations like Cargill pay dues to join the Roundtable On Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which in theory promises strict sustainability and human-rights practices by it’s member corporations. In practice, however, all companies have to do to gain the RSPO seal of approval is to cut the organization a check.

It’s frustrating that companies can act with such impunity, counting on consumers to buy their greenwashing tactics while they make a killing. I want to find out where their CEO’s live and release potbelly pigs on their lawns. Or throw angry marmots in their shower…BUT, until I get their addresses and a whole mess of pigs and marmots, I am going to be really careful about buying products that contain palm oil. Not because I think this will solve everything, but because the last thing these companies deserve is my money.