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?

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

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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.

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.

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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.
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.

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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

Pachyrhynchus tabafolius_lateral

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!

MontagePachyrhynchus yamianus_LateralpostpubescensMontageMontagesp. 4

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!

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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.

I Got 99 Problems But a Midge Ain’t One

cacao pods bulk

mmmmmmm chocolate, just the thought of it is enough to make me float off to my happy place, a magical land full of cacoa nib fairies, loose pants, tropical breezes, and…..wait…is that a freakin fly??! How did a fly get into my goldang happy place?! Sigh…

midge

Well, as it turns out, if it weren’t for flies, there would be no chocolate for anyone’s happy places! It’s tough to be an obscure little pollinator in a honeybee kind of world, especially when you don’t have the cute fuzzy thing going for you, you are no bigger than the head of a pin, and most of your relatives are bitey jerkfaces. Indeed, most members of the family Ceratopogonidae, commonly called “midges” or “biting midges”, feed on the blood of other insects, reptiles, and mammals that forget their deet. Surprisingly it’s only the famale midges who do all that biting, as they require the extra nutrition for their eggs. However male midges are super sweet, and feed exclusively on nectar! Most importantly, they have a taste for the nectar from the flowers of the cacao plant:

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Cacao flowers are smaaaaall, about the size of a nickel, and structurally complex. Luckily midges are small and agile, and like a miniature Magellan on a nectar expedition, they navigate the tricky flowers with ease. But the cacao plant is complicated not just in design but also in behavior. It fruits year-round, and has the unusual quilaity of having flowers and fruit on the tree at the same time! You would think this would make it very productive, however, it takes 5 to 8 months for the blossom bud to ripen fully, and although the flower posesses both male and female parts, they cannot fertilize themselves, and so must rely on our little pollinator friends to transport pollen between them.

cacao flowers and pods

The cacao-pollinating midges are unionized, and they have demands! Their biggest gripe is that they require humid shade with a wide range of plant species and decaying matter on the ground, which is the natural habitat of cacao. However, on most cultivated plantations, the habitat is more open, sunny, and dry. And the bigger a cacao plantation, the less likely a midge will venture into this unnatural habitat. It has been estimated that on these plantations on average only 3 out of 1,000 flowers are pollinated and progress to fuit!

cacao podscacao pod open

To combat these issues chocolate manufacturers increase prodcutivity by growing their cacao plants in a more natural way that midges enjoy, in fact many Fair Trade and organic Cacao farmers are cultivating more wild plantations that are better for the trees and the midges who love them. So in the name of deliciousness, I say, good job little fellas!

cacao plantation

Many thanks to the talented photographers who post their photos on Flickr Creative Commons:

EverJean –http://www.flickr.com/photos/evert-jan/with/5526911147/#photo_5526911147

Eric Hunt – http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericinsf/with/677318379/#photo_677318379

Christopher S. Rose – http://www.flickr.com/photos/khowaga/2890251482/

Fit for a Tiny Robinhood

So as you know, sometimes I come across an insect that is so preposterously awesome that I have to take an image of it, today is one of those days! The object of today’s freak-out? Hypsideroides junodi, a species of aptly-named Longhorn beetle in the family Cerambycidae. Take a look!!

What the what, right??! There isn’t much information available about this species, except that it was collected from the lush and subtropical KwaZulu-Natal Province (also referred to as the Garden Province), of South Africa. The pattern is striking, especially the concentric circles and bulls-eye like center. The funny thing is, I’ve seen a somewhat similar bulls-eye pattern like this before, but in a completely different order of insects, the Mantodea, oooooo!

This is an amazing species of flower mantis from Australia. It’s interesting to speculate about the functions similar patterns play in these divergent groups of insects. On first glance the bulls-eye pattern is very striking and almost startling in the same way butterflies with giant eyespots on their wings appear to their predators. However, what seems bold and eye-catching on one background may actually be the perfect disguise on another, so it is possible that these spots provide our longhorn beetle and flower mantis friends with the perfect camouflage against a woody or flower-filled background, respectively. OR, it could be both! Nature is complicated, like a lady.

Cassidine Design

Imagine you are a hungry ant out and about for an evening snack and you come across something shiny and colorful, yet kind of “turtle-ey”. It looks small and delicious, yet you can’t quite tell where it’s head or legs are, and can’t seem to pry the little sucker off it’s leaf! Now you are very angry. You go home and write bad poetry in your tiny journal.

What you have just experienced is an aptly-named Tortoise Beetle (Subfamily Cassidinae). Tortoise Beetles get their common name from the peculiar structure of their elytra (hardened wing covers), which have a flattened ridge outlining the body, concealing the head and legs much like a tortoise.When threatened tortoise beetles hunker down, tucking in their legs and head, forming a shield against many would-be predators.

The Cassidine Beetles belong to the Chrysomelidae, or leaf beetles, a huge family of beetles with over 37,000 species represented. They are worldwide in distribution but are particularly speciose in the neotropics (new world tropics). Here are some mighty fine Cassidines!

Omocerus casta coeruleopuncta, Polychalca variolosa, and Omocerus spp., respectively.

In a few species of tortoise beetles, live specimens differ drastically from their dried museum specimen counterparts. This difference is illustrated in the Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata, previously known as Metriona bicolor). Nicknamed “goldenbugs”, these beetles can be found throughout North America on their favorite food plants such as sweet potato and morning glory. Let’s first take a look at a dried museum specimen:

Not terribly golden! However, take a look at a live specimen:

Gold-mania! The ephemeral nature of the golden tortoise beetle’s iridescence is actually caused by an optical illusion. Their transparent shell contains three tiers, each tier containing tightly packed layers covered in nano-sized grooves. When the nanogrooves are filled with liquid, they give the layers a smooth surface which perfectly reflects light like a mirror. With death and dessication this fluid and therefore iridescence is lost, revealing the brownish color of the bottom layer.

While alive, golden tortoise beetles can actually control the intensity of their iridescence by widening or contracting the spaces between the layers of cuticle and forcing liquid out of the nanogrooves. This change happens when they are disturbed by predators or agitated in some way. For example, here is what a golden tortoise beetle looks like when it is very very upset:

Can you see the rage??! This sort of rapid color-change is very rare in insects, but also occurs in the Panamanian Tortoise Beetle, and the grasshopper genus Kosciuscola (which changes color in response to ambient temperature). And if you are out collecting golden tortoise beetles keep in mind that they also change color depending on the availability of the liquid layer, so that in the fall and winter, the beetles become less lustrous and are more orange and bronze with flashes of iridescence.

Just one more reason insect design is endlessly amazing!

A big thank you to Jay Cossey for allowing me to use his image of an agitated golden tortoise beetle! More of his spectacular images can be found here (make sure to look at his invertebrate portraits and insect egg gallery) : www.PhotographsFromNature.com

 

Inconceivable Weevil

Aside

I was googling weevils a few days back, a common pastime, and ran across a weevil so unbearably shiny, so outrageously colorful, that all I could do was yell “LIES!!!!!!” at my computer. It was just too amazing to be believed, so I investigated further, and as it turns out, the metallic weevil (Eurhynus festivus), is indeed a real creature from planet earth! I discovered that we actually had some pinned specimens here in our collection at the Academy, so naturally I had to image one:

I have seen some beautiful weevils in my day, but this little guy appears unique to me in that EVERY inch of it’s body is metallic, as if it were dipped in shiny liquid metal. This particular specimen is from Cuernevaca, Mexico, but they can be found throughout Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama. Here’s a live shot!

This picture was actually taken in Florida, where Eurhinus festivus has been making documented appearances since 2002. It was likely introduced there through shipments of live plants or plant products, and probably as a result of global warming, this tropical species has been slowly expanding it’s range northward in the state. It is able to survive and reproduce there by feeding and reproducing on the possum grape vine (Cissus verticillata (L.)), as well as Fig plants.  Adults feed on the outer layers of host plant stems and also within cavities created in the stems and the leaf petioles. Females oviposit in young parts of the stem by creating a cavity with their rostrum, and depositing a single egg within it.

I want one! I’d name him Woodrow.

A big thank you to Jose Bernardo for allowing me to use the above image and to Shaun Wright for allowing me to use the below image. Quite amazing! Shaun also has a great website that just happens to my new favorite website name ever:

AttackedByALion.com