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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’ve Lost Those Lovin’ Peelings

Somewhere, perhaps on the island of Mindanao, Philippines, a very special species of eucalyptus is loosing it’s bark, and with each flaking strip, living artwork is being created. This, fellow travelers, is the rainbow eucalyptus:

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These colors of the rainbow eucalyptus (Eucalyptus deglupta), may look like the stuff of unicorn dreams and of hypno-toad-induced euphoria, but they are created naturally as layers of this amazing bark peels away in strips at different times and different parts of the tree.

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While the newly exposed bark is bright green, as it ages this color turns to dark green, then a bluish/purplish (and when I say blue I am super serious!). Can you imagine walking through a grove of blue trees?!

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From there the colors change again to pink, orange-red, and finally a maroon-ish brown before the bark is ready to exfoliate itself once more.

Rainbow Eucalyptus Chris

The rainbow eucalyptus is the only species of eucalyptus native to the northern hemisphere, occuring naturally in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines. However, it is widely grown as an ornamental tree in wet and humid places all over the world, and in the Philippines it is farmed for use as pulpwood to make paper. I know what you are thinking, “that’s gotta be the most awesome paper on the planet!” But eucalyptus trees in general are very fast-gowing and have an inner core with fibers that are pefect for making WHITE paper. Dissapointing, I know.

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Eucalyptus trees are thirsty! So thirsty, in fact, that they are often planted in malaria-prone areas of Africa to dry up the swamps, thus eliminating mosquito larva habitat. And beacuse they are so water-saturated, eucalyptus wood must be allowed to dry slowly, or it risks cracking and warping. In extreme climates differing from it’s native habitat, eucalyptus wood is also susceptible to expansion and cracking. But if properly dried and kept at the right humidity, eucalyptus is extremely durable and strong, and can be used in furniture, boatmaking, and didgeridoos! Yay!

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Your best bet for seeing these trees without buying a ticket to Indonesia or taking massive amounts of drugs and wandering through your local park is to go to the windswept and astoundingly green Hana coast of Maui, Hawaii. There you can see these 240 foot trees growing along the highway!

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In conclusion, even if it was as useless as Pauly Shore at a comedy convention, the rainbow eucalyptus would still be one of those amazing species that reminds us how much beauty there is in the world. It makes me so happy to know things like this exist, I hope it makes you happy too! rainbow eucalyptus 8

Thank you so much to Christopher Martin for allowing me to use some of his beautiful images! More of his work can be found here: christophermartinphotography.com

Tropical Color

So many shiny beetles! How to choose which one to draw? As you can see below I am often forced to make tough, life-altering decisions like this! But you can never go wrong with a majestic horn, so I chose the center species pictured below, the elegantly ostentatious,  Theodosia westwoodi.

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Theodosia westwoodi belongs to the mind-bogglingly large family of beetles known as the Scarabs, or Scarabaeidae if you’re fancy. Roughly 30,000 species belong to this family, which includes such charismatic members as Scarabaeus sacer, famously known as the sacred scarab of Egypt. Far from rolling dung balls across the desert however, Theodosia westwoodi is a tropical species of scarab belonging to the subfamily Cetoniinae, which are commonly known as flower beetles due to their habit of feeding on pollen, nectar, or even munching on petals. Unlike many scarab beetles which have nocturnal habits, members of this subfamily bumble around during the day, which explains their amazing coloration!

Theodosia westwoodi is also special because of it’s limited distribution in the rainforests of Borneo. This area is increasingly under threat due to habitat destruction, making these amazing little guys quite rare indeed.

Ok, now that I’ve made you feel bad, let’s start drawin!

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Theodosia lateral 1

 

 

I always start colored pencil drawings by shading in the darkest parts first and leaving the highlights white.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there I add layers of lighter shades of colors on top, blending the light and dark colors together.

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Theodosia lateral 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once I have all the shades of color richly layered together, I blend everything evenly together using a white pencil. This eliminates most of the pencil marks and gives the colors a watercolor-like feel.

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And now that your wrist feels like it wants to fall off, go ahead and go BACK over all the colors again, making them very bold and vibrant. Now is also the time when you want to add the very dark shadows using a black pencil. As you may have noticed I have slightly exhagerated the colors, buuuut, I do what I want.

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Fin!

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Tyrannical Tiger Beetles

Cicindela scutellaris scutellaris (festive tiger beetle)

Watch out! It’s a tiny predator! A tiger beetle is coming at you at a whopping 5.6 miles per hour, breezing across the ground on long-cheetah like legs, just waiting to tear you to bits with its merciless mandibles!! Quick, what do you do??! If you answered admire his undeniable good looks in the last few remaining seconds of your life, you are correct!

Certain death is assured, but we might as well find out a little about your attacker. Tiger beetles belong to the  Family Carabidae (ground beetles), in the subfamily Cicindelinae. They are a cosmopolitan beetle, but have the highest diversities in the Oriental and Neotropical regions.

Believe it or not, the four specimens you see imaged here are actually color morphs of the same species! Cicindela coerulea nitida, from Mongolia. Cicindela is not only the largest genus of tiger beetles, but as diurnal predators, also contains some of those most strikingly beautiful species. I don’t know about you, but if something’s going to tear me to shreds, I want it to be gooooooood lookin’!

Those bulging eyes provide great vision and long legs combine to make tiger beetles among the fastest insect runners around. 5.6 mph might not sound like much, but that is the equivalent of a human running at about 480 miles per hour! Both adults and larvae are predatory. Larvae live in cylindrical burrows, catching prey that wander over the ground, while adults can be found living in a variety of habitats including sea and lake shores, sandy dunes, or woodland paths, though they are particularly fond of sandy surfaces. Unlike most vertebrates, tiger beetles are highly active during the hottest and sunniest part of the day, the heat giving them an extra boost in speed.

But tiger beetles aren’t just good looking and a little bit dangerous, like that guy staring at you from across the bar. They actually are very useful indicator species (species sensitive to environmental change), in ecological surveys. Insects in general make great indicator species because they are more abundant than vertebrates and are very sensitive to their environment, allowing conservationists to assess habitat quality and to locate unique habitat types. Tiger beetles are particularly useful because they have a well known taxonomy and biology, and a tendency to be specialized to a particular habitat.

Ok we are done learning, now accept your fate as the gnashing jaws descend upon you puny human!!

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.

Links:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-brune/the-problem-with-palm-oil_b_149163.html

http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/forests/palm-oil

http://understory.ran.org/2011/12/02/ran-staff-finds-deforestation-and-violence-for-palm-oil-unchecked-by-the-rspo/

http://climateandcapitalism.com/2010/02/03/palm-oil-monocultures-will-never-be-sustainable/