What all the Buzz is About

 

Blue-banded bees_small_edited

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Art of Discovery

I’ve been hearing lots of jubilation lately for the little fuzzyfaced Olinguito, a new species that was discovered by comparing unusual-looking museum specimens of what was once thought to be a single species, the Olingo. Researchers found that there were smaller specimens among the Olingos that were, in fact, their own species: the Olinguito (or, small Olingo!). Armed with this information, scientists set out into the Cloud Forests of the Northern Andes in search of a live specimen. And they found him! I particularly like this black-and-white shot, he looks like an old movie actor. I could imagine him starring in “From Olinguito to Eternity”:

o-OLINGUITO-900This story is particularly interesting because it demonstrates how archived museum specimens can (and often do), lead to new discoveries. It is also interesting to point out how rare it is to find a new species of mammal, especially compared to other groups of animals. According to Mongabay.com, 41 new species of mammal were discovered in 2008, most of which were rodents (unlike the Olinguito). However, during that same year, an astonishing 8,800 species of insect were discovered! The sheer number of insect species already known to science (over a million), is made even more incredible when you consider that this is less than half of what scientists estimate is still hiding out there among the bramble, leaf litter, and treetops around the world.

Even in Europe, which is mainly known for its jam, the rate of insect discovery is actually still increasing!: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/new-species-old-world.html

Academy scientists recently came back from the Philippines with a startling diversity of insect specimens, many of which could be new species. Here are some highlights:

Pentatomidae_nymph_PH0009_dorsalCurculionidae_sparkly_lateral_FinalTetrigidae_Lateral_PH0001From Left to Right: “Shield Bug” nymph (family Pentatomidae), A glittery as a disco ball weevil (family Curculionidae, subfamily Brachycerinae). And finally, a buffalo-shaped grasshopper in the family Tetrigidae (genus Hymenotes).

Even more exciting, this small yet fascinating universe awaits discovery for both PhD and amateur entomologists alike. It’s the wild west out here on the frontier, and discovery awaits around every corner!

Here at the Academy of Sciences, our John Wayne of Arachnology is an intrepid spider-wrangling scientist named Charles Griswold. He identifies roughly 10 new species of spider a year, mostly collected from expeditions to South Africa and Madagascar. But in order to publish a description of a new species, he needs some illustrations. This is where I come in.

Often, on a macro level different species of spider can look almost identical. However, because spider pedipalps fit like a lock and key with females of the same species, they are much more useful useful for identification. But, what ARE PEDIPALPS??! Well, in sexually mature male spiders pedipalps are complicated structures that are used to transfer sperm to the female during mating. Pedipalps are actually located near the head. They are the boxing-glove lookin’ thangs! Pow pow pow!

spider palpIllustrations tend to work better for pedipalps than photographs because the translucent/complicated structure is often hard to interpret without highlighting edges artificially. Most pedipalps are quite small, so I use a microscope to draw them. Sometimes this makes me crazy. Here are three pedipalp views from two new species of what are known commonly as “Lace Web Spiders”:

Xevioso sp:

Xevioso n_smallXevioso n.sp Mariepskop_9017130_ventralXevioso n_retrolateral_small

Lamaika sp:

Lamaika bontebok_retrolateral_smallLamaika bontebok_smallLamaika bontebok_prolateral_small

I don’t recall ever seeing “spider junk illustrator” booth at any career fairs, but, life works in mysterious ways, and the natural world can be so mesmerizing that it’s sometimes hard to know where science ends and art begins. It is inspiring to know that there are millions more tiny pieces of art all around us just waiting for scientific discovery!

Art Tips from a Shiny Beetle Lover

Of the 400,000 species of described Beetles on earth, and the 15,000 species of jewel beetles, Calodema blairi has got to be one of the most eye-explodingly beautiful!! Sometimes I look at a beetle so shiny and colorful that I kind of want to punch it in the face…this is one of those times.

Alas, there are only a handful of somewhat mangled photographs of this species on the internet and the specimens we have in the Academy collections are faded, SO, I decided the best thing to do would be to just go ahead and illustrate one of these little dudes.

If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, here’s some tips for capturing the ephemeral yet devastating good looks of a jewel beetle:

My medium of choice are prismacolor colored pencils because of their transparency and blending qualities. Start with your pencil outline on bright white paper (to create some of the bright highlights in iridescent beetles, I like to let some of the white paper show through). My paper of choice is usually Bristol Plate/Smooth, but Vellum works as well and provides some extra texture.

*Remember to keep your pencils VERY sharp! This can be highly annoying, but I know of no other way.

Start by laying down the darker parts of the beetle first (you don’t have to make them super dark yet, in fact, it’s best to leave some white showing through): 

Once you have the dark areas shaded in, continue by laying down the lighter colors. I like to blend and overlap the lighter colors over the darker ones. Also, in areas where you want to show highlights, either apply color VERY lightly or do not apply any color at all.

Brace your wrist, because now you are going to use a white colored pencil to blend all of these colors together! This will get rid of pencil marks and give your drawing a watercolor feel. After blending in this way, I like to go back over the whole thing with another layer of all of the colors, making sure to leave those highlights white! This will give your beetle a lot of depth.

To finish my beetle’s pronotum (thorax), and show how iridescent he is, I added a bunch of black and dark blue spots. I didn’t blend his elytra (wings), with white, but rather layered the colors from darkest to lightest and added extra dark shadows on the right hand side to show that the light source is coming from the upper left (the convention in scientific illustration).