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!


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?


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:

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.

















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:

membracidae very derpy

“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.


“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.
membracidae peek

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!).
Membracidae hey hey hey

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.
buffalo treehopper

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.
Umbonia crassicornis

“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!

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!

The New Butterfly

In the insect world butterflies definitely get all the good press, they are the charismatic microfauna, the tiny pandas, the gleaming ambassadors of our field. And for good reason, BUT there are other, less well-known species that are equally extravagant. Imagine, for a moment, a creature with colorful, butterfly-like wings AND a comically large snout, sound too good to be true?


Pyrops pyrorhynchaCan you hear Gonzo weeping with envy?? I can! But to be fair I hear he’s really emotional. Nevertheless, Planthoppers from the family Fulgoridae are a fascinating group of insects. Like their cicada and aphid relatives, fulgorids have mouthparts that are designed for piercing plants and siphoning up the fluids, yum! But fulgorids are quite uniqe in having these ridiculously elongated heads, called “protuberances”, and some of them have wings that look like a neon jaguar…

Saiva gemmataThe protuberance is actually hollow inside, and it was once believed, most noteably by the 18th-century entomologist and scientific illustrator, Maria Sibylla Merian, that it could emit light at night, earning fulgorids the common name “lanternflies”. What a whimsical idea! Almost as whimsical as her lovely illustrations:

maria sybilla

Sadly, no evidence of this light-producing ability has ever been found, however Carl Linnaeus adopted the theory without question, giving several genera of fulgorids such lovely names as laternaria, phosphorea and candelaria. It’s easy to imagine those big snouts lit up like lanterns!

Fulgorid 1Pyrops viridirostrisAphaena submaculata consanguinea

In reality the protuberances probably serve as a survival mechanism used to confuse pretadors. With a head that looks like it could be an abdomen, predators literally do not know which end is up, likely attacking the wrong end and giving the fulgorid a better chance at escape. It is still somewhat of a mystery, however.

Fulgorid 3

Species belonging to the genus Fulgora have got to be the most bizarre looking of all, as their head processes are hugely enlarged, earning them the nickname “peanutheads”.

Fulgorid 4And some species of fulgorid have short noses, less silly, but still gorgeous! The variety and patterns of color in the world of entomology seems endless, especially in the tropics, where most fulgorid species are found.

Aphaena submaculata consanguinea

Many thanks to Victor Smith at the California Academy of Sciences for taking these amazing photographs!

A Membracid For All Seasons

LETS TALK ABOUT MEMBRACIDS. Yes, I am shouting! What is a Membracid you ask? Besides being among the most loveable little robodorks I have ever seen, the Membracids are a delightful family of insects also known as Trehoppers or Thorn Bugs. Renowned for their unique method of camoflauge, these aptly named insects disguise themselves as thorns/plant parts using their often enlarged and ornate pronotums. But let’s be honest, they look ridiculous.

Exhibit A:



Roughly 3,200 species of Membracids have been identified with the highest diversity found in the New World Tropics. Unlike beetles and many other colorful insects, Membracids have a tendency to loose their intense colors when they die/dry up. But still, you can get a good idea of the level of silliness we are working with here from these photographs of Academy specimens:

Membracis mexicana

Membracis lunataAdippe zebrinaPlatycotis vittataSphongophorus spp.Sphongophorus luctuosus

From left to right: Membracis mexicana, Membracis lunata, Adippe zebrina, Platycotis vittata, Sphongophorus sp., and Sphongophorus luctuosus.

Membracids pierce plant stems with their beaks and feed on plant sap both as adults and nymphs, but taking in all that sugar can be overwhelming on their system, and excess sap becomes concentraed as “honeydew”. This honeydew is highly prized by many insects including several species of ant and wasps, which have well-developed ant mutualisms and actually “tend” and protect their “herds” of Membracids from predators. It’s a win-win relationship!

Take a look at this little herd of Umbonia crassicornis. I wouldn’t want to be around for a stampede!:


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.