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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love Letter to the Earth

Aside

SaltSp2A quick break from amazing tiny things, autumn nights remind me of beautiful big things, of nights spent in nature. For a sensitive and shy little kid, there was no happier place to spend childhood hours than gazing up at the sky while laying on a day-warmed bed of granite. On nights like that thoughts fell like the sound of cold water rushing down the mountain, disappearing deep into the rocks and roaring against a sky so black I felt at once tiny yet infinitely embraced. 

I am so thankful to my parents for giving me that gift, and for everyone I’ve been able to share one of those moments with, sitting side by side, breathing the same timeless air as the trees.

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!

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