This poster created by a pest control company claims to show dangerous American spiders. It is full of bad information. Half of the species on this chart don’t even occur in the USA. Please, don’t share it anymore!
Please don’t rely on this chart for meaningful information about American spiders. This chart is the result of a clever company re-purposing something they put together for Australia. Seriously; the Australian spider chart is exactly the same! And, frankly, the info isn’t all that accurate for Australians, either.
This post will address the parts of this poster that are wrong (pretty much all of it), and then suggest some resources for accurate information about American spiders.
Info that is completely wrong on the poster:
- Mouse spider: does not occur in the US. Mouse spiders are not aggressive, and often “dry bite” when disturbed. In other words, most of the time they don’t even inject venom!
- Black House Spider: does not occur in the US. Also, known to be timid and not dangerous.
- St. Andrew’s Cross Spider: Does not occur in the US. Harmless.
Info that is mostly wrong on the poster:
- Hobo spider: the species pictured does not occur in the US. We have some spiders called hobo spiders, but they are not the same species as the Australian one with a scary bite. Introduced hobo spiders in the US don’t seem to have venom as toxic as the rumors. In fact, a recent study of the introduced hobo species found they were fairly harmless.
- Brown Recluse: This is actually a complex of up to 6 different species of spider, and they do not occur in all areas of the US. There is a complex mythology about the bite of the brown recluse. Research suggests that the bite, while not pleasant, is not a pathway to nasty necrosis. A lot of other things cause necrosis of the skin, which is often blamed on a hapless spider.
- Wolf spiders: Lots of wolf spiders occur in the US, but they are of minimal medical importance. No serious medical consequences of a wolf spider bite has been reported, and their bite is not painful or toxic.
Information that is slightly right on the poster:
- Garden orb-weaving spiders do occur in the US, and are beneficial and harmless.
- Huntsman spiders: the species in the photo does not occur in the US. We have some huntsman spiders, but they are much more modestly sized than the Australian and tropical versions. Harmless unless provoked, and even then pretty harmless.
- Trap Door spiders do occur in the US, although not the species pictured. They are harmless and fascinating!
- Black Widow Spiders do have a toxic bite, and do occur in the US, but that’s about as far as the correctness goes. There are 5 different Widow species in the US, and Black Widow bites are not lethal to humans. In fact, as of 2011, there are no known reported deaths from black widow bites in the US. Black widow spider bites can cause muscle cramping and abdominal pain in some people; pregnant women and children are most at risk.
To sum up: This poster is unhelpful and mostly filled with bullshit with regards to US spiders. Don’t rely on it, and don’t share it.
How can you know what information online about spiders is good information?
Easy! Go to your local Extension website. In the United States, every single state has an Extension service (or did until state budget cuts a few years ago, anyway).
“Each U.S. state and territory has a state office at its land-grant university and a network of local or regional offices. These offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in communities of all sizes.”
The Extension Service is charged by the USDA and each state government with producing factual, well-researched information for consumer use. You can tell you are on an Extension website because it will be affiliated with a land-grant university, and have a .edu web address. So, for example, searching for “Nebraska fact sheet spiders” gives me this information specific to that state (and also some tips about keeping a wolf spider as a pet!).
There are amazing, free resources available to you. Use them! And look for that .edu web address. Don’t listen to stories of a friend who knows a friend who lost their Aunt Gertie to a giant toxic banana spider that was in a pack of underpants. Seek out reliable information.
Some actual helpful, authoritative resources about American spiders:
- Spiders do not bite. Some common sense about spiders from an expert. A Must Read!
- Real, peer-reviewed info about American Spiders
- Common spiders of the East Coast
- Seriously, you weren’t bitten by a brown recluse
- How to identify a Hobo spider (PDF)
- Sac spiders don’t really make webs in your scrotum.
A personal note:
I just finished a move across country. As part of this move, I had to clean out the space behind my washing machine. I was hunkered over shelves, trying to wipe things off, and when I stood up I’m fairly sure that my entire head was covered in cobwebs. I…may have let out a sound of a frequency last produced by Little Richard hitting one of his high notes.
I mention this to let you know that even bug people get the heebie jeebies around spiders sometimes. It’s ok to not like spiders as long as you remember the vast majority of spiders are your friends. You don’t have to kill them! They are valuable (and free!) pest control for your yard and garden. Unless there is something seriously wrong with your personal hygiene, spiders have no interest in living on you or in you. Try to live and let live.
There’s been a lot of reporting about new research about the insect repellent DEET this week. Unfortunately, some of the media didn’t quite get it right. Headlines like this one were common…and completely wrong.
The media coverage left a lot of people confused about DEET, and if it still worked. The results of the research were a lot more nuanced than “DEET suddenly stopped working so we are all screwed.”
Here is what the average person being bitten by mosquitoes needs to know, condensed:
DEET still works fine. It’s still one of the best insect repellents out there. We know a way it might become less effective now, as demonstrated in the laboratory.
The un-condensed version:
DEET is one of our oldest and best insect repellents. It’s universally acknowledged as the best repellent around, and has broad activity against several types of biting flies and ticks. This is why a problem with DEET is big news–it’s invaluable in preventing transmission of several different diseases.
Amazingly, scientists are just beginning to understand how DEET works, even though it’s been in widespread use for 50 years. We know it stops ticks and mosquitoes from biting, but the exact mechanism of how that happens is still not clear. Does it make us ‘invisible‘ by blocking mosquitoes from smelling? Does it smell horrible to biters? It’s still not settled science yet.
That’s important to know, since if we know how something works, we can copy it and try to make new and better controls. There is always a concern with evolution of resistance in insects–they are commonly used to study genetics and mutations for a reason. Insects breed fast, and they breed often–which means that small genetic changes, if they are helpful at keeping a bug alive and having sex, can spread quickly through a population.
Resistance to DEET, our most powerful and broad spectrum insect repellent, would be a very bad thing. And so it makes sense that entomologists interested in human health would be studying how DEET works.
Evidence of genetic resistance to DEET in mosquitoes has actually been around since 1994. In 2010, researchers found that they could increase the frequency of a gene that made mosquitoes ignore DEET to 50% in a couple of generations. That’s alarming, but that was in a laboratory-bred colony.
‘Laboratory-Bred’ is an important distinction for both that study and the recent one. Mosquitoes in a cage have only one source of food (often the hapless graduate student that is rearing them). They can’t fly off and look for other people or animals to bite. It also means that their sexual choices are limited to other mozzies in the cage, so resistance can evolve more quickly that it would out in the wild where they have a wider choice of hookups.
Scientists use work in the lab to model the real world. It helps us understand how organisms grow, change, and respond to their environment. That doesn’t mean that it’s a firm prediction of what will happen out in the larger world, especially with a group as diverse and wily as mosquitoes. That’s why I think headlines like the one at the top are irresponsible, and mangling the message of the research.
You can see an interview with one of the researchers here; note she is careful to repeat that we should not discard DEET wholesale on the results of this research!
“What this work indicates is that there may potentially at some point in the future be some problems with the repellents that we have, that we need to be aware of in advance. Possibly we can use this information to alter the repellent DEET to make it more effective, it may also help us in finding new repellents because we will know if [mosquitoes] are able to overcome certain things……Even though repellents are working fantastically at the moment, what this tells us is maybe how to prevent problems cropping up, and how to alter things for the future to make them more effective.” [emphasis mine]
- CDC list of recommended insect repellents
- Mosquito repellent clothing (uses a different chemical than DEET)
Articles referenced in this post:
- Stanczyk N.M., Brookfield J.F.Y., Field L.M., Logan J.G. & Vontas J. (2013). Aedes aegypti Mosquitoes Exhibit Decreased Repellency by DEET following Previous Exposure, PLoS ONE, 8 (2) e54438. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054438.t001
- Ditzen M., Pellegrino M. & Vosshall L.B. (2008). Insect Odorant Receptors Are Molecular Targets of the Insect Repellent DEET, Science, 319 (5871) 1838-1842. DOI: 10.1126/science.1153121
- Jaramillo Ramirez G.I., Logan J.G., Loza-Reyes E., Stashenko E., Moores G.D. & Vontas J. (2012). Repellents Inhibit P450 Enzymes in Stegomyia (Aedes) aegypti, PLoS ONE, 7 (11) e48698. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048698.t003
- Rutledge L.C., Gupta R.K., Piper G.N. & Lowe C.A. Studies on the inheritance of repellent tolerances in Aedes aegypti., Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association, PMID: 8014634
- Stanczyk N.M., Brookfield J.F.Y., Ignell R., Logan J.G. & Field L.M. (2010). Behavioral insensitivity to DEET in Aedes aegypti is a genetically determined trait residing in changes in sensillum function, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (19) 8575-8580. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001313107
I saw this tweet a while back, and it made me awfully curious:
Is that true? Because that seems like not a very smart thing to do, if you are a large and tasty insect. Or, in this case, two large leaf-eating insects belonging to a group that specializes in being invisible to predators by looking like a stick. Two sticks having sex is the sort of thing I’d notice, anyway.
The risk of predation while you are making out–or more literally “hooking up” in the case of insects–is a major issue. You can see from this photo that a fair amount of Kama Sutra-ish contortion is needed to successfully maneuver into place. This does tend to inhibit one’s ability to run away!
Several different papers I read repeated that stick insects have remained paired for up to 79 days, but I was not able to see an actual reference with the original details. Some of the references cited date back to 1910, so not surprising that I can’t get my hands on a digital copy.
From one paper describing mating behavior:
“The Indian stick insect Necroscia sparaxes may remain coupled for up to 79 days (a record for insects)”…Intromission may occur only initially or intermittently. In either case, a substantial proportion of male time-investment is not spent in ejaculate transfer.
In captivity, Diapheromera veliei and D. covilleae pair for 3 to 136 hours and the penis may be inserted and removed up to 9 times. The genitalia are not in contact for ca. 40% of this period, and attachment is maintained by a male clasping organ.
It’s generally thought that the male hangs around in order to have repeated matings, but also to drive off other males that want to get lucky. I found several reports of stick insect menage a trois (or sept) in the literature, including this etching of kinky stick insect activity. The male is–literally–cock-blocking a competitor.
So, it’s probably correct to say that stick insects can remain paired for up to 79 days, even though I can’t verify that directly. It is less correct to say that they “have sex” for 79 days, just as it would not be technically correct to say you mated for 8 hours if you had sex at 10pm and again at 6am. Well, unless you are into that tantric stuff, anyway.
Snce 1400 hours = 58 days, the numbers don’t match up, and it is not correct that stick insects mate for 1400 hours. It’s more like 1,896 hours!
Sivinski, J. (1978). Intrasexual Aggression in the Stick Insects Diapheromera Veliei and D. Covilleae and Sexual Dimorphism in the Phasmatodea, Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, 85 (4) 405. DOI: 10.1155/1978/35784
Once again, It’s time to celebrate the little animals that…facilitate plant sex by moving plant sperm around.
I’ve discovered over time that a lot of people don’t actually know what pollination is, other than it’s something that’s needed to get fruit. That’s certainly true; apples, bananas, blueberries, melons, peaches, pumpkins, almonds, and a whole bunch of other plants need to be pollinated for us to get the food we like.
That’s the what of pollination. But the WHY seems to be left out. Plants need lovin’ too, and the options for them to get their freak on are somewhat limited. It’s tough to “throw a leg over” when you don’t actually have any legs.
Pollination = sex for plants. There. I’ve said it.
Sure, you can toss your pollen out on the wind and hope it lands in the right place. And for a lot of plants, evergreens in particular, this works just fine. Most spring days my car looks like there was a pine tree bukakke fest.
That methodology results in a lot of wasted gametes (plant sperm) though, so for nearly all flowering plants, insects or other pollinators are needed for plant nookie. Think of bees and other pollinators as little flying plant wangs.
Most flowers contain both male and female sexual parts, and while plants can self-pollinate, it’s a lot more
enjoyable productive to have a second (or third…or fourth…) party involved. Cross-pollination also reduces inbreeding.
Plants attract insect pollinators with lovely colorful displays, special smells, and gifts of nectar or extra pollen that makes a nice snack. And in return plants receive a sort of sexual courier service. This partnership has been going on for over 100 million years, and has resulted in amazing modifications in both plants and animals.
Without pollinators, some of the finest things in life would not exist:
All brought to you by a bug-facilitated bonk.
The Xerces Society has many free and wonderful publications on how to plant habitat for pollinators. Why not check those out and establish a horizontal hula zone in your backyard? And don’t forget to give your sweetheart a bouquet of plant genitalia.
(yes, this is a repost of last year’s Pollinator Week essay, mostly because I didn’t have time to look up new euphemisms.)
The pesticides in question are called Neonicotinoids, since they are derived from nicotine (used as a pesticide since the 1700′s). “Neonics” are systemic insecticides, or insecticides that are taken up by a plant’s tissues and circulate within the plant. This makes these pesticides a highly effective and relatively safe insect control method, since only insects that eat the plant will be affected. It also is sometimes the only way to kill insects inside a plant; an insect boring into a tree, for example, can’t be sprayed directly.
Neonicotinoid pesticides can also be applied as a root drench or a seed treatment, so there is no pesticide sprayed into the air, or landing where it should not go. Farmers love neonicotinoids, since they not only reduce “off-target” effects, they last a really long time–usually one application can last for months, and sometimes over a year. That saves a lot of money.
Carl Zimmer’s excellent New York Times summary of the research on bees and pesticides is a must read: Bees’ decline linked to pesticides.
“In Thursday’s issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies. One experiment, conducted by French researchers, indicates that the chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. The other study, by scientists in Britain, suggests that they keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens….The authors of both studies contend that their results raise serious questions about the use of the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids.”
Carl (I shook his hand once, so I can call him Carl, right?) does a great job of showing how the scientific community is still resolving how all this research adds up. In a post on his blog providing supplimental information to the NYTimes story above, Carl discusses the difficulty of making sense of all this information:
I found this story to be especially challenging to sum up in a single nut graph. To begin with, these experiments came after many years of previous experiments and surveys, which often provide conflicting pictures of what’s going on with insecticides and bees. The experiments themselves were not–could not–be perfect replicas of reality, and so I needed to talk to other scientists about how narrow that margin was. As they should, the scientists probed deep, pointing out flaws and ambiguity–in many cases even as they praised the research.
At the same time, these two papers did not appear in a vacuum. Other scientists have recently published studies (or have papers in review at other journals) that offer clues of their own to other factors that may be at work. And, biology being the godawful mess that it is, it seems that these factors work together, rather than in isolation.
If Carl Zimmer–an exceptional science journalist with access to the actual scientists that are doing the research–is having trouble trying to create a coherent picture of the information about these pesticides, I KNOW that the rest of us regular schmoes are struggling too.
Here is the important thing to remember as you process this new bee research: CCD, or colony collapse disorder in honeybees, does not have a single cause. It’s likely that many different factors work together to create CCD. It is a complex set of specific symptoms, and it’s been known since around 1900 by many other names. Additionally, not all observed bee declines (and deaths) are CCD. It’s hard out there for a bee.
There is clearly a pesticide problem with bees–even if we can’t fully quantify it right now. The Xerces Society white paper, A Review of Research into the Effects of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Bees, with Recommendations for Action, had this to say about CCD:
“There is no direct link demonstrated between neonicotinoids and the honeybee bee syndrome known as Colony Collapse Disorder. However, recent research suggests that nenonicotinoids may make honey bees more susceptible to parasites and pathogens….which has been implicated as one causitive factor for CCD.”
The Xerces paper is probably the best review of the recent research that you are going to find. Not only is it written by Xerces scientists, who are folks what really know their bees, it also was reviewed by several other bee researchers I have a great deal of respect for.
Xerces thoroughly documents what we know about these pesticides and bees–and, unfortunately, we don’t know nearly enough. Most of the published research focuses on honey bees, rather than the native bee species in the US. (Honey bees are an introduced species in North America). That means we don’t have much data to work with to figure out how different bee species will be affected.
Personally, I found the most disturbing piece of the Xerces report to be their discovery of how many of these neonicotinoid insecticides are available over the counter to homeowners. Calculating pesticide application rates is one of the toughest parts of farming (or pesticide applicator exams), and Xerces does the math to uncover some startling facts:
- “Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.
- Many neonicotinoid pesticides that are sold to homeowners for use on lawns and gardens do not have any mention of the risks of these products to bees, and the label guidance for products used in agriculture is not always clear or consistent.
- Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.”
That is really scary.
Xerces raises some very important questions about what this means for our native bees that are already struggling with habitat loss and a spill-over of parasites and pathogens from introduced bee species. Butterflies, beetles, and flies also drink nectar and feed on pollen–pretty much any of our pollinators, including hummingbirds, could be affected if they feed on trees and plants treated with these insecticides.
I hope that new labeling is introduced so consumers know that these products have the potential to kill bees and other pollinators. Unfortunately, because these pesticides are so very useful in agriculture, there are no easy answers. The things that make these compounds so very well suited for so many purposes–their ability to remain stable for a long time and spread through plant tissues–are also why they pose dangers for pollinating insects.
- The Xerces White Paper on Bees and Neonicotinoid pesticides
- Carl Zimmer’s NYT article on Bees and Neonicotinoid pesticides
- Xerces guide to promoting native bees; tons of free information to download!
- Take a short training course on creating bee-friendly habitat!
Yes, to all of this! Some of the most headbanging questions I get explained by attendees at the Entomological Society Meeting last month.
It’s finally turning into winter here on the east coast, and I thought I’d share this excellent video on how to get rid of Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs. They’ve caused quite a …..er….stink…..here, and this video has great suggestions on how to keep them out of your house, and how to send the ones that do get in off to the big cabbage in the sky.
Dr. Raupp is a great model for how to do Extension in the digital age–he’s able to have fun with his information sharing. I loved his CSI: Garden Pests video. Well done, sir!
Oh yeah, another video came out today that you might enjoy, BTW. Interview with a
vampire bug girl.
You might have seen some news coverage recently that claimed much of the honey sold in the US isn’t actually… honey. So what is it, then?
Well, it IS still honey, and it did still come from bees. But it’s been treated and filtered to a point that it no longer meets the standard of what is properly called honey by several regulatory agencies, including the FDA:
“In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration says that any product that’s been ultra-filtered and no longer contains pollen isn’t honey. …Ultra filtering is a high-tech procedure where honey is heated, sometimes watered down and then forced at high pressure through extremely small filters to remove pollen, which is the only foolproof sign identifying the source of the honey.”
It’s in part a semantic quibble, but also hides a larger issue: where does the honey sold in the US actually come from?
Honey normally contains pollen. Bees gather pollen from plants to feed their young, and they also drink nectar from some plants too. When a bee is out collecting for her hive, she stores the nectar in a special pouch of her gut. When she returns to the hive from foraging, she passes the nectar to a “house bee” through a process called trophallaxis. This is a nice sciency word for barfing up nectar so another bee can eat it.
The house bee “chews” the nectar for a while, getting the digestion started and breaking down some of the complex sugars in the nectar. She then barfs up the honey (Again! I know!) into the comb, where it gradually loses some of it’s water content and becomes the very sticky, sweet stuff that we know and love.
While all this is happening, there is pollen everywhere. Bees are fuzzy, so in addition to the pollen they actively collect, they are usually covered with pollen. It’s sticky stuff–but, you know, it is plant sperm. That shit gets everywhere.
So, pollen in honey is normal. And it serves as a sort of honey provenance. The problem with pollen-less honey is you don’t know where it came from, or what kind of plants the bees were feeding on. The fear is that Americans are the victims of “honey dumping”—or, yes, “honey laundering.”
Instead of happy bourgeois American bees, our honey is coming from oppressed proletarian bees in China. (I’m exaggerating of course, but that’s about the tone some of the news reports have taken.) Chinese honey has a bad reputation, and has shown up in the US with a variety of contaminants. Heavy metals are another fear, since bees don’t recognize toxic waste dumps as places they should not forage in. They go where the pollen is.
So how can you make sure you get American honey? Buy local. And by local, I mean honey that is not part of a chain store brand, but something from a beekeeper that is in your state, with a traceable address and name. Not everyone has access to a farmer’s market, but the analysis done by the Food Safety News Group (more about them later) suggests that purchasing organic honey is more likely to be locally or at least US-sourced honey.
Why is honey ultra-filtered? There are two reasons usually offered, one benign, and one sinister. The reason most large honey packagers give for filtering out the pollen is that it creates a more shelf-stable honey, and it is clearer. Basically, it’s a cosmetic treatment to make honey pretty. That is probably true; Americans are awfully paranoid about the slightest defects in their foods. Filtering has a shady side effect: it makes it easier for honey to be processed and shipped longer distances (like from Asia) and means that many different kinds of honey can be blended together undetectably.
Does it matter that both American and foreign honey has the pollen removed? Aside from the issue of honey tampering and tracing your honey back to a source, probably not. There are a LOT of wild health claims made for eating honey and pollen, and the best summary I can give you of the scientific support for that is “little to none.” It probably doesn’t really matter if your honey is filtered. From an energy conservation standpoint, eating locally produced, non-processed honey saves a lot of carbon. Foodies can chat up their local beekeepers and find out the details of the flowers that went into their honey. But eating raw honey will not cure your allergies, or your cold.
So, why the sudden interest by the media in where our honey is coming from? The study of over 60 commercial brands of honey by a leading melissopalynologist (honey pollen detective, in human speak) was commissioned by the Food Safety News Group, which is a collection of very good science journalists…. run by a legal firm specializing in food illness lawsuits. Hmm.
This is part of a honey reporting effort by this FSN group that’s been going on for several months, and some of which is a bit alarmist, frankly. It’s clear they hope to drum up support for a law or a regulation that puts “honey should have pollen in it” in writing, as well as requiring clearer labeling on where the honey is coming from. That’s not a bad thing, really, since it is good to know where our food comes from.
The American Beekeepers Federation has been lobbying for a “standard of identity” for honey; just this month they reported that the FDA just rejected their petition. The laws about labeling honey are pretty confusing; the country of origin is only required to be declared if the honey bears a “USDA mark.” (Why organic honey has to be clearly labeled, but not other honey.)
The short term result of those regulations could be higher prices for your honey. Not because there is a major honey shortage–the frequency of Colony Collapse Disorder is declining, thank goodness–but because the cost of producing honey in the US is much, much higher than it is in China, India, or Argentina. It isn’t possible for US beekeepers to sell large quantities of honey at low prices when they are struggling with so many other challenges. There are so many things that kill honey bees they have to deal with right now, on top of what we all experience as rising costs of living.
It’s hard out there for a beekeeper. So I do hope that those of you that can will buy local honey!
If you aren’t a major bug nerd, you may not know what goes on at a big scientific meeting like the Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America. It is the largest insect meeting in the world. There are usually ≈4000 insect scientists of all kinds, from every continent. (Except Antartica. But if I’m wrong, let me know!)
Unfortunately, it’s not anything like a science fiction convention. Nearly everyone is in suits, and it’s a time to make professional networking connections and present your research. There are organized symposia about some topics I’m really interested in–the way in which media has covered Colony Collapse Disorder in honey bees, for example. Multiple bed bug symposia. I’ll be sure to report back about those topics, as long as I’m not revealing anything that seems to be publication bound.
Titles of talks or papers usually have formal names like “Update on medical consequences of bed bug biting,” although sometimes you get a bit more humor; I liked this one: “To Baetidae or not to Baetidae: comprehensive phylogeny of baeitid mayflies.”
Talks start at 8:00 AM and run until 9:00 PM at night. For 4 days. By the end you just feel like your brain is swollen.
It’s also a great time to hang out, talk to old friends, and commune with bug people. I’ll be distributing “I am Bug Girl” stickers in the spirit of “I am Spartacus” in order to:
- Confuse the issue on just who Bug Girl is; and
- Help bloggers and blog fans find each other at a huge meeting!
There will also be a Bug Blogger/Friends of Bug Blogs party Tuesday night; check out the Facebook Event Page for more details once we get on the ground in Reno and scope out venue and liquid refreshment options.
If you are an undergrad or a graduate student attending ESA for the first time: DON’T BE SHY! Seriously, entomologists are fairly laid back, even if they do insist on wearing suits. Anyone with an official ribbon–even the ESA President–will make time to talk to you. If you see someone with an “I am Bug Girl” sticker, odds are good they also are a good person to ask questions of as well. Don’t sit alone when you have meals–ever! That is a great time to sit down next to someone and start a conversation.
I’ll be revealing the winner of the Ribald Tales of Entomology Limerick Contest later this week, as well as other updates.
One question I’m often asked is why this Bug Blog is also listed as a skeptical blog. The connection between skepticism and bugology isn’t always immediately apparent, I guess, but it seems quite logical to me.
There are many, many bogus devices that claim to repel insects, and I think it’s important to name names. There are far too few convictions for fraud in the insect repellent business. I’ve called out some of these in the past; the iPhone app that supposedly repels mosquitoes, for example, or the Bug Banisher that releases an imaginary “negative ion field.” It seems sometimes like as fast as I can name and shame, there are new and even more silly devices on the market.
Case in Point: shoo!TAG™ insect repelling credit cards
Shoo!tags “utilize an understanding of nature’s energetic principles in combination with physics and quantum physics, as well as advanced computer software”. What exactly does that mean? Well, just as the magnetic strip on a credit card is encoded with specific information, there is a three dimensional electromagnetic field embedded in the Shoo!tag. Shoo!tag uses the energy field that a animal emits, then adds other frequencies that repel insects. Although they don’t actually kill insect pests, these frequency barriers disturb and confuse the pests. Essentially, the pests don’t want to be anywhere near the Shoo!tag wearer.
By now, your BS antennae should be quivering. Frankly, anytime someone uses the word “Quantum”, you should be suspicious. Or when something with no power source claims to generate an electromagnetic field. Reading the disclaimers about why the tags might not work as promised can be rather hilarious:
“Possible reasons shoo!TAG™ may not be working: The tag is near or has been near a strong frequency (cell phone towers, electric transformers, fault lines, electronic home security systems, etc.) which interferes with the coding in the magnetic strip.”
Ah! That’s why it didn’t work–I live in the US where those things are rather difficult to avoid. According to recent press, shoo!TAG™ is a >$600,000 dollar business. That’s probably because each arthropod needs its own tag. You can’t just buy one; you need a chip for:
- Mosquitoes ($19.95)
- No-see-ums ($19.95)
- Chiggers ($19.95)
- Ticks ($19.95)
- Flies (species not specified, but presumably not mosquitoes or no-see-ums, which are, in fact, flies) $19.95
For full “protection” in the woods, that’s about $100, although they do have a Mosquito-Chigger-Tick pack for just $39.95. Each tag lasts about 4 months, unless you have an especially vigorous energy field. Oh, and you have to outfit your pets too–the tags above are (literally) dog tags.
That’s a lot of money, and it’s also a lot of risk. You can DIE from diseases transmitted by ticks and mosquitoes. It’s really not something that lends itself to self-experimentation.
I was all ready to go postal about this when I realized that someone had already done that work for me. Major props go to Anaglyph for masterful work in exposing just how shabby Shoo!TAG’s claims for their products are. He’s been writing about this since 2009; you can find an archive of all his Shoo!TAG posts here. His series of posts is an excellent example of how one person with a blog can make a difference.
He’s done a great job explaining why the these devices can’t possibly work without massive violations of physics as we know it. Since their claims of magical electromagnetic field creation are bogus, I don’t think I need to bother explaining why the energy field these tags don’t generate….. would not repel insects anyway.
I liked Anaglyph’s recent letter to Shoo!Fly’s CEO so much I’ll reproduce a large part of it here:
My concerns with ShooTag are many: firstly, you are taking advantage of people by selling them something which, although it is not supported by any known science, you continually attempt to frame in a scientific context. In other words, you use ‘sciencey’ sounding terms to attempt to make ShooTag sound credible.
For a start, you offer up ideas such as the ‘trivector’ mechanism, ‘energy’ fields and the vague concept of biological ‘frequencies’ as if they are proper scientifically supported notions, which they are not. At best these things are speculative, but mostly they are just plain nonsense. In addition to presenting pseudoscience as science, you imply that the mechanism of ShooTag is somehow supported by actual scientific concepts of which you plainly have little comprehension, such as quantum physics, fractal mathematics and Schumann Waves.
All these things are meaningless in relation to your product, at least in any way that have attempted to demonstrate so far. You also use the names of scientists like Albert Einstein and Geoffrey West, whose work you clearly don’t understand, in a manner that suggests that their theories offer support of your own speculations (which they most certainly don’t). This is misleading and irresponsible.
In addition to all this, you regularly refer to scientific ‘experiments’ which you say demonstrate not only that your product works, but that it works extraordinarily well. The experiments you reference either show nothing of the sort (such as your ‘Texas A&M Field Trials’ which were scientifically ridiculous), or don’t have substantiation of any kind (like the supposed ‘European Trials’ which you have mentioned on several occasions on the web but from which you have never provided any data whatsoever, or the supposed supporting video from ‘the Japanese Ministry of Health’ which you boasted about on your site but which never materialised there for anyone to see). You also continue to heavily infer that credible organizations are involved with your product (Texas A&M University, Texas State University, the Japanese Ministry of Health, the Finnish Olympic Team) when it is clear that no such endorsements have been made or were intended (as is quite evident from my conversations with the administration at Texas State University, and their requirement that you remove any such TSU endorsements from your site). Excuse me for saying so, but responsible companies with legitimate products do not undertake this kind of deceptive behaviour.
In short, you want everyone, particularly your prospective customers, to think that ShooTag is validated by science and approved by authoritative institutions, yet you have nothing to support your claims other than self-generated hyperbole and subjective customer testimonials. No science.
Oh, SNAP. That. Was. Awesome.
And there’s more–read the full letter for a masterful spanking of a woo peddler.
Why am I telling you about this in a rather longish post? I discovered that Shoo!TAG donated $30,000 worth of their “units” to a children’s bible camp in Zambia in April 2011. And they sent tags to Haiti after the earthquake (through a bible missionary chiropractic group. Talk about insult to injury!). Shoo!TAG issued press releases about all this, and I strongly suspect they also took a nice tax write-off on their used (not even new!) plastic bits as well.
What they are doing is just….vile. I can’t think of a more descriptive word. Sure, these tags seem like innocuous pieces of crap that will part gullible people from their money. It’s all fun and games until someone dies of malaria, yellow fever, or lyme disease, because they thought hanging a credit card around their neck would protect them.
The problem is, to whom do you report people selling this kind of woo to? There has to be a way to make an obviously fake device like this go away.
The Federal Trade Commission has prosecuted people selling deceptive devices before, but they sure don’t make reporting easy. Their Complaint Assistant is mostly focused on online fraud and identity theft. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is a possibility, but again, shoo!TAG™doesn’t really fit into any of their categories.
When you look at the FDA Guide to reporting problems, the categories for human health problems don’t quite fit. It’s easier to report shoo!TAGs for veterinary use than for people. Since heartworms,tick paralysis, and equine encephalitis are just some of what users of these tags put their pets at risk of catching, that’s not entirely a bad thing.
Minimum risk pesticides are a special class of pesticides that are not subject to federal registration requirements because their ingredients, both active and inert, are demonstrably safe for the intended use.
Since shoo!TAG™ is plastic and don’t do anything, I’d say they’re inert, alright. But “minimum risk”? It turns out there is some special language about that exemption:
“EPA…concluded that public health products must be supported by evidence that they are effective against the target pest.”
And here is where I go all PollyAnna on your asses.
I believe that social media has the potential to truly change the way the world works.
One of the things bloggers can do with their bully pulpits—no matter how modest– is fact-check claims that businesses (or politicians!) make, and call readers to action. While blogs and Twitter and Facebook can disrupt our lives, they also make it possible for people to draw attention to things that just aren’t right.
As blog readers, you can respond and spread that fact-checking in ways that warm the cockles of my misanthropic little heart. Let’s harness our community power. Who knows someone at the EPA enforcement division? Minions, mobilize!!
Related Bug Posts: