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.)
There is nothing I love more than finding an amazing new insect to tell you about! Today it’s the “Mad Hatterpillar.” As you can see from this photo, these caterpillars (Uraba lugens, larvae of a Gum Leaf Skeletoniser moth) have a strange attachment to their heads. It’s a stack of their shed head capsules! These caterpillars are native to Australia and eat eucalyptus trees.
Where do they get all these extra heads, anyway?
Moths and butterflies are just flying gonads that make new caterpillars. Caterpillars are feeding machines with one primary purpose: eating enough food to build the body of a future moth or butterfly. A caterpillar stuffs itself with food, but eventually is limited by its exoskeleton, which is rigid and can’t grow. ‘Pillars deal with this by splitting their external skin, shedding it, and making a new, bigger exoskeleton so they have room to grow. For some reason, this species of moth caterpillars keeps their heads and build themselves a strange “hat” that gets taller as they grow.
Why do they build themselves a hat? Are they headed to Ascot? A royal wedding? No one really seems to know WHY the caterpillars keep their old heads hanging around. From a 1980 paper describing the biology of the caterpillars:
“It is hard to imagine what, if any, purpose the retention of a stack of head capsules might serve. Perhaps it might attract the first one or two investigative pecks from a bird or lizard; the predator would initially obtain only a mouthful of dry exuviae [BG note: exuviae =shed skins]. However, the dense, hairy coat alone would probably serve as an adequate repellent for most birds. If a bird really desired to consume one of these larvae, it is unlikely that it would be deterred by a stack of rather easily-dislodged exuviae attached to one end of the morsel.”
If you do happen to see one of these, you should not touch it! Apparently these caterpillars are covered with highly itchy and irritating spines–which seems to make their chapeau of old heads a bit redundant.
Most newer publications about this insect focus on its status as a pest of Eucalyptus, rather than it’s strange headgear. Clearly this is a thesis in search of a graduate student!
By the way, some related Nolid moth caterpillars have balloon heads, which is freaky in an entirely different and wonderful way.
McFarland, N. (1980). Retention of cast head capsules by some nolid immatures in four Old World countries. Journal of Research on the Lepidoptera., 17 (4).
Thanks very much to nuytsia_pix for letting me repost these photos!
What would it be like to have 6,500 silkworms spin a house for you?
Mediated Matter Group used a combination of art and mathematics to create a unique structure made by computers and silkworms.
MMG studied silkworms spinning their cocoons and silk on different hexagonal platforms. You can watch some of the videos of those tests; time lapse photography of caterpillars spinning silk at high speed is kind of hypnotic. Inspired by silkworms’ ability to generate a 3-dimensional cocoon out of a single silken thread, the researchers created an algorithm to make a computer think like a silkworm. They then used that model to instruct a robot to weave a structure.
The language they use to describe this really cool project is…well, pretty dry academic speak, actually. Here’s an example:
The primary structure was created of 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine. Overall density variation was informed by the silkworm itself deployed as a biological “printer” in the creation of a secondary structure…. Specifically, we explored the formation of non-woven fiber structures generated by the silkworms as a computational schema for determining shape and material optimization of fiber-based surface structures..”
Skip that. Just watch. I love the idea of caterpillars as 3D printers. Make sure you watch all the way to the credits, because it’s way cool.
In this video and the one I linked earlier, you might notice that the caterpillars themselves appear to be sort of strobing. What you are seeing is their heart beating!
All insects have one long “heart” that runs along their back. These caterpillars are more transparent than the adult insect shown in this diagram, so we can actually see inside. When the video is sped up, the rhythmic contractions of the heart turn into a rapid flicker. You can even see how the contractions pulse up the back of the insect in a wave!
I love this video for the peek over an artist’s shoulder! Art that was seventeen years in the making.
Artist James Gurney paints a portrait of a 17-year cicada which rested alongside its empty larval exoskeleton. He uses a DIY tripod-mounted painting rig that holds his sketchbook above a palette for mixing casein paints.
You can see the finished painting here. Lovely.
Thanks to Mindy Weisberger for finding this!
You all know that I am One. Bad. Moth-er. So I’m here to remind you that once again it’s time for mothing!
July 20th to 28th, 2013
National Moth Week Events in the US
“Citizen scientists around the world will be setting up white sheets and lights in backyards, woods and fields July 20 through July 28 for the second annual National Moth Week, a global science project begun last year to encourage the public to observe and document one of nature’s most diverse creatures…
Through partnerships with major online biological data depositories, National Moth Week
participants can help map moth distribution and provide needed information on other life history aspects around the globe.”
Moth week has many partner organizations that are repositories for data and photos about moths. These include Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), and BugGuide, among many others. Last year, these partner organizations received more than 3,500 submissions as a result of National Moth Week Moth spottings! You can participate too–just take photos of the moths you see, and upload them to one of the partner organizations with location and other data.
You don’t have to identify your moths–they have experts that will help. The photo you upload with your observations lets a specialist confirm ID. Then that information is used to compile species checklists, and distribution maps. And that data, over time, becomes an invaluable record of species distribution. Science!
What happens at a moth night? It’s a lot of fun! Basically, you put up a sheet and a light with a bunch of your friends, and sit around and wait for moths. So, yes, YOU can do science by sitting around on a beautiful summer night; alcoholic libations may be consumed (although whether or not it is an essential part of mothing varies, depending on who you talk to).
The latest buzz going round the online science community is an article that suggests that scientists might not be doing enough to communicate with the public. Scicurious wrote an excellent reply. I struggled to find an excerpt that I could quote here, because the whole thing had me jumping up and down and shouting “AMEN, SISTER.” Here’s one bit:
“…all this emphasis on these BIG names bothers me more than that. Big names are fine. Everyone wants someone to look up to. But small name researchers make great communicators too. I know I’m not winning any big prizes soon, but I’d like to think I write a witty, educational blog post now and again. Why is fame the most important thing here? Why do we need a big scientific name? Why can’t we make our names, say, through the outreach we do (and some solid, but perhaps lesser known science)?
If no one knows who these big name scientists are anyway (as the article implies), then why is it necessary that they be the ones to do the outreach? After all, many of the science communication success stories the author cites GOT THEIR NAMES through their outreach. Who were the Mythbusters…before Mythbusters? No one outside his field knew who Neil deGrasse Tyson was before he started doing outreach. These people made their names THROUGH their outreach. The emphasis on Big Names that are ALREADY big seems really elitist.”
I’ve said this before, but it’s especially relevant to me now, as I’m in what seems to be the twilight of my career:
I love insects, I love to write, and I love to find ways to get people to share my OMGBUGZ moments. I’m busting my ass here and on social media every day, not because I am getting famous, and certainly not because it makes me any money. I do it for love.
We know, from decades of research, that what makes a good teacher is passion. Why were Sagan, or DeGrasse Tyson, Nye, or Attenborough successful? Because they love what they do, they love their science, and it shows. (Also, they started in a completely different media environment. And are dudes. But let’s not go there right now.)
There are people out here online with me, passionately writing, podcasting, or videocasting their hearts out. A few lucky ones make a living at it. But just because I don’t have name recognition, that doesn’t mean that I’m not successful. I measure success one comment and one retweet at a time. I don’t have a klout score as high as John Cusack anymore, but that’s not the point.
One person says they changed their mind about hating spiders.
I said something kind to a graduate student and encouraged her.
A local newspaper corrects a mangled insect factoid.
That is what online science communication success looks like now.
With the advent of the internet, ideas or passions bring people together, rather than physical locations or media channels. Scientists that do outreach online–even when it’s looked down upon by fellow scientists? We are modeling positive deviance. It’s not so much what we write that is important, but THAT WE WRITE AT ALL.
We are creating a model for a new kind of science communication. And we are having a bitchin’ time doing it, which invites new people over to have fun with us. We are modeling different ways to share science online to our friends, our friends’ friends, and to the random strange people who keep searching my blog for “sex with insects.” (You know who you are.)
It’s personal relationships that really change the world. I was inspired by Sagan and Attenborough…but it was my not-famous teachers and mentors that helped me get through school and believe that I could be a scientist too. Small individual creative acts (tweets, blog posts, or just chatting on Facebook) can become a thing of lasting value. Shared and random effort can produce useful and meaningful results.
The beauty of the web is that we don’t all have to have the same motivations or professional level of skill. We don’t all have to be working toward the same goal. We can still make change happen simply by putting our ideas out there. The beauty of the web is that scientists can get online and screw around together, playing with ideas.
Who cares if we’re “doing it right.” We’re doing it.
Which is exactly how Insect Carl Sagan Happened. Enjoy.
And then things started to get really awesome:
A little musical interlude for your evening: Bill Bailey on the destruction of the planet. The creatures of Earth will rise up and take back what is rightfully theirs!
You might recognize Mr. Bailey from Black Books, which I confess I am rather a fan of. Thanks so much to the awesome Ed Yong for bringing this to my attention!
They’re HERE! The East Coast of the US is in the middle of a noisy invasion…. by completely harmless insects.
Cicadas spend most of their life underground sucking on the the roots of trees, until it is time to emerge as flying adults. There are over 1,000 species of cicadas around the world, with varying life cycles. Periodical cicadas are known for their 17- or 13-year synchronized life cycles and loud singing choruses. These cicadas have black bodies, red eyes, and the wonderful Genus name Magicicada. They are indeed magical, and being in the middle of a periodical brood emergence is a special experience!
What’s a brood? Periodical cicadas exist in different regions, and have cycles of emergence that are not in sync. There are 12 groups of Magicicadas with 17 year life cycles, and 3 groups of Magicicadas with 13 year life cycles. Oh, and to make that more confusing? There are 7 species of Magicicada. Brood II is emerging this year–you can see the full US Brood II Map here.
There is a wonderful video about the periodicial cicada life cycle that is up at Kickstarter; enjoy!
Don’t live on the east coast, or in one of the emergence areas? You still might have dog-day cicadas! While the 17-year cicadas get a lot of press, there are also yearly cicadas. In the US, these are all in the Genus Tibicen (Latin for “flute player”). The species I hear most is Tibicen canicularus. These cicadas have life cycles of about 3 years, but broods overlap so adults emerge each year. They don’t emerge in large numbers like the periodical cicadas, and they are more cryptically colored (and bigger!).
Possibly the only time cicadas have been used in a felony?
I hope that someday I can write a sentence as wonderful as “Two men walked in brandishing a cicada.”
The Pachanga collection was created by Ecuadorian artist Belen Mena when she became captivated by the intense colors and intricate patterns of several moths during one moonlit evening (Pachanga means a festive party in Spanish). The Pachanga collection boasts over 300 different species of moths , each umiquely beautiful and features a photograph on a contrasting background, along with a vector representation and a series of inspired patterns and designas of each moth.
Some patterns have a clean geometric feel while others feature intricate details. The book has received numerous awards including the prestigious Gold Award at the International Forum of Design competition.
This is an exquisite Art book. The careful recreation of the moths patterns through computer tools is one of the most remarkable uses of artistic creativity.
I have looked at lovely moths thousands of times, but I never would have made the jump to these designs.
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.