From The Bug Chicks:
“Follow us as we film the incredible insects and spiders of America! This coast-to-coast journey will take place with a vintage sofa that will be placed in different ecosystems across the country. At each stop we will inspire you to “get off the couch” to explore America’s backyard wilderness and the most diverse animals on the planet….
We specialize in fun, quirky educational videos. Nature programming has been leaning toward fear and myth lately, which we find alarmingly sad. The natural world is mind-blowing; we don’t really need to embellish it.”
PREACH IT SISTERS. I am so tired of Fear TV. Or, completely made up TV.
And! This series contains actual science education content!
“For this show, we’re partnering with Project Noah, an app supported by National Geographic. It makes this expedition truly interactive; people can upload pictures of insects and other arthropods found along the route. We will live-blog and tweet related behind-the-scenes clips, how-to videos, and additional content through Project Noah and NPR’s Science Friday website during the five week expedition.”
One of the questions they ask in their campaign is: “Where are all the women on television/web who are smart, funny and kind to each other?” I would edit that to read “Where are all the women on nature television?” For some reason science TV is a sausage fest. You can help fix that, and you can help change the perception that all the “cool” animals are deep in the ocean or away in a rainforest, where most US kids can’t see them.
By the way, for the really modest price of $500 you can get your favorite school teacher a Bug Workshop!!
$500 Level Perk: Skype/in-person Bug Chicks workshop for a school of your choice. We’ll spend an hour teaching about the awesome bugs of America and what it’s like to be an entomologist! Plus, we’ll add a DVD set of the show after post-production concludes! Workshop type dependent on school location. Please contact us directly to schedule. This makes a great gift for a school/program for kids in need!
I am still in-between jobs so I can’t contribute as much as I want, but I hope all of you can pitch in at least a little.
The response to my post about the Mad Hatterpillar of Australia was amazing! Apparently animals that wear their former heads as hats are fascinating.
I mentioned that some North American caterpillars also build themselves hats out of discarded heads, and I’ve managed to find some cool photos of those as wel. Harrisimemna trisignata is a distant relative of the Australian species.
A commenter described it as “falling out of the ugly tree and hitting every branch on the way down.” That seems a little harsh, but I guess hatters gonna hat. It certainly is true that the zombie heads have a bit of a sinister look.
This caterpillar also has some strange behavior to go with its strange head capsule hoarding. The always awesome Weird Bug Lady is studying this species, and thinks it is a bird dropping mimic. Complete with chunks and white streaks mimicking uric acid in a bird flop. They also have some strange behavior:
“They shake! They shake when I open the container, when I breathe on them, when I talk to them, when I touch them, when I look at them the wrong way. I can just imagine a potential parasitoid, like a tiny wasp, trying to land on that caterpillar… between the shaking and the head capsule whipping, I doubt it would stick around.”
Here, have a look:
The caterpillars chew into wood to pupate (!), and they roll the wood up into neat little balls and then throw them (!!). The adults of this moth look rather like they are carrying a QR code.
Want to know more about your native pollinators in North America? There are lots of resources!
A year or so ago I recommended this beautiful ebook as a FREE download: Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees. It’s still available! One of the authors of that publication is back this year with a new book, this one aimed at a slightly younger audience. The new eBook by Beatriz Moisset: “Beginners Guide to Pollinators and other Flower Visitors” is available FREE during National Pollinator Week. (You can also find it on Barnes and Noble and iTunes.) This eBook is a quick guide to distinguishing types of insect visitors to flowers.
Xerces has quite a few amazing book-length resources, and the best of them is Attracting Native Pollinators. (Not free, alas, but well worth the price, and supports this great non-profit.) Conserving Bumblebees is also available as a FREE download, or as a print book. I have mentioned before the wonderful online Xerces Pollinator Conservation Resource center, that lets you find FREE resources by region of North America about plants, creating nest sites, and other ways to promote your local species. The US Forest Service also offers a FREE guide to Bumblebees of the Eastern States, as well as one for the Western States.
If you want to learn more about being a beekeeper, living in the country, and letting nature define the rhythyms of your life, you just can’t do better than Sue Hubbell’s “A Book of Bees.” Kirkus described it as a mix of “memoir, nature journal, and beekeeping manual.” Hubbell’s writing reminds me of another great country life writer, Anne Dillard. (If you haven’t read Dillard’s An American Childhood, read it now!)
If you want a more detailed discusson of pollination, but also a good read, I recommend “The Forgotten Pollinators” by Buchmann and Nabhan. This winner of several science writing awards discusses the relationship between plants and the many different animals they depend on for reproduction. Unfortunately, many endangered species are rare plants depending on rare insects–not a recipe for a stable ecosystem.
What books have I missed? Please let me know in the comments!
A photo has been circulating this week that suggests that this is what our grocery stores will look like without bees:
Is that true? Is this our life without bees, come the future Beepocalypse?
A fruit is, essentially, a delicious plant ovary with embryos (seeds) inside. It’s how plants reproduce. Bees and other pollinators serve as plant sexual surrogates by spreading pollen (plant sperm!) around to flower ovaries. A fruit tree flower has to be pollinated to “set fruit” or begin to create the plant embryos that will become apples.
Some fruits are self-pollinating, and can fertilize themselves without any bees involved. The Navel Oranges seen in the photo above are a good example of a fruit that can self-pollinate. Most fruit trees–pears and apples in particular–are self-sterile for their own pollen. If you plant all Royal Delicious apples, for example, you won’t get fruit, with or without bees. Just as we don’t often marry our cousins, apple and pear trees require cross-pollination with “pollinizer varieties” that are not closely related to produce a full crop of fruit.
So it’s certainly true that loss of bees and other pollinating insects would limit our fruit choices. But what would happen if bees went away all together?
Actually, we already know what raising fruit without honey bees looks like. In a remote area in China, humans pollinate 100% of fruit trees by hand. Armed with pollen-loaded paintbrushes and cigarette filters, people swarm around pear and apple trees in spring, replacing bees as pollinators. The reason why they do that, though, is more complex than just “the bees died.”
There’s a fair amount of data about the history of human pollination, and the reason it happens in China has as much to do with economics and apple biology as it does with missing bees. In the early 1990s, farmers of marginal lands in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region–an area spanning parts of Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India–realized that apples could be a major cash crop. Their land was mountainous and hard to farm, so tree fruits were ideally suited to the region. A major shift occurred from subsistence farming to fruit crops. The payoffs were large–in some areas, farmers quadrupled their income. Now they had cash on hand to send kids to school and build roads. Quality of life improved.
With that early success, farmers found that certain varieties of apples and pears sold better than others. As new orchards went in, more and more of the same cultivars of apples were planted. And that is when things started to go wrong.
Clearing marginal forested lands for more agriculture destroyed nesting and food resources native pollinator species needed. The problem with insects as commercial pollinators is that they can’t just appear for 2 weeks, pollinate your plants, and disappear. They have to have something to eat the rest of the year, and a place to live. Clearing mountain forests got rid of habitat that pollinators needed.
Farmers planting new trees in their orchards made a logical economic choice: plant more trees that make marketable fruit. The consequences of that choice, though, were that fruit set was poor. Most of the trees they planted were the same variety, so were self-sterile.
So farmers added a few of what are called “pollinizer” trees–trees that serve as pollen donors. Pollinizer varieties usually don’t have pretty fruit, which means that farmers are giving up potential income if they plant them. The recommended mix of fruiting trees and pollinizer trees in orchards is 70:30. In most fruit orchards in this region, less than 10% of the trees were pollinizer varieties. Worse, you can’t just randomly pick two different kinds of apple or pear trees and have them be cross-fertile. (This compatibility matrix gives you a sense of just how complex choosing two pear cultivars to grow can be.) Your pollinizer variety also must bloom at the same time as your fruit variety–pollen needs to be used while it is fresh, and can’t be stored. So even with plenty of bees, fruit production was very low, and in some areas crops failed completely.
Another perfectly sensible economic decision made by farmers was to spray pesticides often to have better looking fruit, which commanded a better price. A perception that the problem with poor fruit production was caused by pest insects also encouraged more spraying. Just as in cultivar selection, this had unforeseen biological consequences. Poor pollination due to pollen incompatibility was made worse by killing off pollinating insects.
In 1999, the problem of poor fruit set was widespread throughout the Hindu Kush regions of Nepal, China, Pakistan, and India. Hand pollination was widely practiced through this region. However, by 2011, only apple growers in the Maoxian region of China were still hand pollinating. What was different about China that made hand pollination persist?
In Nepal, India, and Pakistan, the government and NGOs provided support to help promote using native pollinator species, as well as provided training and education about managing pollination. Planting of native host trees that provided nectar to support colonies through the harvest year was encouraged. Bees are now an important part of local economies, and hand pollination is now rare.
In China, officials promoted and offered training in hand pollination, rather than offering information about native pollinators. That’s not the only reason hand pollination persisted, though–100% of apple crops in the Maoxian region are pollinated by hand because it makes economic sense. By using humans as pollinators, the number of pollenizer trees that have to be planted can be minimized, and valuable land isn’t used up for non-productive trees. Fruit set is also much higher with human pollinators–every flower is fully pollinated and can become fruit. A person can pollinate 5–10 trees a day, depending on the size of the trees. Farmers pay their human pollinators US $12–19/person/day. The cost of renting a bee colony for pollination in 2010 was US $46.88/day.
Why are bees so expensive in Maoxian? Honey bees are still present–up to 50% of the fruit farmers surveyed in the Maoxian region in 2011 also kept honey bees! Bees are still viewed as primarily a honey-producing species in this region, so the connection between bees and pollination is not strong. Farmers in this region of China are uninformed about the effects of pesticides on bees–half of apple farmers surveyed did not know that pesticides would kill bees. The Maoxian region also sprays pesticides more often than other regions where pollinators have recovered. Most Maoxian beekeepers will not rent their hives to orchards, since the pesticide sprays continue during bloom season and they risk losing their entire hive.
One last additional factor is making things difficult for farmers: Global Climate Change. Frequent rains, low temperatures, and cloudy weather affect the number of days that plants flower and the times that pollinators can fly. Changes in flowering time also means that fruit trees and their local pollinators may not be in sync, which makes a mismatch between pollinator and plant timing more likely in an already strained system. Humans are more effective pollinators than insects under these adverse conditions.
What can North Americans learn from China’s pollination failure?
The story of hand pollination in China illustrates what a failure to understand natural ecosystem services looks like. Ecosystem services are things the earth does for us for free: Oxygen is produced; water is filtered; and plants are pollinated. When parts of an ecosystem are removed, it stops functioning the way it has in the past.
Problems with bees, agriculture, and pollination are deeply related to issues of habitat loss, global warming, and basic plant biology. Pesticides are a problem in bee deaths–for all bees, not just honey bees. But just getting rid of all pesticides will not solve our bee problems, and pesticides are only part of the story of human pollination.
In the most recent US honey bee reports from the winter of 2012-2013, 31% of hives failed in the United States. It wasn’t Colony Collapse Disorder or poisoning that was the problem, though–most of the bees starved. A summer of drought that reduced honey storage combined with odd winter weather stresses bee hives. It doesn’t help that corn, soybeans, and golf courses are not nutritious food sources for honey bees. We also know that incredible losses in native bee diversity are happening–in one study, 50% of Midwestern native bee species disappeared over a 100 year period.
Is China’s experience a picture of our future without bees? Probably not. But preserving our pollinators and pollinator habitat will be critical to keeping our food choices diverse. This Pollinator Week, consider planting some food for bees, or setting aside some nesting space for native bees. Check out this huge resource center for North American plant lists, nesting guides, and more.
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!