The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Tag Archives: Insects

Sometimes poop happens if you’re persistent.

In my last post (thanks, by the way, for welcoming me back into the fold so warmly), I mentioned that I’d spotted a particular butterfly. I was very, very, excited to see this butterfly. You see, I’d been trying to find one of these butterflies for over three years.

Back in March of 2010, I wrote about my encounter with a very evil plant adorned with sharp, woody spines: prickly-ash (Xanthoxylum americanum). It was mostly a complainy post because the plant shredded my dog and made me a little buttsore (literally).  However, Steve Wilson of Blue Jay Barrens mentioned in the comments that prickly-ash is a common host of North America’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). I did some research and learned that I might just be within the butterfly’s typical geographic range.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for that butterfly ever since. (Seriously, I can’t pass a prickly-ash without looking for one).

Well, on that lovely day last week (when I was having all kinds of feels about nature while out with my dogs) my walk came to a screeching halt when I noticed a large black swallowtail butterfly lazily flapping around a patch of prickly-ash in the tree line just to the left of the road.

Now, I wish I’d been able to get a video of this thing, because it moved unlike any butterfly I’d ever seen. Its wingbeats seemed very slow; languid, really.* I wondered how on earth it was keeping its huge body afloat, and nearly in place, to boot. It held itself  vertically as it stopped to inspect various leaves and branches, much in the same posture as a hummingbird that has momentarily stopped drinking at a feeder to hover inches from the nectar before darting down to feed again.

I tiptoed in closer – it didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by my presence. I held my breath as I watched, wondering if…would it? It DID!  She finally found a suitable spot and delicately touched the tip of her curled-under abdomen on a leaf about a foot and a half off the ground, leaving behind a single, round, orange egg.

OMG!

I came home and chattered to my wife excitedly about my long-desired observation. Then I did some Googling and learned that the caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail is an exceptional mimic. Like many other caterpillars, P. cresphontes is exceptionally good at looking like something highly unpalatable: poop.  Bird poop, to be precise. How wonderful!

The next day I went back to that little patch of thorniness to see if I could find the egg again: I was thinking it would be cool to keep an eye on its progress. I was able to find it rather quickly:

Egg of Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

Egg of Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). (Actual size ~1mm)

Satisfied, I stepped back onto the road and took in a broader view of the shrub.

And saw bird poop on a few leaves.

Wait, wut?

I darted in for a closer look and my three-years-of-searching-persistence was rewarded with some absolutely FABULOUS poop-mimicing Giant Swallowtail caterpillars. They are VERY convincing:

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes) on Prickly-ash Zanthoxylum americanum)

Not actually bird poop.

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

Proof that there is actually a caterpillar under there.

I  removed one of the caterpillars from its leaf and took it home with me for a studio-style shoot (above), but was sure to bring it back to its proper home the next day.  I reached in the little vial holding the critter, picking it up between my thumb and forefinger, and was  immediately reminded that  swallowtail caterpillars often employ another defence mechanism if the “don’t-eat-me-I’m-poop” schtick fails:

Osmeteria of Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

“Behold my terrifying red head thingies! Flee if you value your life!”

These osmeteria are hidden away within the thoracic segment behind the head. When threatened, the caterpillar everts them rapidly, simultaneously releasing  a defensive chemical.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this comic  by the brilliant Rosemary Mosco. The caterpillar’s osmeteria were not very scary. A teensy bit startling perhaps, but honestly, they look like shiny, skinny candy canes.  I noticed the chemical secretion – it had an odour, and not an unpleasant one. I recall it being something a little sweet/spicy. Kind of nice, actually. Maybe it’s revolting if you’re a pecking bird?

______________________________

*I looked around on YouTube for a good video of this species – there are several – but what struck me was how fast seemed to fly in each of the clips. This was not what I saw at all. I have two explanations: 1) it was  quite chilly that morning (like, I was wishing I had a toque and gloves kind of chilly), which slowed its motions, or 2) this was an example of one of those trippy moments where time seems to slow down.

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Life in the fast lane (subarctic beetles, part 1)

Sometime in the next few months my first research paper is going to be published (True story! I saw the proofs a few days ago!) The paper is based on 2 months of field work I did during my first summer as a PhD student, waaaay back in 2010. Some of you might remember that I packed up my gear (I traveled light, as you can see), hopped on a few planes and landed in a remote, barren landscape. The “remote” part ended up being pretty much bang-on, but the barren bit…not so much.

The incomparably stunning subarctic tundra is sprinkled with beautiful flowers and is home to incredible wildlife, some charismatic (grizzly bears! wolverines! snow geese!) and others more cryptic but no less important – arguably more important, in fact.

Kug flowers

Flowers from Kug (from top L, clockwise): prickly saxifrage, arctic rhododendron, arctic poppy, yellow saxifrage.

It was these these smaller creatures that I travelled all the way to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to seek and collect: the insects. As you all know, insects are very important animals: they make up the majority of the world’s biodiversity (even in the Arctic: there are over 2000 species spiders, insects and mites living above the tree line, but only a few dozen species of mammals).  These insects all have very important jobs (or “ecological functions”) that affect the way the ecosystem works: they pollinate plants, they decompose things, they feed on plants and other insects, they bite other animals. When they do their jobs is equally important – if the timing is off, it can affect how other parts of the ecosystem work (think, for example, what might happen if pollinating insects like flies and bees were flying around and visiting plants after the peak blooming period).

Members of my research team have been travelling all over northern Canada, collecting insects and spiders, for the past few years. Most of the time, we collect in a single location for only two weeks. This doesn’t sound like much, but the summers are short and some our latest data (like for spiders, for example) tell us that two weeks is plenty of time to catch most of what’s out there to be caught at high latitudes. Also, we collect like possessed people. Over a hundred traps get set within 24 hours of arrival, and then we’re out all day every day, filling specimen bags and vials with six- and eight-legged critters.

So my time in Kug was pretty unique. Two months represents nearly the entire summer season – the time during which you would expect insects and spiders to be running and flying around. In fact, when I arrived on June 21, there were still piles of snow on the ground and the ice on the inland ponds was just starting to break up.  I left in mid-August, and friends reported that snow was flying two weeks later.

Subarctic summers are short, cold, and yet they’re an utter whirlwind of insect activity. When I was out emptying traps with frozen, wet fingers, sporting my long underwear and a toque, I was still hauling in dozens, even hundreds, of insects and spiders. Those bugs have a very tiny window of time during which they can wake up, move around, feed, mate/grow/lay eggs (for most, this can’t even happen in a single season – their life cycle has to be stretched out over several years) before having to go back to sleep for the winter again. Life for a bug in the north is life in the fast lane.

Me with samples

Whirl paks full of bugs make me very happy (even if I’m very cold)

Having a season’s worth of samples is a rare thing for studies of Arctic entomology – field work in the north, especially in remote locations, is logistically difficult and really, really, freaking expensive, so it doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s usually for a brief period of time.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

The day after I arrived in Kug, my field assistant and I set traps at three different sites on the tundra. At each site, we put 18 traps in a wet, soggy, sedge meadow and 18 traps in nearby dry tundra.

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

We used both “yellow pan” traps and “pitfall” traps. Both are dug into the ground so that insects walking around can fall into them. The yellow ones also attract flying insects (those critters were passed on to other people on my research team). We emptied all 108 traps about once a week, for eight weeks, putting the contents of each trap in its own sample bag every week. That’s a lotta samples.

A "yellow pan" trap, about to be collected.

A “yellow pan” trap, about to be collected.

These great samples allowed me to ask some basic questions about the insect community and how it changes over time (i.e., over the course of the active season). I wanted to find out four things: (1) what insects live in Kug, and what habitats do they live in?; (2) what insects are active at different points in the summer – does the species assemblage change over time? (3) what buggy jobs are being performed at different points in the summer – does the functional assemblage change over time?, and (4) can anything in the environment, like weather, explain any patterns in the way the assemblages change (if they even change at all?)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to touch on each of these points and tell you what I found, hopefully cumulating in a link to the actual research paper 🙂

Published! But not about my research…

Last week I received some very  exciting news: the first paper I worked on as a Ph.D. student has been published! It’s especially exciting because it has nothing to do with my research.

Whaaaa?

That’s right. The paper is not about my research. Well, not directly. But it does touch on something you all know me to be very passionate about: outreach and education.

It’s a book chapter entitled, “Insects in Education: creating tolerances for the world’s smallest citizens”, in a brand-spanking-new book called The Management of Insects in Recreation and Tourism.

(Pardon me for a moment…*ahem*…ZOMG I’M IN A BOOK!!!1!!…o.k., I’m good now.)

I was brought on board to this project late in 2010, after the editor, Harvey Lemelin, expressed interest in the work our research group was doing in northern Canada and the overarching theme of one of our research objectives: Northern Awareness, Education and Legacy. Since I spent a good chunk of my first field season doing outreach, education and training in a northern community, my advisor very generously suggested that I take the lead on the chapter.

Very simply, the book is a multidisciplinary look at the different ways that humans interact with insects. From the description:

[the book] challenges the notion that animals lacking anthropomorphic features hold little or no interest for humans. Throughout the book, the emphasis is on the innovators, the educators, the dedicated researchers and activists who, through collaboration across fields ranging from entomology to sociology and anthropology, have brought insects from the recreational fringes to the forefront of many conservation and leisure initiatives.

Our part of this book involves some case studies based on my and my team members’ experiences and successes working in northern communities and we challenge other entomologists to embrace the idea:

… educational opportunities involving insects engage youth and provide a tangible link to more formal science training and inquiry, and provide benefits for students and researchers.  In additional to longer-term programs, informal or impromptu learning/teaching opportunities are abundant and require little effort from scientists to find and exploit them.  Such opportunities could be as simple and brief as a chat with a local who happens to stop and make an inquiry about the researcher’s work, or a quick display of sweep netting to curious children. These impromptu teaching/learning moments take little time or effort, yet can make a profound impression on the participants, and help foster strong and positive relationships within the community.  working in the north gain tremendous benefits from partnerships in local communities.  …

The time commitment and equipment to pursue local partnerships is minimal, but the impact can be profound.  We have experienced directly the benefits of using arthropods in an educational context in northern Canada, and our experiences suggest the opportunities are untapped. Given their abundance, diversity, importance in northern Canada, and ease and efficiency of sampling, arthropods are certainly one of the best “models” for pursuing further partnerships between schools, communities, and researchers.

As excited as I am about being a contributing factor to this project, it couldn’t have happened without the support and input of my co-authors Kristen Vinke, Donna Giberson and Chris Buddle. Thanks for everything, guys!

If you’d like to get your hands on a copy of the book, it’s going to be released in the U.S. in December, so you can place your order now and have one in time for Christmas! I can’t wait to read the other contributors’ work!

ETA: There is a 20% off discount being offered right now, so get it while the getting’s good! 😀

Hey Geek, what’s this? It bites!

I received an email last week, originally written by Jim:

Can either of you identify the bug in the attached picture?  This is
more a matter of curiosity than concern.  Our daughter learned in her
computer search that there might be some spiders with six legs…?    The
8-leg requirement for spiders was given as a good rule of thumb.
Trent got bit by this bug/spider today.  Any idea????

Jim’s message had first been sent to his friends, Rich and Dianne. Dianne passed the message on to me, having clearly already done some of the leg work by recognizing that the critter in question was not a spider (more on this in a moment) and figuring out the correct insect suborder:

Dear Bug Geek,
Do you know what kind of “True Bug” this is ?  Found in Pittsburgh area.  Many thanks.
Here’s the photo of the little nipper that accompanied Jim’s message:

Photo by Jim (used with permission).

It does sort of have the gestalt of a spider – a chunky body and spindly legs. The coloration is a bit alarming, too; with spiders on the brain, it would be easy to start thinking about things like this:

Photo by Wikipedia user Chepyle, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

You’ll note, though, that there are only six legs on the Trent-biter, not eight. The only time a spider will have less than eight legs is if it’s had some sort of unfortunate mishap, like a run-in with a predator or a developmental (molting) problem.  It is an insect, and Dianne’s assessment of it being a True Bug was correct.

Do you recognize it?

Hint: it’s a baby 🙂

It might be hard to imagine, but that cute little red and black bug nymph will eventually become an adult of the largest assassin bug species in our area:

Wheel bug! The only time I’ve ever encountered these was at BugShot in Missouri last year. I was amazed by the “wheel” structure on the thorax, and went to pick one up, but was quickly stopped by more savy folks who warned me about the painful bites (stabs, really – their mouthparts are tube-like proboscises) these insects are known to inflict.

Poor Trent!

Here’s a *ahem* busy pair of adults I found last year (thanks for the great excuse to pull out an old unused photo, Dianne and Jim!)

Photo Friday: ZOMG MANTIDFLY

It was BRUTALLY hot this Wednesday.  The air conditioner kicked in at dawn (unheard of). My wife and I looked at each other and said, “What shall we do this morning?” We decided that we should stack firewood, 12 cords of which had just been delivered and dumped on our lawn.

Yes we did.

Twenty gallons of sweat and six cords later we decided to call it quits for the day, but just before we finished up, I noticed what appeared to be a wasp resting on one of the logs.  I took a closer look, and realized it was NOT a wasp, it was ZOMG A MANTIDFLY.

Did this ever make up for all that @#$%^ing firewood.

Mantidflies have got to be one of the coolest-looking critters around. Super-neat neuropterans (the order containing the more familiar lacewings), they possess muscular, hooked, raptorial forelegs that look and function exactly like those borne by their namesakes, the true mantids. The adults are predators that hang around on flowers, where they can easily snag pollinators as they land.

Relatively uncommon (I’ve encountered less than half a dozen in my life), there are only four species in all of Canada. One species (this one, Climaciella brunnea) mimics a paper wasp (very well, I might add).

I took about eleventy-million photos of this highly cooperative and wonderfully photogenic little critter before setting it free back in my garden. Here are a few more of my faves:

* I’m going to be camping next week, but I’ve got a good lineup of posts ready for you! I’ll reply to any comments on my return 🙂

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