Insects & Critter Fear Survey

Heyloo there everyone.  If you haven’t noticed, I know a bit about bugs.  I also happen to be an arachnophobe.  Yup.  I’m not the only one either; and am looking to get some insight into the minds of my fellow humans.  I’m curious about what it is about critters that makes us afraid or just uncomfortable.  So I created an impromptu survey in hopes of letting you all speak your minds.

The first link below is to the survey itself.  At the end of that are links to the photo surveys if you wish to add your impressions of those. The photo surveys are split in two because Survey Monkey only let’s me use 10 questions per survey.

Thanks for your help everyone!

Actual survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/W8KRHKB

Photo Survey p1: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKZX72L

Photo Survey p2: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/WKT6S5G

The Black Death: Do Fleas Really Deserve All the Blame?

The Black Death was one of the most devastating events in history.   Originating from central Asia, it is believed to have traveled along the Silk Road until it reached the Crimea around the mid-1340’s.  From there it spread to become a pandemic in the truest sense of the word.  The Black Death was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 30-60% of the European population, and as many as 100 million deaths worldwide.   You all probably know this much already.  You also probably know that this was vectored via the Oriental rat flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) living on black rats that made their way on merchant ships in the Mediterranean initially and then ventured north.  The Oriental rat flea is a nasty bugger, vectoring not just the plague (Yersinia pestis) but also Rickettsia typhi, and tapeworms.  But what if we can scratch one of those off that list?

Oriental Rat Flea

Skeletons unearthed a year ago during a work on a new rail line in London are shedding new light on some of our well established ideas regarding our not-too-distant past.  The bones were believed to be from a cemetery of plague victims.  Molars were removed from the skeletons and DNA then extracted from the teeth.  The plague bacterium was found in several of the teeth, indicating these individuals were exposed to and most likely died from the Black Death.  These results are not unexpected, of course so researchers continued to “dig”.  Archaeologists, geologists, historians, physicists, and microbiologists worked to better understand the circumstances surrounding these individuals lives and deaths.

They were generally poor people showing clear signs of malnutrition, and a history of hard labor.  One may have even been a vegetarian later in their life, possibly indicating a shift to monastic life at some point.  Not completely surprising considering the land was at one time part of a monastery.  These plague victims didn’t come from the same time period either.  With radiocarbon dating indicated the graveyard was used multiple times between the earliest outbreaks (1348-1350) and later ones in 1361 and the early 15th century.  Archaeologists are planning on more digs as they estimate the total number of bodies may number anywhere in the “low thousands”.

Black death researchers extracted plague DNA from 14th century skulls found in east London. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot.  I may be an history buff but I’m also a buggy person right?  So why would I be blogging about this if there were not some new interesting entomological tidbits to be shared?  Because I’m bored, yeah….fascinated with dead things, yeah…but there is buggy stuff to share!  Traditionally the belief has been that the Black Death was spread via the Oriental rat flea, as stated earlier.  But evidence derived from those teeth suggest that this may not be the case; or at least not always the case.

When researchers compared the genome from the molar-derived bacterium with that of more recent plague victims they found the genome largely unchanged.  The recent outbreaks of the plague such as in Madagascar last year saw the majority of deaths from a pneumonic or pulmonary plague.  This new information suggests that the transmission of the plague was likely not just via the rat flea but also likely the pneumonic strain.  This is a more virulent strain of the bubonic plague.  Exposure to the plague from the rat-borne fleas is treated with antibiotics and has a higher survival rate than its cousin.  The pneumonic form, acquired via inhalation and human-human contact, is very highly fatal with death typically resulting within 24 hours of exposure if not treated.  The 60 deaths attributed to the pneumonic plague (84 deaths in total) were believed to be spread in part because of increasing political turmoil in the area resulting in poor hygiene and a decline in living conditions.

This mirrors much of what is believed to have happened during the Black Death.  Political and social instability, significant decreases in living conditions and healthcare availability created a perfect storm of underlying problems.  Perhaps the rat flea gets a bit of a reprieve.  Initial introduction via the rats is likely to have occurred with the more virulent strain of pneumonic plague taking over and doing the most damage.

Research continues and I look forward to hearing about it.

 

Bugeo Day 2: Zombies Are Attacking!!!!

Today I bring you one of my favorite parasitoids, the Jewel Wasp.  This gorgeous little wasp, also known as the Emerald cockroach wasp has a fun little reproductive method which involves using cockroaches as a host for their larvae.  Yesterdays video was of a fly parasitoid that uses caterpillars as a host for its many young; this wasp is a little different.  It will sting into a specific ganglia (nerve bundle) in the thoracic segment (where the legs and wings originate).  This first sting renders the cockroach unable to move under its own power; the second sting turns it into a zombie which is then drug around and manipulated by the wasp.

Bugeo 1: Bug Video Week

Last week I posted a video that was pretty nasty on my twitter feed.  Though not-so-pleasant it was still quite interesting and had some good feedback.  So here we go.  A week of bug vids for you to check out.  I’ll scour the interwebs (i.e. YouTube mostly) and find something buggy for you to take a quick gander out.

Day 1: Check out some fly larvae making their home in – and then out of – a caterpillar.

Bizarre Mimicry in Nature

I was just referred to an interesting post on the absolutely amazing blog Why Evolution is True (seriously, check them out).  The post is a somewhat old one regarding possible mimicry in a moth species found in Malaysia and Borneo.  According to the post, some entomologists look at this and see….well, you look first, think about what you see and then highlight my “…” text below the image.

 

“…The researchers debated back and forth and have determined they believe those are two flies flying towards bird droppings…”

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(Spoilers Below)

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Bird dropping moths are not a new idea (just Google it, you’ll find a number of species) but this idea that it is two flies on the forewings going towards the droppings is a new one on many.  What’s also interesting about this case is that the researchers associate an odor with the moth.  Stinky moth!

It’s a very interesting idea and one that shouldn’t be dismissed right off hand.  It also shouldn’t be accepted right off hand.  A few of us who first looked at the image saw beetles, not flies.  And what evolutionary occurrences would have take place in order for such an adaptation to arise?  We don’t know.  I encourage you all to check out the post and subscribe to their blog too.  It’s a hoot.  See below for my comment on their post.

 

Comments: Bugwitch

There are hundreds of chemical compounds/scents emitted by a decomposing human (or other species) corpse.  Not every odor attracts a fly and not every species is attracted/repelled by such odors.  If we go with the hypothesis that this is an adaptive mechanism that results in fooling potential predators, such predators could:

A) smell it and think it’s rotten,
B) see it is something which is attractive to flies and therefore not of food-value

Eyespots are normally on the outer portions of wings and serve to distract predators from the main dish (their body) and instead result in getting nibbled on the wing tips which can result in higher survival rates for the butterfly.

I personally don’t see flies and I have to *really* look to “see” flies.  I see beetles more immediately, as others have mentioned.  Just going by general size and shape.  And just because you can’t think of a beetle species with a red head just remember…400,000 species of beetles.

All too often we entomologists (and my fellow wannabees) want really-super-duper-hard to find something and then we eventually see it.  I’m not saying that’s what this is; but confirmation bias is something we all need to be wary of.  Does it look like a type of mimicry?  Yeah, sure.  Especially with the odor association.  But as all of my fellow graduate students like to say when we end our presentations: More research is required.

They’re Baaaaaaaacccckkkk. The Japanese Beetles Return for the Season!

Yup, that’s right.  These adorable, shiny (OMG so Shiny!) beetles have started to return.  Even though they may be cute they can be highly destructive.  The Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica: Scarabaeidae: Coleoptera) are, as you might guess, a non-native species of beetle which made its way here a number of years ago and easily found a home in our turfgrass and other plants.

Japanese Beetle adults kicking back on my tomato plants.

Japanese Beetle adults kicking back on my tomato plants.

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Japanese beetle getting fancy with his legs on my tomatoes. Careful there mister!

Japanese Beetle larvae “grub” From Wikipedia

Their larvae often know as “grubs” (pictured below) spend their time in grass and can be responsible for some pretty serious damage to turfgrass stands; home lawns, sporting fields, etc.   They are also known to feed on some ornamental tree and shrubs.  These areas can be managed a variety of ways from planting more resistant turfgrass and plant varieties, to the use of products like synthetic pesticides or biological control methods, most notably milky spore disease.  Left unattended, they can eventually cause major damage to the grass by chewing through the roots.  And it’s not just the damage that they themselves do that you need to worry about.  You also have to worry about raccoons and skunks coming into your yard and pulling up the grass to get at those squishy, tasty grubs!  Remember Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King!  They weren’t joking.

Timon with a tasty morsel. I think that would most likely be a caterpillar but it’s hard to tell with the way it’s drawn. Could just be a slug with a headcapsule…which isn’t really a thing.
From lionking.org

These guys overwinter in the larval stage and the adults start to emerge right about now (June – July).  The adults damage plants in a very different yet just as important way.  I’ve been finding them on my tomato plants but this isn’t one of their typical plants they go for.  To be fair, I haven’t seen them feeding so it is possible I’m just noticing recently emerged adults just hanging out on my plants waiting to fly to bigger and more tasty pastures.  The adults are skeletonizers and will eat the “meaty” bits of the plant leaves, leaving the veins intact.  They are known to happily feed on over 400 species of broad leaf plants so take your pick.  A big one that they like are grapes and this is another thing that makes them a huge potential pest.  Imagine these guys in Wine Country!?!  Please, say it ain’t so!  Not my wine!  Infested strips of grass near a winery could be potentially devastating if left uncontrolled.

So how do we deal with these guys?  Well, I keep a nice plastic container in my freezer for all of the adults I find and I just throw them in there.  This is by no means an effective method of control but it’s a great method for just collecting some beetles.  There are a couple of traps that you can buy which use pheromones to attract the beetles to the bag where they fall in and die.  The problem with this is that they ATTRACT the beetles to the general region which can actually result in a bigger problem overall.  I actually want to get one of these bags so I can snag a whole bunch of bugs, but then I will have to worry about treating my lawn somehow…I wonder if I can get my landlord to pay for that???

Bag-a-Bug. Only really effective if you want to bring more Japanese beetles onto your property.

Other, more successful control methods are chemical treatments formulated specifically for “white grubs”.  “Grubs” is a term generally reserved for the larvae of scarab beetles which also includes Masked/European Chafers as well as the June beetles.  They all will survive in the turf during their larval stages but as you might imagine, will have different points of high susceptibility to treatment.  If you know you have mostly JB’s then make your application according to their life cycle.  The latter instars (juvenile stage) and adults are the least susceptible to pesticide products (synthetic and organic) as they are a bit more hardy by that time.  The best time to treat is when the larvae are still in their first couple of instars.  In Ohio, this means late August to early September at the latest.  As many as 95% of the eggs will be laid by mid August here.  By early fall when the weather starts to cool the grubs will crawl a bit deeper into the soil and begin their hibernation state and thus no longer be susceptible to treatments.

Japanese Beetle life cycle in Ohio. Remember to make your treatments when they are most vulnerable, in those early instar stages.

If you’re like me and you want to do your home gardening a little more on the “green” side when possible there is some good news and some bad news with regard to grubs.  The good news is there are some parasitic wasps (Tiphia popilliavora and T. vernalis) which are fairly well established in the Eastern states and will parasitize the larvae.  The bad news…they aren’t really effective at controlling the beetles in this area.  They are more successful in the southern states though.  There is also a disease called Milky Spore Disease (Bacillus popilliae) which is thought by some to be useful but depending upon your region it may or may not be.  The problem here is that this disease is already present in much of the natural habitat of these beetles and therefore populations (at least here in Ohio and nearby) have already been exposed to this and similar diseases.  By introducing the milky spore to an area where it is already present you’re not going to see much success as they have already been exposed.  In the areas where it has been effective, it can take a few years (2-3) for the spore count to build up to an affective level.  Don’t use any insecticides against the grubs during that time as the grubs are needed for completing the bacterium cycle.

Other than habitat modification (slit-seeding and planting resistant grasses and ornamentals) synthetic pesticide treatments are going to be your best bet.  I can’t recommend one particular product over others but by contacting your local Entomology Extension office they can give you the heads up on which products are best.

Hope that helps some of you.  Until next time! Hakuna Matatta!