Forensic Entomology: Spring 2015

The pigs are out!

Two stillborn pigs were placed this morning at approximately 9:30am.

Nearby Weather Conditions:

High: 64 F

Low: TBD

5cm Soil Temp: 58.54 F

Wind: Breezy, avg 5mph

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Very few eggs found. Ant activity may be obscuring actual numbers due to predation.

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Problem with Bugs on your Tomatoes?

Looking over the search history on my blog it seems you have some questions!  One that I encountered was from someone worried about their tomatoes.  I love tomatoes so I am more than happy to assist.

The Question: “bugwitch, found these little black beetle-like bugs on my tomatoes. are they harmful to my tomatoes?”

Without a picture I can’t confirm, but my best guess based on my experience with my own tomatoes is you’re seeing Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (BMSB) (Halyomorpha halys: Pentatomidae: Hemiptera) on them.  Though they are brown as adults (hence their name) the nymphs can be black to blackish-brown with other accent colors.  It really varies depending upon their nymphal stage (instar).  BMSB’s are a pest of increasing concern.  They have been found feeding on numerous types of fruits and vegetable crops such as apples, apricots, corn, grapes, nectarines and peaches, soybeans, and of course tomatoes, among others.  As agriculture is a hugely important element of our health of our economy as well as our citizens, keeping these critters under control is becoming a huge deal.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug 4th Instar nymph Rutgers University

BMSB 1rst instar nymphs and eggs Recently emerged. UC Davis

Thankfully, the damage caused by their feeding doesn’t kill the plant or make the fruit unusable; but it does make it less visually appealing.  Pitting and scarring of the surface caused by their piercing/sucking mouthparts makes for a less attractive fruit.  Because most consumers want a pristine items from the store, these affected items are not usable for direct sale.  If it is a crop that can be turned into a secondary product this allows the farmer to recover some of their investment.  But, this means a decrease in expected annual income.  This isn’t a big deal for your small home garden, but when you have 40 acres of apples and can only recover half of your usual income due to pitted fruit, you’re not going to be a happy farmer.

BMSB’s on tomato

BMSB external damage to tomato.

BMSB damage to apple Mouthparts pierce through apple surface and damage tissues below making fruit unsellable.

These critters are also well known pests of homes.  With the changing season you’ll be sure to see them entering your home to find a nice space to hunker down for the winter.  Here in Ohio they will be coming inside within the next month or so (October-November).  However, you probably won’t see them in large numbers indoors until early Spring.  Some stragglers will likely come out in mid-Winter as you heat/cool your home.

There are currently no really effective chemical methods for control.  I meet people who are terrified to squish these critters. Why?  “They’re STINK bugs!  They’ll make everything smell horrible!”

No.  Yes, they do have a “stink” gland but the chemical produced isn’t necessarily horribly smelling to us, but it is irritating to potential predators.  The excreted chemical is quite similar to that which is produced in cilantro!  To some, this may smell bad; to others, it’s just ‘eh.’

Summary:

Probably BMSB’s

Not great for your tomatoes, will put little spots on it from their feeding, but you can eat them just fine.

Treatment?  Not many options. Squish. There are also a number of researchers working on them.  Maybe collect some and bring them to them.  If you’re worried about them getting into your home, be sure to seal up every crack and crevice you can.  Windows, screens, foundation, door jams, etc.

EPA Website

Ohio State Fact Sheet (Downloads)

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.

 

Catching (Fire) Bugs: Cinema & Entomology

Okay.  I’ll admit it.  I paid way to much to see the opening showing of Catching Fire.  It’s been a while since I’ve done such a thing but here I am.  Sitting in the theater.  But, it’s a Double Feature!!!!  Never mind that I can see The Hunger Games on Netflix any time I want….It’s on Imax!!

Lapses in sanity aside I wanted to take this little 30 minute break between HG and CF to write a little note about personal project that I’ve been working on for some time.  It should come as no surprise that I really like bugs.  I really love cats too (remember, I’m *that* person) but I really like insects and other arthropods.  I also happen to love movies and television.  I find movies and television can tell us a lot about ourselves as a culture.  We don’t only look to cinema for escape, we also look to it for clarity in ourselves.  That, and things blow up…which is freaking cool (I can’t even tell you how excited I am for the next Avengers film…but I digress…

So what’s my personal little project?  Glad you asked….It’s a sort of combination of those things, bugs and movies/tv.  And as I wait for Catching Fire to start up I thought I’d point out a few things that you might have missed from The Hunger Games, both the book and the film.  The film is a rather faithful adaptation to the novel and it succeeds where a number of adaptations fall flat (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire I’m looking at you).  Like a lot of films that incorporate arthropods into the script, ours appear as a villain.  But contrary to popular portrayals, the Tracker Jackers double as savior too.  Those stung by these four-winged, stinging villains will suffer terrible hallucinations, pain, and possibly death.  Katniss manages to suffer only troubling visions, unlike some of her competitors. – Is this the point where I should say “Spoilers”? – They also saved her from a potentially deadly situation.  These deus ex machina death-wasps also exemplify an all too common phobia among Western audiences.  Admittedly, this phobia is warranted in some cases (if you’re “deathly” allergic to wasps, it’s not a phobia…it’s legit fear)  Death and insects are paired more than once in the filmic adaptation of Hunger Games.

Chopping down a Tracker Jacker nest.

This may be the point where you get confused.  More than one entomological player in The Hunger Games?  Yup.  But you might not have noticed it.  In fact, the entomologists I’ve talked to about this didn’t even notice it.  This tells me that I’m just that nuts and notice useless information.

The book doesn’t feature this other insect but the filmmakers seemed to make a discernable effort to feature it.  Or, as Mr. Plinkett would say, “You might not have noticed it…but your brain did.”  As Katniss takes her first moments to breathe and settle into the trauma of the arena she sits and surveys her bag.  As the absence of a soundtrack fills the theater we are reminded that she is in a place and time that will see no escape for her.  I say no escape because even if she survives, she will forever carry the experience and themes of the arena with her. – A point made clear throughout the rest of the books and hopefully films. – Death is now her only consistent companion and this is where our little friendly insect comes into play.  She sits.  She absorbs.  And then the cannon.  “The familiar sound of the cannon that marks the death of another tribute” we hear the announcer say.  Paired to the sound of the cannon and the announcers’ cheery tone Katniss finds a butterfly.  A simple black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes: Nymphalidae: Lepidoptera)…female at that.  Butterflies and moths have a long history of being harbingers of death and guides for the dead.  Once again, that purpose is being served.

Eastern Black Swallowtail

 

Screen shot from The Hunger Games.

And, now a little quick note post Catching Fire.  If you’re interested in a review I’ll post one here at RottenTomatoes.  I noticed an interesting continuation of the entomological portrays in this film as well.  When in the jungle environment we see and hear the buzzing of anonymous insects.  But what really struck me was again, a butterfly.  Or rather a lot of butterflies.  **Spoilers???**  As Effie begrudgingly, and sorrowfully reaches for the names from the glass bowls her outfit is another stunning portrayal of the excesses of the Capitol…and of that ancient metaphor for the passing of the soul and harbinger of death.  A dress made completely of butterflies.  The butterflies that adorn her, guide shield her as she is soon to adorn and guide her tributes to the coming slaughter.

So there you have it.  My two cent psychological assessment of the bugs in a couple of movies.  If you think I had fun with this, you can’t imagine the field day I’ve had with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Decomp Project: Full Meal Deal

Remember that groundhog I placed out there two weeks ago?  Anyone have a guess as to what happened to it?  Well, it went all pancakey that’s what!  Pancakey…that’s the official scientific term for it.

Who wants to guess how long it took?  Here’s a video I put together including some images and video I took of the process.  You might be surprised by what you will see visiting the remains.  Now, before you watch this, I want you to take a guess as to how long it took to go from fresh to skeletonized.

The Cicadas are Coming! The Cicadas are Coming!!!!

Periodical cicadas have very long life cycles and depending upon what part of the country you are in will dictate which Brood will be emerging this year. This year is a Brood II year which is primary on the north eastern seaboard and inland a bit. If you live in an area outside of this and see some periodical cicadas they likely are not from Brood II but rather some early risers or some stragglers from your regional brood. Animals don’t read books so they don’t always know which year they’re “supposed” to emerge. There are always some outliers.

Here’s a link to a LINK for where you can check to see when you can expect the Periodical Cicadas to emerge in your area.  Missing out this year?  Maybe next year will be better!

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Forensic Entomology: Decomposition and Then Some

So, what is Forensic Entomology?  When someone says those two little words the first thing that pops into most peoples minds is Grissom from CSI.  Interesting though he may be (and loosely based on an actual Entomologist, Dr. Neil Haskell and Acarologist Dr. Lee Goff) there’s more to it than that.  Forensic entomology is more than just analyzing dead stinky stuff.  There are actually three different subfields of forensic entomology: Urban, Stored Product Pest and Medicolegal Entomology.  Medicolegal is the most commonly thought of branch but it is actually the branch that sees the least amount of use.  Termite cases comprise the vast majority of legal cases related to entomology and that’s what “Forensic Entomology” is: The application of Entomology, insects and other arthropods to legal issues.  This can be civil and criminal.

Think about how much you hear about bed bugs or carpenter ants, maggots, or bees in the news!  Aunt Sally went to that fast food restaurant and found a maggot in her burger?  Lawsuit! Bed bugs infesting an apartment complex that was supposed to have been treated?  Lawsuit!  New home owners have a termite problem but none was found by the initial inspection or disclosed by the original owners?  You bet there’s gonna be a lawsuit. Though very different in focus, all are examples of forensic entomology.  I happen to think that each has its fascinating points as well as wildly boring ones as well.

For your viewing pleasure, over the next few days I am going to walk you through the process of decomposition as it unfolds in my front yard.  I found a recently biffed groundhog and just placed it out this morning.  Over the coming days I’ll post pictures and some analysis of what is happening to the groundhog over time.

Day 1 Full Body

Day 1: Full Body
approx. 11:00am EST

Day 1: Head and forelegs

Day 1: Head and forelegs
approx. 11:00am EST

Day 1: Posterior

Day 1: Posterior
approx. 11:00am EST

**Edit** Added Images Later in the Day

Full View approx. 18:00 (6pm) EST

Full View
approx. 18:00 (6pm) EST

Eggs on lower abdomen approx. 18:00 (6pm) EST

Eggs on lower abdomen
approx. 18:00 (6pm) EST