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:

Photo Survey p1:

Photo Survey p2:


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.


Decomposition Study: Day 2

When I left work last night (about 6:00pm) I took some updated photos and posted them. This morning after pulling in I took a look and snapped a pic of our groundhog.

You can definitely see a change in the size of the little guy within this first day. She’s quite bloated and there is evidence of bacterial action. The bloat is caused by the exponential increase in the amount of bacteria normally found in the body. Just like humans, this groundhog, once it ceased to breathe and circulate blood through its body, was no longer keeping the bacteria and fungi at a standard level. Now, they’re just reproducing like crazy, causing gasses to form. Sometimes these gasses can cause weak areas of the body and places that have been damaged to rupture and internal organs and fluids will push themselves out (see below image of the pig) but normally these gasses will escape through natural openings on the body like the mouth and anus. When I moved this little groundhog boy did I get a whiff!!!

Day 1 Full Body 11:00am
Day 1 Full Body
Day 2: Full Body 9:00am
Day 2: Full Body
From an undergraduate research project.  Day 2, gasses have caused a perforation through a weakened spot on the abdomen of this pig.  Intestines have pushed through.
From an undergraduate research project. Day 2, gasses have caused a perforation through a weakened spot on the abdomen of this pig. Intestines have pushed through.

You can see in the below image a group of Blow/Bottle Flies (Calliphoridae: Diptera) congregating around the snout. Yesterdays image taken about 8 hours after placement shows some bubbling of fluids and gas in the nose. Today’s image, almost 27 hours after placement, shows the bubbling continues with maggots (fly larvae) on the other side.

Day 2: 27 hours after placement. Adult blow flies congregate around the nose.  Maggots in foreground.  1rst instar blow fly larvae.
Day 2: 27 hours after placement. Adult blow flies congregate around the nose. Maggots in foreground. 1rst instar blow fly larvae.
Day 2: 27 hours after placement. Adult blow flies congregate
Day 2: 27 hours after placement. Adult blow flies congregate

I also have found more egg laying locations including in the lip (below – as expected) and on the underside of the body at the point of interface with the soil.

Day 2: 27 hours after placement. Eggs under the lip and snot-blood bubbles in the nose.
Day 2: 27 hours after placement. Eggs under the lip and snot-blood bubbles in the nose.

Soil Temp: 90F
Interface Temp: 80F
Mouth Temp: 100F
Calliphoridae: 10+ adults; 50+ larvae; 100+ eggs
Staphylinidae: 1 adults



Tastes Great, Less Filling!

Who’s hungry!?!

Insects provide the same nutrients that you get from other animal sources (yes, insects are animals!) at a fraction of the impact on the environment.  Companies like Chapul here in the United States are learning from what many have known for a long time, insects are good for you!  And when prepared right, can taste pretty great!

Of course, in many parts of the globe people have been eating insects for quite some time and have often perfected methods of preparation.  Some don’t consider a trip to Thailand complete unless they’ve had a chance to feast on some crickets.

Have you eaten insects before?  What did you think?


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

National Moth Week 2013!!!

Interested in learning more about moths?  What’s the difference between a moth and a butterfly?  Why are they attracted to lights?  What makes them so fuzzy!?!  Well, I’d love to answer those questions and more during this years National Moth Week event in July 2013.  The exact date and location is TBD and I’m looking for ideas.  Local park?  The lab? Backyard BBQ? Whaddya think?

For more info on NMW.


A bird! A plane! A…moth that’s a spider? Whaaaaa?????

If you check out THIS link, you’ll see a pretty interesting example of mimicry…or is it?  This moth is a member of the family Crambidae, a very large group of insects which includes a quite a lot of diversity in both form and function.  Siamusotima

Lygodium Fern Food source for caterpillar stage.

aranea has been dubbed the “Lygodium Spider Moth”.  It’s not the Lygodium that’s the interesting part of this little guys name…nope, it eats the Lygodium fern.  That makes sense.  It’s not the moth part so it must be the “Spider” part!  Yes, there are some that look at this moth and see a spider.  What do you think?

At first glance it can be quite convincing.  The patterning on the wings while in resting pose gives it that creepy spider vibe, right?  But is it really a mimic?  Mimicry has been called “…the greatest post-Darwinian application of natural selection.” (Fisher, 1930)  And it truly is!  Organism ‘A’ looks like something that you don’t want to eat…you don’t eat it…it survives and procreates, making more things that look like something you don’t want to eat!  Crazy, I know.  But that’s what natural selection is.  Organisms which have traits that lead to it and its offspring being more likely to survive to make more offspring is natural selection.  Do that enough times and you have evolution of a new species.

So we all agree, mimicry is cool, right?  But when is a mimic really a mimic?  The Viceroy Butterfly is generally agreed to be a mimic of the Monarch Butterfly.  Everyone loves the Monarch so they must love the Viceroy too…I wonder how many amateur butterfly nuts have Viceroy’s in their collections mislabeled as Monarchs…but I digress…again.  Looking at the image below, we can easily see how these two butterflies are similar.  In order for mimicry to be an actual “thing” observed in the organism there has to be evolutionary pressure that leads to its occurrence.  The Viceroy and Monarchs survive because they feed on plants that have chemicals that pool up inside the insects which makes them unpalatable to their predators.  Look alike, eat nasty food, taste nasty, predators get the message to not eat them.  Environmental events/pressure cause traits in better adapted individuals to be more likely to survive, so they do..

Monarch Butterfly | Viceroy Butterfly The Viceroy was once believed to be an example of Batesian Mimicry (non-toxic to the Monarch’s toxic) but it has recently been observed that the Viceroy is also unpalatable. This qualifies the relationship as Mullerian mimicry.

How can that sort of idea be translated into a moth coming to look like a spider?  There’s really not enough information yet to make a determination.  Some ideas I have rolling around in my head include:  Spiders are predators so perhaps it discourages other small arthropod predators from wanting to eat the moth…but that probably would do nothing to prevent larger invertebrates or vertebrates (lizards, birds, etc) from wanting to eat them.  As I am not familiar with habitat in which this insect evolved I simply cannot say what pressures there have been which could lead to this.

For the moment, I remain skeptical if this is really mimicry or not.  It could just be another instance of humans getting a little excited about cute fuzzy creatures.

Lygodium Spider Moth (Siamusotima aranea, Musotiminae, Crambidae)

For more information on mimicry and natural selection, check out these two sources:

Insect Mimicry

Mathematizing Darwin

I’mma Bee, I’mma Bee, I’mma Bomb Sniffing Bee

Yes the bees!!!  Bees are amazing little creatures.  They do so much for the ecology of the planet.  When I first typed that I wrote “…our planet” but then thought better of it.  The majority of life on this planet is invertebrate.  Ten percent of the terrestrial biomass is termites & ants. There are over 400,000 species of beetles identified to date and more on the way I’m sure.  But when someone mentions they study insects bees are one of the first that will come to mind.  Often people will think of butterflies first but I’ve found that many people seem to store the knowledge that butterflies are insects in a separate part of their brain.  Sort of as if they think something that pretty couldn’t possibly be an insect.  To which I say, “There are THOUSANDS of ‘pretty’ insects that are not butterflies!”

But back to the bees.  In my studies (i.e. watching tv while avoiding actual work) I heard a nifty tidbit of information about Honey Bees.  Yes, we all know about their decline and all of that (and “all of that” is a big can of worms I’ll avoid for now) but there are people who are actually using bees to sniff out bombs and other contraband at airports!  How cool is that!?!  The principles are essentially the same as those we all remember from Dr. Pavlov and his dogs.  The classic Pavlovian response of the dogs when, after a period of training, the dogs were conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell because it had become associated with food (ring bell, dog gets food).

Bees operate quite similarly to the dogs and us for that matter.  By placing the bee in a small container, adding the odor you want it to detect in the box along with some sugar, repeat a few times and soon the bee has the same reaction to that odor as Pavlov’s dogs had to that bell.  They seek out the smell because they associate it with sugar!  A British company (Inscentinel) has conditioned bees to signal not only for explosive residues in suitcases and other luggage, but also in minefields.  According to them they are ‘cheaper to keep and quicker to train then dogs.’

This idea was inspired by the work of Dr. Bitterman in Hawaii back in the 1980’s.  Their research showed at the honey bee would extend their proboscis when their highly sensitive antennae were touched with sugar water.  Some flies have a similar reaction to certain “flavors” coming into contact with their feet (yup, they taste with their feet!)  Dr Bitterman and Co. took this a step further, much like Pavlov and wanted to see if you could associate the an item, in their case peppermint, with the sugar to elicit the same response.  By pairing the peppermint scent with sugar, followed eventually by just the peppermint scent, the bees learned that peppermint was a source of sugar.  And yes, I used the word learned.  These same researchers have recently shown that honey bees are capable of actual learning and have demonstrated as such in a variety of experiments.

So there you have it.  A few more ways how insects are totally amazing.  And now a little about Pavlov’s less well known experiments on cats courtesy of the incomparable Eddie Izzard.

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