Thursday, November 18, 2010

The making of a bee

I had been slowly dying of jealousy ever since my roommate let me try using some of her Prismacolor markers. My sharpie loyalty went right out the window at that moment, and it was only a matter of time before I would get my hands on my own set. Besides, I want to get into some more serious science drawing, and I might as well get some better tools, right?

I could finally justify the purchase recently after making a few sales through Etsy, so here they are! Only went for 72, don't think I'd know what to do with any more than that.

The past few days I have only done small sketches, practicing different patterns and blending. They don't give as much precision as the fine sharpies, so I might still incorporate them for some details, but overall I am in love with the Prismacolor markers.

And here is the result of my first foray into a serious drawing. I took the reference photo myself.
The final photo does not do justice to the color mixing I did in the eyes - I'll take a better photo tomorrow in the sunlight.

Bug Banquet

I'm currently taking a general entomology course... it's helpful to brush up on things and this way I can be in line to TA the course later on. Today during lab, we had a "bug banquet" as we have been learning about the benefits of adding insects to our diets.

On the menu:

-Cricket pizza (crickets baked and seasoned).
-Waxworms and superworms fried in taco sauce.
-Crepes with mashed superworms mixed into the batter (I made those), cricket cranberry bread, and of course fig newtons (can't have figs without fig wasps inside).
-I also made the chocolate covered superworms. Baked them first so they were crunchy.

And the real star of the party... LIVE superworms wrapped in mango slices. Surprisingly a lot of people were game for the live insects, a few people even had more than one. I ate one, gagged a few times, but I held it down. It's not the taste but the textures and feeling it trying to crawl on your tongue. I'd much rather eat some softer insect larvae I think. There is much I could say about the benefits of entomophagy (insect eating) but I think I'll save that for another post (and after I've brushed the cricket tarsi out of my teeth!)


One of my tasks here at the lab is to curate the teaching collection of insects. They are used for entomology related classes, so they aren't the best or most valuable specimens, in fact they are typically procured from student collections.

The curation is no small feat... two tall cabinets of drawers which are full of disintegrating specimens. The specimens themselves are haphazardly strewn about the unit trays, with only a hint of some past organization. Some orders are worse off than others, the Lepidoptera were decent but the Diptera and Hemiptera were a total disaster. I don't think anyone has tried to reorganize these drawers... ever? At least not all in one go.

So I, along with some of the undergrads of the lab, have been tackling the collection one order at a time. Our instructions: throw away broken specimens, or specimens without labels. Straighten out rows of specimens in the trays. Put everything into phylogenetic order. Type up consistent labels for every unit tray, and for the outsides of the drawers.

This is one of the "reject" trays for Diptera, where we were collecting specimens before throwing them out. The insects and labels were all pulled off so we could keep the pins.
Some of the chaos in progress.
It is rather sad to throw away specimens - no one wants a life to go to waste, especially one that was collected and curated with care. But a fly is only so useful to research or teaching if its head is missing, you know? The fact is many specimens are prepared quite poorly, often to an extent that makes them unusable (pinning through the wrong body part, broken wings/legs, using too much glue on points, etc.). And often it is simply the ravages of time and handling that cause fragile insect bodies to fall apart. Some families have very few representatives so those are kept even if they're in bad shape, but hopefully we will be able to collect more. And now that the specimens have been curated, there is indeed room to add more!
Ahhh, completed insect drawers. Feels good. Still a few more orders to go! I hope that now the collection will be treated with more care and be of more use for future students.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Taxonomic fun

One of my favorite insect orders is Mantodea - how could it not be? Praying mantids are charismatic, and easily anthropomorphized. Their raptorial forelegs of course add an air of danger and mystery. This little guy was found in a desert wash in southeastern AZ. I don't know the species, anyone have any ideas?

Now, some people might take issue with the order Mantodea. Taxonomy is a dynamic field, even at higher levels, and insect orders are continually being shuffled around as new research unfolds. Mantids are most closely related to cockroaches (Blattaria) and termites (Isoptera), and the three orders are grouped together into Dictyoptera. Now, this may be considered either a superorder or an order, depending if you're a lumper or a splitter. In turn their closest relatives are the walkingsticks (Phasmida), rockcrawlers (Grylloblattodea) and heelwalkers (Mantophasmatodea).

Taxonomic changes may be frustrating, especially at lower levels - we get very attached to familiar species names, for example. Nomenclature rules are very strict, and only broken for special cases (like when it was found T. rex actually had an earlier name which by the rules would be the correct name, there was a big fight to keep T. rex). In recent news, there has been a debate over the reorganization of the Drosophila genus, of which the famous lab fruit fly is a member. In order to make the least amount of name changes to most accurately organize the flies, several (including D. melanogaster) would be moved into the genus Sophophora. Scientists have been in an uproar - though taxonomy is important for understanding evolutionary relationships, it could cause considerable confusion in the literature. This all was happening in April of this year, and I have yet to find if there was a satisfactory conclusion - ITIS still has D. melanogaster as the valid name, and wikipedia has Sophophora only as a subgenus.

I am fascinated by taxonomy and systematics, I guess that is part of my control-freak nature and desire for organization. My adviser suggested I could describe a new species of moth for independent study credits next semester - I'm going to be all over that!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sewing sewing sewing

Working on some custom orders today. Curtains and sliding doors open, sunshine and fresh cool air, discovery channel on tv, and piles of fluffy fleece fabric! Life couldn't be better (well, at least until tonight, when I'll be working on my term paper).

This is the sewing machine I've been using lately, the Singer Stylist 533. Not the sexiest of my machines, but she's got a zig-zag stitch which is really helpful for details that I don't want to hand sew. Some works in progress.
A reminder that if anyone is interested in a custom order, throw me an email!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Birthday surprise from nature

I celebrated my 22nd birthday while on the Arizona trip this summer. My "gift" from the others was to be dropped off along Cave Creek about half a mile upstream from the research station in order to hike back by myself. It took me somewhat over two hours, and I would have taken longer if it hadn't started to rain. When I told my family and friends about this they were unimpressed, but it was truly a wonderful experience and perfect day.

The sun came and went, meaning it wasn't too hot, but there were bouts of sunlight to attract some beautiful butterfly species to the water banks. I of course flipped every rock and log during my travels, and observed several Mastigoproctus giganteus (vinegaroons), Scolopendra sp. (centipedes), alligator lizards, and other goodies. Unfortunately I did not come across any snakes, but I guess you can't have everything.

My favorite discovery was in a small pool of calm water at the edge of the creek - a male giant water bug, in the family Belostomatidae (Hemiptera). This species, like many in the family, utilizes male parental care as a reproductive strategy. The females lay eggs sequentially on the male's back, and he offers protection until they hatch. The young do not hatch all at once, as they are cannibalistic and would become overcrowded if stuck in a small pool. I brought the father back with me to take some photos. He stayed overnight, and look what I woke up to the next morning! A phenomenon I had been hoping to witness since the moment I learned about it as a child, I got to see baby water bugs hatching from their father's back (I actually only saw their eyes peeking out of the eggs at first, this is about halfway through.) If you notice the pattern of already hatched eggs on his back, they were right on time as the next youngsters scheduled to hatch. The whole process, from egg cracking to complete emergence, took about an hour. The young started out slender and pale yellow; they slowly expanded while their cuticle hardened and darkened.

The happy father and offspring were then released back into the creek.

Aposematic.... or not?

Warning colorations (aposematism) are quite universal in the natural world. Contrasting combinations of red, yellow, orange, white and black = stay away. Think of a coral snake, or a monarch caterpillar. These visual warnings evolved for a variety purposes - unpalatability, chemical defenses, or mimicry of a distasteful species.

So when you come across a painted grasshopper, Dactylotum bicolor, as a potential naive predator and/or biologist, your first instinct may be "Ah-ha! I bet this grasshopper sequesters toxins through its diet and is unpalatable to predators."
You would, however, be wrong. As conspicuous as this species appears out in the open, they are actually quite cryptic when amongst the desert vegetation. Patches of red, pink and orange match the soil and rocks. White areas are highlights, while the dark blues become shadows. Their coloration is not strictly aposematic in the combination and placement of colors, but it is striking to us. For this grasshopper its main defense is not a warning signal, but camouflage in a colorful habitat.

Friday, November 12, 2010

When insects attack

Or rather, when various insects are attracted to mercury vapor lights at night in large numbers.

The Arizona desert is amazingly productive during the summer rainy season. During our trip, one night in particular we were overwhelmed with insects. Mercury vapor lamps (highly attractive to nocturnal insects) and sheets had been set up, and when we checked them a few hours after dark, some of the sheets could hardly be seen!

The photo on the left is me, being "attacked" mostly by sphingids (hawk moths). They flew around the lights at such high speeds, they ran into us with a considerable amount of force. It wasn't just the occasional bump, though, but a constant barrage of flailing and fluttering insect life. Moths of all sizes, beetles, true bugs - many of them finding their way under clothing or into eyes and ears. As much as I love insects and handle them frequently, there was something unnerving about becoming the substrate for dozens of tarsal claws to grip and crawl across.
(One of the insect covered sheets)
Meanwhile, many of the insects themselves were not faring so well. We could see and hear the army of large, vicious carabids (ground beetles) as they approached. With their strong jaws and predatory nature, they devoured any moth unfortunate enough to find itself on the ground. At times we observed three or four carabids fighting over larger specimens.

Through the fracas we managed to accomplish some collecting, and emerged mostly unscathed (at least one blister beetle burn was reported). Multitudes of insects were shaken out of clothing and hair before returning to the vans, and still more were discovered when preparing for bed that night.
(Moths attracted to a mercury vapor light)

While other collecting trips produced impressive displays of invertebrate life, none were quite like that night. I hope to be lucky enough to have this experience again.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It was a dark and stormy evening

Dirt roads winding through an uncharacteristically lush desert landscape. Vans covered in dust and debris. Low hanging clouds washed in pastel hues, transitioning into ominously stern storm vessels. A lingering heaviness in the air, with the threat (reward?) of rain.

Driving precariously along a cliff ledge when - movement. Tires crunching to a halt. Excited door slamming, fumbling for cameras and headlamps. A rumble of thunder in the distance, and then nearer. The subject unaware of the commotion.

A serene yet sinister moment in time, lightning flashes. The calming sunset colors fade, stealing away the last vestiges of daylight. The subject stirs.

Defensive postures do not deter the tourists. Cameras struggle to deal with the stormy evening shades. Shaking lights cause temporary blindness and disorientation. The desire to flee finally resonates. Hands reach forward to wrangle the subject, to create a better pose. Is the threat real? Another lightning flash, and the pregnant clouds release a small sample of their cargo onto the dry earth.

Impatience. The journey must continue. Scrambling, closing doors resonating against the cliff walls. Within moments, nothing but settling dust particles remain. Large droplets stain the road. The subject takes shelter.
(A male Aphonopelma sp. tarantula, which I held for a few moments on the side of the road.)

Beautiful Beetles

Why not start with a bang? Here are my favorite Arizona beetles, and what dashing specimens they are to behold. You should recognize this first species from my banner at the top of the page.
Aptly named the Glorious Beetle, Chrysina gloriosa looks too spectacular to be a real animal. After looking at hundreds of thousands of beetles for a project as an undergrad, I decided that this species was by far my favorite. They were mixed in with tropical species, and I did not pay much attention to the locality label (since it obviously wasn't from Canada)... so I was quite surprised to see several specimens come to a black light our first night in Arizona! A few were still hanging around the next morning, so I of course took as many photos as I could. They have a lot of character to match their metallic sheen. Another beetle deserving of mention is the Hercules beetle, Dynastes granti.
Again, I was ill prepared in terms of what magnificent beetles I would encounter in Arizona. Somehow I did not manage to get any good photos of them in the daylight, but here is one male near the blacklight he was attracted to. While their appearance is impressive, they are quite slow and clumsy. A bit scarier was the Dynastes grub I discovered under a log! I wish I could have kept it to raise into adulthood.

Arizona vignettes

Since I'm sure you're all curious, I thought I would share some of my observations and photos* from the trip I took to Arizona this summer. I'm still amazing by how much wildlife I was able to experience in only one week. I went with my adviser and a bevy of graduate students, professors, researchers, and volunteers. We are planning another trip for next August, and I'm hoping to spend even more time out there. I'm intrigued by the landscape to the point of considering focusing my thesis research on moths of that area.
(On the way to the station from the airport)
We were centered at the Southwestern Research Station in Portal, right in the midst of Cave Creek Canyon. I had actually traveled there once before, on an undergrad field course. It's wonderful to be cool and sheltered in the forest, and then be able to wander off into the nearby desert.

The following are a few teaser photos of the landscape. Stories of the wonderful creatures I encountered are soon to follow, along with some of the adventures undertaken here at my lab so far.
(View near the station)
(Hiking along the highway, looking for caterpillars)
(It was the rainy season)

*A note on photographs. All photos on this blog, unless otherwise noted, are my own and not to be used without permission. Thanks!