Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Being Thankful for Bugs

This is a repost from November 28, 2014, but it still applies today; and not just for the American holiday of Thanksgiving, but for every day in every location on the globe. Life as we know it would not be possible without insects and their kin.


----------

A couple days ago the following post crossed my Facebook newsfeed, and it is an excellent reminder of why insects and other arthropods are so important to us as human beings, and to the planet Earth as well.

Honeybee pollinating flower in Arizona
"Thanksgiving is tomorrow …and we all have much to be thankful for. But don’t forget to thank our pollinating friends (bees, beetles and a host of other critters) that provide 1 out of every 3 mouthfuls of food and drink we consume. Without them, and the invaluable service they provide, our lives and our world would be drastically different. Happy Thanksgiving!"

Ecosystem Services

Beyond pollination, insects and related invertebrates furnish many other "ecosystem services" that we can't easily put an economic price on. They are responsible for seed dispersal in many plants. They are at the front lines in the decomposition process for all organic matter be it animal or vegetable. Their activities aerate and mix the soil. They serve as the basis of the food chain, feeding other invertebrates and many vertebrates from fish to birds to bats to aardvarks and anteaters.

Dung beetle pair rolling dung ball in Kansas

A scientific article was published in 2006 in the journal Bioscience that attempted to quantify just four of these ecosystem services: pollination, pest control in croplands, waste (dung) removal on rangeland, and food for wildlife (recreational hunting, fishing, birdwatching, etc). The carefully calculated estimate of the value insects thus provide, in the United States alone, was a staggering sixty billion dollars ($60,000,000,000).

Golden-winged Skimmer dragonfly in Georgia
Watchable Wildlife

Insects are quickly becoming "watchable wildlife" in their own right. Countless field guides and online resources cater to those who enjoy observing butterflies, dragonflies, moths, tiger beetles, and nocturnal "singing insects" like katydids and crickets. What will the next craze be? It is clear that these communal passions are not only sustaining themselves, but actually growing in popularity, as witnessed by the explosion of National Moth Week, for example. There are festivals for everything from butterflies to bees, even mosquitoes (in Paisley, Oregon).

Drosophila "fruit fly" in Colorado
Research and Medicine

Insects and other arthropods are also used extensively in scientific research and medicine. We owe much of our knowledge of genetics to research conducted on "fruit flies" (Drosophila spp.) and flour beetles (Tribolium spp.). Fly larvae are used to clean wounds because they carefully avoid living tissue while secreting fluids with antibiotic properties. Many patients with joint inflammation and diseases swear by "bee venom therapy," even though it may be relegated to the category of alternative medicine by the healthcare establishment. Spider, scorpion, and insect venoms continue to yield promising derivative compounds. Some fireflies produce chemicals that show promise in fighting herpes.

Paper wasp nest in Cape May, New Jersey
Art, science, and inspiration

Many people find inspiration in the world of insects. We owe the invention of paper to ancient peoples in Asia who observed paper wasps constructing their nests of chewed wood and plant fibers. We continue to refine the performance of our aircraft thanks to experiments on, and observation of, insect flight. Insects are being enlisted in the fight against terrorism because of their acute chemo-tactile senses that far exceed our own abilities to detect harmful substances and agents; and their small size that allows them access to the most remote cracks, crevices, and other cavities. Artists are endlessly inspired by the beauty, colors, and patterns of insects.

Cochineal scale insects on cactus, Colorado
Raw Materials

Lastly, insects and their kin provide us with many invaluable raw materials and products. Silkworms and spiders produce silk with different properties of strength, durability, and elasticity, often exceeding the quality of synthetic fabrics. Honeybees produce honey, and beeswax. Cochineal scale insects produce organic scarlet dye, and the lac scale insect yields shellac. Many cultures also consider insects themselves as a staple food source, a practice known as "entomophagy" that is steadily gaining favor in modern western cultures.

Tiny gall wasp (Cynipidae) I found yesterday, Colorado
Personally....

Personally, I value insects and arachnids as an endless source of fascination. Their physical diversity is mind-boggling. The behaviors they engage in are amazing. You can find them anywhere and everywhere, even inside your own home in the middle of a cold winter. Their stories demand telling, and I feel honored and privileged to have a modicum of ability to bring them to life for others.

What is it about "bugs" that you are thankful for? I encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings here.

Source: I wish to thank the Missoula Butterfly House and Insectarium for sharing the quote at the top of this post. Please visit their website, donate if you are able, and "like" them on Facebook. Thank you.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Ok, Save Some Bugs

A couple weeks ago I ran a post suggesting that efforts to save individual insects often is a waste of time, or at least was a misplaced investment of one's energies. Thanks to thoughtful and polite comments here and in social media, it is clear that some clarification is in order, and some exceptions, perhaps.

Go ahead and save the Monarchs....

I will stand by my assertion that rescuing individual insects is largely an ineffective strategy; but I would be a lot less animated about it were it not for this persistent notion that we can choose which species are worthy of salvation. That is not how Nature works. At the level of ecosystems and the biosphere, we have to save everybody (read "species") in order to save anybody. Recent news reports like this one in the New York Times, citing scientific studies, point to that very fact.

....but then save the Milkweed Bugs, too....

A perfect case making my point for the wrong way to act is the person who plants milkweed in their garden and then insists it be for "pollinators and Monarchs only." Therefore, competing milkweed bugs and milkweed beetles must be banished, killed on sight in fact. Really? Look at a wild stand of milkweed and you will see an entire ecosystem of pollinators, herbivores, predators, and parasites functioning exactly as they should, complementing each other's roles, with adequate survivorship of all parties. Listen, if you have a full complement of players in your yard's milkweed patch, then you are doing everything right! Relax. Neglect is often the best thing you can do once you get a native plant garden going.

....and also the Milkweed Beetles

We need more people to stand up for species that are "ugly," suffer from stereotypes and slander in the media, or languish in obscurity. It is those behind-the-scenes species that are doing the real work of keeping the biosphere spinning. Were it not for dung beetles and termites, we would already be buried by debris and animal waste at a scale that bacteria could not begin to attack. The processes of decay would be halted.

Dung beetles are a vital natural clean-up crew

Insects are the foundation of the food web, without which all other organisms would perish in a domino effect. If you like to fish, then you need aquatic insects. If you are a birder, you can thank virtually all insects for feeding our fine feathered friends.

The point is that all organisms have value, though it may not be obvious, or directly relevant to your everyday life. Our own species has been shaped over the eons by our interactions with other forms of life, and that will always be the case. It can continue to be a positive thing, if we keep all the pieces, or an apocalyptic disaster if we continue in our hubris as a species that we know best how to manage the wild world.

Grasshoppers and other insects feed the birds!

Even if you only value organisms for what they can do for us, nobody knows if the next miracle medicine could come from some beast we currently loathe. Increasingly, bioprospecting for pharmaceuticals has revealed just how rich the insect world is in chemical compounds that might one day cure our worst ills. We do not know what potential we are losing when we pave over, plow under, and deforest natural ecosystems.

You want to save something, hands on? Volunteer for your state or local wildlife agencies, zoos, and other institutions that are trying to resurrect truly endangered species like the American Burying Beetle, Salt Creek Tiger Beetle, Karner Blue butterfly, and other imperiled species you probably have never heard of. Their populations are at such a low level that saving individual specimens really is critical.

Even yellowjackets are valuable pollinators, and predators of pests

The late, great entomologist Howard Evans wrote in his classic book Life on a Little Known Planet: "I happen to like yellowjackets; do I not have a right to yellowjackets if my neighbor has a right to a cat?" He continues "If freedom means anything at all, it means the right to choose one's environment and one's friends." Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to choose wisely.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Another Viral Moth Video....

In service to my colleagues who have waning patience as they are bombarded with the latest social media sensation, I offer this explanation to the moth with the "tentacles" coming out of its posterior. Here is the circulating image, but there is also a video that is associated with most Facebook posts.

© "Gandik" via Facebook

Ok, first things first. This moth is Creatonotos gangis, an arctiine (tiger) moth from southeast Asia and Australia. The specimen shown is a male. He is everting his androconial glands or coremata (Greek for "feather duster"). The glands are normally concealed within his body, and are inflated at will by air pressure or blood pressure. Less dramatic versions of these organs are known as "hair pencils." Usually concealed within his abdomen, the coremata are deployed when he is seeking acceptance by a mate.

Male pyralid moth deploying his "hair pencils" © Nicky Bay

Wait, you thought female insects were the ones using pheromones (scents used mostly to attract the opposite gender, but with other functions, too, especially in social insects)? Well, me, too, so I did a little digging. Turns out that the male's sexual chemicals are not meant for long-distance attraction of females, but to communicate his "fitness" as a mate. So, the products of androconial glands have been likened to aphrodisiacs, tranquilizers, or narcotics, aimed at seducing the female. Ok, but how? It is a long story....

© David Rentz via Joanie Mars on Facebook

As caterpillars, many tiger moths (subfamily Arctiinae of the owlet moth family Erebidae) feed on toxic plants. Milkweed is a good example. The plant is packed full of cardiac glycosides, potent poisons intended to discourage herbivores, including caterpillars, from consuming it. Not only are some caterpillars able to overcome the toxicity, they incorporate it into their own bodies to make themselves toxic to their predators. This is called sequestering, and the commandeered poison stays with the insect throughout metamorphosis and into adulthood. One of the byproducts in male moths is the pheromone emanating from those androconial glands. He thus demonstrates to the female that he is genetically superior based on a greater quantity of accumulated toxins that she can then pass on to her offspring.

Our common U.S. Acrea Moth everting his glands © Rosella Flores

This is a relatively dry explanation of these remarkable structures in male tiger moths. You owe it to yourself to be better entertained and further enlightened by an article in Wired magazine by my good friend and colleague Gwen Pearson. Even the graphics are better, and a GIF has never been funnier, at least in the context of entomology.

Close-up of male Acrea Moth glands © openi.nlm.nih.gov

So, far from "terrifying" as a similar viral graphic was labeled in a headline from Huffpost, these glands are an amazing example of evolution, just like elk antlers and other male adornments. Please share the fascination, without the sensationalism. Thank you.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Saving the World One "Bug" at a Time?

Increasingly, thanks to social media, I am struck by how many people attempt to save individual insects they find injured or lethargic. On one hand this empathy for other life forms is encouraging, but on the other hand the energy investment is grossly misplaced.

© Youtube.com

The problem is that the media has painted honey bees and Monarch butterflies in particular as highly vulnerable if not on the brink of extinction. The implied message is that every individual of these species needs protection in every way possible! Consequently, people spend more time "rescuing" individual specimens than in protecting or creating habitat, working to curb pesticide use in their community, or engaging in other strategies that would have a far greater impact on improving the health of the entire species.

Another problem is that most people are not knowledgeable enough to recognize when a given insect really is in trouble. The wrong assessment happens over and over with bees in particular. Bees often become inactive when it gets too cold for them. They rest on whatever object is available and often this is a more conspicuous spot than normal. A good Samaritan human believes the insect is in peril and needs the equivalent of a sugar-water IV, stat! No, it does not.

Further, in late summer and fall, chances are you are saving a male bee, which is even less useful. Male bees live a short life in which their only purpose is to mate with a female. They do not possess pollen baskets, so are less effective pollinators than female bees.

Another aspect of life that we forget is that insects, like any organism, are prone to developmental problems that cannot be overcome. Improper emergence from a chrysalis will leave a butterfly crippled beyond repair. It happens. Insects reproduce in large numbers to overcome those deficits. Insects are incredibly durable once they mature, and losing half a wing barely slows down a butterfly or a bee. We should be in awe as much, if not more, than in sympathy, let alone pity.

Ok, so last month my wife and I were on vacation in Cape May, New Jersey, and we happened upon a Monarch trapped in a spider web. We intervened. It was a quick fix, simply disentangling the insect and sending it on its way. The whole investment was maybe forty seconds. We understood the insect could collide with a vehicle later that same day. Our expectations for the survival of individual insects are low, given our knowledge of their biology.

Contrast that example with an online video that shows how to mend a broken wing on a Monarch. More than a few such organizations have exploited the "sky is falling" scenarios centered on the Monarch, and one has to question the motives of some of them. Yes, older, established conservation organizations use overly alarming narratives, too, but the best ones measure their tone and can point to historic successes in legislation and habitat protection.

You want to curb insect mortality? Then give up driving. For every insect you nurse back to health, you kill dozens, if not hundreds in the course of operating your motor vehicle. Even bicyclists take their toll. I have seen countless insects mortally wounded, or crushed, on bike paths.

Basically, insects are better served by actions aimed at enhancing habitat health, and planting native vegetation in the landscape of your own property where you are able. Tear out the lawn, or most of it, and do your best to mimic the natural ecosystem where you live. Want to go a step farther? Start a dialogue with city and county officials to restructure weed ordinances and other codes that currently restrict the ability of homeowners to plant for wildlife. Educate your homeowners association to make those communities more wildlife-friendly without compromising safety and property values.

Also, stop insisting that one species is somehow more worthy of our attention than any other. Stop categorizing insects as "friend" or "foe." Such distinctions do not apply to the overwhelming majority of life on this planet.

Be proud of yourself for having empathy for other living things; but, channel that into something that will make a difference beyond the individual insect or arachnid. Do intervene for birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, all of which have far longer lifespans than invertebrates, but make sure you do it legally and correctly. Carry on.