The Future Is Bright, And Getting Brighter

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The future is bright, in one alarming way. Ed Yong explains, in his latest story The Very Hot, Very Hungry Caterpillar (anyone with children or grandchildren, or who has read books to a younger generation will appreciate the title) that climate change will help insects thrive. While that may be interesting for biodiversity it has implications for humans worth considering now, before too late:

Since the dawn of agriculture, humans have been unwillingly nourishing insects by growing plants that they then devour. Their mandibles consume somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of crops produced around the world. And these losses are likely to grow as the world slowly warms.

By looking at how insects will respond to rising temperatures, a team of researchers led by Curtis Deutsch and Joshua Tewksbury have calculated how rice, maize, and wheat—which provide 42 percent of humanity’s calories—will fare as the globe heats up. The results aren’t pretty.

They estimate that the portion of these grains that’s lost to insects will increase by 10 to 25 percent for every extra degree Celsius of warming. Continue reading

Option Bee

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Heidi Younger

The Blue Orchard Bee recently came to our attention thanks to Natalie Boyle. However, it seems the species has some competition as potential saviors of the farming industry.  This article by Catherine M. Allchin,  Honeybees Are Hurting. What Else Can Pollinate Our Food?, illustrates how…

…The dominant pollinator is under siege, straining the business of farming. Now growers are turning to alternative species to help their crops.

Jim Freese grows apples, pears and cherries on 45 acres in the north-central part of this state, on sagebrush-studded land his grandfather bought in 1910.

Walking among trees laden with shiny red cherries, Mr. Freese recalled that four years ago his trees were not producing well and his farm was financially struggling. Like many growers, he had been relying on rented honeybees to pollinate his cherry trees every spring, along with wild bees and other insects.

But that year, spring was expected to be cool. “Honeybees will just sit in the hive in cooler weather,” Mr. Freese said. He needed a way to ensure more flowers would develop into fruit than in the past.

At a horticulture meeting, he learned that blue orchard bees — a native species that doesn’t make honey or live in hives — could be used to supplement honeybee pollination. Blue orchard bees will fly at cooler temperatures.

Mr. Freese bought 12,000 cocoons and set them in his orchard to emerge when the trees bloomed. His investment paid off. “We doubled our cherry production from any previous record year,” he said.

His wife, Sandee Freese, said: “The little bees have been a godsend.”…
Continue reading

The Value Of Pollinating Bees

We love all creatures great and small, even (we try as best we can) the pesky ones. It is not because we are generous, though we hope we are. It is because we see their value. For hopefully obvious reasons, pollinators are our favorite bees. Our lives depend on them. That is why we have featured dozens of stories about them. Thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for this one:

Watch This Native Pollinator Build Her Bee-Jeweled Nest

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A female blue orchard bee forages for nectar and pollen on Phacelia tanacetifolia flowers, also known as blue or purple tansy. Blue orchard bees are solitary bees that help pollinate California’s almond orchards. Josh Cassidy/KQED

While honeybees and their buzzing hives and hyper-fertile queens get all the press for pollinating our food supply, the hard-working blue orchard bee is one of 4,000 bee species native to North America that does its solitary work in relative obscurity. That is, until now.

In the video, you can see how this bee builds its nests, alternating mud and a purple nectar-pollen mixture in hollow, skinny spaces. The blue orchard bees are preparing a purple lunch box of sorts for their offspring so they have food to eat in the tunnel. The blue orchard bees’ work looks more like jewelry or even scoops of trendy ube ice cream than a nest. Continue reading

Why Care About Mosquitoes?

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Thanks to Kendra Pierre-Louis for this explanatory note, which references the article in taking us a step closer to understanding the mystery of mosquitoes’ value to the planet:

The little things that run the polar world

08cli-newsletter-mosquito-superJumbo.jpgAsk just about any human and they’ll tell you that mosquitoes are pests we’d be better off without, especially since some mosquitoes carry deadly diseases. Even many scientists agree: A 2010 article in the journal Nature concluded that a world without mosquitoes would be less itchy and less deadly for us, with few drawbacks for other species, outside of some ecological niches.

One of those niches is the Arctic, where mosquitoes play a bigger role in sustaining the ecosystem but may be threatened by the changing climate, said Lauren E. Culler, a research assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.

“You can collect pollen off of mosquitoes, indicating they may have a role in pollination,” she said. “And we know that they’re also food for other organisms in the food web.” Continue reading

Peacock Spiders!

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New peacock spider species filmed in Western Australia – video

Thanks to the Guardian for this reminder that nature is generous, bestowing vibrant colors in the most unexpected places:

Biologist Jürgen Otto and colleagues have named two species of the extraordinarily colourful dancing spiders

Spider2.jpgIt is only a few millimetres in size, performs a dance as part of a courtship ritual and has striking coloured markings on its back that “look like a pharaoh’s headdress”.

But when biologist Jürgen Otto first spotted the peacock spider species he has named Maratus unicup, he didn’t immediately recognise how special it was.

Join The Butterfly Count

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Sir David Attenborough launching the Big Butterfly Count in July 2017. Photograph: Butterfly Conservation/PA

Thanks to the Guardian for bringing this to our attention:

Sir David Attenborough urges British public to join butterfly count

Veteran broadcaster encourages people to take part in Big Butterfly Count and highlights mental health benefits of wildlife

Watching nature provides “precious breathing space” from the stress of modern life, Sir David Attenborough has said, as he urges people to take part in the world’s biggest butterfly count.

While the UK’s butterflies are basking in the best summer conditions in more than a decade, if the hot weather becomes a drought it could be catastrophic for the insects as plants wither and caterpillars starve.

The public are being encouraged to take part in the Big Butterfly Count over the next three weeks to help experts see how butterflies are faring and to enjoy the mental health benefits of watching wildlife. Continue reading

Insects, Underappreciated Often-Charismatic Fauna

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This article by Robin McKie, Observer science editor, will have you thinking differently about what are often called the pests of summer:

Where have all our insects gone?

There is a crisis in the countryside – and a massive decline in insect numbers could have significant consequences for the environment

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A great yellow bumblebee. Its numbers have declined steeply in recent years. Photograph: Alamy

When Simon Leather was a student in the 1970s, he took a summer job as a postman and delivered mail to the villages of Kirk Hammerton and Green Hammerton in North Yorkshire. He recalls his early morning walks through its lanes, past the porches of houses on his round. At virtually every home, he saw the same picture: windows plastered with tiger moths that had been attracted by lights the previous night and were still clinging to the glass. “It was quite a sight,” says Leather, who is now a professor of entomology at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. Continue reading

Not Pretty, But Pretty Amazing

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A surprising reproductive strategy could help to explain how stick insects—which are eaten by birds and don’t lay a lot of eggs—have managed to persist from generation to generation. Photograph by Education Images / UIG via Getty

Another day, another short-form wonder, thanks to Alan Burdick. His pieces are short, but to the point on topics we care about on this platform:

Why Stick Insects Might Be Into Birds Eating Their Kids

Stick insects make a certain amount of sense, evolutionarily speaking. They look like sticks, or twigs, or leaves; thus camouflaged, they presumably have a better chance of avoiding predators, reproducing, and passing on their stick-resemblance genes to their offspring. Except that birds still eat them, a lot. Stick insects don’t run fast, most don’t fly, and the females typically don’t lay eggs in large numbers. So there’s a mystery: How do they manage to persist from generation to generation? Why, having managed to exist, do they continue to do so? Continue reading

Butterflies Bear Bucolic Benefits

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Milkweed was first mentioned in these pages  so long ago I had forgotten their importance to Monarch butterflies, a seemingly perennial topic for our contributors. So thanks to Margaret Renkl for keeping that tradition going in her Monday op-ed, and reminding us in the process that while it is not all good news out there, it is also not all bad news:

Monarchs in My Garden, at Last

NASHVILLE — I was pretty proud of myself the spring I planted my first organic garden. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a first-year graduate student in creative writing, a program entirely unrelated to horticultural mastery. But I had taken a college course in environmental biology, and I knew the basics: The more chemicals you use in a garden, the more chemicals you’ll need in the garden. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, more reliable than the seasons.

At my house, companion planting — marigolds in between the broccoli, tomato vines encircling the spinach — would repel bugs the natural way. Any lingering pests would be dispatched by beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises. One evening I watched happily as cabbage white butterflies flitted over silvery broccoli leaves. Those little white butterflies pausing in the gloaming on the water-beaded broccoli made for a tableau of bucolic harmony. Continue reading

Evolution Never Fails To Surprise

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Kauai, Hawaii. Suzanne Cummings / Getty Images

We never think of evolution as particularly predictable. Surprising, yes. Awesome, yes. Predictable? Well, we love science for that reason, but still do not associate evolution with predictability. Thanks to Ed Yong, who enjoys making provocative statements that draw his reader in, for making evolution surprising in a new way:

Hawaii: Where Evolution Can Be Surprisingly Predictable

On each Hawaiian island, stick spiders have evolved into the same basic forms—gold, white, and dark. It’s a stunning example of how predictable evolution can be.

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Examples of white, dark, and gold species of stick spiders on various Hawaiian island. The top-left species is the most ancestral of them all. (Rosemary Gillespie et al.)

Most people go to Hawaii for the golden beaches, the turquoise seas, or the stunning weather. Rosemary Gillespie went for the spiders.

Situated around 2,400 miles from the nearest continent, the Hawaiian Islands are about as remote as it’s possible for islands to be. In the last 5 million years, they’ve been repeatedly colonized by far-traveling animals, which then diversified into dozens of new species. Honeycreeper birds, fruit flies, carnivorous caterpillars … all of these creatures reached Hawaii, and evolved into wondrous arrays of unique forms. Continue reading

Lepidopterist’s Treasure

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Heterosphecia tawonoides puddling on a dry leaf washed out by the river. Photograph: Courtesy of Marta A. Skowron Volponi

Thanks to the Guardian for sharing this bit of good news:

Lost species of bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

The rare oriental blue clearwing, that disguises itself as a bee, was spotted in the Malaysian rainforest

A moth that disguises itself as a bee and was previously only identified by a single damaged specimen collected in 1887 has been rediscovered in the Malaysian rainforest by a lepidopterist from Poland.

The oriental blue clearwing (Heterosphecia tawonoides) was seen “mud-puddling” – collecting salts and minerals from damp areas with its tongue-like proboscis – on the banks of a river in Malaysia’s lowland rainforest, one of the most wildlife-rich – and threatened – regions on Earth. Continue reading

Entomological Society Krefeld, Citizen Scientists Making A Difference

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Thomas Hörren, a member of the Entomological Society Krefeld, collecting beetles from a soil sample. CreditGordon Welters for The New York Times

Thanks to Sally McGrane for this important article:

KREFELD, Germany — In a nature preserve in western Germany, an elderly gentleman approached a tent-like structure that was in fact a large trap for flying insects. Peering through thick eyeglasses, the 75-year-old retired chemist checked the plastic bottle attached at the top, filled with alcohol and bugs.

Then, with a glance at the clear, late-autumn sky, the man, Heinz Schwan, recalled comparing a 2013 haul from a trap like this one to samples taken in the same place some 20 years earlier. The drop was huge: “75 percent,” Mr. Schwan, a caterpillar lover, said.

Alarmed, the group of local insect enthusiasts Mr. Schwan is co-chairman of ran similar tests in different locations the next year. And the next year. And the next. Continue reading

Ant-Hunting Dogs

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Kyren Zimmerman and Tobias — a Labrador retriever who specializes in sniffing out the invasive Argentine ant — on Santa Cruz Island, in the Channel Islands National Park. Credit Gary Andrew/The Nature Conservancy

Ants are the masters of the planet we live on. There is no escaping that. But if these dogs can protect us from some of the more sinister ants, we have these trainers to thank:

A Very Good Dog Hunts Very Bad Ants

Tobias is a Labrador retriever with one job: sniffing out invasive Argentine ants wherever they hide. He’s really good at it, and with his help, a fragile island ecosystem may be spared a repeat inundation with the pests.

Santa Cruz Island is 25 miles off the coast of Southern California, part of Channel Islands National Park. The island’s rich, rugged environment — which includes more than 1,000 kinds of plants and animals, including the bald eagle and the island fox — is threatened by Argentine ants, one of the world’s most successful and wily invasive species. Continue reading

Thanks, Trees

A female tree lobster specimen. Scientists have learned that the Ball’s Pyramid stick insect and the Lord Howe stick insect are variations of the same species. CreditRohan Cleave/Melbourne Zoo, Australia

Thanks to Joanna Klein and the Science section of the New York Times:

A Stick Insect. A Tree Lobster. Whatever You Call It, It’s Not Extinct

A genetic analysis showed that a stick insect found on another island was the same species as one that had been wiped out by rats on Australia’s Lord Howe Island.

The tree lobster, one of the rarest insects on Earth, has lived a rather twisted life story.

Scientifically known as Dryococelus australis, this six-inch-long stick bug with a lobster-esque exoskeleton once occupied Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. Continue reading

Know The Glow Of Worms & Caves

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A cave of glowworms

It has been quite some time since we linked out to an Ed Yong story, and title notwithstanding this is as good as they come:

The Most Beautiful Death Trap

The ethereal allure of a cave full of glowworms masks a sinister purpose and a weird origin story.

At first, they look like stars. I see them as I gaze upward at the ceiling of a flooded, pitch-black cave—hundreds of blue pinpricks. As my eyes habituate to the darkness, more and more of them resolve, and I see that they are brighter and more densely packed than any starry field. And unlike the night sky, these lights don’t appear as a flat canvas, but as a textured one. Some are clearly closer to us than others and they move relative to each other, so the whole tableau seems to undulate gently as our boat sails beneath it. These lights are not astrological, but entomological. They are produced by insects called glowworms. Continue reading

Respect For The Praying Mantis

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A praying mantis outfitted with 3-D glasses during an experiment to determine whether the insects see in three dimensions. The conclusion: absolutely. Credit Newcastle University

Catching the Entomology Bug

Sophia Spencer and Morgan Jackson co-wrote a scientific paper on Twitter, entomology and women in science, after a tweet about Sophia’s love for bugs went viral

It’s good to find an inspiring story highlighting a child’s interest in scientific exploration and the support of parents and the entomological community to foster that passion. Thanks to NPR for bringing it to our attention.

Once Teased For Her Love Of Bugs, 8-Year-Old Co-Authors Scientific Paper

Sophia Spencer, 8, loves bugs — especially grasshoppers. She’s an expert on insects, and likes to give her littlest friends an occasional ride on her shoulder.

That used to earn her mockery from her peers. But now it’s earned her a massive outpouring of support — and a byline in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

Everything changed after Sophia’s mom, Nicole Spencer, reached out to scientists for support last year.

She wrote to the Entomological Society of Canada and explained the dilemma. Her daughter wanted to know if she could learn more about bugs as a job, but her mom wasn’t sure how to encourage her. And she wanted to reassure her that her entomological enthusiasm wasn’t weird.

Mission accomplished. Continue reading

Scotland, Land Of Butterfly Resurgence

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For a second day in a row, a butterfly story catches our attention. Small stories of unexpected good fortune are always welcome:

Rare butterfly spotted in Scotland for the first time since 1884

Elusive and endangered white-letter hairstreak discovered in a field in the Scottish borders could become the 34th species to live and breed in the country Continue reading

A Highway For Monarchs

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Interstate 35, which stretches from Minnesota to Mexico, lies in the heart of the monarchs’ migration route.

Thanks to Janet Marinelli and the team at YaleEnvironment360:

Can the Monarch Highway Help Save a Butterfly Under Siege?

The population of North American monarch butterflies has plummeted from 1 billion to 33 million in just two decades. Now, a project is underway to revive the monarch by making an interstate highway the backbone of efforts to restore its dwindling habitat. Continue reading