03 May, 2016

Rarely seen: the luna moth

The luna moth (Actias luna) is a Saturniid moth, found almost exclusively in North America, where it enjoys its status as one of that region’s largest moths (its wingspan measures up to 114 mm or 4.5”). Following many weeks in the larval and pupa stages, the adult moth emerges from its cocoon as a beautiful, lime-green, delicate-winged creature. Its long, tapering hindwings have eyespots on them in order to confuse potential predators, such as bats. This moth is common—that is, not endangered—but is rarely seen due to its very brief adult life. As with all Saturniidae, the adults do not have mouths and do not eat. Their sole purpose as an adult is to find a mate, procreate, and then die—all in only one week. But what a week that must be!




01 May, 2016

Endangered: The Deepwater Tahoe Stonefly

A stonefly, waiting to be eaten by some cruising fish.

Although I spent many summers in my early youth on the shores of Lake Tahoe, I never encountered the Tahoe Stonefly. Neither had anyone else in those days—not just because it’s found at depths of 200-270 feet (60-80 meters), but it wasn’t even discovered until 1963. Capnia lacustra, now endangered, is only found in Lake Tahoe. It is one of two stonefly species that lives its entire life cycle under water, collecting, shredding, and consuming algae, plant material, and detritus. 

It made the endangered species list due at least in part to “cultural eutrophication,” a form of water pollution that occurs when excessive fertilizers run into lakes and rivers. This encourages the growth of algae and other plants, which cause overcrowding as plants compete for sunlight, space and oxygen. 


Stoneflies performing a little synchronized swimming.
Who loses? The Tahoe Stonefly. You might not think this is a big deal; but Stoneflies are integral and important food web components of most stream ecosystems throughout the world and therefore are almost exclusively beneficial insects. All stone flies are intolerant of water pollution, and their presence in a stream or still water is usually an indicator of good or excellent water quality.  


Sources

Endangered species international
Life in fresh water
What When How: Insects
NW Nature
The endemic deepwater stonefly in Lake Tahoe
Beneficial Bugs


29 April, 2016

Sea Skaters Love Plastic Pollution

Sea skaters have tiny hairs on their legs, which trap air to keep them afloat--even during ocean storms.

Sea skaters or ocean striders (genus Halobates (Hemiptera-Heteroptera, Gerridae) are widespread in tropical oceans--in fact, they spend their entire lives on the open ocean. One sea skater, Halobates sericeus, actually benefits from a modern, monumental environmental disaster: the circling mass of plastic trash and man-made debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. 

Yum! The sea skater loves microplastic.

The Patch is a zone in the northern Pacific Ocean, possibly as large or larger than the State of Texas, where man-made junk has been swept into a set of rotating currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Centuries ago, bits of wood, rock and shells were the only things floating in this zone. This flotsam has since been joined by trash bags, bottles, packaging, and other human detritus. 

It’s not enough that we’ve wrecked our planet’s land masses; we’ve been using our oceans for garbage dumping as well.

About 90 per cent of the trash in the Patch consists of bits of plastic smaller than a fingernail. They’re the remnants of larger pieces, torn apart by the elements. And everything eats them: fish, crustaceans, even filter-feeders like mussels and barnacles. The plastic pieces harm the sea creatures who eat them, and also leach synthetic chemicals into the environment. 

Only one species benefits from this travesty: the sea skater. These insects need hard surfaces on which to lay their eggs, and microplastics provide those in abundance. Between 1972 and 2010 the amount of microplastic in the Garbage Patch increased by two orders of magnitude. Over the same period, the water striders became significantly more abundant. 

I’m not at all sure I’m happy for the sea skater. Are you? 


Sources

Halobates
Insects that Skate on the Ocean Benefit from Plastic Junk
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Vast Quantity Of Plastic Wastes In The Pacific Ocean Rises A Hundred Fold Over Forty Years

27 April, 2016

The Giant Sphinx Moth and the Ghost Orchid


Among the Top 14 of the world's rarest flowers, the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) was once presumed to be extinct. This orchid is only found in certain areas of Florida and Cuba, both underground and on cypress trees, and its strange texture and eerie look provide the reason for such a haunting name. During its short blooming season, the ghost orchid emits fragrant scents used to attract Giant Sphinx Moths, the only known pollinators of this plant. They are experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers that are highly fragrant with long floral tubes concealing pools of thin but abundant nectar. Giant Sphinx moths are likened to super tankers that fly after dark from blossom to blossom. They have the longest tongues of any other moth or butterfly, some up to 14 inches long. 


Sources

Rare Flowers 
Hawk Moths 

09 March, 2016

Moth eyes + science = solar power

When it comes to insects, even so-called pests can play a beneficial role in our environment. Here's an extraordinary example: How the lowly leaf miner moth contributes to alternative energy production.

Friend or foe?
Acrocercops brongniardella, or the leaf miner moth (found throughout Europe and North America), is tiny compared to most common moths. Its wingspan is 8–10 mm, about the size of a small garden pea. While many consider this little insect a pest because of its taste for plant leaves, the structure of its eyes have inspired a new discovery that could boost the efficiency of solar panels. 

Scientists who have studied and mimicked the leaf miner moth's eyes have created  a super tiny texture on silicon (the most common material for solar panels). The  new texture cuts down the amount of light (and potential energy) lost from a traditional solar panel.

The leaf miner moth eye has thousands of tiny posts,
each one ~200 nanometers broad x 70 nanometers high. 

Here's how it works. Moths can see better at night, and their eyes don't glimmer and attract predators. This is because a moth’s compound eyes have textured patterns made up of tiny posts, each one smaller than the wavelength of light. When light hits the moth’s eye, most of it is absorbed and passes into the moth's cornea without disruption. 

More efficient solar panels are based
on moth eye structures.

Scientists are creating "nanotextured" squares of silicon based on these moth's eye structures. When placed on top of an ordinary silicon wafer, the thin film is completely antireflective and once incorporated into the manufacturing process, could soon boost the production of solar energy from silicon solar cells.


Source:
Moth Eyes Inspire Scientists...




27 February, 2016

Another look at the common house fly

A few weeks ago I cautiously wrote a rather optimistic piece about the common house fly

As it turns out, the use of pesticides designed to kill Musca Domestica (and other insects) is actually causing more damage to the ecosystem than the flies themselves. 

Without them, we'd be instantly neck-deep in piles of detritus and dead matter. 

You don't want to know about that, right? 

To offer a respectful nod to the benefits of flies, I thought about elevating Mr. House Fly to the realm of found object art...and this lovely, scary piece manifested itself. I made it from cabinet knobs, wooden handles, wire, cloth, leather and vintage buttons. 

What better way to remind ourselves that insects--including the lowly house fly--are worthy of our utmost and deepest appreciation?



Don't worry...if you hang him from his chain, he won't end up crawling on your food.
Dimensions: 13"L x 5"W x 9"H

23 February, 2016

Of honey bees and humans


Did you know… 

...that one in three bites of food we eat is dependent on honey bees for pollination? 

…that in North America, honey bees pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruits such as almonds, avocados, cranberries and apples?

…that of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees?


Bees and other insects transfer pollen and seeds from one flower to another, fertilizing plants to enable them to grow and produce food. Cross-pollination helps at least 30% of the world’s crops and 90% of its wild plants to thrive. Without bees to spread seeds, many plants—including food crops—would die off.


But the world is fast losing its bee populations. Pathogens, habitat loss and pesticides are causing a condition known as Colony Collapse DisorderIn the last five years alone nearly one-third of all bee colonies in the U.S. have perished.



How can we help save the bees?

One way is to increase the number of bees and other pollinators in your neighborhood by adding plants that provide essential habitat to your garden. I’ve illustrated three of those plants, but you can click here to find a list of 15 plants to consider if you’d like to help save the bees. 


You can also download the BeeSmart app, a guide that helps you select plants for pollinators specific to your area. 

Then visit a native plant nursery to get started!








More information and sources:
Economic Value of Beekeeping in California
NRDC Bee Facts 
Pesticides and bees

21 February, 2016

Entomology Etymology: Bed Bugs

Cimex lectularius, commonly known as the bed bug, is a flea-like true bug that dines on the blood of its hosts (that would be you and me). In prehistoric times, bed bugs absolutely loved our warm caves, and now they love our warm houses and especially our beds and bedding.

I was relieved to know they are only about the size of an apple seed or grain of rice…
if they were much larger, they’d be as terrifying as Godzilla.

As a logophiliac, I find the etymology of the bed bug fascinating. In Medieval Europe, the word bug or bugge originally referred exclusively to bed bug. (In present day, we call many things bugs: it’s the informal moniker not just for other insects, but for microscopic germs, or diseases caused by the germs.) Depending on where you come from, a bed bug could have other names: wall louse, mahogany flat, crimson rambler, chilly billies, heavy dragoon, chinche bug, or redcoat.

No matter what it’s called, this true bug is also a true parasite. That means they are pretty much good for nothing.

Some entomologists say that if an insect is a parasite found exclusively in human dwellings (and not in nature), killing it off will not upset the balance of the ecosystem.

Hmmmm.


Sources



05 February, 2016

The “good vibrations” bug

Treehoppers deserve our utmost respect: they are amazing, beautiful and harmless bugs. They contribute to biodiversity, are gregarious little creatures who play well with other beneficial species, and won’t attempt to invade your house, chew on your plant leaves, or sting you.

They might, however, sing you a little song, if you listen closely.



Umbelligerus perviensis is one of over 3,200 species of treehoppers.
This bug is related to the cicada, but sports rather large,
ornamental head gear that resembles thorns or other shapes. 

The treehopper is friendly with ants, who feed on honeydew the bug produces while sucking tree sap, its main food source. The ants not only clean the treehoppers, but provide protection from predators, too. 

Treehoppers may also make friends with wasps and even geckos, with whom they communicate via small vibrations. The insect uses its muscles in the thorax and abdomen to shake its abdomen—the result is like the sound of a tiny tuning fork.

Click here to hear the sound of a vibrating treehopper


---
Sources

Good Vibrations Key to Insect Communication, Christopher Joyce and Bill McQuay

“Tuning the drum: the mechanical basis for frequency discrimination in a Mediterranean cicada,” Jérôme Sueur et al.