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We stand on the shoulders of giants: Reflections by a midget


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Guest post by Staffan Lindgren

On a rainy, blustery day I am sitting in my new home in Nanaimo, BC, and thinking about my professional career, which is about to come to an end in the next few weeks, at least officially. I have been doing a fair bit of reading lately, and the last 2 books have been by and about Charles Darwin. Both are books I probably should have read a long time ago. The first book was Darwin’s “The voyage of the Beagle”, which is essentially a travel diary of the four-year journey Darwin took as a young man. The second book was “Darwin and the barnacle”, by Rebecca Stott, which is about Darwin’s struggles to formulate his Magnus OpusOn the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, which essentially changed biological sciences, and perhaps society, forever. The “Voyage” gave me an appreciation of the incredible breadth of knowledge that Darwin acquired. Much of the book deals with geology and the effects of seismic activity on the environment rather than the biological focus I had expected. Stott’s book is a somewhat fictionalized portrait of Darwin’s life in the period between his return from the Beagle voyage and the publication of his final of a four volume monograph on the barnacles (Cirripedia). The book is largely based on correspondence and publications, and luckily Darwin seems to have recorded pretty much everything he did, although Darwin’s actions and thoughts may have been embellished somewhat by the Stott’s imagination. For me, it worked quite well, though. I felt as if I got to know the man much better, and particularly I felt that I got an appreciation of the monumental barriers that Darwin overcame, both because of the rather crude technology available to him (fairly rudimentary microscopes, correspondence by “snail mail” etc.), and his poor health.  I was amazed to find out that he suffered from sea sickness during his voyage on the Beagle, and anyone who knows what that is like (I have been lucky, but have been close enough a couple of times) would perhaps understand how difficult it would be to work productively while sea sick, let alone in the cramped quarters on the ship. Darwin’s “lab” was in the “poop cabin”, which conures up some interesting images for us landlubbers, but actually only refers to the cabin in the elevated “poop deck” at the front of a ship”. Darwin also had bouts of illness during his voyage, but most notable he suffered chronic problems after his voyage. This may have been due to Chagas’ disease, which was unknown at the time.  During a trip across the Cordillera (he made numerous such excursions during his voyage), Darwin describes a night spent in Luxan (now Luján de Cuyo), in the western Mendoza Province, as follows: “At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas” .  Chagas’ disease is widespread in that area.

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Scientists back then were either independently wealthy, like Darwin, or employed as clergymen or physicians, or more rarely as lecturers at universities. Linnaeus for example, was a physician as well as a naturalist. It has always been my assumption that this allowed them virtually endless amounts of time. Darwin, however, spent only 2-3 hours a day on his barnacles due to a rigorous water cure he used to overcome his illness. In spite of this, he published rather prolifically on geology, volcanoes, coral reefs, plants, domestic animals and humans. In the title I refer to myself as a midget, and after reading about Darwin I really do feel rather insignificant!

I enjoy retrospective mind-journeys. Another scientist that I have a particular interest in was one of Linnaeus disciples, Daniel Solander. His name rarely surfaces, however, because he did not publish his work for various reasons (apparently in large part in deference to his friend and financier Joseph Banks, but also because he died of a stroke at age 49). He is of particular interest to me because he grew up about 6 km from where I grew up in a small town in northern Sweden, so it is likely that I spent my naturalist beginnings in the same areas that he did. He was a naturalist on James Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour, and was therefore one of the first scientists to see the odd marsupials of Australia, for example.

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Science today is very different. Naturalists, systematists and taxonomists, which is what old-school scientists were, are not valued the way they were even as late as the mid-20th Century. Our publications tend to be short and to the point, lacking the wonderful context that older literature often provides. Looking at the publications of my entomology professor, Bertil Kullenberg, who was active into the mid-1990’s, it is striking how often the title includes “Observations on…”, “Studies on…”, or something similar, particularly early on. Of course, if current publications were as prosaic as they were back then, the task of keeping up would be even more daunting with hundreds or thousands of papers published on the most important (to humans) taxa. But perhaps they would be more enjoyable to read?

With the processing power of present day computers, we can now do in seconds what would take weeks or months in the past, if it was possible at all. One aspect of science (specifically entomology in my experience) that remains constant today is the camaraderie among scientists. Darwin understood the importance of networking, and depended to a large extent on his friends and colleagues for specimens, reviews, and discussion: “if a person wants to ascertain how much true kindness exists amongst the disciples of Natural History, he should undertake, as I have done, a monograph on some tribe of animals, and let his wish for assistance be known.”  To me, it is gratifying that one of the greatest minds of science, also appears to have been a genuinely kind and considerate person. That is something I admire greatly, and as I look back at my own rather modest career (particularly in light of giants like Charles Darwin) it is the friendships with colleagues that I value the most. A most appropriate reflection as the holiday season approaches. Happy holidays everyone!

Sources

Darwin, C. 1962. The Voyage of the Beagle. Natural History Library edition, edited by Leonard Engel.

Stott, Rebecca. 2003. Darwin and the Barnacle. W.W. Norton & Co., New York

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Travel awards for ICE 2016 in Orlando

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Remember: Florida insects are awesome! Here is Oncometopia nigricans, a beautiful leafhopper!

 

OK all you students and early career professionals, the time to apply for travel funding for the 2016 ICE conference in Orlando is running out! Apply for these awards! I have copied the text (both English and French) of the instructions to apply below, but if you prefer to download….

Here are the application instructions in English

et voici les instructions d’application en francais

Entomological Society of Canada Travel Awards for the 2016 XXV International Congress of Entomology

 

The 2016 Entomological Society of Canada (ESC) meeting will be held in conjunction with the International Congress of Entomology (ICE) in Orlando, Florida, from September 25-30, 2016. Thanks to the generous support of Enterra Feed Corporation and Dow Agrosciences Canada the ESC is offering 14 cash awards of $750 to provide financial assistance for students and early professionals to travel to ICE 2016.

 

Eligibility:

  1. The competition for the ESC ICE Travel Awards is open to students in a graduate program at a Canadian university, and to early professionals. Early professional membership applies to persons within 3 years (based on the calendar year) of graduation from their highest educational degree. Awardees must be members in good standing (dues paid) of the ESC at the time the award is given.
  2. Graduate students or early professionals must present a paper or a poster at ICE 2016 on their own original research.
  3. Individuals can accept either the ESC ICE travel award or an ESA STEP travel award (which will be announced around Dec. 1st 2015).

 

Deadline: December 21st 2015

 

Applications to be submitted by email to: jsc21@sfu.ca with the following in the subject line – Your last name and ICE 2016. The application must contain the following 3 documents in this order and be in a single pdf file. Any applications not meeting this format will not be reviewed

 

Applications will be evaluated on:

 

  1. A short Curriculum Vitae (no more than 2 pages), that includes contact information, education, employment history, the most relevant publications, presentations, awards, grants and scholarships, other activities, outreach and service.

 

  1. A one-page statement of significance which describes the scope and importance of the work to be presented and how attending the meeting will benefit the applicant.

 

  1. Details of estimated costs for ICE 2016, indicating other sources of funding, either confirmed or applied for.

 

  1. In addition, arrange for a one-page letter of recommendation from your supervisor or a faculty member who is familiar with your research to be emailed to jsc21@sfu.ca with your name in the subject line. This should also be a pdf.

 

Applications will be reviewed by the Students Awards Committee of the ESC. Winners will be notified by mid-January (i.e. before the deadline for abstracts).

 

 

Bourses de voyage de la Société d’entomologie du Canada pour le XXV International Congress of Entomology 2016

 

La réunion annuelle 2016 de la Société d’entomologie du Canada (SEC) se tiendra en concomitance avec l’International Congress of Entomology (ICE) à Orlando, Floride, du 25 au 30 septembre 2016.  Grâce au soutien généreux d’Enterra Feed Corporation et de Dow Agrosciences Canada, la SEC offre 14 bourses en argent de 750$ pour fournir une aide financière aux étudiants et jeunes professionnels pour se rendre à l’ICE 2016.

 

Éligibilité :

  1. La compétition pour les bourses de voyage SEC ICE est ouverte aux étudiants dans un programme de cycle supérieur dans une université canadienne et aux jeunes professionnels. La catégorie de membre jeune professionnel s’applique aux gens ayant gradués de leur plus haut diplôme il y a moins de 3 ans (selon l’année de calendrier). Les récipiendaires doivent être membres en règle (frais d’adhésion payés) de la SEC au moment où la bourse est remise.
  2. Les étudiants gradués ou jeunes professionnels doivent présenter un oral ou une affiche lors de l’ICE 2016 sur leurs propres recherches originales.
  3. Les individus peuvent accepter la bourse de voyage SEC ICE ou une bourse de voyage ESA STEP (qui sera annoncée autour du 1er décembre 2015).

 

Date limite : 21 décembre 2015

 

Les applications doivent être soumises par courriel à jsc21@sfu.ca avec pour objet – Votre nom de famille et ICE 2016. L’application doit contenir les 3 documents suivants dans cet ordre et dans un seul fichier pdf. Toute application ne rencontrant pas ce format ne sera pas évaluée.

 

Les candidatures seront évaluées sur :

 

  1. Un court Curriculum Vitae (pas plus de 2 pages) incluant les informations de contact, l’éducation, l’historique d’emploi, les publications les plus pertinentes, les présentations, les prix, subventions et bourses, les autres activités, la diffusion et les services.

 

  1. Une déclaration de valeur d’une page décrivant la portée et l’importance du travail qui sera présenté et de la façon dont la participation à la réunion sera bénéfique pour le candidat.

 

  1. Un estimé détaillé des coûts pour l’ICE 2016, indiquant les autres sources de financement, confirmées ou demandées.

 

  1. Vous devez vous assurer qu’une lettre de recommandation d’une page de votre directeur ou d’un membre du département qui est familier avec votre recherche soit envoyée à jsc21@sfu.ca avec votre nom dans l’objet. Ce document doit être en pdf.

 

Les candidatures seront évaluées par le comité des prix étudiants de la SEC. Les gagnants seront avisés au plus tard mi-janvier (i.e. avant la date limite de soumission des résumés).

 

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The joys of insects at dawn

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When is the last time you got up at dawn to see some insects? Never? Well let me tell you, it is an absolutely fabulous time to get out and see what is really happening in the world. Everyone knows that the dawn is the time for going out to see birds, but the birds are really just a proxy for the insects! They are out foraging their little feathers off in an effort to provide their chicks with tasty tasty bugs!

The dawn hours offer the opportunity to see insects and spiders that are just waking up, still cool from the night. I take advantage of this to go out and photograph them, when they are still. I also use the beautiful natural light to my advantage in the pictures.

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A gorgeous Enoplognatha ovata on some grasses in Richmond BC

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Ammophila wasps are too active to shoot well in the day, but at dawn they are easy and beautiful subjects

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Mixing the dawn light is easy with any kind of diffused flash. The sunlight is dim enough that a flash in close proximity to the subject can illuminate details that turn what would be a silhouette into a lovely shot.

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The one danger is lens flare, but as instagrammers know, this makes a shot more “artistic”. I find I am often pleasantly surprised by some of the flare effects.

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Large numbers of aggregating wasps may be reducing their individual vulnerability to those hungry birds…

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The spiders often attempt crypsis rather than jumping off their webs. It works well for the arthropod photographer!

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Coelioxys cuckoo bees are a welcome find anytime, and at dawn are super cooperative subjects!

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Dawn light can also be used for highlighting hairs.

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Dawn is an epehmeral time, and staying out with your subjects allows you to see them wake up and start their day.

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Blog posts by students of Biol 202

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The following is a guest post by Staffan Lindgren

When I started teaching Invertebrate Zoology in the mid-1990’s, students were required to write term papers as one of the tools for evaluation. With a fairly heavy teaching load, this approach became somewhat unmanageable given relatively high enrollment, in particular since I feel that it is important to provide detailed feedback to each student so they can improve on their writing skills. Depending on a student’s skill level, reading, editing and marking a paper can be rather time consuming. After a few years, I therefore reverted to delivering a strictly lecture/lab based course with midterm(s), quizzes and (lab and lecture) finals, essentially the way I had been taught. Two years ago, with considerable trepidation, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try the blog format. This turned out very successful from a number of perspectives.  The students really liked it, and I derived direct benefit by learning about organisms I would likely never have read or heard about. I also enjoyed marking these blogs, because a blog is shorter, less formal, and leaves a lot of room for personal style when compared to a term paper, while still retaining the requirements of coming up with a suitable topic, as well as finding and citing primary literature effectively.

While many of the blogs were about non-arthropods, a fair number of students chose members of this taxon to write about. In this blog, I highlight student blogs that may be of interest to ESC members.

The first blog by Santana Smith is about a group of marine arachnids that I know very little about, the sea spiders. In her blog, “Mating, Reproduction, and Courtship Behaviour of the Pycnogonids” she corrected that shortcoming to some extent. These are odd creatures, to be sure!

The second blog by Alana Garcia is also about arachnids, more specifically Opiliones or harvestmen:  Opiliones and Parenthood: The Rare Exception of Maternal and Paternal Care in Arachnids. Some of these odd creatures have surprisingly sophisticated and fascinating brood care.

Roscoe Lenardt wrote about hornets The Genus Vespa: Eusocial societies and vicious stings. Every time I watch something about Vespa mandarinia I am happy that we only have the baldfaced hornet where I live!

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Lena Richter looked at The Camouflage of Praying Mantids. Most entomologists are familiar with the orchid mantis, but did you know that Phyllocrania paradoxa nymphs imitate ants?

Favourites for many students (and many arachnologists as well I should imagine) are the jumping spiders. Jessica Leach discusses Portia species in her blog “Jumping spiders: sex among cannibals”. Portia jumping spiders have been described as among the most intelligent of all arthropods.

Danielle New was fascinated by the use of tiny wasps for biological control, which she described in Trichogramma, a Living Insecticide?” One has to marvel at the ability of these tiny wasps to work for us.

Insects provide inspiration for art, and Nicole Tweddle discusses the use of caddis fly larvae to create jewellery in her blog “Caddisfly (Order Trichoptera) Larval Diversity: The Unlikely Jeweller”. This blog was of particular interest to me, because many years ago at a meeting of the Entomological Society of America, I purchased caddisfly-manufactured earrings for my wife. They were not as exclusive as the ones featured in this article, however.

Madison Wong wrote about the not-so-pleasant effects of centipede venom in “The effect of venom in centipedes.” An arachnophile and former Prince George resident (who described his hobby/business of breeding tarantulas as an interest that went terribly wrong) kindly used to show his animals to UNBC students. One of the few critters he would not handle was his giant centipede!

“Giant Weta” or Wetapunga, the enormous anostostomatid crickets of New Zealand, was the topic for Amandeep Bhatti. Many of these large, flightless insects are threatened and thus of great interest.

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Warren Noronha wrote about another species of jumping spider, Phidippus audax: The Most Daring Spider.” Phidippus species are quite impressive as jumping spiders go. Where I live we have P. johnstoni, a closely related species.

Maeghan Forster provides the first of the 2015 crop of blogs, writing about the fascinating reproductive biology of the emerald cockroach wasp “Eating Your Babysitters: Brooding Behaviors of the Emerald Cockroach Wasp.” I love the way students link behaviours to everyday life, albeit a tad gruesome in this case.

“What in the world is the obelisk posture”, was my first thought when Austin Bartell gave me his proposed blog topic. He explains how dragonfly make use of this posture in “The Obelisk Posture of Dragonflies (Order Odonata)”

Giant Scolopendra centipedes provided the topic for Brittany Fotsch. In “A giant in the under-foliage: Scolopendra gigantea she ends by referring to centipedes as pets: “A 30 cm, 46-legged, bat-killing, venomous critter is not for everyone, but nevertheless even Amazonian giant centipedes need some TLC.”

T. Callander chose to write about the symbiosis of yucca plants and yucca moths in “Yucca moths and yucca plants: the mailman and the mansion” in his entertaining and informative blog, again with an analogy to human life.

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Conrad Taylor’s blog “How I was out-fished by a spider” received a lot of attention when I tweeted the link some time ago. It differs somewhat from most of the other blogs because it is built around a personal experience, and I am sure that is the reason for the attention, at least in part. It certainly makes it an enjoyable read.

The use of transparency in a butterfly caught the interest of Erin Haugland, who wrote about “Greta oto: The Invisible Butterfly. One of the adaptations to make this approach feasible is the presence of submicroscopic bumps change the refractive index of the wing to match the surrounding air. Who knew?

Arachnophobes in New Zealand probably won’t cry over “Latrodectus katipo: The disappearing cousin of black widow spiders, written by Finch Ye. It is comforting to know that even a black widow species will have proponents willing to go to bat for them!

Ian Curtis wrote about “The Reindeer Warble Fly (Hypoderma tarandi): An Arctic Parasite,” an insect I knew a little about from my time in Sweden. I also got the opportunity to communicate with my Norwegian colleague Arne C. Nilssen, who gave us permission to use his fabulous photo of an adult fly. Arne did his Ph.D. research on bark beetles, which is how I knew him.

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An assignment like this is bound to have at least someone looking at honeybees. Jared Peet wrote his blog “Apis mellifera: Un-bee-lievable Communication about these important insects, and in a second course I taught, two students wrote honeybee related blogs.

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Water striders are incredibly successful hemipterans with some very odd mating behaviours. In her blog “Water striders: Strange Mating Rituals and Adaptations,” Rebecca Lerch describes how females protect themselves against overly amorous males.

Another spider blog that attracted attention was “The diving bell spider: reversed sexual size dimorphism” written by Sunjeet Minhas. To my knowledge, the Eurasian Argyroneta aquatica is the only aquatic spider.

Jennifer Noonan wrote about bioluminescence in lampyrid beetles. In her blog “Fireflies: Bioluminescence” she even included a drawing she made of the chemical reaction.

Angela Tsang’s topic was one that really fascinated me. “Commensalism, Mutualism, or Somewhere on the Borderline: A Relationship between a Frog and a Spider” is about a tiny microhylid frog that lives with a tarantula, normally a predator of frogs! Finding an illustration of this was easier said than done, but the author of one of the source articles, Dr. Francesco Tomasinelli, gave us permission to use a fantastic photo.

Aphids have never been my favourite insects (sorry Simon Leather!) although I could have ended up working with them, early on courtesy of Dr. Jan Pettersson in Sweden. It isn’t an organism I would expect a student to pick, but Grant Usick found an interesting angle in his blog Acyrthosiphon pisum: The little pea aphid that could.” Perhaps I have to reconsider?

Brooke Wiebe picked Acacia ants for her blog Pseudomyrmex ferruginea: The ideal tenant.” I still remember a presentation by Dan Janzen about these fascinating little ants and how they have assumed the defense role of Acacia trees.

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In my arachnid lecture, I have to highlight the net-casting or ogre-faced spider, of course. This prompted Fiona Raymond to write her blog “The Hunting Techniques of the Net-Casting or Ogre Faced Spider (Araneae: Deinopidae)”. Arachnophobes miss out on so much neat stuff!

For no particular reason, I left out several blogs about horseshoe crabs and Crustaceans. The Crustaceans covered were fiddler crabs, tongue eating isopods, trapeziid guard crabs, pistol shrimp, pom-pom or boxer crabs, tadpole shrimp, Dungeness crabs, and the goose barnacle. And that leaves out all the other interesting invertebrates, of which cephalopods were the most numerous – no surprise there! Anyway, many students exceeded my expectations by a wide margin, and I really believe that it was the format that gave them inspiration to go the extra mile. I am sure Dezene Huber (who will take over after I retire at the end of this year) will improve on the course. Nevertheless, the students deserve credit for a job well done! I hope you will read a few of these blogs, and that you will enjoy them.

 

 

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BioBlitz in BC’s beautiful Peace Region!

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Do you have a good taxonomic knowledge of Canadian arthropods? Are you an awesome, champion collector? Do you want an excuse to spend a few days geeking out over lovely terrain and catching lovely wildlife? Well, the Biological Survey of Canada, the Royal BC Museum and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative want you to join them in a BioBlitz of the Peace Region, June 22-26!

If this sounds like your cup of tea, then read the full invitation here. Sign up by June 15!

Who knows? Maybe you will find something completely unexpected (like this ridiculous mite!)!

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Western Specialties

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Living in Western Canada is pretty sweet. Especially here on the coast, we have a plethora of awesome insects that only occur in this region. I am trying to savour these insects while I can, as this fall I am moving to Toronto.

The snakeflies (Raphidioptera) are awesome animals, with a delightfully elongate prothorax and long bladelike ovipositors. These insects are fairly common in the early spring in a Garry Oak meadow not far from my mother’s house, so whenever I am in the vicinity at the right time I keep an eye out for them.

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The most common snakeflies in BC are members of the genus Agulla.

 

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What I had not noticed about these insects is how the pronotum wraps around ventrally, like a shield. Also look at the awesome ornamentation on the thorax!

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The larvae of snakeflies are difficult to find, but if you flip over enough rocks or logs, you may just find one!

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In fact, flipping over logs is exactly how I found this next western treasure…A tiger beetle that may just shatter your image of tiger beetles forever.

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This is Omus dejeani, often referred to by its awesome common name, the greater night-stalking tiger beetle. This is a tiger that could easily be mistaken at a glance for a carabine, if not for the shape of the thorax. This is not a slender, bright, iridescent speedster, but rather a hulking, powerful night terror.

 

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Yes, make no mistake, this is a tiger through and through. The mandibles tell the tale. Bugguide has this to say about the origin of the generic name Omus: Probably from Greek omos (ωμος)- “raw, crude” or “savage, fierce, cruel”

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Regardless of the name, this beetle is a truly impressive beast, though I rarely encounter it. I wonder if it could be because of the introduction of the two similarly-sized invasive carabines Carabus granulatus and Carabus nemoralis.

Anyhow, regardless of where you live, get out and enjoy what your region has to offer. Insect season is in full swing, and life is short. This summer I will keep flipping logs to savour the western specialties!

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Log flipping also brought me an encounter with another western treasure: the rough skinned newt (Taricha granulosa). Who doesn’t love a newt!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding a rare robber fly in the Okanagan

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Vaseux Lake, a gorgeous body of water in a dry landscape.

Catherine Scott and I recently indulged in an almost unheard-of pleasure…A week long car camping trip to the Okanagan Valley! For those of you who don’t know, this is the area where the vast majority of BC wines originate (and tree fruit crops as well!). The South Okanagan and the Lower Similkameen Valleys, biologically speaking, are very similar to a desert, with many of the flora shared with northern parts of the Great Basin Desert.

The purpose of the trip was to have fun and seek out whatever cool life-forms we could, basically doing undirected fieldwork. With Catherine along, it meant that we sought out a LOT of spiders, but the Okanagan has some spectacular ones, so I was not complaining.

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Catherine under the rocky slopes off McIntyre Rd.

While soliciting info about good spots to check out, one of our Twitter contacts told us to be on the lookout for Efferia okanagana, a robber fly (Asilidae), recently described by Rob Cannings in The Canadian Entomologist.

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The bluffs are spectacular, with abundant scree slopes, which can produce something terrifyingly called a “debris torrent” at times.

On the 5th day of our trip, we were examining the awesome bluffs above the eastern shore of Vaseux Lake (thanks Nature Trust!), when we spotted our first robber. I managed to get a dorsal shot of this female, followed by a couple lateral shots.

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We took these to a local restaurant with Wi-Fi, and compared them to the pictures of E. okanagana in the paper. They looked mighty similar! We went on Twitter to ask Dr. Cannings if these were indeed the Efferia we were looking for. They were!

This robber is at significant risk of extinction due to its small range in Canada (to date it has not been collected in Washington State). The South Okanagan grassland habitats where this and other iconic wildlife make their living are at risk due to widespread development and increased agricultural land use.  It is one of the earliest-flying robbers in the area, and photographs have documented it feeding on a wide variety of insect taxa. Like other large Efferia, they are not super difficult to approach, flying in bursts when disturbed and often coming to rest only metres away.

The very next day, coincidentally World Robber Fly Day (thanks to Erica McAlister of the Natural History Museum), we set out for the bluffs once more (they are an awesome habitat). We managed to find E. okanagana several more times, including a female feeding and a pair in copula!

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A female Efferia okanagana chows down on what looks like an ichneumonid.

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Eating requires a leg bath afterward.

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A pair of Efferia okanagana copulating! The male seems to partially cover the female’s eyes with his tarsi.

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Look at the odd position of the male’s abdomen!

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A male, note the bulbous rear end.

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Catherine after an awesome trip to the bluffs above Vaseux Lake.

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Invasive ants march on the West Coast

IMG_0279Invasive ants are generally a phenomenon of warmer climates. Argentine ants, red imported fire ants, and electric ants are all major economic problems in places like Florida, New Caledonia, and Australia. But what is to stop European and Asian ant species from damaging invasions of Canada? It turns out, not much.

Ken Naumann and Rob Higgins, entomologists working on ants in BC, have just published a paper in The Canadian Entomologist on the spread of Myrmica rubra, the so called European fire ant in coastal BC.

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In many ways, European fire ants are typical Myrmica, engaged in scavenging, predation and aphid tending. They distinguish themselves in their high colony density and proclivity to sting.

 

 

This insect was first detected almost a century ago in Boston, and has since spread to many areas of eastern North America. It has not generally been problematic, but in the past 10-15 years, reports of high colony densities and spread have been increasing. These small red ants are superficially similar to other native Myrmica, but in occupied ground they reach staggeringly high colony densities of up to 4 nests/square metre. They become known to anyone walking on their turf due to their painful stinging attacks in defense of their nests. In areas with large numbers of colonies, activities as innocuous as sitting on the grass can become impossible.

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Despite her beautiful wings, this Myrmica rubra queen will not fly, a strange trait that is ubiquitous across the North American range for this species.

One factor limiting the spread of these ants is that the queens do not seem to be able to fly. That trait has been lost in their transition to their new home, although the males still engage in winged dispersal. These ants are instead spreading through nest budding where already established and through movement of infested soil and wood into new areas.

In the paper, Naumann and Higgins report staggeringly high numbers of EFA captures in pitfall trapping in infested areas, compared to moderate numbers of native ants in uninfested habitats. The numbers of Myrmica rubra exceeded the numbers of all native ants by 10 to 1300 times!

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In infested areas, Myrmica rubra is the only ant to be found.

 

More worryingly, Myrmica rubra seems to outcompete and eliminate all other native ants, and in infested areas, very few native ants can be found. In addition, other litter arthropods seem to be reduced in infested areas as well, though the reduction in species richness indices is mostly attributable to the loss of the native ants.

British Columbia, as a biologically diverse and relatively warm province with high levels of oceanic trade, may be the testing ground for biological invasions from ants. A second introduced Myrmica, Myrmica specioides, is also mentioned in the paper. Unlike M. rubra, Myrmica specioides queens retain their flight capabilities, and thus there is no feasible way of stopping their spread.

The ants are marching in BC, and entomologists are well advised to keep up with their movements!

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Superficially similar, Myrmica specioides (left) can be distinguished in the field from M. rubra (right) by the sharp bend at the base of the scape. M. rubra has a gently curving scape instead.

 

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Nowhere to go but up: Myrmica specioides queens are quite capable of flight!

 

 

 

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Tracking the Warren Root Collar Weevil

The following is a guest post from ESC student member Sharleen Balogh. Sharleen is a Masters student at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) working with Dezene Huber and Staffan Lindgren on Warren Root Collar Weevils. She recently took home a President’s Prize for best talk at the ESC/ESS JAM in Saskatoon. 

 

For the past two years, I have been studying the Warren root collar weevil (Hylobius warreni). These weevils are fairly large and long-­‐lived (for insects anyways, they are about 12-­‐15 mm, and live for up to five years). I think they are big enough to have distinct faces and personalities, although some people have told me that I’m personifying them just a bit too much and I need to take a step back from my work, but that’s another story altogether.

I am studying them because of their effects on coniferous trees, especially young lodgepole pines regenerating after the mountain pine beetle infestation in the interior of British Columbia. The larvae feed on the roots and root collars of trees, causing mortality of young trees and growth reductions in older trees (Cerezke 1994). They are native to the Prince George area (where I am doing my research) and can be found across much of Canada. They are often fairly common within their range. However they really can be described as “everywhere and nowhere”, since you can find them in almost any forested area in the region, just in low numbers and often well-­‐hidden.

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The Warren root collar weevil. How can you not love that face? Photo: Staffan Lindgren

I have specifically been looking at the mechanisms by which they locate their host trees. The weevils can’t fly, so they walk along the ground in search of hosts. We know that they use vision (Machial et al. 2012a) to locate trees, but not much else about their host location. There are higher rates of attack by larvae on larger trees, but this could just be a result of a larger area of roots available, not an actual preference when finding hosts. So far no one has been able to find any chemical cues that they use, although this is very unusual for an insect. Some evidence suggests that at least in some situations their movements may be predominantly random and non-­‐directional (Machial et al. 2012b, Klingenberg et al. 2010).

In order to study them, I decided to track the weevils using harmonic radar technology. This is the same technology that is used to locate avalanche victims. It functions by the detector sending out a signal in the microwave range that is passively reflected back by a transponder, attached to whatever you want to find. For use in locating avalanche victims, the transponder is the large Recco® tags you often see in ski jackets. In the case of the weevils, I used a miniaturized transponder– a tiny diode soldered to a 4 cm long piece of copper wire.

When I first decided to use this method, and to construct the transponders myself, I went online to learn how to solder. I was told by several different tutorials that it is “very easy, almost impossible to get wrong”. This may be the case when soldering computer circuit boards, but not so when soldering two tiny pieces of metal together under the microscope. In the end though, I did get it to work, and I tagged 115 weevils over two field seasons. I released them into individual plots in a lodgepole pine stand, within which I had mapped all of the trees, and I relocated them at regular intervals.

Although I’m still analyzing my data, my results suggest that the weevils preferred to go to closer trees, larger trees, and that the preference for larger trees increases when the trees are further away. Otherwise, their movements appear to be primarily random and non-­‐directional. So, as strange as it is, maybe they do just use vision and random movements. If this is true, and their host selection process is predominantly random, this may have implications for forest management. It might make finding ways to limit their spread into new stands difficult, and it may make it difficult or impossible to identify potential genetically resistant trees for planting.

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Warren root collar weevil tagged with transponder. Photo: Staffan Lindgren

 

 

References Cited:

 

Cerezke, H.F. 1994. Warren rootcollar weevil, Hylobius warreni Wood (Coleoptera: Curculionidae), in Canada: ecology, behavior, damage, relationships, and management. The Canadian Entomologist. 126: 1383-­‐1442

 

Machial, L.A., B.S. Lindgren, and B.H. Aukema. 2012a. The role of vision in the host orientation behaviour of Hylobius warreni. Agricultural and Forest Entomology. 14:

286-­‐294

 

Machial, L.A., B.S. Lindgren, R.W. Steenweg, and B.H. Aukema. 2012b. Dispersal of Warren root collar weevils (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) in three types of habitat. Environmental Entomology. 41: 578-­‐586

 

Klingenberg, M.D., N. Bjorklund, and B.H. Aukema. 2010. Seeing the forest through the trees: differential dispersal of Hylobius warreni within modified forest habitats. Environmental Entomology. 39: 898-­‐906

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Exotic field collecting…in the hallway!

The following post is by Chloe Gerak, a Masters student at UBC who completed an undergraduate project at Simon Fraser University in the Gries lab.This past weekend, she won the top prize for an undergraduate talk at the Annual General  Meeting of the Entomological Society of British Columbia with a talk entitled “How the false widow finds true love”. Photos by Sean McCann.

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A male Steatoda grossa. These spiders have stereotyped courtship behaviour involving stridulation of an organ located dorsally between the cephalothorax and abdomen.

For approximately eight months, I studied the courtship behaviour and chemical communication between male and female false widow spiders, Steatoda grossa. Prior to studying them in Prof. Gerhard Gries’ lab at Simon Fraser University, I had never even heard of this species!

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Female Steatoda grossa on her web.

My mentor Catherine Scott and I had collected juvenile and mature false widow spiders around the basement of the biology wing at SFU… and let’s just say we didn’t have a lack of specimens to collect. Almost every baseboard we turned over or corner we searched, we would find these little guys and collect them individually into petri dishes. These formed the nucleus of our laboratory colony which we reared for behavioural experiments.

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A  common nickname for Steatoda grossa is the “cupboard spider,” which I find extremely appropriate considering these spiders seem to love dwelling in dark corners. Since they are so abundant around SFU, and I had never even seen one before this, I think people should not be frightened by cohabiting with them… likely, you won’t even know they are there!

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