By Dr. Terry Wheeler, Director of the Lyman Entomological Museum, McGill University


Warning: the following post contains content that makes a university professor and museum director look a bit ridiculous. Readers who wish to cling to the fiction that University Professors are smart, infallible and wise may find this post unsettling.

“Do you have everything?” A logical and reasonable question from The Students as The Professor exits his hotel room in the morning, several bags in hand. Some Students may consider such a question presumptuous, but it’s good to run through these little mental checklists.

Lesson #1 (for Students and Assistants): “Do you have everything?” may be a little too broad a question. A series of questions identifying particular individual items of necessary field equipment might be better. In this case, for example, a question along the lines of “Do you have the sweep net handles?” might have saved much subsequent humiliation and hilarity.

Lesson #2 (for Professors): Pack the gear the night before AND get enough sleep!

We jumped in The Vehicle and headed south for a long day of collecting in the dry prairies of southeastern Alberta. We had our sights set on a few promising collecting spots and it was a sunny day. After an hour or so of driving we arrived at the first site and The Professor disgorged the contents of the several bags as The Students waited to begin doing science. “Where are the net handles?” asked both Students, almost simultaneously. “Well,” replied The Professor “obviously they’re in the $#%#$ hotel in my &#@% red duffel bag.”

Lesson #3 (for Students and Assistants): Do not be afraid to laugh at a Professor, especially when they deserve it.

Lesson #4 (for Professors and Aspiring Professors): You can’t afford to take yourself too seriously. Things happen and people will laugh at you. Pretend you’ve just told a wickedly funny joke. I find that helps.

So, not relishing a long drive back to the hotel in the prairie heat, The Professor was forced to improvise, which he did in a rather unspectacular way, and the Short-Handled Shortgrass-Prairie Sweep Net (SHSPSN) was born.

The short-handled shortgrass-prairie sweep-net, ready for deployment. (Photo by T. Wheeler)

Some readers will recognize the SHSPSN as reminiscent of a short-handled folding insect net commonly referred to as a “National Park Special”, a net that folds up compactly and is easily concealed in a pocket for . . . well . . . ummm . . . inclement weather and increased mobility and the like. In our case (we were not in a National Park or other similarly protected area), the short handle worked quite well to keep us low and out of the high wind blowing across the site. Of course, the actual process of sweeping required a slightly modified stance compared to regular sweeping.

Anna demonstrating excellent SHSPSN technique. Her back will be fine. (Photo by T. Wheeler)

In the end, we collected (very successfully!) at four good sites that day with our lightweight, compact SHSPSN’s. Fortunately, we encountered no other Entomologists (especially Lepidopterists, with their penchant for freakishly long-handled nets) who could have taken advantage of our predicament and heaped ridicule upon us, especially The Professor.

And the next morning, when The Professor emerged from his room, well-rested and laden with several bags, The Students greeted him with a hearty “Do you have the net handles?” and it didn’t sound sarcastic AT ALL.

Lesson #5 (for Students and Assistants): Sooner or later, every Professor is going to do something dumb. Take joy in such magical moments. They are the times that make The Professor appear slightly less than superhuman. It helps to have a camera handy for the more spectacular times. Such photos make great content for retirement celebrations or department Christmas parties.

Lesson #6 (for Professors): The great thing about tenure is that you can actually get away with a lot of really dumb stuff. Just don’t lose any Students in the field – there’s a lot of paperwork involved. I find keeping the numbers low and giving each of them a distinct name helps. Take attendance a lot. Especially at airports.

And if anyone would like plans for making their very own SHSPSN, please contact The Professor.


The original post can be found on Dr. Wheeler’s blog, here:

We’d love to hear about other people’s (mis-)adventures in the field! Please feel free to send your stories and pictures to

Dufourea bee on flower


By Sheila Dumesh, entomology research assistant at York University.


My interest in bees was ignited in 2007, when I took a biodiversity course in my last year as an undergraduate student at York University in Toronto.  The course instructor was the well-known melittologist, Laurence Packer, and, although I had not met him before, I had heard many good things.  Laurence’s affection for bees was inspiring, not only to me, but to others in the past and many more to come.  He was so fascinated by these cute and fuzzy insects (at the time, I did not see myself describing them as such).  Even though he had been studying bees for decades, the look of excitement on his face never faded when collected and examined them.  Back then, my knowledge of bees was very limited.  I was unaware of their diversity, importance, and great beauty!

I began with an Honours thesis under Laurence’s supervision in the “bee lab” at York University.  I was keen on taxonomy and began a systematic study on a Central American bee genus, Mexalictus.  For my Master’s thesis, I chose to continue that work and complete a revision of Mexalictus, which included descriptions for 20 new species, an illustrated key, and a phylogenetic analysis.  I conducted my field work in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico, where I sampled in high elevation cloud forests (the known habitat of Mexalictus).  As these species are quite rare, I did not always have the pleasure of finding them; although this was somewhat upsetting, I was amazed by the bee (and general insect) diversity in that part of the world.  I was aware of it, but being out in the field in those countries was a truly amazing experience.  Just the change in habitat and species make-up along a small sector of the elevation gradient was incredible to witness!

Dufourea bee on flower

Dufourea sp. – Photo by Sheila Dumesh

Throughout my time as a Master’s student, I studied other groups of bees and collaborated with others in our lab.  One such project is the revision of the Canadian species in the genus Dufourea (Apoidea: Halictidae), which I undertook with Cory Sheffield and recently published in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification.  There are eight species in Canada, but some were described from only one sex, the descriptions were written by several authors in different publications, and a key to identify these species was previously unavailable!  These bees are also floral specialists, meaning they visit specific flowers (usually a genus or family).  Cory and I set out to revise this group and provide all of this information in one paper.  The identification key is user-friendly and illustrates the characters mentioned in the key couplets to aid the user.  We also constructed species pages, which include full descriptions, important features, distribution maps, and images of each species.

We are striving towards creating many more illustrated (and web-based) keys to facilitate bee identification.  I am very excited to have this work freely available and hope that it is found useful by others in the community!


Dumesh, S. & Sheffield, C.S. (2012). Bees of the Genus Dufourea Lepeletier (Hymenoptera: Halictidae: Rophitinae) of Canada, Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, 20 DOI: 10.3752/cjai.2012.20

Honey bee flying with pollen - Photo by Alex Wild

Honey bee flying with pollen – Photo by Alex Wild, used with permission

Honeybee colonies are famous for their orderly divisions of labour.  As worker bees grow up, they transition from housekeepers (cleaning the colony) to nurse bees (feeding young bees), to finally switching to foragers who go out and collect nectar and pollen for the rest of the colony.   To maintain a healthy colony, bees need to decide how many foragers and how many nurse bees are needed, and control of these numbers is accomplished by pheromone levels within the colony.

In honeybee colonies, there are pheromones like the alarm pheromone that cause immediate behavioural responses (called releaser pheromones) and others that trigger physiological changes like hormones do (called primer pheromone).  From previous work, it seemed that ethyl oleate functions as a primer pheromone, produced by foragers, that delays the maturation of nurse bees into foragers.

“Ethyl oleate does not elicit any noticeable behavourial responses in recipient workers,” says Dr. Erika Plettner, who supervised a recent study on the synthesis of ethyl oleate at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  “Yet it has a profound physiological effect”.

To understand how this chemical is produced in the individual bee and then distributed in the colony, Carlos Castillo and colleagues from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and the Laboratoire Biologie et protection de L’Abeillie in France looked at several ways to identify the source and synthesis of ethyl oleate.  This chemical can be produced by a reaction between oleic acid (a common fatty acid in insects) and ethanol.  While you might not think of honeybees as heavy drinkers, it turns out that yeasts in flower nectar ferment the sugars present into ethanol, and so the forager bees have much higher exposure to ethanol than nurse bees.

To figure out if ethanol and oleic acid can be made into ethyl oleate by honeybees, the researchers incubated different honeybee body parts from forager and nurse bees with these precursors.  They found highest production of ethyl oleate in the head tissues, and that both nurses and foragers could produce ethyl oleate when given ethanol.  In addition, in whole bees, they found that the ethyl oleate migrated from the gut to the exoskeleton of the bees where it would exude into the colony.

Taken together, these results suggest that making ethyl oleate, while it is useful for colony control, might also be a way to deal with the occupational hazard of consuming toxic ethanol.  “Foragers have much higher occupational exposure to ethanol than nurses do,” says Dr. Plettner.  “This is why they make ethyl oleate in nature”.

Ethyl oleate molecule

Ethyl oleate

To track down where exactly the ethyl oleate was synthesized, they coupled oleic acid to a chemical that would produce fluorescence when the oleic acid was combined with ethanol to produce ethyl oleate.  Under the microscope, areas that fluoresced showed where ethyl oleate was being made.  They found that ethyl oleate was made in the esophagus, honey crop and stomach.

The authors were also able to identify the genes responsible for the synthesis of ethyl oleate in the honeybee and the resulting enzymes that catalyze the reaction between oleic acid and ethanol.  These enzymes are then secreted into the gut fluid, where they produce ethyl oleate, which is then transported to the cuticle.

The biosynthesis of ethyl oleate then can be thought of a way of providing updates to the colony about the availability of flower nectar in nature.  “EO might be some kind of ‘resource meter’ that tells the nurses in the colony how many nectar and pollen resources are coming in,” says Dr. Plettner.  “If lots of food is coming in, then it makes sense to inhibit nurse to forager transition, as the nurses would be more needed in the brood chamber than as foragers.  Conversely, if few resources and/or foragers are coming in, then it makes sense to speed up development of nurses so that they can forage and fill the need.”

Castillo, C., Chen, H., Graves, C., Maisonnasse, A., Le Conte, Y. & Plettner, E. (2012). Biosynthesis of ethyl oleate, a primer pheromone, in the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.), Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 42 (6) 416. DOI: 10.1016/j.ibmb.2012.02.002

Corresponding author: Erika Plettner (

Further reading:

Castillo, C., Maisonnasse, A., Conte, Y.L. & Plettner, E. (2012). Seasonal variation in the titers and biosynthesis of the primer pheromone ethyl oleate in honey bees, Journal of Insect Physiology, 58 (8) 1121. DOI: 10.1016/j.jinsphys.2012.05.010

Pollenia griseotomentosa Calliphoridae Cluster fly
Pollenia rudis Face

Pollenia rudis

By Adam Jewiss-Gaines,  a research assistant at Brock University.


When people ask me what the heck a calliphorid is (often after I have mentioned the family name and am being gawked at as if I’m crazy), I usually remark “You know those shiny flies you often see flying around in the spring and summer?”  This isn’t technically 100% accurate since the genus Pollenia, one of the most commonly encountered genera of the family, is in fact non-reflective and grey.  Upon closer inspection, a keen eye can also observe varying amounts of wrinkled, yellow hairs on the thorax.  These two qualities distinguish Pollenia from other blow flies throughout North America.  Despite being a little dull when compared to their more eye-catching iridescent relatives, Pollenia are ecologically important insects as they aid in plant pollination and the processing of various biomaterials.

Pollenia often become particularly active during the spring and summer months once the temperature warms up, although they can occasionally be spotted indoors in the wintertime on a warmer day.  With a sudden onslaught of large, grey insects flying around when the snow begins to melt, it comes as no surprise that people tend to get irritated with them and consider them pests.  Oftentimes they are mistaken as houseflies (Family Muscidae) causing Pollenia species to be labeled as potential food contaminators, but this is not the case.  These insects are also particularly well-known for their clustering behaviour on walls, earning them their common name: cluster flies.

Even though Pollenia are extremely common, their general biology is largely unknown with a few exceptional details. It is known that larval Pollenia are parasites on various other organisms, such as maggots and worms. For example, Rognes (1991) noted that Pollenia pediculata, one of the most common species found throughout the continent, is a parasite of the earthworm species Eisenia rosea. Aside from this little tidbit however, specific information regarding the life cycles of Pollenia species is relatively scarce and further studies in this particular field would greatly improve our knowledge of the genus.

Pollenia griseotomentosa Calliphoridae Cluster fly

Pollenia griseotomentosa

Until very recently it has been thought that all Pollenia found in North America were the same species (Pollenia rudis), but after examining various collections throughout the world, Knut Rognes found that six members of the genus occur throughout the region.  Terry Whitworth adapted much of Rognes’ work shortly thereafter into a nice, clean, simple identification key for North America. With accurate images and photography, however, characters could be even easier to distinguish and observe when one is able to compare a photograph to the creature they have under their microscope.

Therefore, to further expand on Terry’s key and clarify important visual characters, I collaborated with him and Dr. Steve Marshall to create a fully-illustrated digital key for distinguishing the six North American Pollenia species from one another.  Now published in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, Cluster Flies of North America couples high-resolution images of important traits with a clean and simple interface to create a handy tool to be used by entomologists and non-entomologists alike. If you are relying on this key for identification, it is recommended to use physical specimens of Pollenia rather than images or photos, since even the best of hand-photographs have difficulty capturing key features. In addition, distribution maps are provided for each species, constructed from locality data of specimens from the University of Guelph Insect Collection and Terry Whitworth’s personal collection of Pollenia.

Creating this key has been a great opportunity, and I hope the entomological community is able to make good use of it. My sincere thanks go out to Steve Marshall, Terry Whitworth, the editors, and my labmates and friends for all of their support.


Jewiss-Gaines, A., Marshall, S.A. & Whitworth, T.L. (2012). Cluster flies (Calliphoridae: Polleniinae: Pollenia) of North America, Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, 19 DOI: 10.3752/cjai.2012.19

Rognes, K. 1991. Blowflies (Diptera, Calliphoridae) of Fennoscandia and Denmark. Fauna Entomologica Scandinavica Vol. 24.

ESC Caption C1 P2

We had a great response to last week’s photo, so thank you to everyone who played along. We’ve got an all new photo for you to caption today, but first we need you to vote for your favourite Photo 1 caption.

ESC Caption Contest C1 P1

[polldaddy poll=6409189]

We’ll post the results and award some points next week.

Now, onto this week’s photo (here are the rules if this is your first time):

ESC Caption C1 P2

ESC Caption Contest C1 P2 – Photo by Morgan Jackson

Have fun!


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