Thursday, March 31, 2016

Polyester Bees

Note: I encourage you, my followers, to collaborate with me in telling stories of the insect and arachnid world. If you have images or videos that illustrate arthropods you would like to know more about, please contact me and I will happily create a post around your visuals. BugEric247ATgmailDOTcom. Thank you.

Colletes female in burrow © MaLisa Spring

Spring is progressing in fits and starts here on the Front Range in Colorado, but elsewhere flowers are blooming and bees are buzzing. Thanks to Jenny Roberts of Massachusetts, Rhonda Matteson of Indiana, and MaLisa Spring of Ohio sharing their images, I am able to write about one of my favorite insects, the "polyester bees" in the genus Colletes, family Colletidae.

Burrows of Colletes © Jenny Roberts

Polyester bees are among the very first solitary bees that one sees in spring, and just about the last to be seen in autumn. While some species are bivoltine, having two generations per calendar year, many are univoltine: there is one generation per year, either in spring or fall.

How did these bees get their name, you may ask. Female solitary bees in many families produce oral and/or abdominal secretions that are useful in waterproofing the underground chambers where their larval offspring develop. Colletes females first lay down a layer of saliva over the walls of a cell, then add a coat of "varnish" from the Dufour's gland in their abdomen. The result is a natural polymer that resembles cellophane. It forms a plastic baggie of sorts that keeps the mostly liquid pollen and nectar supply fresh for the single larva that will feed and grow inside the cell.

Dense nesting aggregation of Colletes, plus males © Rhonda Matteson

No matter where you live in North America, there are polyester bees to be found. There are 99 known species on our continent, north of Mexico, with the greatest diversity in the desert southwest, followed by the central plains and southern New England.

Colletes are most conspicuous in their nesting grounds. They tend to prefer sandy soil, but even bare patches in lawns will do. Even though each female excavates her own burrow, hundreds, even thousands, of bees may occupy a small area. This gives the impression that they are social, and sometimes causes a panic attack in homeowners who see them as a potential threat.

Ball of mating Colletes © Rhonda Matteson

The males literally go where the girls are, so they add to the numbers. The guys are also highly aggressive in pursuing females, creating mating balls like the one captured in pixels by Rhonda (and in Mark Berman's video, link in "Sources"). Males have longer antennae than females, and lack the brush of pollen-collecting hairs (scopa) on each hind leg. Males also land frequently on the ground in nesting areas. The females are too busy going about their business to pause for long, if at all.

Male Colletes sp., Colorado

The other likely place you will find these bees is, of course, on flowers. Ironically, on this very day in the year 2000, I collected several specimens that were foraging in the flowers of a redbud tree in Forsyth, Missouri. Many Colletes will take pollen and nectar from a variety of sources ("polylectic"), but an equal number or more are "oligolectic," meaning they are faithful to only a select variety of related flowers (at family- or genus-level of classification).

Face of female Colletes showing forked "tongue" © Discover Life

Identifying polyester bees is not terribly easy. They closely resemble mining bees in the genus Andrena, and larger sweat bees in the genera Halictus and Lasioglossum. The conclusive characters needed for a concrete ID are also pretty subtle. Colletes have a forked "tongue," the mouthparts bifurcated at the end. Unless the tongue is extended and visible, though, how would you know? The wing veins are another tell-tale clue. The forewing has three submarginal cells, located beneath the marginal cell that is immediately below the leading edge of the wing. Beneath the submarginal cells are recurrent veins. In Andrena the second recurrent vein is relatively straight, while in Colletes it is distinctly sinuous, or S-shaped. Polyester bees have a heart-shaped face in a head-on view, while mining bees have a more round face.

Female Colletes from Missouri showing s-shaped second recurrent vein

Conservation of pollinators is critical in this day and age, and more people need to know about our native solitary bees. Large aggregations of Colletes may nest in the same place year after year, so it is imperative that homeowners, park managers, and others understand that the bees need to be left in peace. Significant populations can be wiped out in one fell swoop otherwise.

Female Colletes emerging from burrow © Jenny Roberts

Thanks again to Jenny, Rhonda, and MaLisa for sharing their images. Be sure to check out other online resources to learn more.

Male Colletes on "skunk bush" sumac flower in Colorado

Sources: Wilson, Joseph S. and Olivia Messinger Carril. 2016. The Bees In Your Backyard. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 288 pp.
Berman, Mark. 2013. "Mining bees, (Colletes)" Video.
ProfMatteson. 2009. "Ground-nesting Colletes" Video.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Edward S. Ross: A Gentleman and a Scholar Passes

Much of the enthusiasm I had for entomology as a child can be attributed to scientists who made a point of publishing in popular magazines. Perhaps no one did I hold in higher esteem than Edward S. Ross, a pioneering photographer of insects and other arthropods, whose work appeared semi-regularly in the pages of National Geographic Magazine in the 1960s and 1970s. On March 16, Dr. Ross passed away at age 100. I venture to say he leaves a legacy that will last at least another century.

Edward S. Ross ©Jeff Vendsel, Marin Independent Journal

Beyond his accomplishments as a photographer and writer, he was the world authority on web-spinners, bizarre insects of the order Embiidina (formerly Embioptera). There are few species in North America, and even some of them were introduced from elsewhere, so Ross had to travel the globe in pursuit of specimens. Naturally, he described countless new species in the process.

Male web-spinners are frequently mistaken for winged termites.

Most of his expeditions were under the auspices of the California Academy of Sciences, with which he was affiliated for 75 years. He became Curator of Entomology there, and eventually Chairman of that department as well. A more complete biography can be found online at the Marin Independent Journal.

Female Oligotoma web-spinner from Arizona. They spin silk from glands in their "Popeye arms."

What I treasure most is a letter I received from Dr. Ross in response to one I had written to him. I easily found it in my files, as it offers timeless advice; and it speaks to just how much scientists of his era felt obliged to mentor the next generation. Here is the text of that document:

"Dr. Mr. Eaton:

I am on the eve of departure on a 6-month trip (via VW camper) to N. Africa, Turkey, etc., and haven't time to do justice to a reply to your many questions. If I have had success, it is due to an evolutionary process much of which was based on my photography - not writing.

The publication of "Insects Close Up" in 1953 was very helpful but, with a distribution of 20,000 copies, it stimulated competition. I also have a good, world-scope research project which brought me to many exciting photographic and writing subjects. I don't even begin to tap my resources.

I would advise writing articles for outlets, such as Ranger Rick, before tackling Natl. Geographic. The subjects must 'well up' within the writer - an article should never be written simply to write an article. Start with expositions about things you know well. Another approach is little-known info about familiar subjects. In general, articles should be journalistic - have a philosophical point - and not be simply descriptive.

I believe that Natl. Geo. has a pamphlet on 'How to Write for Natl. Geographic.' You might write and obtain a copy. Sorry, I just can't write more in the time available. In great haste."
Edward S. Ross

Interestingly, I did end up writing a couple of articles for Ranger Rick. I also queried National Geographic and received positive interest, even though nothing ever became of my proposal. Were it not for the wisdom of my elders, I can guarantee I would not be where I am today. There is simply no way I can adequately express my profound appreciation of their time and nurturing character.

Friday, March 18, 2016

National Science Foundation Suspends Funding Support for Biological Collections

I try to avoid issue-related topics here, but this recent development could potentially undermine the foundation of what I do. Researching the subjects of this blog requires that I consult almost daily with personnel associated with entomology collections all over the country. It has just been announced that the primary source of funding for many of these holdings will not be accepting any new applications for fiscal year 2017. The following is meant to inform my readers of who the players are, and how to make your voices heard.

© Natural Science Collections Association (UK)
The Players

Here is a list of recurring acronyms that should prove helpful if you find yourself getting confused.

  • NSF - National Science Foundation
  • CSBR - Collections in Support of Biological Research. This is the NSF grant program being placed on "hiatus" by the NSF.
  • BIO - Directorate for Biological Sciences, one administrative arm of NSF
  • DBI - Biological Infrastructure, the funding component of the BIO
  • STEM - Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education
  • AIBS - American Institute of Biological Sciences
  • SPNHC - Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections
  • NSCA - Natural Science Collections Alliance
  • ECN - Entomological Collections Network
  • ESA - Entomological Society of America

What will happen?

My sources tell me this is not an unusual event. National Science Foundation periodically evaluates programs to assess their efficacy and impact, and suspending new applications for funding is more or less standard procedure during such an "audit." However, there is the possibility that the outcome of an evaluation could be the reduction or elimination of a program. That is why it is imperative that stakeholders speak to the importance of biological collections, but do so effectively.

Meanwhile, according to Reed Beaman of the CSBR:

"In FY 2017, BIO plans to assess the effectiveness of current DBI programs towards the evolving needs of the biology community, which have become more complex, diverse, and centered on data storage, access, and analysis. Evaluating current programs, assessing where investments can make a difference in the long term resource needs, and developing a robust STEM pipeline will be a priority. BIO will use FY 2017 to reexamine the goals and objectives of many of DBI’s longstanding research resource and human resource programs. Emphasis will be placed on evaluation, impact, and scalability, to gauge where support from BIO makes a difference and can be leveraged. Several programs will be put on a biennial competition schedule during their assessment and evaluation. BIO expects this assessment to be complete in time to inform the FY 2018 budget."

© Natural Science Collections Association (UK)
Crafting constructive feedback

Should you be a member of an organization such as the ECN, ESA, SPNHC, or NSCA, please consult your officers and fellow members for how best to proceed so that a united front is presented. Individuals should consider the following suggestions from Dr. Michael Ivie, Montana State University:


"First, keep in mind that NSF's Federally mandated job is to support leading edge science. Comments like the one on the DBI Blog site that starts out about cultural patrimony will only contribute to the idea we are antiquated and no longer relevant to modern science. Patrimony and history, and wonderful specimens kept safe are not what is important here. Keep comments limited to the impact of the collections served by the CSBR program on innovative SCIENCE. Second, NSF supports non-Federal research. All comments are valuable, but community comments should be led by the scientists who are NSF targets. Third, do not lead with the self-serving. This program is about Infrastructure impact,not about how the program allows the collection itself to be better. Get people not associated with the collection to write and tell stories of how they use the collections. How the collection is critical to training STEM scientists, how the data (specimens) housed there contributed to innovative research findings and provided impactful benefit. Tell stories about how a collection improvement grant led to the discovery of something, anything. How many extra loans to projects supported by NSF were made, how many new species were discovered because of bringing backlogs into the available pool of infrastructure.

Every supporting letter from people outside the collection community is worth two from inside. That does not mean we don't write, and our groups don't lobby, but it does mean we need to reach out. We need to swamp this issue with positive examples of impact on NSF supported science areas. The project impacted does not need to be actually NSF funded, but within an area that NSF funds. Citing the NSF program areas that are impacted by this infrastructure is critical. Writing letters is only half the battle, writing smart letters is what wins."

Where to write

The NSF is accepting comments through only two avenues. One is through this e-mail address:
Remember to replace "at" with "@" to properly send your correspondence.

The other means of communication is by leaving comments on the DBI blog.

© Norma Salcedo, image of Grice Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina

Watch this space for further developments. Meanwhile, please feel free to "share," mention, or steal this post, whatever it takes to get the word out. This obviously affects every kind of biological collection, so remember to alert botanists, herpetologists, mammologists, and pretty much every other "ologist" community. Thank you.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

"How do I become an entomologist?"

I am asked this question with enough frequency that I figure it is about time I wrote down an answer. Mind you, I may not the best authority on this. I failed higher academia in spectacular fashion, and am now a writer first and entomologist second. In my defense, I went to college in the 1980s when molecular biology became all the rage. Thankfully, entomology has evolved significantly over the decades, in mostly positive ways.

Are you sure you want to be an entomologist?

There are more career opportunities in entomology than ever before, and which one you select will largely drive your educational path. Please be advised that you may have several different careers over your lifetime, and that by the time you leave the university and enter your profession, things may have once again changed dramatically. Let's look at some of the stereotypes and fantasies about entomology careers; then we will talk about real opportunities and educational paths. Finally, we will look at ways to get a head start on an entomology career from high school or even elementary school.

Margarethe Brummermann in the field
Great Expectations

Social media and YouTube have made science, and scientists, glamorous in ways that could not have been imagined only five or ten years ago. Unfortunately, you might be getting the wrong impression. Entomologists are not always flying off to exotic, unexplored rainforests and deserts collecting species new to science. Sure, some lucky professionals get to do this, but not often. Most of their time is spent writing grants to fund such expeditions; and in the lab maintaining live specimens, curating preserved collections; supervising and training staff, students, and volunteers; and doing other administrative tasks.

Skill Sets

There is a great deal of repetition of tasks, and if you get bored easily, you might consider another line of work. Do you write well? Good, because you will be expected to publish in scientific journals. You should hone your communication skills regardless because you will need to work well with others, from administrators to the general public. Computer skills will always be valued, and if you can repair the vehicle that breaks down on every field outing, you'll be a real hero. In short, scientific skills are not the only ones you will need, and probably not the most important.

Great People

The good news, maybe the best news, is that the overwhelming majority of entomologists are truly outstanding human beings. They are helpful, kind, dedicated, and have a degree of curiosity unmatched by those in any other discipline. They have a great sense of humor, too. The lifespan of most entomologists seems to be extraordinarily long, despite the dangerous chemicals they may use in the course of their work. I think that humor and curiosity thing comes into play here.

Mark Zloba in the lab at the Eulett Center in Ohio
A World of Possibilities

The standard career for most entomologists continues to be in the area of "economic entomology." That is, entomologists are employed by government agencies and the private sector to control insect pests in agricultural and forest ecosystems. Medical entomologists will be under increasing demand to combat arthropod-borne diseases at home and abroad. My personal hope is that the demand for "exterminators" in residential and commercial neighborhoods will decrease as customers begin to understand the alternatives to chemical insecticide applications in the home or business; but, for now at least, the pest control industry is another major employer of entomologists.

Universities hire entomologists as professors, collection managers, researchers, and other positions of importance. You will be expected to produce research and publish about it to attract both new students, and government and corporate funding for your department.

But Wait, There's More!

Slightly more obscure careers include forensic entomology, whereby entomologists help solve crimes through interpretation of insect evidence at crime scenes. Veterinary entomologists help protect and treat our pets and livestock when they become vulnerable to arthropod parasites. Live insect exhibits at zoos and museums are becoming ever more popular, and entomologists take care of those animals. Insects are also reared in laboratories as food for other captive animals like reptiles; and increasingly as food for people, too. Still other insects are bred in laboratories as biological controls for crop, nursery, and garden pests. Those include some very tiny wasps and flies.

Abigail Parker collecting at night
Educational Paths

Most American universities no longer offer undergraduate degrees in entomology. Some entomology departments have folded altogether, or merged with "plant pathology" or related fields of agricultural science. Many students find their way into entomology by accident, taking a class in the subject and getting hooked. They pursue advanced degrees in entomology from there. Departments of "ecology and evolutionary biology" give perhaps the greatest freedom to students wanting to pursue research opportunities, so do explore that avenue. Do your homework to find a university, public or private, that works for you and worry about paying for it later. You do not want to find yourself in a setting where there is gender bias, racism, and other forms of abuse that stifle your individuality and undermine your determination and mental well-being.

What You Can Do Right Now

Anyone of almost any age can participate in entomology through several avenues. Here is what I would recommend for young people, especially:

  • Volunteer at a natural history museum, insect zoo, botanical garden, or other institution that has an entomology component.
  • Seek mentors. You can often find mentors by volunteering as mentioned above. Find one who is trustworthy and encouraging.
  • Participate in 4-H, FFA, Explorer Scouts (if that is still a "thing." It was in my high school days), and other youth programs that are career-oriented.
  • Go online. There are infinite resources you can use and participate in, from social media that can help you find mentors, to "citizen science" endeavors like i-Naturalist, Project Noah, Odonata Central, Moth Photographers Group, and many others. There are "forums" for people who breed insects and arachnids in captivity, and e-mail listservs of professional entomologists where you can "lurk" and/or ask questions. Ask a librarian to help you get started.

You can't ever start too young!
Be Yourself!
Above all else, be true to who you are. Use your instincts. Go where your "gut" tells you, but know that your path may change many times until you find one that agrees with you. Rarely do people choose entomology. Usually, entomology chooses you, because you are an exceptional individual who is not ruled by cultural "standards" that demand you earn x-dollars of income, be an obedient little cog of a worker, and never question anything. You should be proud of being unique.

Sources: "Bioscience Careers: Entomologist"
"Careers in Entomology"
"Entomology Education & Careers"
"Careers in Entomology". Note that the Young Entomologists' Society sadly no longer exists.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Insect Video Resources

I have recently been adding videos to my own Bug Eric YouTube channel, but my skills are rather weak and my equipment not as sophisticated as that of some of my friends. So, allow me to introduce you to videographers who produce some truly stunning work that you may find useful.

The Bug Chicks, Kristie (L) and Jessica (R)
The Bug Chicks

Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker are academically-qualified entomologists who are also gifted with superb marketing skills and a talent for communicating scientific knowledge in easily-understood language. You may be familiar with them for their appearance in four nationally-televised commercials for Windows 10, which started airing the evening of the Academy Awards. The Bug Chicks are masters at using a playful approach with an audience of children, but also understand how to engage parents and teachers.

The core of The Bug Chicks empire are short, informative, accurate, and hilarious videos that impart facts in an endearing and entertaining way. Not sure why Kristie and Jess have not yet received Oscars themselves. I laughed my way to learning what a "solenophage" is, just now, thanks to their video about lice.

The Bug Chicks have an infectious enthusiasm for what they do that is sure to win your heart. Meanwhile, they are true professionals who are sticklers for accuracy, don't talk down to their audience, and empower young people, especially girls. They are the role models and mentors we should all aspire to be.

Mark Berman and P.R. Mantis
Bugman Educational Entoprises

Mark Berman is also a professional entomologist. He and his sidekick "P.R. Mantis" bring the world of insects, spiders, and other arthropods to audiences all over Ohio and beyond as Bugman Education. Mark is, like The Bug Chicks, able to captivate adults as well as children. He has even given TED talks in Columbus. Innovative videos are often at the heart of Mark's presentations and displays. His YouTube channel is managed by P.R. Mantis, and showcases some excellent camerawork and production skills. Check it out.

Dick Walton © Shawneen Finnegan from Facebook
Dick Walton Natural History Services

Richard Walton may be "old school" in his documentary-style approach to wildlife videography, but few do it better, or have managed to record such a wide variety of insect species. He does not limit himself to invertebrates, either, nor any one geographical area. Please see for yourself at his website. He aims to not only film the natural behaviors of his subjects, but to make new predator-prey and host-parasite associations as well. Dick is a gentleman and a scholar, accredited in natural history education and with a wealth of publications and teaching experience under his belt. He has served more conservation organizations and government agencies than I can list here. I will let his body of work, much of it available online, do the talking.

I have had the honor of meeting all of these people and am impressed not only by the quality of their products and services, but by the content of their character. No ego in any of them, just a fierce commitment to instill an appreciation for the natural world in others. They do so with love and respect for their audiences. We can learn much from them, and not all of that has to do with "bugs," either.

Have I ignored other talented entomologists and filmmakers? No doubt I have. Please feel free to share your own heroes and their work through your comments on this post. Don't forget to include links to their websites, YouTube channels, blogs, and other online presences. Maybe you create videos. Do not be shy, please. Promote yourself, too.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Bee vs. Wasp Memes Perpetuate Ignorance

Social media is both a blessing and a curse to entomologists. It can inform and illuminate, but also circulate misinformation and irrationality at light speed. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this dilemma than the proliferation of bee versus wasp memes.

My friend Devon Henderson posted the above meme on Facebook today to solicit reactions from her colleagues in entomology. Note that I have heavily edited the captions to make the meme "family-friendly." The overwhelming consensus was that such simplistic and inciting graphics are more devastating to public education than they even are "amusing" to people who know better. As one respondent replied,

" The fact people keep posting them in naturalist forums (without your critical comment) annoys me, as if everyone will find it hilarious and haven't seen them a thousand times before. People seem very bad at judging audiences. Also, bad language doesn't bother me personally, but it is bad manners to post it on general forums."

Memes are at best a shortcut to express an opinion. Usually, they are insulting to the subject or hurtful to better-informed members of the intended audience. One respondent to the top meme responded:

" I reali[z]e this is the entomological equivalent of racism: stereotypes, false assumptions on these different species mostly coming out of ignorance and fear. 'Ha ha, wasps are assholes! Ha ha!'"

Indeed, one overriding theme in the comment thread of the Facebook post was that people are uneducated enough already, without adding to their false assumptions with such nonsensical memes. Devon comments:

" It bothers me that people actually think that wasps are vindictive and seek people out. They can't rationalize and reason like a human. They act solely on instinct. But people still choose to ignore this fact and continue to accuse wasps of being the 'bad guys.' It's extremely ignorant to assume that a wasp is conscious of its actions and stings people for the sake of unprovoked 'revenge.'"

That's a female bumble bee, but....

As far as I am concerned, memes like this are the equivalent of war propaganda that dehumanizes the "enemy," and spam that pollutes one's e-mail and social media accounts. Perhaps it is fitting that I am posting this during the U.S. Presidential campaign season, when vitriol is spewing from the mouths of most all of the candidates and their ill-informed supporters. There is little difference between wasps and Republicans if you subscribe to the meme agenda.

I suppose pest control companies and insecticide manufacturers are in no hurry to discourage anti-wasp memes, but thankfully there are those of us with a good "following" of proactive students of entomology and ecology who are spreading the facts. I have the good folks at Ask an Entomologist for initially posting on this very subject, back in 2014 no less. Even beekeepers like Dave Green recognize wasps have their positive attributes:

"The public is finally beginning to realize how important bees are, as our primary pollinators; the next step is to become aware of how vital the wasps are as our primary pest controls. I judge the health of a garden by the number of paper wasps that are working though the plants hunting (pest) prey."

Maybe we even need to start flooding the internet with our own counterattack of memes, as Joe Ballenger has done. He deftly incorporates wasp biology into his memes making female wasps oddly empathetic to the plight of our struggling American middle class.

I thank each of you in advance for calling out the idiocy of memes that paint wasps in a villainous light; and who consistently share their own experiences, knowledge, and imagery that demonstrates the positive aspects and fascinating behaviors of wasps. If all else fails, though, I am certain that Devon would gladly permit you to post her own artistic meme in response to the bad ones.