Posts about insects

Engineering Mosquitos to Prevent the Transmission of Diseases

Mosquitos are responsible for huge amount of suffering and death. In 2015 200,000,000 people were infected with malaria and 500,000 died.

It is amazing what knowledge science has provided about the causes of human disease. It is great to have videos like this available that let us learn a bit about it from a short and understandable video.

Using our scientific knowledge to design and implement solutions offers great possibilities. But we also have to worry about the risks of such attempts. Making decisions about what risks to take requires well informed people that are able to understand the opportunities and risks and make intelligent decisions.

Related: Video showing malaria breaking into cellScientists Building a Safer Mosquito (2006)Engineering Mosquitoes to be Flying Vaccinators (2010)

Refusal to Follow Scientific Guidance Results in Worms Evolving to Eat Corn Designed to Kill The Worms

An understanding of natural selection and evolution is fundamental to understanding science, biology, human health and life. Scientists create wonderful products to improve our lives: vaccines, antibiotics, etc.; if we don’t use them or misuse them it is a great loss to society.

There is also great value in genetic enhanced seeds and thus plants (through natural human aided processes such as breeding and providing good genetic material over a wide area – distances that would not be covered naturally, at least not in a time that helps us much). Genetic Modified Organisms (GMO) food, in which we tinker with the genes directly also holds great promise but has risks, especially if we forget basic scientific principles such as biodiversity.

Voracious Worm Evolves to Eat Biotech Corn Engineered to Kill It

First planted in 1996, Bt corn quickly became hugely popular among U.S. farmers. Within a few years, populations of rootworms and corn borers, another common corn pest, had plummeted across the midwest. Yields rose and farmers reduced their use of conventional insecticides that cause more ecological damage than the Bt toxin.

By the turn of the millennium, however, scientists who study the evolution of insecticide resistance were warning of imminent problems. Any rootworm that could survive Bt exposures would have a wide-open field in which to reproduce; unless the crop was carefully managed, resistance would quickly emerge.

Key to effective management, said the scientists, were refuges set aside and planted with non-Bt corn. Within these fields, rootworms would remain susceptible to the Bt toxin. By mating with any Bt-resistant worms that chanced to evolve in neighboring fields, they’d prevent resistance from building up in the gene pool.

But the scientists’ own recommendations — an advisory panel convened in 2002 by the EPA suggested that a full 50 percent of each corn farmer’s fields be devoted to these non-Bt refuges — were resisted by seed companies and eventually the EPA itself, which set voluntary refuge guidelines at between 5 and 20 percent. Many farmers didn’t even follow those recommendations.

Using extremely powerful tools like GMO requires society to have much better scientific literacy among those making decisions than any societies have shown thus far. The failure of our governments to enforce sensible scientific constraints on such use of genetic engineering creates huge risks to society. It is due to this consistent failure of our government to act within sensible scientific constraints that causes me to support efforts (along with other reasons – economic understanding – the extremely poor state of patent system, risk reduction…) to resist the widespread adoption of GMO, patenting of life (including seeds and seeds produced by seeds).

Wonderful things are possible. If we grow up and show a long term track record of being guided by scientific principles when the risks of not doing so are huge then I will be more supportive of using tactics such as GMO more easily. But I don’t see us getting their anytime soon. If anything we are much less scietifically minded and guided than we were 50 years ago: even while we bask in the glorious wonders science has brought us on a daily basis.

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Mechanical Gears Found in Jumping Insects

A natural example of a functioning gear mechanism has been discovered in a common insect – the plant-hopper Issus – showing that evolution developed interlocking cogs long before we did.

The gears in the Issus hind-leg bear remarkable engineering resemblance to those found on every bicycle and inside every car gear-box. Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to man-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock-absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.

The gear teeth on the opposing hind-legs lock together like those in a car gear-box, ensuring almost complete synchronicity in leg movement – the legs always move within 30 ‘microseconds’ of each other, with one microsecond equal to a millionth of a second.

This is critical for the powerful jumps that are this insect’s primary mode of transport, as even miniscule discrepancies in synchronisation between the velocities of its legs at the point of propulsion would result in “yaw rotation” – causing the Issus to spin hopelessly out of control.

“This precise synchronisation would be impossible to achieve through a nervous system, as neural impulses would take far too long for the extraordinarily tight coordination required,” said lead author Professor Malcolm Burrows, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

“By developing mechanical gears, the Issus can just send nerve signals to its muscles to produce roughly the same amount of force – then if one leg starts to propel the jump the gears will interlock, creating absolute synchronicity.

Interestingly, the mechanistic gears are only found in the insect’s juvenile – or ‘nymph’ – stages, and are lost in the final transition to adulthood. These transitions, called ‘molts’, are when animals cast off rigid skin at key points in their development in order to grow.

It may also be down to the larger size of adults and consequently their ‘trochantera’ – the insect equivalent of the femur or thigh bones. The bigger adult trochantera might allow them to can create enough friction to power the enormous leaps from leaf to leaf without the need for intermeshing gear teeth to drive it, say the scientists.

It’s not yet known why the Issus loses its hind-leg gears on reaching adulthood. The scientists point out that a problem with any gear system is that if one tooth on the gear breaks, the effectiveness of the whole mechanism is damaged. While gear-teeth breakage in nymphs could be repaired in the next molt, any damage in adulthood remains permanent. It is amazing what evolution results in, not only gears but a system that changes to a different solution (maybe, who knows the real “reason”) when the gears solution lack of robustness would create a problem for survivability.

While there are examples of apparently ornamental cogs in the animal kingdom – such as on the shell of the cog wheel turtle or the back of the wheel bug – gears with a functional role either remain elusive or have been rendered defunct by evolution.

Related: Using Bacteria to Power Microscopic MachinesWebcast of a T-cell Killing a Cancerous CellBuilding A Better Bed Bug Trap Using Bean Leaves

In the video above, Professor Malcolm Burrows talks about finding the bugs that led to the science, and working with artists Elizabeth Hobbs and Emily Tracy and members of the community in the London borough of Hackney to produce the film ‘Waterfolk’.

Full press release

How Bee Hives Make Decisions

The Secret Life of Bees by Carl Zimmer

The decision-making power of honeybees is a prime example of what scientists call swarm intelligence. Clouds of locusts, schools of fish, flocks of birds and colonies of termites display it as well. And in the field of swarm intelligence, Seeley is a towering figure. For 40 years he has come up with experiments that have allowed him to decipher the rules honeybees use for their collective decision-making. “No one has reached the level of experimentation and ingenuity of Tom Seeley,” says Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University.

Enthusiasm translates into attention. An enthusiastic scout will inspire more bees to go check out her site. And when the second-wave scouts return, they persuade more scouts to investigate the better site.

The second principle is flexibility. Once a scout finds a site, she travels back and forth from site to hive. Each time she returns, she dances to win over other scouts. But the number of dance repetitions declines, until she stops dancing altogether. Seeley and his colleagues found that honeybees that visit good sites keep dancing for more trips than honeybees from mediocre ones.

This decaying dance allows a swarm to avoid getting stuck in a bad decision. Even when a mediocre site has attracted a lot of scouts, a single scout returning from a better one can cause the hive to change its collective mind.

“Bees are to hives as neurons are to brains,” says Jeffrey Schall, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University. Neurons use some of the same tricks honeybees use to come to decisions. A single visual neuron is like a single scout. It reports about a tiny patch of what we see, just as a scout dances for a single site. Different neurons may give us conflicting ideas about what we’re actually seeing, but we have to quickly choose between the alternatives. That red blob seen from the corner of your eye may be a stop sign, or it may be a car barreling down the street.

To make the right choice, our neurons hold a competition, and different coalitions recruit more neurons to their interpretation of reality, much as scouts recruit more bees

Very cool stuff.

Related: Honeybees Warn Others of RisksWasps Used to Detect ExplosivesStudy of the Colony Collapse Disorder Continues as Bee Colonies Continue to Disappear

New Life Form Found at South African Truck Stop

Man discovers a new life-form at a South African truck stop

An order is one of the big categories of life, a big branch on evolution’s tree. Animal species are named every day, but finding another new order would be equivalent to discovering bats having not previously known they existed. Bats constitute their own order, as do primates, beetles, flies and rodents.

The Mantophasmatodes look, inescepably, larval (they lack wings, for example, and have no ocelli) and so Picker like others mistook them for immature versions of some known creature, perhaps some weird kind of cricket. When more than three quarters of all species of animals are not yet named, it is hard to know which ones to get excited about finding. Picker went through his collections looking for specimens of Mantophasmatodes. Within weeks, he had found twenty-nine individual Mantophasmatodes. Thirteen living species of Mantophasmatodea have now been named and placed in 10 genera and three different families.

In other words, Zompro has done something more amazing than finding a rare new order of animals. He has discovered a common order of animals that everyone else had missed, a discovery in plain view.

Mantaphasmatodes are not a far away species confined to some remote hunk of rock. They are a whole suite of species, some of which live places as mundane as backyards. They are also a kind of a living extended metaphor for what lurks around us unnoticed all the time.

I was always told as a child that I shouldn’t question so much and just accept what adults have decided. I am sure I was very annoying questioning everything. Especially how amazingly boring they make school. I love learning stuff. In general I did not love school. But questioning that school really should do a better job of making it fun to learn was seen as being a bothersome kid. I should just accept this is how school is and learn. I still think I was right. School is horribly designed to nurture the innate curiosity of people. Rather than seeing the kids that point this out as troublemakers we should see those that perpetuate the current system as troublemakers.

I still remember my sophomore year in high school I was taught by a biology teacher that new very little. They had been a 2nd grade teacher for like 15 years and due to seniority (they didn’t need as many 2nd grade teachers I guess) she bumped the biology teacher from the year before and we were stuck learning from her. In fact, any decently interesting question was more likely to be answered by a student (Peter – who then went to Princeton and then to play for the National Symphony) after the teacher said she didn’t know.

I found biology horrible. And it probably took a decade or more for me to finally notcie how amazingly cool biology. Fantastically cool. The amount of just super interesting biology is so vast that I have huge amounts of great stuff I get to look forward to learning. My teacher made it even worse, but frankly the way it is taught (I would imagine) is pretty bad even if the teacher is good. My high school was populated largely by the kids of Professors and compared to other schools in the USA I was told many times was fantastic (and the data seemed to support that – I believe we have more national merit scholars the year I graduated than all but 1 other public school in the country).

We need to do a much better job of harnessing the native desire to learn people have instead of killing it (which we do far to often). It really is a tragedy. It isn’t noticed because you can get by alright without loving learning. But it reduces the lives people have when they have their love of learning crushed. I didn’t have mine crushed but when I look around at many adults they seem to have done so to a large extent (sometimes it pokes through in a hobby or with their kids). And of course many adults kept a strong love of learning (all those geeks for example – and don’t forget the biologists).

Related: Photos of Rare Saharan Cheetah, Sand Cat and More WildlifeThe Only Known Cancerless AnimalWhat Kids can Learn, if We Give Them a ChanceIt took me a lot longer than most kids to stop asking why?, why?, why?Teaching Through Tinkering

How To Make Your Own Pesticide with Ingredients from Your Kitchen

Video by the Singapore National Park Board, on creating your own pesticide with just water, dish-washing liquid, chili, garlic and cooking oil.

Related: Pigs Instead of PesticidesAutomatic Cat FeederRethinking the Food Production SystemBuild Your Own Tabletop Interactive Multi-touch ComputerScience Toys You Can Make With Your KidsPesticide Laced Fertiliser Ruins GardensLiving in Singapore

Backyard Wildlife: Walking Leaf

photo of insect that looks like a leaf

See some more great photos of the hike on Penang Island in Malaysia, from the Capturing Penang blog.

Related: Backyard Wildlife: FoxBackyard Wildlife: Great Spreadwing DamselflyBackyard Wildlife: Turtle










Monarch Butterflies Use Medicinal Plants

Monarch butterflies eat toxic plants (that they have evolved to tolerate and make the butterflies themselves toxic to predators). They use medicinal plants to treat their offspring for disease, research by Emory biologists shows. When the butterflies are infected by certain parasites the butterflies have a strong preference to lay their eggs on a plant (tropical milkweed) that will help the caterpillar fight the parasite when it eats those leaves (it serves as a drug for them). Their experiments may be the best evidence to date that animals use medication.

Related: Monarch Migration ResearchMonarch Butterfly MigrationEvolution at Work with the Blue Moon Butterfly

Ants, Ants, Ants

Ants really are amazing. The internet makes it easy to learn about these creatures. My Dad found them fascinating and I picked up that view. I had a flying one, flying around my house yesterday.


“Ants: The Invisible Majority” including Dr. Brian Fisher, chairman of the Department of Entomology at the Cal Academy of Sciences looking for ants in San Francisco. He created AntWeb, an online resource. The video discusses the Argentine Ant super colonies.

Related: Ants Counting Their StepsE.O. Wilson: Lord of the AntsSymbiotic relationship between ants and bacteria

Monarch Migration Research

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch butterflies – renowned for their lengthy annual migration to and from Mexico – complete an even more spectacular journey home than previously thought.

New research from the University of Guelph reveals that some North American monarchs born in the Midwest and Great Lakes fly directly east over the Appalachians and settle along the eastern seaboard. Previously, scientists believed the majority of monarchs migrated north directly from the Gulf Coast.

Unfortunately the press release doesn’t provide a link to the study – maybe it is not open science. Often organization focused on closed science don’t do well providing web links (though even open science organizations fall down on this more than they should).

“It solves the long-standing mystery of why monarchs always show up later on the east coast compared to the interior,” he said. “Importantly, it means that the viability of east coast populations is highly dependent upon productivity on the other side of the mountains.”

Monarchs travel thousands of kilometres each year from wintering sites in central Mexico back to North America’s eastern coast, a journey that requires multiple generations (in the same year) produced at various breeding regions.

Biologists had suspected that monarchs fly back from Mexico west-to-east over the Appalachians, but no evidence existed to support the theory. “Ours is the first proof of longitudinal migration,” Miller said.

For the study, the researchers collected 90 monarch samples from 17 sites between Maine and Virginia in June and July of 2009. They also collected 180 samples of milkweed (the only plant monarch larvae can eat) from 36 sites along the eastern coast between May and July of that year.

They then used hydrogen and carbon isotope measurements to determine when and where the monarchs were born. Isotope values in milkweed vary longitudinally and can be measured in monarch wings, Miller said. The researchers discovered that 88 per cent of the monarchs sampled originated in the Midwest and Great Lakes regions.

“This means that the recolonization of the east coast is by second-generation monarchs that hatched around the Great Lakes and then migrated eastward over the Appalachians,” Miller said. “We must target the Great Lakes region to conserve the east coast monarch populations.”

Full press release

Related: Monarch Butterfly MigrationMonarch TravelsBackyard Scientists Aid ResearchTwo Butterfly Species Evolved Into Third

The Billion-Bug Highway In the Sky

Listen to Bug Highway In The Sky

there are 3 billion insects passing over your head in a summer month, he was talking about his survey in Great Britain. Closer to the equator, he says, the numbers should rise. He wouldn’t be surprised, for example, that in the sky over Houston or New Orleans there could be 6 billion critters passing overhead in a month.

Related: Monarch Butterfly MigrationGuadalupe Mountains National Park: Ladybug CityLeaf-footed Bug

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