Archive for June, 2011

Oviposition, oviposition, oviposition

Sunday night dinner was a celebration of Greek food, Greek movies, a farewell to a great housemate, and an unexpected event.

In the beginning, it was a fairly normal evening.  A wasp was flying around, doing it’s wasp thing, and landed on a chair.  Fear not, soon to be Doctor Princess Marie!  This wasp is mostly harmless, unlike the pesky yellow jackets and hornets that would like to join you for a picnic.  So we let it be and eventually it flew off.

But alas! Minutes later it returned and reared its pesky, large and beautifully blue iridescent head.  After a few closer observations of its strange motions and careful examination of its back end, I realized it was ovipositing on the chair!  You can see the egg on the arm rest just below the tip of the ovipositor below.

What excitement and discussion of host choice and explanation of oviposition, the process of laying eggs.  Go figure, the entomologist of the house would get excited.  But the others appreciated the natural event as well.  I’m pretty sure that we used “oviposition” in practically every sentence afterwards. In true entomologist fashion, I collected and froze the wasp for identification and for my collection.  If only all my pinned insects had a story to go with them…

Special thanks to Jason for his fortuitous photography, Marie for diligent attention to insects on the porch, and Trevor for the delicious reason we were outside to witness this event.  Still working to ID the little thing, but I will let you know when I figure it out.


My niece has a doll with a bonnet.  It looks like it’s wearing a helmet.  So she named it Baby Helmet.  It turns out, that these guys have helmets too.

Photo Courtesy of Greg Lasley

This is a treehopper, in the family Membracidae.  This species is the Thorn Treehopper, Umbonia crassicornis, found in the Southern United States.  The helmet is the pretty green, yellow, and pink structure that creates the thorn-like appearance.  A recent article published in Nature found that the helmet is an appendage arising from the first thoracic segment.  Somehow it’s “escaped” the repressive function of the gene that leads to wing formation.  It’s almost as if treehoppers had a third pair of wings.  But not quite, they’re just wing-like.  They’re fused together, not used for flight, practical for mimicry, and in my opinion, make treehoppers look really cute.  Bug Girl has a great explanation of homology and summary of the article if you’re looking for more.

Why Science?

I think one of my main motivations of this blog is to check back every so often, and think about the context of my work within a greater body of knowledge.  That, and considering the importance of my work and the potential impact it has.

As I was getting an oil change the other day,  I came across a Scientific American article about scientific perception, the title: Trust Me, I’m a Scientist.  It made me think of another science-y article, The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science, on Mother Jones.  One short article, one long article, both valuable in trying to understand the battles I may face as a scientist.

There is truly a great deal of value in the work in which my colleagues are involved.  My focus is in the applied sector and problem solving with growers.  In this regard, it is important to understand and recognize the preconceptions and notions based on cultural and experiential knowledge that people may have.


Ashes to Ashes

Emerald Ash Borer is now in Western New York!  If you remember my first Who’s Who post, the Emerald Ash Borer is a new invasive species that infests ash trees.  This is what the insect looks like:

Read more about the recent infestation here.  And remember:

Suspect Spots (Guest post!)

When walking through the woods on a sunlit day, admiring the new flowers and occasional buzzing bee, it’s easy to forget that the organisms surrounding us are at war with one another. The trees are competing for sunlight, nutrients and water, the wasps are trying to paralyze caterpillars to feed the youngsters back home, and somewhere, a fungal spore just landed on an insect and is about to germinate.

My coworker, Ryan, returned from the field last week, carrying a big tree branch full of leaves. Ryan is a fungus guy. Not a guy made of fungus, but a guy who studies it. He’s spent tons of time scanning the ground, trees, and even insects, for different fungi, and with this tree branch, he’d hit the jackpot. The tree had been blowing around in the breeze, which flipped up some leaves, exposing suspect spots underneath.

And on closer inspection of one such spot:

An entomophthoralean fungus (Zygomycota) growing out of a host fly.

It’s was a fly, and although it looked, at a glance, to be in good shape, an even closer look revealed white fungus growing out of its body.

The culprit? An entomophthorales fungus. (Ento-mop-thor-A-lees) Fungi in this group, whose name means “insect-destroyer,” produce spores on the dead insect that are often shot off like missiles. This type of spore is even referred to as “ballistic.” Once the spores are shot into the air, the wind carries them to whatever destiny may have in store for them. With luck, a spore will land on a suitable insect and germinate, starting the life cycle again.

Sometimes, when the weather is perfect and the host insects are around in abundance, you can get an epizootic episode. Then, the fungus is able to reproduce in mass quantities and launch a full scale war at the insects. Such was the battlefield on Ryan’s tree branch:

Dead flies plastered to the underside of leaves, killed by an entomopathogenic fungus.

Such naturally occurring insect diseases can be used to our advantage when we find one that attacks an insect we consider to be a particular nuisance. If the fungus (or nematode or bacteria, for just a few examples) can be cultured and is suitably host-specific, it can be used for the biological control of the pest. Even if the disease in question isn’t cultured for release to control the pest, the pest population can be monitored so that we know when a natural outbreak of the disease  is likely.  This knowledge can help farmers save money by not spraying pesticides for an insect that would probably be killed anyway by an epizootic episode.

Those people that work in the field of insect pathology focus on finding these pathogens in nature, investigating the biology of how they cause disease, and developing practical uses for their findings. But it all starts with an eye for suspect spots.

Good eye, Ryan!