Monthly Archives: October 2013


Don’t you hate when you’re having a wonderful day, strolling through the park, and all of a sudden…a massive swarm of bugs fly into your mouth, attack your eyes, and zooms up your nostrils?

I have shared too many encounters with these pests! They are swarming around when I’m riding my bike, when I’m talking with friends, when I’m rushing to class, but the craziest experience I had was when I was at my friend’s house earlier this year!

Closer image of the gnats at friend’s house. Photo taken by T.J. Wenzel

 One day I go over to his house and his family is crowded around a window. Not knowing what the big fuss is, I walk over, and what do I see? I see the entire windowsill covered in dead gnats! Furthermore, the gnats weren’t just on one window, but they infested three windows! There were so many and it’s still a mystery how all of them got into the house!

The dead gnats on the windowsill. Photo taken by T.J. Wenzel

But what are gnats? Are they pests? Are they bugs? Are they both?

Well, gnats aren’t “true bugs”, but it’s okay if you thought they were, a lot of people make that mistake! Gnats actually belong in the order Diptera while true bugs belong in the Hemiptera order! #themoreyouknow

So why do they swarm your face? According to an article in The Gazette, gnats are attracted to the lachrymal fluids that keep our eyes lubricated.  But don’t worry they can’t harm you. But if you encounter the buffalo gnat, you may be in trouble.  They are known to terrorize and even kill warm-blooded animals in late May and early June. (Another reason for me to stay indoors and surf the internet all summer)  The bite of the buffalo gnat can cause itching and swelling that is far worse than a mosquito bite.

Buffalo gnats are terrifying because they are ACTUAL PESTS! The ones we see around campus are bothersome but they don’t really negatively affect our lives. Buffalo gnats do! They ATTACK cattle, horses, mules, hogs, turkeys, chickens, and pretty much everything else! The scary thing about them is that they are difficult to get rid of! DEET? That won’t scare them. Permethrin-containing repellents? Can’t keep these beasts away! The only pesticide that is known to be somewhat successful would be larvicides (pesticides that kill insect larvae).

So why should we care? Well, these harmful gnats have a huge impact on our lives! They are killing our livestock aka our food and they growing in numbers very rapidly. According to Jerome Goddard, associate extension professor of medical and veterinary entomology at Mississippi State University, he thinks that the cause of the increase in buffalo gnat populations in Mississippi may be due to cleaner water.  Cleaner water attracts the gnats.  Thus, the more efficient we become and cleaning our water, the more gnats there will be! Guess we can’t get the best of both worlds!

We don’t want to simply kill all of the buffalo gnats, but we definitely don’t want them around our livestock, homes, and our water.  So, with further research, hopefully, we can find a better solution to this problem!

Here’s a cool article about allosaurus that has a neat anecdote about gnats!
Also, if you want to see how many could swarm around at one time, check out this crazy video!!

Can social media sites lead to the discovery of a new species?

We are all familiar with social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Flicker, Twitter, Youtube, Pintrest, Blogger, etc. We commonly think of these sites as ways for people to share thoughts, ideas, photos, interests, and news. However, how reliable are these sites for facts and discoveries?

Turns out they can be pretty reliable. Last fall Hurricane Sandy struck the eastern seaboard bringing mass destruction to New York and New Jersey. In a rare instance, Time Magazine released its Instagram to five photographers tasked with documenting the impacts of Sandy. Due to electrical inconsistencies, Instagram became the fastest way to inform the public of breaking news. During this time I was studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark and relied heavily on this outlet for updated information on the storm’s impacts. Times photographers used Instagram to make breaking news accessible to the public.

What about the flip side – taking information from the public and making it available to experts?

In 2011 this is how a new species of lacewing (Order Neuroptera) was discovered. Guek Hong Ping, who goes by Kurt, posted over 7,000 picturesof a variety of organisms (frogs, snakes, beetles, bugs, birds, and lacewings!) on the photo sharing website Flickr. (If you have time, I encourage you to check out his great pictures.) A close-up of a green lacewing with unusual black lines and blue flecks on its wings caught Shaun Winterton’s expert eye.

Green lacewing - Semachrysa jade - discovered through collaboration over social media (Photo by Guek Hong Ping)

Winterton, a senior insect biosystematist (meaning he studies taxonomy based on the study of genetic evolution of populations) at the California Department of Food and Agriculture, suspected this was a never before described species of lacewing. He promptly contacted Kurt but was disappointed to learn that the lacewing had stuck around only long enough to be photographed. Without a specimen to fully analyze and serve as the type, it would be impossible to determine if this truly was a new species.

As I learned this past summer through my internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History type specimens are the golden key. They serve as the first example of a named species and represent the defining features of the taxon. So without a specimen to study and compare to already identified lacewings, this “new” (I’m putting new in quotes since this species is merely new to being recognized by the scientific community and not new to the world) species could not be confirmed or named.

Fortunately for the scientific community, a year later Kurt returned to the Malaysian forests where he had first photographed the insect and captured the lacewing of interest. This lucky insect was shipped to Steve Brooks, a research entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London. He compared it to the lacewings in the museum’s collections and found a match with an unnamed specimen already in the collection. The findings and details of this newly named species, Semachrysa jade were published in 2012 in the scientific journal ZooKeys.

A point of controversy for many general readers of this discovery was that the lacewing was named not for Kurt but for Shaun Winteron’s daughter, Jade. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind that we don’t know all the details concerning the naming process. Maybe Kurt wasn’t interested in having the lacewing named after him (although, I’m not sure why he wouldn’t be – that would be pretty awesome).

I think the “discovery” of the new lacewing species via a personal Flicker account is an excellent example of how social media connects people and facilitates collaboration between scientists and “ordinary” people. The world seemingly is becoming more and more connected via smart phones rapidly sending texts and snapchats, social media serving as the host for photos, comments, and opinions, and people constantly checking and rechecking these sources. The example of the Times using social media to make news available to the public reveals how major news agencies are realizing, accepting, and utilizing social media sites to reach their audiences. While Kurt most likely did not intentionally post the picture of the lacewing on Flicker to be identified as a new species, this shows how social media successfully connected people of different backgrounds and achieved a scientific discovery.

This story should give budding naturalists and researchers alike hope that by sharing their discoveries with the world they can discover and learn together. While I do not have an extensive Flicker account dedicated to pictures of interesting and awesome organisms (as Kurt does), I consider this to be a telling tale. By sharing images or writings of what you’re interested in you can reach out to others either knowingly or not and could possibly discover a new insect species! If this ever happens to me, I know that I’ll think extra carefully about the name.


The Silverfish that You Squish

What’s something you can find in your pantry, under your bath mat, or even in between the books on your shelf?

A silverfish of course! And if your reaction to silverfish is anything like mine after seeing a silverfish drop off a pantry shelf and onto your foot, you scream, jump around, then either have someone kill it and dispose of the body, or kill it yourself with a tissue and dispose of the body while pitying yourself. Something about the silverfish’s tiny silver scaly body, or its wiggly fish like movements, coupled with its ability to appear almost anywhere in our homes makes it an especially icky pest to deal with.

Despite the dismay I feel when seeing one of these critters crawling out from amidst the food stored in my pantry, I can’t deny the fact that they are one of the insects I’ll encounter the most in my home and possibly in my life. What better reason do I need than that to spark some curiosity about this small pest of the order thysanura?

Now I’ll ease you into this because I know silverfish might not at the top of your list of interesting insects to read about. These little guys have achieved a little spot in videogame pop culture by appearing in an extremely popular computer game, Minecraft. They pop up, unexpectedly, out of a number of seemly normal blocks and scuttle around quickly, and can even cause other silverfish to appear, creating a swarm-like infestation. This makes for a rather inconvenient event which mimics the real life silverfish that we are all familiar with.


Much like the silverfish in this game which appear randomly out of seemly normal places, silverfish in the real world pop out of all sorts of unexpected places, from books, to bathroom mats, causing me to wonder what in the world they’re doing there and how they’re even survivin. Well it turns out that silverfish’s feeding habits allow, even encourage, them to live in just these places. They feed on carbohydrates which are acquired from a variety of common household objects from books to glue to linen. This means that in large numbers, silverfish infestations can be serious threats to libraries, closets full of clothing, and more.



There’s more to these little and seemingly un-exterminatable pests which explains their presence in seemingly any given corner of even the cleanest homes. Their sex usually consists of males depositing sperm packets, which females then take in order to reproduce. This is the more primitive form of reproduction which came before the sexual intercourse that more recently evolved insects have.

However there have been instances in which parthenogenesis, or asexual reproduction, has been recorded in these insects. This could theoretically allow the species to continue reproducing even in abnormal or more dangerous situations by just popping out female clone after female clone. On the previously mentioned link about their feeding habits, it is even mentioned that they are sometimes found in unopened packages. Imagine the excitement you might feel upon opening a bag of chips only to find dozens of silverfish because one silverfish egg somehow managed to find its way into the package, only to hatch and clone away for days.

I’ve been using the term silverfish to refer to our squiggly little friend, but in fact silverfish only one of several species of thysanura, also known as bristletails. There are thirteen species of the order thysanura here in the United States. Now all of these species have their own special preferences, but in general humid and relatively warm climates. This is yet another way in which our homes, basements, and attics are such a great place for silverfish to take up residence.

Here is a firebrat, a common species of thysanura found in the US.

Now you might be thinking, “Man, silverfish are so gross and live all over my house and eat whatever they want,” but why don’t we give them another chance. Change pest into pets! That’s right, why not have a pet silverfish? Because they’re small squiggly and mostly just eat paper? Well that might be true, but different species of silverfish can live anywhere from several months to as many as five years. That’s longer than a hamster. Alternatively, if you really just can’t imagine a silverfish as a pet (honestly I can’t blame you at all), just remember the next time you see a little silverfish running by along the edge of the wall, you might be seeing him again in a few years, after he or she has produced hundreds more offspring!



Hungry Mantises!

It was roughly 9:30pm, and I had just arrived to my apartment on a Tuesday night after cheer practice. I approached my apartment door, and as I was turning my key I happened to look up to the right of my door where the outdoor lamp was shining, exposing two large eyes that were staring right back at me. I paused for a second, and analyzed the slender stick-like body with the long green legs extending onto the surface. When I easily spotted the praying structures I knew right away that I had found me a Mantis.


I quickly opened the door and had my roommate fetch me a plastic tupperware so that I could catch him for lab. He stayed completely still until I edged him on to walk into my plastic trap. I made sure to get some decent photos before I stuck him inside the container.

Both photos taken by Alyssa Thomas (me)

Mantises are commonly called “Praying Mantis” because of their raptorial forelegs, which have a prayer structure. The common name is ironic in a way because these “praying structures” actually help these insects prey on smaller insects. Mantises are in the order Mantodea and there are over 2,400 species with most of them coming from the Mantidae family.


As mentioned before, mantises prefer to eat smaller insects such as mosquitoes, crickets, and moths. They patiently wait for their prey and then extend their forelegs, which have sharp spines to get a good grasp. Then the mantis will viciously bite into the neck, paralyzing the prey to make finishing off their meal a lot easier.


The interesting thing about these insects is that they are not picky eaters. Females will sometimes eat their own offspring after the eggs hatch. They even participate in sexual cannibalism, which consists of the female devouring the male’s head after he delivers his sperm. Click here to see a video of a hungry female mantis!


As you could see these mantises have an appetite, and they will do anything to fulfill it. One of the most recent found discoveries in the orchid mantis is the insect’s ability to mimic a flower to attract prey. This article describes the research done by scientists of Macquire University in Australia and of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.


The scientists gathered orchid mantises from the forests in Malaysia while also collecting general flowers for their experiment. They performed two experiments to research this bizarre ability that orchid mantises seem to have!

The first experiment was done to compare the color of orchid mantises to native flowers to see if these insects are capable of looking like these colorful Malaysian flowers in the first place. They used a spectrophotometer to measure the wavelengths of native Malaysian flowers. Pollinating insects (a.k.a mantises prey) are unable to distinguish the color of orchid mantises from various Malaysian flower species.


Photograph by Thomas Marent, Minden pictures/Corbis in Borneo, Malaysia.

This definitely helps trick insects so that these orchid mantises can eat!


The second experiment was even more interesting. They counted the number of insects attracted to native flowers and those attracted to the orchid mantis flower by observing them in the field. The researchers found that more insects were attracted the deceiving mantis flower instead of the actual native flower!


So these orchid mantises give a great example of one way these mantises patiently capture their lovely, insect meal!

Chasing Down the Ant Trail

It is always a curious thing to unexpectedly notice a phenomenon which you had never discerned previously, only to realise after contemplation that the occurrence you have just noted has always been present. Such was the case on a slightly drizzly afternoon I spent in my dormitory room, pondering on a possible topic on which I could write about in a blogging assignment for my entomology class.

Sitting before my computer screen, drumming my fingers on my table, I observed a fine black line trailing from a plate of consumed lunch on the tabletop, onto the wall, and out the window through a minuscule crack at the bottom of the panels. Upon closer observation the line appeared to be composed of numerous tiny ants moving in an extremely ordered fashion. Of course, I have seen ants marching along in neat trails more times than it matters to mention here; however, it registered to me that I had never investigated the mechanisms of pheromone excretion in ants that result in their orderly movements.

Upon some quick “research” (i.e. Google), I swiftly identified these ants that were hijacking the food in my room as Monomorium minimum. How did I find out so quickly? Well, serendipity played a part. Since these ants were little and black, I started off with searching “little black ant”, and was promptly rewarded. The common name of M. minimum is actually “little black ant” (simple and descriptive – that is how all insects should be named). Further confirmation was made after examining pictures and finding out that these ants were prevalent in the Houston area. Native to the US, the little black ants make such great nuisances due to its fond taste of fairly much everything humans eat (and some more humans don’t eat). Their small size allows them to more easily infiltrate food containers; because of this they are also versatile in the environment in which they can establish a nest in (from trees and grass and in the soil outdoors, to masonry and woodwork indoors). Fortunately, I traced the path of the ants in my room to a nest that was outside of my room (fingers crossed it remains that way).

The Little Black Ant
(Not Scaled to Actual Size)

Ant trails themselves are an intriguing piece of biological ingenuity, and one that we do not quite fully understand yet. There are many purposes the trails serve, but the most common is the locating of temporary food sources. From observations, researchers have seen that in most cases (including the M. minimum), a scout ant is initially dispatched to search for food. Naturally, the scout ant wanders in irregular paths. After randomly happening upon a food source, the scout ant will take the most direct route possible back to the nest, leaving a trail of pheromones behind. From this, we can see that the scout ant somehow maintains a knowledge of the location of itself with respect to its nest, as it is out meandering about. The scout then releases a different type of signal, a recruitment signal, which summons the worker ants.

Recent studies have shown that ant behaviour following the initial identification of food location by scout ants may be even more complicated than it seems. The complexity of the ants’ comprehension of its large environment

and their interactions with its components indicate a mechanism of “collective cognition” at work. That is, no single individual manages the movements of the ants; rather, a convoluted nexus of information is continuously passed around and gathered by all of the foraging worker ants. Individuals gather information through their unique interactions with various elements in the environment. A lattice of trails results from thousands of worker ants leaving trails. Their collective knowledge is constantly updated and adapts to changes in the environment. That’s why ants can find your food so soon after you remove it from the original location.

This extraordinarily effective strategy is termed stigmergy. Stigmergy is an indirect form of communication (in this case, among the ants), whereby an action is stimulated by a signal left in the environment by previous actions. In this way, a process can be phenomenally flexible and efficient. In ants, this strategy is used not only in ant trails, but also in nest building. This is a prime rationale of how such small insects can construct such intricate and large habitats.

It is truly interesting how elaborate chemical pathways may be in even the most minute of organisms. In another pheromone-mediated pathway involved in food foraging of M. minimum, a chemical is secreted to interfere with competitors. In the event that worker ants encounter other organisms at the food source the scout has discovered, the workers will secrete a toxin that may deter the competitors long enough for them to gather enough food.

Such is the beauty of taking the time to examine the little creatures around us that we may otherwise find insignificant. We chance on marvellous behaviours and uncover wondrous pathways the universe has created; we seek to appreciate the finer details in the wildlife that surrounds us. And through this, we begin to see our world in a whole new light.

Insect Night Terrors

“Night terrors” have taken on a whole new meaning for me. Around 2am I was awoken to the feeling of something squirming and fluttering…in my ear. You better believe I screamed loud enough to wake both my roommate and
neighbors up. I reached into my ear and the creature squirmed further in to where I could no longer reach or see it. Even just typing these words down and remembering the feeling of something making its way down my ear canal gives me goosebumps. The feeling was one of the strangest (and most horrifying) things I have ever experienced.

American Cockroach Taken by Brockett Film Fauna, Inc.

I couldn’t see it or feel it, but I knew it was in there. And it needed to come out. Naturally, I turned to Google, which suggested flushing my ear out with mineral water or baby oil. I didn’t have either of those, but the next best thing was tap water. I flushed my ear out several times until the insect finally spewed out. It fell to the floor and I immediately captured it. To my surprise and horror, it was not a small beetle or tiny fly—it was an American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)!!

Upon telling my story to my friends the next day, I got many comments such as, “No way! That’s an old wives’ tale!” and “You’re lucky it didn’t lay its eggs there!” Upon doing research, however, I found some interesting details. First of all, it is not an old wives’ tale—many hospitals in big cities remove many cockroaches from patients’ ears a week! I also realized that I was extremely lucky—most cockroaches that go into peoples’ ears are caught too late, causing excruciating pain and a trip to the emergency room. Due to my prompt reaction and the small size of the cockroach, I was able to get it out without enduring pain or visiting the ER.

So why do cockroaches travel into your ear canal? Is it really to lay their eggs there? Or to feed on your brain?!

Cockroaches, as it turns out, do not go in search of a human ear to use as a nest or in search of delicious brain food. According to Chris Williams, “Cockroaches end up in ears because they literally stumble upon them during their wanderings,

Cockroach Near Ear Canal by Emma Edwards

and being cockroaches who like small, dark spaces, they check it out.” So, a curious cockroach travels up into your ear canal as it seems like a suitable environment to live. They soon learn, however, that a waxy and tiny canal is not the best place for survival. Why, then, do they stay there? Why don’t they just leave?

Apparently, cockroaches are too wide to turn around in the narrow ear canal. Additionally, according to Chris Williams,“They’re not so good at the concept of backing out”. Thus, instead of just going in reverse to get out of the ear, they tend to burrow further into the ear canal and will eventually get stuck there.

Is it just adventurous cockroaches that get stuck in peoples’ ears? The answer, unfortunately, is no. According to Dr. Barrie Tan, he has seen many insects, from ants and moths to even bees, stuck in peoples’ ears before. Yuck!

If this ever happens to you, remember: DON’T try and get it out with a Q-tip or tweezers! According to this case study, doing so can cause cerumen (earwax) impaction as well as crushing the insect, making it harder for it to get out. Just try flushing it out with oil or mineral water, and if that doesn’t work , go to the ER.

For more information about  American cockroaches and they’re mischievous activities, click here.