A Shocking Discovery: Blattodea Abound!

Everything’s bigger in Texas… I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard that in the four years that I’ve lived here. This isn’t just a case of Texas pride (which, of course is… bigger) – almost everything in Texas actually is bigger. Take BBQ for example. Or guns. High school football is almost unreal. And cockroaches. The most obscenely large cockroaches I’ve ever seen.

As winter approaches, it has become increasingly difficult to leave the cozy confines of my bed in the morning. Each morning becomes just a little bit cooler than the last. On one particular morning last week, I awoke at 7:15 am for class that would start in about 45 minutes. Of course, by waking up at 7:15 am, I really mean playing the “How many times can I hit my snooze button” game with myself until about 5 minutes before class starts. So there I was, shivering head to toe, throwing on sweat pants, a shirt, and a hoodie as fast as I could so that I could make it to class on time.  Everything was going according to plan until I slipped my feet into my shoes, and felt a little prick on my big toe. Whatever, I thought, and continued towards the bathroom to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. As I was entering the bathroom, I felt something else in my shoe. As if something was moving a little bit. Strange, I thought, and took the shoe off my foot and shook it upside down. Nothing. I heard a shriek from my roommate, and I looked up to see him pointing towards the outside of my shoe. And there it was. The mystery mover in the shoe, the great tickler of the toes, the Texas-sized American cockroach.

Being the insect nerds that my roommate and I are, we both looked at each other and sang in harmony “BLATTODEA!” (the order of insects to which cockroaches belong). I picked up my shoe and smashed the cockroach to death, and the cockroach was no longer.

You had it coming, little fella.

But, throughout the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my deceased cockroach friend laid eggs inside my shoe and its babies were all waiting for the right moment to strike. Or that maybe there was a whole colony of cockroaches underneath my bed and this courageous individual just happened to wander off into my shoe. Or maybe I brought home all sorts of insects from a recent hike through the woods and were now breeding all sorts of hybrid nasty pests… Why did this have to happen to me?!? Why does Houston have to be filled with so many cockroaches? What was the cockroach doing in my shoe? I searched the Internet for answers.

Houston’s semi-tropical climate is a perfect breeding ground for insects. The high humidity and temperatures combine to create a perfect habitat for cockroaches. However, as daytime temperatures fall in the winter months, cockroaches are found more often indoors, due to their intolerance of cold temperatures. American cockroaches in particular, thrive in warm, humid environments, where they can grow up to 2 inches in length (https://insects.tamu.edu/fieldguide/aimg22.html). Sounds familiar. Especially the up to two inches part.

In addition, cockroaches are mainly nocturnal and run away when exposed to light (http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7467.html). So that explains why the cockroach was hanging out inside my shoe as the sun came up in the morning.

Many species of cockroaches, including American cockroaches, only mate one time and are then pregnant for life (http://www.protexpest.com/blog/pest-control/cockroaches-housto/). About every 4 days, females produce a capsule, which contain 13-16 eggs. Then, the females glue their capsules in hidden areas. For instance, inside a shoe. Or underneath a bed. Great.

A typical American cockroach capsule, with nymphs.

Image courtesy of www.epestsupply.com.

The more I read about cockroach behavioral tendencies, the more worried I became (similar to the webMD paranoia I experience from time to time). As a result, I rushed to CVS and nearly cleared the shelves of all of the pest repellent and cockroach traps it had in stock.

It’s been about a week since my fateful encounter, and thankfully there haven’t been any other cockroach sightings in my dorm. Knock on wood.

The Complex Caste System of Leafcutter Ants

A couple weeks ago, during an Insect Biology Lab fieldtrip to the Spring Creek Greenway, I picked up a leafcutter ant with the specific purpose of having it bite me. Some may use this as evidence that I am crazy and others may cite it as an example of the power of peer pressure, but really it was interesting to get to see the ant up close and personal. It didn’t really hurt that much anyway and, in a weird way, it was kind of cute to watch the ant trying so hard to pinch my skin with its little mandibles. Ok, maybe I am crazy, but that’s not what this blog post is about. Actually, what I found the most interesting about this experience was picking which ant to let bite me. When we look at an ant mound, normally we just see essentially hundreds of copies of the same ant, as though they all popped out of the same mold from an ant making machine hidden underground. However, if you take a closer look, it is really quite a bit more complicated than that. As I scanned the ground, trying to decide which ant to pick up, I heard Dr. Solomon say something about how I should pick up a soldier one since they’re bigger and interesting to look at. That’s when I noticed that within this same species (Atta texana), within this same colony even, there were ants that looked widely different from each other. I had a vague idea about the division of labor in an ant colony before, but I hadn’t really realized the degree of specialization until after more research.

Soldier on my finger. Sorry for the fuzziness. Taking a picture of an ant on your finger is harder than it looks.

According to the University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyAtta texana highly specialize tasks using a caste system. Individuals are either reproductive or workers, and these workers are distinguished by twelve distinct worker morphs. These morphs can be grouped by size which reflects their function. The largest of the morphs are the soldiers, the caste that I personally picked up. The medium sized morphs are primarily foragers, but also function as excavators. Finally, the smallest morphs generally remain in the nest, functioning to break down leaves, care for the colony’s fungus gardens (the true source of food for the colony), and care for the queen and larvae.

Of course, learning about the complexity of the ant caste system made me wonder, “How is the caste of an individual determined?” In my research I found this paper in The American Naturalist about the developmental pathways that lead to caste determination in ants. In the paper, the author defines caste as “a set of workers that develops under the same developmental program”” rather than looking at it from a purely morphological perspective. The three variables that she lists as regulating these castes are critical size ( the size of a larvae once it begins the first step towards metamorphosis), growth parameters (growth rate vs dampening rate), and reprogramming (changes in critical size and growth parameters). The paper goes into quite a bit of detail about all of the factors that affect critical size. The one main means of determining critical size is by the amount of food the larvae receives. This can be driven both by environmental factors (such as the availability of food) or by the regulation of food flow by the “nurse” worker ants. In fact, nursing workers carry quite a bit of the responsibility of caste determination for the larvae as they manipulate the pheromone concentrations and temperature that also contribute to reprogramming. Something that this paper doesn’t address, but would be an interesting thing to find in further research would be the factors that affect the various behaviors of the nursing ants that cause them to drive the caste determination.

Some examples of leafcutter ants and the polymorphism in their castes. Source:http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.1002007

While the division of labor through the caste system has its clear advantages in developing specialized workers that improve efficiency, the paper mentioned above also discusses the possible issues with specializing too much and too early in the developmental process. Obviously, a limit has been placed on the number of specialized functions. For the hundreds of thousands of ants in a colony, there are twelve castes. If more specialization equals more efficiency, why not give every individual its own specialized role? Well, as discussed in the paper, with the morphological specialization to one class comes a decrease in “individual flexibility.”

Source: http://trentflix.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/2839-Antz_1.jpg

Remember that 1998 Dreamworks movie, Antz? Of course you remember. It’s the one about the neurotic worker ant (not surprisingly voiced by Woody Allen) who rebels against the injustice of the social structure in his colony and ultimately marries the princess ant. Well, it wasn’t until doing more research into this caste system that I realized that despite its many many inaccuracies, it actually represented a true component of ant colonies and reflected (although with different reasons) the detriments of hyperspecialization. Throughout the movie, the main character is battling against a caste system that restricts his individual freedom. While his objections were more from a human perspective, the concern is still valid to a certain extent.

Form follows function, so if the form stays more general, it has the ability to adapt to new needs within the colony. If for some reason there’s a loss in the number of foragers due to an attack from phorid flies, individuals with individual flexibility could fill in until more forager caste workers develop. (As a quick aside, another interesting division of labor is discussed in this article that deals more with foraging than caste determination. Apparently, phorid flies tend to attack individuals from the larger castes, so sometimes members of the smaller castes will ride on the leaves of foragers to protect them from the phorid flies. It didn’t really explain whether this was a self sacrifice situation or more of a distraction from the fact that there’s a larger ant under the leaf, but either way it is still pretty cool!). Without this flexibility, the colony would be left crippled by the lack of foragers to collect leaves to feed their fungus gardens. The same would be true of the loss of any other caste. Additionally, the ability to replace them with new specialized adult ants relies on the fact that the developmental pathways stay relatively similar with the ability to change direction (reprogram) easily if need be. Without the flexibility to temporarily replace specialized workers with other workers or to increase the rate at which new specialized workers mature, the colony would lose its ability to perform that function if there were ever a sudden loss in many of a specific caste. For this reason, it is important that a colony strikes a balance between optimizing efficiency through the specialization of castes while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to times of crisis.

Creepy Crawlers

Twas the night before class, when all through the dorms

Not a person was stirring, not even a mouse…

…except for this:

Earwig. Photo Credit: http://entomology.unl.edu/images/earwigs/

That modified Christmas poem describes my suite on a typical weekday. Everyone is snuggled deep in their covers, sleeping soundly with sweet (I hope) dreams. And then there’s me, snuggled deep in the arms of procrastination.

Although I admit that I am definitely much more of a night owl than a morning bird, I try to avoid unnecessary late nights. It’s not that I’m afraid of how tired I’ll be tomorrow morning, but it’s more like I’m scared of what’s out there in the dark. Still, you can usually find me bathed in the glow of my computer at three in the morning and then scrambling to get dressed for that 8AM class. Despite having absolutely no reason to still be awake, I tend to spend my time relaxing—snacking whilst reading a good book. However, because everything is creepier at three in the morning, there is one very important thing I dread to do: go to the bathroom.

Now normally, if this were any other activity, I would just ignore it and wait until morning, but “when you gotta go, you gotta go.” Who am I to argue with my bladder? On this particular morning, I safely sprinted from my room to the bathroom. Nothing had flown at me or attacked me, and I heaved a sigh of relief, before I turned around and saw a lovely earwig.

Earwig. Photo Credit: Me! (at 4AM)

Earwigs are part of the Dermaptera order. They are omnivorous insects, usually eating whatever they find, whether it is plants or dead matter. They are also nocturnal, and hide in moist dark places during the day, which explains why I found one crawling leisurely out of the sink. Although my immediate thoughts flew to whether Germ-X could be a suitable substitute for washing my hands, I eventually snapped a picture and poured some shampoo in the sink, followed by a steady stream of water (I’m sorry earwig!).

I thought I only had to worry about an earwig’s main weapons: its cerci and the unpleasant-smelling liquid it secretes. Earwigs use their cerci for defense, courtship, grooming, and attacking prey. They also release a foul-smelling liquid from their abdomen in the face of predators. However, earwigs are a lot more intimidating than I originally thought.

Some species of earwigs are ectoparasites, which are parasites that live on the surface of their hosts. Earwigs of the Hemimerina suborder feed on the skin of African giant rats, using their cerci to pinch onto the fur, while earwigs of the Arixenina suborder, such as the Arixenia esau feed on the gland secretions of some Asian bats. You can watch earwigs swarming around baby bats here.

I am incredibly happy I have not ever and hopefully will never come in contact with these menacing parasitic earwigs. In the meantime, I will (somewhat) regrettably continue flushing earwigs back down the sink drain during my late night bathroom runs.

Invasive, Sex-Crazed Cannibals

The popular perception of ladybugs. Clipart by Marketa Bauerova.

I was studying outside the other day when I began to notice a couple of small, alligator-like insects circling the outer rim of my table. Curious about these little creatures, I let one crawl onto my hand. It looped around my fingers for a while with surprising speed until I placed it back down and it continued its little circuit around my table.

Using the internet’s infinite wisdom (this website in particular), I was able to identify the insect as a ladybug* larva. In particular, it was an Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle, or Harmonia axyridis. The first things that I discovered about my new friend is that it emits a pungent odor and sometimes bites. I looked down again at the bumpy insect squirming around my table with a newfound sense of disgust, hoping it hadn’t left it’s odorous mark on me.

And that was just strike one for this ladybug.

I was talking to a friend a little while later when our conversation was cut short by the sudden appearance of a larvae falling out of my hair. My voluminous hair has been known to consume anything from bubble gum to bobby pins, but this was certainly a first. Even later, I found one squished in between the pages of a textbook. I knew that I was either very unsanitary, as my friend now suspected, or that they were so common that all of these interactions were not improbable. In any case, I knew that there would be some interesting science behind my insect encounters.

An Asian multicolored lady beetle larva found by the fountains near Brochstein Pavilion (on Rice University Campus). Photo by Marie Hoeger.

Asian Multicolored Lady Beetles in North America

It turns out that the Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle is an introduced invasive species that is causing some trouble in North American and European countries. They have been released multiple times in North America as biological control agents (they’re very effective aphid predators) from as early as 1916. They failed to establish in North America until 1988, when their populations started exploding. Now, they are expanding at an extremely rapid rate — approximately 442 km per year (read a chapter from this book to learn more about the impact and history of Asian Multicolored Lady Beetles in North America).

These lady beetles have been shown to be highly successful in controlling aphid pest species, as intended. An adult eats roughly 60 aphids per day, and even smaller larvae eat around 25 aphids per day. However, the benefits to humans only last through summer and spring. Around fall, they migrate in masses and become a common pest. They flock to houses and other man-made structure as winter approaches to hibernate in cracks and crevices. Their massive aggregations stain carpets, curtains, furniture, and more.

Because they’re such highly generalized and effective predators, they’re also harmful to many native and non-target species. On top of depleting the food source, they actually eat the eggs of their native brethren (this type of predation is called intraguild predation — it’s literally a ladybug eat ladybug world they live in). Although native species’ larvae also prey on Asian lady beetle eggs (not so cute, eh?), according to this Journal of Insect Science article, the Asian lady beetle is just better at it. Overall, they’ve made a positive impact in some areas of pest control, but are largely considered a model of the dangers and failure of introducing new species as biological controls.

An Asian multicolored lady beetle larva eating native lady beetle larva. Photo by Don J. Dinndorf, blogger on whatsthatbug.com.

The Sex and the Cannibalism

Through my research of the Asian Multicolored Lady Beetle, my conception of ladybugs as these adorable, charismatic creatures has certainly changed. But those are just the Asian Multicolored Lady Beetles right? Nope, ladybugs are just really weird, kind of disgusting and fascinating creatures. Here’s the evidence:  

  • When threatened, ladybugs begin to bleed from their knees. Their blood is full of toxic chemicals that make them taste bad to predators, so bleeding a little gives them a preview of the meal to come (learn more about ladybugs here).
  • Ladybugs have the most sexually transmitted infections of virtually any insect. In the words of Dr. Greg Hurst of the University of  College London, ladybugs are “remarkably promiscuous.”
  • Ladybugs are cannibals, especially when food sources are scarce. They feed on both sibling and non-sibling eggs.

Two ladybugs eating a dead ladybug. Photo by Maria F., WordPress blogger. You can read her story about this image by clicking the image.

*DISCLAIMER: The term “ladybug,” is actually a misnomer. Ladybugs are small beetles of the Coccinellidae family, and not true bugs (true bugs belong to the insect order Hemiptera). I often refer to these lady beetles as ladybugs because that is how they are colloquially known. 

A Visit from a Bee and a Visit to a Hive

This morning, I was walking down the stairs in my dorm when I noticed a lounging honeybee. This bee was hanging out on the concrete step, not much minding as I observed and took pictures.

I went to the beehive on campus about an hour after spotting the bee. It was the coolest temperature I’ve been to the hive in (about 75°F), and the bees weren’t as active as normal, but there was still activity. As I approached the hive, the bees started moving around more and seemed to want me away, but they weren’t aggressive at all, and I was able to get very close to them and the hive with no injuries.

After looking at the hive, I rode my bike bake to my dorm, stopping next to the spot I originally found the honeybee. She was of course long gone by this point, but my bike computer read .94 miles, and that’s even with my winding around buildings. According to this, the bee I found was well within the range of the Rice beehive, though it’s probably more likely she came from one of the natural hives on campus or one of the closer neighborhood hives. Either way, the lone bee and the hive represent pollinators that play a large role in our lives as Rice students.

I found the first bee near Martel, a college that is home to a community garden. This garden is the home to some tomato plants, including a couple of “volunteer” plants that showed up this year. Tomatoes, like many Solanaceae, are fertilized via buzz pollination, a method that requires the vibration of the flower for the pollinator to obtain the pollen. Bees are typically the pollinators in question for this method, as it the case for tomatoes (read more about it here). The eggplants and potatoes sometimes grown in the gardens also require buzz pollination. This video shows buzz pollination very well.

Honeybees are not native to the United States, though other varieties of bees are, but they have nonetheless become important in crop pollination, food production, and even medicinal and cosmetic ingredients in the United States. This article states that honeybees are essential for agriculture in the United States, and it is hard to ignore the importance of honey when most Americans consume or use it every day. The little bee I spotted on the stair is part of an extremely important species, not just for us, but for the world.


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.