Tag Archives: insects

Solar parks could act as life rafts for bumblebees and other pollinators

Bees around the world are struggling under habitat loss; solar parks could provide a safe haven, according to new research.

Image credits Josef Pichler.

Researchers at Lancaster University have used computer modeling to investigate how different management scenarios of solar parks could help provide a home for ground-nesting bumblebees. The results are quite encouraging, the team explains, showcasing that solar parks can help maintain significant populations of bumblebees both inside their bounds and in their surroundings.

Although the research focused on bumblebees, the authors are confident that the findings translate over to other pollinators as well.

Solar neighborhoods

“Renewable energy development is projected to grow and solar is predicted to lead the way. Solar parks have a high land take per unit of energy produced and this will lead to significant land use change in the future,” says Hollie Blaydes, PhD student and Associate Lecturer at the Lancaster Environment Centre, lead author of the paper, in an email for ZME Science.

“Understanding of the environmental impacts of this land use change is only just emerging, but there is scope to incorporate environmental benefits into the energy transition. One potential benefit is the creation of pollinator habitat within solar parks.”

For the study, the team used computer models that simulated bumblebee foraging behavior across the UK’s solar parks. From there, they examined how different management strategies (each offering varying degrees of resources for the insects) would influence their numbers and activity. They then used statistical analyses to investigate differences in bumblebee density and nest density across the different solar parks in the model.

Managing solar parks as meadows, they explain, would make the most resources available to bumblebees, and could support populations four times as large as solar parks as solar parks with only grassland and no flowers. The changes required to transition solar parks from grass to meadows are quite simple and could provide significant benefits for pollinators across the country — in addition to generating clean energy.

Larger, more elongated, and more resource-rich solar parks (i.e. with more flowers) could help increase bumblebee density up to 1 km outside of their bounds, the team found. This means that well-managed solar parks could act as hotspots, delivering pollinator services to crops in nearby agricultural lands.

“Pollinator habitat has already been established within some solar parks, but there is little evidence of how effective this is and how pollinators respond,” Blaydes added for ZME Science. “This knowledge gap inspired us to perform this research and by doing so we have provided some of the first evidence to suggest that creating suitable habitat on solar parks could be an effective way to support bumblebee populations.”

Solar parks in the UK are often located within areas where intensive agriculture is practiced. This makes them ideally suited as bumblebee refuges, the team explains. Further increasing their potential in this regard is that the total land area used as solar parks in the UK is increasing steadily as more and more of the country’s energy demands are covered by solar panels.

The UK currently has around 14,000 hectares, which is projected to increase to 90,300 hectares as part of the UK’s plan to meet net zero-emission targets. All that space can be put to good use in the service of pollinators.

However, the path forward is not really clear-cut. Solar park management is often outsourced on contracts that typically last around two years at a time. This can make it hard to plan management strategies for the long term, as each new company will need to adapt to and maintain the habits they inherit.

“The creation of floral-rich habitat on solar parks is likely to benefit a wide range of pollinators. In this study, we focused only on ground-nesting bumblebees given they are a key pollinator of agricultural crops in the UK. Other pollinator groups rely on similar resources to ground-nesting bumblebees, but differences in flight ranges and foraging patterns means that a slightly different modelling approach would be needed to test solar park management and design options for these groups,” Blaydes adds for ZME Science.

Besides offering huge economic benefits for farmers and society as a whole by harboring bumblebees which would handle the pollination of crops. Pollinators the world over are struggling, and spaces such as solar parks could provide veritable lifeboats for these species, who are under pressure from habitat destruction, pesticides, pollution, and dwindling food supplies.

“Solar parks could act as safe havens for bumblebees and other pollinators if managed appropriately. Our study found that solar parks providing the most foraging and nesting resources were most effective at boosting bumblebee numbers both inside the solar park and in the surroundings,” Blaydes adds for ZME Science. “This suggests that resource-rich solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to help address drivers of bumblebee decline and that there could be implications for pollination to crops and wild plants in the surrounding land.”

Hollie Blaydes will present the work at Ecology Across Borders’ Annual Meeting, 2021. This study is unpublished and is currently under review. Original story here.

LED street lights may be decimating insect populations

Elephant hawk moths in the UK. Credit: Douglas Boyes/University of Newcastle.

Insects account for nearly 80% of all animal life on Earth, but both their numbers and diversity have been declining dramatically in recent years. The factors responsible for plummeting insect numbers are manifold, including deforestation, climate change, and agriculture. A new study suggests that light pollution is also contributing heavily to this worrying decline, with LED streetlights having the most impact.

Blinded by the lights

For their new study, researchers affiliated with the charity Butterfly Conservation, Newcastle University, and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology surveyed 26 sites with streetlights across the United Kingdom for caterpillars and compared their numbers with similar stretches of unlit road nearby.

This analysis showed that moth caterpillar numbers declined in lit hedgerows and grass margins by 47% and 33%, respectively, compared to unlit areas. Although moths are not the only insects that are affected by light pollution, their caterpillars don’t disperse far from their hatching sites, which makes them reliable estimates for how lighting affects local populations.

Sodium lights (left) vs white LEDs. Credit: Douglas Boyes/University of Newcastle.

The results published in the journal Science Advances suggest that sites with white LEDs had the steepest reduction in the number of caterpillars compared to sites lit by sodium lamps. LED lights are much more efficient, last longer, and are cheaper in the long run than sodium lamps. However, the drawback is that while sodium lamps emit a yellow glow, LEDs emit light across the entire visible spectrum. This means there’s a much greater potential for wildlife disruption. For instance, insects are known to be very sensitive to shorter, bluer wavelengths of light, which are mostly absent from sodium lamps.

According to Douglas Boyes, a Ph.D. researcher in biology at Newcastle University, light pollution most likely prevents females from laying their eggs properly, a behavior that has evolved to occur in darkness. Furthermore, adult moths are naturally attracted to streetlights, where they become easy pickings for predators such as bats.

Boyes adds that moth numbers in Britain have declined by nearly one-third since the 1970s, and the same is probably true in other parts of Europe where monitoring isn’t as accurate.

The Buff Arches moth has declined by more than 60% since the 1970s. Credit: Iain Leach, Butterfly Conservation.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, a 2019 review found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds, and reptiles, and the total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year at a global level.

Insect loss can have a huge trickling effect on biodiversity at large, as many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish depend on insects as a food source.

Switching lights may help but there are still many unknowns

The main cause of the decline is believed to be agricultural intensification, particularly land-use change and the treatment of fields with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. While it’s unclear just how much effect light pollution has on this decline relative to other factors, these most recent findings suggest that lighting nevertheless has a sizable impact.

This is particularly important as many cities across the world are transitioning towards all LED lighting. The solution is to use other types of lights. For instance, rather than white LEDs, municipalities can opt for warm white LEDs, which contain less blue light, or even red LED streetlights. Dimming the lights during the early hours may also help ease the impact on insect wildlife.

Amber fossils reveal the true colors of 99-million-year-old insects

Researchers have discovered the true colors of a group of fossilized insects, trapped in amber approximately 99 million years ago in Myanmar. The ancient insects include cuckoo wasps, soldier flies, and beetles, all bursting in metallic blue, purple, and green colors.

Comparisons between original and altered metallic colors in cleptine wasps. Credit: NIGPAS.

Nature is very visually rich but fossils rarely retain evidence of an organism’s original color. Nevertheless, paleontologists are now finding ways of teasing out colors from well-preserved fossils, whether they be dinosaurs and flying reptiles or ancient snakes and mammals.

Knowing the color of extinct species is actually very important, as it can tell researchers many things about the behavior of the animals. Colors could have been used to attract mates or warn off predators or even help with temperature regulation, for example. Knowing more about them can also help researchers know more about ecosystems and environments.

For the new study, a research team from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Palaeontology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGPAS) looked at 35 individual amber samples with fantastically preserved insects trapped inside. The fossils were found in an amber mine in northern Myanmar.

The amber is mid-Cretaceous, approximately 99 million years old, dating back to the golden age of dinosaurs,” said Cai Chenyan, the lead author, in a press release. “It is essentially resin produced by ancient coniferous trees that grew in a tropical rainforest environment. Animals and plants trapped in the thick resin got preserved, some with life-like fidelity.”

Colors in nature usually fall under three main categories: bioluminescence, pigments, and structural colors. The amber fossils found retained structural colors, which tend to be intense and rather eye-grabbing (including metallic colors) and are produced by microscopic light-scattering structures located on the heads, bodies, and limbs of animals.

The researchers polished the fossils using sandpaper and diatomite powder. Some pieces of amber were polished into very thin slices, making the insects clearly observable and the surrounding amber matrix almost transparent in bright light. The images included in the study were edited to adjust for brightness and contrast.

“The type of color preserved in the amber fossils is called structural color,” said Pan Yanhong, a co-author of the study, in a statement. “The surface nanostructure scatters light of specific wavelengths” which “produces very intense colors,” said Pan, adding that this “mechanism is responsible for many of the colors we know from our everyday lives.”

Diverse structural-colored insects in mid-Cretaceous amber from northern Myanmar. Credit: NIGPAS.

Among all the fossils, the cuckoo wasps were particularly stunning, with their heads, thorax, abdomen, and legs featuring hues of metallic blue-green, yellow-red, violet, and green. The color patterns were a close match to cuckoo wasps alive today, according to the research. Other standouts included blue and purple beetles and metallic dark-green soldier flies.

The researchers used electron microscopy to demonstrate that the amber fossils have a “well-preserved exoskeleton nanostructure that scatters light.”

“Our observations strongly suggest that the color preserved in some amber fossils may be the same as displayed by the insects when alive, some 99 million years ago,” wrote the authors in the study. “This is moreover corroborated by the fact that metallic blue-green coloration is frequently found in extant living cuckoo wasps.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Where have they gone? Insects face widespread decline, study shows

When was the last time you saw a glow-worm? Probably quite some time ago. The light-emitting insects have been declining across the world for decades. But they aren’t the only insects to be struggling, according to a new study.

Credit Flickr

Researchers carried out the largest evaluation of insect abundance across the globe to date, showing that there has been a drop of 25% in their numbers over the last 30 years. Accelerating declines in Europe are what surprised scientist the most.

Using data from 166 long-term surveys across 1,676 sites, the study painted a picture of the state of insect health. While some species were the exception and expanded, such as freshwater insects, they represent a small number among all species.

Researchers also warned that there are insects that remain critically understudied in many parts of the world, such as South America, Asia, and Africa. There’s a lack of data from those regions and activities such as farming and deforestation could be reducing the number of insects there further.

The decline in the number of insects could already be having a large impact on the world as a whole, the new study warned. Insects are the most varied and abundant animals and are very important for all ecosystems, as they pollinate plants and act as food for other animals.

The previous largest assessment, based on 73 studies, led scientists to warn of “catastrophic consequences for the survival of mankind” if insect losses were not halted. The rate of decline seen in the new study was more than double that previously estimated. Other experts estimate 50% of insects have been lost in the last 50 years.Roel van Klink, of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, who led the research, told The Guardian:

“This 24% is definitely something to be concerned about. It’s a quarter less than when I was a kid. One thing people should always remember is that we really depend on insects for our food.”

The losses were strongest in the US West, Midwest, and in Europe, especially in Germany. Trends in Europe have become more negative in recent years, with the biggest declines since 2005. Elsewhere, data is much sparser, but the expansion of cities is likely having a big negative effect.

Losses of insects are mainly driven by habitat destruction, the use of pesticides, and light pollution, the study showed. The impact of the climate crisis was not clear in the research. Van Klink said changes in heat and rain could harm some species while boosting others, even in the same location.

The finding of habitat destruction has been echoed in other major pieces of research on biodiversity, including last year’s IPBES Global Assessment — which argued that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction due to human action.

Matt Shardlow, the head of the conservation charity Buglife, told The Guardian: “Many insect species are threatened with extinction and this study shows insect abundance is also declining at an unsustainable rate. While the estimate in this study is lower than some, it is still very steep.”

The study was published in the journal Science.

Grasshopper-computer hybrids built to sniff out explosives

New research at the Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, is sniffing out explosives — with insects.

Image credits Baranidharan Raman / Washington University, St. Louis.

The bomb-sniffing American grasshoppers (Schistocerca americana) were created in the lab of Dr. Barani Raman, an Associate Professor at the Washington University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. In order to tap into their tiny insect noses, the team implanted electrodes into the olfactory centers of their brains.

Cyborg grasshoppers

Insect antennae house olfactory (smell) receptors that the animals use to find food and detect threats. Data from these receptors is sent to an area of their brain known as the antennal lobe, which performs many of the same functions as our olfactory areas. Information from each of the grasshoppers’ antennae, the team explains, is fed to around 50,000 neurons in the antennal lobe. This, the researchers suspected, would make them much better at sniffing out explosives than any device we’ve yet designed.

In order to tap into their ability, the team implanted tiny electrodes into the insects’ antennal lobes and puffed vapors of different explosive materials. The team used dynamite (TNT) and its precursor 2,4-dinitrotoluene (DNT), along with hot air and benzaldehyde (the primary component in the oil of bitter almonds) as controls. The team measured the patterns of neural activation each of the compounds produced in the grasshoppers’ brains. With some practice, they eventually learned how to distinguish between the different vapors just by looking at the insects’ brain activity.

The last step was to fit grasshoppers with a sensor ‘backpack’ which would record and transmit their neural activity in real-time to a computer, where it would be interpreted.

All in all, these mechanized insects were able to successfully detect explosive compounds for up to seven hours after the electrodes were first implanted; after this time, however, the insects died. The whole procedure also immobilized the grasshoppers, so the team had to mount them on a wheeled, remote-controlled platform for testing.

The authors report that the insects’ sense of smell was sensitive enough that they successfully detected the areas with the highest concentration of explosives as they were being moved between various points at the testing location. Individual insects had an average explosive-finding accuracy of 60%, they add; used in groups of seven, they yielded accuracies of 80%. However, the team did not test them in settings where multiple odors were present at the same time.

The project was funded by the US Office of Naval Research and the researchers believe the grasshoppers could be used for homeland security purposes.

The paper “Explosive sensing with insect-based biorobots” has been published in the preprint server bioRxiv.

Habitat loss and light pollution are driving fireflies extinct

New research from Tufts University and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature found that habitat loss, pesticides, and artificial light pollution are posing serious threats to firefly species around the world.

Photinus pyralis captured in Mount Pleasant, Washington.
Image credits Katja Schulz / Flickr.

Fireflies are an iconic type of soft-bodied beetle. We know of over 2,000 different species of these glow-in-the-dark insects around the world, and they all have important parts to play in their local ecosystems (as pollinators, predators, or prey) and ecotourism. A team led by Sara Lewis, Professor of Biology at Tufts University and lead author, performed a survey of firefly experts across the world to understand the most pressing threats their local species are experiencing.

According to respondents of the survey, habitat loss is the most pressing threat against fireflies in the wild across geographical regions. Light pollution and pesticide use were the second- and third-most-common threats reported on by experts.

Fires fade

“Lots of wildlife species are declining because their habitat is shrinking,” said Lewis.

“So it wasn’t a huge surprise that habitat loss was considered the biggest threat. Some fireflies get hit especially hard when their habitat disappears because they need special conditions to complete their life cycle. For instance, one Malaysian firefly [Pteroptyx tener], famous for its synchronized flash displays, is a mangrove specialist.”

Previous research has shown that conversion of mangrove habitats to farms — palm oil plantations and aquaculture farms respectively — has led to a drastic decline in Malaysian firefly numbers. This showcases how powerful an impact habitat destruction can have on a species’ success.

However, one surprising finding of the study was that light pollution was, on a global level, considered to be the second most serious threat to fireflies. Artificial light can disrupt the natural wake-sleep cycles for all sorts of organisms, including humans. For fireflies this is especially problematic as it interferes with their courtship rituals — they rely on their bioluminescence to woo potential mates. The high-efficiency, ultra-bright LEDs of today are only making the problem worse, explains Avalon Owens, Ph.D. candidate in biology at Tufts and a co-author on the study.

“Brighter isn’t necessarily better,” says Owens.

Wide-scale pesticide use is also seen as a major threat to the insects’ survival. The first part of a firefly’s life is spent as a larva (this stage can last up to two years) below ground or under water. It’s at this stage that pesticides such as organophosphates and neonicotinoids come into contact with and negatively impact fireflies, which are considered a beneficial species for agriculture. The team explains that targeted research is needed into different types of common insecticides to see exactly which are harmful to fireflies.

Additionally, they say we need more and more reliable data on how populations of fireflies are faring. There is some literature that quantifies declines in the numbers of certain species of fireflies, and numerous anecdotal reports of population decline in a wide range of habitats.

“However,” Lewis points out, “we really need better long-term data about firefly population trends — this is a place where citizen science efforts like Massachusetts Audubon’s Firefly Watch project can really help.”

Certain species are more exposed to threats than others: the team explains that females of the Appalachian blue ghost firefly (Phausis reticulata) are flightless, so habitat damage will affect them more severely as they can’t just fly to a new area. Still, the team hopes that their findings will help us better protect these glowing insects for future generations to enjoy as well.

“Our goal is to make this knowledge available for land managers, policy makers, and firefly fans everywhere,” says co-author Sonny Wong of the Malaysian Nature Society. “We want to keep fireflies lighting up our nights for a long, long time.”

The paper “A Global Perspective on Firefly Extinction Threats” has been published in the journal Bioscience.

Wasps are effective pest controls, a new study shows

Although you may be terrified of them, common, social wasp species could help keep our crops pest-free, reports a new study.

A hornet queen.
Image credits David Hablützel.

The blue and black predators can act as solid pest control for at least two high-value crops: maize and sugarcane. While the experiment was carried out in Brazil, the team explains that wasps are found virtually all over the world and can easily be ‘recruited’ on small or large-scale farms to control a range of common pest insects.

The Buzz of victory

“There’s a global need for more sustainable methods to control agricultural pests, to reduce over-reliance on pesticides or imported pest controllers. Wasps are very common, but understudied, so here we’re providing important evidence of their economic value as pest controllers,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Robin Southon from University College London’s (UCL) Centre for Biodiversity & Environmental Research.

The study was carried out in Brazil with the help of researchers at São Paulo State University and Universidade de São Paulo; the team explains that it is the first controlled experiment in semi-natural conditions on the subject, as it was performed on an outdoor research site. The maize crops used in the study were infested with fall armyworms, while the sugarcane crops were infested with sugarcane borers. As a pest control, the team used the social paper wasp, a hunting wasp common to the area.

All in all, the wasps seem to have been effective. Their presence reduced the pest populations and led to the crops suffering less damage. The team further found that even pests which already bored inside the plants (and weren’t present on their surfaces) were removed by the wasps.

The findings definitely suggest that the wasps have potential as pest control agents and could be used as part of a larger, integrated pest management mechanism. The team is especially excited for their use as wasps are native species and naturally part of many ecosystems today, which would make them a much more sustainable and environmentally-friendly alternative to today’s pesticides. Not only that, but the insects can also be a “cheap, accessible form of pest control, particularly helpful to small-scale or subsistence farmers in countries like Brazil, who could attract and encourage wasps to establish themselves,” according to co-author Professor Fabio Nascimento, who hosted the study at his labs in São Paulo State University.

The team plans to continue their research using larger, active agricultural fields. Wasps today are in decline across the world, similarly bees. The team notes that wasp loss can lead to a sharp increase in aphids, flies, and other species they prey on.

“This isn’t just about agriculture—this is about wasps in general and their role in regulating insect populations,” says Dr. Seirian Sumner (UCL Centre for Biodiversity & Environment Research), the study’s senior author. “Even your backyard garden could benefit from a more wasp-friendly attitude—instead of killing wasps and using pesticides on your plants, treat your local wasps as the helpful pest controllers they are.”

The paper “Social wasps are effective biocontrol agents of key lepidopteran crop pests” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Hoverfly.

Britain is going through a “widespread loss” of pollinating insects, study reports

Great Britain is in great trouble, new research reports — it’s running out of pollinators.

Hoverfly.

Image via Pixabay.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology measured the presence of 353 wild bee and hoverfly species across the UK from 1980 up to 2013. According to a new study, one-third of the investigated species saw a decline in the number of areas in which they were found over this time frame, while one-tenth saw an increase. The remainder of species either had stable population trends or only saw inconclusive changes.

Bee gone

“We used cutting-edge statistical methods to analyse a vast number of species observations, revealing widespread differences in distribution change across pollinating insects,” says Dr. Gary Powney of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who led the research. “There is no one single cause for these differences, but habitat loss is a likely key driver of the declines.

The study analyzed over 700,000 records, most collected by members of the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society (BWARS) and the UK Hoverfly Recording Scheme, who looked at more than 19,000 1km by 1km squares across Great Britain. The team writes that it’s possibly the first study of its kind — a large-scale, long-term, species-specific estimates of distribution change for pollinating insects in Britain.

One positive finding of the study was that key bee species — those responsible for pollinating flowering crops — have actually seen an uptick in numbers. They say this could be an effect of the large increases of mass-flowering crops grown during the study period and government-subsidized schemes that encourage farmers to plant more of the wildflowers the bees feed on.

But now, the bad news: the study also found that, on average, the geographic range of bee and hoverfly species has declined by a quarter — this, they write, is equivalent to a net loss of 11 species in every one-square-kilometer area. This included non-crop pollinator species.

Losses were more notable in northern Britain — likely as a result of climate change. Species that prefer cooler temperatures likely reduced their geographical spread in response to rising mean temperatures, the team writes.

“While the increase in key crop pollinators is good news, they are still a relatively small group of species [among all pollinators],” says Powney. “Therefore, with species having declined overall, it would be risky to rely on this group to support the long-term food security for our country. If anything happens to them in the future there will be fewer other species to ‘step up’ and fulfil the essential role of crop pollination.”

Non-crop pollinators are just as vital to us and the environment at large as crop-pollinator species. They help preserve biodiversity levels in the wild by pollinating wildflowers and acting as a key food resource for other wildlife. “Wildflowers and pollinators rely on each other for survival,” Powney adds, explaining that “loses in either are a major cause for concern when we consider the health and beauty of our natural environment.”

Dr. Claire Carvell of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, a co-author of the study, says the results point to multiple pressures affecting species of bees and hoverflies across the country. She says we need more and more reliable data on the pattern of pollinator decline, as well as its causes.

“While this analysis sends us a warning, the findings support previous studies suggesting that conservation actions, such as wildlife-friendly farming and gardening, can have a lasting, positive impact on wild pollinators in rural and urban landscapes. However, these need further refining to benefit a wider range of species.”

“In addition to recording species sightings, more standardised monitoring of pollinator numbers is required at a national level and a new UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme has been set up to do just this.”

The team says that this study relied entirely on wildlife recorders who go out and take the pulse of different species in their areas. As such, they want to encourage more people to take part in wildlife recording to help us better understand how wildlife is reacting to environmental changes.

The paper “Widespread losses of pollinating insects in Britain” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Bodypainting.

Traditional zebra-like tattoos protect tribes-people from insect bites

Zebra-like striped body paint patterns can reduce the number of horsefly bites a person receives by up to 10 times, new research revealed. While this isn’t their explicit purpose in indigenous communities, such tattoos can be seen as an “adaptation to the environment,” says the study’s first author.

Bodypainting.

A selection of typical body painting styles from different African tribes.
Image credits Horvath et al., 2019, RSOS.

Indigenous tribes from Africa, Australia, and southeast Asia have old and rich bodypainting traditions. Such traditions have been enshrined as central cultural components in their respective communities for generations. White, gray, bright yellow, or beige paints — customarily mixed from materials such as clay, ash, chalk, or cattle dung — are applied during specific ceremonies on the bodies of tribesmen and women.

Such patterns serve individuals “as body decoration, for emotional expression, or as marks to signify personal identity and/or group affiliation,” the team writes. It’s also possible that the bright pigments — which reflect incoming light — help with temperature regulation in the blistering sun of the savanna and other similar areas. However, it may also help protect them from biting insects.

Previous research with zebras has shown that horseflies (family Tabanidae), potentially-dangerous blood-sucking insects, tend to avoid the stripe-patterned animals. The team wanted to check if similar tribal tattoo patterns would have a similar effect.

For the study, the team worked with three mannequins, just like the ones you’d see in a clothing store. One of the mannequins had dark skin, another light skin, and the third one was painted in a dark color with white stripes. Each mannequin received a coat of adhesive and was then deployed in a meadow in Hungary for eight weeks of summer. The team chose this location because ‘numerous horsefly species’ buzz around in Hungary during the summer.

Mannequins.

The mannequins used in the study seen in reflected/normal light (top row) and polarized light (middle, bottom row).
Image credits Horvath et al., 2019, RSOS.

After the study period, the team counted how many horseflies and other biting insects each mannequin collected. All in all, the team reports, the dark-skinned one had 10 times more horseflies stuck to it than the striped one, and twice as many as the light-skinned dummy. This likely comes down to how the horseflies (and other insects) perceive the patterns. The stripes may disrupt the polarisation of light reflected from the tribespeople’s bodies, making insects believe they’re not looking at a person at all.

“Traditional bodypaintings with their typical white-striped patterns on a brown body surface have the advantage of deterring blood-sucking horseflies as these patterns are unattractive to these parasitic insects,” the study reads.

Horsefly bites are not only irritating, they’re also very dangerous. The insects can transmit a host of potentially-deadly diseases as they suck on a host’s blood.

Because horseflies lay their larvae in ponds and lakes, indigenous people often come into contact with them when retrieving water. Gabor Horvath from the Department of Biological Physics at Hungary’s Eotvos Lorand University, and paper lead-author, told AFP that the patterns aren’t meant to repel the insects. Such tattoos carry cultural significance, but, luckily, they also happen to be good at confusing insects such as horseflies.

“We are however convinced that these people know well the horsefly-repelling characteristic of their bodypaintings,” he added. “Essentially, the use of white-striped bodypaintings can be considered as an example for behavioural evolution/ecology and an adaptation to the environment.”

The paper “Striped bodypainting protects against horseflies” has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Violet ground beetle.

Without tree husks to house them, Europe’s beetles are dying out

As Europe is running out of trees, beetles are running out of time.

Violet ground beetle.

Image credits Bernard Dupont.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed the status of 700 European species of beetle that live in old and hollowed wood — and the results aren’t good. Almost a fifth of these species (18%) are at risk of extinction due to the decline in ancient trees, according to the report, European Red List of Saproxylic Beetles.

Saproxylic beetles (meaning beetles somehow related to dead and/or rotting wood) have a key role to play in environments, as they help decomposition do its thing and cycle nutrients back into use. They’re also quite plump, and are an important food source for birds and mammals. Finally, some are even involved in pollination.

However, Europe is running out of them. Logging, tree loss, and deforestation are taking a huge toll on the insects’ habitats, the IUCN reports. Other major threats include urbanization, development of the tourism industry, and an increase in wildfires in the Mediterranean region.

“Some beetle species require old trees that need hundreds of years to grow, so conservation efforts need to focus on long-term strategies to protect old trees across different landscapes in Europe, to ensure that the vital ecosystem services provided by these beetles continue,” said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Global Species Programme.

Luc Bas, the director of IUCN’s European Regional Office, says it’s “critical for the Common Agricultural Policy to promote the appropriate management of wood pasture habitats containing veteran trees across Europe”. One of the measures proposed as part of this new management approach is to create inventories of ancient and veteran trees from each European country, to enable local and national governments to protect them adequately across landscapes.

The report further points out that each landscape needs to be populated with trees of different ages, including saplings, mature and ancient trees, as well as some that are past their ‘best before’ date — such as standing dead trees, fallen tree trunks, and stumps. The forestry sector in many countries has made progress regarding the last category, which is traditionally treated as a nuisance and something that should be removed to clear space for newer plants.

A beetle’s life

There are 58 families of beetles spread across Europe, totaling some 29,000 species, of which some can explode. Out of these, some 4,000 are believed to be saproxylic. However, data is lacking for many of these species: for half of the saproxyls, “the population trend [remains] unknown”. The IUCN suggests that more monitoring is needed, and sooner rather than later, so we can keep accurate tabs on the beetles’ health.

“Some of these beetles are incredibly beautiful interesting things – if people stopped and looked at them and appreciated them, they’d realise they’re just as worthy of conservation as elephants and tigers,” Keith Alexander, IUCN Saproxylic Beetles Specialist Advisor, told the BBC.

“And these things live in the countryside on our doorstep.”

Credit: Awesci.

Elusive stick insect thought extinct for 80 years is still alive and kicking

A 6-inch-long stick bug with an exoskeleton that looks like a lobster was metaphorically brought back from the dead by scientists. The tree lobster (dryococelus australis) was long thought extinct but thanks to a group of exploring rock climbers and DNA sequencing techniques, scientists have confirmed that the bug is still very much alive.

Credit: Awesci.

Credit: Awesci.

News of its extinction have been gravely exaggerated

In 1918, rats from a capsized boat reached the shores of Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand. It didn’t take too long before hungry, fast-breeding rodents wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem. Within two years, the rats drove several native species extinct. Among them was the tree lobster, which was officially declared extinct in 1986.

There were, however, some hints that the tree lobster might still be around. In the 1960s, rock climbers in Ball’s Pyramid — a great jagged spire rising from the Tasman Sea on a nearby island, 12 miles from Lord Howe — found dead insects that looked a lot like the stick bugs. Then, four decades later, researchers scaled the third-of-a-mile-high cliff and actually found live insects chowing down on a tea tree at night.

This isn't a CGI rendering for some fantasy movie. Ball’s Pyramid (named after a European named Ball who first saw it in 1788) was formed 7 million years ago due to a volcanic eruption.

This isn’t a CGI rendering for some fantasy movie. Ball’s Pyramid (named after a European named Ball who first saw it in 1788) was formed 7 million years ago due to a volcanic eruption.

Both the empty skeletons and live insects, however, looked mysteriously different from the preserved Lord Howe tree lobsters scientists had studied from museums. The legs were skinnier with smaller spines, and the cerci (small stubs sticking out from the abdomen) were offset. The insects were also darker. Naturally, scientists just assumed they were dealing with a very similar but different species, and not the tree lobster itself.

Morphological Differences between Males from Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid. Credit: Current Biology.

Morphological Differences between Males from Lord Howe Island and Ball’s Pyramid. Credit: Current Biology.

Now,  Alexander Mikheyev, an ecologist at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, Japan, along with colleagues, showed that the genetic differences between Lorde Howe and Ball’s Pyramid insects were within the range of the same species, as reported in Current Biology.

The two islands, though quite close from one another, were never connected by land and tree lobsters can’t swim. But since the new genetic analysis unambiguously shows we’re dealing with the same species, it could be that the environment, diet or inbreeding could explain the different appearance. Birds or debris likely ferried them between the two islands.

Right now, there are thousands of living tree lobsters and their eggs, descended from Ball’s Pyramid populations currently being kept in zoos and museums around the world. Scientists now plan to reintroduce the new population back to the wild on Lord Howe Island as soon as black rats are eradicated. In the breathtaking video below, you can see the how the first tree lobster bred in captivity hatched in the zoo.

The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. We don’t know for sure how many species die off each year but estimates put a ballpark between 200 and 2,000 extinctions. It’s thus extremely refreshing to report about a species that’s still alive for a change rather than depressingly gone forever.

“In this case, it seems like we’re lucky and we have not lost this species forever, although by all rights we should have,” said Mikheyev in a press release. “We get another chance—but very often we do not.”

You can learn more about the tree lobster and its amazing story of resilience in the award-winning, 20-minute-long documentary ‘Sticky’.

Credit: British Pest Control Association, Flickr.

Bed bugs love your dirty laundry, and this has helped them travel the globe

During the mid-20th century, effective use of pesticides nearly wiped bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) from the developed world. These annoying arthropods seem to have made a comeback in the last two decades, partly enabled by cheap air travel, and partly because the parasite is very good at hopping along for the ride. Though bed bugs can’t jump or swim like flees do, one new study found the critters are at least extremely well equipped to sense human odor, which they follow … along with our dirty underwear, and eventually back into homes or hotels.

Credit: British Pest Control Association, Flickr.

Credit: British Pest Control Association, Flickr.

The bed bug isn’t much of a traveler. Instead of being on the prowl for new blood like other parasites like ticks or lice, bed bugs simply lurch in beds and other comfortable establishments which humans also incidentally enjoy. When they do come in contact with humans, they don’t stay long on our bodies. William Hentley, an entomologist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, was intrigued by this paradox: how can bed bugs be so static and ubiquitous at the same time?

Your laundry: a magnet for bed bugs

He and colleagues had a hunch the parasites were hitching rides on our luggage and laundry. To put this idea to the test, they set loose a whole swarm of bed bugs into a cell placed in the middle of a room where two cotton bags were positioned at equal distances. One was filled with clean clothes while the other was stacked with dirty socks, t-shirts, and other soiled clothing. The volunteers were very happy to oblige but I have a hunch no one wanted them back.

When the experiment was over, the researchers collected the bags and counted the number of bugs found on the surface of the clothing. They found twice as many bed bugs in the bag filled with laundry, the authors wrote in Scientific Reports. 

“There are a lot of good studies out there focused on trying to understand how bed bugs are attracted to humans and how they get around apartment blocks, but no one has really talked about how they get into the house in the first place,” Hentley told Gizmodo. “Stopping people from bringing bed bugs home can be a big step in preventing them spreading throughout the world.”

Previously, researchers found bed bugs have a good nose, being capable of sensing 100 compounds present in the human skin; odors which we spread onto our clothes.

Bed bugs don't carry disease which makes them pretty benign. In some cases, though, their bitting can cause very annoying raches or trigger alergies. Credit: Flickr, Louento.px.

Bed bugs don’t carry disease which makes them pretty benign. In some cases, though, their bitting can cause very annoying rashes or trigger allergies. Credit: Flickr, Louento.px.

Another interesting finding was related to the bugs’ carbon dioxide sensing. Some have suggested the insects sense the gas, which many living things like humans exhale, to find food. When the gas was introduced into the room, the bugs became more alert and interested in finding a meal but the presence of CO2 had little influence when it came to which of the two bags they should choose. This tells us that CO2 is indeed important and prompts the bugs to enter foraging mode, however, the gas doesn’t tell them where to find tasty blood.

On a practical level, the findings confirm that bed bugs are attracted to laundry which means you should be careful how you store them while traveling, especially when staying at a hotel or hostel. Since bed bugs can’t climb smooth surfaces, it’s better if you keep laundry on metal luggage racks. Alternatively, you could keep the dirty clothes in an airtight bag to mask the odor; your roommate might also appreciate this. Most importantly, however, never keep your luggage on the hotel bed else you risk tagging some alone with you back home.

Dominant wasps hand out breaks when workers are scarce, become horrible bosses when they’re plentiful

A new study has found that wasps create complex social structures around the supply and demand of labor. Dominant and worker wasps will often compete with one another to get the best deal for their investment — be it work or admission to the nest.

Ahh, the smell of waspitalism in the morning.
Image credits Skeeze / Pixabay.

If humans and wasps have something in common, is that we both like to work little but get paid big. The finding comes from a University of Sussex School of Life Sciences team, which analyzed how paper wasps apply the mechanisms of supply and demand. Their society is centered around a dominant class of breeder wasps and ‘helpers’ which raise their offspring in return for acceptance into the nest and the group. But the breeders don’t just lord over the helpers — the two classes have to engage in a willing trade to get the shelter, or the labor, they need.

And where there’s trade, there’s competition.

The wasp is right

The study was carried out in southern Spain over a three-month period, during which the team marked and genotyped 1500 paper wasps. They also recorded the social behavior in 43 separate nests along a cactus hedge.

Then they started to toy with the number of nesting spots and potential nesting partners around the hedge. When this number increased, the team observed that helper wasps performed less labor for their breeder. Dominant wasps also compete between themselves in a way, trying to give the helpers the best deal — by allowing them to slack off — so they don’t leave the nest.

“Market forces can clearly affect trade agreements in nature, as they can in human markets: with a larger number of trading partners available, you can negotiate better trade deals,” said lead author Dr Lena Grinsted,

But when the number went down, worker wasps didn’t have as many options to chose from, and the dominant wasps allowed for fewer benefits.

This would be the first time that supply and demand theory is shown to shape helping behavior in social insects. Previously, it was believed that only internal factors such as the number of available helpers or relatedness drives these behaviors. By showing that external factors (such as the availability of work from outside sources) also plays a part, the team’s observations allow us to better understand and predict insect behavior in the future.

“It is remarkable to discover that simply changing the wasps’ surrounding social environment has a clear effect on cooperative behaviour within groups,” Grinsted added.

“Our findings reveal intriguing parallels between wasp populations and our own business world: a bad deal is better than no deal, so when competition increases so does the risk that you have to accept a lower price for what you offer.”

So what about you? Do you stay loyal to the hive through good and bad, or will you buzz away to the best deal as soon as possible?

The full paper “Market forces influence helping behaviour in cooperatively breeding paper wasps” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Bees can feel optimism, possibly other ’emotion-like states’ as well, study finds

A new paper found that bees show behavior associated with optimism, suggesting that the insects have a lot more going on inside than we’ve suspected.

Image credits William Warby / Flickr.

I really like bees. They’re cute, they’re fuzzy, and they make food grow — churning out sweets in the process. But we tend to think the little things live unknowing slaves, toiling away from the queen then dying exhausted and unfulfilled, their devotion sometimes taking them to hellish landscapes. A new paper from the Queen Mary University of London however comes to show that the busy bees are actually a-buzz with excitement. While they probably can’t feel emotions the same way we do, the team found that the insects can experience something we’d describe as a rush of optimism.

“We can’t say they experience life in the same way that we do,” cognitive neuroethologist Clint J. Perry told Popular Science. “But on a basic level, there’s no reason to believe they can’t feel something. It does feel like something to be a bee or an ant or what-have-you.”

Working with researchers Luigi Baciadonna and Lars Chittka, Perry wanted to check if bees can feel positive emotions. Since they can’t smile or tell us about the warm fuzzy feelings they may or may not be experiencing, the team created a test environment to check their theory.

The bees were placed in a chamber with two small doors — one green, one blue, because they can easily distinguish shades of these colors. They placed plain water behind the green door and sugar water behind the blue one, and recorded how long it took the bees to enter a door. For the final stage of the test, they gave half the bees an extra shot of sugar water then presented the whole group with a mystery blue-green door. The insects in the extra-sugar group dashed for the door — the others, not so much.

The team said the bees were quicker to fly to this door and find if there was more sugar hidden behind it, indicative of optimism. They weren’t flying faster in a sugar rush — the team measured and there no speed difference between the groups. They were, however, much quicker to make a decision and act on it. When the trio found they could buzz-kill the bees’ optimism with dopamine-killer fluphenazine, returning them to their original state, they had proof of “emotion-like states” changing the insects’ behavior. Just like we feel better, more confident and more optimistic after downing a few cold pints, the sugar was making these bees fell better about life.

The team then simulated a spider attack on the insects, because why just let them be happy? They found that the bees who received extra sugar flew to the feeder four times faster, suggesting they were able to more easily recover from the scare.

Still, while the findings do show that there’s more happening in a bee’s brain than we thought, they still probably experience any emotion-like state very differently from us. They do seem to tick the marks we use to study emotional expression in infants and nonverbal mammals, however.

“That feeling inside is what’s so close to us and makes emotion present in our lives? Emotions are a lot more than that,” Perry says.

“We’re understanding that insects aren’t these behaviorally rigid machines,” he added. “They’re much more complex than we have often thought.”

I wonder how they feel about the fact that we’re killing them dead. Sigh.

The full paper “Unexpected rewards induce dopamine-dependent positive emotion–like state changes in bumblebees” has been published in the journal Science.

No web, no worries — spiders also like to eat vegetarian

Spiders’ diets aren’t limited to juicy insect bits; they’ve been shown to occasionally consume fish, frogs or even bats before — but they spice up their menus with vegetarian courses too, zoologists from the US and UK have found.

Young jumping spider consuming a Beltian body (lipid and protein-rich detachable leaflet tips of acacias.)
Image credits Eric J. Scully/ Harvard University.

Spiders are traditionally viewed as insectivorous predators, dining on anything their webs can trap. But scientists are becoming increasingly aware that’s a skewed view of them, and that their diet is more diverse than we imagine. If available, spiders won’t shy away from eating fish, frogs, bats — all kinds of meat. But a team of zoologists from the University of Basel, Brandeis University and Cardiff University has now brought evidence of meat-eating spiders chowing down on plant-based foods too.

“The ability of spiders to derive nutrients from plants is broadening the food base of these animals; this might be a survival mechanism helping spiders to stay alive during periods when insects are scarce”, says lead author Martin Nyffeler from the University of Basel in Switzerland.

They gathered and documented all examples of spiders eating such items from scientific literature they could find. Their collection of data shows that spiders from ten families have been reported feeding on a wide range of plants such as trees, shrubs, ferns, flowers, weeds or grasses. And they aren’t picky, either; they’ll eat anything from nectar, sap or honeydew to leaves, pollen and seeds.

Jumping spider drinking nectar at extrafloral nectaries of a shrub.
Image credits David E. Hill, Peckham Society, South Carolina.

A family of diurnal spiders, the Salticidae, seem to be the most voracious plant-eaters of the Araneae order. These plant-dwelling, highly mobile foragers were attributed with almost 60 percent of the incidents documented in this study.

But such feeding habits aren’t a Salticidae-only thing. Plant-eating in spiders has been reported from all continents except Antarctica, but seems to be more common in warmer areas of the globe. As a larger number of the reports relate to nectar consumption (which has its core distribution in warmer areas where plants secreting large amounts of nectar are widespread) this isn’t too surprising.

“Diversifying their diet with plant is advantageous from a nutritional point of view, since diet mixing is optimizing nutrient intake,” Nyffeler concludes.

Currently, the extent to which different categories of plant-based food contribute to the spiders’ diet is still largely unexplored. But, as there currently is a known species of spider that is mostly herbivorous, the Central America indigenous Bagheera kiplingi, it can be assumed that in a pinch spiders can live on a full veggie diet for some time.

The full paper, titled “Plant-eating by spiders” has been published online in the Journal of Arachnology and can be read here.

fireflies glow

New firefly species from California discovered by undergrad student

Despite what you might have seen or not seen, there are actually some fireflies living west of the Rocky Mountains, though they mostly keep to themselves and are rarely spotted by humans. Every once in a while, people spot some. This time, one undergrad who was busy insect hunting in the Los Angeles County hit the jackpot after he discovered a new firefly species.

fireflies glow

Fireflies enchant a dark sunken forest. Image: Elephant Journal

Joshua Oliva, an undergraduate student at the University of California-Riverside was casually collecting insects in the Santa Monica Mountains for an entomology class. He even brought his mother along since she was very curious to learn what her son was actually studying. When Oliva found fireflies, he was ecstatic, but he had no clue yet what he came across.

“He wasn’t 100 percent certain it was a firefly, and brought it to me for confirmation,” says Doug Yanega, senior scientist at the UC-Riverside Entomology Research Museum, in a press release about the discovery. “I know the local fauna well enough that within minutes I was able to tell him he had found something entirely new to science. I don’t think I’ve seen a happier student in my life.”

People living in the East are truly blessed for they often get to see the insects flash during the twilight. In Florida, no fewer than 56 firefly species can be found. In California, there are only 18 known species. Moreover, they’re dim both in numbers and brightness. Not all fireflies in California glow (gotta wonder why they’re still called fireflies in the first place), and those which do only fly for a brief period after dusk. So, it’s no wonder that finding a new firefly species in California is big news!

“One reason we are bringing this discovery to the public’s attention is that it seems likely that this beetle may be highly restricted in distribution,” Yanega says, “and the habitat where it occurs may require consideration for some level of protection, at least until we can learn more about it.”

butterfly

This is the new insect species discovered by young Joshua Oliva. Image: UC Riverside

The new species, which doesn’t yet have a name, is half an inch long and all covered in black. One distinctive feature is its head “armor” which is marked with a orange-like halo.

What makes a firefly glow

One reason that fireflies glow is to attract a mate. Males and females of the same species will flash signals back and forth as a way of communicating. Each firefly species has its own particular pattern. For example, the fireflies of one species will fly around in the night sky and dive steeply just as the flash begins and turn upward to make a distinctive J-shaped pattern of light. Female fireflies hang out on a tree branch or in the grass while the males fly around showing off their best flashes. When a female recognizes the flash from a male of the same species, she will answer with her best flash.

The light itself is a form of bioluminescence. When oxygen combines with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and the chemical luciferin in the presence of luciferase, a bioluminescent enzyme, light is produced. This process if highly efficient and results in what’s called “cold” light. A light bulb, on the other hand, emits “hot” light because it releases a lot of heat in the process.

Oliva graduated from UC-Riverside earlier this month. School’s far from over though. He intends on applying for the graduate program to go on to become an entomologist.

The Snakefly (Dichrostigma flavipes) didn’t give up limbs to evolve wings. Credit: Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn

Flying insects evolved wings 406 million years ago, most complex insect family tree reveals

An international team of more than 100 scientists has undertaken a most complex and challenging task: they’ve determined the timings and patterns of evolution for most of the insect family tree, until they arrived at at the original insect foremother which lived some 500 million years ago. Thus, the researchers were able to pinpoint when the major insect groups, most still alive today, first surfaced on the world or when the first flying insects spread their wings.

The insect family tree

Studying ancient insects is no easy task. Because they’re so tiny and squishy, there’s little fossil evidence to lie around. Their sheer monstrous diversity both helps and doesn’t at the same time. Roughly 80% of the more than 1,6 million species of animals described by scientists today are insects or one out of two multicellular organisms (including plants). Really, there’s no mistake – insects rule the world now and will continue to do so for a long, long time. We like to think us humans are really smart, but it’s worth considering that the last human carcass will be consumed by insects; true story. But for how long exactly have insects reigned the world?

The Australian Emperor Dragonfly is only a handful compared to its ancestors who measured more than 60cm. Flickr/Daniel lightscaper, CC BY

The Australian Emperor Dragonfly is only a handful compared to its ancestors who measured more than 60cm. Flickr/Daniel lightscaper, CC BY

The answer to this highly challenging question was attempted by a team made out of some of the world’s most renowned biologists, taxonomists, geneticists and mathematicians, as part of the 1000 Insect Transcriptome Evolution project. To this end, the researchers  used a DNA sequence dataset of unprecedented scale and new analysis techniques, in conjunction of course with fossil records.

[AMAZING] World’s biggest insect found – it’s so big it eats carrots

Genetics was very important for this kind of project, because genes can act as a sort of molecular clock. By looking at the genes of various insects, scientists can infer when they diverged based on what genes they share. Some 140 types of insects – such as moths, flies, wasps and beetles – had their DNA sequenced, meaning thousands of samples for thousands of species.

The Snakefly (Dichrostigma flavipes) didn’t give up limbs to evolve wings. Credit: Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn

The Snakefly (Dichrostigma flavipes) didn’t give up limbs to evolve wings. Credit: Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn

Checking the molecular clock

To use the molecular clock, the scientists had to look at genes that were common among species and some 1,478 directly comparable genes for the analyses were eventually selected. The possible gene combinations, however, were in the order of million trillions. There’s no supercomputer that can crunch these numbers, but luckily the team was large and broad in fields of expertise. This is where computer scientist and bioinformatics expert Alexandros Stamatatakis came in and he developed a mathematical method to exclude highly unlikely combinations, and focus on likely ones.

Evolutionary biologist Karl Kjer of Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the study leaders said, “The Earth 480 million years ago looked more like Mars than our Earth today: nothing but rock, with no life on land. The oceans were full of life, but life out of the water is really quite challenging. Plants and insects co-evolved simultaneously, each shaping the other.”

[INTERESTING] Insect homosexuality just a case of mistaken identity

The Cuckoo wasp (Hedychrum nobile) - one of the insects whose DNA was sequenced for the study. Credit: Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn

The Cuckoo wasp (Hedychrum nobile) – one of the insects whose DNA was sequenced for the study. Credit: Dr. Oliver Niehuis, ZFMK, Bonn

Their work reveals that insects first emerges around the time plants appeared on the planet as well, some 500 million years ago, during the Early Ordovician Period. The ancient ancestors of insects  (Hexapoda) were probably similar to silverfish, modern primitive insects that have never evolved wings. Speaking of wings, insect flight emerged some 406 million years ago, around the same time plants began to really diversify on land and grow taller. Also, very important to note, is that insect diversification took off well before Angiosperms (flowering plants).  The scientists say that the first insects probably evolved from a group of venomous crustaceans called remipedia.

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina).  Flickr/Stanislav Sedov, CC BY

Silverfish (Lepisma saccharina). Flickr/Stanislav Sedov, CC BY

Notice that insects adapted extremely fast, and it’s not hard to understand why. Insects reach maturity extremely fast and breed by the swarms. It’s a lot more likely for a helpful mutation to surface and stick in a large population. Most major groups of insects appeared in a burst of evolution about 350 million years ago such as grasshoppers and cockroaches. Many common groups of insects such as flies, wasps and beetles appeared more than 200 million years ago.

The study published in Science offers the most detailed and extensive analysis of its kind. Now, scientists will have this massive database at their disposal to study how insects survived and adapted to some of the direst crisis in the planet’s history.

robot_swarm

Swarm of 1,000 robots self-assemble in complex shapes

robot_swarm

All hail to the swarm! Photo: MICHAEL RUBINSTEIN/HARVARD UNIVERSITY

In a breakthrough in robotics, researchers have programmed a swarm consisting of a whooping  1,024 members which can assemble in programmable 2-D shapes. The demonstration might provide insights in how natural self-assembling swarms operate, like ants who join up to form bridges for the good of the colony. Such efforts in the future might be upgraded to support 3-D shapes. Some researchers even envision tools made out of self-assembling robots (think Transformers!), but space applications seem like the most practical field for them.

My life for the swarm!

Each Kilobot, as they’ve been named, is the size of a coin, costs $20 and is programmed to follow a strict set of rules for assembly. To communicate with other members of the swarm, the robots send out and read infrared signals, but the transmission is limited to neighboring bots only – each bot is not capable of seeing or understanding the greater whole or purpose. To assemble the swarm in geometrical shapes, like a star or the letter “K”, the researchers assigned four of the bots to act like ‘seeds’. These are placed in a cluster next to the swarm, and the robots on the far side of the pack begin to inch around the edge of the formation towards the seeds, propelled by motors that make them vibrate like ringing mobile phones.

[RELATED] Fire ants build life-saving rafts against floods [amazing photos]

Thus, the seeds act like reference points, helping the other bots coordinate themselves around them. As you might have guessed, the process can be slow. It took 12 hours for the 1,000 strong swarm to assemble in a K-shaped formation. Also, there also slower bots that cause traffic jams and  the shapes tend to look warped owing to the Kilobots’ imprecise tracking and their tendency to bump against one another before stopping.

The demonstration itself remains powerful. This is the first time something of this scale has been achieved and scientists are already thinking about how to use swarms of tiny bots such as the Kilobots to study natural self-assembling systems, like ants who join to form bridges and other structures. Other applications might seem futuristic, but no less practical if the bots are made cheaply and durable. Think of thousands of tiny bots, even the size of a grain of sand, that assemble together to form a wrench, only to become some other tool when the occasion calls for it. That’s real life Transformers. The concept isn’t new; I while ago I reported on similar developments at MIT, yet their snake-like bots were much bigger in size.

Check out the video below for a complete demonstration:

flower_bloom_boston

The new spring: charts showing different take to global warming

A while ago, Andrei published a post in which he uploaded and spoke about seven key charts that show plain and simple that global warming is real and man-made, unless you know of another perturbing climate factor other than humans capable of producing the same effects. Like I said, plain and simple – for those reasonable to listen. But don’t take our words for it, by all means be skeptical about it, in all seriousness. What I want to show you today, however, are a few more charts, this time from a different perspective.

Previously we showcased some charts that describe temperature anomalies and heat content disruptions, now I want to show you some figures that are less abstract, and more down to earth. These were made possible thanks to the due diligence of Henry David Thoreau, a Massachusetts from the mid-1800s who kept a strict and detailed record of flower and bird-migration times in the United States. Richard Primack, a conservation biologist working at Boston University, found Thoreau’s journals and put them to good use by comparing the data with what we know today.

You didn’t need high technology back in Thoreau’s time to come up with valid figures – just a keen eye and a lot of patience. That doesn’t mean that nowadays we need to go through the same painstaking efforts to reach the same results. For instance, the image below was made using data from a satellite which measures levels of foliage. It tells us that in 2012, plants leafed out a full month early in some parts of the Northeast. To be more precise, highbush blueberry and pink lady’s slipper orchid flowered up to 4.1 days earlier for every degree Celsius rise in mean spring temperatures.

flower bloom boston

(c) Boston University

Next, similarly to Thoreau’s records, the Boston researchers made a comparative analysis of cherry-blossom records for Kyoto, Japan. There are more or less considerable variations throughout the millenia, still notice the sharp variance in the past 100 years, coinciding with mankind’s ever-growing dependence on fossil fuels.

flower bloom japan

(c) Yasuyuki Aono, Osaka Prefecture University

Back to Boston, wildflowers [pink] in the neighbouring town of Concord are apparently responding to spring temperatures faster than migratory birds do [green].

insect flower bloom

(c) Boston University

Also, insects seem to respond differently to warmer temperatures as well.

(C) Boston University

(C) Boston University

In all, wildflowers bloomed three weeks earlier in 2012 than in the mid 1800 during Thoreau’s time. Based on this trendline, the Boston researchers envision three possible scenarios for the future as shown in the graph where it forks.

(c) Boston University

(c) Boston University

So, plants bloom earlier, way before the pollinating insects surface, while birds return from their migratory journeys too late to find sufficient bug meal. An ecosystem which used to be in harmony is now threatened by bad timing.

“Spring plant growth indicates the start of the growing season and will influence ecosystem processes such as nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration,” says postdoctoral researcher Elizabeth Ellwood. “Interactions with animals will also be affected as herbivores depend on spring plant growth and pollinators rely on open flowers. The timing of when plants and animals begin spring activity can be altered by temperature to varying degrees, and there is still much to understand about how temperature extremes will affect different organisms.”

These charts are, of course, relevant for the Boston area, yet if similar methods were to be applied in other regions, a similar pattern may likely be found. On a grander scale, it’s worth noting that other studies have shown that severe shifts in vegetation have occurred on a global scale due to anthropogenic warming. For instance, climatologists found green plants could move further north by as much as a whooping 20 degrees latitude by the turn of the century. What’s arid today may bloom tomorrow and vice-versa, only this will happen at a rate which is unnatural, living little room for adaptation.

[NOW READ] Just 90 companies are responsible for 60% of all man-made global warming

[story via PopSci]

Mantis-DIY-Mechanical-Insect

YouTube’s craziest DIY projects: a 2-tonne mechanical insect

Mantis-DIY-Mechanical-Insect

Mantis-DIY-Mechanical-Insect

We all had our various obsessions as children, but most of us grew out of them and went on to get sensible jobs and take up sensible hobbies… not so Matt Denton from Winchester in Hampshire, UK.

Matt’s company Micromagic Systems worked for four years to build a 2-tonne, driveable, turbo diesel hexapod monster which it describes as “the biggest all-terrain operational hexapod robot in the world.” The 2.8 metre tall machine is driven by Matt himself, and uses a complex system of computer-guided hydraulic legs fitted with an array of sensors to make sure the hexapod remains steady while on the move.

DIY Insect on the move

DIY Insect on the move

The hexapod is powered by a Linux PC running software designed by Matt himself, and is controlled from a panel PC in the cockpit, or remotely. Although the Mantis started out as just a pet project for Matt in his spare time, he now travels to events with the machine and uses it to inspire a new generation of designers and engineers. As home-grown DIY projects go, this one is pretty cool… I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to grab my trusty Worx drill and see what I can create in my back yard!

So where did the idea for this beast come from? According to Matt, he was a big fan of The Empire Strikes Back as a child, and this, combined with his love of insects, inspired him to create the giant hexapod. Denton’s company also creates robotics and animatronics for the movie industry, including a six-legged turtle which appeared in the Harry Potter movies, and electronics behind the Honey Monster and robots created by Jim Henson’s workshop for the movie Lost in Space!