Is oxygen the reason insects were so big way back when?

Written by Joe Ballenger

I read a few things on the size of insects and the decrease of size from there ancestors to now are related to the oxygen levels from then to now.

I was wondering if anyone has raised a few generations in an oxygen enriched environment to see if they grew to larger sizes quickly in the favourable atmosphere or if there evolution was fixed to there new size?

Arthroplerua fossil myriapod (model) (Pennsylvanian)

Pictured: Life-size replica of Arthropleura, the largest land-dwelling arthropod which ever existed. Image credit: James St. John. License info: CC-BY-2.0

Oh, I love this question. There’s a lot of cool stuff here.

In the early day’s of Earth’s history, arthropods were huge.

The largest land-dwelling invertebrate in history was the millipede Arthropleura, which reached sizes of nearly 7 feet. It was a millipede much bigger than our current millipede expert, Derek Hennen. There were dragonfly-like insects the size of hawks, and grasshopper-like insects the size of small dogs. Any entomologist would have loved to be around those days.

We don’t see land-dwelling arthropods that big nowadays. The largest land-dwelling arthropod alive today is the coconut crab, Birgus latro. It “only” grows to about three feet long, and actually spends most of its life in water.

So why did insects get that big back in the day?

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Tough Shell – Is the Beetle Shell Related to Beetles’ Evolutionary Success?

Written by: Nancy Miorelli

Last week,  March 5 – 11, 2017 I had the most wonderful opportunity to tweet from the Real Scientists Twitter Account. Every week they pick a different scientist, science communicator, or artist to curate the account. And how lucky I am that I was selected!!

I talked mainly about butterfly wings, conservation, and SciComm but also did my best to answer some questions that came in.

This was one of of the questions after I posted this quick fact about beetles which I’ve mentioned before in this article.

PC: Nancy Miorelli

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Can I toss that bug outside during winter?

Do most bugs that you would find inside a home able to survive? For example, should I help rescue fruit flies and put them outside or are they better to remain inside? I know most spiders will die if you put them outside, but I’m just not sure about bugs such as moths, larger flies, ladybugs etc. I get worried about opening windows and doors in case they become trapped!

Hi. I live in Rhode Island, so it’s pretty cold here right now. There’s a ladybug living in my kitchen. Can I assume it’s too cold for him to live outside? He can stay inside as long as he wants, but I don’t want him to starve. What do they eat? Should I put him in a room that has potted plants? Or does he eat other bugs? Not sure what to do. I don’t want him starve inside the house, but I also don’t want him to freeze outside. What should I do?

The other day I caught a spider and put it outside. It was around 30 – 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside at the time. The spider was small, maybe the size of a US dime, yellow, and somewhat fast moving. When I put him outside I noticed that instead of moving fast, he walked slowly. I started to wonder if the cold (my concrete patio) was bothering him. Would he freeze to death out there? Or go dormant somehow? What if it’s even colder, like 0 degrees Fahrenheit?

If the cold does bother (or kill) spiders in the winter, do you have any recommendations on removing spiders I catch in the house without killing them? I’ve thought about putting them in my attached garage instead, which isn’t heated but isn’t quite as cold as outside.

During the winter, we get a lot of questions from people asking whether they can put insects outside while it’s cold outside. Or questions about why insects are even inside in the first place.

Hidden TreasureI think it’s a good question, because it exposes something of a riddle. Insects appear every year, so they have to survive the winter somehow…but they die if you toss them in the freezer. The insects you see inside are moving around, but the ones outside aren’t moving around because you can’t see them.

So are there differences between the ones you find inside, and the ones that stay outside? Do those differences mean that they can’t move between the two habitats, like they do in the warmer seasons?

As I said…these are excellent questions, and the answer depends on an understanding of the challenges insects face during winter. Continue reading

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Why are the wasps in my neighborhood changing?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Nancy received this question on @RealScientists this week, and given that I’ve seen the first few wasps of the season already, I thought it would be a really relevant one to answer.

I think this is a really great example of observations by a homeowner. If you own a house, and need to deal with the wasps in your rafters, you’re going to notice when the wasp species change.

…and the species of wasps around your house probably are changing.

In North America, there’s an invasive wasp species called Polistes dominula which is displacing our native wasps. It’s pretty good at pushing them out, too. They establish their nests earlier, make lots of workers, put them in tighter spaces, and will eat just about anything. When P. dominula appears, our native paper wasps leave pretty quickly…because they can’t compete.

The majority of research on P. dominula that I’m aware of has looked at its effects on our native Paper Wasp species (P. fuscatus, specifically), which is why Peter’s post is interesting to me. According to him, it’s pushing out a group of wasps which include Yellow Jackets and Hornets. I’ve worked with these insects before, and this is new to me…but I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out-competing other types of social wasps. I just haven’t seen this specific question addressed in the literature.

Unfortunately, I can’t ID the wasp on the right with a high degree of certainty. The space behind the eyes is black, and while that’s not common, a lot of Hornets and Yellow Jackets have similar coloration and markings which means I need pretty high-res pictures at specific angles to attempt an ID.

Still, I think this is a really cool and interesting observation. I also think it’s one which would be interesting to see followed up with further research, because the answer could tell us more about why different species of wasps are so good at spreading to other parts of the world.

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Entolegality: Do entomologists have special bug privileges?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Is it true that you can order insects when it is illegal for me to order them? Example I would wanna buy a beetle from Japan and it’s illegal for me to own one can you bypass that law since you are a entomologist?

Wow. OK, yeah. This is a really good question.

It’s very short to answer, and the answer is really important.

If I wanted to own something that was a potential pest, I could not legally do that despite my profession. In fact, there’s probably a lot more scrutiny on what I have access to than the normal person. I work with a lot of agricultural pests, and there’s a lot of laws I have to follow in my every day work. These laws are in place because the insects I work with could be extremely damaging if accidentally released into the wrong area.

In my lab, I can’t just bring something in because I’m an entomologist and I want it. First, I have to justify the risk of transporting it to the USDA, specifically an agency called APHIS. Not necessarily transporting it into the country, I have to justify the risk of shipping it over state lines.

There’s a permit process which controls what I bring in, how I keep it, and even how I transport the insects inside buildings. If I need to kill an insect colony, there are very strict requirement as to how I must kill those insects. After those insects are dead, there’s even specific requirements I have to meet to dispose of them…I can’t just toss them in the trash.

There’s also shipping protocols I need to follow if I need to send something somewhere else, even if it’s within the US. It’s something which needs to be meticulously documented at every possible step.

There are actually really good reasons for this. Entomologists have some really weird interests, and the stuff we’re generally interested in tends to be a bit more obscure than most people’s interests. The wrong release, and we’ve got an ecological disaster on our hands.

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Why is spider silk so strong? Can we scale it up?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Hi, I’m on a Lego League team with my school and we are wanting to know more about spiders for our research project. Some questions I hope you can help us with are, what makes a spiders web so strong and sticky? Is it even stronger if it were bigger to hold a person?

Thank you from my whole team!!

Spider silk is really strong stuff. A single strand of spider silk can instantly catch and stop a flying insect tens of thousands of times its weight, without breaking. Scientists are interested in harnessing this property for everyday wear, bulletproof vests, and other protective clothing. There’s a lot of interest in how to do this, from a chemical standpoint.

So it’s a really neat question, and the Lego League is certainly interested in this from a structural chemistry perspective. However, there’s also a cultural component to this particular question I think is neat.

I hang out (pun intended) on ropes quite a bit, and I recently joined a gym which teaches a type of performance art called aerial silk. It’s a type of performance art where a dancer moves by suspending themselves by wrapping themselves in a strong fabric.

When starting to do research on this topic, I asked about the fabric used in this sort of performance. I was shocked to find that the fabric these people are using was nylon, and not silk.

So what is silk, why is it super strong, and why don’t we make climbing equipment with it?

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How can I raise praying mantids inside during winter?

Written by Joe Ballenger

I found a praying mantis egg sac on the small trellis of a potted plant I brought inside for the winter. The plant has started growing on the trellis again, so I can’t remove it. If I put it outside, the plant and likely the eggs, will die. I do have a small hobby greenhouse, but I’m afraid if I put the plant in there, the eggs may hatch and have no food. I’m an avid gardener and would love to have these guys grow up among my vegetables. What should I do? Thanks for your help!

Insects can be…complicated when it comes to enduring winter

Overwintering is actually a pretty complex process. The combination of decreased daylength and lowered temperature tells insects winter is coming. In the wild they can avoid freezing by producing a lot of glycerol and sugar in their blood , which keeps them from freezing solid. Or, they can embrace the cold and allow themselves to become frozen solid by controlling where those ice crystals form, using proteins which control ice formation. To survive the winter, insects either avoid freezing…or allow themselves to become frozen.

Bugs are weird like that.

I think that on some level, everyone knows that insects can survive the winter because they see bugs every summer. Even if you don’t know how they survive the cold, it’s kind of intuitive that they’re able to survive the cold somehow. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t survive the winter…right?

Accidentally bringing an insect in from the cold happens. When you bring a bug in by accident, it quickly adapts to the room-temperature surroundings and begins developing normally again. They do this because they ‘think’ it’s spring…and if you don’t develop quickly in the spring, you miss the window that’s best for your development.

If you’re a predator (like a mantis), you want to emerge in the spring when everything’s small and easily chompable. This allows you to grow with your prey, and ensures you can eat appropriately-sized things as the year goes on.

While that’s great, from an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn’t exactly help you if you’re a human who accidentally brings in a mantis eggcase from outside and wants to see it survive.

In this case, there’s a few things you can do.

First, you can pop it in the refrigerator to slow it’s development for awhile. It won’t stop completely, but it will last a few months before it dies. As far as I know, there’s no precise measure of how long a mantis egg case will last until it’s no good.

If it hatches, or if you don’t want to keep it next to your butter…there are plenty of mantis-rearing guides on the internet to tide you over until spring. None is better than any other, and they all should cover the same bases.

1.) Mantids are cannibalistic.

Mantids will happily eat their siblings, if given half a chance. They’re voracious predators, and they’re just doing what predators do. If you can keep them individually, do that. If you have to keep them communally because of space constraints, provide lots of cover.

2.) Mantids need small food.

Mantids are small bugs, so they need small insects as food. While it’s snowing, you’re probably not going to find large amounts of insects as food. The way to get small insects is to go to the pet store, and look at what they have in terms of feeder insects.

Typically, in order of size, they’ll have Drosophila melanogaster, Drosophila hyediii, and feeder crickets. D. melanogaster is good for the smallest mantids, and the slightly larger ones will take D. hyedii. After they’ve shed their skin a few times, crickets should suffice until they’re large enough to be separated or released into the wild.

3.) Mantids need humidity.

Cold air tends to lower humidity. Humidity helps insects molt. If you’re raising insects during winter, you need to pay attention to the humidity levels to ensure they can shed their skins.

Mist them about once a day…just to make sure their humidity levels are up to par.

The Bottom Line

Nobody really knows how mantids survive the winter, although they probably use some variant of the two main strategies most insects use. Mantids are not difficult to care for over winter, but you need to be prepared for what’s going to happen if you accidentally bring an eggcase inside. It might not hatch right away, but if it does…you’re going to have hundreds of babies which are trying to eat each other. That’s what mantids do.

However, with proper planning…and with a properly supplied pet store…caring for them until spring shouldn’t be beyond the means of most people. Refrigerate them until you can stock up on fruit flies, and then use the fruit flies to feed them until spring. If they get too big for flies, use crickets.

Be prepared, though, they will  eat each other if you give them a chance. Because of that fact, you will never have 100% survival. In fact, many mantid keepers let them cannibalize to a number they can handle.

It may not be pretty, but that’s the reality you should prepare for if you want to raise mantids during the winter.

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