Bees carrying leaves? What’s up with that?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Your Name: Clark

Your Bug Question: I noticed a small flying insect about the size of a honey bee, fuzzy, all black flying around with a small leaf in its legs. It flew down between some small rocks next to a cement pad and dissapeared. It flew out a minute later without the leaf and returned with another leaf or section of a leaf. I watched it repeat this several times. Any idea what this insect is and what it is doing?

As Nancy wrote, IDing insects can be very hard because you often need to see tiny features of the insect most people wouldn’t think to photograph.

Thankfully, not all bugs are this way. Some insects have behaviors that are pretty unique, and can be used to ID them with a surprising degree of certainty. The behavior that Clark is describing is one such example. It doesn’t happen too often…but we love it when it does.

Leafcutting bees, family Megachilidae, are pretty unique among bees because they snip off pieces of leaves to line their nests. Like other bees, they also feed on pollen and nectar. The larvae eat the pollen, and the leaves are used to give them a comfy little house to live in. Some like to build nests in cracks and crevices, others like to build their nests in hollow plant stems, and others take over old nests left by carpenter bees. One species even uses old snail shells to build its nests.

Not all of these bees are pollinators, however. Several species are parasitic, and take over nests from closely related species. The Cuckoo-bees, Coelioxys sp., are probably the best known example.

My favorite Entomo-YouTuber, Nature1UpClose, has an excellent video which describes the lifecycle of this bee. They’re very important pollinators, especially in agricultural situations. They do cause some damage to the plant by removing leaves. Because they pollinate the plants, they’re usually more of a benefit to the system than they are a pest.

Megachilids are pretty cool…and they’re one of the bees that’s not talked about too frequently when talking about pollinators.

Posted in Behavior, Ecology, Pollination, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is it like to be a scientist?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Your Name: Chelsea
Your Bug Question: Hi, I’m a middle school student and I was hoping you could answer a few of my questions about being an entomologist for a research paper I’m writing.

Your Name: Jensen
To Whom it may concern,
I am a (high school) student and I have a project where I interview someone about their job. I have decided to interview a zoologist and I was hoping that you could answer a few questions.

Awhile back, Nancy wrote an article explaining what an entomologist does in What Is an Entomologist? She also recently talked about what she’s doing in Ecuador and her background in a few live posts. She’s doing some amazing things, and they’re worth watching because she answers these questions from her perspective.

Her posts are a great introduction to the topic of entomology, because she explains what scientists are and why we study bugs. However people still ask us some more in-depth questions that I wanted to address here, because they shed some light on what doing science is like.

Science is a job like any other, and no two of us have the same job description. In general, though, we have a time we need to be at work. There are meetings, bosses, and things that everyone else has. You have projects you have to get done, work you need to prioritize, and the like. Everyone with an office job does all of these things, so we can identify with a lot of other professions.

Sure, we’ve talked about research. We do that all the time, and it’s an important part of talking about science. Specifically, we’ve talked about the results of research…but not doing the research itself.

So…what is it like to be a scientist?

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Posted in Culture, Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Do insects feel pain?

The last two questions we tackled revolved around the cognitive abilities (communication, and personality) of arthropods, specifically insects and spiders. These are really tough questions to tackle because a lot of people, even (especially?) those who genuinely like insects and spiders, want to humanize them as a way to identify with them.

I think it’s a good thing to want to identify with these animals, so long as we’re making proper comparisons. Sometimes, however, this very human impulse can get us into trouble…like this Twitter post by the Featured Creature twitter account.

This image is typically shared as an example of maternal care in jumping spiders. Although maternal care does exist in this group, it doesn’t typically involve the mother carrying them to a new location in the manner shown.

Assuming the picture is real (see Chris M. Buddle’s comment), the activity pictured here is most likely cannibalism. Instead of being an endearing picture, this is more of an example of how our desire to identify with insects and spiders can cloud our image of how they behave. This desire has a name, it’s called ‘anthropomorphism’…which means to imbue human characteristics or motivation onto non-human organisms.

I wanted to open our discussion of insect pain up with that story, because it’s a very important point to make. Insects react to the world differently than we do, and when it comes to cognition it’s very difficult to separate our motivations from theirs.

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Posted in Behavior, Physiology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

So You’re In the Tropics, Named a New Species Yet?

Written by Nancy Miorelli

The short answer is “No.”
The long answer is “No.” but with with a bit more explanation. The first is that I’m a communicator, an ecologist, and don’t have a lot of the proper equipment.

Have I seen a new species to science? I have absolutely no doubt. Did I know it was a new species when I saw it? No, probably not. There’s just so much diversity here it hasn’t even been quantified.

Our moth sheet in Ecuador. So yeah there's probably a dozen or so new species on it. Anyone want to look at really tiny brown moths?

Our moth sheet in Ecuador. So yeah there’s probably a dozen or so new species on it. Anyone want to look at really tiny brown moths?

For example. There’s about ~20,000 species of butterflies in the world. Ecuador has close to 4,000 butterfly species. Maqui, the reserve that I’m in, has close to 200 butterfly species. So our one little 6,000 hectare (15,000 acre) reserve has 0.5% of the butterfly species of Ecuador!  And that’s just butterflies – a big charismatic group that has a lot of identification work in it. Beetles, moths, and little wasps on the other hand are a whole nother animal(s). There’s a lot more of them, an there’s a lot more little ones, and a lot more that live in tropical areas that are hard to get to.

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Posted in Taxonomy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cockroach milk is not the next superfood. It could be a lot more important than that.

Written by Joe Ballenger

Diploptera bicolor, a species closely related to D. punctata. Image Credit: Lund University Entomological Museum, via Flickr. License info: CC-BY-NC2.0

A number of articles circulating everywhere online are claiming that a new ‘superfood’ has been found in cockroaches, and although I’m happy popular culture is focusing on the fact cockroaches are good moms…they’re missing a far more important story.


To put this research into context, the Pacific Beetle Roach (Diploptera punctata) gives live birth and nourishes its young inside her body until they’re big enough to defend themselves. It’s an interesting evolutionary story, and one that’s kind of important. However, nobody has really seriously thought about using this species for food. People become allergic to cockroaches very easily. The Milk proteins secreted by these roaches also lack Methionine and Tryptophan…amino acids humans need for survival but which we can’t make.

However, this is a protein which does some pretty cool things…and could be used to design new drugs.

So let’s explore what’s really going on with cockroach milk.

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Posted in Chemistry, Culture, Developmental Biology, News, Physiology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Do insects have personalities?

Written by Joe Ballenger

After our spider post, I thought it would be nice to tackle this question because these questions open one of the biggest rabbit holes in the field of insect science:

Since you are the experts, my question is this:  Since some species of birds are more bold (or smarter?) than others, is it possible for insects (if a mantis is in that classification) to be bold or shy also?  Especially since they are mostly at the bottom of the food chain for a lot of species further up that chain, I would have expected the mantis to abandon his perch at my approach.
Hmm!  Glad nobody saw that or I’d be labeled the Mantis Whisperer!

This person is essentially asking whether different individual insects within a species display different behaviors. Put another way, do insects have personalities?

The short answer is yes, for a reason that’s almost anticlimatic.

That being said, insects are being used to tackle  some fascinating questions about the role of nature, nurture, development and genetics in describing personality.

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Posted in Behavior, Developmental Biology, Ecology, Physiology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How similar is Entomology to Pokemon? Do scientists ever make bugs fight?

Written by Joe Ballenger

The release of Pokemon Go has been great for us entomologists, because we have been able to get people to realize why we love our jobs so much. The creator of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri, actually got the idea for the game because he liked to collect insects as a child. Consequently, virtually every aspect of the game relates to the jobs biologists do with some very striking parallels.

Entire books could be written on this topic, but the most common question I received over Twitter in the last few days has been this:



There are YouTube channels where people pit random assortments of insects together in fights, but I’m not going to link them here because I view that as meaningless violence. I’m not a fan of this sort of thing, even though it is frequently mentioned in these conversations.

That being said, however, scientists do frequently pit insects against one another for scientific reasons. Insects fight in the wild for a number of reasons, and insect fighting is very important in some cultures. There are some very valid reasons to watch insects fight, and study how they do it.

So let’s explore the world of insect fighting!

For…you know, science.

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Posted in Behavior, Culture, Developmental Biology, Ecology, Insect Rearing, Physiology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment