Where are we now: Joanie

Hello there! I’m Joanie Mars, or rather professionally, Joanie King. I typically prefer my alias “Mars” because “King” has always been a strange last name for me to identify with. You see, it’s not my stepfather’s last name and he’s been my dad since I can remember. Although Mars isn’t his last name, it’s a name that found me years ago (another story for another day). So, pardon me if I ever use them interchangeably. This is something I wanted to explain because it’s a point of confusion for people in my professional and personal life that discover that “Mars” isn’t actually my last name. Though, I find it amusing that some do think it’s my last name.

Whew. Glad that’s out of the way!

The main goal of this blog post is to re-introduce myself here at Ask an Entomologist and write about what I’ve been up to over the last year. Before I begin the latter, I will discuss my past history that led me down the path to entomology. Although I’ve always liked insects and other animals, I did not think about becoming an entomologist until later in life; which was during my senior year of my undergraduate degree.

I have my Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Central Florida (UCF). It made sense to go to UCF because I grew up in Orlando and their Biology Department had opportunities for marine ecology and conservation. I wanted to become a marine biologist, therefore, this was very appealing. As I became more involved with undergraduate research, outreach/service learning, and volunteer work (under the guidance of the amazing Dr. Linda Walters), I realized that I would have to attend and complete graduate school if I wanted to continue scientific research, learning, and teaching. I had to figure out a lot what that meant as I went through college because no one in my immediate family went to college. One aspect I discovered was an important component of applying to graduate school is to have letters of recommendation. Typically, three letters are needed. I knew I could get two solid recommendation letters but that I’d need a third. I didn’t want the letter to come from a professor of which I had no personal experience or rapport. During the time I was investigating this, I was taking a Conservation Biology class with Dr. Joshua King (no relation). One day he made an announcement that he was looking for student volunteers for his insect ecology lab. What a perfect opportunity! Little did I know it would change the course of my life and career choice forever. While working in his lab, he and his graduate students taught me about the wonderful world of insects – especially ants. Ants are so cool. Their behavior, morphology, evolution, and ecology are extremely fascinating. After graduating I worked as a technician/research assistant in Dr. King’s lab for about a year. While working in Dr. King’s lab, I looked into grad school for entomology. I found and applied to a master’s student position researching fire ants at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Dr. Brendan Hunt’s lab. This position also worked closely with Dr. Kenneth Ross’ lab. At UGA I gained knowledge and confidence to push myself further down the path to becoming an entomologist. I had the pleasure of working with not only Brendan but many other entomologists and scientists. It was at UGA where I met Nancy Miorelli (I met Joe Ballenger later) and we shared our passion of outreach and teaching. I also received formal training in teaching. I taught a variety of labs and even taught the study abroad class, Insect Natural History in Ecuador. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Dr. Joseph McHugh’s insect taxonomy class. Thanks to Joe, I learned how to identify and pronounce arthropod scientific names – which means a lot to this day because I have dyslexia and it was difficult for me. Very sharp learning curve for me!

I’m currently a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University in Dr. Edward Vargo’s lab. When I first wrote this sentence, I started with “I’m a PhD student,” and then remembered that I passed my PhD candidacy in March of this year. It feels like pre-COVID-19 era, but really, it’s right before things began to really hit North America. Anyway. What is PhD candidacy? Simply put, PhD candidacy examination is a type of comprehensive exam also called “comps,” preliminary exams (“prelims”), or qualifying exams (“quals”). It varies from university to department on what’s involved, but typically happens before beginning the dissertation (which is basically a thesis with various chapters). For me it involved months of preparation, studying, a solid month filled with five written exams, and an oral exam in a conference room with all five committee members that lasted for almost three hours. Needless to say, it was tough. Thankfully, I passed! Yay!

Going back to the dissertation, mine involves fire ants, fire ant decapitating flies, and Science Communication (SciComm)/Outreach/Informal STEM Education. Last August I proposed my chapters for my dissertation. These are research goals with distinct experiments of which have their own aims and hypotheses. Most of these chapters deal with investigating the basis of host manipulation of the red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta by the fire ant decapitating fly, Pseudacteon curvatus. These flies are parasitoids of fire ants. A parasitoid is a type of parasite that lays its egg(s) in a host. In addition to circumventing the immune system, parasitoids oftentimes manipulate their host in a variety of ways. In the case of the decapitating fly, there are a few notable changes that occur. First, after a female fly injects a single egg into her fire ant worker host’s thorax, the fire ant ends up staying inside its nests and experiences a reduction in foraging. After the fly larvae hatches inside the thorax it quickly molts to become a larger larvae (instar) and quickly moves up into the head of the ant, where it will get bigger and bigger until its ready to consume the tissues of the head. The fire ant will then leave the nest and wander to an ideal place for the fly to later pupate. This behavior is called “zombie ant” behavior because the ant is leaving its nest against its own will for that of the fly’s. Once the fire ant wanders far away from the nest (wouldn’t be good for the fly to emerge into a nest full of fire ants!) enzymes (presumably. Better understanding this is part of my dissertation) are secreted and the ant’s head falls off. Thus, the name, fire ant decapitating fly.


Cartoon illustrating zombie ant behavior. Once the fire ant decapitating fly is ready to eat the insides of the head, including the brain, the ant will leave the nest and later have its head fall off. This is due to the compounds secreted so that the fly can eat the head contents and later emerge as an adult fly.

I’m interested in what happens at the molecular level during these stages. Specially, I’m curious about the changes in gene expression of the ant and fly. It’ll be interesting to see what genes are highly and lowly expressed during the different behaviors throughout developmental time. Besides what happens at the individual level of the ant and fly, I’m also interested in what changes occur in specific genes of the fire ants at the colony level. An entire fire ant colony will limit its foraging after exposure to decapitating flies. I would like to explore this further. You can read more about fire ant decapitating flies here. My remaining chapters focus on SciComm, particularly on how to communicate my findings to the public. I have taken classes on communication and outreach to help me learn how to design a SciComm project that is focused. Currently, I’m working on gaining insight on views adults have on genetically modified insects and -omic technologies. As I work on this I’m developing an education tool for SciComm. Besides SciComm/outreach efforts for my dissertation, I’ve been involved in volunteer work as well. For the past two years I was the community outreach coordinator for the Entomology Graduate Student Organization (EGSO). This involved planning, coordinating, and volunteering at outreach events, primarily at elementary schools and local events. I hope that in the future it will be safe to attend outreach events in person again. In the meantime, I’m more than happy to share my knowledge on bugs with anyone who would like to learn about entomology.

In grad school it’s important to have healthy outlets and hobbies. It’s beneficial to find balance in life and accomplishment in a variety of ways– it’s extremely difficult to find that while in grad school. Mental and physical health can go to the wayside. My first year in Texas was stressful and filled with personal struggles. I sought professional help through the student counseling services. As a worked through figuring out how to cope and manage, I discovered a passion that I never knew I’d have: Climbing. A year after moving to Texas I was introduced to the sport and have been hooked ever since. The first year I bouldered and then the next year I learned how to sport climb. Last fall I trained and tried out for the Texas A&M University A Team. I know, you’re probably thinking, “they let grad students join a university sports team?” I thought so too, but was extremely thankful and excited for the opportunity. Part of this involved colligate membership to USA Climbing and competitions. Training with my team brought consistency in my week other than my grad work. Not through the colligate team, but still exciting and fun was when I competed in an outdoor climbing competition called the Granite Gripper at the Texas State Park, Enchained Rock, where I placed 1st in the Women’s advanced category. The best part of that day was climbing with my partner and amazing boyfriend, Andrew (whom I met while outdoor climbing last summer), who also placed.

Besides keeping up with grad school, outreach, and climbing I like to paint, sew, cosplay, and take pictures of bugs. In fact, I was able to attend Bug Shot 2019 on a student scholarship. Macrophotography has been an interest of mine since 2012. I love taking picture of bugs. I hope to use photography more in my SciComm efforts. If you also like taking picture of bugs and can swing it, check out BugShot.

Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus on milkweed at Texas A&M University. April 2020. Photo by Joanie Mars.

Monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus on milkweed at Texas A&M University. April 2020. Photo by Joanie Mars.

There you have it! How I got into entomology, SciComm, and what I’ve been up to over the past couple of years (particularly over the past year). Thank you for reading! I look forward to sharing knowledge on insects and other arthropods with y’all.  ~ Joanie

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The “Murder Hornets” AKA Asian Giant Hornet

Well. Thanks New York Times. 🙄🙄

Hai. I’m Nancy – I was supposed to write my “Re-introduction” this week because of our hiatus. However …

Now that every entomologist ever needs to clean up this puked up fur-ball of a mess that is the non issue of the not so murderous murder hornet, I have written you this beautiful piece of literature instead of my reintroduction.

The gist of all this is, the Asian Giant Hornet is NOT murderous, and it’s not a threat to you in the US.

But here’s the long of it.

If you want to watch the full interview I did with Jon Perry from Stated Clearly you can watch it here! It was a live video so thanks to everyone who tuned in! If you’d rather read basically all the same points, continue below after the read more tab.

Thanks Stated Clearly!
Continue reading
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Where are we now: Joe

Hi, I’m Joe!

For those of who are new to AaE, let me introduce myself.

I’m Joe Ballenger. I’m a single dad, and I really like to climb when I’m not working.

My background is physiology. Specifically, I’ve done a lot of genetics and physiology, and I look at the nuts and bolts of how things work. In the past, I studied insect viruses, I’ve looked for proteins which kill insects, and now I’ve changed tracks and I’m using these skills to look at how weeds hurt crops.

So how does that work?

What’s Joe Doing Now?

Shade Avoidance1

Joe’s currently studying shade avoidance. When plants are exposed to certian kinds of light reflected off other plants, they grow in a way that’s kind of bad for crops (right in both cases) because they put more resources into stems than yeild.

This year has also been a big year for me, as well. I decided to leave my job in industry, and not only go to grad school, but study a whole new group of pests.

There’s actually a lot of cool stuff going on in the field of weed science. New herbicides are hard to make, and as a result, herbicide resistance is…kind of a problem.


In the field of weed science, we’ve got to figure out how weeds work. More importantly, we’ve got to understand how plants fight each other so we can understand how weeds damage crops.

You’d think this is obvious. That yield loss due to weeds is from competition to nutrients, right?

So…it turns out that crops can never really recover from weed damage, and we don’t know why.

Continue reading

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We’re coming back from hiatus tomorrow!

Dear Fans and Friends,


First of all, we, the Ask an Entomologist team would like to thank you for submitting your question. Many have asked questions throughout the years, and your continued interests in insects is greatly appreciated.


The Situation and Unexpected Hiatus

We – Joe, Joanie, and Nancy would like to apologize for leaving your question(s) unanswered despite our mission and name. The truth is, Ask an Entomologist just became too much for us! We never imagined that our project would grow to the point that we were receiving hundreds of emails and messages across our platforms every week. Coupled with the surprising influx of new visitors, the three of us had major life transitions. Joe left industry to start a PhD. Joanie transitioned from her Master’s degree to a PhD. And Nancy decided to start her own entomology focused tourism business. These new endeavors left us with very little extra time to spend with our families and hobbies let alone a science communication project. Ask an Entomologist is a way for people to interact with scientists, and any career will involve difficult, stressful, and time-consuming transitions.


The Solution

This past month we decided to not only be honest with ourselves  – but to you as well. As scientists, our goal has always been to expand our community into yours, and we’d like to address you as part of our community about how we can keep answering your questions.


The first thing we have decided is that we loved producing content centered around what you’d like to know. Blog posts, videos, interviews, art, etc. However, with emails upon emails we found that we could not create the content we loved because we were busy furiously answering emails to the best of our ability. Our goal when starting this project was to offer something *new* to the science communication community. A place where questions about insect biology would be addressed  in a clear and engaging manner by actual scientists that is freely open to the public. While this aspect of the project was new, to continue answering questions, we need to make some changes.

Questions about identification or help with pest control is something that can be handled better by people with the infrastructure to respond to hundreds of emails a week with qualified specialists. Therefore, we will be only answering questions unique to insect biology, physiology, or ecology.


We have a new schedule where starting May 5th, expect to see three new posts a month! In May we we will reintroduce oursevelves, revive our social media platforms (facebook / twitter), and start our new buggy content in June. We have had lengthy conversations about how to continue Ask an Entomologist without falling down the same pitfalls so we can continue creating the content you love, and still have time to finish our PhDs, run our businesses, and engage in our hobbies. So a win for everyone!


But … my question was never answered…

Do not fear, if you submitted a question about ID requests or pest control services we recommend the following resources.


Insect Identification:

When submitting your image of your insect to any of the following resources, please include the following information

  • Where you found the insect / arthropod (Country / State)

  • A high resolution image

  • If a facebook group, please follow all the rules instituted by that group

BugGuide: (just for North American insects) www.bugguide.net

Bug ID Blog: http://www.whatsthatbug.com
The Entomology FB Group: https://web.facebook.com/groups/TheEntomologyGroup

Spider and Bug Questions With the Bug Girl: https://web.facebook.com/groups/1626262754255734

Beetles: https://web.facebook.com/groups/30749256655

Moth and Moth Watching: https://web.facebook.com/groups/137219092972521

Ants, Bees, Wasps: https://web.facebook.com/groups/HymenopteristsForum88


Pest Control:

We are prohibited from giving any pest control advice. We are not professionally trained doctors or certified pest control experts therefore we cannot legally give advice about pests. Not only does pest biology vary between states, but the laws do as well. Our community is international, and these all complicate things to a point where we cannot be qualified to answer any questions about pest control.


We highly suggest you read this post by Joe about some basic pest control tips. These will help you identify problems so when you reach out to an expert you will be prepared and have all the necessary samples and information for them.



This article by Nancy will help you assess your risk and your situation as a whole.



When you’re ready, we suggest you follow these links to find your local resources. Generally, universities have extension agents who can also help you.

Find Your Local Resources: (United States) http://npic.orst.edu/mlr.html


General  Question About Insects:

We are still happy to accept general questions about insects related to their biology, ecology, physiology, taxonomy, etc. These are the kinds of questions we set out to answer and these are what we will now be focusing on it. If you submitted a question of this nature, please RESEND your question with “General Question: – your question” as the Subject! Please give us any other further relevant details / photos / locations


Media Requests:

WE have missed many media requests because they often get lost within the swaths of identification requests. If you have a media request, please fill out THIS form.




Moving Forward

We want to answer your questions, because we know you like to learn about bugs. We love teaching people about bugs. We’re finally getting to a point where we can keep making stuff which educates, entertains, and engages you about the wonderful world of bugs!

To do this, we’ve had to simplify our systems and be honest with what we’re capable of. We’ve updated our schedule and we’re returning making the stuff you want us to create. We are excited to return from our unexpected hiatus and continue into the future with you.


Thank you so much for being here and supporting us through this journey.



The Ask an Entomologist Team


Joe, Joanie, & Nancy


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What’s putting bugs in pots on my windowsill?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Does anyone know what kind of worms these are? They were in this mudlike ball stuck to the screen (second pic after it burst open) and when I flicked it to remove it, it busted apart and these 3 worms were inside. They look like miniature alien creatures…lol. My roommate said she saw a wasp hanging around there, but the mudball didn’t look like a wasp nest. It was perfectly round, about the size of a tiny malted milk ball candy. I used the top of my lighter to see a comparison in size, but they were about an inch and a half long. And yes, they were alive.

We get a lot of ID requests, and there’s just not enough time to focus on all the cool insects that people see around them. We do, however, see some insects mentioned with some consistency.

A lot of these posts show us pictures of or mention grey pots filled with caterpillars, almost always caterpillars from the same family: Geometridae (or inchworms).

These nests are pretty easy to ID: they’re the nests of a wasp called Eumenes fraternus. The wasps build these nests out of mud, and sting caterpillars to paralyze them. The wasp’s larvae then feed on the paralyzed caterpillars, until they emerge as a wasp ready to start the cycle anew.

These wasps are also really important. If you see these gals flying around, you don’t need to worry about running into a nest because they don’t make big colonies.

However, they’re very closely related to groups which do. These wasps are the closest evolutionary relatives to paper wasps and hornets, wasps which are famous for constructing nests which house large colonies.


Image credit: Tolweb.org License info: CC BY 3.0

Posted in Behavior, Ecology, Evolution, Identification, Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Household Casebearer is…a little weird. It’s also one of the most common pests we get asked about.

Written by Joe Ballenger

Household casebearer

Photo of household casebearer, from AaE inbox.

We get a lot of questions about household pests, and the biology of these pests can be a bit…weird. Most live in dry areas, and have a lot of adaptations to deal with it. It’s also a good way to be preadapted to human habitation, because our dwellings tend to be very dry and typically don’t have a lot of food.

One of the more common insects we get in our inbox is the insect above, the household casebearer. It’s often confused with clothes moths, although it doesn’t feed on fabrics. It’s a different critter altogether.

The early literature on this species is actually full of misidentifications, and it’s biology isn’t very well known. However, as far as entomologists can tell, it appears this species originated in either Africa or Australia and has hopped around the globe with people. Outside of it’s habitat, wherever it’s found, it’s usually found in association with people…and it doesn’t typically dwell far outside human habitations.

In it’s native habitat-or at least what we think it’s native habitat is-it’s found in conjunction with spiders. The caterpillars tend to live under spider webs, eating the leftovers the spider tosses out when it’s done. In addition to dead insects, it also eats silk from abandoned spiderwebs, webspinners, and other silk producing insects.

From here, it’s pretty easy to understand how this insect could get into houses. There’s a number of spiders which live in houses, which include cobweb builders like Pholcus and Steatoda. In addition, most houses contain some amount of dead bugs which come in from outside and can’t quite gain a foothold.

As a result, control is pretty simple…find and get rid of any cobweb building spiders, and do some deep cleaning in those forgotten recesses. However, it’s also a pretty cool bug. It feeds off the traces other bugs leave behind, and has spread all over the world because of it’s unique lifestyle.

Works Cited

Heppner, J. B. (2005). Notes on the Plaster Bagworm, Phereoeca uterella, in Florida (Lepidoptera: Tineidae). Holarctic Lepidoptera, 10(1-2), 31-32.
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Replay of live video on Anopheles mosquitoes of Madagascar with Riley Tedrow

Hey ya’ll! We’ve been doing these neat live videos with entomologists from all different backgrounds. It’s been almost a year of doing so, but they are only posted to Facebook. From now on we’re going to provide the link to our BeLive videos here!

Replay of live video with Riley Tedrow on Thursday (July 5th) talk about Anopheles Mosquitoes of Madagascar!

Facebook link to talk with Riley Tedrow

Riley is a PhD Candidate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He currently works on feeding behavior and malaria infection in the Anopheles mosquitoes of Madagascar. He does this by conducting field work in Madagascar – living in remote villages with a small Malagasy team that treats malaria patients as they catch local mosquitoes.

You can also check out Riley’s WordPress here

Posted in Live Video, Medical Entomology, Uncategorized | 1 Comment