Interacting With Ekbom’s sufferers: Guidelines from the dermatology literature.

Infestations can be very difficult to handle in online science outreach projects. We do our best to give the best possible advice, but ultimately it’s an issue where you need boots on the ground.

During our infestation post, we mentioned that there were mental illnesses which made people believe they’re infested with parasites. Even with boots on the ground, this line can be hard to draw. People who have had real infestations, like the one below, often exhibit a hyper-vigilance which keeps them repeatedly checking for insects for years to come.

In other cases, people have obsessive thoughts that they are infested. They’ll often go to entomologists, and claim they’re infested. They’ll bring samples or specimens, which are free of anything which infests homes, pets, or people. Often times, they’ll travel from medical professional to medical professional in hopes that the medical professional will be able to take care of the issue.

The former case is willing (and often relieved) to discover their infestation has not returned. The latter case is unwilling to accept that they are not infested, and will often become angry or confrontational when given the “all clear” from a doctor or an entomologist.

That latter case, where people are unwilling to accept they do not have an infestation, is a legitimate mental illness called Ekbom syndrome by entomologists. It’s something which is very commonly encountered by insect scientists. Despite that, we do not receive training on how to handle this sort of psychological issue during our education.

So to better educate myself how to properly handle this, I wanted to write a post on here which revolves around how people in the medical profession recognize and ultimately handle this condition.

Trigger warning: This post discusses psychiatric disorders and will describe some forms of self-harm. We will not post anything gory below the fold, but we will discuss topics which may disturb some readers. Due to the sensitive and uncertain nature of this topic, we have opted not to post any of the queries which prompted this post.

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SciBugs Collections Etsy Shop!

If you don’t want to scroll down, here’s my etsy store – SciBugs Collections – link!

For those of you who really like bling, you can find this item here.

For those of you who really like bling, you can find this item here.

The Short Story:

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Are Brown Widows as Dangerous as Black Widows?

Written by Joe Ballenger
  • widowquestion

As a rule, Widows have pretty nasty venom. I was knocked on my butt for about 3 days after a bite I received from a Southern Widow (Lactrodectus mactans) after mishandling her. These sorts of incidents are extremely rare, and some trials of Widow bite treatments have had to extend nearly a decade in Widow-rich areas to get enough incidents to study. When talking about Black Widow bites, we are not talking about something that’s common.

There are many species of widows, and not all of them are black. The species Steven is talking about, Latrodectus geometricus, is actually a very pretty camo-brown color. It still has the hourglass, though, which I think makes it look rather interesting.

Brown Widows aren’t considered to be particularly harmful. Some severe bites have occurred, so they can potentially hurt people…but the vast majority of bites are minor.

How do we know that something’s not harmful? What does that data look like? How do we prove a negative in science?

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I’m Afraid of Bed Bugs and Infestation … Help?

Written by Nancy Miorelli

It’s no wonder people are afraid of bugs with how they’re portrayed in the media. It’s true that insects are our major competitors for both our food and our health and invade our homes. In my opinion, this, coupled with relatively little formal education about insects in schools and universities enables our minds run wild about the dangers of insects. It’s one of the reasons we started this blog! To make insects and their biology more accessible and relateable!

How can you effectively manage insect paranoia?

How can you effectively manage insect paranoia?

If you are someone who is very afraid of insects, spiders (and their kin) or about an infestation sit back and relax. There are some very easy things that you can do to help put your mind at ease.

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There’s a lot of misinformation about spider bites on the internet…and some of it comes from academic websites.

Written by Joe Ballenger

October is an important time for spiders. Spiders sleep through the winter, and right about now is when they’re looking for places to hunker down. Consequently, we get a lot of pictures of spiders in people’s houses.

A few days ago, on the Ask an Entomologist Twitter feed, I got someone sending us a tweet of a Yellow Sac Spider. It’s a common species which invades houses at this time of year, so I kind of expect to see pictures of them occasionally.

This is a Yellow Sac Spider, Cheiracanthium sp. of some sort. Their bites are typically like a bee sting, although there is a wide variety of symptoms. Some people report severe pain which lasts for a couple of hours, there may be a rash, and some people get nauseous. It’s not fun, but it’ll be over in about a day or so…without lasting damage.


Yellow Sac Spider on a finger. Image credit: Andrew Hoffman. License info: CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

It should be pointed out that these descriptions come from people who were bothered enough to seek medical attention. Given how often these spiders are found in people’s homes, it’s very likely that these symptoms all reflect a worst-case scenario. Compared to a Black Widow, this is pretty mild.

The problem is that a lot of sources say that this spider has a bite similar to the Brown Recluse in that it causes a big wound that festers for weeks. This sort of bite is called a necrotic bite, and that means it makes a lot of dead flesh.

This rumor has made it onto quite a few University Entomology extension websites. Some notable examples include the University of Nebraska, Utah State University, Washington State, and the University of Minnesota. Often times, University extension websites link to one another…like the University of Wyoming website which links to the Utah State University website.

There are some fact sheets, however, which do get it right. The Penn State University website is one of these.

This rumor was addressed in the scientific literature in 2006, by Rick Vetter. Rick Vetter is a bit of a celebrity among entomologists, because he’s made a career of pointing out that spider bites are rarely correctly diagnosed by medical professionals. He’s a professional spider-mythbuster.

In order to investigate whether the bites of Sac Spiders caused necrosis, he formed a group of scientists and they personally investigated as many spider bites as they could. They’d take a call from a poison control center, get the person to collect the spider, and then follow the person’s symptoms as they recovered. He also went through the literature, and looked only at cases where the spider had been collected and positively ID’d.

Of the 40 Sac spider bites where the spider had been collected, only one bite from Europe produced a necrotic wound. The wound was about a quarter-inch across, and nothing like the wounds produced by Brown Recuses. Vetter accepts the wound was from the spider’s venom, although I kind of wonder if it’s an infection.

Regardless, Vetter was eventually able to trace the origins of the myth back to tests run on Guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are known to be more sensitive to spider venom than people are. In this case, the tests run on Guinea pigs weren’t as informative as they should have been. The researchers had been unwittingly working with a model poorly suited to this sort of study.

Doctors who were looking to diagnose patients saw these papers, and noticed some of their patients had wounds which looked similar. Wanting a quick answer, they diagnosed the wound as a ‘spider bite’ and sent the patients on their way. Other doctors saw these case reports, made similar diagnosis, and the whole thing snowballed from there.

In science it’s difficult to prove a negative, but it’s pretty clear that Sac spiders don’t have the same venom as the Brown Recluse. From Vetter’s research, it’s not possible to definitively say that these bites can’t cause necrosis in rare and sensitive individuals…but it’s also clear that comparing their bites to those of a Brown Recluse is not an accurate description of the bite.

Unfortunately, the rumor continues today and has made into University Entomology Extension websites. Typically, they’re good sources of information for bug-related stuff…but even entomologists aren’t perfect.

Works Cited

Vetter, R. S., Isbister, G. K., Bush, S. P., & Boutin, L. J. (2006). Verified bites by yellow sac spiders (genus Cheiracanthium) in the United States and Australia: where is the necrosis?. The American journal of tropical medicine and hygiene, 74(6), 1043-1048.


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Never growing up: why are there insects which *don’t* go through metamorphosis?

Written by Joe Ballenger

If someone begins a statement with ‘this might be a dumb question, but…’ my ears usually perk up, because it’s very likely that something interesting is about to follow.

This is a great question, because she’s asking about lifestyles which aren’t really commonly known outside the entomology community.


Male Acanthopsyche moth. A female is pictured below the fold. Image credit: Janet Graham, via Flickr. License info: CC-BY-2.0

In the laboratory, we can suppress the process of metamorphosis by treating insects with growth regulators. Many of these growth regulators are also used as pesticides, specifically for mosquitoes.

Although it pays for humans to be able to control this process, there are some benefits to abandoning metamorphosis altogether. In fact there are many moths, beetles, flies, and an obscure group of parasitic insects called Strepsipterans, which have abandoned this process. Some of these insects just look like larvae as adults, but others have completely done away with the process altogether.

So what do these lifestyles look like, why do they develop this way, and how does this system work?

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How much water can ants drink?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Your Name: charles
Your Bug Question: How much can an ant drink of water?

I thought this question about how ants drink was really cool. It’s a question that has a pretty simple answer at first, but it also gets a lot more complicated when you delve into the details of how insects uptake fluid.

Ants, which are social wasps in the family Formicidae, are an insanely diverse family of insects. There’s over 12,000 species of ants currently described, and there could be as many as 20,000. To give you an idea of how this compares to mammals, there’s only about 40 species of dog living today.

So there’s a lot of ants, which have many different lifestyles. However, there’s only so many ways to collect fluid…and different tactics mean that they each drink a certain amount.

First, though, we need to explore how insect mouths work because drinking is a really complicated process for insects.

How do insects drink?

Like people, insects use their mouths to drink. They can do so in some pretty different ways, but they use the same piece of equipment to do this.

What parts do insects use to drink?


A dissection of grasshopper mouthparts, via Wikimedia Commons. Modified by Joe Ballenger. Author info: Heds. License info: Public Domain

When we talk how insects drink, we’re talking about how they use one very specific part of their mouths. Insects have a lot of different moving parts in their mouths, and each part has some fairly specific functions. To make matters more complicated, most groups have evolved some very significant modifications of this design.


The mouthparts of ants in particular, are relatively unmodified and are pretty close to the mouthparts of the grasshopper to the left. Their mouths contain a labrum, which is used to hold food in the mouth while it’s being processed. Ants use the mandibles to grasp food, and the maxillae to process solid food. The labium is used to hold food in the bottom of the mouth while it’s eating.


Ant labium, modified from image above by Joe Ballenger

The ant uses the labium for drinking, and it’s basically the ant equivalent of the human tongue. The labium is subdivided into several other parts. The hypopharynx is used to hold the liquid, while the glossa transports the liquid.


It should be noted that the grasshopper labium is a little different than the ant labium, but I couldn’t find any great pictures of the ant labium which showed the modification.

How do ants drink?

Like mammals, ants can drink using two different methods…licking and sucking.


Licking is accomplished much like a dog lapping up water. The glossa is used to transport water into the hypopharynx in a physical manner. Yellowjackets use this method to drink water:


Sucking is accomplished in a way similar to how humans do it. Negative pressure is used to draw liquid into the hypopharynx, where it’s passed into the digestive system.


So how much can ants drink?


Camponotus rufipes carrying droplet of water. These ants also suck from the water drop, and can also carry droplets of water back to the nest. Image credit: Paul & Roces 2003

How much an ant drinks depends on the size of the ant’s head, and how it drinks. Ants can have workers of different sizes, and bigger workers will drink more. Different ant species can be different sizes, and different individuals take different amounts of time to drink and will intake varying amounts of fluid.

So this answer is a bit complicated.

The best answer comes from the mid-sized ant Camponotus mus. In a single sitting, these ants can drink about 6-8 microliters of sugar water. Larger ants will drink slightly more, and smaller ants will drink slightly less.

Paul & Roces 2003 measured fluid intake in a bunch of different ant species, but they didn’t look at volume. They only calculated rates, and only gave a range of times the ants drank. However, this data still allows us to get a pretty good range for how much ants drink.

Based on this information, it seems the largest amount that an ant could drink is about 35 microliters. The smallest amount they generally choose to drink is .1 microliter. The typical ant probably drinks about 6-8 microliters of water in a single sitting.

What’s a microliter?

One of the major issues with the scientific literature is that it’s written by scientists, for scientists. Consequently, papers tend to use units which don’t mean a whole lot to most folks. To understand how much volume we’re talking about above, you need to know what a microliter is.

How much water a microliter contains is very difficult to imagine, because this is a vanishingly small volume. A one-liter pop bottle contains exactly one million (1,000,000) microliters of soda. One way to put this is that it would take about 200,000 ants to drain a one liter bottle of soda if we’re using data for Camponotus mus.


One drop of water is roughly 30 microliters. It’s an imprecise measurement, to be fair, but it works well for a visual gauge of liquid volume. Picture credit: Joe Ballenger

I think there’s a more accessible unit we can use to compare, though. We can compare these numbers to a drop of water.

While in graduate school, I needed to be able to quickly measure small amounts of buffer. To do this, I measured how much water was in a single drop exuded from a plastic eyedropper. Water drops off the pipetter at about 33 microliters of water, so one drop of water is about 33 microliters.

Given this information, the largest ants can drink about one drop of water in a single sitting. The smallest ants probably choose to drink about 1/1000th of a drop. A mid-sized ant, in a typical drinking session, probably chooses to drink 1/5th of a drop of water in a single setting.

The Bottom Line

Ants are small, but they can drink a lot of water depending on their body weight. Your typical ant, in an average setting, probably drinks about 7 microliters of water. This is equivalent to 1/5th of a drop of water.

It should be noted that this might not necessarily reflect how much water an ant can bring back to the nest. Many ants, particularly those which can’t store water in their stomach, actually carry droplets of water back to the nest. These drops can be significantly larger than what’s discussed here

On the plus side, if you’re worried about ants stealing your entire bottle soda…there’s no reason to worry because you’ve got enough to share with your six-legged friends.

Unless, of course, there’s a quarter million ants heading your way. Then you’ve got some major problems.

Works Cited

  1. Josens, R. B., Farina, W. M., & Roces, F. (1998). Nectar feeding by the ant Camponotus mus: intake rate and crop filling as a function of sucrose concentration. Journal of Insect Physiology, 44(7), 579-585.
  2. Paul, J., & Roces, F. (2003). Fluid intake rates in ants correlate with their feeding habits. Journal of Insect Physiology, 49(4), 347-357.

Thanks to Biker Lee and Sébastien de Valeriola for helping us acquire some of the literature used for this post.

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