Are there insects which are toxic as adults, but not as larvae?

Written by Joe Ballenger

I wanted to know if it is possible for the adult butterfly to be poisonous while the caterpillar of the same species is not poisonous?

I think this is a really insightful question, and I’ve got a soft spot for questions asked by kids.

I guess we should start by talking about why this question is really insightful.

Lepidopterans-butterflies and moths-have a huge chemical arsenal at their disposal which ranges from compounds which smell really bad, to venom that’s strong enough to kill humans. There’s a variety of ways they can introduce these compounds, but for the most part, they’re either stored in the body as larvae or they’re based on a developmental program that’s also part of the larva.

Blood feeding moths are going to be…kind of important here.

So it’s kind of an unusual situation where an adult would be toxic while a larva wouldn’t…but it does exist.

Kind of.

It’s complicated.

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What would it be like to eat a bug that was about as large as a loaf of bread?

“What would it be like to eat a bug that was about as large as a loaf of bread? This question was inspired by a video game called Grounded, in which shrunken kids have to survive on a lawn, which involves cooking and eating bugs. Would eating a bug under such circumstances be like sucking goo out of them, or would it be more like eating seafood?”

This question recently received in our email piqued my interest. Sure, I’ve eaten bugs, but I never thought about it in this way. I hadn’t heard about the video game “Grounded,” but the thought of shrunken kids figuring out how to catch, cook, and eat bugs intrigued me. So, what would it be like to eat bugs?

From This reminds me of scallop meat.
Screen-cap of a grub from the video game “Grounded.”
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What are Gnats? Are Gnats Flies?

I received this question from my learning community on Facebook called the SciHive! We deep dive into topics and I get some really insightful questions! And I even love these kinds of questions that really show the dichotomy between colloquial language and scientific language. Because while it seems like a simple answer… it gets complicated quickly.

Heather asks, “My husband and I have a question. Are gnats different from flies? If so, what are the identifiers.”

So the short of it: Yes! Gnats are flies!
The complicated part is: but “gnat” doesn’t really have a taxonomic bearing so several families of small flies can be considered “gnats”. So pinpointing an identification of what is a “gnat” is not very easy.

So let’s get into it

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If you’re allergic to the bugs you eat, can you become allergic to nuts?

Our question this week comes from the Nature Check discord. Nature Check is a project where we use games like D&D to talk about science, and you should totally check it out!

In the food channel, we were talking about bugs as food and the concept of cross-allergies came up. When introducing any new food into the supply chain, it’s something we have to consider because choosing the wrong food could cause a lot of people to get sick.

I’ve discussed the idea of cross-allergies in relation to wasp stings, and they all kind of work the same way. Basically, there’s something you become allergic to. Sometimes, it’s a protein and sometimes it’s a sugar or something like that. If that something is similar enough between different the different kinds of plants and animals you eat as food, you could become allergic to another kind of food.

Given how important food is to my life-I’m an agricultural scientist, after all-I like to keep up on food allergies. I hadn’t heard anything about the cricket/nut allergy connection, and wasn’t able to find any literature about it. That’s not to say that it’s never happened, but I was unable to find any evidence that was a thing.

So, it’s unlikely that kind of cross-reactivity actually exists…but there is a lot of cross-reactivity between different arthropods used as food. These are called pan-allergens because if you become allergic to one critter, suddenly you’re allergic to lots of critters.

So let’s talk about the proteins which make you allergic to everything, and why they can do that.

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Do other bugs have anything similar to a hymenopteran’s stinger?

Question: I know that stingers on wasps, bees, ants, etc., are modified ovipositors, which helps them out in terms of defense […] this got me into thinking. Do other bugs have anything similar? 

This question emailed to us is quite intriguing and complex. Do other bugs have anything similar to a hymenopteran’s (e.g., wasps, bees, ants) stinger? 

Red imported fire ant, Solenopsis invicta with its stinger displayed. It’s being used defensively against the decapitating fly, Pseudacteon curvatus. Photo by Joanie (Me).
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Do insects get fat? Everything you ever wanted to know about the fat body.

Written by Joe Ballenger

So this is a fantastic question, especially if you’re trying to shed those extra pounds after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

So do bugs get fat?

Yeah, they do. Sometimes it’s adorable, and sometimes it’s…not.

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So why DOES anesthesia work on plants?

Written by Joe Ballenger

I was on Twitter recently, and one of my colleagues found a rather cool article by Luke Hollomon about plants and anesthesia.

When we’re working with insects in the lab, we often have to knock them out. There’s ethical reasons for this, but it’s also because we don’t want them moving. Either to prevent escape, or to keep them from thrashing when we perform surgery.

It’s not as important in the plant world, but anesthesia is potentially an important method of probing the biological responses in plants. I’m currently studying a type of plant movement, the motion of leaves when plants are exposed to other plants. I’ve toyed around with the idea of using anesthesia as a probe to determine what pathways are involved with this motion; an idea I got from my years of studying insect biology.

I’d definitely reccomend Holloman’s article, because it’s interesting and well written. However, the framing of some of these conversations centered around the article gave me a little bit of a cause for concern. There’s a lot of unknowns about how anesthesia works, but it’s not a complete biological mystery. We know enough about it to keep folks alive, what medications to avoid, and all of that.

While we need to acknowledge that no medical intervention is without risk, we understand anesthesia well enough to use it safely.

So this is a really interesting topic to explore: Why does anesthesia work on plants AND animals?

To answer this, we’re going to need to discuss why they work on bacteria.

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What is the Difference Between Dragonflies and Damselflies?

I get this question in person more than I see it online. So let’s break it down shall we? What are dragonflies and damselflies? How are they similar? How are they different? And take a deeper dive than you might find normally with a quick google search.

Let’s take a closer look at them shall we?

First, we’ll want to look at where they came from and their common ancestor. Looking at how they’re similiar will help us notice the subtle differences that help us tell them apart.

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So let’s talk about how insects have helped make the Coronavirus vaccines.

Written by Joe Ballenger

In December 2019, the world changed forever. I know that’s a bit of a heady way to begin this article, but it’s true. The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has changed a lot of the way people live, and exposed a lot of societal inequalities in the US. Over a quarter-million people have died, and in The West (where Joe is currently living), more than a handful of states have had 1 in every 1000 citizens or more die from the disease.

With the announcement of several promising vaccine candidates, I do think there’s hope on the horizon…which is why I waited until Thanksgiving week to write this. There’s a good reason to be thankful to insects, and in a weird way, we can be thankful for the field of insect pathology for making some of these candidates a possibility.

COVID-19 numbers as of November 26, 2020. Data courtesy of the COVID Tracking Project.

Baculoviruses are kind of famous for making “zombie caterpillars”. The way they kill insects is admittedly pretty gruesome. The caterpillar eats the virus, and when the infection is almost ready to kill the insect, the caterpillar crawls up to the highest point it can find. The virus then releases enzymes which kill the caterpillar and almost completely dissolve it, and rain infectious particles down on the forest below to start the cycle over.

It’s definitely a bit shocking, but the viruses are harmless to people. For that reason, they’re really important biological control agents in a lot of agricultural systems.

While they’re important for agriculture, they’re arguably more important in the field of medicine. These viruses have been a boon to the field of biochemistry, because they’re really important tools we can use to make proteins…like the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

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November – Time for the Entomological Society of America National Meeting

Every year, November is an especially busy month for Nancy, Joe, and I. This is because it is time for the national Entomological Society of America (EntSoc or ESA) meeting, in addition to our other responsibilities. This meeting is a conference were entomologists and other scientists communicate and network with each other through professional presentations, workshops, mixers, student events, professional meetings in various entomological research areas, and more. Since November has been an exceptionally busy time for the three of us, for the past several years, we decided that from now on November will be a time where we post about our events EntSoc, unless something changes in the future.

Right to left: Me, Nancy, & Joe at EntSoc in Denver, CO 2017.
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