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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Asian Giant Hornets: What comes next?

Nancy has a new project called the SciHive on Facebook, and it’s a great resource if you want to interact with professional entomologists (like us!). In light of the Washington State Department of Agriculture exterminating a Asian Giant Hornet nest, I thought this question was worth a full discussion:

So I just read a newspaper talking about the giant Asian hornets that were caught , and it claims it was a nest of 85? Is that a normal nest size , seems low to me? Not there long enough to increase numbers maybe? Someone who knows wasps educate me please 😊

Eliminating invasive species requires you to act fast and act early, because finding and eliminating a handful of nests is easier than finding and eliminating a lot of nests. So it helps to really understand what the WSDA is up against.

So let’s talk about the nesting biology of V. mandarinia and what the WSDA is potentially anticipating for next season.

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Deathwatch Beetles – Spooky Sounds

Tick, tick. Tap, tap, tap. These sounds are produced by a deathwatch beetle (Xestobium rufovillosum). Old buildings can sometimes give us spooky vibes. However, for the deathwatch beetle, they are quite welcoming. This is because these beetles are woodboring and oftentimes infest lumber of old buildings. Woodboring beetles comprise of many different species of beetles that eat wood. This can be the larval or adult stage (beetles go through complete metamorphosis like butterflies do). The natural history of woodboring beetles varies depending on the species in question, however, many species of these beetles tend to select dying or dead trees. For the deathwatch beetle, very old wood is preferred and only the larvae feed. The adults do not feed and are short lived.

The deathwatch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum (Coleoptera, Anobiidae). Location: Hameau de Mons, Assier, Lot, France. Photo by Gilles San Martin
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Poll for next week’s blog post – Halloween Theme

Howdy y’all. We wanted to try something a little different. For next week’s post, I have a couple of topics in mind – but I’m only going to write about one. Which topic would you like to read about next Tuesday (10/27/20)?

  1. Deathwatch beetle biology
  2. Forensic entomology
  3. Zombie behavior in various arthropods

Answer in the comments by Friday, 6:00pm CT!


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Do Insects Have Taste Buds?

This question came in to me through my Twitter and I thought it was so interesting! Yes insects can and do taste. Yes it’s different than smelling for them. But do they actually have taste buds?

MaxDWolf asks “Do insects have anything akin to taste buds”
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Why are baby scorpions born white?

A student of mine is researching scorpions and he has a question about emperor scorpions that we have been unable to answer through our own research. He has learned that baby emperor scorpions are born white, but he cannot find the answer to the question “WHY they are born white.” We would appreciate it very much if you knew and shared the answer.

Bret, via Email

When scorpions are born, they’re ghostly pale. They actually stand out against their mom, looking almost more like maggots than actual arachnids.

Mother scorption with her babies

But adult emporer scorpions, like mom up there, are dark. That darkness is an indicator of a hard exoskeleton, which scorpions need on their claws and stingers to crush and eat prey.

So why are they pale?

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A note on death in insects – pretending, surviving, and living

My undergraduate student that I’m mentoring this semester asked me a question about when an insect is dead. He pondered this because we read a paper were researchers infected carpenter ants with a fungus were considered dead after no movement was detected. This got us thinking, if a brain is completely damaged or missing, is an insect alive? My thoughts immediately went to questions we’ve received here at Ask an Entomologist – specifically, the questions that asked, “why does a cockroach stay alive after its head is removed?” OR “why does a cockroach’s legs still move after its head is removed?”

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Why Do Zipper / Writing Spiders Make “Zippers? / Writings” in Their Web?

This question popped up in my learning community The SciHive and I thought to myself … what a wonderful question. So here we go.

We run #SpiderSunday where we post pictures of spiders and generally just learn about their biology when one of my members posted this cool shot of a zipper spider. Well … I’ve always called them Zipper Spiders. Apparently they’re also called “Writing spiders, black and yellow garden spiders, golden garden spiders, zigzag spiders ….” you get the idea.

A rant about common names another day…

large Black and yellow spider in a web with a zipper shape in the middle.
A Argiope aurantia Spider
Photo by Hillary Jufer

To which Jared asked … “why do they make those little zippers?”

Jared asks “Why do they make those litter zippers?

Well … the short of it is “we don’t know” and the long of it is “we don’t know but we have some good guesses.”

I wanted to take the approach today of looking at some of the various hypothesises that have been put forward and look at them with a critical eye. Is this likely? What evidence do we have to support these? What evidence do we have not to? I think – especially – in the age of Covid people think that scientists come up with an answer and then it’s fact. Forever. The end.

When in reality we propose a bunch of different ideas, test them, retest them, use new evidence, use more logic, and settle upon an idea. Usually after a decent amount of back and forth. Sometimes the idea that’s settled upon finally isn’t the initial hypothesis. And that’s okay. Science is all about fact checking and then re-fact checking.

So here we go.

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Why are burying beetles covered in mites?

Sometimes, when writing for this blog, I learn new things about bugs as well. This is one of those times when I have to admit that I didn’t know the answer, and got curious enough to read up on the topic.

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