Stories tagged insects

Heard about the pigcam? While the Science Museum of Minnesota is hosting the CSI exhibit this winter we are digging deeper into forensic science. We have some expert scientists who study bugs at the scene of a crime and even real murder scenes here in Minneapolis. But most people's favorite feature is the pigcam, and we have a new video for you. Curious? Check it out, but I must warn you the videos do feature some graphic decay.


Did you ever wonder what those pesky moths ate before they ate your clothes in your closet? Clothes moths were known previously to feed on dead animals. Recently, scientists also discovered that the casemaking clothes moth, one of the two most common closet menaces, can be helpful in forensic work as well!

The casemaking clothes moth, so named because it makes a fuzzy case-like home for itself as a young caterpillar, will eat human hair and can even feed on corpses. The caterpillars can eat enough hair to identify a body with DNA.

These moths can be particularly helpful if a body is moved to a new location. The caterpillar will move to a nearby spot, away from the body, to make its cocoon. Then, if the body is moved, DNA evidence from the caterpillar in the cocoon can tie the victim to the original location.

More information on this can be found at Science News.


Mountain pine beetle: download brochure by clicking on Forest Service
Mountain pine beetle: download brochure by clicking on Forest ServiceCourtesy US Forest Service

Why are all the trees dying?

Last summer I spent a week in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain National Park. One question was repeatedly being asked by visitors, "Why are all the trees dying?" In many places every lodgepole pine over five inches was dead as far as the eye could see. From the Mexican border all the way up into Canada millions and millions of acres of mountain pine forest are dead or dying.

Mountain Pine Beetles

A black, hard-shelled beetle called Dendroctunus, which means tree killer, drills through pine bark and lays its eggs in the sweet, rich cambium layer that provides nutrients to the tree. They also inject a fungus to stop the tree from moving sap, which could drown the larvae. Officials claim that this is the largest known insect infestation in the history of North America.

Why is this happening now?

Mountain Pine Beetles used to be mostly killed off by -30 to -40 degree below temperatures. That has not happened for about ten years. Eight years of drought also has weakened the trees and their ability to flush out invaders with sap flow.

Dead trees create problems

Dead trees will eventually fall down. This means removing millions of trees near homes and along roads and trails.

At Vail Ski Resort, for example, which has been particularly hard hit, workers have removed thousands of dead trees and planted new ones. In Yellowstone the beetles are killing the white-barked pine trees, which grow nuts rich in fat that are critical to grizzly bears in the fall. In Colorado and Wyoming, officials have closed 38 campgrounds for fear trees could fall on campers. They have reopened all but 14.

Wildfire is the biggest threat. Many homes and communities are surrounded by dry, dead trees. The Forest Service and logging companies are clear-cutting “defensible space” so firefighters have a place to fight fires. The amount of dead wood is overwhelming, though. Hopefully entrepreneurs will find ways to use it. I am afraid that what is left behind is not going to be very "scenic" for a long time.

Learn more about the mountain pine beetle infestation

Source article: New York Times
Video: Americas disappearing forests
US Forest Service: Regional bark beetle information
Denver Post editorial by Merrill Kaufmann: Battling the pine beetle epidemic
32 page teacher packet (pdf): Mountain Pine Beetle Mania


It's thinking about what it's going to do to you: It'll probably just hug you.
It's thinking about what it's going to do to you: It'll probably just hug you.Courtesy Datuk Chan Chew Lun
Light your sparklers Buzzketeers! It’s celebration time! And if you don’t have sparklers, go ahead and light any old thing! Because the world officially has a new largest insect!

Bang a gong!

This new bug is actually dead, and has been dead for about thirty years, but the international insect size record committee has had a lot of back work to do, and I guess they only just got around to it.

Anyway, we just have to accept that now everybody can measure insects as quickly as we might hope, and move on to this massive bug—Chan’s Megastick. (Or Phobaeticus chain if you’re going to be a jerk about it.) It looks… like a stick, really. A stick that’s nearly two feet long.

That’s right, y’all, the megastick is over 22 inches long from front legs to back legs, with a 14-inch-long body. It lives by disguising itself among the treetops, until a human walks beneath it, at which point it dives down, and inserts itself into the person’s body. It lives the remainder of its life there, laying eggs in all major organs, and scurrying around just beneath the skin.

That, or they spend their lives moving slowly and eating plants. Which ever you choose to believe.

The record-breaking specimen was collected decades ago in Borneo by a local giant bug enthusiast. Ten years later, the Malaysian naturalist Datuk Chan Chew Lun found the remarkable insect in the collection, and it was only announced to be a new species (among more than 3000 species of stick insects) last week. It edged out the previous record holder by less than an inch.

A huge, huge bug. How do you feel about that?


Almost 50 years ago in Canada, a 14-year old boy was sentenced to death for the alleged murder of a 12-year old classmate. The 12-year old was found murdered two days after she was last seen with the 14-year old. Public opinion resulted in the boy being sentenced to life, due to what many thought was an improperly carried out investigation. Some of the evidence from this investigation included photographing and collecting some maggots from the body of the 12-year old. In 2000, the case was reopened.

Part of the research of the defense centers on the maggot evidence collected in 1959. In 2006, the corpses of three pigs were placed at the crime scene to collect additional maggot specimens. For those not in the know with regard to fly lifecycles, the development of a fly from egg to larva (maggot) to pupa to adult is tied to local environmental conditions, such as the temperature. Richard Merritt, a fly specialist from Michigan State University reviewed the specimens and environmental data. After examining the small size of the 1959 maggots, larval growth rates and the temperature, Merritt determined that there was no way that the boy could have committed the murder the day the girl disappeared (the boy had an alibi for the following day).

To check out some maggots in action on a pig corpse, check out Liza's pig cam log on Science Buzz pig!


What, I can only lock this from the outside?: Scientists have observed behavior in ants in Brazil where a small group of ants sacrifice themselves each night for the good of the colony by covering the colony entrance from the outside, leaving them outside at night exposed to all sorts of natural forc
What, I can only lock this from the outside?: Scientists have observed behavior in ants in Brazil where a small group of ants sacrifice themselves each night for the good of the colony by covering the colony entrance from the outside, leaving them outside at night exposed to all sorts of natural forcCourtesy Fir0002
How do you secure your home at night? With a deadbolt lock? Switching on some high-tech electronic security system? A pit bulls (without lipstick)?

Whatever you do, it's probably not as problematic as what a few ants do each night in Brazil. Researchers have observed that one to eight ants from a colony each night sacrifice themselves for the well being of the colony. They stay above ground pushing sand over the entrance to the colony to protect their peers from predators during the night. Because they're left outside, they most often die in the night, either from freezing in chilly temperatures, getting blown away in high winds or being a midnight snack for a predator.

A typical ant colony in Brazil can number over 100,000, so the few ants lost each night for security is not a huge mathematical loss. How exactly the night workers are selected isn't known for sure, but researchers think they're probably older ants who are approaching the end of their natural life span.


Aphid in amber: The new species is trapped inside fossilized tree sap.
Aphid in amber: The new species is trapped inside fossilized tree sap.Courtesy Rothamsted Research Visual Communications Unit
A British man purchased an item on eBay that has proven to be a species not seen before. No, it’s not a new species of toast sporting the image of some religious or political icon, but rather a new species of fossil aphid encased in a 40 to 50 million year-old piece of amber.

The purchase took place last year from a seller in Lithuania, and was only made public this week. The lucky buyer was Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK's Royal Entomological Society. The small chunk of amber was a bargain, too - only £20 (about $36).

I guess this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. Just two years ago, a previously unknown species of sea urchin was acquired on eBay.

In this recent case, Dr. Harrington sent the fossil to Professor Ole Heie, a fossil aphid expert in Denmark, and was delighted to learn his new acquisition was an unknown extinct species.

Harrington wanted to name the new species Mindarus ebayi in honor of the online auction site. Unfortunately, it seems the scientific community has no sense of humor in regards to frivolous nomenclature, unless it involves a favorite rock musician. So instead, the newly described aphid was named Mindarus harringtoni in Harrington’s honor. Gee, I hope he isn’t too bummed out about that. Go here to see a photo of the buyer with his prized fossil bug.

Rothamsted Research story
Story on NowPublic site
Story on BBC site

Things keep getting crazier in the airlline industry these days. I saw the headline of this news item thinking it was about "sounds" of ticks on an airplane. But no, it was grounded due to a different kind of tick. Click and read to learn more.


Helping release the ladybugs.
Helping release the ladybugs.Courtesy Me
This past Sunday I released 1500 ladybugs in my backyard with my wife and daughter. It was awesome. I had gone to the local garden center to get some more praying mantis egg cases as I was pretty sure the ones I had put out earlier this spring had died as we had a couple of very late frosts. But, while I was in there they had this bag of ladybugs, and what can I say? They are cool bugs – I couldn’t resist.

Ladybugs are helpful because they eat other insects that are damaging to gardens or crops. In fact, the Mall of America here locally releases thousands of ladybugs in the amusement park to control insect pests. Don’t confuse them with Asian Beetles – ladybugs are a native insect.

The praying mantis is not native to Minnesota, but they are okay to release as they won’t survive the winter. I put out three egg cases earlier this spring with no luck almost two months later, so I bought two more cases as I am reasonably sure it won’t get below freezing again for some time. They are also beneficial as they eat other bugs (but interestingly, not ladybugs). Each egg case could release up to 200 mantises…the potential is there for 1000 mantises. Sweet.

My neighbors are viewing my releases a little skeptically, but I can’t wait to see the mantises and to show them to my daughter, who is not squeamish at all with bugs. She was quite helpful with the ladybugs and thought the whole thing to be quite fun, even when they were crawling all over her arms.

If you are interested in releasing ladybugs or praying mantises in your backyard, there are lots of internet sites that sell them, but also be sure to check your local garden center too.


An alternate theory holds that dinosaurs died of embarrassment: A Fredrogersaurus, obviously wishing he were dead, extinct, or just anywhere but here.
An alternate theory holds that dinosaurs died of embarrassment: A Fredrogersaurus, obviously wishing he were dead, extinct, or just anywhere but here.Courtesy Elston

Biting insects spread all kinds of diseases. (You can learn all about this in the Science Museum’s newest exhibit, Disease Detectives.) Now a scientists thinks they may have also helped kill off the dinosaurs. George Poinar, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University, notes that many insects from dinosaur times have been preserved in amber. Many of them carry microbes that can cause malaria, dysentery and other illnesses. He speculates that these illnesses could have been the major cause of the dinosaurs’ long, slow demise. The asteroid impact / volcanic activity / climate change simply finished them off.

Poinar and his wife Roberta have published a book, What Bugged The Dinosaurs? Insects, Disease And Death In The Cretaceous. In it they also note that, late in the dinosaur era, flowering plants spread rapidly, helped along by newly-evolved insect pollinators. This sudden change in available food may have also played a hand in the dinos’ extinction.