It was windy enough to trigger a small craft advisory.
Yet here comes a flameskimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) around noon on Monday, Memorial Day, circling our little bee garden.
He chases a few flying insects around and then perches on a bamboo stake to eat them.
Hmm, I thought, maybe I can capture an image of Big Red in flight? Will he cooperate? I've always wanted to photograph a flameskimmer in flight, but they're usually (1) too fast (2) too far away or (3) they zig when I think they'll zag and they zag when I think they'll zig.
Plus, they are leery of big dark objects (cameras) with long metal protrusions (lenses).
For the past decade, we've prepared well for our dragonfly visitors. They like our fish pond, our bee garden and the assorted bamboo stakes we've placed around the garden. They especially like the all-you-can-eat insect smorgasbord.
Big Red kept returning to Bamboo Stake No. 2 (bamboo stakes are sort of like pot holes—you can name them if you want).
Using my Nikon D800 camera with a 200mm macro lens, I focused on where I thought Big Red would land.
Bamboo Stake No. 1: Probably not. Too high.
Bamboo Stake No. 3: No, a little short.
Bamboo Stake No. 2: Just right.
Big Red obliged. By now he was not afraid of me—he figured, and rightfully so--that I had no culinary interest in him. And neither would I poke 'em, prod 'em or pin 'em. With the wind tousling his wings, he aimed straight for Bamboo Stake No. 2.
Got 'em. In flight.
Said dragonfly aficionado Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus: “What this photo really shows is that insects do not fly simply by ‘flapping' their wings. This guy's right wings are vertical to the body, but in the same plane, while the left wings actually are down-swept and a bit out of synchrony. The ability of insects to rotate their wings in their sockets allows them to change roll, pitch and yaw as do the moveable parts of airplanes. But, dragonflies can do it instantaneously.”
Commented Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis: "I like how clearly you can see how tightly the one is holding its legs against its body."
The dragonfly vanished right before our residential scrub jays returned. The jays are rearing their young in nearby trees, and the young, as you know, get the munchies. In fact, they're always hungry. Ravenous. Famished.
Have you ever seen a bird nail a dragonfly? Butterflies, yes. Dragonflies, no.
“Birds can change direction in flight pretty quickly, but usually not quickly enough to catch a dragonfly in flight,” Mussen commented. “If it stays stuck to the post, it may be in real trouble.”
Down on the farm...the Loma Vista Farm....
When the Loma Vista Farm--part of the Vallejo City Unified School District--recently hosted its annual Spring Festival, scores of folks came to see the animals, buy a plant or two, and participate in the many activities.
But if you looked closely, you could see that the farm, located at 150 Rainier,Vallejo, is also a pollinator habitat and home to many insects.
Lady beetles, aka lady bugs, munched on aphids in the garden (the garden feeds Vallejo school children as well). Those pesky spotted cucumber beetles also showed up. We spotted a beneficial insect (lady beetle) and a pest (spotted cucumber beetle) sharing a leaf.
A Western tiger swallowtail fluttered down to the aptly named butterfly bush for a sip of nectar. The caterpillar of an anise swallowtail dined on the leaves of its host plant, anise, also called fennel. (It smells like licorice to us!)
All the while, a colony of yellow-faced bumble bees, Bombus vosnesenskii, went about their bees-ness, entering and exiting a hole in the ground in a pattern that would alarm human air controllers. They zigged, zagged and then bumbled through with huge pollen loads, sometimes nearly colliding.
The Loma Vista Farm is also the habitat of "Farm Keeper" Rita LeRoy, who has worked for the Vallejo school district for 25 years. She teaches students about nature and nutrition through hands-on farm lessons involving cooking, gardening, insect appreciation, and animal care. She is an avid entomological enthusiast, an insect photographer, and a member of the Pollinator Posse.
Founded in 1974, the Loma Vista Farm is described on its website as a 5-acre outdoor classroom that provides hands-on educational activities involving plants and animals for children of all ages and abilities. "We seek to increase students' knowledge of nature and nutrition while enhancing academic learning, ecoliteracy, and psychosocial development."
The farm offers field trips, after-school opportunities through 4-H, community service and volunteer opportunities, garden-based workshops for adults, and job training for college students, developmentally disabled young adults, and disadvantaged youth.
It's open to the public Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. during the school year.
It's open to insects year around!
Teams of graduate or undergraduate students challenge one another in a college bowl-like competition about entomological facts, trivia and noted entomologists. You have to be quick. You have to know your insects, and that often includes the taxonomic rank of order, family, genus and species. And, you never know what the judges will ask you so you read, practice, read, practice, read, practice.
So, it was great to see our UC Davis Linnaean team--captain Ralph Washington, Jr., and members Jéssica Gillung, and Brendon Boudinot--win the regional championship at the recent Linnaean Games hosted by the Pacific Branch of ESA in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. They'll be heading to Minneapolis in November to compete with other ESA branch winners in the national Linnaean Games. The Linnaean Games are named for Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the father of modern taxonomy.
Two of the questions asked--and quickly answered--by UC Davis at the Pacific Branch meeting, were:
What insect family can vector anthrax?
What caste of honey bee has the greatest number of ommatidia?
A. The drone, the male honey bee. Ommatidia are the subunits of a compound eye.
The UC Davis team, advised by Extension entomologist Larry Godfrey and Extension apiculturist Elina Nino, began practicing last December and met two hours a week.
As an undergraduate student, Ralph Washington Jr. helped anchor the UC Davis 2010 team that competed in the nationals in San Diego. UC Davis narrowly lost to Ohio State University, which advanced to the finals and then went on to win the championship.
Washington, Gillung and Boudinot are all systematists. Washington, whose major professor is nematologist Steve Nadler, studies mosquitoes; Boudinot studies ants with major professor Phil Ward, and Gillung studies flies with major professor Lynn Kimsey, who directs the Bohart Museum of Entomology. Gillung is co-advised by Shaun Winterton of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Washington, a first-year doctoral student from Sacramento, and the newly elected president of the UC Davis Graduate Student Association, focuses on how mosquitoes choose to lay their eggs, and how those choices affect their evolution.
Boudinot, a second-year doctoral student from Washington state, is known for his expertise on the morphology of male ants. He is also interested in the biogeography and evolutionary history of ants.
Gillung, a second-year doctoral student from Brazil, is a prominent taxonomist of Diptera (flies), with special emphasis on the diversity and evolution of spider flies, family Acroceridae. Some Acrocerid adults are specialized pollinators, while larvae are internal parasitoids of spiders.
The Pacific Branch of ESA encompasses 11 U.S. states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming); several U.S. territories, including American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands; and parts of Canada and Mexico.
The trio is eagerly looking forward to making the 1900-mile trip from Davis to Minneapolis. Theme of the meeting is “Synergy in Science: Partnering for Solutions.” It will take place Nov. 15-18.
Some of the questions asked at previous national Linnaean Games:
1. Why do pineapple growers in Hawaii spray for ants?
A. The ants protect mealybugs from their natural enemies. Controlling the ants improves the effectiveness of natural enemies and reduces the transmission of mealybug wilt.
2. Fly fishermen follow the emergence of adults of various aquatic insects. What do typical fly fishermen call these emergence events and why is this entomologically wrong?
A. They call it a “hatch” which refers to emergence from the egg stage, not emergence of adults.
3. There are more than 2,600 species of termites worldwide. Which continent houses the most species?
A. Africa, which has over 1,000 species.
4. Give the common name and the family of the insects notorious for secretion of canthardin.
A. Blister beetles (Meloidae).
5. If you donate blood, you are asked about your exposure to babesiosis. What is the common name of the arthropod group that is the main vector of this disease?
John "Jack" Longino knows his ants.
Longino, known by his students as "The Astonishing Ant Man," will present a seminar to the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology from 12:10 to 1 p.m., Wednesday, May 27 in 122 Briggs Hall, Kleiber Hall Drive.
His topic: "Project ADMAC or Ant Diversity of the Mesoamerican Corridor."
Longino, who received his bachelor's degree in zoology, with distinction, in 1978 from Duke University, and his doctorate in zoology in 1984 from the University of Texas, Austin, traces his fascination with insects back to his childhood. He developed an interest in ecology and the desire to explain patterns of diversity, so "I settled on ants as an ecologically dominant group of insects worthy of study."
"As it became clear that I was living during a time of enormous biotic change caused by human activities, I developed a strong conviction that it was important not only to understand patterns of diversity but to document it in detail for this time in history. I divide my time between two research fields: taxonomy and ecology. On the taxonomy side, I have coordinated large-scale inventories of Neotropical insect biodiversity, I discover and describe new species of ants, and I further refine our understanding of species ranges and morphological variability. I make use of advanced imaging technology, specimen-level databases, and Web-dissemination to make biodiversity data available to the widest audiences."
"On the ecology side, I use quantitative inventory techniques that allow analysis of diversity patterns. I am interested in how species are distributed on tropical mountainsides, what ecological factors explain the elevational range limits of species, and how species might respond to climate change."
Ant specialist Phil Ward, UC Davis professor of entomology (and also known as "the ultimate ant man") will introduce and host Longino.
What is the MesoAmerican corridor? It's a zone of complex tectonic history, episodic biotic interchange between large continents, and frequent mountain-building," Longino says. "Ants blanket this landscape, forming a tapestry of fine-scale habitat specialization and geographic replacement. Many taxonomists have contributed to the description of species in the region and this fundamental 'biodiversity mapping' continues apace. Project ADMAC (Ant Diversity of the MesoAmerican Corridor) combines morphological analysis with large-scale DNA sequencing (targeted enrichment of Ultra-Conserved Elements) to reveal the evolutionary history and geographic structure of ant species in MesoAmerica."
"Ants show very strong patterns of elevational specialization and geographic turnover, and Project ADMAC will address questions of (1) how and when montane species evolve, (2) the effects of differing mountain ages on communities, (3) the impact of lowland barriers on montane ant dispersal, and (4) whether ants experienced a major biotic interchange on the closure of the Panamanian isthmus."
National Public Radio interviewed Longino in August of 2013 on his research. He told NPR he started out collecting stamps in his childhood, but that bored him. He decided to "get small."
"If you're shopping for a home entertainment system," he says, "you can't do better than a good dissecting microscope," he said. At the time of the NPR interview, Longino had just published two papers describing 33 new species of ants, bringing his personal "new species" total to 131, NPR reported. In the article, Longino described himself as "average" among entomologists, pointing out that some entomologists have described thousands of new species.
So, if you're like Longino, if you had a choice between a home entertainment system and a good dissecting microscope, the winner--hands down--would be the dissecting microscope.
And if you want to know about ants, you can download Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Ants for free at http://ants.yourwildlife.org/dr-eleanors-book-of-common-ants/. It's the work of science writer Eleanor Spicer Rice, noted insect photographer Alex Wild, and designer Neil McCoy.
Be sure to check out Alex Wild's Myrmecos blog at http://www.myrmecos.net/ for amazing ant photos and educational information. He holds a doctorate in entomology from UC Davis (major professor Phil Ward) and is now curator of Entomology in the College of Natural Sciences, University of Austin--the university where Longino received his doctorate.
All in the family...the ant family...Formicidae.
You don't hear those two words often, but you'll hear them often from Amy Toth, who's hoping that the hashtag, #wasplove, will draw attention to the wonderful world of wasps.
Toth, known for her work on bee and wasp behavior,genomics, and evolution, is an assistant professor--and outspoken wasp lover--from the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University, Ames.
She delivered a presentation on honey bees at the UC Davis Bee Symposium on May 9. Then on May 13, she discussed her research on wasps at a UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology seminar.
The Bee Symposium showcased a "lot of bee love," and she's hoping that the same love will apply to wasps.
Indeed, folks verbally attack these social insects daily on social media. "I hate them," they say. "What good are they?" To be honest, I've witnessed European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) attacking crippled Gulf Fritillary butterflies in our bee garden, and dismembering and carrying off bits of Gulf Frit caterpillars to feed their colony. Wasps are carnivores. Honey bees are vegetarians.
So, we asked Amy Toth to list what she loves about wasps.
She eagerly obliged!
1. They are pollinators
2. They contribute to biocontrol of lepidopteran pests in gardens and on decorative plants
3. They have been shown to carry yeasts to winemaking grapes that may be important contributors to the fermentation process and wonderful flavors in wine!
4. They are the only known insect (Polistes fuscatus) that can recognize each other as individuals by their faces.
5. They are devoted mothers that will dote on their young all day long for weeks, defending their families with fury.
6. Their social behavior, in my opinion, is the most human-like of any insect. They know each other as individuals, and are great cooperators overall, but there is an undercurrent of selfishness to their behavior, manifest in nearly constant passive-aggressive interactions between individuals.
7. They are artists. They make perfect hexagonal nest cells out of paper, which they make themselves out of tree bark + saliva.
8. They are extremely intelligent. They're predators, architects, good navigators, and great learners. Among insects, they have large brains, especially the mushroom bodies (learning/memory and cognition area of insect brain).
9. They are beautiful, complex, and fascinating creatures!
That's Amy Toth's amazing #wasplove list.
I'd like to add No. 10: They are extremely photogenic.
#wasplove! Think it will catch on?