It's World Robber Fly Day!
Question is, how are you celebrating it?
April 30 is both a momentous and delightful occasion for Charlotte Herbert Alberts, who studies robber flies. A fourth-year doctoral candidate in entomology at the University of California, Davis, she works with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, part of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
The working title of her thesis? "Phylogeny, Diversification, and Evolution of Asiloidea (Diptera: Brachycera)."
These flies fascinate her. And she's elated that they have their special day. Here's why:
"A day celebrating a family of flies can seem silly to some, but to me, they are my passion and my way of protecting the world I love," Charlotte says. "I work every day to learn more about this family and other related families with describing new species, figuring out their evolutionary relationships, and observing what insects they eat and why. I hope that if we take a moment and celebrate the little things like assassin flies, more people will find their niche in helping save this beautiful planet we depend on to live."
What are robber flies?
Robber flies, also known as assassin flies (Diptera: Asilidae) are predatory and venomous flies. "Despite being the third most speciose family of flies with more than 7,500 species found worldwide, and still many more being discovered; this family is still relatively unknown by the general public," Charlotte points out. "When I mention that I study flies and bring up assassin flies, most of the time people have no idea what they are or have never heard/seen of them. This anonymity is probably due to a variety of reasons. Many people call them assassin flies because of their tendency to look like other insects. In particular, wasps or bumble bees. They are also territorial, so you will only ever find one or two individuals in a given area. It can take a while to find your first robber fly, but once you do, you will start to see them all over the place!
How can you find an assassin fly?
"Go into the woods and look for sunny spots with areas for the flies to perch on," Charlotte says. "They mostly perch on the flat surface of a leaf in the sun, or at the very tip of a pointy twig. From their perch, they can hunt for insect prey in flight. Once they spot prey, the assassin fly quickly intercepts it in flight and immediately pierces it with its hypodermic needle-like mouthparts to inject a paralytic neurotoxin to subdue it. Pre-digestive enzymes are also inserted to reduce the innards into a smoothie-like concoction, which the assassin fly feeds on through the needle-like hypopharynx."
"Despite being venomous and highly voracious predators, assassin flies are no danger to us! I caught my first assassin fly in the palm of my hand! Because they are top predators in their world, they are not very fearful of people. I routinely have had them perch on me to hunt prey. But be careful, some of the larger assassin flies can pierce the skin with a defensive bite if they are aggravated enough. Their bites have been compared to a honey bee sting."
Why should you care about assassin flies?
"All insects play essential ecosystem roles that directly or indirectly affect our daily lives, whether through pollination, population control of pests, decomposition, product production, and more," says Charlotte, who is also a talented artist who sketches robber flies and other insects, and creates T-shirts for the Bohart Museum. "Insects, and especially flies, face a stigma that is difficult to overcome. Assassin flies are a fantastic, charismatic example of a family of flies that are generally unknown by the public and yet is one of the most speciose and helpful in pest population control. I have regularly played with the idea of keeping a couple as house pets to control the other unwanted flying insects that make it into our house." Her husband, George, probably wouldn't mind at all. He shares her interest in insects.
Meanwhile, scientists are troubled about the worldwide declining population of insects, tabbed "Insect Apocalypse." While some folks are debating its validity, "what is undeniably true is that we are destroying the habitat of poorly researched areas, and in turn bringing on the extinction of species that we have not given names, or even seen," Charlotte says. "Extinction is a terrifying reality because each species plays a vital part in keeping the ecosystem balanced and healthy. Without them, ecosystems collapse, and we will feel the ramifications whether it's immediately or a few years later."
What sparked Charlotte's interest in entomology? Think Charlotte's Web!
"When I was around 5 years old, my Mom read Charlotte's Web to me. Having the same name as Charlotte gave me a strong connection to the spider. I couldn't understand why people hated spiders and insects so much. I grew up on a farm in New Hampshire and constantly collected spiders and insects I found around the property. When handled gently and with love, they never bit or hurt me so I saw no reason to be scared of them. To the best of my understanding, they were just misunderstood. I distinctly remember a couple of times where either my family members or teachers saw me rescue a fly, and questioned my actions. Sometimes I would be made fun of, or told not to worry about them, that they were only going to die anyway...but it broke my heart that no one cared, and sometimes people would go out of their way to kill flies, spiders, or other arthropods that were not hurting them in any way."
"So, even though my interest in insects alienated me a little from my peers, it felt important to me stand up for them. In fifth grade, I proudly stood up at graduation and told everyone I was going to be an arachnologist when I grew up! The more I read about spiders and insects the more my passion grew. However, in middle school, peer impressions started to push me toward a more conventional career."
In college, Charlotte rediscovered her passion for insects. She assisted with a couple of native bee projects. "After starting an entomology-based research project for a class, my advisor saw my passion, very apparent, and wanted to add fuel to that passion. He was the person who introduced me to assassin flies! After a summer working on a research fellowship studying them in northern New York, I was sold! The rest is pretty much history."
History...and history in the making! Even on Twitter! Check out the hashtag, #WorldRobberFlyDay.
Because it is! Happy World Robber Fly Day!
But have you heard of the "other" bear flag that's on a hooded sweatshirt at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis? It's lettered with "Bohart Republic."
The Bohart flag features a water bear or tardigrade, the creative work of UC Davis entomologist/artist Charlotte Herbert Alberts.
Besides living on the Bohart sweatshirts, the tardigrade is a microscopic, water-dwelling animal that lives just about everywhere: "from the mountaintops to the deep sea and mud volcanoes; from tropical rain forests to the Antarctic," according to Wikipedia. German zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze, who first described them in 1773, called them "little water bears."
The name stuck. "Water bears."
"Tardigrades are among the most resilient known animals, with individual species able to survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms, such as exposure to extreme temperatures, extreme pressures (both high and low), air deprivation, radiation, dehydration, and starvation," Wikipedia says. "Tardigrades have even survived exposure to outer space. About 1,150 known species form the phylum Tardigrada, a part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. The group includes fossils dating from 530 million years ago, in the Cambrian period."
How did she get the idea? "I came up with the tardigrade flag idea in my sleep!" she said. "The next morning I told Lynn and she loved it."
Then Alberts and Kimsey conferred with Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator, and Bohart associate Fran Keller, assistant professor at Folsom Lake College and a UC Davis alumnus (she holds a doctorate in entomology) "to figure out the details"--like the entomologist holding a net and riding the tardigrade, and the name, "Bohart Republic."
"The entomologist is no one in particular," Alberts said, "but she's a female because I think it is important to encourage more women into the field of entomology."
"So far, the reactions have all been super positive!" she commented. "My family and friends are all asking for one!"
Located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, the Bohart Museum, home of a global collection of some eight million insect specimens, is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday.
A bright blue stuffed animal tardigrade in the gift shop also sells well.
"I do not have a stuffed tardigrade but often gaze fondly at the ones for sale at the Bohart," Alberts commented. "I would love to adopt one... but am worried that our sweet puppy will think it is for him."
As for the real tardigrades, they have always fascinated her, especially "their ability to survive in any environment--even space!"
Tardigrade enthusiasts love them more than they can "bear."
They're featured prominently on the newly available Bohart Museum of Entomology hooded sweatshirts, the work of artist Charlotte Herbert Alberts and designer Fran Keller.
Tardigrades can survive in many extreme conditions, including space, and they're sure to survive in the Bohart--unless they're all gone soon.
Available in red, gray and black, from sizes extra small to extra extra large, they'll be offered in the Bohart Museum gift shop during the UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day on Saturday, Feb. 16. Proceeds from the sales benefit the insect museum's educational activities.
The artist? Charlotte Herbert Alberts, an entomology doctoral candidate who studies Asilidae (Assassin flies) with her major professor, Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart and UC Davis professor of entomology. Alberts cleverly drew a "Bohart Republic" water bear flag, a take-off of the California Bear Flag, except hers features an entomologist, insect net in hand, riding a huge tardigrade.
The front features a tardigrade face inside a Bohart logo, a design by Fran Keller, an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College. She received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis, studying with Kimsey and designed many of the shirts, sweatshirts and posters in the Bohart Museum's gift shop.
UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day
The Bohart is gearing up for the eighth annual UC Davis Biodiversity Day, a science-based event that's free and family friendly. Thirteen museums or collections will be open Saturday. It all begins at 9 a.m. and concludes at 4 p.m. Maps are available at http://biodiversitymuseumday.ucdavis.edu/.
- Arboretum and Public Garden, Good Life Garden, next to the Robert Mondavi Institute, 392 Old Davis Road, on campus
- Bohart Museum of Entomology, Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane
- California Raptor Center, 340 Equine Lane, off Old Davis Road
- Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Room 1394, Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane
- Paleontology Collection, Earth and Physical Sciences Building, 434 LaRue Road
- Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, 392 Old Davis Road, on campus
- Viticulture and Enology Culture Collection, Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, 392 Old Davis Road, on campus
The following will be open from noon to 4 p.m.:
- Anthropology Museum, 328 Young Hall and grounds
- Botanical Conservatory, Greenhouses along Kleiber Hall Drive
- Center for Plant Diversity, Sciences Laboratory Building, off Kleiber Hall Drive
- Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, Bee Biology Road, off Hopkins Road (take West Hutchison Drive to Hopkins)
- Nematode Collection, Sciences Laboratory Building, off Kleiber Hall Drive
- Marine Invertebrate Collection, Sciences Laboratory Building, off Kleiber Hall Drive
All participating museums and collections have active education and outreach programs, but the collections are not always accessible to the public.
No, time's fun when you're studying flies!
Take it from the fly researchers at the University of California, Davis, who will present their work at the Bohart Museum of Entomology open house from 1 to 4 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 12 in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane. The event, themed “Time's Fun When You're Studying Flies," is free, open to the public, and family friendly.
The open house will showcase botflies, spotted-wing drosophilas, assassin flies, Mediterranean fruit flies, mosquitoes and other members of the Diptera order. Ten scientists, including undergraduate students, graduate students and a visiting scholar, will participate. They will displaying specimens, photos and field equipment and chat with the public.
"Besides checking out the flies, this is also a good time for visitors to inquire about graduate school, ask about starting research projects, and to meet people working in forensics, evolution, agriculture, animal behavior, genetics, geography, and home pests, among other topics," said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator.
Entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the Bohart's butterfly and moth section, will be on hand to open the Diptera section. "He will dust off and put on his pest industry hat to talk about those relevant flies," Yang said.
A family craft activity is also planned.
Among the fly researchers participating is fourth-year doctoral candidate Charlotte Herbert Alberts, who studies assassin fly (Asilidae) systematics with major professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
“Assassin flies are one of the only families of flies that are predatory (on other insects) both in their larval and adult stages,” Alberts says.
Other interesting facts about assassin flies:
- They are venomous! Their venom both immobilizes their prey and starts extra-oral digestion.
- They have very fancy facial hair (beards and mustaches) called a mystax, thought to protect their face while they catch and eat their prey.
- Some assassin flies are very selective in their prey choice and may have specialized venom to help them overcome their prey.
- There are more than 7,500 species found all over the world!
Graduate student Socrates Letana, who also studies with major professor Lynn Kimsey. researches the evolution and diversification of botflies (Oestridae) "in the global mammal host-space with special emphasis on the New World." Part of his research interests include Diptera systematics, biogeography and Southeast Asian biodiversity. He is a research associate with the California State Collection of Arthropods, California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The larvae of botflies are internal parasites of mammals; some species grow in the host's flesh and others within the gut. The Dermatobia hominis is the only species of botfly known to parasitize humans routinely.
Said Letana: "I will be using the pinned and alcohol-preserved materials from the Bohart collection. Also, I am thinking of using my laptop just to show some photos from other museum collections. Some people might be a little squeamish about this group of flies and I will try my best not to scare them away."
UC Davis doctoral student Caroline Wright Larsen of the Graduate Group in Ecology, will discuss her research on non-native tephritid flies, including the Mediterranean fruit fly. She studies with major professor James R. Carey, distinguished professor of entomology. A Bio Boot Camp instructor, part of the Bohart Museum program, she attended Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia for her undergraduate degree, "during which I spent six months living in Kruger National Park, South Africa doing insect biodiversity research." She began her graduate studies in 2011 at U.C. Davis "where I explore the ways in which difficult-to-detect populations of non-native tephritid flies move over space and time in California."
UC Davis undergraduate researcher Cindy Truong of the Joanna Chiu lab, will be showing flies in various life stages and have coloring pages for kids. "We primarily study circadian rhythm, which is the sleep and wake cycle. More specifically we study the mechanisms in which 'clock proteins' go through in order to maintain this cycle." She will expand on "How flies tell time.”
Christine Tabuloc, an undergraduate researcher in the Chiu lab. will discuss her work on fruit flies. "My current focus is to investigate the effects of climatic change on gene expression of an invasive pest and determine whether there is a correlation to resistance and survival," she said. "In addition to pest management research, I am also studying a kinase of a core clock protein in Drosophila melanogaster and hoping to dissect its functional contribution to the molecular oscillator."
Others from the Chiu lab participating will be Yao Cai, a doctoral graduate student who studies genetic mechanisms underlying the regulation of organismal behavior, and undergraduate researcher Christopher Ochoa.
Among the other scientists participating:
- Kathlyne-Inez Soukhaseum of the Frank Zalom lab will talk about her research on the spotted-wing drosophila, Drosophilasuzukii, a major agricultural pest that invaded California in 2008.
- Danielle Wishon, a forsenic entomologist who holds a bachelor's degree in entomology from UC Davis, will discuss bed bugs and other pests.
- Nermeen Raffat, visiting scholar in the Sharon Lawler lab, will focus on mosquito larvae. He is working on "the effect of copper sulphate and other toxicants on the development and anti-predatory behavior of the mosquitoes larvae."
The Bohart Museum, founded in 1946 by UC Davis entomologist Richard “Doc” Bohart (1913-2007), is the home of nearly eight million insect specimens, plus a year-around gift shop and live "petting zoo" that includes Madagascar hissing corckroaces, stick insects, tarantulas and praying mantids. The gift shop is stocked with newly published calendars, books, jewlery, t-shirts, insect-collecting equipment, insect-themed candy, and stuffed animals.
The Bohart Museum is open to the general public Mondays through Thursdays, from 9 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 5 p.m., plus occasional, weekend open houses. Admission is free. The next weekend open house is from 1 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 18 and centers around urban entomology..
This particular monarch chrysalis was not the immature stage of a monarch butterfly but a piñata--complete with an emerging parasitoid--cleverly crafted by UC Davis doctoral student Charlotte Herbert Alberts and her husband, George, and recent UC Davis graduate Emma Cluff.
The sculpted larva of what monarch enthusiasts call the "dreaded tachinid fly" protruded from the piñata. It was the first to go, victim of a direct hit.
The annual pre-Halloween party presented by the Bohart Museum Society, draws assorted arthropod costumes, from assassin bugs to praying mantids to peacock spiders, but the annual piñata breaking contest, is always "the" smash hit. You can almost feel the whops, wallops and whammies, along with the one-two-three punches (each hitter gets three swings) as the crowd cheers.
Then there's the scramble for the candy.
The Bohart Museum is the home of some 8 million insect specimens, plus a live "petting zoo" (Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks, tarantulas and praying mantids) and an insect-themed gift shop. It's directed by Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis professor of entomology. Those who join the Bohart Museum Society look forward to their invitation to the annual pre-Halloween party, which this year featured a parasitoid theme. (See Oct. 29 Bug Squad blog).
How much of a smash hit was the piñata? See the images below and the YouTube video.