It's Day 2 of National Pollinator Week.
So, I guess I should "toot my own horn" (we don't have one, but in our household we do have a piano, a double bass, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, a dulcimer, a harmonica, a sousaphone, a set of hand drums, and two accordions. Note that the last one to play the piano well was the...um...cat).
Yours truly of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, just won a silver award or second-place honors, in a photography competition hosted by the international Association for Communication Excellence in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Life and Human Sciences (ACE). ACE announced the awards today (June 22) at its virtual conference.
To draw attention to the plight of monarchs, I captured (with a Canon MPE-65mm lens) an image of a monarch egg in our family's pollinator garden where we create habitat for assorted bees and butterflies and other pollinators.
“The purpose of my image is to draw attention to the dwindling monarch butterfly population,” I wrote on the form. “They are on life support.” The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation's reports that overwintering monarchs have declined 99 percent in coastal California since the 1990s.
I posted the image at https://bit.ly/3cUx358 Aug. 10, 2020 on my daily (Monday-Friday) Bug Squad blog on the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources website.
Wrote the judge: “Capturing a subject this small is really quite impressive. I appreciate the photographer sharing their equipment and process to capture this image of such a delicate and beautiful little butterfly egg. Very well done.”
The image scored 25 out of 25 points in creativity/originality, audience interest/impact, and overall evaluation.
The egg, I commented, is “an incredible work of nature! The intricate egg is about the size of a pinhead, 0.9mm wide and 1.2mm high. It's creamy yellow with narrow longitudinal ridge. Unless it encounters a predator or parasitoid or another life-threatening factor, the egg will usually hatch 3 to 4 days after Mama Monarch deposits it beneath a milkweed leaf.”
“A good place to see butterfly specimens from all over the world is at the Bohart Museum of Entomology (now temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic)," I added. “Of the nearly eight million specimens in the Bohart, some 500,000 are in the Lepidoptera collection, curated by entomologist Jeff Smith.“ I also drew attention to the butterfly-rearing process of Bohart associate and natural historian Greg Kareofelas.
In addition to the silver award, yours truly won a bronze award or third-place honors for my image of a photo series of male and female Gulf Fritillaries, Agraulis vanillae, “keeping busy.” The Bug Squad post, “Fifty Shades of Orange, with a Touch of Silver,” appeared July 13, 2020 at https://bit.ly/2Q6cU3q.
Wrote the judge: “This submission was a delight! I adored the written piece that accompanied the photos, describing the insect wedding during COVID times. To take notice of these delicate creatures, which many people just pass by without noticing, and to document them in photos is unique…. When photographing subjects of this size, the tack-sharp focus which captures the details that our eyes cannot normally see is what makes them so captivating. It's also incredibly difficult to capture--the photographer did a lovely job.”
“So there they were," I wrote. "The two of them. The blushing bride and the quite dapper-and-dashing groom. They didn't invite me to their wedding. I was an uninvited guest, the only guest. So, I felt obliged to crash their wedding and capture some images…Who can resist insect wedding photography? That's about the only wedding photography happening during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
I also drew readers to the research website of butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, and his information on A. vanillae, (see https://bit.ly/3uw9Yf1) and to specific work of insects “keeping busy” (see https://bit.ly/3rVU1xg) by UC Davis alumnus and renowned macro photographer Alex Wild, curator of entomology at the University of Texas, Austin.
ACE, founded in 1913 primarily for ag communicators, is now an international association of professionals who practice in all areas of communication.
(Editor's Note: Last year, three UC Davis-affiliated communication specialists won a total of six writing or photography awards in the ACE global competition for their work accomplished in 2019 (pre-COVID pandemic). Steve Elliott, communications coordinator for the Western Integrated Pest Management Center, Davis, won one silver (second-place) and two bronze (third-place) for his writing and photography; Kathy Keatley Garvey, communications specialist for the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, two silvers for her writing and photography; and Diane Nelson, communication specialist for the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, won a bronze for her writing.)
- Shouldn't we be paying more attention to the undiscovered life on this planet while we're exploring other planets for signs of life?
- Shouldn't taxonomy be more valued, appreciated and funded? Shouldn't we be offering more encouragement and training to our students?
Yes, says Jason Bond, the Evert and Marion Schlinger Endowed Chair in Insect Systematics, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Bond, who joined the UC Davis faculty in 2018 from Auburn University, Alabama, where he directed the Auburn University Museum of Natural History and chaired the Department of Biological Sciences, focuses his research “primarily on the discovery, conservation, and investigation of the pattern and processes responsible for the diversity of life.”
“My research program has been principally aimed to 1) document biodiversity by discovering and describing new species (and higher taxa, genera and families), 2) identify various dimensions of diversity and those underlying evolutionary processes that generate it, and 3) use these findings to identify threatened or endangered populations and taxa,” he writes on his website. “My organismal expertise centers on terrestrial arthropods (spiders, millipedes, and tenebrionid beetles). Current research projects focus on spider and beetle speciation pattern and process, higher level phylogenomics of millipedes and spiders, and understanding broad-scale patterns of biodiversity and relationship to biogeography, habitat destruction, and climate (contemporary and historical).”
“Typically I think the traditional definition of taxonomy is ‘the science of describing and classifying species,'” Bond told us following the podcast. “I think this definition typically misrepresents taxonomy as a purely descriptive science, which it is not. I think taxonomy might be better defined as ‘the science of species delimitation and classification.' Modern taxonomic species are the outcome of an experiment that tests integrative (i.e., using morphological, genetic, ecological, physiological, etc. ) hypotheses of homology, variation and evolutionary relatedness. These species are serve as hypotheses subject to further testing and refinement as more data (e.g., specimens, genomic, etc.) become available.”
Patrick launched the podcast by describing Bond as “one of my hero arachnologists.”
Bond began by calling attention to the “massive number” of undescribed species in the world. For example, there are about 50,000 described species of spiders, he said, but there are “probably 10 times more than that.” Scores of undescribed species are shelved in insect museums.
When Patrick asked him why there's a taxonomic impediment, Bond commented that “most fundamentally, it's hard work,” and that “very few people are being trained as taxonomists” and very few are hiring them. “If you're a taxonomist working on an obscure group,” you may be the first to be cut from your position, he said.
Bond declared there's a big difference between “identifying arthropods and the science of taxonomy. Someone did the underlying science to allow a person to make that identification.”
“What we're talking about is evolutionary biology,” Bond explained. “We seldom see ads at big universities advertising for a spider taxonomist or a mayfly taxonomist. They want evolutionary biologists. As we train students, we should train them as taxonomists who can clearly sell themselves as evolutionary biologists.”
The National Science Foundation (NSF) used to train students in taxonomy in its PEET (Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy) program. But PEET is now longer accepting grant proposals.
“If we visited another planet,” Bond said, “and discovered new forms of life, it would be nearly impossible to apply DNA barcoding…there is no silver magic bullet out there to automate species discovery and classification.”
When asked how he would resolve taxonomic impediment, Bond related that more exposure and more funding would certainly help. “We spent $2.9 billion on the Perseverance Mars probe,” Bond said, but in comparison, the annual budget of the NSF's Division of Environmental Biology (which includes grants for taxonomists) amounts to about $155 million. “We spend massive amounts of money exploring other planets than the planet we are on.”
“We're ignoring species extinctions in our own back yard,” Patrick added.
Bond agreed. “While we're trying to find intelligent life on other planets, we are destroying some of the life on our own,” the UC Davis professor said, adding that the next frontier--space exploration—always seems to be more exciting than what we have here.
Bond, who has described more than 100 new taxa--families, genera, species of spiders and millipedes--advocates more attention to taxonomy to “generate the enthusiasm that's out there. We need a hero.”
“If I were independently wealthy, I'd establish a taxonomic foundation or institute where we hire taxonomists to work in-residence,” Bond said, adding that to move science forward, we should bring them in from all over world to work on their regional fauna; and give them the training they need--“at least five years to really work and develop a team.”
When Rebecca "RJ" Millena recently received her bachelor's degree in entomology from the University of California, Davis, it was the culmination of her kindergarten dream. At age 5, she wrote on her "About Me" poster in her Concord (Calif.) kindergarten class: "When I grow up, I want to be an entomologist."
And now she's 22 with a prized diploma in hand and an insect-themed graduation cap on her head.
The graduation cap, featuring the metamorphosis of a butterfly, is lettered with "When I grow up I want to be an entomologist."
The cap and net images are the work of Kalee Fagan, "the older sister of my best friend from high school," RJ related.
RJ's graduation cap is now entered in a UC Davis graduation cap design contest. Folks can vote for her design by simply liking this UC Davis Facebook page or making a comment by noon (Pacific Daylight Time) on June 23. The four winners receive gift cards: first-place, $300; second, $200; third, $100, and editor's choice, $100.
Her contest entry:
Minors: Nematology, and Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity
In kindergarten, I once wrote, “When I grow up, I want to be an Entomologist.” As I graduate and continue studying insect evolution in a PhD program, I celebrate the fulfillment of my childhood dream with my cap. It features the original marker phrase from my kindergarten poster. Additionally, my first college field project involved the California pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor)—here it represents my metamorphosis from a hopeful child to a fully-fledged entomologist.
In her dual roles as an independent student researcher in the laboratory of Jay Rosenheim, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomologist and a scholar with the Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS) program, RJ is now finishing a research paper on Strepsiptera endoparasites, which attack their hosts, the Ammophila (thread-waisted) wasps. UC LEADS is a two-year program that prepares promising students for advanced education in science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM).
As part of her UC LEADS project, RJ studied specimens at the Bohart Museum of Entomology. As larvae, members of the order Strepsiptera, known as “twisted wings,” enter their hosts, including wasps and bees, through joints or sutures. In its nearly 8 million insect collection, the Bohart houses “about 30,000 specimens of Ammophila from multiple continents,” says director Lynn Kimsey, UC Davis distinguished professor of entomology. Kimsey pointed out that global wasp authority Arnold Menke (a UC Davis alumnus who studied for his 1965 doctorate with Professor Richard Bohart) identified most of them. His publication, "The Ammophila of North and Central America (Hymenoptera, Sphecidae)” is considered the bible of Ammophila research.
What's ahead? RJ has just accepted a four-year, full-ride fellowship offer to a PhD program at the American Museum of Natural History to join the systematics laboratory of Dr. Jessica Ware.
(Editor's note: RJ Millena is one of six UC Davis entomology majors who filed to graduate in the spring or summer of 2021. The others are: Maxwell Koning, Spring 2021; Laura Rivera, Summer 2021; Misa Terrell, Summer 2021; Stephanie Tsai, Spring 2021; and Elizabeth Uemura, Summer 2021)
People are keeping cool--or trying to--in their homes, workplaces or in newly opened community cooling centers.
Can you imagine what it's like for a honey bee colony? The normal brood-nest temperatures should be about 93 to 94 degrees, according to Norm Gary, UC Davis emeritus professor of entomology.
In his book, The Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees, Gary explains that "bee colonies require small quantities of water--up to around 7 ounces per day--but the water they collect is vital to their survival. During periods of hot weather, bees evaporate tiny droplets of water in the hive to control the internal colony temperature. Maintenance of internal colony humidity is important to developing larvae. In addition, nurse bees use water to reconstitute honey to nectarlike consistency when feeding larvae."
We remember Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen (now emeritus) of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, telling beekeeping associations to "always provide fresh water for your bees on your property. Otherwise, they will visit the neighbor's hanging laundry, bird bath, swamp cooler, dog dish, leaky hose connection, etc."
In his book, The Backyard Beekeeper: An Absolute Beginner's Guide to Keeping Bees in Your Yard and Garden, Kim Flottum, then editor of Bee Culture magazine, points out that "A summer colony needs at least a quart (liter) of water every day, and even more when it's warm."
"Water is used to dissolve crystallized honey, to dilute honey when producing larval food, for evaporation cooling during warm weather, and for a cool drink on a hot day," Flottum writes in his book.
Some folks add stepping stones or corks in water fountains, bird baths or ponds to assist the bees in their water-collecting endeavors. Usually, though, bees simply stand at the water's edge.
"Probably the most successful homemade water feeder design," Gary says, "is an inclined board that allows water to trickle down slowly into a catch basin so that it can be recirculated."
But have you ever seen the digger bees?
They're out there.
The sand cliffs are the home of the digger bee, a bumble bee mimic known as Anthophora bomboides stanfordiana. This bee builds turrets in the sand cliffs.
Last Thursday we watched several digger bees warm their flight muscles, take flight, and forage on the lupine, wild radish, and seaside daisy. Then we saw the females zipping in and out of their turrets: their cozy castles in the sand.
As the late Robbin Thorp, a global authority on bumble bees and a UC Davis distinguished emeritus professor of entomology, told us several years ago: "The species name indicates that it is a bumble bee mimic. These bees need a source of fresh water nearby. Females suck up water, regurgitate it on the sandstone bank surface, then dig away at the soft mud. They use some of the mud to build entrance turrets, presumably to help them locate their nests within the aggregation of nests."
"The female," Thorp said, "sucks up fresh water from nearby, stores it in her crop (like honey bees store nectar) for transport to the nest. She regurgitates it on the sandstone, and excavates the moistened soil. She carries out the mud and makes the entrance turret with it."
As part of a National Science Foundation grant, community ecologist Rachel Vannette, assistant professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, is teaming with other colleagues, including pollination ecologist Stephen Buchmann, to research these digger bees and their nests.
It's a big beautiful bee world out there.