Flies seem to be in the news a lot lately.
But have you ever looking closely at a common green bottle fly Lucilia sericata, also known as a blowfly?
Ever admired their brilliant metallic blue-green coloration? Ever thought about them as pollinators (they are sometimes!) but of course, that's not what they're known for.
They're known for their forensic, veterinary and medical importance. They are nature's recyclers when the females deposit their eggs in carrion.
But they're also beautiful.
We captured these photos of a green bottle fly on a tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in our garden. The red and yellow blossoms contrasted nicely with the stunning fly coloration. Nature's art.
Indeed, flies are an integral part of the annual UC Davis Picnic Day (cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and precautions). What's a picnic without flies?
Forensic entomologist Robert "Bob" Kimsey of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology always staffs a booth at Briggs Hall where he holds forth as "Dr. Death" with his microscope and specimens as he encourages--and fields--questions from the thousands of picnickers. (See Bugs at Briggs)
Also at Briggs Hall during the UC Davis Picnic Day, "Maggot Art," is extremely popular. The artists, mostly children and teens, dip a maggot into water-based, non-toxic paint and drop it onto a white piece of paper and let it crawl. The finished product often finds its way onto a refrigerator, inside a frame, or as as an unexpected gift to grandparents. Certainly it's a conversation piece.
Meanwhile, mark your calendar for April 17, 2021, the scheduled date of the next UC Davis Picnic Day.
Dr. Bob, the flies, and the maggots will be waiting.
We missed it, too. So did the ants and other insects.
The Department of Entomology and Nematology annually hosts dozens of popular Picnic Day events at Briggs Hall and at the Bohart Museum of Entomology. But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, “closed” was the word of the day.
"Closed." It's not a popular word when you're craving to show your audience the wonderful world of insects.
However, this year the campuswide Picnic Day Committee hosted a virtual tour of some of the planned events, and posted this link: https://picnicday.ucdavis.edu/virtual/
The spotlight paused on the Bohart Museum, which houses nearly eight million insect specimens; the seventh largest insect collection in North America; the California Insect Survey, a storehouse of the insect biodiversity; and a live “petting zoo” comprised of Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks, tarantulas and the like. It also is the home of a gift shop, stocked with T-shirts, sweatshirts, books, jewelry, posters, insect-collecting equipment and insect-themed candy.
Directed by UC Davis entomology professor Lynn Kimsey for 30 years, the museum is named for noted entomologist Richard Bohart (1913-2007). The Bohart team includes senior museum scientist Steve Heydon; Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator; and entomologist Jeff Smith, who curates the Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths section).
If you browse the Bohart Museum site, you'll find fact sheets about insects, written by Professor Kimsey.
But if you want to see the Bohart Museum's virtual tours, be sure to watch these videos:
- Director Lynn Kimsey giving a Bohart Museum introduction
- Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator, presenting an arthropod virtual tour
- Diane Ullman, professor of entomology and former chair of the department, presenting a view of the Lepidodpera section.
Also on the UC Davis Virtual Picnic Day site, you'll learn “How to Make an Insect Collection," thanks to project coordinator James R. Carey, distinguished professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology; and "Can Plants Talk to Each Other?" a TED-Ed Talk featuring the work of ecologist Rick Karban, professor, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Other research work that draws widespread attention at the annual UC Davis Picnic Day is the work of UC Davis medical entomologist-geneticist Geoffrey Attardo, assistant professor of entomology. A global authority on tsetse flies, he specializes in reproductive physiology and molecular biology, in addition to medical entomology and genetics.
"Female tsetse flies carry their young in an adapted uterus for the entirety of their immature development and provide their complete nutritional requirements via the synthesis and secretion of a milk like substance," he says. PBS featured his work in its Deep Look video, “A Tsetse Fly Births One Enormous Milk-Fed Baby,” released Jan. 28, 2020. (See its accompanying news story.)
PBS also collaborated with the Attardo lab and the Chris Barker lab, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, for a PBS Deep Look video on Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits dengue fever and Zika. The eggs are hardy; "they can dry out, but remain alive for months, waiting for a little water so they can hatch into squiggly larvae," according to the introduction. Watch the video, "This Dangerous Mosquito Lays Her Armored Eggs--in Your House."
In the meantime, the UC Davis Picnic Day leaders are gearing up for the 106th annual, set for April 17, 2021. What's a picnic without insects?
The Bug Doctor, that is.
If you attended the 105th annual UC Davis Picnic Day and headed for Briggs Hall, home of the Department of Entomology and Nematology, you encountered a booth lettered with "Bug Doctor" and a sign that read: “Ask Me About Insects.”
The annual Picnic Day booth is traditionally staffed by graduate students in the department.
Have you ever wondered what folks are asking them? Here's a sampling.
Bug Doctor Miles Dakin
Miles Dakin, a doctoral student in the lab of agricultural entomologist Christian Nansen lab, said:
“I got a few about what my favorite bug was, which I, of course, responded Phaneausvindex, and continued to talk about how cool dung beetles are.”
“A few questions were about pest insects. One person brought in what she thought was a fruit fly but was, in fact, a thrip, although I am unsure of the species.”
“I think the best sequence of questions were from two siblings who were very interested in mosquitos. Gives me hope that we may have a few more entomologists in the future.”
Bug Doctor Zachary Griebenow
Doctoral student Zachary Griebenow, who studies with major professor Phil Ward of the ant lab, said:
“Four different people asked me what my favorite bug was. I told them that this was a difficult question to answer, if not impossible. Questions of more real substance included whether we should be concerned about bees (I took care to draw a distinction between Apismellifera and our native bee fauna).
“Two people came with specimens of insects that they wanted identified: one person brought an early-instar cockroach nymph; the other, a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) that I could not identify to species.
“Another person brought photographs of what I immediately recognized as Tropidischia xanthostoma, an exceedingly large cave cricket (Rhaphidophoridae) restricted to the Pacific Northwest.
Bug Doctor Brendon Boudinot
Brendon Boudinot, doctoral candidate in the Phil Ward lab and president of the Entomology Graduate Student Association (EGSA), kept busy during Picnic Day. He co-chaired the UC Davis Picnic Day activities at Briggs Hall (with forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey of the faculty), coordinating all the activities in the building. He also found time to serve as Bug Doctor.
How was it?
"Bug Doctor was awesome!" Boudinot said. "For the majority of the time, I was just talking with people without getting too many direct questions. When I was the Bug Doctor, I was talking for about four hours straight with only a few moments of break! I talked with people about how insects work, how they sense and interact with the environment, about their evolution, the history of life on Earth, particularly the major extinction events (Cryogenian, before the Cambrian explosion; the Permian-Triassic extinction event, the origin of stinging wasps in the Cretaceous, and the faunal turnover of the end-Cretaceous extinction, and finally, the current major extinction event which geologists are calling the Anthropocene). Because I had so few moments to pause and reflect, I can't honestly think of any particular question! I just enjoyed the enrapturment of the folks I was speaking to. One person, however, did ask me how she could get involved in professional entomology. She already has her higher education degree, and I gave her the best answer I could think of."
Boudinot and Griebenow are accustomed to answering questions about insects. They are members of the national championship UC Linnaean Games Team that will defend its title at the Entomological Society of America competition in November in St. Louis, Mo. The Linnaean Games are lively question-and-answer, college-bowl style competitions on entomological facts played between university-sponsored student teams. The UC Linnaean Games Team is captained by Ralph Washington Jr. , a graduate student at UC Berkeley who received his bachelor's degree in entomology from UC Davis.
Boudinot will be honored at the ESA meeting as a winner of the John Henry Comstock Award, the organization's highest graduate student honor. Each ESA branch selects a recipient. Boudinot won the award from the Pacific Branch, which is comprised of 11 western states, U.S. territories, and parts of Canada and Mexico. (See Bug Squad blog)
Meanwhile, save the date! The 2020 UC Davis Picnic Day is April 18.
Yes, the doctor (Bug Doctor) will be in!
And that it did Saturday at the 105th annual UC Davis Picnic Day--especially at the second annual "Virtual Reality Bugs" display at Briggs Hall, the administrative home of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
Medical entomologist/geneticist Geoffrey Attardo, an assistant professor in the department who researches tsetse flies, mosquitoes and other vectors, demonstrated his program all day to hundreds of participants.
They marveled at the 40-foot-tall, three-dimensional insects and spiders. They chose what they wanted to see towering over them: a black widow spider, ant, beetle, grasshopper, damsel fly, cicada, cockroach, and a tsetse fly.
What's a picnic without bugs?
Sebastian Ehrlich, 9, and his sister Kamila, 6, of Davis, accompanied by parents Ethan and Carolina Ehrlich, were among the first in line.
They loved Virtual Reality Bugs.
"My kids' favorite part of Picnic Day was the VR," their mother said. "Oh how I'd love it if one of them at least became a scientist."
Paul McClelland of Sunnyvale, a UC Davis graduate in zoology (1983), and his wife, Marjirjam, also delighted in seeing the gigantic bugs--and the computer and display techniques that made the display possible.
"They didn't have that when I was going to school," McClelland quipped.
Attardo describes VR as a "computer-generated simulation used to simulate real or imagined environments."
"It immerses the user by stimulating visual, auditory and touch-based senses," he says. He presented a program on "Using Virtual Reality to Engage and Instruct: a A Novel Tool for Outreach and Extension," at the 2018 Entomological Society of America (ESA) meeting in Vancouver, B.C.
Attardo's sketchfab.com account is at https://sketchfab.com/models/263750e5a9c54c56a77d63ac06f2f317. His first model was a tsetse fly.
Attardo says that "VR has great potential as a new way to present entomological content including aspects of morphology, physiology, behavior and other aspects of insect biology. This demonstration allows users of all ages to view static and animated 3D models of insects and arthropods in virtual reality."
"This is accomplished by placing users in virtual spaces with content of interest and allows for natural interactions where users can physically move within the space and use their hands to directly manipulate/experience content. VR also reduces the impact of external sensory distractions by completely immersing the user in the experience. These interactions are particularly compelling when content that is only observable through a microscope (or not at all) can be made large allowing the user to experience these things at scale. This has great potential for entomological education and outreach as students can experience animated models of insects and arthropods at impossible scales."
In his presentation to ESA, Attardo commented: "This isn't your parents' virtual reality! Early computers and monitors could not produce the frame rate/resolution required. Early attempts at VR were heavy, awkward and motion-sickness inducing. Increased processing power, smaller computers and high resolution screens have solved these issues."
As McClelland said, "They didn't have that when I was going to school."
Yes, you can do just that at Briggs Hall during the UC Davis Picnic Day on Saturday, April 13. It's free and family friendly.
And one of the crowd favorites, meadowfoam, will be offered. Honey enthusiasts say it tastes like "cotton candy" and reminds them of a county fair. They also compare it to marshmallows.
"It's quickly becoming America's favorite honey," says Amina Harris, director of the UC Davis Honey and Pollination Center. She describes it as a "confectionery honey."
Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño, who is coordinating the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology's honey tasting, has announced the featured varietals are meadowfoam, sage, cotton and buckwheat.
Two of the department's displays have been nominated for People's Choice awards: the honey tasting booth and the Bohart Museum of Entomology's display, "Will Travel for Bugs: The Bohart Museum of Entomology's Collections from Around the World." Voters can vote via the QR code or online (vote here) from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., April 13.
Briggs Hall, located off Kleiber Hall Drive, will be open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. while the Bohart Museum of Entomology, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, will be open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.--shorter hours to enable the Bohart scientists and volunteers to help at Briggs Hall and with the UC Davis Picnic Day Parade.
- Cockroach Races: Participants can pick their favorite "roach athlete" and cheer it to victory.
- Maggot Art: Participants will dip a maggot into water-based, non-toxic paint and position it on paper and let it crawl. Voila! Maggot art, suitable for framing.
- Virtual Reality Bugs: Medical entomologist Geoffrey Attardo will set up a virtual reality system to enable people to view three dimensional models of insects. In VR, the models can be made to look life size, 40 feet tall or anywhere in between, he says. Here's the link that to view them in your web browser: https://skfb.ly/6xVru
- Bee Observation Hive: Viewers can check out the queen, workers and drones in the bee observation hive and see tools used in beekeeping.
- Bug Doctor: The Doctor Is In: Graduate students will identify insects and arachnids and answer questions
- IPM Booth: UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program professionals will discuss and answer questions about insect pests, beneficial insects and pest control. They will display their publications and live insects. In keeping with tradition, they will give away free lady beetles (lady bugs), to be released in gardens to devour aphids and other soft-bodied insects.
- Ants: Graduate students from Professor Phil Ward's lab will talk to visitors about the amazing world of ants.
- Mosquito Abatement: Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District professionals will staff a booth
- Dr. Death: Forensic entomologist Robert Kimsey will staff his traditional Dr. Death booth, inviting the visitors to ask questions and look through microscopes.
- Davis Fly Fishers: The anglers will demonstrate fly-tying techniques in Briggs 158
- Aquatic Insects: Professor Sharon Lawler's lab will display a number of aquatic insects.
- Forest Beetles: Learn what beetles are attacking our forests.
- Scavenger Hunt: Participants will search for and identify insects.
- Insect Face Painting: Entomology Club members will face-paint bees, butterflies, lady beetles and other insects
- T-Shirt Sales: Visitors can take their pick or picks among insect-themed t-shirts (popular t-shirts include beetles and honey bees). Newly printed t-shirts feature the roach races, an American Gothic of entomologists, and a cicada plugged into an amp. Selection and prices are online at https://mkt.com/UCDavisEntGrad/
- Bake Sale: The Entomology Club will offer insect-themed baked goods.
Bohart Museum. The Bohart Museum, founded in 1946, is directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology. "At the Bohart, we are focusing on the various countries from around the world and some of their insect fauna," said Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator. The 12 countries that the Bohart is highlighting, besides the United States, are Australia, Belize, Democratic Republic of Congo, Korea, Madagascar, Malayasia, Mexico,Papua New Guinea, Peru, Republic of South Africa, and Turkey.
The Bohart Museum is the home of nearly eight million insect specimens, plus a year-around gift shop and a live "petting zoo" that includes Madagascar hissing cockroaches, stick insects, tarantulas and praying mantids. The gift shop is stocked with books, jewlery, t-shirts, insect-collecting equipment, insect-themed candy, and stuffed animals. The insect 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. Further information is available on the Bohart Museum website.