Life Is Cheap


Ants are part of the Life Is Cheap exhibit

South Korean born artist Anicka Yi is winner of a Hugo Boss Prize for contemporary art. Her work appears in New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from April 21 to July 5, 2017. As explained in a feature about the prize, in her exhibit, a

diorama houses a colony of ants—insects that interest Yi because of their intricate division of labor and matriarchal social structure, as well as the sophisticated olfactory system that guides their behavior. The ants navigate a network of pathways that are reflected infinitely across mirrored surfaces, evoking a massive data-processing unit in which their industrious movement embodies the flow of information.

Other parts of the living exhibit have patterns and colors produced by microorganisms cultured from samples taken from Manhattan’s Chinatown and Koreatown. Visitors are also treated to odors derived from carpenter ants.

Ants and microbes inhabit a micro-scale world that is alien to the scale that much larger humans experience. Organisms in that world such as ants and microbes can reproduce at a rapid rate. The rapid reproduction is balanced by a short lifespan and higher mortality rate (compared to humans). Thus the title “Life Is Cheap”.

Posted in Art, Biomaterials, by jjneal | 1 Comment

Living With Shot Hole Borer


Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer
Photo: Gevork Arakelian

West Coast trees in the US are being attacked by shot hole borers. The beetles are in the genus, Euwallacea that insect biologists suspect* is a multi-species complex rather than a single species. The Tea Shot Hole Borer, Euwallacea fornicatus, is an invasive pest from Asia that invaded Florida early in the 21st century. The beetle has spread but damage appears limited.

In 2010, Euwallacea spp. beetles killed box elder trees in Long Beach and have since been found in avocados where they distribute a tree-killing fungus. The avocado attacking Euwallacea spp. has DNA that differs from the Tea Shot Hole Borers from Sri Lanka and south Asia, but is identical to an avocado attacking Euwallacea spp. pests of avocado in Israel.  The invasive species in California may be a different species and separate introduction from the one on the West Coast.  The beetle is suspected of being transported in international shipments of ornamental trees.

Ambrosia beetles bore holes in trees but do not feed on the wood. They carry fungi in structures (called mycangia) on the wings and body. The fungus grows in the tunnels created by the beetles The beetles don’t eat the wood. They eat the nutritious fungus. In native areas, the beetles, fungus and trees may reach an accommodation in which healthy trees can tolerate the fungus and are not killed by it. When the beetle and its fungus travel to foreign lands through global trade, the native trees may lack defenses and will be killed by the fungus. In the long run, tree varieties my evolve or be produced that tolerate the fungus. In the short term saving trees and fruit crops means the beetle populations must be managed and their spread stopped or slowed

*UC Riverside, Center for Invasive Species Research. Polyphagous Shot Hole Borer (Euwallacea sp.) and Fusarium Dieback (Fusarium sp.)

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Living With Chitin

Dust Mite

Dust Mite

Chitin is a polysaccharide that is a major component of arthropod cuticle. Chitin is ubiquitous and the second most abundant polysaccharide on our planet next to cellulose. Molted exoskeletons, dead insects and mites can litter our environment with chitin dust. The dust can become airborne and invade our lungs, causing irritation and inflammation. To manage the chitin contamination, cells in our lungs secrete Acidic Mammalian Chitinase (AMC), an enzyme that breaks the polysaccharide into its simple sugar building blocks. The simple sugars can be absorbed by cells, further converted and integrated into body tissues or eliminated as waste. People with inadequate levels of AMC can suffer asthma and other lung disease.

Steven J. Van Dyken, Hong-Erh Liang, Ram P. Naikawadi, Prescott G. Woodruff, Paul J. Wolters, David J. Erle, Richard M. Locksley. Spontaneous Chitin Accumulation in Airways and Age-Related Fibrotic Lung Disease. Cell. Volume 169, Issue 3, 20 April 2017, Pages 497–509.e13

Posted in Biomaterials, by jjneal, History | 1 Comment

Power for the Jump

Spittle bug

Pine Spittlebug
Top Left: Frothy masses of Spittlebug Larvae on Pine Trees
Bottom Left: Leaf Flagging
Top Right: Larva is barely visible under a cloak of froth
Middle Right: Larva Plucked from the Tree
Bottom Right: Adult is covered in early morning dew

Froghoppers can jump large distances compared to their height. Some species can generate a jumping force that is 400 times their body mass. How do they generate the force? Froghoppers have a complex structure, the pleural arch, that links the coxae of the hind legs to the hinge of the hind wings. In froghoppers, the pleural arch is a composite structure consisting of flexible resilin and stiff cuticle that performs like a compound bow. Contraction of a powerful muscle causes the pleural arch to flex like a bow and store energy for a jump. When the muscle relaxes, the pleural arch changes shape and delivers a powerful force to the legs that powers the jump. The resilin accommodates the strain created in the cuticle and allows the body to maintain its shape during the jump.

Malcolm Burrows, Stephen R Shaw and Gregory P Sutton. Resilin and chitinous cuticle form a composite structure for energy storage in jumping by froghopper insects. BMC Biology20086:41.Published: 30 September 2008
DOI: 10.1186/1741-7007-6-41

Posted in Biomaterials, by jjneal | 1 Comment

Urban Bee Keeper Revival


BurghBees Apiary
Photo: Justin Merriman

Bees are incredibly interesting social animals. A renewed interest in bees and beekeeping has led to the formation of bee keeping collectives that maintain apiaries in urban areas. One of the first was BurghBees in Pittsburg, PA. The collective has a location where members can maintain hives, take classes and exchange information. Courses are offered in topics from beginning bee keeping to advanced bee management. Collectives offer opportunities for bee keepers whose living accommodations do not allow them to keep bees at home.

The program has had good success and is being imitated in other communities in the US.

Posted in by jjneal, Education, Insect Inspired | 1 Comment

Neighborhood Lice Watch

Head Louse

Head Louse
Photo: John Hallmén

Head lice are a public health issue and requires participation from the public to be effective. If all groups are engaged in checking and eliminating head lice, then the public will experience reduction in risk of infestation. The most effective transmission of head lice occurs from direct head to head contact. Schools can be a significant site of transmission from family to family. A group of Norwegian scientists* surveyed practices among schools, ethnic and socioeconomic groups in Norway. They found differences in the responses among the groups.

They found that prior experience to head lice was correlated with more frequent inspection for lice. However, the frequency of checking was noted to have declined 1 year after an infestation. Immigrants from countries where lice are more prevalent inspected more frequently. However, they were less likely to notify authorities and more likely to purchase peduclicides (lice pesticides) than native Norwegians.

The scientists made several recommendations for a lice reduction program. Most important is early detection and elimination. Cases of lice infestation in schools should be immediately communicated to the community and more frequent inspections made. They recommended written and video communication at the start of school to emphasize the need to frequently inspect for lice (monthly) targeted at natives, and the advantages of reporting targeted especially to immigrants. The information should inform parents of the best practices and encourage rational rather than emotional responses to the problem. In their words “unnecessary negative emotions” are counterproductive. They inhibit communication in times of increased risk, discourge seeking help and advice from lice experts and in some cases result in children missing a large number instructional days. They suggest making available pest control advice to families that are affected by lice so families can avoid excess cleaning that is ineffective, reduce their workload and use the most effective means of lice control.

Western culture is gradually breaking the taboos about health issues communication. US First Lady, Betty Ford talked openly about her breast cancer and broke the silence around this important health issue. The US was forced to become more open about a number of health issues in order to combat the AIDS epidemic. Lack of open communication at the start of the epidemic led to worse results. Parasites, including insects, are a public health issue. Head lice is another public health issue that could benefit from more open discussion.

*Bjørn Arne Rukke, Arnulf Soleng, Heidi Heggen Lindstedt, Preben Ottesen & Tone Birkemoe. 2014. Socioeconomic status, family background and other key factors influence the management of head lice in Norway. Parasitology Research.
DOI 10.1007/s00436-014-3833-9

Posted in by jjneal, Health, Pest Management | 1 Comment

The Global Honey Bee


Placing Bee Hives in an Almond Orchard

Bee keeping is global. The honey bee, Apis mellifera is not native to North America. It was intentionally introduced by Europeans who migrated to North America. Ever since, there has been movement of honey bees between Europe and many parts of the globe. Trade has greatly increased in the past quarter century as bee keepers ship bees to share their stock.

The increase in trade has its downsides. The Varroa Mite, is an exotic parasite of honey bees introduced to North America late last century. The spread of Varroa Mite eliminated most feral honey bee colonies and bee keepers in North America were forced to control mites in their bee hives. Global trade is suspected of transporting additional bee parasites and pathogens. Further facilitating the spread, commercial bee keepers transport over half the bee hives in the US to California for almond pollination every year. The close contact allows pathogens to freely pass between hives enhances continental spread.

Australian bee biologist, Robert Owen* writes about these issues. His article is a call for bee keepers to reexamine practices and make modifications that limit the spread of disease and parasites.

*Robert Owen.  Role of Human Action in the Spread of Honey Bee Pathogens. Published: 06 April 2017 J Econ Entomol tox075.
DOI: https://10.1093/jee/tox075

Posted in by jjneal, Invasive Species, Pest Management | 1 Comment