Aphids and Plumbing

Red Aphids

Red Aphids

Plants transport sugary phloem through cells called sieve tubes. Like an oil pipeline, the sieve tubes will automatically block the flow if the sieve tube is punctured. This limits the amount of sap that leaks from a stem when it is cut.

The signal for sieve elements to block the phloem flow is the release of calcium ions.  When an aphid punctures the sieve tube, calcium is released.  How can an aphid prevent the flow from stopping?

Aphids have a salivary secretion technically called “watery saliva” that is secreted when their mouthparts enter plant phloem. Among other substances, watery saliva contains proteins with numerous calcium binding sites. These proteins bind to the calcium that is released.  Thus, aphids intercept and terminate the signal for the sieve tube to stop the flow of phloem.

Other salivary secretions seal the puncture wound around the mouthparts to prevent fluids from leaking into or out of the phloem. This allows aphids to feed continuously without moving or expending much energy.

Posted in behavior, Biomaterials, by jjneal | 1 Comment

Looking for Patrons

China insect museum

Huaxi insect museum
A Private Investment in Science
Photo: Nie Xin

Prior to the era of the modern government research grant, art and scientific research were largely funded by subsidies from wealthy patrons. Many of the Great Scientists and Artists of the Renaissance were supported by Patrons. However, Patrons were few and many budding (but poor and hungry) scientists abandoned their interests for lack of support. As a result, many of the problems of science and industry went unsolved. For the past two centuries, the government of the United States has promoted scientific discovery and applied science through the establishment of institutions such as Land Grant Colleges and Agricultural Experiment Stations. In recent years, western governments have been sidetracked by focus on deficits and have allowed funding for scientific discoveries to decline.

In an age of declining support from government, where can scientists turn? Patrons still exist and can be cultivated. Researchers and their institution are turning more of their creative talents to fund raising. Businesses have made money from “Star Registry” that sells certificates to people who wish to name a star, often for a loved one. Why not allow people to pay to have an insect named after them? This is the approach being tried by the Bohart Museum. Through their “Biolegacy” program, Patrons can donate a minimum of $2500. The donation supports the work of the Museum with the potential to have a species named for the Patron. Groups might gather donations to honor a friend or mentor such as a retired science teacher. Could there be money in the darker side? Would an jilted lover get pay to name a cockroach after the Ex to exact revenge? Would political groups pay to have a pest insect named for an opposition politician?


Part of the Purdue Entomology Research Collection
Supported by State Funds and Federal Grants

The potential to raise money is enticing. What could be lost? Naming species based on obvious characters can be helpful to students learning a group for the first time. Fewer species might be named in honor of entomologists who devoted their careers to the taxonomy of a group. Will public support for science erode if the public perceives that science is a playground for the wealthy? In the short run, scientists need to replace funds lost to sequesters and cuts. The longer run funding questions will remain.

Posted in by jjneal, Insect Inspired, Policy, Taxonomy | 1 Comment

The Snacks of Summer

Crispy Fried Grasshopper

Crispy Fried Grasshoppers are served with lime at Seattle Mariners baseball games

There is a new version of “Take me out to the ballgame” in Seattle where the Mariners play. It goes, “With peanuts and popcorn and cricket snacks…” The change in the song reflects a change in cuisine. In 2017, the stadium hired local Seattle chef, Ethan Stowell to make tasty new recipes. Sports fans can now purchase crispy fried grasshopper tacos and other delicacies. The grasshoppers sell better in the later innings after the fans have had a few beers or lost bets.

What will they think of next?
It is rumored that the home series with Kansas City will feature stir fried praying mantis.

Posted in by jjneal, Food, News, Sports | 1 Comment

Living With Beeswax

Bee Wax Scale

Bee Wax Scale

For almost 2000 years, from the time of Aristotle to the late 18th century, it was widely believed that beeswax was a wax produced by plants and collected by bees much the way propolis (bee glue) is plant resin collected by bees for plugging holes in the nest. It was not until the late 17th century that wax scales on the abdomens of worker bees were described in writing by Martin John. One hundred years later, observations by peasant beekeepers reintroduced wax scales to the attention of scientists who tested the plant wax origin hypothesis. F. Huber observed the effect of diet on scale production and concluded that beeswax scales were produced from honey consumption. Bees fed pollen alone did not produce wax scales. It was only after extensive testing that the true origin of bees wax, the bees themselves, was discovered.

Posted in Biomaterials, by jjneal | 1 Comment

Living With Leaf Litter

Common Litter Moth

Common Litter Moth, Idia aemula
Photo: Mike Boone

Caterpillars of the litter moths of the genus Idia feed on leaf litter. They skeletonize leaves and accelerate the decomposition of dead plant matter into soil. Some can successfully grow and develop on freshly fallen leaves. The caterpillars inhabit the forest floor where they are cryptic feeders, hidden from the eyes of predatory birds. If disturbed, the caterpillars will “play dead”. Caterpillars are active as soon the weather warms in the Midwest. During the summer flight season, litter moths can be among the most abundant moths at light traps.

Posted in by jjneal, Environment | 1 Comment

Living With Temitophiles


Temitophile beetle, Genus: Cretotrichopsenius
Photo: Cai et al*

Social insects have “guests” that take up residence (uninvited) in the nest. Several species of beetles can be found within termite mounds. Fossils of termitophile beetles are present in Baltic amber indicating that beetle-termite relationships date to at least 19 million years ago.

Amber excludes oxygen, prevents decomposition and preserves many insect features intact. Baltic amber yields many insect fossils from as long ago as 44 million years. The Burmese Amber deposits in Myanmar date to 105 million years ago. Fossils in Burmese Amber can extend our knowledge of insect life 100 million years ago.

The fossil of a termitophile beetle, Genus Cretotrichopsenius has been described from Burmese Amber. This extends the time when beetle – termite associations are known to have existed to at least to 99 million years ago. Termites have existed for about 200 million years. It is probable that beetles associated with termites shortly after termites evolved.

The termitophile fossil, Cretotrichopsenius, has some features of modern termitophile beetles, including a protective cuticle that extends over its head and long sensory structures that extend from behind the body. These features help the beetle survive attacks by soldier termites until it can accumulate the nest odor of the termites which will disguise the beetles from the termites.

*Chenyang Cai, Diying Huang, Alfred F. Newton, K. Taro Eldredge, Michael S. Engel. Early Evolution of Specialized Termitophily in Cretaceous Rove Beetles. Current Biology. Volume 27, Issue 8, p1229–1235, 24 April 2017.
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.03.009 |

Posted in by jjneal, History, Taxonomy | 1 Comment

Living Under Water

Riffle Beetle

Riffle Beetle, Elmis aenea
Photo: A. Herrmann

Many insects have larvae that are aquatic but an adult that is terrestrial. Until early in the 20th Century, it was widely assumed that no adult insect could live under water for sustained periods. The French Biologist, F. Brocher, changed these beliefs with his observations of Elmis aenea that were reported in his 1911 paper, Recherches sur la respiration des insectes aquatiques adultes. Brocher observed beetles living underwater for extended periods and noted a layer of air held close to its body by hydrofuge hairs on it cuticle or plastron. Brocher suggested that the plastron was involved in respiration. His observation stimulated further research into plastrons as breathing mechanisms in adult insects.

Elmis aenea is a riffle beetle in the family Elmidae. These beetles are common in fast running water that is well aerated and near lake shores where wave action aerates the water.

Posted in behavior, by jjneal, Environment | 1 Comment