It’s a bird? It’s a plane? It’s a White-Lined Sphinx Moth!

At the end of every work day, before I head home into that lovely L.A. rush hour traffic, I walk through the Nature Garden at one of my favorite times of the day, the magic hour as the sun sets, the diurnal animals hunker down, and the nocturnal ones get ready for action. Even though spring time may blend into what feels like an endless L.A. summer, I see evidence of insects that have been on the down low for many months, now suddenly appearing out of hiding, full of vigor and looking for love.  One such example is the glorious White-Lined Sphinx Moth, a crepuscular creature which feeds on the nectar of a  variety of flowers. Silhouetted in the twilight with wings 3 inches wide, this insect is often mistaken for a hummingbird as it hovers in the garden.

Hyles lineata, the White-lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.

Hyles lineata, the White-Lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey.


If you happen upon one of these beauties, take a close look at the incredible proboscis, the “straw” that they use to slurp up delicious flower juice. Sphinx moths have unusually long proboscises to access even the trickiest flower; in fact, the longest proboscis in the world belongs to a sphinx moth from Madagascar, measuring at 11 inches long! Our common local species is not quite so audacious, but it still brings to mind the problem moths and butterflies would have if they had to fly around with a long rope dangling out of their mouths. Fortunately, they can coil up their mouthparts and hold it close like Super Woman’s lasso due to a unique “rubbery” material called resilin that allows it to spring back into shape after feeding.


The larvae of the White-Lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Elizabeth Long.

Larvae of the White-Lined sphinx moth. Photo credit: Elizabeth Long.


Just as beautiful as the adult (to me!) is the larval stage of the sphinx moth, a jumbo caterpillar which also bears white markings on its body. Sphinx moth larvae are commonly called “hornworms” due to the spines at the end of their bodies; although they resemble stingers, they are soft and are not harmful to the touch. Unlike most moth and butterfly larvae, the caterpillar of this species is not at all picky about what types of plants it eats, which is why this sphinx moth is so common throughout North America.


Caterpillars are like hot dogs for wasps, but with more protein and healthier! Photo credit: Brian Brown

Caterpillars are like hot dogs for wasps, but with more protein and healthier! Photo credit: Brian Brown


Caterpillars can be “pests” if they eat the wrong thing (meaning, that special something a human planted to enjoy themselves), but they are also a great food source for a variety of other animals including other insects. If the caterpillar reaches its final larval stage without being eaten, it will burrow underground and begin its transformation into a pupa, where it will emerge as an adult when the weather is right. Last month brought some modest rain followed by a heat wave, which was the perfect storm for moth pupae that were overwintering.  Our BioSCAN traps started to collect heaps of sphinx moths as well as other types of moths, filling up the bottles after a few days. Nothing says “spring is here!” like a jar full of moths.


Malaise trap catches from NHM Nature Garden

A regular week’s catch from the NHM Malaise trap on the left, compared with 2015’s moth invasion week of March 13–20 on the right (all three jars together). Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey


How I Discovered 30 New Species of Flies in Los Angeles

By Emily Hartop

Aaron Pomerantz of Next Gen Scientist on BioSCAN and Los Angeles’s 30 Newest Species

When I came to work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, I had no idea exactly what was in store for me. The NHM had recently initiated a massive study to search for biodiversity, or the variety of life forms in a particular area. This study wasn’t taking place in some lush tropical jungle, though; in fact, far from it. This fabulous study was (and is) taking place in the backyards of Los Angeles. I got hired to be part of the entomological team for this urban project called BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science: City and Nature) and before I knew it, I was describing 30 new species of flies collected right here in the City of Angels.

Before I explain how this all happened, let’s pause and say that again: 30 new species of flies were described from urban Los Angeles in 2015. Let’s expand: these flies were caught in three months of sampling and are all in the same genus. What does this mean for us? It means that even in the very areas where we live and work, our biodiversity is critically understudied. It means that in your own backyard, or community park, live species that we do not even know exist. It means that all of those invisible ecosystem processes that occur all around us are being conducted, in part, by creatures we know nothing of. It means BioSCAN is off to a good start, but we have a lot of work to do.


My boss, NHM Curator of Entomology Dr. Brian Brown, has spent years working on an amazing group of flies called phorids. When I started in January 2014, I knew next to nothing about phorids; I knew they were small flies that did some cool things (like decapitating ants and killing bees and eating cadavers in coffins) and that was about it. When I came in to volunteer my time prior to my official start date, Brian sat me down with some samples from Costa Rican rice paddies and asked me to pull out all the phorids for further study. I only vaguely knew what a phorid even looked like, so I had a steep learning curve that first day. Soon, though, I could recognize a phorid as easily as picking out an orange in a bunch of apples.

After I got a feel for phorids at the family level, I had to learn the Los Angeles species so that I could identify them and we could start tallying them up for our project. Brian taught me some of the genera in the family and their characteristics. Then he showed me a species called Megaselia agarici. This species has a prominent, pale protrusion on its genitalia (and speaking of genitalia: I’m going to say 90% of our identification work focuses on these for flies, we are obsessed with fly genitalia…), making it easy to pick out at the species level. Great! With my notebook in hand, I eagerly asked Brian, “So, I can pick out this species, but how do I know this group on the generic level, what is a Megaselia?” Brian’s response should have dissuaded me from this group: “Megaselia is a giant genus, about half of the phorid family. Eliminate the other genera as possibilities and if it’s not something else, it’s likely Megaselia.” A sane person would have left it alone. A sane person would have quietly learned the few Megaselia species that are well known and easy to recognize and quietly set the rest aside for someone else to deal with. But not me. I became intrigued.

Getting to work (and to tea)

The flies!  Photography by Kelsey Bailey.

The flies! Photography by Kelsey Bailey.

I started to see the same species over and over, I started to notice small differences between the flies when I would sort samples. I started to make little sketches and write notes. Gradually, I started giving these flies funny names: this one’s genitalia look like bunny ears, I’ll name it “Bunny”, this one has setae (socketed hairs or bristles) that remind me of a 1980s troll doll, I’ll name it “Troll”. I even had a species nicknamed “Hokusai” after the famous painter because its extruded genitalia looked just like details found in The Great Wave off Kanagawa. My colleague, Lisa Gonzalez, contributed by naming one I showed her “Sharkfin” because of its uniquely shaped midfemur. Slowly, the list of “species” I was able to separate grew. I started reading literature on the genus, and then I started working with the keys (identification tools) for the group. To my surprise, I couldn’t get most of my nicknamed flies to come out in the keys we had for the North American fauna. These keys were written back in the 1960s (the last time someone seriously took a look at the genus on this continent), and just a smattering of publications on the group in this region have been published since. I couldn’t really believe it, but it didn’t seem that most of my flies had been studied before.

Many of the publications I had as references were written by the current world expert on the genus Megaselia, Dr. Henry Disney, who is retired (but still very active in research) from Cambridge University in England. Like my boss in L.A., Henry Disney works exclusively on phorids. And although Brian has kept very busy with other genera, Henry Disney has studied Megaselia for decades. I joked with Brian that I had to go “have tea with Disney” to learn the secrets of Megaselia. Then I realized: I wasn’t joking. No matter how many papers I read or drawings and photographs I looked at, I needed help from someone who knew these flies. A few months later, I was in Cambridge, studying with the master.

I spent weeks in England side-by-side with Henry Disney identifying flies (and yes, we had tea together everyday, twice a day!). To determine if a Megaselia is new to science, you take it through every key for the genus ever written in the world. Megaselia have a way of getting transported across oceans and continents, so you never know when a species that turns up in California might be one originally described elsewhere. These keys are numerous, and in a handful of languages. Luckily for me, Dr. Disney had the whole process down to a science and we worked through all of the flies I brought with me. I left with a lot of work to do back home, but the potential to have several dozen new species!

The business of describing species

Once back home in California, I used the Natural History Museum’s collection of phorids to compare my flies with potential matches from the literature. This is done by looking at holotypes, which are “model specimens” of a species designated by an author when a species is described. After all was said and done, I ended up with 30 new species of flies in this one genus, after just three months of sampling. But my work was far from over.

Next came pictures of each fly. A whole body photograph, a wing photograph, and detail photographs (I was lucky enough to have an awesome intern, Kelsey Bailey, to do these for me). The flies had to be carefully dissected (using fine pins under a microscope to carefully remove wings, legs, etc.) for detail photos. Many specimens were mounted on glass slides to be examined further. Using these slides, I carefully sketched the genitalia of each new species, and then drew clear and accurate drawings digitally from my scanned sketches. Then Brian looked over my drawings and, in the kindest way possible, told me that I had drawn certain features (like the aforementioned setae) completely wrong. So I learned how to draw all the features of my flies accurately and realistically, and then I learned some more. I can confidently say that at this point I’m a competent (perhaps even slightly accomplished) fly genitalia artist, and you can see my handiwork for these new species below.

The Genitalia!  Drawn by Emily Hartop.

The Genitalia! Drawn by Emily Hartop.

After all the sweat and tears of genitalia illustration, I designated holotypes, and secondary “model specimens”, called paratypes. I carefully detailed each species morphology, complete with dozen of measurements down to fractions of millimeters that took hours upon hours counting little scale bars through a microscope. I described where each fly keyed in the literature and how it failed to match any similar described species. In some cases this is very difficult, and in others, problems with the original specimens used for a description leave unanswered questions. The process takes a long time and it’s not easy. And then there was the issue of naming these flies (my silly nicknames, alas, weren’t fit for scientific publication). I had 30 new species and, conveniently, BioSCAN has 30 sites. This meant each of our fabulous site hosts got a fly named after them. Amazingly, Lisa was able to use our data to match each new species to a site where it had been found, and name each fly after a person or family that actually had that fly in their backyard. Since one of the 30 sites is the Nature Garden at NHM, the 30th species we named in honor of the Seaver family, whose foundation helps to fund BioSCAN.

Aaron Pomerantz of Next Gen Scientist on BioSCAN and Los Angeles’s 30 Newest Species Part 2: BioSCAN in the Field

On from here

For months on end I spent my days buried in fly genitalia. I did, I became a crazy fly lady. But just a year after I started getting to know and love these flies, I’ve helped to describe 30 new species right from the heart of my city… but I’m not stopping there. Not only are there cities around the world with Megaselia just waiting to be discovered, but in the jungles of the tropics the numbers of new species go from dozens to hundreds. Beyond that, we have to figure out what all these incredible new flies are doing. If other phorids decapitate ants and eat human remains, what could these 30 new species be up to here in Los Angeles? I have a lot of work to do: I’m coming for you, Megaselia!

Why Bother With Urban Biodiversity?

By Dean Pentcheff

On one day in the past decade, someone who never lived an urban life came to a city. Perhaps it was a man in China looking for work in Beijing, a hungry woman from a rural farming family in India moving to Hyderabad, or perhaps a baby born in a Los Angeles hospital. That unheralded, unnoticed arrival delineated a turning point in human history. That person was the one who tipped the scale from rural to urban. For the first time, more than half of us live in cities.

Urban vs. rural population trends (United Nations. 2014. World Urbanization Prospects. ST/ESA/SER.A/352)

Urban vs. rural population trends (United Nations. 2014. World Urbanization Prospects. ST/ESA/SER.A/352)

That trend is expected to continue, as world population expands and farming necessarily becomes ever more efficient. So what used to be a specialized and peculiar surrounding for people — cities — is now the new normal.

It turns out that this matters a lot. The living world around us provides the “ecosystem services” that keep us alive. We are used to the idea that cities and towns provide us services like clean water, electricity, and fire protection, and we pay to keep those coming. In a way that we have only started to understand, though, there are many services that the living world provides us “for free” (and those quotes are deliberate): clean air, oxygen itself, the water supply, waste decomposition, pest and disease control. While we may not be writing checks for these services, it is clear that we still need to invest in keeping them running.

Ecosystem services are provided by the physical and biological community around us. Those communities are built on biodiversity — the sum total of biological diversity, from the ecosystem level right through genetic variability within species. That is a direct reason why the biodiversity in and around cities matters: it is the portion of the living world that is closest to most of us and is therefore best placed to provide the services we need.

There are less-specific but still important reasons why biodiversity matters, too. The biodiversity around us frames our perception of our surroundings. Trees and plants define landscapes, animals (large and small) populate the visual and sonic world in which we live, even in the face of urbanization. There is growing evidence that human health and wellbeing is directly linked to the presence of features like biodiversity and urban river parkways.

But there is a problem. Traditionally, perhaps because we are used to thinking that most people live rural lives, we have a tendency to think that real biodiversity exists only outside cities. Aren’t cities, by their very nature, the displacement and destruction of biodiversity? Who thinks of looking inside cities to discover and describe biodiversity?

That dismissive attitude towards urban biodiversity has been, to our embarrasment, widespread even among biologists — and we should have known better. Scientists have not been immune to the message we see on TV all the time: interesting, diverse, and cool organisms exist only in remote “pristine” environments. It seemed more valuable to study “undisturbed” nature. Only in the last decade or so have we begun to see the significant growth of biodiversity and ecology investigations focussed on urban systems.

Now, in contrast, we are perceiving the importance of understanding the living world right where most people live. That has launched a new wave of investigations, including NHM’s very own BioSCAN project.

To our surprise (as old-fashioned biologists), the moment we started looking in cities, we started finding extraordinary unsuspected biodiversity. Of course, the bulk of that diversity is in the smaller creatures, notably insects. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Though cities differ from what was there before, cities are incredibly heterogeneous habitats. There are buildings with habitable surfaces and nooks, vegetation that, thanks to happy gardeners, is likely more diverse than the pre-existing flora, cracks in sidewalks, patches of soil, and all the other variously constructed or deconstructed spaces that make a city. All of those locations can be home to a diverse set of small creatures. The BioSCAN project has already discovered dozens of new species previously unknown to science (as well as recording the occurrence of many species only previously known from elsewhere).

What we understand very poorly right now, though, is how the actual physical nature of an urban space drives the resident biodiversity. What matters? Temperature? Moisture? Closest plant species? What doesn’t matter? Those are the kinds of questions that we hope to answer with the BioSCAN project’s biological, physical, and landscape sampling across space and through time.

City FlowerWithout answers to those questions, it is impossible to productively plan urban development with biodiversity in mind. Urban planners are making decisions every day, whether they have deep knowledge of the consequences or not. If we want our future lives to be in healthy, diverse cities, we need to understand how to develop for biodiversity today. Contributing to that understanding is BioSCAN’s ultimate goal.

Introducing: ButterflySCAN!

ButterflyScan-logo-cropped-white-5000By Elizabeth Long

How lucky are you, Dear Reader? Two posts within a month about butterflies! We’re excited to announce the launch of a new study in conjunction with BioSCAN: ButterflySCAN! As mentioned in our last butterfly post, the sampling method that we use in BioSCAN, the Malaise trap, is an unusual way to study butterflies and not much has been written about how effective it is. Outside of the tropics the most common way to study butterfly diversity is via a method called the Pollard Walk . This is a fairly simple method that essentially consists of taking a walk along a regular, predetermined route, and writing down all of the butterflies that are seen during the walk. I love molecular genetics as much as the next biologist but I take great satisfaction in being able to do science in such a pleasant, non-technical fashion.

Pale Swallowtail (Photo credit: Zach Smith)

Pale Swallowtail (Photo credit: Zach Smith)

The ButterflySCAN project is going to conduct Pollard walks while taking advantage of the fantastic framework established through BioSCAN. This will help us learn even more about an incredibly important and charismatic pollinator group. Not only do we not know much about butterflies in Malaise traps, but very few studies have ever attempted to characterize butterfly biodiversity in an urban setting. We already know from preliminary data on flies collected from BioSCAN that LA doesn’t conform to a lot of the predictions about what happens to biodiversity in an urban environment, so now we’re very curious to see if butterflies show diversity patterns similar to flies, or if they’re doing something else entirely. Pollard walks in the neighborhoods where our BioSCAN Malaise traps are location will help us determine more about these patterns of diversity for our urban butterflies.

Queen Butterfly (Photo Credit: Zach Smith)

Queen Butterfly (Photo Credit: Zach Smith)

We need your help! We’re recruiting volunteers to help with these surveys for the next four months. Volunteers will commit to “surveying” (taking a pleasant stroll while observing and recording beautiful butterflies) one or more sites every two weeks for four months. We’ll provide training and support throughout the process, and we’ll keep you up-to-date on how the research is going via the blog, Facebook, and one-on-one feedback. Data from this study will be deposited on the continent-wide citizen science web portal eButterfly, making it available as a research tool for years (or centuries!) to come.

Marine Blue Butterfly (Photo Credit: Zach Smith)

Marine Blue Butterfly (Photo Credit: Zach Smith)

Volunteers will need to register for and attend one training session at the NHMLAC (the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park): either the morning of Wednesday, March 4th, or the morning of Saturday, March 7th. Want to help out? Get in touch with me at elong(at)nhm(dot)org

Faces of BioSCAN: The Heinzelmännchen


Heinzelmännchenbrunnen (© Raimond Spekking, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Regina Wetzer

Who are the Heinzelmännchen who sort all those BioSCAN samples? — a peek into our lab and behind the scenes.

Our BioSCAN project collects 30 samples per week, 52 weeks per year, for 3 years. That will be a staggering 4,680 samples. In order to describe the biodiversity of Los Angeles, we need to figure out what is in each jar.

How can this possibly get done? The short answer is a small army of undergraduates. The longer answer is — young, bright, energetic minds looking for petri dish safaris under microscopes.

BioSCAN poster

Recruiting poster for BioSCAN students (photo and design credit: Phyllis Sun)

Our lab recruits from all over the USC campus, and you don’t have to be a biology major to become a valuable member of Team BioSCAN. In any given semester we have 20–30 students with majors ranging from applied mathematics to zoology. Assistant Collections Managers Adam Wall and Jenessa Wall do the initial recruiting, interviewing, and personnel selections. “Newbies” come green, inexperienced, but totally enthusiastic. Collections Manager Kathy Omura does most of the initial introduction to general lab operations. Then Kathy, Jenessa and the older students (the “Seasoned Ones”) who have been with us for a semester or more, provide microscope and lab techniques training, proper forceps handling, cotton stoppering, specimen vialing, specimen labeling, and much more.

Using descriptive and pictorial identification keys, students learn how to identify insects to the taxonomic level of order, distinguishing wasps (Hymenoptera) from beetles (Coleoptera) from flies (Diptera) and 22 orders more. Students have their own lab notebooks to record observations as they proceed in their training. I smile as I reflect on my own ridiculous sketches and annotations as I learned basic taxonomy in my introduction to the vast yet miniature arthropod world many years ago.

Lab notebook page

BioSCAN lab notebook page

BioSCAN Assistant Collections Managers Lisa Gonzalez and Emily Hartop hone students’ finer insect identification skills and ground them in basic insect biology, arming each of them with amazing stories of ant decapitation, coffin dwelling, and human flesh boring — all good stories they can impart on friends, family and the NHM visitors. I’ll come back to the NHM visitors in a minute. Finally, Project Coordinator Dean Pentcheff rounds out student training with sessions covering everything from the big picture project goals, the science, and public expectations.

The breadth of different tasks they perform is amazing. Insect sorting and sample processing are only the start. Based on their skills and interests some move on to specimen drying, pinning and labeling with those really tiny insect labels entomologists so love. Others specialize in photography. Still others help in the field, rear flies, or extract and amplify DNA for molecular studies. All of our students also spend time at the Nature Lab Table, where they do some of their work in front of our Museum visitors and are able to answer questions about insects and biodiversity. Two students at a time work at the table from Wednesday through Sunday, four hours per day, for more than 1,000 hours per year interacting with Museum visitors in the public space.

Students sorting

Students sorting insects for the BioSCAN project (photo: Kelsey Bailey)

Because we have such excellent students working on the project, we can use a layered training and quality control scheme. Staff and veteran students approve or return for redo anything that has been misidentified by more junior staff. Students proficient at a task or taxon train others that are not yet experts. Mastery from one level to the next is an ongoing process: students become teachers communicating their new learned skills, all the while honing their skills as effective mentors and communicators. To date, the BioSCAN Project has hosted 35 students, 4 interns, 11 volunteers, and 10 research students. Three times a year new students are recruited to replace those graduating and moving on. Over the years, four of our most successful students have become amazing permanent full time NHM curatorial staff.

It is my great pleasure to follow the development of such diverse cohorts of young people. They are incredibly diverse ethnically, socially, and in the language and skills they bring to us. They are as diverse as the biodiversity we study. They have aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists, and filling jobs that do not yet even exist. They are amazing young people, each with amazing potential, making major contributions to the BioSCAN project. Some stay for their entire four years. A few stay in touch long after they have moved on to grad school and their careers.

Coffee machines

The Marine Biodiversity Center’s stable of cappuccino machines

We have some of the most amazing laboratory food fests filled with Asian, Latin American, European delicacies. Oh yes, for some learning how to make great cappuccinos is as essential as learning fly identifications. Meet these fabulous young people in the Nature Lab and say hello. As you stroll through the NHM gardens, if you catch a sweet waft of coffee as you turn the corner past our lab, you’ll know our students are hard at work.

Meet our lab at:

BioSCAN: Not Just About Flies

By Elizabeth Long

By now most people familiar with the BioSCAN Project know that we spend a lot of time looking at flies, but it may come as a surprise that we are equally passionate about other insect groups that can also be used for our biodiversity research. One such group is the Order Lepidoptera, the much beloved butterflies and moths. They are not usually collected by way of Malaise traps (they get a bit soggy in the ethanol), so for this reason there’s not much information about butterfly diversity in Malaise trap based projects. When I first started to identify the BioSCAN samples, I didn’t know what to expect and I was pretty sure that we wouldn’t be finding any new species of butterflies, much less 30 new species (yes, sometimes I have phorid fly envy!) — collecting and naming butterflies has been popular for centuries.


The great joy of butterfly “hunting” in the field. Photo credit: Zach Smith

Recently I found the closest thing to a new butterfly species that we’re likely to see. I opened up a jar and to my pleasant surprise I found a big, beautiful, yellow and black butterfly that I have always called the Giant Swallowtail, Papilio cresophontes. The Los Angeles area has a few different species of yellow and black swallowtails, but I am particularly intrigued by this one. The caterpillars, which are incredible mimics of bird droppings, feed on citrus leaves, so unlike a lot of butterfly species, these beautiful animals tend to benefit from human agricultural activities in Southern California.

Giant Swallowtails have an interesting geographic distribution — Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, eastward into Texas and sometimes as far north as the Great Lakes states. It just so happens that right around the time that I found this species in one of the trap samples, new research was published that suggests that the species in our area has incorrectly been identified as the same species that shows up in the Eastern US. Their main lines of evidence involve some detailed and intricate differences that are only visible if you catch the animals in question and dissect out the male genitalia, or if you take a DNA sample and do some gene sequencing. Luckily for the accomplished amateur, though, there are some slight differences in the wing patterns of the proposed new species that allow us to distinguish between the two. Let’s examine the photo below:

bioscan cresphontes (1)

Can you spot the differences? Photo credit: Elizabeth Long

The most subtle distinction is the yellow and black patterning on the “neck” of the butterfly, but there are also a few other pattern marks that are more obvious if you know what to look for. Take a look at the arrow labeled “1” in the photograph of both the western and eastern types, pointing out a black spot on a yellow background in the forewing. You can see that the spot on the animal on the right is much smaller than the corresponding spot in the animal on the left. Next, look at arrow “2.” This arrow is pointing at the feature that gives this group of butterflies their common name- the swallowtail. The animal on the left has a thinner tail with less yellow than the animal on the right. Next have a look at arrow “3.” The hindwing margin on the animal on the left is plain black, while the animal on the right has yellow markings on the scalloped edges. The animal on the left comes from California, while the one on the right is from Florida. If you’re visiting the part of Texas where these two types of swallowtails overlap, you should try looking for these wing marks and see if you can tell them apart!

If Lepidopterists do determine that these are two distinct species, then the name of these butterflies will need to be changed, which brings up an important point about the taxonomy of every major group on the planet: the more we learn about the biology of organisms, the more we have to revisit and sometimes revise our classification schemes. Chances are good that some people in the Lepidoptera community will agree with this change, but many, including myself, will have a hard time letting go of old habits when it comes to names. I may learn to call the Great Swallowtail by its new proposed name Heraclides rumiko when writing a paper, but honestly in my head I’ll probably always think of it as Papilio cresphontes, the name it had when I first learned to identify it. But regardless of what I call it, I’ll always get a smile on my face when I see this beautiful creature waft through the citrus trees in the museum’s Nature Garden.

Faces of BioSCAN: The Fabulous Betty Defibaugh!

BioSCAN is a unique project because it focuses the excitement of scientific discovery right here in our own bustling city and relies on the dedication of L.A. residents through whom those discoveries are made. Our BioSCAN site hosts provide a crucial service by keeping our large insect traps (called Malaise traps) in their back yards, changing the samples weekly, being our “eyes in the field,” and by sharing photos, stories and the excitement of their own insect observations.  I am thrilled to introduce Betty Defibaugh: world traveler, entomologist, Natural History Museum volunteer extraordinaire for the last 26 years, and proud BioSCAN site host!

Betty with a drawer of her favorite insects: butterflies. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Betty with a drawer of her favorite insects: butterflies. Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

I spent a lovely afternoon with Betty at her home (otherwise affectionately known as BioSCAN Site #15) where she shared memories of her life as a fellow insect lover with me. As a young girl growing up in Missouri, she can remember the first time she became entranced with a swallowtail butterfly as it gracefully fluttered by, a moment that solidified her lifelong passion. Noticing that sense of wonder, her supportive aunt supplied her with 2 insect guide books, which Betty immediately memorized from cover to cover. Other books and natural science catalogues soon followed, such as the quintessential butterfly book by famed lepidopterist  John Henry Comstock, all of which she used to teach herself about the natural history of butterflies and proper insect collection and preparation techniques. I was honored to have the chance to see Betty’s collection from her earlier years and to hold letters of correspondence,  complete with career advice and encouragement, plus a personal copy of the “Torre-Bueno Glossary of Entomology” sent and signed by the author himself! (Trust me; if you’re an entomologist, that’s the sort of thing that makes your day.)

Betty's bug books.  Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez

Betty’s books. Photo credit: Lisa Gonzalez

She eagerly began her education at Kansas University in 1943 knowing without a doubt that she wanted to become an entomologist and declared her major as a Freshman, causing some academic advisors to scoff at her certainty and “unusual” choice of profession. Betty was unswayed. She started working at the KU Entomology Museum as she obtained her degree and fell in love with the drawers of specimens of insects from all over the world.  Those glimmering exotic butterflies spurred dreams of places that were, well, not Kansas, and inspired by a radio program called “Hawaii Calls,” she accepted a job after graduation at the University of Hawaii where she worked on pest species such as the Mediterranean fruit fly. Two major events occurred during her time there: she made an important discovery of a pest caterpillar that invades commercial orchids, and she met her husband, Francis.  The newlyweds would eventually leave Hawaii for the Canton Islands where they raised their two sons. The stories of her time in the South Pacific are a blog — actually a book! — all to itself; that’s for me to write more about later. It will include many of the photos that Betty herself took that are featured in the book shown above incredibly titled “Tropic Isles and Things: Salt of the Indies: Being a Voluntary and Unpaid for Dissertation on the Turks and Caicos Islands and their Postage Stamps.”

It was such a pleasure to listen to Betty, someone who I admire dearly, talk about her life adventures and to see her eyes light up as we spoke about our mutual love for insects.  When asked what she enjoys most about the BioSCAN Project, she said she was proud to be a part of ongoing museum research and was thrilled about having a fly named after her. We are equally elated to have such an amazing woman be part of the BioSCAN team!

Brainwashed Bees

Some of you might have heard about the “ZomBee” project, both at our museum and perhaps at its source. It appears that honey bees parasitized by a phorid fly called Apocephalus borealis change their behavior and fly to lights in the evening. I witnessed this phenomenon myself in Pasadena a couple of nights ago, where dozens of bees were circling a porchlight and crawling on the side of a house at 8pm.

Apocephalus borealis, the "zombie fly"

Apocephalus borealis, the “zombie fly”

This is just a reminder that if you see or hear about this type of abnormal bee behavior, please let us know so we can investigate.



Every once in a while, those of us here at BioSCAN actually venture beyond the borders of Los Angeles. Sometimes when we do, we come back with insects. I was particularly excited by a couple of common, yet beautiful, insects I picked up in the South-Eastern Sierras this summer, so I thought I’d share them with you!

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.

The beauty above is a cicada, family Cicadidae. Although they are not commonly found in Los Angeles (although we did hear, and then locate, one in the NHM Nature Garden not long ago), cicadas of many species are found throughout California. Most cicadas have a lifespan between 2 and 5 years, with the lifespan of some species as long as 13–17 years! I collected this beauty at my annual family campout in the Sierras; from what we remember, we have a “cicada year” about every 6 or 7 years. We know as soon as we step out of our cars at the campsite when the cicadas are around — the noise is deafening! The discarded shells of the immature cicadas (called exuviae) can be found on sagebrush and pinyon pines everywhere (below is a photograph of one on a pinyon trunk).

Photo of cicada exuvia by Emily Hartop.

Photo of cicada exuvia by Emily Hartop.

The majority of a cicada’s life is spent underneath the ground as a flightless immature, munching on plant roots. Once the cicadas emerge from the ground, crawling up shrubs and trees to molt into the beautiful winged adults, they only live a few days. As with quite a number of insects, the one job of the adult insect is to mate. The specimen up top and the one below were actually collected after the cicadas had passed away of natural causes.

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo of cicada by Kelsey Bailey.

Don’t let the beautiful eyes of this next insect fool you, these flies give a nasty bite! They are deer flies from the family Tabanidae, but I have known them since childhood simply as the dreaded “green flies” of summer.

Photo of tabanid by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo of tabanid by Kelsey Bailey.

One look at the mouthparts of these critters and it’s no surprise the bite hurts — tabanids use their mouthparts to slash at your skin and then lap up the blood. Luckily for my family at our campout, they are also incredibly slow and easily killed. Family members managed to swat quite a few of these flies for me to take home as specimens!

Banded-Wing Dragonfly photo by Emily Hartop.

Banded-Wing Dragonfly photo by Emily Hartop.

I’ll leave you with a picture of a beautiful banded-wing dragonfly that perched on my car antenna. This was the closest I got before it flew away, it would have been lovely to grab a better image. Dragonfly nymphs live in running water, and are amazing predators (watch this video and I guarantee you will be impressed!). This dragonfly probably lived in the South Fork of the Kern River, not far from where I spotted it at the campsite.

…and that concludes bugs OUTSIDE of BioSCAN. We’ll be back to our normally scheduled programming next week.

The Shrunken Headed Spider Stalking Fly!

Today’s parasitic fly marvel comes in the form of an absurdly cute group of round, woolly bodied insects known as the small-headed flies (family Acroceridae). A handful of specimens of Turbopsebius diligens, the only species known west of the Rocky Mountains, turned up in only two of our BioSCAN traps, in Hollywood and University Park, an area just north of the USC Campus. At first glance, T. diligens might look like an oddly shaped bee, but to my eye, it’s as if someone took two craft pom-poms to make a miniature snowman, stuck a small fly head with giant fly eyes on top, added 6 legs and voila!

To add to this bizarre image, picture this little fuzzball in motion, as humorously described by entomologist F.R. Cole: “(T. diligens) has a floating sort of flight, rather undulating and uncertain. It has the habit of buzzing around in circles when it falls over on its back on a smooth surface, often doing this for some time before it can regain its feet; most of the time it is making a high, thin humming sound.”

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Turbopsebius diligens. Photo by Kesley Bailey.

Delightful as that may be, small-headed flies do not just clown around town amusing those lucky enough to spot one; they are diligently on the hunt for other organisms that they can use as a resource to carry on their species. Their target is a spider, specifically spiders known as funnel weavers such as the common Hololena curta and Rualena sp.

Funnel web spider image

Example of a funnel web spider. Photo Copyright 2008 by sree314.

As you may now know from previous posts about parasitoid behavior, often the mother will inject a single egg or multiple eggs into the host using a modified structure at the end of her body called an ovipositor, but not the small-headed fly! They do things a bit differently. Instead, the fly mama will lay her eggs nearby the spider, even on the “front doormat” of the entry way to the spider’s funnel. When the eggs hatch, the emerging larvae are free-living, so called planidial larvae, meaning they need to wiggle their way around the web and penetrate the spider’s body, often mainly through the leg joints. Once inside, the larva moves to the spider’s lungs where it can then enter a dormant stage , waiting it out (sometimes for several years!) until the spider is an adequate size for its parasite’s development to be complete.

Once the spider is large enough, the larva itself begins to grow and reach its final molt. At this point, the spider suddenly falls under the spell of the small-headed fly’s Jedi mind tricks and spins its final web around itself, forming a protective cocoon so that the larva can consume the spider and finish its final stage of metamorphosis in peace and safety. Eventually a new generation of bumbling fuzzballs will emerge, and the story of the small-headed fly will carry on.

Special thanks to Chris Borkent for the identification and information, and Emily Hartop for her impressive alliterative skills.


Cole, F. R. 1919. The dipterous family Cyrtidae in North America. Transactions of the American Entomological Society 45(1): 1–79.

Marshall, Stephen A. 2012. Flies: the natural history and diversity of Diptera. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books.