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)

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:

Contributed by Regina Wetzer.

BioSCAN: Not Just About Flies

Written 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.”

Acroceridae 15271_newedit copy 2

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.

Collembollanesque Wasp

wasp_id (1)

At first glance, you might think the BioSCAN specimen above is a collembolan, or springtail (Wikipedia on springtails here.). As is often the case in the insect world, however, we find that truth is stranger than fiction.

The insect above is Neodusmetia sangwani, and it’s actually a flightless wasp in the family Encyrtidae. These little critters were disseminated by aircraft in 1971 as part of one of the most massively successful biological control projects of all time. Introduced from India into the Southern United States in 1964 for the control of another insect, the Rhodes grass scale, they can now be found all the way from the U.S. to Brazil.

Rhodes grass scales infect (guess what?) grasses and were a very problematic pest for both the turf and cattle industries beginning in the 1940s. Since its introduction in the 1970s, Neodusmetia sangwani has been saving those industries billions. So next time you enjoy a lawn, golf course, baseball field, steak, or hamburger… know that this little wasp has helped that happen!

Many thanks to John Noyes for supplying identification and information.

BioSCAN Blues

While insects from the tropics like the famous Morpho butterfly get most of the credit for their stunning iridescent colors,  insects from more Mediterranean climates such as Los Angeles can also exhibit striking metallic exoskeletons. One such dazzling discovery, pictured below in all its glimmering azure glory, is a mason bee that has turned up from only 2 sites: our Museum’s Nature Garden and our LA River adjacent site in Atwater. Solitary mason bees, like their close cousin the leaf cutter bee, use materials from their environment such as mud, leaves, or flowers to line the cells where they provision and protect their young.  This specimen stands out like a beacon (or a bee-con?)  when surrounded by mostly dark to earth-toned specimens in the sample, which prompts the question about this little flying jewel: what’s the purpose of all this showiness?


Solitary mason bee collected from the Nature Garden. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey

As it turns out, the metallic suit may occur for a variety of poorly understood reasons (including warning coloration), or may just be a very aesthetically pleasing (to our eyes) by-product of the reinforced cuticle that makes up the exoskeleton.  The insect’s outside structure is composed of many layers of various compounds including chitin and sclerotin that can interact with light by refracting color, resulting in what we call “structural coloration” (in contrast to color produced by pigments produced inside the body).  Insects that have these brilliant shields of blues, purples or greens are protected by the extra layers of cuticle which work like a coat of armor against insect defenses, such as stings.

Take for example the cuckoo wasp, pictured below,  which gets it name for its sly ability to sneak into other wasp’s nests to lay an egg, just like a cuckoo bird. Cuckoo wasps stake out other wasp’s tunneled nests, and rather than tossing the eggs in hand-grenade style, or using a long egg-laying tube as many other wasps do, enter boldly in hopes of finding the precious provisions they seek to co-opt for their offspring. If the mother wasp happens to return home at the time of the fearless break in, the cuckoo wasp rolls into a ball like a tiny armadillo and keeps its cool, knowing that the stings will not penetrate her armor.


This cuckoo wasp was collected in Victoria Park, Mid-City LA, although they are found from all 30 sites. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey

These reinforced exoskeletons protect the insects in life, resulting in gorgeous structural coloration that gives them a bedazzling gem-like appearance long after their job on this planet is done. Specimens in our collection that date back to the beginning of the Entomology Department (101 years ago, when the museum opened!) that have this type of coloration will remain as beautiful today as they did the day they were collected.


Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey

No, it’s Not an Ant!

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

At first glance, the gangly creature above looks remarkably like an ant, but it is actually a flightless wasp from the family Dryinidae. Unlike ants, these wasps are solitary. They are parasitoids of insects in the order Hemiptera, the order we call “true bugs”. This order includes cicadas, leafhoppers, and all manner of other plant eaters. As parasitoids, the females use a sharp ovipositor (egg laying projection) to pierce into the host hemipteran. The larva begins to grow inside the host insect, but soon begins to protrude like a giant tumor from the host body. A tough, leathery covering develops to protect the growing larva. Eventually, the larva pupates and a new adult emerges to begin the cycle anew.

As you might imagine, things do not go well for the host hemipteran — it does not survive the process. That’s why this insect is called a parasitoid (as opposed to a parasite): parasitoids kill their host, while parasites are non-fatal.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

This particular specimen, from a BioSCAN trap of course, is a female. In this family of wasps, the females are sometimes wingless, the males always winged. I just love the “hammerhead” appearance of this beautiful lady. My absolute favorite feature of this wasp is the front legs. You may have to look rather closely (click on the image to see it full size), but the front legs are modified into what I can best describe as “tongs with teeth”. These modified appendages are used to hold the host insect still while Momma Wasp lays her eggs. Ouch!