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 40 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 Caribbean 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.

 

Bugs OUTSIDE of BioSCAN

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.

References

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

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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?

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Solitary mason bee collected from the Nature Garden. Photo credit: Phyllis Sun

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.

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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.

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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!

Faces of BioSCAN: The Amazing Adam Wall

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

When the BioSCAN Project moved into the Marine Biodiversity Center, the whole team soon realized the project required myriad people, talents, and skills. Adam Wall, Assistant Collections Manager of Crustacea, has a keen interest in problem solving, and soon found himself helping USC students seek answers to BioSCAN-related questions.

Adam comes from a fascinating background in electrical engineering. He previously worked for JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a part of NASA) on robotics. I was excited to learn that he worked on walking robots called “spiderbots” — which even pre-BioSCAN he realized would be more accurately termed “insectbots”, due to their having six legs instead of eight. These walking robots were being developed as alternatives to the more traditionally wheeled or tracked robots used both in space and military applications. Walking robots were smaller, more versatile, and less expensive than their traditional counterparts. Adam eventually moved on to a small startup company where he helped construct robots still used by USC to teach robotics.

Adam eventually left the world of robotics to study at USC. Although he initially pursued biochemistry, it was through his work study at the Natural History Museum that he first realized his love for biology. Working upstairs with Dr. Regina Wetzer, it was all about “coffee and problem solving”, two things Adam finds irresistible. When he casually mentioned to Regina that one day he would like to name and describe a species, he had no idea the journey he was about to embark on. Adam has spent the last five years revising a subgenus within the isopod genus Exosphaeroma. A single, poorly described species from 1857 has become five species stretching from Alaska to Baja. Perhaps best of all, Adam got to name a species of isopod after his closest uncle.

Now that his isopod work is coming to completion, he is unsure of what the future might hold. His big goal is always the question, the problem solving — we could find him studying just about anything next! For now, though, he is helping our students with both the genetics work in the lab, and the study of Wolbachia, a bacteria that lives inside the reproductive organs of insects. This bacteria can affect the life history of its host, and the “sheer insanity” of the relationship intrigues Adam.

When he’s not consumed by isopods or BioSCAN, Adam delights us with his fondness for mechanical toys. Above, you can see him powering a miniature version of the amazing Strandbeests.

The Coffin Fly

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

As you well know, we are fly obsessed here at BioSCAN. Particularly, we are phorid obsessed. I am particularly obsessed with the macabre species Conicera tibialis, commonly known as the Coffin Fly. Perhaps it’s the shadowy lighting as I view them under the microscope, but these flies, with their dark velvety bodies and (almost sinister looking) conical antennae (males only, females have round antennae), appeal to me tremendously.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

A number of phorid species are known to colonize humans remains, but C. tibialis seems the most determined. Adult females of this species are known to dig down through over 2 meters of dirt and enter coffins to lay their eggs. To complete an equivalent journey, a human being would have to dig 2 miles down — in perspective the feat seems all the more remarkable!

Once the females reach the corpse they lay their eggs on, or near, the cadaver. The maggots hatch and feed on the decaying tissue — they are known to prefer lean tissue (while other taxa, such as some species of beetles, prefer adipose tissue). Yes, even corpse eaters can be picky! C. tibialis is known to be able to cycle multiple generations without surfacing (what they are doing below ground, the living can only imagine!). When the flies do surface, they do so by crawling the reverse path of their ancestors: back up through many feet of dirt.

Charles Colyer, in a paper from 1954, conveyed the observations of his friend Mr. R.L. Coe that were some of the first key insights into the life history of this species. In May of that year, Mr. Coe observed a number of C. tibialis running about a patch of his garden, where 18 months before he had buried his deceased dog. As Mr. Coe observed more closely, he realized that all the running about was actually a mating frenzy — complete with pairs frolicking in coitu! On Colyer’s request, Coe dug down to the corpse of his former pet, observing phorids at every depth along the way. The flies were all traveling toward the surface, in a mass exodus from the grave — hoping to join the mating party so that they might return to this, or another, grave and lay eggs of their own. Alas, Mr. Coe reported that by June 16 the phorids could no longer be found in their mating frenzy in his garden — where for weeks they had been seen “running over the ground in sunshine, and congregating under loose clods of earth in inclement weather”.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey.

C. tibialis is known not only to dig to astounding depths for corpses, but to wait unbelievably long periods of time to colonize. Corpses are typically utilized over a year after burial, and a paper by Martin-Vega et al. (2011) revealed a case where the species was found breeding on human remains 18 YEARS postmortem. Phorid species are some of the key insects used in the field of forensic entomology — a branch of forensics utilizing insect life cycles to help approximate the age of a corpse.

A story detailing the occurrence of C. tibialis in California was recounted by Father Thomas Borgmeier (1969), one of the “fathers” of phoridology. He was sent specimens of the fly that were collected in a mausoleum in Colma. A family had constructed an above-ground resting place for their deceased in 1962, and in 1965 noticed large numbers of the flies both in the mausoleum and around the cemetery. The family made the decision to open the four crypts. All four crypt interiors were dry and filled completely with C. tibialis and spiders. I bet the phorids were happy they had such easy colonization – no digging required!

The take home message of this macabre tale should not be one of disgust. Although the details may be gruesome, insects that colonize corpses are performing the necessary breakdown of organic material that must occur postmortem. Only by this breakdown — by insects, fungi, and bacteria — can bodies be released to reenter the circle of life. Consumers of carrion are beneficial, performing an invaluable service to us below the surface. BioSCAN Principal Investigator Brian Brown likes to say that being food for C. tibialis is one way we can all contribute to the well being of phorids.

I hope you might be as delighted by this fly as I am after reading the amazing life history and marveling at the amazing photos taken by our star photographer Kelsey Bailey, who expertly capture the dark, sleek aesthetic of this species on film (well… digitally [did I just date myself?]). When I handed Kelsey a vial with several dried specimens, I told her I wanted creative photos to visually express the morbid life history of these flies. As you can see, she did not disappoint. I particularly enjoy the photograph at the top of the post — Kelsey beautifully mounted the specimen on the head of an insect pin — a glittery orb I wish appeared more often in entomological photos. I also like the film noir feel of the “portrait” she took of this species. Yes, I really like this fly. Perhaps my love for C. tibialis is so deep (2 meters, to be exact) because I know they will be with me not just in life, but for up to 18 years past my death.

VITA INCERTA, MORS CERTISSIMA.

Molten Aluminum + Ants = BUG FAIR!

Photo by Doug Booher.

Photo by Doug Booher.

A note about specimen sacrifice:
We do not advocate needless killing of any creature, big or small. Unfortunately, there are aspects of science that we are unable to examine without sacrifice. The ant nest that was used for our cast was sacrificed to create an amazing and permanent research and educational tool. The loss of one nest allows us tremendous insight into this species, which will benefit future efforts at understanding and conserving these native insects. As a reseach natural history museum, specimens are prepared and maintained at the highest museum standards, so that they will be available for researchers in perpetuity.

The BioSCAN crew dug ourselves into a hole last weekend when we journeyed to Anza-Borrego to cast ourselves an ant nest from molten aluminum! This amazing sculptural project was made possible by Aida and Armando Gonzalez, and led by the incomparable myrmecologist Doug Booher, a Ph.D. student at UCLA. If you’d like to see the six-foot-tall results of our day in person, you will have to come visit the BioSCAN table at Bug Fair , but read on for some information about the process, and the ants that built the nest!

Photo by Doug Booher.

Photo by Doug Booher.

Meet Myrmecocystus navajo, a species of honeypot ant. Honeypot ants are aptly named — they use workers called “repletes” to store nectar (collected from plants and other insects, such as aphids) for the colony. These repletes can get so engorged with honey they look like squishy, glistening marbles as they hang from the top of inside chambers. You can see some photos of repletes here.

We chose to cast the nest of this species for its size, complexity and beauty. First task of our day in the desert was to locate a suitable ant nest. Below, you can see our chosen nest. Although from the surface this nest is just a hole in the ground, we were tremendously excited by what we knew was hidden out of sight!

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Next step was to fire up the kiln to melt us some metal! Crafted by Doug using techniques developed by Walter Tschinkel (detailed PDF of his techniques here), the kiln is powered by charcoal (and physics) to get hot enough to melt aluminum (Lisa is pictured with our raw material, below).

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

The kiln, like a barbecue, takes a while to heat up. Once hot, we added the aluminum to the interior compartment (called a “crucible”) and let it melt. Below, you can see Doug right after he pulled the full crucible from the kiln in preparation for the pour.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

It’s Pompeii for ants as Doug pours in the molten aluminum. A moment of silence, please…

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Now the fun really began…as we dug…and dug…for hours…and hours…in the hot desert sun, with the wind fiercely blowing sand all around us. In the picture below, you can see the sand whirling around Lisa as she worked down in the pit.

Why are we digging? Regrettably, one cannot simply yank a nest casting out of the ground. One exhumes it, inch by inch.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

Photo by Emily Hartop.

The final product was a nest over six feet deep — we hope you are able to come see it (and us!) at Bug Fair this weekend. Doug Booher, who led our trip, will be there so you can meet him. A big thanks from BioSCAN goes out to him for all his amazing efforts to make this dream project a reality!

Big thanks also go out to Walter Tschinkel, the myrmecologist who refined the technique of casting ant nests and passed his knowledge on to Doug. Previously, casts were made with plaster and other materials that made storage and transport difficult. He is pictured, below, on his porch in the California desert celebrating a (different) successful day of ant casting.

Photo by Emily Hartop

Photo by Emily Hartop