Bumble bee dissection

My friend and coworker Julie has been teaching me all about rearing bumble bees lately.  She is starting a few colonies in the lab, and every once in a while there are casualties.  And to my absolute joy, I get to dissect them so that they don’t go to waste 🙂  Typically when they die we look for parasites and signs of disease, but at this time of year, we are also interested in whether they are mated or virgin queens. So in this dissection, I was looking for the spermatheca, the organ where sperm is stored until it is released when eggs are laid.  In a virgin queen, the spermatheca is completely clear, like a little piece of perfectly round glass.  The mated queens have a milky spermatheca.  As you can tell, this one had mated.


There’s a lot of other stuff going on here, too.  You can see the intestines, the white ovaries extending up from either side of the spermatheca, the stringy white malphigian tubes (part of the excretory system), and lots of other good stuff that I will save for another time.


Blue Orchard Bees (BOBs!)

For the past couple weeks at work, one of the things I have been doing is rearing blue IMG_0163orchard bees to weigh them before they are released.  I also just got a new phone with awesome time-lapsing abilities, so I have been practicing on the little bees as they emerge. This is one of the better ones so far.  I have yet to capture the emergence itself in a way that is both stable and in focus, but I like this one because you can see a mite crawling around on the pupa case while it is starting to chew its way out.  If you catch it’s ‘mustache’ and long antennae, that is how you know it is a male. Pretty neat, huh?





Pollinators in my yard. 

I live in an ADU behind a house in the middle of North Portland.  The yard is nicely landscaped, with lots of flowering plants, and there are two plants in particular that have bees all over them all the time. So I borrowed Pete’s new camera and took some pics of all the species I saw.  One plant is from the genus Liatris, also known as blazing star, and the other is Penstemon.  Both are widely distributed across North America.  I found five different bee species in the first 5 minutes of watching them.  FIVE!!!  They were:
Melissodes or Eucera, possibly both.  Both are often called 'long-horned bees.’ I am having trouble telling them apart… both are in family Apidae
1. Melissodes or Eucera, possibly both. Both are often called ‘long-horned bees.’ I am having trouble telling them apart… both are in family Apidae
Bombus vesnesenskii-the yellow-faced bumble bee.  
2. Bombus vesnesenskii-the yellow-faced bumble bee. This is probably the most common bumble bee out here.
Anthidium-also called the wool carder bee, in the family Megachilidae
3. Anthidium-also called the wool carder bee, in the family Megachilidae.  The best shot I got…!
Agapostemon - a green metallic sweat bee in the family Halictidae
Agapostemon – a green metallic sweat bee in the family Halictidae
Apis mellifera-the honey bee
5. Apis mellifera-the honey bee
So the moral of the story is that planting pollinator-friendly plants really makes a difference, even in your tiny yard, and even buried in the middle of a large city.  So do it!!   (but first, make sure that they weren’t treated with neonicitinoids…)
One more pic.  I think the green sweat bee was trying to knock the long-horned bee off the flower??

My new job and SWDs, the berry farmers’ nightmare.

It’s been a while! Since I started my new job in March, I have had to put my art on the back-burner, at least until I sunk into my new routine.  Since my job involves insects, I thought it would be appropriate for my first post in a while to explain  what I have  been doing and some of the insects I have encountered thus far.
I’m working for a small crop management company out of Portland. They send scouts (I am a scout) out into fields on various berry farms around the area to look for pests, signs of diseases, and any other issues that might impact crop yield.  The scouts report back to the office, and then someone compiles a report for the farmers about what is going on in their field and any actions they could/should take. We also do a some more general surveying for pollinators and some experimental research testing trap effectiveness.  It’s the perfect combination of my interests in insects and farming. Farmers are both conventional and organic, and our main crops are blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.

I personally go to about 15 farms each week.   The insects we look for are ones that you are probably familiar with-mainly spotted winged drosophila, but also brown marmorated stink bug, lygus bugs, aphids, and beneficial insects like bees, lacewings, lady beetles, and minute piratebugs.  I have definitely found the insect searching and counting to be the most straightforward-there aren’t many insects I can’t ID with a sample and google.  But I also look for symptoms of fungal, viral, and bacterial infections in the plant, which can be much more difficult.  There are lots of symptoms that can be caused by a range of things, making it much less clear-cut than IDing an insect.  For instance, leaf yellowing could be nutrient related, a viral infection, chemical damage, root rot, etc.  I am starting to get the hang of it, but there is a lot of second-guessing involved.

A female (left) and male (right) SWD. Notice the small ‘spots’ on the tips of the wings of the male.

As I mentioned, spotted winged drosophila is the insect we care the most about, and I do a TON of trapping and counting them.  SWD is a fruit fly that is relatively new to berry farmers in the US.  It arrived from Asia in 2008 and has since exploded in California and the Pacific Northwest.  As of a couple years ago, it was established in MN as well. The female has a strong serrated ovipositor that makes her able to saw into soft fruit to lay eggs, and their fast generation time makes it so that any berries that ripen later in the season can be pretty heavily impacted.  We trap them with apple cider vinegar mixed with white wine-they can’t resist it!  The trapping isn’t intended to reduce the population though-it is only an indicator of the population

The serrated ovipositor of the female spotted winged drosophila.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a great solution to combat these guys either, particularly for organic farmers.  The best way is just to try to keep ripe fruit out of the field, harvest as early as possible, and plant early-fruiting varieties whenever possible.  For instance, June-bearing strawberries would be at a lower risk than ever-bearing strawberries.

Another big part of my job is monitoring traps for three native moths in fields where produce is shipped to South Korea.  The Korean government has strict protocols that need to be followed before fruit can be imported to make sure that no insect hitchhikers make it into their country and become invasive.  We use delta traps with

A sticky bottom from a delta trap for small, native moths, monitored in fields where berries are bound for South Korea.

pheromone lures to attract the adult moths. They get stuck to the sticky bottom of  the trap and we can monitor the population level by counting them each week.  It breaks my heart when I find incidentals like bumble bees who were trying to find shelter from rain stuck to the traps. Call me biased, but I feel less bad about sticking the yellow-jackets.

Red Rock trip

Last week Pete and I went on a multi-purpose trip to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Zion National Park, UT to do some visiting with friends, climb, and (most importantly), look for insects.

Spotting our friend Justin on a boulder problem in Red Rock NCA. I included this photo because the background shows the kind of habitat I was working with.
Spotting our friend Justin on a boulder problem in Red Rock NCA.

It was a sunny week with highs in the mid 70s.  In Zion, the boxelder bugs were out in full force, and one lone butterfly followed us for a couple miles up Angel’s Landing. Other than that, I think most of the bugs were hiding in the ground and not out-and-about.  With the exception of the one day in Zion, we spent most of our time climbing near Red Rock NCA, and though I kept a vigilant eye on the ground for beetles, I saw very few: only a couple pinacate beetles and one dune beetle.  The dune beetle was nearly dead on the trail, and the pinacate beetles must have been scared up by the foot traffic near the road. Both of these beetles

We found one darkling beetle near the road en route to my first multi-pitch climb.
We found one darkling beetle near the road en route to my first multi-pitch climb.

are members of the Tenebrionid family, the darkling beetles.  Most of the genera in this family are active at night, though there are exceptions.  Apparently the pinacate beetles are known for doing a sort-of headstand and emitting a stinky odor to ward off predators, but the ones I saw weren’t doing that.

I had an inkling that most insects in this desert would be nocturnal, avoiding the mid-day heat, and I am fairly certain that had I gone back in the evening, I would have found a plethora of ground dwelling insects and other arthropods.  Unfortunately, it was just not going to happen with my low energy level after the days of sunshine and climbing.  Also, our trip was just a few weeks early for most flowering plants, which typically flower late March, I am told.  They have received usually high amounts of rain this winter, and so are expecting an especially good spring bloom.  I bet there will be lots of insect activity then.

This is a pinacate beetle.  Basically, a large black, olive-shaped beetle.  I wanted to show how pinning an insect well requires a lot of body-part positioning so that all the parts are visible once it is dry
This is a pinacate beetle. Basically, a large black, olive-shaped beetle. I wanted to show how pinning an insect well requires a lot of body-part positioning so that all the parts are visible once it is dry.

In the end, I was able to collect a couple beetles and bring them home, and I am excited to do some drawing with new specimens.  Next time, I will have a better idea of what to look for and when, and hopefully can  schedule in some night-time bug-hunting.

Finding insects in the house

One thing that I especially enjoy during my entomology pursuits is getting my engineer/photographer boyfriend Pete to nerd out on bugs.  I found these two arthropods in our house recently, and with very little prompting, Pete jumped up to get some photos of them.  He was originally much more of a landscape photographer and has only recently been getting into macrophotography, which may or may not be due to my fascination with the miniscule.  Either way, I like it!

Stink Bug_20150216

These photos are of a brown marmorated stink bug and a spider.  Not the most charismatic subjects, perhaps, but the options are limited in these late-winter weeks.  The brown marmorated stink bug is a true bug in the order Hemiptera, family Pentatomidae (its shape resembles a pentagon).  It is actually native to Asia, and has become a serious pest of fruit and vegetable crops around the US.  Nevertheless, it is very pretty up-close with its red eyes and greenish depressions on the head and pronotum. This guy was sitting on our countertop, and we moved him to the stove to get the black background before putting him in the freezer 🙂

 I don’t want to say much about thelycosidae spider, other than that it was one of many currently inhabiting our tiny house.  Anyphaenidae is my best guess at the family (arachnidologists, help me out!).  I spent almost 2 hours trying to narrow it down using its coloring and the positioning of its eyes, and the list of possibilities is still long.  For a moment I thought it looked like a hobo spider, one that many people claim to have a poisonous bite like a brown recluse (evidence doesn’t support that though) but now I don’t think it is.  One thing I have learned from this is that spiders are MUCH more difficult to identify than insects.   The photo turned out really nice though! I like the clear reflection from the mirror it was sitting on.