Aphids make ‘chemical weapons’ to fight off killer ladybirds

Aphids being attacked by a predatorI stumbled across the results of research from Imperial College, London, UK.  Aphids pick up glucosinolates from consumed plants in their blood which when mixed with an enzyme called myrosinase, which is stored in the muscles,  a violent chemical reaction occurs which releases mustard oil.  This release of mustard oil kills, injures or repels predators.


Aphids make ‘chemical weapons’ to fight off killer ladybirds


RFID Entomology

Paper Wasp with RFID tag
Paper Wasp with RFID tag attached [Zoological Society of London]

An area that seems in its infancy at the moment in Entomology is the use of Radio Frequency Identification [RFID] tagging insects.  RFID is, “a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to automatically identify people or objects. There are several methods of identification, but the most common is to store a serial number that identifies a person or object, and perhaps other information, on a microchip that is attached to an antenna (the chip and the antenna together are called an RFID transponder or an RFID tag). The antenna enables the chip to transmit the identification information to a reader. The reader converts the radio waves reflected back from the RFID tag into digital information that can then be passed on to computers that can make use of it”[1].

For entomology this could prove a valuable research into insect dispersal studies, migration, colony relationships, and added authority to the science of forensic entomology.  There are already studies underway.  Prof. N. Franks of the University of Bristol, UK is using RFID to study the division of labour of ant colonies[2].  The Zoological Society of London have successfully used FRID to monitor males and female paper wasps[3].

I suppose the question is could this be used further.  Perhaps we could RFID tag bees in the USA to solve the mystery of Colony Collapse Disorder[4].

There is no worries about the size of the RFID tag coming in the way of the research news is that the RFID tags are getting smaller[5].  There is also a US patent on using RFID technology with insects[6].


[1] http://www.rfidjournal.com/faq/16/49 Anon.; ‘What is RFID?’; RFID Journal
[2] http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/ViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=EP/D076226/1 Grant EP/D076226/1; ‘Radio frequency identification and tracking of individual ants engaged in colony scale division of labour’; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
[3] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6VRT-4MW9818-S&_user=10&_coverDate=01%2F23%2F2007&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e8ac3ef7bd676cefe2224bfb27bf5f65 Sumner, Seirian, Lucas, Eric, Baker, Jessie & Isaac, Nick (2006); ‘Radio-Tagging Technology Reveals Extreme Nest-Drifting Behavior in a Eusocial Insect’; Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 2, 23 January 2007, Pages 140-145
See also: 
http://mrtmag.com/mag/radio_rfid_tags_used/ Roberts, Mary Rose (2007); ‘RFID tags used to study wasps’; 1 April 2007, 12:00pm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6291429.stm BBC (2007); ‘Radio tags track wasp behaviour’; BBC News, 24 January 2007, 01:26 GMT 
[4] http://www.rfidjournal.com/forum/message/1692/ James, David (2007); ‘Insect dispersal studies’; RFID Journal; 12 April 2007
[5] http://techon.nikkeibp.co.jp/english/NEWS_EN/20070220/127959/ Nozawa, Tetsuo (Nikkei Electronics) (2007); ‘Hitachi Achieves 0.05-mm Square Super Micro RFID Tag, ‘Further Size Reductions in Mind’; 20 February 2007, 18:29
[6] http://www.freepatentsonline.com/20050225331.html  ‘Operating and evaluation circuit of an insect sensor’; United States Patent 20050225331; Free Patents Online

White Wonders

White Moths
White Moths of White Sands National Monument [Alamogordo Daily News]

I spotted this article, ‘On the trail of new species’ in the town newspaper the Alamogordo News. It reminded me of the classic example for understanding Darwin’s Theory of Evolution whereby during the industrial revolution those moths that weren’t black (or the same colour of the chimney stacks to be precise) were eaten by predators and the others survived to breed.

This story is of new discoveries in the White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, USA.  It’s the same example except reversed, i.e. not black but white.

Tick Anatomy

Ixodes ricinus
 [André Karwath]

I have become fascinated with tick anatomy mainly due to the ‘Tick Identification Key‘ website provided by the University of Lincoln, UK. There are a number of new terms I have come across and so I felt that writing them down here will, at least, work someway towards remembering them.

Basis capituli Attaches head to body can be various shapes, such as rectangular or hexagonal. Usually comprises porose areas like eyes.
Capitulum Head or mouthpart of the tick made up of palpi and three segments or articles.
(Palpi Part of mouthpart made up of four segments.)
Coxa Base of the legs, attachment to body.
Festoons Festoons Wrinkles located at the bottom of the back.
Haller’s organ Sensory structure sensitive to humidity and odours situated at the tip of the first tarsus of the first walking leg.
Hypostome Extension of the basis capituli.
Idiosoma Body of tick or mites.
Pulvilli Pads present at the end of the legs.
Claws At the end of pads help tick to attach to host
Scutum Hard shield found on the back of the tick. Expands over the whole back in males, but only 1/3 of the back in females.
Spurs Pointed structures found at base of coax.

See also:
Ixodida, Tree of Life
Tick, Wikipedia
Ticks, Department of Medical Entomology, University of Sydney and Westmead Hospital, Australia

What is Entomology?

I knew Entomology is the study on insects, and after reading the Wikipedia article, ‘Entomology’ I realised the scope of insects and other animals to study, but what I have only just realised is the specialisations there are:

  • Apiology (or melittology) – bees
  • Coleopterology – beetles
  • Dipterology – flies
  • Heteropterology – true bugs
  • Lepidopterology – moths and butterflies
  • Myrmecology – ants
  • Orthopterology – grasshoppers, crickets, etc.
  • Trichopterology – caddis flies

That is just the order of insects, there are also sub-disciplines:

  • Forensic Entomology – the study of insects in legal investigations
  • Insect Pathology – the study of disease and its causative organisms in insects
  • Urban Entomology – the study of insects and mites that affect people and their property
  • Medical Entomology – the study of insects that impact human health
  • Veterinary Entomology – the study of insects that attack livestock

Scientific classification

I guess the first place for me to start would be the naming or scientific conventions used in entomology, namely the ‘Scientific Classification System’. It’s doesn’t exactly rank high in my interest level, but I guess it’s a foundation to base all my future routes on my entomological journey.

I do remember this at school, but that was some time ago now. I’ll start with Wikipedia, the ‘Scientific Classification’ article seems like the appropriate starting point.

Biological Classification
Biological Classification
[Peter Halasz, Wikipedia]

Right let’s see. We have all encompassing ‘Life’ and then ‘Domain’. These categories are too broad so all I need to worry about is Life and the Animalia domain. The other sub-categories (Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species) I need to remember. The Wikipedia article hyperlinks to two other websites (Mnemonic Device and The Free Dictionary), that list mnemonics for the category groups. My favourite, and the one I’m sticking with: Kids Playing Chicken On Freeways Get Smashed.

Mix in a bit of history because you never know someone may ask, or it might turn in a pub quiz in the future. The system is based upon the work of Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) in his book Systema Naturae which ran through twelve editions in his lifetime.

For a budding entomologist I guess I am only interested in the Insecta class. However, after further investigation I think I am wrong there. The Wikipedia article, ‘Entomology’ states, “the definition [of entomology] is sometimes widened to include terrestrial animals in other arthropod groups and other phyla, such as arachnids, myriapods, earthworms, and slugs“. Interesting because the Insecta class alone (i.e. without these other species included in entomology) have over a million described species — more than all other animal groups combined [1].

Well, I have years of database experience and ‘over a million’ _ ah that’s nothing. After a bit of ‘googling I found the The Catalogue of Life, which when I last checked has 1,008,965 species listed (half the world’s known species).

[1] Chapman, A. D. (2006); Numbers of living species in Australia and the World; p.60, ISBN 978-0-642-56850-2

The start of my entomological journey

I have always been interested in entomology (the study of insects) from a young age.  I cannot pinpoint the exact event that spurred this on, but I seem to think that it was either watching a television programme or reading an article in National Geographic as a young boy.  I think I saw/read about an entomologist discovering a new insect in some far off remote uncharted jungle somewhere.  It’s the outdoor explorer image that stuck in my mind.

Years went by and then I ended up watching the film the Medicine Man.  The rugged character played by Sean Connery only re-enforced my deep-embedded image of a tough explorer-entomologist.  I was fascinated at the idea that two scientists had discovered the cure for cancer sourced from a rare kind of ant.

It was years after that when my family and I toured north-west Canada and USA on holiday in a motorhome.  Seeing and experiencing the RV way-of-life I dreamed that for my retirement I would travel around the world in a Class A (11 metre or 36 feet) motorhome examining insects and writing about them to pay my way.  It would be my mobile laboratory.

Since then (about two years ago) I did nothing, not one step towards my dream.  I nearly started after reading ‘Climbing Mount Improbable‘ by Richard Dawkins.  It was the ‘A Garden Enclosed’ chapter that I read, re-read and re-read again.  It was a truly fascinating story on the life of a fig wasp _ no really you must read it, I recommend it.

So now I have started, I have decided to travel down the entomological journey.  I know nothing so I will be starting from scratch.  I’m using this weblog for my notes and experiences and I will be happy for readers to help.