Dragonfly Mouthparts Under the Microscope...the Scanning Electron Microscope

December 6, 2016

These monstrous looking pinchers are the mouthparts of a dragonfly larva imaged with a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Amazingly, this image wasn’t taken of the animal itself, but rather of its abandoned exoskeleton (called an exuvium) that the larval and freshwater-living dragonfly (or naiad) leaves behind when it becomes a winged dragonfly. This dragonfly and the ones below are from the family Aeshnidae. 

A green darner dragonfly at NHMLA's Nature Garden. This is a female ovipositing (egg-laying) in the vegetation.

Below is the whole exuvium in glorious detail. You can find these shed exoskeletons on rocks and vegetation at the border of freshwater ponds, steams, and lakes. I found this one amond the reeds in NHMLA's Nature Garden pond.  

Image taken, with thanks, by Kelsey Bailey on a Keyence VHX-5000 digital microscope.

(Posted by: Jann Vendetti)


L.A.'s Weirdest Halloween Costume: An Insect Disguised as a Ball of Lint

October 27, 2016

Green lacewing larva disguised as a tiny lint ball, walking up our den wall. Photo by: Martin Schlageter

The other night, as I was walking through the house turning out lights and locking up, I saw a weird, tiny ball of debris—the kind of thing you see in the corner of a house that has multiple pets and an idle vacuum cleaner—making its way up the wall. I called for my husband and said, “What in the world is going on? Does that dust bunny have legs?”

For the next 20 minutes we watched it slowly traverse our wall and tried to capture photographs of it on our small point-and-shoot, hoping to get a closer look on the computer (blurry photo above). The next day my husband submitted a couple of photos of it to iNaturalist and received a prompt answer: green lacewing larva.

Lacewings are beneficial insects in the garden. Their larvae are voracious predators called aphid lions, as aphids are a preferred meal. They also eat a number of other soft-bodied insects, like mealybugs and immature whiteflies, that are considered garden pests. I am always gratified to find their distinctive eggs—individually laid on a minuscule silken stalk—on plants in my garden. It's not unusual to find adult lacewings at night near a porch light, to which they are attracted.

Their larvae look like little alligators, with ferocious sickle-shaped mandibles that are used to capture prey. What my husband and I didn't know was that the larvae also use debris, including the corpses of their victims, to camouflage themselves from both predators and prey. Amazingly, that behavior dates back to the early-to-mid Cretaceous period, about 130 million years ago.

Green lacewing larva eating whitefly nymphs. Photo by: Jack Dykinga, courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Earlier this year, an international team of researchers published a study in which they examined 35 insects, including lacewing relatives, preserved in amber from Myanmar, Lebanon, and France. The researchers were astonished to find the broad range of camouflage already used by insects in the Cretaceous.

"It is very surprising how early in evolution such complex insect behavior developed: The larvae had to search actively for suitable 'camouflage material,' pick it up, and cloak themselves with it," said Dr. Bo Wang, who led the research team, in the study's press release. Dr. Jes Rust, a paleobiologist at the University of Bonn, which participated in the study, explained that camouflage, with its distinct advantages, was 'invented' multiple times in different insect species during evolution.

My husband gently captured the wondrous little ball of lint and took it outside, where we hope it will continue its valued work in our garden.


(Posted by: Karen Klabin)


Did You Know There are Wasp-mimicking Beetles in Los Angeles!

August 18, 2016

Wasp-mimicking beetle in the genus Necydalis found in Monrovia, CA. Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey

If you spot a brightly colored, slender, 1 inch-long insect in your yard, you might hesitate to get too close. It is not uncommon for residents of L.A. to come into contact with large wasps that have bright orange or yellow warning coloration, letting you know that they can sting if threatened. Colors can be misleading however, as you can see with this impressive longhorned beetle that was recently collected in Monrovia as part of the BioSCAN Project. The insect may have the same general shape (that characteristic thin wasp "waist") and bright orange body that screams out "I'm a wasp! Don't touch me!," but in reality it is completely incapable of stinging. This form of mimicry benefits the beetle as it deters potential predators from turning it into a crunchy afternoon snack!




(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)


The Birds and the Bees of Ladybug STDs

August 9, 2016

Mulitcolored Asian ladybug, Harmonia axyridis, collected from the roof of Angel City Brewery in Downtown LA. Ladybug date night? Photo credit: Kelsey Bailey


A Curious Growth on a Ladybug

Sometimes I feel like I have seen it all when it comes to the bizarre happenings of the bug world.  Like some sort of insect inception (insection?), there are insects that live on insects, insects that live inside other insects as parasites, and even parasites on the parasites of those insects! I see evidence of these strange phenonmena regularly as I sort samples of insects from Los Angeles, but recently I came across a ladybug that had something I had never seen before. On top of the hardened wing covers, which entomologists call elytra, were oblong projections that covered the beetle like a tacky orange shag rug. Were they eggs of a ladybug parasite? Or some sort of mite? I immediately asked our talented photographer, Kelsey Bailey, to take photos of this specimen so that I could share the image in hopes of unraveling the enigma.

A Sexually Transmitted Fungus

The astounding answer came from a colleague at the UC Riverside Entomology Research Museum, Dr. Doug Yanega. The mystery fuzz was identified as the parasitic Laboulbeniales fungus, which incredibly feeds off of internal vital fluids. This fungus is unlike any other; it is only found living on the exoskeletons of hard-bodied creatures like beetles and their kin, and must be spread by direct body-to-body contact. Fortunately for the fungus, some insects like to take it slow when it comes to mating, allowing for that direct contact needed for the fungus to spread.  Certain ladybug species stay locked in copulation for a minimum of 30 minutes and as a group are known to have many different partners throughout their adult lifetime. These behaviors can benefit ladybugs in that they assist in successful sperm transfer and maximize genetic diversity, but they also give parasites ample time to hop ship from one ladybug lover to the other.

Seven spotted ladybugs, Coccinella septempunctata, mating via GIPHY

It Feeds on Blood!

The realization that the Laboulbeniales fungus, despite its flowery name, is essentially an insect STD, blew wide open my notion of what makes a fungus a fungus. While most fungi are important ecologically as decomposers and nutrient recyclers, Laboulbeniales are one of the most unusual, intriguing, and unfortunately poorly studied fungi. They do not form fruiting bodies, what most people know of as mushrooms, but consist only of a simple finger-like structure that attaches and bores into the exoskeleton. The insects’ version of blood, called hemolymph, contains nutrients that the fungus happily sucks up. This is the living version of a pointed straw that you pierce into a child’s juice box, but instead of fruit punch, in this case it’s beetle blood!

Macrophotographs of the Laboulbeniales fungus. 

A Non-lethal Dose

Fear not for the life of the ladybug who has been shagged by the Laboulbeniales fungus! Moderate infections do not appear to be lethal to the infected individual. A study done on yet another ladybug STD, a sexually transmitted mite, showed that the ladybug’s life span was too short to succumb to the pressure of the parasite. In other words, they die of old age before the infections become serious. This ensures that future generations of ladybugs will continue to congregate and live out their free-love lifestyle in peace and harmony.


(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)



Phytotelmata: Miniature Breeding Grounds for Mosquitoes and Rat-tailed Maggots

July 26, 2016

The author, Emily Hartop, investigating a phytotelma formed by exposed tree roots. Photo by Brian Brown.

One of the many benefits of doing research in urban environments is the ability to spend a day in "the field" by simply walking out your door. Brian Brown (Curator of Entomology at NHMLA) and I did just that on a recent morning, and found ourselves investigating some unexpected phytotelmata in the exposed roots of large Ficus trees growing in front of the Exposition Park Rose Garden next door to the NHMLA.

Phytotelma (plural phytotelmata) is a fancy word that translates as "plant pond" and refers to any captured water environments created by plants. Some plants have evolved specifically for this purpose, like carnivorous pitcher plants . Other phytotelmata are quite accidental, such as holes in logs or trees, bamboo internodes, or leaves or flowers that capture water. These ponds are often host to many types of immature aquatic insects, and can be teeming with life. The small ponds we found in the Ficus roots were no exception.

Immature mosquitoes thrive in murky phytotelmata! Photo by Brian Brown.

The first thing we noticed in these phytotelmata were hundreds and hundreds of mosquito larvae (photo above). Although the first pond we explored (pictured at top) was shallow and less than two feet long by eight inches wide, it easily contained several hundred mosquito larvae (detail photo of a larva below). This reinforced an important lesson about captured water: the smallest environment can breed incredible numbers of insects! This is why checking for standing water in potted plants, and overturning buckets so they don't collect water is so important. A container left carelessly in the backyard that collects a bit of sprinkler water can, within just a few days, turn into a house full of mosquitoes.

A mosquito larva displayed on a leaf. Photo by Brian Brown.

Although there were a number of aquatic maggots that we observed, many of them we will need to collect and rear to adulthood to identify. We did find one real beauty that is instantly recognizable, however! Eristalinus taeniops, an introduced flower fly whose larvae are commonly called "rat-tailed maggots" (see photo below) were buzzing around a particularly stagnant (and stinky!) phytotelma we investigated. It wasn't long before I spotted one of the large, squishy maggots in the putrid water, and thrust my hand into the rotting water! For science! The maggot is pictured below (my hands still smell)! 

A rat-tailed maggot pulled from the stinky depths! Photo by Brian Brown.

Rat-tailed maggots are able to live in the smelliest, most stagnant of waters because of their breathing tube "tail". Although their beginnings are stinky and they aren't the most attractive of maggots (although I think they're adorable), as adults they are known as Stripe-eyed flower flies and they are the most gorgeous, impressive honey bee mimics you might ever see (photo below). 

A stripe-eyed flower fly resting on a tree root near the phytotelma where we found rat-tailed maggots. Photo by Brian Brown.

This species was previously found in the NHMLA Nature Gardens, but attempts to locate the larvae nearby had been unsucessful. Perhaps these beauties have been developing in the phytotelmata next door for years! It was an amazing morning that exposed a miniature world so close by, but unexplored. It was a great example of what makes urban environments so exciting: they are constantly changing and full of unexpected surprises!


(Posted by: Emily Hartop)


Insects Steal the Show at Riverside Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park BioBlitz!

November 17, 2015

Riverside Citizen Science BioBlitz participants heading into the field.

On October 17, scientists and volunteers brought their equipment, expertise, and enthusiasm for biodiversity to Riverside Citizen Science’s first-ever BioBlitz. Starting at dawn and “nature-partying” into the night, Riverside residents explored Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park in search of floral and faunal diversity.

There are a variety of reasons why the intense sampling of plants and animals that defines a BioBlitz is important: to foster a community committed to environmental stewardship, to unite amateur and professional scientists to learn from one another, to document the astounding diversity of life that exists – even in urban environments – and, importantly, to provide baseline biological monitoring that can facilitate future management. 

Sycamore Canyon is a case in point. The 1,500-acre park is of special interest to the Riverside County Habitat Conservation Agency because it is home to the endangered Stephens’ Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys stephensi). The Stephens' kangaroo rat is threatened by non-native, invasive grasses that can grow so thick that the rat cannot forage for seeds easily. To provide home improvement for the rat, Sycamore Canyon park managers have used sheep grazing in recent years to control the density of invasive plant species.  Riverside Citizen Science BioBlitz participants helped uncover some of the secondary impacts of the grazing: grazed and ungrazed areas differ in their insect diversity.

An unexpected bonus: UCR entomologists found a decaying log with a termite colony in it. Everybody got to take turns collecting termites.

In the study of insect diversity, entomologists have developed a variety of methods to capture insects and measure the number of unique types (or “richness”) of insects. One easy way to capture flying insects is with pan traps. Pan traps are simply bowls of soapy water, where the soap is added to minimize surface tension, trapping even the smallest insects. The color of the bowls is important: Entomologists around the world have found that yellow and blue bowls attract the most insects, with some types of insects more attracted to a particular color. Soapy water is poured over filter paper to remove the insects. Insects caught in the filter paper are brought back to the lab and identified. 

At the Riverside Citizen Science BioBlitz, UC Riverside entomologists led groups of citizen scientists in deploying and collecting pan traps in grazed and ungrazed areas of habitat. The UC Riverside Entomology Museum’s senior scientist, Dr. Doug Yanega, identified the collected insects under a microscope. Identifying all the species of insects in a new location is typically not possible; instead experts try to identify the insects to the lowest possible taxonomic level (or “taxa”, for short). Really good taxonomists, like Doug, hope to classify insects to family. (This is akin to identifying a mammal – in the class Mammalia – to the family “Felidae”, or cats.) 

UCR entomologists and citizen scientists collecting insects from pan traps.

The next step was to count the number of distinct taxa in blue and yellow pan traps in grazed and ungrazed locations. While similar kinds of insects were found in grazed and ungrazed locations, greater richness was found in the ungrazed areas. We did not find a difference in diversity between blue and yellow traps, the two trap colors were similarly effective in measuring insect diversity at this BioBlitz. However, we did catch more aphids (family Aphididae), white flies (family Aleyrodidae), honey bees (species Apis mellifera), and hover flies (species Eupeodes volucris) in the yellow pan traps than in blue pan traps. 

Ungrazed habitats support greater insect diversity. Pan traps in ungrazed habitats captured more unique kinds of insect taxa (greater richness) than pan traps in grazed habitats. The pan trap color (represented by the color of the bar) did not influence the diversity of insects captured, both yellow and blue pan traps were effective in measuring insect diversity. 


We hypothesize that the difference in insect diversity is related to vegetation differences. Overall, we saw more plants than expected due to early rain that occurred two days before the Riverside BioBlitz. Normally, vegetation is dead or dormant in October in Riverside, after the hot, dry summer. Of the 50 plant species we recorded, some natives were even blooming: California buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), black sage (Salvia mellifera), and fiddleneck (Amsinckia menziesii). However, the rain also helped invasives, where there appeared to be more invasives and higher overall vegetation cover in ungrazed areas compared to grazed areas. This highlights a big challenge in managing natural parks: a particular action (reducing invasive plants by sheep grazing) may have winners (the Stephens’ kangaroo rat) and losers (insects). 

Insect sampling continued into the night with a special night-time collection method. We set up a light trap (a mercury vapor lamp in front of a white sheet) to attract night-flying insects. The light trap mimics moonlight to attract insects that use the light of the moon and stars to aid in navigation. 

UCR entomologists and citizen scientists collecting insects at night under a mercury vapor lamp.

It was during our nighttime insect sampling that we got our biggest surprise.  We found a beetle, Pharaxonotha kirschii, from Texas that has never been seen in California before. Unfortunately, the beetle is a pest. We reported it to the USDA in the hopes that discovering it early will keep it from becoming a pest in California. These types of surprises are one of the reasons BioBlitzes are so useful (and thrilling). 

Although the insect results are exciting, Riverside Citizen Science BioBlitz participants recorded other wildlife also. Citizen scientists led by local ornithologists recorded 22 year-round resident bird species. The hot day frustrated their hopes for a more extensive species list. We observed many individual lizards, represented by just four species: granite spiny lizard (Sceloporus orcutti), side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana), western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), and orange-throated whiptail (Aspidoscelis hyperythra). Although we only saw a couple mammal species – squirrels and rabbits – we measured burrow sizes to better understand what kind of small mammals (such as Stephens’ kangaroo rats) live in the park. Thanks to their scat, we also know coyote are in Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park. At night, led by a bat biologist, Riverside Citizen Scientists used night vision goggles and sonic recorders to observe a number of California myotis bats (Myotis californicus). 

While the insects stole the show in terms of overall diversity, the real stars at the first-ever Riverside Citizen Science BioBlitz were the citizen scientists who did the exploring, searching, collecting, counting. A BioBlitz is an intense and frenzied event that depends on the enthusiasm of many participants. We were blown away by the fantastic turnout and the eager curiosity on display throughout the whole day!


(Posted by: Erin Conlisk and Sarah O'Neill)


Meet the Insects of L.A. City Hall

September 20, 2015

Being a resident of the most filmed city in the world, there are some buildings that I have as much familiarity with from portrayals on the silver screen as I do from my daily commute home.  One such building is our iconic City Hall, completed in the 1920s in a fashion one architect described as an architectural hybrid “Modern American” style.  Built from concrete taken from sand from all 58 Californian counties and mixed with water from all 21 Missions, this classy behemoth has been featured in dozens of films and TV shows (my personal favorite cameo is Carpenter’s 1980s classic, “Escape from L.A.”).

Photos above by Estella Hernandez. All photos below by Kelsey Bailey.

Standing at 450 feet, L.A.’s City Hall is a structural symbol of the growth and prosperity of its time, but to an urban biologist, the grounds surrounding it have a different potential; the opportunity for discovery of our wonderful wildlife. It was with this curious spirit that the NHMLA BioSCAN team partnered with LA City Councilmember Paul Koretz. We erected several insect traps on the grounds, in the trees, and on the south roof to see what types of bugs call City Hall their home.  From just one summer month, we have so far identified several hundred species from over 90 families!

Some of the insects collected are very common backyard residents that most would recognize (Argentine ants, green lacewings, European honey bees), but the vast majority are surprising dwellers at the core of the city!  Below are just a select few of the thousands of insects we found from our brief survey.

Ants, bees, and wasps (all in the insect order Hymenoptera) are the largest group found in these traps in terms of diversity, but also the smallest in terms of size.  Thousands of microscopic wasps only a few millimeters in size were collected, as well as 6 different species of bee. Low ant diversity was expected: the traps we used mainly to collect flying, not crawling, insects. Above, micro-wasps associated with figs in the families Pteromalidae and Agaonidae. Below, metallic sweat bee (genus Agapostemon). 

Flies to tantalize your eyes! This astonishingly diverse group of insects in the order

Diptera do everything from pollinating flowers to decomposing, to preying on other insects.

Measuring at almost 1 inch in length, predatory robber flies were some of the largest insects we collected (below).

Some flies like to make love on the wing, as was evidenced by the two pollen-feeding “window” flies collected in our trap in copula (below). 

The third most common group we collected from City Hall include a wide variety of insects such as aphids, hoppers, assassin bugs and stink bugs, to name a few. Although some are pests on plants, many have beautifully colored markings and ornate stained-glassed patterned wings, such as this lace bug and the smoketree sharpshooter (below).

(Posted by: Lisa Gonzalez)

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The Real L.A. Noir: The True-life Insect Cannibals and Murderers in our Midst

November 12, 2014

The coffin fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey.

As you get into your car in the parking lot of the Trader Joe’s in Silver Lake in Los Angeles, you might just be within arm’s reach of cannibals. Not the human kind – but the insect variety.

Inside a wasp that is buzzing around a nearby bush dwells a bug known as the twisted wing parasite. These tiny insects are genetically close to flies and resemble nothing so much as a small black speck. But placing that speck under a microscope reveals huge, orb-like eyes that, as entomologist Emily Hartop puts it, look like sinister purple boysenberries.

Although the twisted wing parasite’s name comes from the seemingly malformed wings of the male of the species, the female has no wings. In fact, she has no legs, not even functional mouthparts – she is literally just a sac containing eggs and fat cells.

Twisted wing parasite. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey.

When she is ready to mate, she partially burrows out of her wasp host’s rear end, exposing her head and shoulders. She sends out an alluring chemical scent, a pheromone, to attract her mate, who flies in from afar and expertly inseminates her behind the head. She waits patiently for her eggs to develop and hatch. Then, she becomes a host of sorts: Her larvae slowly devour her as they thrive. When they are ready to search for their own wasp hosts, they wriggle out from behind her head, leaving her shell-like exoskeleton behind. Each female twisted wing parasite can bear 2,590 offspring this way. (The wasp survives the entire ordeal relatively unscathed; its only scar is that it is now sterile.)

This is one of the true tales of L.A. noir unfolding around you – down in the depths of the soil, around the corners of buildings, and under the bushes of Southern California’s dark underbelly. I know about these monsters because I study insects at the Natural History Museum, where I work alongside the entomologists and volunteers (we call them “citizen scientists”) who trap and find them. I can tell you that L.A. is no City of Angels so far as insects are concerned.

Death Becomes Her

Some of my favorite bugs congregate around dead bodies. One place you might find them is the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, possibly circling around the head of the Johnny Ramone statue. To the untrained eye, they might look like any old gnat. But each of these bugs has a pair of huge eyes that look like they’re covered in mesh, long slender legs, and transparent wings. Couples like to meet in the air and fall to the ground in a moment of insect ardor. They are Conicera tibialis, more famously known as coffin flies.

After the mating pair has parted, the female fly locates dead or decaying tissue (by smell, scientists presume) so she can lay her eggs. She can burrow almost seven feet underground, which is good because, if she’s looking for human tissue, it is often, as the adage says, about six feet under.

She lays her eggs in the nooks and crannies around the coffin, and lets her maggots do the stealthy work of sneaking into the actual casket. If all this seems like a lot of work, it is. Oftentimes these flies eschew the dead humans and instead go for easy pickings such as the pet dog you buried in the backyard last week.

Murder in the L.A. River

As the runners, bikers, and strollers make their way along the path next to the Los Angeles River in Frogtown, the water gurgles by and the bushes gently rustle in the wind. But this idyllic scene masks murders happening just beneath the water’s surface.

Dragonfly nymph. Image courtesy of Chris Goforth.

Baby dragonflies, otherwise known as nymphs, are voracious predators. Measuring from the size of a peppercorn up to an inch and half, these muted brown bugs blend in nicely with the muddy bottom at this part of the L.A. River. When prey swims by – it could be a fish, a tadpole, or a dragonfly sibling — the nymph unleashes its hidden jaws-of-death. Within a microsecond, the jaws snap onto the stunned victim and pull it in to be eaten alive. Nymphs can consume multiple meals a day in the watery depths—they are true cold-blooded serial killers.

Off With Their Heads

Another of my favorite ghoulish insects was discovered last November in Glendale in the big yards of the big houses sitting snugly up against the Verdugo Mountains. There, a large ant serves as the mansion of tiny Pseudacteon californiensis, or the ant-decapitating fly. These ants, known as velvety tree ants, make for nice homes because they are larger than the usual black ants you find invading your cat’s food bowl or committing suicide in your freezer during a heat wave. And they also have curb appeal: a velvety black abdomen and reddish-orange thorax. Perhaps that’s why P. californiensis has evolved to infect this ant and no other.

Ant decapitating fly. Image courtesy of Kelsey Bailey.

Instead of a U-Haul, the female P. californiensis moves into her host by inserting her needle-like egg-laying device (ovipositor) into a weak point between two of the ant’s abdominal plates. She lays one solitary egg and flies away.

Inside the ant, the egg hatches, and the maggot journeys to the ant’s head, where it chews its way through various tissues. Eventually, the ant is decapitated and dies—and the adult fly emerges through the oral cavity in a scene reminiscent of a horror film.


Zombies are all the rage in Hollywood—but real zombified bees might actually be invading Los Angeles any day now. Since 2011, infected bees have been spotted from Seattle to Santa Barbara. We’re not sure if they’ve arrived here already, but we recently set out traps in the Natural History Museum’s Nature Gardens to find out.

“Zombees” begin their lives as normal honey bees, Apis mellifera. But when they meet a tiny honey-colored fly with dark eyes known as the zombie fly, Apocephalus borealis, these bees begin living a nightmare.

The tiny female zombie flies insert their needle-like ovipositor into the abdomens of their bee hosts. They typically deposit a number of eggs, which hatch into maggots after a few days. Up to 15 maggots can survive inside of one honeybee, eating the bee’s insides. Right before the maggots are ready to turn into pupae, the next stage of their development, the zombee is somehow inspired to leave its hive at night—for what some call a flight of the living dead.

These zombified bees are attracted to light, circling porch lights or writhing under lit windows in the early hours of the morning. About seven days later, the maggots erupt en masse from the neck region of the bee. They then crawl a short distance away, pupate, and emerge as adult flies nine days later, ready to find their next victim.

When I pull dragonfly nymphs out of the L.A. River, or when I look at a zombie fly under a microscope, I revel in the fact that I’m privy to a tiny world that often goes unnoticed. Some people are afraid of bugs – and if you know what they’re doing to each other, it’s not hard to understand why. But bugs define our city as much as people do. If we don’t understand their lives and worry about their future, we’re not planning for our own future, either. And in a town that’s full of sequels and remakes and adaptations, the true stories of their lives are much stranger than our Hollywood fiction.

With special thanks to the Museum’s BioSCAN (Biodiversity Science City and Nature) staff, particularly principal investigator Dr. Brian Brown, who designed and implemented the study of L.A.’s insects that discovered many of the creatures highlighted in this article. For more information about BioSCAN, check out the project page.

*This was originally written for Zocalo Public Square

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Nature's Tiniest Potters

September 9, 2013

Did you know there are small wasps here in Los Angeles that are potters? No, I don't mean some sort of weird waspish Harry Potter fan club—although that sounds like something I'd be totally into—I mean wasps that use mud to make miniature pots. Take a look at the craftsmanship, the sharply narrowed neck and that wide fluted rim, exquisite!

Photo taken by NHMLA Head Gardener Richard Hayden, with my fingertip for some perspective!

This "pot" was constructed by a small wasp (one of those solitary wasps that are not prone to stinging us humans), which entomologists call potter wasps. However, this wasp wasn't just being artistic, she constructed this pot for a purely utilitarian function—it is actually a nest for an egg!

A few weeks ago during a California Naturalist training, I spotted this beauty on one of our Baccharis plants in the Nature Gardens. Richard snapped a picture for me, as I was hoping there would be a way to identify the species of wasp that made this piece of pottery. I posted the picture to the Bugguide website, and had some luck!

According to Ken Wolgemuth this nest was constructed by a potter wasp in the genus Eumenes, which literally translated from Greek means "gracious, kindly." Although if you were an immature moth or beetle, you wouldn't necessarily think so well of them. In fact you might find another explanation for  the name more appropriate, even if it is less likely to be true. Some say the name is derived from Eumenides, the Greek winged goddesses of a vengence, and since these winged wasps provision their nests with caterpillars and grubs, it seems like poetic justice to me!

After the nest has been constructed, the female wasp lays an egg, and then flies off to find and sting small caterpillars or grubs. The paralyzed prey is deposited in the pot alongside the egg, and the pot is sealed up. Which eerily reminds me of scenes from horror films where people are buried alive! Soon after the egg hatches and devours the still fresh insect meat, and then pupates. The adult wasp emerges to complete the cycle over again and lend a hand in controlling pesky moths and beetles in your garden!

Dying to see what these wasps look like? Here's a picture to satisfy your curiosity:

Photo of a Floridian potter wasp, Eumenes fraternus, from What's That Bug website



(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Do you have Museum Malaise?

May 2, 2013

You better not! However, just in case you do I have a line of curative agents perfect for any and all afflicted with such exhibit ennui. The elixirs I speak of are our new L.A. nature exhibits, Nature Lab and Nature Gardens, and they're about to open on June 9!

I've written loads of posts about both exhibits, so I thought it might be interesting to have a guest writer this week (I swear it's not because I'm too busy)! Dean Pentcheff from our Research and Collections staff is going to answer the question that everyone will be asking when the Nature Gardens open, who's camping in that tent out there?

"Peek between the bushes in the Nature Garden and you’ll see what looks like someone’s overnight camping spot. We do host overnight sleepovers at NHMLA but we don’t do it in the garden (at least not yet). What’s going on here?

Photo by Phyllis Sun


The “tent,” as it turns out, is actually an insect trap. It is no coincidence that it looks like a tent. Its inventor, René Malaise, was inspired by watching insects in his own tent while he was on tropical collecting trips. Insects bumping into an obstruction, like a tent wall (or the vertical mesh of the Malaise trap), tend to fly up to escape. The conical top deflects them up further to the topmost part of the cone. There, our arthropod guests find a hole to a plastic jar full of ethanol — their last drink, and a preservative that lets us keep them for the Museum’s collection in good physical condition and with their DNA available for genetic research.

Why such an elaborate insect trap in the Nature Gardens? This trap is one of about thirty that we’re setting up between downtown L.A. and the Griffith Park area as part of our BioSCAN project (BioSCAN stands for Biodiversity Science: City and Nature). Our goals are to develop a good inventory of L.A. insect diversity and to see how insect diversity differs between inner urban areas and outer less-urbanized areas. That’s the reason for the mini-weather station next to every trap. Measuring physical parameters like temperature, humidity, soil temperature, and moistness will help us develop explanations for the diversity differences we will see.

Dean explaining BioSCAN


The beauty of the Malaise trap, as René Malaise put it in his original publication, is that they can “… catch all the time, by night as well as by day, and never be forced to quit catching when it was best because dinner-time was at hand.” That also means that we’ll have thousands of samples to sort. You can come watch us do it (and volunteer to help, if you want) in the Nature Lab when that opens in June."

Thanks Dean

So if you're interested in finding out what a robber fly really looks like, and how many of them we've caught in our Malaise trap, stop by the Museum on or after June 9 and ask us...you never know Dean might actually be the scientist you get to talk too.

p.s. he's awesome!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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