Nov 272015

American Thanksgiving not only marks the beginning of left-over turkey sandwich season, but has also come to represent the official start of the Holiday Season™. Traditionally rung in with the rampant purchasing of sale-priced items, the beginning of Holiday Season™ is now celebrated instead with Black Fly Day. This year, in preparation for ugly sweater parties and more family gatherings than should ever occur in such short succession, I present to you 6 fun facts about black flies that will keep your friends and family utterly enchanted!

Simulium sp from Ecuador Black fly Simuliidae

Simulium (Psilopelmia) bicoloratum from Ecuador (Simuliidae) feasting on my blood.

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Mar 142015

It’s March 14, 2015, which, in North America at least, makes it Pi Day (3/14/15), a day where people celebrate the most well-known mathematical constant with delicious baked goods and puns.

But in Middle-earth, the magical and engrossing world created by J.R.R. Tolkien as the setting for his tales of rings, hobbits, and adventure, Pi Day could coincide with the elven celebration of the Diptera! In Quenya, the ceremonial language of the high elves in Middle-earth, the word “fly” (in the entomological sense) translates directly to pí.

pí - Diptera in Quenya

Translation and Tengwar courtesy of Lee Jaszlics (biologist, photographer, and Quenya aficionado)

Coincidentally, flies actually make their debut in the world of Middle-earth on March 15, 3019 (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter II – The Land of Shadow) as Frodo and Sam wander through a riverbed deep within Mordor. Tolkien writes:

To their surprise they came upon dark pools fed by threads of water trickling down from some source higher up in the valley. Upon its outer marges under the westward mountains Mordor was a dying land, but it was not yet dead. And here things still grew, harsh, twisted, bitter, struggling for life. In the glens of the Morgai on the other side of the valley low scrubby trees lurked and clung, coarse grey grass-tussocks fought with the stones, and withered mosses crawled on them; and everywhere great writhing, tangled brambles sprawled. Some had long stabbing thorns, some hooked barbs that rent like knives. The sullen shrivelled leaves of a past year hung on them, grating and rattling in the sad airs, but their maggot-ridden buds were only just opening. Flies, dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch, buzzed and stung; and above the briar-thickets clouds of hungry midges danced and reeled.

The dancing midge clouds are easily explained, but I spent a lot of time trying to find a fly species that would fit Tolkien’s description. It turns out that “dun or grey, or black, marked like orcs with a red eye-shaped blotch” is a surprisingly rare combination in the Diptera. In fact, I couldn’t find any species of flies that could be described as dark with red splotches! Certainly there are species that are dark with red heads, including micropezids in the genus Scipopus, or signal flies in the genus Bromophila (as recently discussed by Piotr Naskrecki), and many flies are known for literally having red eyes (think of your friendly kitchen Drosophila), but unlike beetles, red blotches or spots seem to be rare in flies.

Scipopus sp. from Bolivia

Scipopus sp. from Bolivia

The only solution I could come up with that fit the general description and habitat of these Morgai flies was perhaps a species of Chrysopilus snipe fly (Rhagionidae), commonly called golden-backed snipe flies here in regular Earth. These flies have a blanket of magnificent golden pile on the top of their thorax, which can be brushed off giving the appearance of the Eye of Sauron (although they are certainly not blood suckers or pests). Perhaps under the evil influence of Sauron, a new species of  Chrysopilus arose in Morgai, developed a taste for orc blood, and took to the air to reign terror from the skies.

Chrysopilus thoracicus from Ontario on the left, with its Tolkienian cousin Chrysopilus "morgai" on the right

Chrysopilus thoracicus from Ontario on the left, with its Tolkienian cousin Chrysopilus “morgai” on the right

So on this Pí day, I hope you’ll not only herald the popular mathematical constants, but also the dipteran variables that make our natural history interesting, and our literary history magical.

Of course, the best possible way to celebrate would be to follow James Gilbert’s lead and make a Pí Pie for Pi Day. Mmmm, pie.

Footnote: In the recent video game Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Morgai flies were depicted as eusocial, living in paper hives, and able to drive off nearby orcs with a well-placed arrow. While I may be taking liberties with fly evolution to make a red, blood-sucking snipe fly, calling what are clearly social wasps “flies” gives WB Games a taxonomy fail index of 58. Now there’s some math for you.

Dec 252014


Merry Christmas to those celebrating, and happy holidays to those who aren’t! I hope you find yourself surrounded by friends& family of all shapes and sizes, and I wish you a wonderful winter, and a New Year filled with curiosity, discovery and unparalleled joy.


And for you taxonomy geeks out there, here’s an insect holiday tree decorated with all the identification labels. Because nothing says Happy Holidays like a properly labelled insect collection.



(All specimens courtesy of and housed in the University of Guelph Insect Collection)

Oct 312014

It’s that time of year again, when spiders make their triumphant return to become decorations rather than despised, and when everything normally considered scary is fun, at least for one night: it’s Hallowe’en!

As in past years, the University of Guelph Insect Systematics Lab took to the pumpkin patch and came back with some new insects to be added to our glowing growing collection.

Ento-Lantern 2014

This jumping spider in full display mode is ready to take back the night. Design by Jonathan Wojcik, carved by Meredith Miller, Tiffany Yau, Steve Paiero, and myself.

Trich(optera) or Treat! These larval caddisflies went all out with their costumes this year. Designed & carved by Meredith Miller, Steve Paiero, Tiffany & Jocelyn Yau, and myself.

Trich(optera) or Treat! These larval caddisflies went all out with their costumes this year. Designed & carved by Meredith Miller, Steve Paiero, Tiffany & Jocelyn Yau, and myself.

Sticks & stones won't break this caddisfly's bones... mostly because caddisflies don't have bones.

Sticks & stones won’t break this caddisfly’s bones… mostly because caddisflies don’t have bones.

Caddisflies get hyped for Hallowe'en at an early instar, as this one created by Meredith Miller clearly demonstrates!

Caddisflies get hyped for Hallowe’en at an early instar, as this butternut squash creation by Meredith Miller clearly demonstrates!

If you & your friends or family created your own Ent-O-Lanterns this year, drop a link in the comments so we can all enjoy!

Happy Hallowe’en!



Sally-Ann Spence (@minibeastmayhem) shared this fantastic scary-b beetle on Twitter

Jul 022014

Even though all specimens in a natural history collection (should) have a label explaining where, when & how they were captured, sometimes that doesn’t include the full story behind how a specimen came to rest in the collection. Consider the following.

While enjoying a few cold beverages on a hot summer’s evening on the porch of a friend’s cottage, our conversation was interrupted by the *thud* of a beetle bouncing off the siding. Attracted to the lights of the cottage, a Lucanus stag beetle found itself suddenly the highlight of the evening, and I quickly scooped it up and placed it into an inflated Ziploc bag, intending to photograph it once I got home the next day.

Things got busy though, and I ended up stashing the baggy & live beetle in my backpack to take into the lab and photograph instead. The next morning I walked to work, told my lab mate about my great beetle find, and pulled the Ziploc bag out to proudly display my specimen. Rather than a glorious reveal however, and all I had in hand was an empty Ziploc; apparently the beetle had had enough of waiting around and had chewed its way to freedom!

I proceeded to empty my backpack, searching every crack & crevice in search of the missing stag, only to conclude it had not only escaped its plastic cell, but also my zippered backpack as well! As I sat and wondered where it may have made its dramatic escape (perhaps the greeting card store in the mall I had stopped at on my way in to work, a scenario that I couldn’t help but giggle over) and cursed my beer-induced logic that a Ziploc bag was sufficient to imprison a two-inch beetle with formidable jaws, I resigned myself to the fact that I had been outsmarted by the Houdini of the beetle world.

A few nights later, while sitting on the couch at home watching late-night TV, I heard what sounded like plastic shooting across the laminate floor, emanating from where where our cat, Callie, was playing across the room. When I got up to see what trouble she was getting into, low and behold there was my missing stag, skittering across the floor after a playful thwack from the cat! While certainly dead, considerably dried up, and covered in an embarrassingly thick coating of dust from spending time under the furniture, it was also miraculously complete, not even missing its lamellate antennae or fragile tarsi.


Callie, Stag Hunter

Callie, Stag Hunter

A week soaking in ethanol on my desk (out of reach of the cat, who was unimpressed with me confiscating her new toy) to rehydrate, and voila, a perfectly good specimen ready to become a part of the scientific record! It’s impossible to predict how this specimen may contribute to our understanding of biodiversity and stag beetle biology in the future, and while its official label data will provide future researchers the necessary context to use this specimen as a data point, the full story of how this beetle wound up in our collection is yours.

It just goes to show that there’s more to a specimen than meets the eye, or the label.

The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.

The escaped Lucanus stag beetle (Lucanidae), pinned, labelled, and ready for science.

Feb 132014

Skeleton just might be the most insane sport in the Winter Olympics: athletes run as fast as they can, lay down head-first on what is essentially a lunch tray with blades affixed to the bottom, and then go barreling down an icy tube at speeds of up to 140 km/h, experiencing up to 5x the force of gravity on tight turns, all with their faces mere inches from the the surface of the track. I can only assume there was alcohol involved the first time somebody thought to try this, but it has since become one of the most exhilarating sports to watch in the Winter Olympics.


Shelley Rudman of Great Britain prepares for the Skeleton competition in Sochi, Russia. Photo by Nick Potts/PA.

Our insect competitors may not be going at the break-neck pace of human Skeletoners, but I think we can agree the end result is just as exhilarating. Hailing from the Amazon and proudly representing Team Arthropoda, meet Euglossa orchid bees and their very own death-defying Skeleton courses, Coryanthes bucket orchids.

Incredible, is it not? It’s fitting that the Insect Skeleton event starts today considering yesterday was Darwin Day, the 205th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Darwin was particularly enamoured by orchids and their convoluted reproduction strategies, and wrote an entire book on the subject in 1895, specifically marveling at the intricacy of Coryanthes pollination biology.

Darwin C. (1895). The various contrivances by which orchids are fertilized by insects, D. Appleton and Co. New York, New York., DOI:

Special thanks to @Bex_Cartwright for helping me figure out the Coryanthes/Euglossa combination.

Feb 122014

Here in Canada, cross-country skiing is a favourite winter pastime, with people eagerly awaiting the first snow by waxing their skis and stocking up on hot chocolate for after their trek through the wilderness. The Norwegians however, have shown this week that cross-country skiing is their sport at the moment, having taken home 8 medals in cross-country skiing events (6 in cross-country, 2 in biathlon) already!

Cross-country skiers from Switzerland, Sweden and Norway push towards the finish line in the skiathlon. Photo copyright Guy Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

In my experiences with cross-country skiing, I found it was much easier to stay upright when moving, and that stopping generally resulted in a cold, snowy crash followed by some awkward struggling to get back on my skis.

In a way, that’s a lot like Chionea winter crane flies (Limoniidae — or Tipulidae, depending on who you ask), a genus of wingless flies which are commonly seen running across the snow on sunny days across North America and Europe. It’s been reported repeatedly that when on snow, Chionea are in constant motion. Why might this be? Princeton entomologist Warner Marchand believed it might have been to avoid freezing to the snow, a conclusion he came to after observing winter crane flies on the balcony of his vacation home over several days. Sigmund Hagvar, an entomologist working in Oslo, Norway, on the other hand, sat and counted the number of steps Chionea araneoides individuals took across the snow, and found they took ~85 steps/min when temperatures approached 0°C, while slowing to only ~40 steps/min when the air temperature was -5°C! He suggests that the continuous movement may enable these flies to live and breed at such cold temperatures, noting that at -6°C they begin to go into chill coma and die. With temperatures expected to be just above freezing at the Sochi Cross-Country Skiing this week, Chionea araneoides may be hot-stepping their way to a medal!

Chionea araneoides from Mørkved, Bodø, Norway. Photo copyright Geir Oersnes.

Hagvar S. (1971). Field Observations on the Ecology of a Snow Insect, Chionea araneoides Dalm. (Dipt., Tipulidae), NORSK ENTOMOLOGISK TIDSSKRIFT, 18 (1) 33-37. Other: Link

Marchand W. (1917). Notes on the habits of the Snow Fly (Chionea), Psyche, 24 142-153. Other: Link

Feb 112014

While many in North America may recognize the Ski Jump from the brief clip fully encapsulating the agony of defeat in ABC’s Wide World of Sports intro, this event is quite popular in northern Europe. Supposedly originating in Norway when an army officer was showing off for his troops in the late 1800s, the men’s ski jump has been included in every Winter Olympics to date, while 2014 marks the first time women have been allowed to fling themselves off a mountain and sore for Olympic gold!

Kamil Stoch of Poland sores above the Olympic rings in Sochi, Russia on his way to a gold medal. Photo copyright Lars Baron/Getty Images.

Little known fact: the bar that ski jumpers sit on at the top of the hill before launching themselves down the slope used to be a raw log imported from the jungles of Central America to help encourage international inclusion*, and with it would often come gliding ants (conveniently for this story Cephalotes atratus), who would show off their own ability to fly!

Cephalotes atratus gracefully floats back to earth while attempting a world record in the Formicid Tree Jump! Photo copyright Alex Wild.

So how do ants measure up to our advanced aerodynamics, years of practice and training, and our pursuit for the thrill of victory? Surprisingly well, all things considered. With absolutely perfect form achieved with models in a wind tunnel, humans can attain a maximum horizontal glide of between 1.13m and 1.34m for every metre they drop, depending on the in-flight technique employed by the athlete. That means that when the women ski jumpers take off later today, they’ll be aiming for flights of nearly 100 metres, finishing with safe and graceful landings down the mountain, while only** falling about 80 metres!

By comparison, Cephalotes gliding ants have been found to majestically sore about 0.18m for every metre dropped. While they certainly won’t be challenging our athletes, it is more than sufficient to allow the ants to glide a few feet towards their tree trunk should they fall from their arboreal nests, avoiding a very long hike from the ground!

I guess it all comes back to form vs. function, and in this contest, I think we can clearly consider Team Arthropoda the winner.

Yanoviak S.P., Munk Y., Kaspari M. & Dudley R. (2010). Aerial manoeuvrability in wingless gliding ants (Cephalotes atratus), Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277 (1691) 2199-2204. DOI:

Ito S., Seo K. & Asai T. (2008). An Experimental Study on Ski Jumping Styles (P140), The Engineering of Sport, 7 9-17. DOI:


*Not really.

**I’m not sure I should be able to say “only” and “falling 80 metres” in the same sentence.

Feb 102014

It’s that time again, when nations around the world send their top athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics for precious medals, national pride and bragging rights for another 4 years! The 22nd Winter Olympic Games are being held in sunny Sochi, Russia this year, which opens the door for a new team to make its first Winter Olympics: Team Arthropoda!

Throughout the games, these industrious insects, sporting spiders, and other athletic arthropods will be showing they can compete with the best of us mammals, especially under the magnifying glass of international attention inherent with the Olympics — something insects and their kin are used to dealing with by now!

The 22nd Winter Olympiad officially began Friday evening with the opening ceremonies, and extravagant event showing off the natural wonders, history and culture of Russia, including an early shout-out to taxonomist-turned-novelist Vladimir Nabokov and his beloved butterflies! The athletes from each nation paraded into the Fisht Olympic Stadium lead by their flag-bearer, an honour generally bestowed on an athlete considered to be a leader for the team.

Hockey player and 2014 flag-bearer Hayley Wickenheiser leads Team Canada into Fisht Olympic Stadium during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photo copyright Paul Gilham/Getty Images.

Meanwhile, directly under the Olympic flag on the main stage, Team Arthropoda selected the newly-named Australian jumping spider Maratus avibus to carry their colours, for obvious reasons. Described just in time for these Olympics by Jürgen Otto and David Hill, Maratus avibus is the newest delegate of the peacock spiders, and proudly waved Team Arthropoda’s flag as high as he possibly could, even if it was only a few millimeters.

Stay tuned throughout the 2014 Winter Olympics to find out how Team Arthropoda stacks up against the rest of the world!

Otto J.C. & Hill D.E. (2014). Spiders of the mungaich group from Western Australia (Araneae: Salticidae: Euophryinae: Maratus), with one new species from Cape Arid, Peckhamia, 112 (1) 1-35. Other:

Oct 312013

As has become tradition in the University of Guelph Insect Systematics Lab, when Halloween rolls around, we pull out the knives & hand tools and make a trip to the produce aisle to get ready for a new Ent-O-Lantern. This year our lab is considerably smaller than in the past (4 grad students, an enthusiastic undergrad, and a significant other), but what we lacked in sculptors, we made up for with dedication!

So what was this year’s creation? Behold, a nightmare for social wasps everywhere, the Spooky Strepsiptera!

Spooky Strepsiptera for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Spooky Strepsiptera looking for love in all the right places — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

That pumpkin wasp doesn't stand a chance with a Strepsiptera salad hanging around -- Ent-O-Lantern 2013

That pumpkin wasp doesn’t stand a chance with a strepsipteran salad hanging around — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

The big male twisted-wing parasite riding atop a poor wasp’s abdomen is in search of females, who spend their lives wedged beneath the tergites of a social wasp’s abdomen, only to be consumed from the inside out by their own progeny! Yes, everything about the Strepsiptera is nightmare fodder.

Strepsiptera are also renowned for their odd wing morphology; males have a single pair of functional wings while their second pair of wings have evolved into haltere-like knobs, similar to true flies in the order Diptera. Unlike flies however, the functional wings of Strepsiptera are the hind wings, while the fore wings form the haltere-like knobs!

Needless to say, there was a lot to take into consideration when putting together this pumpkin. Here’s the ingredient list and a fully lighted photo to show how it all went together.

Pumpkin – carved to look like a wasp abdomen

Orange Bell Peppers – female Strepsiptera poking out from under the pumpkin tergites

Butternut Squash – thorax and abdomen of the male, carved with great care to show tergites & segments

Sweet Potato – head

Ornamental corn – compound eyes

Cauliflower – filiform antennae

Dried Mango Slices – maxillary palps

Carrots – legs (jointed with wire)

Cabbage – “twisted” functional hind wings which give this order their common name

Bell Pepper stems – fore wing “halteres”

Ent-O-Lantern 2013 Construction

Ent-O-Lantern 2013 Construction

We just do these big creations for fun, but our department also held a pumpkin carving social event at lunch, so we washed off our tools and put together a true horror show from a single pumpkin: Frankendrosophila!

Well, not really Frankendrosophila, just a Drosophila who’s been subjected to some genetic tinkering with his Homeobox transcription genes, resulting in Antennapedia! SCIENCE!

Drosophila Antennapedia Horror show for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Drosophila Antennapedia Horror show for Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Antennapedia in the light -- Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Antennapedia in the light — Ent-O-Lantern 2013

Thanks to Meredith, Nichelle, Grace, Jordan & Steve for getting into the spirit of the season and putting together 2 awesome Ent-O-Lanterns this year!

Did you carve an Ent-O-Lantern this year? Leave a link in the comments below so we can all marvel at your insect geek pride!