Mar 102013

Insects make great teaching tools for a wide variety of lessons in evolution & biology, but their small size can limit what you can do if you don’t have a microscope set up. Lately I’ve been playing around with a 2 megapixel USB Microscope from EmCal Scientific Inc that I picked up at the 2011 Entomological Society of America meeting in Reno, Nevada. This little device cost ~$100, and provides magnification up to 200x life size! (Note: there are similar products available around the web for cheaper, but I can’t say how well they may or may not work.)

I’ve used it in a few lectures & labs to show specimens, structures and techniques, but honestly haven’t had much success, largely because the stand it came with is pretty well useless. Hand holding it isn’t an option either, as even the slightest movement at such high magnifications turns your demonstration into a bad example of the Harlem Shake.

Despite the problems I ran in to, I really wanted to use the camera in a couple of outreach events I’ll be participating in later this month, but I couldn’t afford to invest much in a solution. So, this afternoon I went to my local big box home improvement store and wandered around until I managed to design and piece together what I think will solve a lot of the issues I was having. Here’s a breakdown of what I used and how I put it all together for less than $30. Continue reading »

Jul 272012

So now that National Moth Week is in full swing and you’ve been checking your porch lights at night and flower beds throughout the day, you’re probably looking for some way to identify all the great new additions to your natural history lists.

There are a variety of guides, keys and other identification resources out there for Lepidoptera, and while I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t taken much time to look through them, these are the ones I turn to first when I absolutely need to identify a “lep”.

Butterflies & Skippers

National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American ButterfliesButterflies are what my friends and I like to call “honourary birds” because there are so many people out looking for them, and there are a large number of field guides produced to help with their identification. My personal choice is the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, which has fairly good live photos and detailed life history information. If I were to nitpick, I’d wish for actual range maps rather than range descriptions, and more photos of the butterflies would be nice (especially for those species which are only illustrated with one photo — a couple of times I’ve not been able to ID my photos because the representative photo had its wings closed while my photo had its wings open or vice versa).

I recently downloaded the digital app version of this field guide for my iPhone, and absolutely loved it! The Audubon Society has added plenty of new photos and still included all of the natural history information from the print edition (although still no maps…). Being in a digital format means that searching for species is a breeze, and they’ve added some social media connectivity, allowing you to share your finds from the field to Facebook. They also offer personal accounts so you can keep lists of your sightings which work across all of their field guide apps (I also have their North American Insects, Birds, Mammals, Flowers and Trees apps on my phone). I love having all this natural history information literally in my pocket and available whenever and wherever I may be!

Normally $10 (which is cheap compared to the print version at $15-25) the app is available for both Apple and Android devices. Even better, the team at Audubon has dropped the price for the app to just $0.99 until Sunday July 29th in honour of National Moth Week! Definitely a great deal and well worth a Loonie (or dollar bill).


Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North AmericaUntil recently I never really had a good guide to moths that I could reliably get IDs from. Normally I’d have to figure out what family they belonged to, and then start searching through BugGuide to find a photo of something that looked about right. Needless to say, that took a long damn time and resulted in me not paying much attention to moths beyond a casual ID of big species.

All that’s changed now that I’ve got a copy of David Beadle & Seabrooke Leckie‘s Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America. This field guide is fantastic, and a great addition to both the Peterson field guide family and my collection. The book seems nearly comprehensive for the area (there are a few noticeable things not included, like the wingless female Fall Cankerworm I showcased the other day – the winged male is included though), apparently including nearly 1,500 species, ranging from tiny micro-moths to big eye-catching species, and the photos are excellent for helping with identifications. Its taken me a little bit of time to learn the different groups and body forms of moths that are used to group similar things together, but the authors included a really useful silhouette guide at the back of the book to help n00bs like myself (one nit pick: I wish they had included page numbers under the silhouettes directing you to the start of the appropriate section). Every page also includes a life-sized shadow for a moth on the page, with the remaining images on the page displayed to scale appropriately. Because the guide includes so many species it can be tough finding the correct group to start with, but there’s only been a couple of species that I’ve been stumped by so far. At 610 pages it’s not a small guide, and there is very limited natural history information included, with the authors choosing to include bigger photos over other information (which is fine with me). Plus they have graphical range maps and flight periods, and indicate how common or rare each species is which I really like.

I can definitely see myself picking up a 2nd copy to leave up at the cottage, and I can see myself paying a little more attention to moths from now on now that I’m confident I can identify them!

Technical Keys

Of course if you can’t seem to identify a moth or butterfly, you can always turn to a technical key like Jason Dombroskie’s CJAI matrix key to the Lepidoptera of Canada (I wrote up my thoughts on it previously). It’s certainly not for beginners, and usually requires a dead, preserved specimen and observation under a microscope or magnifying loupe, but if all else fails, it is as good a resource as any.
Do you have a favourite guide to identify moths and butterflies? Feel free to leave your suggestions below in the comments, I’m always looking to expand my collection!

Jan 042012

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s not often that flies make headlines, and when they do it’s usually in a negative connotation (malaria, mosquitoes, black flies, etc). A new paper published Tuesday in PLoS ONE (Core et al, 2011) is certainly not helping this Detrimental Diptera Dillema (DDD), announcing that a species of scuttle fly (Phoridae) has been discovered parasitizing honey bees (Apis mellifera), one of the most loved insects on the planet.

Images of Apocephalus borealis and honey bees from Core et al., 2012

Fig. 2 - Images of Apocephalus borealis and honey bees from Core et al., 2012

Of course things attacking honey bees isn’t in itself news, especially in the age of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The real news here is that the scuttle fly, Apocephalus borealis, has seemingly switched hosts, previously known to be parasitic in bumble bees, paper wasps, and even black widow spiders (Brown, 1993). Other Apocephalus flies are better known as ant-decapitating flies, who’s larvae will pupate in the dismembered heads of their ant hosts. As for A. borealis, it’s association with honey bees was thanks to a serendipitous natural history observation:

(John) Hafernik, who also serves as president of the California Academy of Sciences, didn’t set out to study the parasitized bees. In 2008, he was just looking for some insects to feed the praying mantis that he had brought back to SF State’s Hensill Hall after an entomology field trip. He scrounged the bees from underneath the light fixtures outside the biology building.

“But being an absent-minded professor,” Hafernik joked, “I left them in a vial on my desk and forgot about them. Then the next time I looked at the vial, there were all these fly pupae surrounding the bees.”

San Francisco State University Press Release, January 3, 2012

After further observation, a few behavioural trials and some interesting molecular techniques, the research team found that not only were these scuttle flies parasitizing honey bees in the San Francisco Bay area, but also in migratory bee colonies housed in the Central California Valley and South Dakota, and also that infected honey bees would leave their colonies at night to fly away and die (often congregating at man-made lights and acting strangely); that all of the parasitized bees had been exposed to Nosema ceranae (a fungus which can lead to death from diarrhea and malnourishment) and/or Deformed Wing Virus (a disease that can cause malformation of a bee’s thorax and wings during pupation); and that some of the flies had evidence of these bee pathogens in their systems.

This is a lot of really interesting information for one study, but it’s not hard to see where the authors were going next with their story: scuttle flies could be contributing to CCD and posed a “new threat” to honey bees. The authors proceeded to pose a long series of questions regarding future areas of research, and how all of their findings could be detrimental to honey bee populations and the potential role these flies play in CCD. Overall, this is a very cool piece of natural history research, with a bit too much CCD hype for my liking!

You can see why the media has fallen in love with this paper; it includes flies (which no one likes on principle), honey bees (which everyone likes on principle), CCD (which scares the daylights out of everyone) and zombies (which also scare the daylights out of everyone). At the time that I wrote this post (midnight-ish Wednesday morning), I found 13 major news outlets or blogs from around the world which had covered the story (see list below).

This is where we have a problem though. Of the 13 stories I looked at, 8 of them had errors in their reports, of varying severity. What’s worse, all of the erroneous accounts were in major reporting outlets, potentially misinforming thousands of readers! It’s not surprising however, to see that 7 of the 8 stories that got things 100% correct were all science-focused publications/blogs, while one was a small-market news affiliate:

The Good

KQED News – ‘Zombie’ Parasite Preys on Bay-Area Honeybees, by Lauren Sommer

Observations (Scientific American Blog Network) – “Zombie” Fly Parasite Killing Honeybees, by Katherine Harmon

New Scientist LifeParasitic fly could account for disappearing honeybees, by Andy Coghlan

Science NowParasitic Fly Dooms Bees to Death by Maggots, by Erik Stokstad

MyrmecosDid a parasitic fly cause Colony Collapse in bees?, by Alex Wild

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceParasitic fly spotted in honeybees, causes workers to abandon colonies, by Ed Yong

The Bad

MSNBC (WebCite copy) – Stated bees which foraged at night were more likely to be parasitized than bees that foraged during the day (misinterpretation of Fig. 3A of Core et al., 2012)

Mirror (WebCite copy) – Stated that the parasite “is similar to one being found in bumblebees” (it’s not just similar, it’s the same species)

Press Association (WebCite copy) – Title states that the flies are linked to bee losses (not true, the connection between fly parasitism and CCD is simply proposed by the authors); Implied that bees are immediately turned into light-seeking zombies after the female fly lays her eggs (it appears to take up to a week for this to happen)

Daily Mail Online (WebCite copy) – Title states link between flies and global decline of bees (see above); Didn’t italicize species names (minor I know, but it bugs me)

CBC News (WebCite copy) – Implies that bees which foraged at night were more likely to be parasitized than bees that foraged during the day (see MSNBC)

io9 (WebCite copy) – “This parasite is a likely culprit (in reference to CCD – MDJ) because it does indeed force bees to abandon their colony” (authors say the fly may contribute to CCD, not that it is the likely culprit)

Daily Express (caching not allowed) – Implies that bees are parasitized in their hives and that they immediately “abandon their hives in a crazed state” (the authors are unsure of where the flies attack, but they know it’s not in the hive, and see the Press Association above); didn’t italicize species names (argh)

While I doubt that heads will roll at these institutions because of these errors (sorry, a little Apocephalus humour there), the moral of this story is that the science content the majority of the public is exposed to is not exactly the best science content available! Hopefully, as scientists and science writers continue to use social media and blogs, the good stories I featured here will reach more of the people who would normally only see the “bad” versions, imparting a correct and positive experience with the fantastic research being done every day around the world!


Update (Jan. 07, 2012, 20:30) Brian Brown, a co-author on this study and the world’s expert on these flies, has expanded on the natural history and taxonomy of the flies involved in this research on his blog ‘flyobsession’. The remainder of the research team behind this study will be setting up a FAQ to help ‘clarify’ some of the errors I reported on above, and are also beginning a new citizen science project to begin understanding how far flung this parasitism is.

Core, A., Runckel, C., Ivers, J., Quock, C., Siapno, T., DeNault, S., Brown, B., DeRisi, J., Smith, C., & Hafernik, J. (2012). A New Threat to Honey Bees, the Parasitic Phorid Fly Apocephalus borealis PLoS ONE, 7 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029639

BROWN, B. (1993). Taxonomy and preliminary phylogeny of the parasitic genus Apocephalus, subgenus Mesophora (Diptera: Phoridae) Systematic Entomology, 18 (3), 191-230 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-3113.1993.tb00662.x PDF Available HERE

Dec 062011
Spinops sternbergorum artistic reconstruction by Dmitry Bogdanov

The Victim - Spinops sternbergorum (artistic reconstruction by Dmitry Bogdanov, image from Science 2.0 story)

I don’t use this blog as a platform to rant very often, but a story published on Gawker this afternoon has me all riled up.

In “Moron Paleontologists Find New Species of Dinosaur in Their Own Museum“, author Max Read decides he’s fully qualified to judge how paleontology and taxonomy in general should be done, and criticizes a team of paleontologists for doing something every taxonomist does; study material housed in a museum. That’s right, Mr. Read snidely mocks the authors, who described a very cool new dinosaur species, for not undertaking a grand expedition to parts unknown to find this new species, instead discovering the species while re-examining specimens housed in the British Natural History Museum’s basement collections.

Nevermind the function of a museum is not just to provide a place for ignoramuses like Mr. Read to potentially learn something about natural history and gawk at fantastic displays, but also to actually house the raw data of biology; specimens. Or that people studying  specimens in museums would much rather be exploring exotic new localities but are handcuffed by a critical lack of monetary support for taxonomy, which cuts our ability search for new specimens (which are then brought back to the museum and ultimately stored, although I guess that fact never occurred to Mr. Read either). Or indeed that the process of taxonomy is not as straightforward as looking at a single specimen (or pieces of a specimen as is the case in much of paleontology) and instantly recognizing it as unique and in need of a new name.

The true shame of all this is the fact that the blog network Mr. Read writes for is composed of a number of blogs which routinely write well-versed and well-researched pieces on science and technology (io9 & Gizmodo to be precise). How this fascinating story was forwarded onto Mr. Read and not to authors in those other fine networks who I’m sure could have done it justice is almost as outrageous as Mr. Read’s story itself.

Natural history collections are one of the most valuable resources we have as a society, providing a link to the world around us, and to believe that people shouldn’t be studying the material contained within them is like believing that libraries shouldn’t be used for fact checking. Oh, wait…

(If you want to see how science journalism SHOULD be done, I encourage you to read Science 2.0’s version of the story)

Jul 232011

Yes, this is my best Canadian moth photo...

This week saw the publication of one of the broadest identification aids yet in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification; A Matrix Key to Families, Subfamilies and Tribes of Lepidoptera of Canada by Jason Dombroskie.

Arguably the most popular insects, butterflies, skippers and large, showy moths have had many a field guide written about them, and are generally easy to identify simply by comparison to photographs. However, the large majority of Lepidoptera are small, obscure and have traditionally been difficult to identify. By using simplified characters (including morpho-metric ratios), Jason has created an open-ended, user-friendly matrix key which aims to streamline the identification of even the most minuscule moths. Each subfamily/tribe covered includes a representative photo, notes on biology and taxonomy, and citations for further information.

The key is designed to be used in the lab with a dissecting microscope, but I decided to see how it worked for identifying photos. Using my only 2 photos of Lepidoptera from Canada (I’m not a fan of leps, what can I say), I ran them through the key to get a feel for how the matrix worked. First up was the photo of a female Fall Cankerworm (Alsophila pometaria; Geometridae) pictured above; wingless and not very moth-looking, I thought it’d be an easy ID. I thought wrong. After going through every character included in the key which I could confidently see in my series of photos, I was left with 4 possible tribes in 3 different families (one of which was correct). Unfortunately a photo of a wingless female wasn’t the representative for the taxon page, so I was unable to confidently assign an identification via this key; a shame considering how conspicuous this large, wingless moth is! My second attempt was with a photo of a European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola; Hesperiidae), and again I was stymied by a multitude of possible end taxa. While I have no doubt that this key will be invaluable for identifying micro-moths under a microscope, I’ll be sticking to traditional field guides if I happen to photograph other lepidopteran megafauna.

It’s also important to note that the key is run in a third-party program (XID), which is currently Windows-exclusive (although I hear there is an Android app in the works…). So if you’re a Mac user, you’ll need to borrow someone’s PC to identify your moths!

Despite some compatibility issues and my ineptitude with Lepidoptera, this is another extremely valuable paper which will certainly make the identifications of those tiny Tineidae and other micro-moths a much simpler task!


ResearchBlogging.orgDombroskie, J. (2011). A Matrix Key to Families, Subfamilies and Tribes of Lepidoptera of Canada Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, 17 DOI: 10.3752/cjai.2011.17 OPEN ACCESS

Jun 012011

Queen of the Sun movie posterWe’ve heard it repeated in the media before, with varying degrees of alarmism; honey bees are disappearing, and society better repent before we follow them. Termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in North America, the number of bee colonies which are dying or exiting en mass (swarming) leaving beekeeper’s hives empty has garnered a great deal of attention in the past few years. Of course there’s plenty of evidence that honey bee populations have been in decline for decades and CCD isn’t really a new phenomenon, but sometimes facts just get in the way of a good story, don’ t they?

That’s the way I felt after watching the new documentary Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us? – the production team didn’t want to weigh the audience down with actual evidence for theories proposed by featured beekeepers or even some of the “experts”. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the film, I did, I just left feeling that so much more could have been done to educate the audience.

The movie starts off with endless acres of almond trees in California and the bees trucked in from around the USA tasked with pollinating this giant monoculture. From here the film gathers the opinions of some of the most eccentric beekeepers I’ve seen (which is saying something, trust me) on why the bees are disappearing, with some input from “experts”. It was the beekeepers which make this movie worth a watch, and while each and every one of them personifies bees more than I’d like (damn my scientific objectivity), and there is a lot of Gaiaism and Druid religious undertones, meeting and watching these beekeepers work was a lot of fun. Whether it was the bee historian/Yogi who tickles his bees with his impressive mustache or the rooftop apiculturists in London, UK & Brooklyn, New York (where in the former city beekeeping is legal and the latter illegal), the filmmakers found some very interesting people who shared a passion for their hobby/trade.

The majority of the theories on what is causing the decline of the bees comes from the beekeepers with notes thrown in from the chosen “experts”. I’m using the term “expert” loosely, mainly because there were virtually no credentials or explanation about what made each person an “expert” on the topic. Some I recognized, like May Berenbaum from University of Illinois or Scott Black of the Xerces Society and trusted their opinions because of my knowledge of their work. Others, I have no clue why they were consulted; a physicist discussing genetically-modified plants transferring modified bacteria genomes to bees, without mention of why a physicist would be involved with this research or what institute she was associated with? Providing further credentials and background for each expert would allow the audience to make an informed decision on the information provided to them.

Overall, Queen of the Sun was an entertaining movie with some beautiful photography and fantastic people. If you’re looking for a movie which celebrates individuality and passion for apiculture, then this is your movie. If you’re looking for a scientific nature documentary, stick to David Attenborough and the BBC!


May 302011

Normally I’m pretty excited to see a new identification guide published in the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification; I get to see great images of insects I haven’t come across (yet), ID any of my photos which I couldn’t previously, and just have something new to read that I find especially interesting. The most recent publication is a little more exciting for me however, as I’m the lead author and it marks the culmination of several years work! W00t!

Without further ado, I present to you the Fruit Flies (Tephritidae) of Ontario! I’ll be going over the different aspects of the paper all this week; today focusing on the identification tools, Wednesday on a few of the important species, and Friday I’ll talk about how it’s relatively easy to contribute to CJAI!


Apple maggot fruit fly on apple with map of Ontario inscribed in it Continue reading »

May 042011

The latest volume of the Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification was published today, and it’s one of the most visually compelling keys published so far! Allowing you to identify all the world’s genera of Clusiidae as well as the species found in North America, this new key provides plenty of fantastic photos, an awesome layout and functionality, and something not yet utilized in CJAI papers, a Lucid™ Matrix key. While I’m personally not a fan of Lucid™ products in particular, matrix keys provide users an open-ended path to identification, increasing the chances of a correct identification.

While clusiid flies aren’t necessarily the most frequently observed flies, they are nonetheless fascinating, featuring some incredible behaviours. One of the few acalyptrate families to defend lekking territories, males will take up residence on sunny stretches of logs or dry forest floors and battle with other males for prime areas. Check out the battle gear on these two males:

Procerosoma alini male head - Lonsdale et al 2011

Procerosoma alini male head - Lonsdale et al 2011

Hendelia kinetrolikros - Lonsdale et al 2011

Hendelia kinetrolikros - Lonsdale et al 2011











Continue reading »

Apr 112011

This post is going to be longer and a little more technical than normal; feel free to jump in and out, or just check out some of the photos on your way to the conclusions. Although I may come across as critical and occasionally cynical at times, I’m not picking on anyone just to be a thorn, but rather to promote scientific discussion; I fully encourage you to join the discussion in the comments section. Finally, in the spirit of full disclosure, a portion of my graduate research was funded via the NSF Tree of Life grant behind this paper (although neither myself nor my research contributed to this project in any manner that I’m aware of), and one of my academic advisors is a co-author on the paper.

Asilidae with Prey - Ecuador

Robber Fly with Prey - Asilidae - Ecuador

Despite my best efforts here at Biodiversity in Focus, research on flies very rarely makes the mainstream media (besides mosquitoes, malaria and Drosophila of course), so when one of the most important papers on fly evolution was released and started making the science blog circuit, I was excited to see people taking an interest in Dipterology! There was one problem however, which is not limited to the blogosphere and this paper, but has been an increasingly common trend in insect systematics: the blind acceptance and assumption that a new phylogeny is the definitive answer because the researchers used an ever increasing number of genes. One influential blogger, who’s also an evolutionary entomologist, summarized the results of the Diptera tree of life as such:

But they’re solid results, since they’re based on lots of molecular data and the branch positions are well supported.   — Jerry A. Coyne, Ph.D

Similarly, the research team who published the tree are encouraging the idea that their results are infallible by labeling their work the “New Periodic Table of Flies”. A bold statement, and one that many taxonomists might be hesitant to make as it implies that they don’t expect future studies to return different relationships, much as the periodic table of chemical elements is not about to change. An analogy like this requires a strong body of evidence to support it, so let’s take a look at what they did and how the Diptera family tree looks!

Continue reading »

Jan 202011

Lately I’ve showcased a number of scientific papers that I’ve dubbed “Cool Science”; today is no exception, except this paper is cool for what should be all the wrong reasons. But let me start at the beginning.

Continue reading »