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.

Dec 172012

Sheldon & Leonard from Big Bang Theory

Sheldon: Which bees are the best kissers? 

Leonard: What? I don’t know…

Sheldon: Euglossa1. Bazinga.

Not only is that a pretty bad joke (even by sitcom standards), but it’s also the scientific name of a newly described orchid bee. Let me introduce you to Euglossa bazinga Nemésio & Ferrari:

Euglossa bazinga Nemésio & Ferrari 2012 Orchid bee

Euglossa bazinga Nemésio & Ferrari 2012

Found in the Brazilian Cerrado and other dry, open savannahs, this species was differentiated from the similar Euglossa ignita. According to the authors, Euglossa bazinga is the smallest species in the subgenus Euglossa (Glossura), but it possesses the longest tongue relative to it’s body size. Many taxonomists would perhaps see this as a good character to derive a name from (gigaglossa springs to mind, or perhaps microsomamegaglossa2 for the verbose), so how did Nemésio & Ferrari settle on Euglossa bazinga?

Etymology: The specific epithet honors the clever, funny, captivating “nerd” character Sheldon Cooper, brilliantly portrayed by the North American actor James Joseph “Jim” Parsons on the CBS TV show “The Big Bang Theory”. Sheldon Cooper’s favorite comic word “bazinga”, used by him when tricking somebody, was here chosen to represent the character. Euglossa bazinga sp. n. has tricked us for some time due to its similarity to E. ignita, which eventually led us to use “bazinga”. Sheldon Cooper has also an asteroid named after him (246247 Sheldoncooper).

–  Nemésio & Ferrari, 2012

I think this may be a first for a Celebronym, with the species named after a catchphrase rather than the actual character or celebrity! What’s next, a beetle with enlarged fore tarsi named “ayyyyy” after The Fonz? As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t mind these Celebronyms personally, especially when they serve to draw attention to a very special habitat such as the Brazilian Cerrado.

No matter what your stance on Celebronyms, the joke may be on the authors of this new species; Sheldon Cooper is allergic to bees! Bazinga.

NEMÉSIO A. & FERRARI R.R. (2012). Euglossa (Glossura) bazinga sp. n. (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Apinae, Apini, Euglossina), a new orchid bee from western Brazil, and designation of a lectotype for Euglossa (Glossura) ignita Smith, 1874, Zootaxa, 3590  63-72. Other: urn:lsid:zoobank.org:pub:E9C0A568-8BBC-4E1D-8F05-C7FA1966B0D3

  1. Euglossa  – Greek – “eu” = good, well; “glossa” = tongue; Euglossa = “well-tongued”, in reference to their very long mouthparts.
  2. “little body, big tongue”
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

Jan 032012

Ryan FleacrestWell here we are, a full year after I started this little musical column. Turns out there are a lot more artists who have brought in the funk with insect content than I could have imagined, making quite a diverse playlist (which I’m going to curate in one place and post soon, don’t worry). My goal was to feature a new song every week, and I almost made it, having only forgotten last week! So close! Oh well, I’ve covered more than 52 songs throughout the year, so I suppose I’m still ahead of the game.

I enjoyed writing these pieces each week, and often surprised myself with where the final product ended up. Some were silly, some I tried to deliver a message, and some were intimately personal. It goes to show just how a song can impact a person and inspire a full range of emotions.

With that being said, this may be the last Tuesday Tunes for a bit. No fear, I still have plenty of insect music to share and write about, but there are some other weekly projects I want to try and do, and I’m ready to turn this into an occasional feature, coming around maybe once a month or so.

Today is as good a time as any for another multi-song version of Tuesday Tunes, with another band I listened to through high school; Alien Ant Farm.

When you hear about Alien Ant Farm, you probably think of their biggest hit (and Michael Jackson cover), Smooth Criminal. Other than the band’s ant-head logo on the canvas of the boxing ring, there’s not much entomological about this song, but it’s still a fun song, so enjoy!

Their logo isn’t their only entomological expression however, as they also penned and performed the songs Crickets and Beehive on their 2006 album Up in the Attic:

And to top it all off, Alien Ant Farm wrote a special song for the 2002 movie Spider-Man, Bug Bytes:

So that’s it for Tuesday Tunes for awhile! Thanks to those of you who joined me on this journey through music history, and keep an eye out for more songs in the future!

These songs are available on iTunes (except for Beehive, which was a bonus song):
Smooth Criminal – ANThology
Crickets – Up In the Attic
Bug Bytes – Spider-Man (Music from and Inspired By)

Dec 062011

Ryan FleacrestLet me start by saying that when I went looking for a song for this week’s Tuesday Tunes, I didn’t expect to find such a gem as this. All I wanted was something simple that would allow me to segue into some very cool insect news, but what I got instead was one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard, but which actually has some relevant biology included in the lyrics. That being said, consider yourself warned: there’s cool science ahead, but also some really, really, bad music!

The University of California Davis insect collection announced yesterday (with future taxonomic publication to come I assume) that they collected specimens of Bombus cockerelli Franklin 1913 for the first time since 1956. Collected again from it’s extremely restricted known range (a 300 square mile plot of land in New Mexico), this species is understandably rare in insect collections. There has apparently been considerable debate amongst Bombus experts over whether B. cockerelli represented a unique species or whether it was a variant of the much more common Bombus vagans, and with museum specimens 50+ years old, there has been no ability to compare DNA between species. Lead researcher Doug Yanega implies that molecular evidence obtained from these new specimens supports B. cockerelli as its own species, and it will be interesting to see in future publications how this species fits into the larger Bombus picture! Doug has some succinct comments on why it shouldn’t come as a surprise to rediscover an insect species thought to be “lost”, so I’d highly recommend giving the press release a read!

Bombus cockerelli from EOL.org

Bombus cockerelli courtesy of EOL.org (CC-BY-NC-SA)


Moving on to this week’s “killer” song, if you grew up in the late 90’s (or had offspring doing so), you’re probably familiar with the musical torture stylings torture that was Aqua, the Danish pop band responsible for the hit song Barbie Girl. This week I bring you another musical instrument of torture, Bumble Bees:

Well, did you catch the surprisingly accurate lyrics as pertaining to pollination biology? From the “Wham bam, thank you mam” insinuating the correct sex for flower visiting bees, to the fact that bumblebees regularly leave “donations” of pollen while “invading” deep flowers, the song is actually pretty good for biology. Even though it sounds horrible, Aqua get props for taking the time to pen some pollination biology into their “music”!


If you haven’t had enough, this song is available on iTunes – Bumble Bees – Aquarius

Jun 292011

About lowly human parking laws at least!

Honey Bee swarm on No Parking Sign

Honey Bee Don't Care!

Yep, a honey bee swarm decided that this parking sign in our department’s parking lot was as good a place as any to settle down for the evening. Lucky for them, the parking authority goes home at 5…

Honey bees on parking sign with text saying Subject to Tow Away

We're going to need a smaller truck!


Honey bee on parking sign lateral

One of the offenders


May 312011

Ryan FleacrestThere are few insects which enjoy the adoration, fame and geographical range that the domestic honey bee (Apis mellifera) does, so it’s surprising that there are relatively few songs singing their praises. Of course, that doesn’t stop artists of all eras from using the sweet “nectar” produced by these entomological factory farms as a cutesy term of endearment for a loved one! Makes you wonder whether Blake Shelton is known as “honey bee” to his wife…

I first head this song on Twitter via Dr. May Berenbaum (@MayBerenbaum) which makes a slick segue into my next post; a review of the new documentary Queen of the Sun, which features Dr. Berenbaum’s expert opinions on the plight of the honey bee in America! Pretty good eh? Make sure you check it out soon, but until then, Fleacrest, out!

This song is available on iTunes – Honey Bee – Honey Bee – Single


Jan 282011

Today’s special guest blogger is Jess Vickruck, a PhD candidate at Brock University. Jess studies twig nesting bee diversity and the impacts of nest choice on their biology.

When I first started my master’s project, my intention was to look at how nest choice affected fitness in twig nesting carpenter bees (genus Ceratina, family Apidae).  Little did I know that along with twigs full of bee larvae I would also get up close and personal with numerous uninvited house guests who all had one thing in mind – Ceratina are delicious!  Although my supervisor continually reminded me that my thesis was about the bees and not the species that eat bees, I wrote up the data, and lucky for me it appears in the 2010 edition of the Journal of the Entomological Society of Ontario.

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