Monthly Archives: January 2013

Insects and people: News from this week

Weekly, well be posting news stories about how insects affect people. Here are a couple of stories from the last few days.

Crickety energy

Many people have been suggesting now that one way to make our food source more sustainable is for people to eat insects. Theyre cheap and a good source of protein. Its not uncommon in other countries, but most people I know are still freaked out about in the US. Theres even a TED talk about it. And a very well-done blog devoted to it. And even Dr. Oz recommends it! (So it MUST be good, right?) This movement has been growing some momentum, and its even considered in to eat insects right now, according to The List of whats supposed to be in/out this year. Although lots of different companies market things like insects in candy as novelty items, this week, there was a news story about a company using cricket-enriched flour in their energy bars. The crickets are milled, so youre not going to bite into a crunchy leg. The company hopes this is a way to ease Americans into eating insects. I, personally, really like this idea. So, maybe a meal of mealworms isnt that far away for you!

Waxing and endangered crabs? (Not the delicious kind.) 

A bloomberg news report (and subsequently, many other news outlets) suggest that waxing will cause crabs to be endangered. (Not the kind you had for dinner last night.the itchy, pubic lice variety.) Make sense, right? No hair, no place for these itchy insects to live. But making an appointment at your local waxer is not likely to completely eradicate this species. A well-reasoned (and hilarious) response from @bug_girl shows there really no data to support this. The paper thats often cited in these news stories shows a decline in pubic lice from a certain area in England, yes. But they dont show data on waxing rates. From anywhere. They tell anecdotal stories about it. Bug Girl dug into the topic a little more, and shows that baldness is the least used pubic hairstyle, even for college-age women, who are more likely to groom in this manner. And if theres hair around, there is the potential for crabs! So, in short, waxing may get rid our your crabs (ewwyou have crabs?), but the species isnt likely to be wiped off the planet anytime soon. BUTwhat if it was? Slate News reported a satirical piece on if this happened, and it involves Sex in the City, dinosaurs, crabs and asteroids.

Corpse eating flies help reveal hidden species

Insects are often used as bio-indicator speciesan organism that is used to signal something about the environment. For instance, the composition of insects in a stream can indicate pollution levels in a stream because only a few insects can live in a very polluted stream.  Last year, scientists reported that they are able to detect rare animals living in the forest of Vietnam by sequencing DNA found in blood from leech guts. It is hard to study rare species simply because theyre hard to find, and mammals, like other animals, often try to avoid detection by potential predators by making them selves hard to see in the thick forest. This week, scientists published data showing that they are also able to use DNA sequences from gut contents of insects, flies that feed on corpses of animals, to detect rare mammals in the rain forests of Côte dIvoire. Sampling carrion-eating insects may prove a valuable tool in the future for studying endangered species, and ultimately, understanding how best to conserve these species. Yay, flies!

Insect Songsnoise or Music?

You’ve undoubtedly heard many insects making sounds, and maybe you find certain noises of theirs annoying, such as flies and bees buzzing. There are some true musicians in the insect world: namely, orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) and cicadas. There are countless scientific studies on insect songs, ranging from descriptive studies that detail the particular song of a species, to how temperature affects insect songs. If you’re interested, there is a blog dedicated solely to the music of nature, which discusses insect songs much more in-depth than I will here.

I started thinking more about the songs of these insects when I started working at my current field site at the University of Houstons Coastal Center, a remnant of rare tallgrass coastal prairie along the Gulf Coast of Texas. You can hear different orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) calling at different times of the day. The softer thrills of southeastern crickets while it’s dark, and loud calls of katydids during the heat of the day, which to me often sound like those sprinklers with rotating heads.

Not knowing too much about these different insect calls, I started looking for a good resource on the subject and stumbled across this wonderful book by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger. It describes 72 species of orthopterans and cicadas that produce songs in east/central North America. The best part, for an insect geek like me, is the CD it contains that provides sound clips of many of these insects singing, and if you’re particularly interested, you can learn to identify many species of these singing insects by learning their calls.

Most of these songs are produced to find a mate, and it’s more often the males calling to attract females than visa versa. Sometimes calls let another male, potentially rivaling for females know not to get too close, that this area is claimed. A few band-winged grasshopper species (characterized most simply by bright, colorful wings) produce a clicking sound both in an attempt to scare off a potential predator, and, again, to attract mates.

So, are people affected by these insect musicians? My guess would be if you asked this question to the average urban or suburban American, they would say no. In these settings, we hear fewer insects simply because there isn’t much habitat for them in cities, and even where there is grass, it’s often a lawn that is mowed or treated with pesticides. If they happen to be observant and live in the areas of certain annual cicadas whose calls are harbingers of summer, they may say yes. Maybe folks in rural areas would be inclined to admit a nostalgia for or distinct feeling of summer upon hearing insect songs, as this is when many of these singing insects are active.

David Attenborough talks about what is considered one of the most spectacular gatherings of insect musicians globally, the songs of 17-year cicadas in the midwestern US in the BBCs Life in the Undergrowth (which, as a side note, is a must watch series for anyone that appreciates insects).

The first time I experienced this phenomenon was as a child in 1987, growing up in Northern Kentucky. Once they emerged, cicadas appeared to be dripping off plants. You could not walk down the sidewalk without stepping on one. My mom and I made cobblers from blackberries we’d picked. My aunt bit into something crunchy, and sure enough, a cicada had snuck into the cobbler. Either way, the major thing I remember was people complaining about them. In places with many old trees where the ground has not recently been tilled, the screeching can, as Attenborough says, be deafening. This large emergence of cicadas has other important effects on ecosystems, including effects nutrient cycles (Yang 2004), and providing huge pulses of food for predators, which often causes a boom in predator populations, such as red-winged blackbirds that also have distinctive calls (Strehl and White 1986). Although not everyone appreciates this phenomenal spectacle, it is certainly a wonder of nature.

Apparently, in certain areas of Asia, however, singing insects are revered. In Japan, people sell insects as a profession (and are called mushiya; there is a book chapter about this here).  People keep them in their houses in the winter time so they can hear their songs year-round, and plan vacations to places where certain insects are known to call. Calling insects are also important to people in China: there has even been recent press about this (although, the title is misleading the insects are not singing for their food). One man, who apparently carries around a singing orthopteran in his pocket is quoted as saying, During the winter it is dry and cold and you cannot hear any birdsong. The sound of bush crickets makes me happier. That would make me happy in the cold, gray winter, too!

But now there is evidence that singing insects are affected by our noise as well.  A forthcoming study in Functional Ecology has gotten a lot of public press recently (Lampe et al 2012) provides evidence that male grasshoppers near German roadsides alter their songs to be better heard by potential female mates. This is the first evidence that insect musicians must now compensate for human noise. I wonder what other insects may be changing their songs because were a noisy species?

Human feelings about these singers may range from annoyance to appreciation to reverence. I’d like to do more research but haven’t seen any studies that attempt to quantify how humans feel about the sounds of different insects. Although Japanese and Chinese cultures are certainly influenced by insect songs, their economies must be affected in some small way, I haven’t yet found any studies that quantify this.

I, for one, have gained a fondness for insects songs, and a desire to be able to identify insects by their songs since my time working in prairies. Do you notice these singing insects? Do they affect your life in any appreciable way?

Why We Are Starting This Blog

We often get asked, why? Why study insects? Even other scientists who agree that insects are interesting don’t necessarily think that insects may have important effects in ecosystems compared to bigger animals. Angela and I were at a grassland meeting together, and, over lunch, a well-respected professor laughed at us when we were discussing a future experiment looking at how important grasshoppers were to grasslands at our field site. You’re talking about a bug on a leaf!, he crooned, while laughing hysterically.

So why? Other than the fact that we personally love insects, insects have very important roles in ecosystems, and believe it or not, to human society and well-being. Science has shown this.  We got a paper that will soon be published reviewing this subject (well post about it soon!). E. O. Wilson, a famous ecologist, and insect lover wrote an article entitled The little things that run the world where he claimed that humans would not survive more than a few months if all insects were removed from the Earth overnight. Luckily, we’ll never know if this is true. But, we know that they’re extremely important to humans in many ways.

We’ll use this blog to highlight the ways that insects affect us humans (both positively and negatively!). Selfishly, this is also a place for us to keep these examples documented for our teaching and research purposes. We hope that you get something out of this. Feel free to contact us to share your experiences (or examples we might not be aware of) regarding how insects affect you!