Whole Hog Into Debugging Michigan Apples

April 9, 2014

FROM TIME to TIME over the course of the centuries, agriculture seems to reinvent itself, and if anything modern agriculture based on the industrial model seems to be unconsciously integrating the higher animals back into the fruit tree groves, at least among those Michigan entomologists and farmers who appreciate the overlooked virtues of the hog as a faithful human servant at the beck and command of its handlers for hunting down pests that have become resistant to pesticides and difficult to control even with the latest pheromone mating disruption technologies. To those combating or hunting down feral pigs and wild boar disrupting native ecosystems and rooting up farm crops, turning pigs loose in apple, cherry, pear and other fruit tree orchards is likely to seem a heretical notion belonging to renegade rednecks or radical hippie farmers from the counterculture past stuck in a continuous time-warp loop with Spock and the characters from Star Trek.

One of the advantages of attending Entomological Society of America meetings is being able to follow themes like “livestock-crop reintegration,” which Ceres Trust Research Grants have been funding for Michigan State University entomologists like Krista Buehrer and Matthew Grieshop. Basically, organic hogs provide organic fruit orchards control of weeds and insect pests like plum curculio (Conotrachelus nenuphar), codling moth (Cydia pomonella) and Oriental fruit moth (Grapholita molesta). “The rotation of hogs through different pastures and orchards with supplemental nutrition sources” is also “a method of livestock-crop integration that avoids the problem of adhering to National Organic Policy (NOP) and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) policies restricting the application of manure prior to harvest,” wrote Buehrer in “Graduate Student Final Report – Ceres Trust Research Grant.”

Rotating organic hogs through organic fruit orchards to clean out weeds and insect pests hidden inside fallen fruits, traces its roots to Charles Valentine Riley, who pioneered modern biological control in the orange orchards of Los Angeles, California. In his 1871 “Third Annual Report on the Noxious, Beneficial and other Insects of the State of Missouri,” Riley said that for apple curculio “the only real remedy is the destruction of infested fruit.” In 1890, writing in the Iowa Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin, C.P. Gillette suggested grazing orchards with sheep or hogs to eat the insect-infested “windfallen fruit” on the orchard floor and thereby reduce pest populations.

From the 1800s into the Roaring Twenties, Iowa apple growers could not get rid of apple curculios by shaking the trees, cultivating the soil, pruning, or spraying arsenic pesticides, leading B.B. Fulton in 1925 and 1926 to test hog grazing on the “Apple Grove Orchards south of Mitchellville, Iowa.” Writing in the Journal of Agricultural Research in 1928, Fulton said: “The experiments with pasturing pigs were successful from a business standpoint. A cost account kept for the two years showed that this method of control was more than economical, for it actually netted a profit. In 1925 each pig returned a net profit of $10 above cost and feed and in 1926 a net profit of $7.65…five pigs per acre can, if properly handled, clean up the early dropped apples in an orchard and thus control the apple curculio. The critical time for such control, as shown by the seasonal history data, is from the middle of June until about the middle of July. Pigs weighing about 100 pounds are the best size for this purpose since they do not tramp down the low branches. They do not feed from the trees…”

Krista Buehrer told the 2012 ESA Annual meeting in Austin, Texas that weekly rotations (June-August) of grazing hogs eating dropped fruit (containing pests inside) on the orchard floor produced marketable organic hogs and reduced pests without harming earthworms or beneficial insects (e.g. lady beetles, lacewings, ground beetles, spiders, parasitoid wasps, tachinid flies, syrphid flies, dolichopodid flies, ants). ““There were 3 control plots and 3 hog grazed plots,” said Buehrer. “Grazed plots were bordered by electric fencing to prevent hogs from escaping. Twenty-four Berkshire hogs were rotated through each grazed plot twice. In 2012, they were in each plot for 1.5 weeks per rotation, for a total of 3 weeks per grazed plot. In 2013 they were in each plot for 1 week per rotation, for a total of 2 weeks per grazed plot. Hogs ranged from 50-90 lbs (23-41 kg) each.”

Hog grazing really only scratches the surface of changing fruit orchard floor management, which includes cover crops, living mulches, composts, etc. Perhaps it is more a case of everything old becoming new again, as grazing by cattle, sheep, goats, wild pigs and boar are considered part of traditional European agroforestry systems.


Drones, Bug-Bombs & Future Weed Control

February 21, 2014

FUTURE WEED CONTROL, looking out several decades, will inevitably by necessity gradually start shifting towards weed-eating insects for biological control, with a lesser mix of herbicides and tillage. Drones delivering “Bug-Bombs” with payloads of beneficial weed-eating insects may not be the fastest or deadliest means of killing weeds, but it is an ecological strategy with many benefits for fighting weeds in remote terrain, rangelands and large, hard-to-reach areas in general.

Yong-Lak Park, a West Virginia University (Morgantown) entomologist, calls it “Shooting insects from the sky: Aerial delivery of natural enemies using aerospace engineering.” At a late-night session of the KYE (Korean Young Entomologists) in Austin, Texas as part of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Park’s informative slide show (now posted on the Internet) depicted a range of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) designs and even a California vineyard in the agricultural vanguard with its own drones (not unlike flying model airplanes). Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a New Feudalism, where behind moated walls with locked gates and barking dogs, in an entertainment room with big screens and small monitors, sit modern medieval lords with joy sticks in hand commanding drone armies and air forces trying to rule universes, suburban lots and whatever.

Like model airplanes, UAVs are lightweight, inexpensive and relatively safe and easy to control, Park told the room full of Korean entomologists and a lone non-Korean writer in attendance. Equipped with sensor modules, GPS, digital cameras and video image analysis capabilities, UAVs can monitor weeds and detect weed biocontrol weevils on the ground with a resolution of up to 3 inches (8 cm). UAVs similar in design to the infamous drones used by certain governments for extrajudicial killings, and small helicopter-like octarotors are among the aerospace vehicles capable of delivering beneficial “Bug-Bombs” (bug pods) to large, hard-to-reach areas for biological control of weeds such as morning glory and mile-a-minute weed (Polygonum perfoliatum).

Galileo’s legendary sixteenth century scientific experiment dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to see how fast they fell came to mind when Park described his rooftop tests dropping Bug-Bombs filled with weed-eating weevils from different heights. Only rather than challenging Aristotle’s ancient teachings, Park wanted to see if the bug pods, which are cannisters shaped like the bombs you see dropping from Allied planes in World War II film footage, would cushion the weevils when they hit the ground from different heights. Indeed, 80-90% of the beneficial weed-eating weevils inside the bomb-shaped pods survived being dropped 0, 10, 20 and 30 meters (0, 33, 66, 98 ft). The idea being that the pods pop open when they hit the ground in some remote weed-infested area, and the weevils hop out and go about their everyday life of eating their favorite weed and reproducing new generations of weevils.

Basically, you get an army of weevils on the ground doing weed control, as opposed to aerial bombardment with herbicides and all their environmental side effects. This is known as classical biological control of weeds, and it has a long track record. On the downside, it is expensive to find the right insects, as they must be collected, reared and tested to make sure that they stick to the weeds (so you don’t inadvertently introduce a crop pest, for instance). Then you need permits. It might be millions of dollars and decades later before all the hurdles are leaped and a successful program is out the gate. But it has worked against several dozen weeds, and often a successful program can then be easily replicated in a new location.


A Butterfly Ballet (haiku)

July 28, 2013

A butterfly ballet
In the front window
White wings and black dots dancing on purple lantana


Bed Bug Herbal Remedies Work Well With Traps

July 15, 2013

THE NEEM TREE (Azadirachta indica), a medicinal mahogany tree (Meliaceae) native to arid broadleaf and scrub forests in Asia (e.g. India), has been used for over 4,000 years in Vedic medicine and has a heavy, durable wood useful for furniture and buildings because it is resistant to termites and fungi. Nonetheless, despite US EPA registration as a pesticide for crop and home use and a long legacy of neem seed oil use for cosmetics, shampoos, toothpastes and medicines in India, Ohio State University researcher Susan Jones could not find any households near her Columbus, Ohio, home willing to try neem in her bed bug control experiments.

“We had no study takers because of the regulatory requirements,” which scared off people, Jones told the Entomological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting. “You have to read page after page to residents about toxicity without being able to talk about the toxicity of alternative products” not as safe as neem. In October 2012, an empty house with bed bugs became available for research when its occupant opted to escape a bad bed bug infestation by leaving the infested home; and inadvertently transferred the infestation to their new home.

Jones monitored the empty house by placing in each room four (4) Verifi(TM) CO2 (carbon dioxide) traps and four (4) Climbup(R) Interceptor traps. Visual inspections revealed few bed bugs. On October 24, 2012, prior to neem treatments, 38 bed bugs were captured in Climbup(R) traps, indicating bed bug infestations only in the master bedroom and bed of the empty house. Eight Verifi(TM) traps captured 48 bed bugs in the dining room, guest room and master bedroom. As part of an IPM (integrated pest management) approach using multiple treatment tools: Electrical sockets were treated with MotherEarth(R) D diatomaceous earth; 3.67 gal (13.9 l) at a rate of 1 gal/250 ft2 (3.9 l/23 m2). Gorilla Tape(R) was used to seal around the doors and exclude bed bug movement from other rooms.

The neem seed oil product, Cirkil(TM) RTU, was sprayed in various places, including on books, backs of picture frames and cardboard boxes. Vials of the insecticide-susceptible Harlan bed bug strain were placed around the house for on-site neem seed oil vapor toxicity assays. Two days after spraying, bed bug mortality from neem seed oil vapors was highest in confined spaces; with 48% mortality in vials placed between the mattress and box spring, versus 28% mortality in open spaces. On Nov. 6, two weeks post-treatment, 123 dead bed bugs were vacuumed up and live bed bugs were detected in a second bedroom. Bed bug numbers were low because the monitoring traps were doing double duty, also providing population suppression by removing many bed bugs.

Herbal oils can also be combined with heat chambers at 50 C (122 F) or carbon dioxide (CO2) fumigation chambers to combat bed bugs. However, heat chambers are expensive, and CO2 fumigation with dry ice can pose handling difficulties and room air circulation issues, Dong-Hwan Choe of the University of California, Riverside, told the Entomological Society of America (ESA).

Herbal essential oils are useful against head lice, and in Choe’s native Korea clove oil from from the leaves and flower buds of clove plants (Syzygium aromaticum) is used in aromatherapy and as a medicine. Clove oil is rich in GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) compounds such as eugenol, beta-caryophyllene and methyl salicylate (sometimes called wintergreen oil), which are useful as vapors in control of insects and microbes. In dentistry, clove oil (eugenol) is widely used as an antiseptic and pain reliever.

Clove essential oils work faster in closed spaces or fumigation chambers (e.g. vials, Mason jars) than in open spaces. Essential oils are even slower to kill bed bugs when orally ingested. In experiments at varied temperatures, Choe placed 10 bed bugs in plastic vials with mesh tops. The vials were placed inside 900 ml (1.9 pint) Mason jars; filter paper treated with essential oils was placed on the underside of the Mason jar tops.

Herbal essential oils worked faster at higher temperatures. For example, methyl salicylate fumigant vapors provided 100% bed bug mortality in 30 hours at 26 C (79 F); 10 hours at 35 C (95 F); and 8 hours at 40 C (104 F). Eugenol vapors produced similar results; there were no synergistic or additive effects from combining eugenol and methyl salicylate. Choe told the ESA that his future trials will include: botanical oil granules; exposing bed bug-infested items to essential oil vapors; and checking for sublethal essential oil effects on parameters such as female bed bug reproduction.

Narinderpal Singh of Rutgers placed bed bugs on cotton fabric squares treated (half left untreated) with synthetic pesticide and herbal essential oil products: 1) Temprid(TM) SC, a mixture of imidacloprid and cyfluthrin (neonicotinoid and pyrethroid insecticides); 2) Ecoraider(TM) (Reneotech, North Bergen, NJ) contains FDA GRAS ingredients labeled as “made from extracts of multiple traditional herbs that have been used in Asia for hundreds of years for therapy and to repel insects;” 3) Demand(R) CS, which contains lambda-cyhalothrin (a pyrethroid insecticide); 4) Bed Bug Patrol(R) (Nature’s Innovation, Buford, FL), a mixture with the active ingredients listed as clove oil, peppermint oil and sodium lauryl sulfate.&&

Temprid(TM) SC and Demand(R) CS proved best on the cotton fabric test. In arena bioassays with Climbup(R)Interceptor traps, none of the four insecticides were repellent to bed bugs (i.e. repellency was less than 30%). Ecoraider(TM) was equal to Temprid(TM) SC and Demand(R) CS against the tough to kill bed bug eggs. Singh concluded that field tests of Ecoraider(TM) as a biopesticide were warranted.

Changlu Wang of Rutgers told the ESA that travelers might be protected from bed bug bites and bring home fewer bed bugs if protected by essential oil repellents, as well as by more traditional mosquito and tick repellents like DEET, permethrin and picaridin. Repellents are more convenient and less expensive than non-chemical alternatives such as sleeping under bed bug tents and bandaging yourself in a protective suit.

Isolongifolenone, an odorless sesquiterpene found in the South American Tauroniro tree (Humiria balsamifera), is among the botanicals being studied, as it can also be synthesized from turpentine oil and is as effective as DEET against mosquito and tick species. Bed bug arena tests involve putting a band of repellent around a table leg, with a Climbup(R)Interceptor trap below. If the bed bug falls into the trap, it is deemed to have been repelled from the surface above. In actual practice, the bed bug climbs up the surface and goes horizontal onto the treated surface and drops or falls off if the surface is repellent. Isolongifolenone starts losing its repellency after 3 hours; 5%-10% DEET works for about 9 hours. In arena tests with host cues, 25% DEET keeps surfaces repellent to bed bugs for 2 weeks. But isolongifolenone is considered safer, and Wang is testing higher rates in hopes of gettting a full day’s protection.


Pollinator-Friendly Lawns: Flowers or No Flowers?

April 28, 2013

TURF is a $25 BILLION USA INDUSTRY, said Nastaran Tofangsazi of the University of Florida (Apopka, FL), a sex pheromone researcher looking to complement biocontrols like beneficial Beauveria bassiana fungi and Steinernema carpocapsae nematodes to control the browning and uneven grass growth caused by tropical sod webworm (Herpetogramma phaeopteralis) in Florida’s $9 billion worth of turfgrass. Also at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Auburn University’s R. Murphey Coy noted that the USA’s 164,000 km2 (63,320 square miles) of turf is the USA’s most irrigated crop. Turfgrass irrigation consumes 300% more water than corn; plus 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet (93 m2).

Alabama is among the top USA turfgrass-producing states, and Auburn University researchers are looking to reduce turfgrass water, nitrogen and iron inputs by colonizing grass seeds and roots with easy to apply sprays of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR). Blends of PGPR species such as Bacillus firmis, Pseudomonas and Rhizobium in turfgrass and cotton induce systemic resistance to pestiferous Fusarium fungi and triple parasitic wasp biocontrol of the caterpillar larvae of moth pests like fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda).

Not everyone is a fan of turfgrass lawns, and before the modern chemical era lawns were more like fragrant flowery meadows. “Agricultural experts and agribusiness are bound by the idea that even land that has lost its natural vitality can still produce crops with the addition of petroleum energy, agricultural chemicals, and water…considering this form of agriculture to be advanced,” wrote Japanese agriculturist and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka in the book, Sowing Seeds in the Desert (edited by Larry Korn).

“When I suggested that it would be a good idea to plant fruit trees to line the streets in towns and cities and to grow vegetables instead of lawns and annual flowers, so that when the townspeople were taking a walk, they could pick and eat the fruit from the roadside, people were surprisingly enthusiastic,” said Fukuoka. “When I suggested that it would be good to scatter the seeds of clover and daikon on the existing lawns so that in two or three years the clover would overcome the lawn and the daikon would take root amid the ground cover, interestingly, it was the Asian people and Asian-Americans who said they would try it right away. Most Americans would just laugh and agree with the theory, but they were cautious about putting it into practice. The reason, I believe, is that it would challenge their adherence to ‘lawn’ culture. If they cannot overcome this prejudice, there will be a limit to the growth of family gardens in the United States.”

“It seems that the main goal in the life of the average American is to save money, live in the country in a big house surrounded by large trees, and enjoy a carefully manicured lawn,” wrote Fukuoka. “It would be a further source of pride to raise a few horses. Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe…Because residential lots are large in the United States, a family vegetable garden can provide for all the food needs of a typical family, if they are willing to do the work. In Japan, a residential lot about a quarter acre would be enough to allow near self-sufficiency and provide a healthy living environment, but I learned—to my envy—that in many suburban and rural areas of the United States, people are not allowed to build houses on small lots.”

On closer inspection, modern American lawns are more often a biodiverse mixture of turfgrass and flowering plants like clover and dandelions. Kentucky bluegrass lawns may be 30% white clover, which favors native pollinators like bumblebees. Clover and dandelion flowers attract honey bees, bumble bees, parasitic wasps that kill pests, hover flies (syrphids) that eat aphids, and carnivorous rove and ground beetles eating snails, slugs, caterpillars and other pests. Nonetheless, tons of herbicides go onto USA lawns to eradicate clover and dandelions as weeds, often as part of fertilizer and insecticide mixtures.

Turf biodiversity is all well and good, but only as long as the clover and dandelion flower nectar is pure and uncontaminated by pesticide cocktails. Lawns laden with clover and dandelion flowers provide bees and beneficial insects with “a big gulp of nectar,” the University of Kentucky’s Jonathan Larson told the ESA annual meeting in Knoxville, Tennessee. When those “big gulps of nectar” are laced with certain neonicotinoid pesticides, the effects can ripple through the ecological food chain.

When turfgrass pesticide labels say, ‘Don’t treat flower heads,’ “Follow the label to the letter of the law” to avoid poisoning pollinators, said Larson. Or get rid of the flowering plants in the lawn by mowing the turf before spraying. Or delay pesticide sprays until after clovers, dandelions and other lawn flowers have finished flowering. Clover control in lawns using herbicides is difficult, and usually not feasible, Larson told the ESA. Hence, mowing is the preferred strategy for removing flowering lawn weeds before spraying pesticides.

In enclosure experiments with tents confining bees in the turf, mowing the turf before pesticide treatment mitigated the problem, resulting in more bees and more honey. In 2012, bees were tented on clothianidin-treated turf for 6 days and then moved for 6 weeks to a Lexington, Kentucky, horse ranch with unsprayed turf. Clothianidin reduced the rate of bumble bee weight gain, but at the end of 6 weeks the bees were starting to catch-up. But overall, the 6-day pesticide exposure still resulted in reduced bumble bee weight gain, less foraging and reduced queen and hive reproduction several weeks later. Chlorantraniliprole, which has a different mode of action (muscular), did not produce these adverse effects. Larson also told the ESA that clothianidin, a widely used neonicotinoid turf pesticide, also reduces decomposers (detritivores) like soil-dwelling earthworms and springtails more than chlorantraniliprole.

Besides supporting more soil life, more biocontrol organisms, and healthier crops of pollinating bees, you get a healthier turfgrass lawn if you do not need pesticides and do not have to mow so often. “Mowing height is an easily manipulated cultural practice that can have an impact on ecological conditions,” Samantha Marksbury from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, told the ESA. “Taller grass usually supports a more diverse ecosystem and increases natural enemies. Increasing cutting height stimulated deeper roots, yielding a healthier turf with less need for insecticide. Higher mowing height decreases need for irrigation and the canopy prevents water loss.”

Taller turf (raised mowing height) also tends to be more robust and more tolerant of white grubs. Nevertheless, about 75% of turf is lush residential monocultures (mostly one grass species) that is heavily fertilized, dosed with chemical herbicides and frequently mowed, Emily Dobbs of the University of Kentucky, Lexington, told the ESA. However, the ecology of grass cutting or mowing gets quite complex and has seasonal variations. In May, turf with a low mowing height (2.5 inches; 6.4 cm) was hotter, drier, and had the most predatory ground beetles, rove beetles and spiders. Later in the season and Sept/Oct, turf with a higher mowing height (4 inches; 10.2 cm) was cooler, wetter, and had the most predators.

Historically, in the Middle Ages in England, going back many centuries (even before Chaucer) before the age of chemical farming and gardening, lawns were “flowery meads” with roses, violets, periwinkles, primroses, daisies, gillyflowers and other colorful, fragrant flowers interplanted right into the turf. The idea of planting a lawn with one species of grass made no sense, though a camomile lawn or plot came into being for infirmary gardens in England after 1265, as this medicinal aromatic plant helped other plants growing nearby in poor soils and grew faster the more it was trodden.

“There were no flower-beds of the sort familiar to us,” wrote Teresa McLean in her 1981 book, Medieval English Gardens. “The simplest type of flower garden was the flowery mead, wherein low-growing flowers were planted in turf lawns, sometimes walled, sometimes left open, to make a beautiful domestic meadow. The flowery mead was the locus amoenus of God’s beautiful world.”

“Trees were often planted in raised turf mounds, surrounded by wattle fences, which doubled as seats,” wrote McLean. “Medieval lawns, unlike modern ones, were luxuriously long, and full of flowers and herbs; they were fragrant carpets to be walked, danced, sat and lain upon. What modern lawn could find a poet to write about it as Chaucer wrote about the one in the Legend of Good Women?

Upon the small, soft, sweet grass,
That was with flowers sweet embroidered all,
Of such sweetness, and such odour overall…”


Fireflies in Tennessee: Tourism, Light Shows & Algorithms

January 25, 2013

A TRUISM IN TRAVEL is that on your first trip to a destination you learn what you should have done or gone to see. Sometimes you get back to do or see it, and sometimes you don’t. It is even more difficult, for scientific research as well as travel, to be there to witness rare, occasional or brief seasonal events in the life of a plant, animal or region. For example, I was in New Zealand the wrong season, and missed their famous glowworm (firefly) caves. Too much is happening and the world is too big to see or do everything; and some things are out of our vision, anyway; being too big or too small, too distant, or in the ultraviolet, infrared or some other electromagnetic frequency beyond our immediate sensory perception.

Viewing firefly (aka glowworm; lightning bug, firefly beetle, hotaru) photonic light displays at their rhythmically flashing best means being in the right place at the right time. Many of the world’s 2,000 known fireflies species lack the night fire, and are rather anonymous. Some glow as eggs and larvae (presumably to ward off predators), and as adults (advertising for mates). But most of the year, even the best flashers remain hidden (often as eggs, larvae or pupae) in the soil. More rarely, some esteemed Asian species have underwater larval life stages living in rivers, streams, wetlands and rice paddies and providing biocontrol of freshwater snails. The genji-botaru and heike-botaru fireflies (hotaru), celebrated since the 8th century in Japanese poetry (e.g. Man’yoshu) as early-summer “little lights darting about in the night,” are also icons of water purity.

Enchanting traveler’s tales involve the synchronous rhythmic flashing of many thousands, perhaps millions, of fireflies as far as the eye can see across the landscape. “Over the past four hundred years many anecdotal accounts of synchronous flashing of myriads of fireflies in trees in Southeast Asia have been scattered through travel books,” wrote pioneering firefly scientist, John Buck, who got started wondering about fireflies as a kid and advanced his studies working with his wife, Elisabeth, during summer vacations from his main work at the National Institutes of Health. “Pride of place in antiquity passes from Kaempfer’s (1727 Dutch physician’s book: The History of Japan (With a Description of the Kingdom of Siam)) description of synchronized flashing at the classic locality, the banks of the Chao Phraya (Meinam) River in Thailand, to Hakluyt’s (1589 book: A Selection of the Principal Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation) account of what was probably the same phenomenon, as seen by Sir Francis Drake’s 1577 expedition: ‘a certaine little Island to the Southwards of Celebes…Among these trees, night by night, through the whole land, did shew themselves an infinite swarme of fiery worms flying in the ayre…make such a shew of light, as if every twigge or tree had been a burning candle.’”

Synchronized firefly flashing was late being recognized in the Americas. “Early in this century sightings of synchrony among flying fireflies in American meadows began to appear,” wrote John Buck in 1988. “No reasonable explanation of the behavior was offered: in fact a strong aura of incredulity or even mysticism pervaded the subject.” Indeed, when John Buck started studying fireflies in earnest in the 1930s: “The fast film, laboratory oscilloscope and image-intensifier that would eventually confirm and dissect synchrony were, like the jet airplane…still in the future…Today the phenomena has been photographed, charted, and videotaped…”

“The modern study of synchrony in fireflies dates from 1968, when John and Elisabeth Buck used cine photography and photometry to demonstrate that a certain number of Southeast Asian firefly species flash in rhythmic synchrony,” wrote Jonathan Copeland and Andrew Moiseff, who “used videography, photometry, computer-shaped LED flash, and flash entrainment experiments” in their own studies of flash rhythms in the synchronous firefly, Photinus carolinus, a popular tourist attraction in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When the Entomological Society of America (ESA) met for its annual meeting in Knoxville, TN, in November (2012), the synchronous fireflies famous for what locals call “The Light Show” were slumbering about 50 miles away in the former logging town of Elkmont, which was swallowed up (residents sent packing) into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. “Huge numbers of male fireflies flash synchronously, dazzling the human spectators and drawing female P. carolinus for the purpose of mating,” wrote Lynn Faust of the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, a former Elkmont resident, who along with local volunteers have collected 20 years of firefly data; aided by Paul Weston (Charles Sturt University, New South Wales, Australia) and other scientists.

“The display lasts only several days to slightly over a week, which means that the ability to predict its occurrence is of critical importance to the National Park Service, which organizes shuttle buses to ferry visitors from parking areas to the ecologically sensitive areas where the fireflies put on their display,” Faust and Weston told the ESA annual meeting. For the 10-day peak Light Show display, there have been up to 26,000 tourists. “Predicting the timing of this natural phenomenon is of equal importance to the researchers and naturalists who study its annual occurrence.”

In his Newbery Medal winning book (1989), Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, poet and children’s book author, Paul Fleischman, calls fireflies: “…glowing insect calligraphers practicing penmanship…Six-legged scribblers of vanishing messages, fleeting graffiti…Fine artists in flight adding dabs of light, Signing the June nights as if they were paintings…” A description hard to top, even with the many fine firefly night light paintings from light shows around the world displayed on photographs on the Internet and in YouTube videos.

“The synchronous firefly Photinus carolinus (Green) of the moist cove hardwood forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts much public attention during its spectacular month-long mating display known as The Light Show,” writes Lynn Faust in the Florida Entomologist. Besides the human tourist hordes, predatory biocontrol species also seem attracted to The Light Show: “Orb-weaving spiders (Araneidae) prey on P. carolinus. Late at night, after all courtship flashing had ceased, often the only lights visible were the rhythmic distress flashes or the steady glow of fireflies caught in webs. In addition, harvestmen (Phalangiidae) often were seen carrying glowing pupae, adult fireflies, or only the still glowing firefly lantern…local Photuris fireflies readily eat captive P. carolinus and regularly fly and signal within the dense display areas of male P. carolinus… Phorid flies (Apocephalus antennatus Malloch) parasitize Photinus fireflies by ovipositing eggs within the firefly’s body…” So, with the risk of being eaten by predators and becoming part of the greater ecological food chain during the short performance season, the life of an adult firefly Light Show performer must be as tough as it is brief.

Over the past two decades, lifelong firefly-enthusiast Faust and the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association volunteers collected data on “four landmark phenological events,” namely: 1) male emergence (date on which first flashing male fireflies are observed); 2) “good” display (date synchronized flashing by males is seen over wide areas; not just isolated patches); 3) female emergence (date of first female flashing in response to males; doublet flashes in leaf litter or low vegetation); and 4) peak display (final night of maximum male flashing displays; determined in retrospect, usually after a sudden fading out of The Light Show).

“A degree-day model based on a base temperature of 50 F (10 C) and a seasonal starting date of March 1 has resulted in remarkably accurate predictions of four landmark phenological events for Photinus carolinus,” Faust and Weston told the ESA. “This predictive ability has proven very helpful for timing research visits to field sites, and will be a valuable tool for the National Park Service when scheduling visits of thousands of visitors to the Smokies Mountain National Park to witness the Light Show.” The better the prediction of when “The Light Show” will occur, the more likely researchers, tourists and travelers will come away satisfied; versus feeling like they missed out.

“The Light Show is the name given by locals in the Smoky Mountains to the annual synchronous display of male P. Carolinus,” Faust and Weston told the ESA. “The males produce a string of about 6 flashes over 3-4 seconds, then remain dark for 6-15 seconds. Remarkably, these fireflies synchronize their flashes and dark intervals with those of their neighbors, which leads to visually striking displays stretching as far as the eye can see into the wooded hillsides and glens of the Smoky Mountains. The display can last for 2 hours or more on peak nights.”

The mathematics or calculations behind degree days (aka day-degrees, growing degree days, heat sums, thermal units, threshold temperatures) can be a bit tedious, but degree days are basically just a way of calculating the impact of temperature on a life process (or physiology). Degree days are used in botany, horticulture and agriculture to predict a range of phenomena, including flowering times, as higher temperatures mean plant enzymes are more active. Insects are also temperature-dependent creatures. Thus, degree-day models work to predict firefly adult emergence and light show times. Similarly, degree-day models can help time pest control actions by predicting the egg hatch of the codling moth, the proverbial worm inside the apple.

Raymond Bonhomme nicely sums up the agriculture origins of the degree-day concept: “The ‘degree-day’ unit stems mainly from the relationship between development rate and temperature. It was Re´aumur (1735) who first laid the basis of this notion: ‘The same grains are harvested in very different climates; it would be interesting to compare the sums of heat degrees over the months during which wheat does most of its growing and reaches complete maturity in hot countries, like Spain or Africa … in temperate countries, like France … and in the colder countries of the North,’ (original text in Old French: Durand, 1969). Even if the exact vocabulary was not correct (what is a sum of heat degrees?), the concept of a relationship between the development rate of crops (here the sowing to maturity period) and temperature was born. Hundreds of works have set about using, proving, or even disproving this idea…”

Degree days are only a warm-up exercise for mathematicians and computer scientists studying the synchronous rhythms and periodicities of fireflies. Indeed, synchronous flashing in fireflies may have similarities to other physiological events, like the human heartbeat (cellular coordination) or the schooling and swarming behaviors of fish and birds. No doubt some envision coordinating the actions of armies of drones or robots, though the Ant Colony Optimization (ACO) or Particle Swarm Optimization (PSO) algorithms might be better for that. Rather than being the dark warlike side of the light show, this work could also do great good in helping fight diseases involving coordination at the cellular or other levels, aiding theatrical productions or designing swarms of robotic devices for hazardous situations like fighting toxic disasters.

“Rhythmic communal synchronization occurs in body movements and sound production of a few insects and other arthropods,” wrote John Buck in 1988. “It is also typical of many human activities—e.g., dancing, the spontaneous rhythmic applause clapping by Russian opera, ballet and circus audiences and, notably, music. Even conducted orchestral music involves a large element of mutual cueing between performers.”

Hearing about the Firefly Algorithm, the mental lights flashed that it was perhaps created by Rufus T. Firefly, President of the bankrupt country of Freedonia, played by Groucho Marx in the 1933 USA movie, Duck Soup. But the Firefly Algorithm (FA) and the Improved Firefly Algorithm (IFA) are being studied by computer scientists and mathematicians trying to solve difficult optimization problems like “the famous economic emissions load dispatch optimization problem,” which is “one of the key problems in power system operation and planning in which a direct solution cannot be found.”

The Firefly Algorithm, developed in 2007 by Cambridge University’s Xin-She Yang, is simply a set of rules or problem-solving steps, in this case inspired by nature and programmed for computers based in part on the details of flashing firefly lights, an insect social or swarm activity. “Although the real purpose and the details of this complex biochemical process of producing this flashing light is still a debating issue in the scientific community, many researchers believe that it helps fireflies for finding mates, protecting themselves from their predators and attracting their potential prey, said Theofanis Apostolopoulos and Aristidis Vlachos of the University of Piraeus (Greece) in the International Journal of Combinatorics. “In the firefly algorithm, the objective function of a given optimization problem is associated with this flashing light or light intensity which helps the swarm of fireflies to move to brighter and more attractive locations in order to obtain efficient optimal solutions.”

Besides energy conservation algorithms for heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems, understanding firefly light production is a path to more energy-efficient household and industrial lighting. “The firefly produces its narrow-spectrum 560 nanometer light just like a chemical laser, but with even greater control,” writes Extreme Tech columnist, John Hewitt. “Understanding firefly scales as tiny prisms that change the way light impinges on an interface and creates new sharp-edged channels through which light can diffuse lets us make LEDs more efficient.” Indeed, mimicking firefly light transmission can boost light production from GaN (Gallium Nitride) LEDs by 55%.

As the Ohio State Parks web site notes in their succinct discussion of firefly bioluminescence chemicals, luciferin and luciferase: “Scientists are still not sure exactly how fireflies control their lights, but they have found many important uses for the chemicals luciferin and luciferase. Since living cells have ATP and oxygen, researchers can add luciferin and luciferase to detect harmful bacteria in food, milk or water. The two chemicals are also used for special electronic detectors used in spacecraft to look for earth-life forms in outer space! Luciferin and luciferase are also being used in research on human diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and heart disease. Firefly technology has also been used to produce safer, cold light for flashlights, flares and holiday lights.”

This is only the tip of the iceberg in innovation from studying fireflies. Just something to think about next time you are out watching fireflies, whether in your backyard, the Great Smoky Mountains or anywhere else on the planet.


Medicinal Caterpillar Fungus High in Nepal’s Himalayan Mountains

December 27, 2012

CATERPILLAR FUNGI ARE not everybody’s finger food, though their beautifully-sculpted medicinal mushrooms are rich in fiber, amino acids, minerals and vitamins. The caterpillar fungus of commerce, Cordyceps sinensis, grows high in the Himalayan Mountains in the larvae (caterpillars) of equally high-altitude Asian ghost moths (genus Hepialus). An ancient medicine or tonic, caterpillar fungus is in reality part insect (mummified caterpillar) and part fungus; and perhaps a conundrum for vegetarians, who might have to take a pass on its medical benefits because of its animal kingdom (insect) component.

Cordyceps is an abundant resource of useful natural products with various biological activity, and it has been used extensively as a tonic and health supplement for subhealth patients, especially seniors, in China and other Asian countries,” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University in an article pre-published online in October 2012 in the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology.

For perhaps thousands of years (at least several hundred) in China and other Asian countries, “Cordyceps sinensis (Caterpillar fungus) has been used as a tonic for longevity, endurance, and vitality,” write Chinese Academy of Sciences researchers Zhenquan Liu et al. in an Open Access journal, Behavioral and Brain Functions. “Many studies have shown that Cordyceps sinensis modulates immune responses, inhibits tumor cell proliferation, enhances hepatic function, regulates insulin sensitivity” and modulates steroid production.

“Although Cordyceps sinensis is extensively used in Chinese medicine, it lacks scientific grounds for its efficacy,” write Liu et al. In other words, it has worked like magic for centuries; providing practical benefits, though the exact mechanisms of how it works are unknown or speculative. The Chinese researchers argue that even proponents of modern medicine objecting to traditional natural or folkloric medical treatments could benefit from studying the caterpillar fungus. Their argument is that the research results from studying the mechanisms of how the caterpillar fungus works to heal or prevent disease could also be used to develop more conventional medical or drug treatments.

Caterpillar fungus could be particularly useful for certain brain strokes, where modern medicine lacks effective drugs and treatments. ”The lack of effective and widely applicable pharmacological treatments for ischemic stroke patients may explain a growing interest in traditional medicines,” wrote Liu et al. An example is “self-medication or preventive medicine” to prevent cerebral ischemia. In this type of stroke, brain oxygen levels are too low; which can trigger a cascade of biological events leading to brain damage and death. Caterpillar fungus prevents or protects against this type of brain stroke (“ischemia-induced brain infarction”), presumably by inducing or modulating production of a steroid, 17beta-estradiol.

Cordyceps sinensis mushrooms growing out of golden caterpillar bodies are sometimes artfully and decoratively displayed in high-end Chinese herbal shops. Caterpillar fungus achieved some notoriety when it was revealed to be a dietary supplement for Chinese athletes bringing home gold and silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“In China, this fungus is usually called ‘Dong Chong Xia Cao,’ which means ‘Worm in winter and grass in summer,’” write Kai Yue and colleagues at Sichuan Agricultural University. “This insect parasitizing fungus lives primarily on the head of the larva of one particular species of moth, Hepialus armoricanus Oberthur (Lepidoptera), but is occasionally found growing on other moth species. Cordyceps was first introduced to Western society during the 17th century. In 1878 Saccardo, an Italian scholar, named Cordyceps derived from China officially as Cordyceps sinensis (Berk.) Sacc., and this nomenclature has been adopted up to the present day.”

At a Nepal Overseas Entomologists members symposium at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Nov. 2012, at the Convention Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, Bhishma Subedi of the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) screened a 20-30 minute documentary film as part of a talk titled, “Cordyceps sinensis a natural viagara(sic) from the mountains of Nepal.” Even the other Nepali entomologists in attendance learned something new, as the caterpillar fungus is found only in remote Himalayan Mountain locales; and it is not common knowledge, even in Nepal.

Known in Nepal by its Tibetan name, yarsagumba, caterpillar fungus is well-hidden; blending like a camouflaged black joss stick into black soils and grasses on slightly north-facing (5-10 degrees) Himalayan slopes 3,200 to 4,500 meters (10,500 to 14,800 ft) high. Yarsagumba lands are several days trek from anyplace where people normally live, and the ground is covered in snow 6 months of the year. But this is where temporary high-mountain camps must be set up for hunting the difficult-to-find caterpillar fungus.

Searching for the camouflaged black and debris-covered yarsagumba means crawling on hands and knees or bending over among short grasses and melted snow. Men search for yarsagumba and other medicinal herbs in the vicinity, while women stay behind and maintain the base camps. A certain Buddhist purity is maintained in yarsagumba lands; there is no alcohol, no tobacco and no shouting, loud voices or arguing. People pray, and the first yarsagumba found is offered to the Gods.

The beauty of the mountains belie the harshness of the climate and the difficulty of the life in search of yarsagumba; it’s a tough way to earn money in these remote mountains where economic opportunities are few. Storms can come at any time, and it is easy to fall down a steep cliff when climbing in the snow. A fall near a cliff edge can mean loss of limbs and frequently death. There are no second chances, no safety nets to catch you up here. Medical treatment is do-it-yourself, by necessity. Conventional medicine and doctors are many days distant. Widows are commonplace at all ages; and many subsistence families in Nepal have lost husbands, fathers, brothers and sons during the search for yarsagumba and medicinal herbs that may help others prevail against brain strokes and other maladies.

It takes seven cleanings with a toothbrush to remove all the debris and black soil, and make the black yarsagumba look like a proper insect, namely a golden caterpillar. The going price from the middlemen is 80,000 rupees per kilo; with 3,500 to 4,000 pieces of clean golden caterpillars per kilo. It takes five people a month to find a kilo. People are doing well to come out of the season with 60,000 rupees, before the expenses of the trek and weeks or months of camp costs. Recently, the Nepal government imposed a 20,000 rupee per kilo tax or royalty on the trade.

After being steamed and packaged, most of the yarsagumba eventually is exported and finds its way to the Chinese market. The yarsagumba trade is estimated at 2 tons annually. But in Nepal, since the government-imposed 20,000 rupee/kilo royalty or tax went into effect, it was like the yarsagumba harvest had become illegal for Nepal’s subsistence mountain people. Royalties were paid on only 3 kilos in a recent year. Perhaps there is a free market and tax lesson in all this. Or perhaps it is just part of the great wheel of life.


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