Insect Perceptions, Irrelevant or Important

February 23, 2016

“IT WAS THE BUTTERFLIES, my people say, who brought the first human babies to their feet,” writes Canadian Richard Wagamese in “Butterflies Teachings,” an essay touching on “what’s called Enendamowin, or Ojibway worldview” in his brilliant collection, One Native Life. “Before that, the New Ones sat in innocence beneath a tree, watching the world around them with wonder. But Creator had planned more for them. Their destiny called for them to move throughout the world. These human babies were meant to walk upon their two legs, and as long as they sat under that tree their destiny could not be fulfilled…The air seemed to tremble with butterflies. The human babies were entranced. Each time they tried to snare a handful of colour, the cloud drifted away. They stretched their arms higher. They thrust out their hands. But it was to no avail. When the butterflies danced just out of reach a final time, the New Ones lurched to their feet and raced after them across the meadow. The Animal People celebrated quietly, then returned to their dens and burrows and nests. The human babies never caught those butterflies, but they kept on running, right into the face of their destiny…”

Quite a different worldview from Prague and Eastern Europe, where Franz Kafka’s famous novel Metamorphosis begins: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” According to the “wall notes” in the exhibit “Disguise: Masks & Global African Art” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Kafka’s words inspired South Africa artist Walter Oltmann. Among neon masks, dancing mask videos and sculptured African animals wearing masks are Oltmann’s large anodized aluminum and brass wire caterpillars in the midst of “transformation and change” (metamorphosis) and fashion sketches titled “Beetles & Suits.” The suit coats are gracefully curving, shell-like beetle elytra (outer wing covers) fashionably topped off with the latest antennae, and looking both business-like and sci-fi out of Star Wars or Star Trek at the same time. I can easily imagine a cell phone age makeover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band regalia and long hair with “beetle suits” and high-fashion antennae. Perhaps too much entomology affects the psyche. Oltmann writes that “spending an inordinate amount of time on making something that is usually considered insignificant like an insect, does make us look differently at them.” He says it “speaks of neither this nor that,” but I’m not so sure.

Insect observations appear in haiku by Japanese master Matsuo Basho, whom I think of as the late 1600s slightly more refined counterpart of 20th century Los Angeles poet Charles Bukowski, who was too busy with “other interests” to notice beetles, flies, mosquitoes and roadside weeds. In Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Basho, translator David Young writes: “Odd numbers predominate; a dance is occurring, and each third of the poem is a turn, a gesture, a refining or revelation… The poem seems to end almost as soon as it has begun, a small flash of lightning…A more literal version of the haiku cited (below) would be something like: What can save your life? / one leaf, with an insect / sleeping on its journey… the journey, which refers to a Chinese story that Basho’s readers would know but that is largely meaningless to English readers…‘Basho mash-ups,’ I have sometimes called my versions”:

One insect
asleep on a leaf
can save your life

Perhaps Basho was thinking of medicinal silkworms slumbering on mulberry leaves, or perhaps his mind was journeying among high mountains where ghost moths metamorphose with fungi into plant-animal hybrids that have been used in Asian medicine for centuries. David Young says about haiku: “They love to startle, first the writer and then the reader. As though a hummingbird were to land suddenly on your resting arm. It is the way the world so often surprises us.”

A haiku by Los Angeleno Mark Jun Poulos, whose observation of the seemingly mundane urban habitat nagged at me long after I thought I had dismissed its ordinary elements from consciousness:

restroom sink-—
ladybug cooling off
in a drop of water

What nagged at me was water, a vital ingredient of life, which as hard sprays of rain washes away pesky mites and aphids that are ladybug prey. Water (H2O) is also a missing ingredient in most ecological studies of interplanting, a habitat diversity strategy designed to boost populations of lady beetles and other beneficial insects providing natural pest control. Australian grape vineyards and California lettuce fields have had some success interplanting blooming rows of sweet alyssum to provide pollen, nectar and alternative prey for ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies and other beneficial species consuming aphids and other pests. Sweet alyssum is also host to micro-wasps helping Michigan asparagus growers by parasitizing leafmining pest insects, Amanda Buchanan of Michigan State University reported at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Minneapolis. But if habitats are missing water, then perhaps lady beetles, which do not puncture plants to drink fluid, will leave to find restroom sinks, puddles or other water sources. Perhaps, like providing water bowls for pets, something similar needs to be researched as part of biological control habitat alternatives. Though I would draw the line at alcoholic drinks, except perhaps beer in snail and slug traps. Another urban haiku observation by Mark Jun Poulos:

sultry afternoon—
wasp hovers over a whiskey bottle
held by a drunk bum

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, by percentage the main chemical component of distilled whiskey, should not be abused, nor perhaps should it be so heavily subsidized as a biofuel, as that incentive exacerbates huge landscape changes measurable as reduced biodiversity. At Synergies in Science, a rare Minneapolis gathering of the ESA, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America and Soil Science Society of America, the diminishing biodiversity of a Midwest USA with 21% less wheat, 16% less hay and much more GMO corn to distill into ethanol motor fuels was as hard to ignore as a drunk with a whiskey bottle on an urban bench. Jonathan Lundgren of the USDA-ARS in Brookings, South Dakota said we need to get away from our “very pest-centric approach” and adopt a more holistic biological network approach. Instead of a Midwest saturated with pesticides to grow GMO corn to distill into fuel tank ethanol, something as seemingly simple as adding biodiversity via cover crops amongst the corn rows could produce enough soil biocontrol of corn rootworm to eliminate wasteful neonicotinoid seed treatments whose honey bee and beneficial insect friendliness is being hotly debated. Karen Friley of Kentucky State University reported at the ESA that something as seemingly simple as native plant border rows around sweet corn fields “provide microclimates in the form of moderated temperatures, which offer shelter” for numerous natural enemies controlling corn pests.

Curiously enough, ethanol (alcohol) like that in whiskey bottles and vehicle fuels also attracts pine beetles and ambrosia beetles considered destructive forest, landscape, street tree and nursery pests. Perhaps more curiously, the very trees being attacked are producing the ethanol and releasing it into the atmosphere when stressed (e.g. by drought or flood), decaying or dying. Trees may look perfectly healthy on the outside, but inside the tree is another story, because ethanol emissions are signs of sickliness and ill health. Chemical ecologist Christopher Ranger of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio said it is a real problem, for example, when nursery seedlings are used to replant spruce forests or with dogwoods, magnolias, pines, etc. in nurseries, backyards, along streets, etc. It is definitely ecology, as the ethanol is luring in the beetles to help “recycle” the trees back into the soil as nutrients.

I liked Ranger’s reasoning: Find the tree equivalent of driver breathalyzer tests as a beetle-attack early warning system. SCRAM wrist bracelets worn by offenders for transdermal drug and alcohol detection were tested, but were not sensitive enough; taking a week to detect low tree ethanol exhalations, whereas beetles detect a few parts per million of alcohol and get to trees almost on day one. The solution was a portable ethanol monitoring device with a detector tube and a plunger to pull in air samples; developed using Japan’s Gas Tech industrial gas leak detection technology for quick detection of “inebriated” trees.

So, which is more startling and surprising: art, haiku or entomology?

Strange brew: September 17, 2015 daylight turning to dark, caught in one of those infamous, almost proverbial L.A. traffic jams at a freeway underpass on Church Lane transitioning from Sunset Blvd to Sepulveda Pass on my way past the Getty Museum to Mulholland Drive, listening to the Moody Blues Live at Red Rocks, going nowhere. Haiku and fireflies flashing internally, and externally the blinking side turn lites and red back brake lights suddenly and surprisingly metmorphosed into synchronous fireflies, albeit of a mechanical or robotic nature:

Tail and Turn Lights
Flashing like Synchronous Fireflies
In the Los Angeles Traffic Jam


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.

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.

An Eco-Organic Ode to Ethanol (Ethyl Alcohol)

June 6, 2012

ETHANOL, AN ANCIENT DISINFECTANT commonly used in today’s medical and health-care hand sanitizers, is also produced by microbes in food fermentation and natural ecosystems. A simple two-carbon molecule abbreviated EtOH by chemists, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is also routinely used in organic chemistry and commerce as a solvent for natural essences or tinctures like perfumes, food flavorings, and medicinals.

“By far the most common natural source of ethanol is fermentation of fruit sugars by yeasts,” wrote Douglas J. Levey in The Evolutionary Ecology of Ethanol Production and Alcoholism, an article in Oxford Journals’ Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Although ethanol is an end product of fermentation, the fungi that produce it are locked in a complex set of interactions with fruiting plants, frugivorous vertebrates, and other microbes. Given that ethanol affects both vertebrates and microbes, it is likely to have at least some adaptive basis. In particular, it may be viewed as a defensive agent, used by yeasts to inhibit growth of competing microbes in much the same way as penicillin is thought to give Penicillium fungi the upper hand in competition with bacteria.”

“In an anthropological context, fermentation can be viewed as controlled spoilage of food,” wrote Levey. “The microbes responsible for the later stages of food spoilage generally cannot grow in alcoholic or acidic environments. Thus, by culturing the production of alcohols and in many cases organic acids via limited exposure to oxygen, the food is protected. Long before refrigeration and synthetic additives, fermentation was one of the most important food preservation technologies… As they discovered the inebriating qualities of some fermented foods, they focused attention on those fermentative processes, ultimately leading to the beer and wine industries of today.”

Ethanol and fermentation are part of fruit plant reproductive ecology. Ethanol molecules multi-task: Fruit pulp is protected from microbial decay by ethanol. Ethanol also attracts fruit pulp-eating (frugivorous) animals aiding plant reproduction via seed dispersal. In essence, fruit pulp is redirected in the ecological food chain from microbes to higher animals, to the benefit of fruit plant reproduction.

“The low molecular weight of ethanol and its substantial concentration within fruit pulp well suit this molecule for long-distance signaling of availability to appropriate consumers,” wrote Robert Dudley in an article titled Ethanol, Fruit Ripening, and the Historical Origins of Human Alcoholism in Primate Frugivores in a 2004 issue of Integrative & Comparative Biology. “Ripening involves production of a number of fruit volatiles, but ethanol is perhaps the only olfactory commonality to an otherwise bewildering taxonomic array of angiosperm fruits.”

“As with longevity and fitness benefits of ethanol exposure in fruit flies, epidemiological studies in modern humans demonstrate a reduction in cardiovascular risk and overall mortality at low levels of ethanol consumption relative either to abstinence or to higher intake levels,” writes Dudley. “If natural selection has acted on human ancestors to associate ethanol with nutritional reward, then excessive consumption by modern humans may be viewed as such a disease of nutritional excess. Availability of ethanol at concentrations higher than those attainable by yeast fermentation alone (i.e., 10–12%) is a very recent event in human history.”

Underscoring the importance of ethanol in ecosystems, yeast fungi survive up to 15% (v/v) ethanol concentrations that are lethal to most microbes. Distillation, a technique known to ancient alchemists that survived the transition from magical potions to modern chemical science, of course boosts ethanol concentrations to much higher and more lethal/toxic levels than those found in natural ecosystems.

Ethanol is also an ecological feedstock. Yeasts and certain bacteria further transform (oxidize) ethanol into acetic acid or vinegar, which besides being culinary is toxic to many microbes. In India and elsewhere, anti-microbial solutions of vinegar and baking soda commonly replace harsh commercial chemicals for floor and surface cleaning.

Ethanol’s role as an animal attractant can be turned to human advantage: for example, in ecological pest control as part of traps or trap crops. Christopher Ranger and Michael Reding of the USDA-ARS in Wooster, Ohio, and Peter Schultz, Director of Virginia Beach’s Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center told the Entomological Society of America (ESA): Ethanol released by stressed (e.g. lack of water) or doped (injected with ethanol) forest or nursery trees (e.g. magnolias) attracts ambrosia beetles (Xylosandrus species). “A successful trap crop strategy might include 75ml (2.5 fl oz) of 90% ethanol injection of cull or park grade trees of an attractive species within the field production block or along the border between a woodlot and the high value nursery crop species,” said Schultz.&&

In the USA, where the federal government controversially subsidizes corn ethanol and mandates its use as a fuel, Douglas Landis and University of Illinois-Urbana colleagues Mary Gardinera, Wopke van der Werf and Scott Swinton wrote of the deleterious ecological consequences of growing too much corn in a 2008 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. In contrast to intercropping strategies promoting landscape diversity and biocontrol of pests by natural enemies, increasingly large almost monoculture acreages of corn create a less diverse landscape with less biocontrol in other regional crops like soybeans. Too much corn in the landscape costs soybean producers in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin an estimated $239 million in reduced yields and increased pest control costs.

Not that planting corn need be bad. Indeed, the Native Americans traditionally interplanted corn with squash, beans, strawberries, sunflowers, and diverse weedy species that promoted ecological balance between pests and natural enemies. “Biological control of insects is an ecosystem service that is strongly influenced by local landscape structure,” wrote Landis et al. “Altering the supply of aphid natural enemies to soybean fields and reducing biocontrol services by 24%” from planting too much corn cost an estimated $58 million in soybean crop loss and control costs for just one pest, the soybean aphid.

Distiller’s dried grains (DDGs) leftover from ethanol production could potentially be utilized in innovative ways. Though with billions of gallons of corn ethanol being distilled, the emphasis is understandably on utilizing big tonnages of DDGs for animal feed, mulches, etc., rather than really innovative research that could yield niche corn-based products for medical use. Yiqi Yang, a Professor of Biological Systems Engineering and Charles Bessey Professor in the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience and the Departments of Biological Systems Engineering and Textiles, Clothing and Design at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes that small research investments could yield niche innovations like medicines (e.g. corn-derived cancer-fighting molecules small enough to enter the brain) and biodegradable filters that can be left in the human body.

Asian Innovations in Insect Control

August 20, 2011

Innovations in Insect Control in Asia date back almost 2,000 years to when ancient Chinese farmers learned the art of biological insect control. China’s ancient orchardists annually introduced colonies of predatory ants to cultivated trees to control caterpillars and other pests of crops such as citrus. Ancient Chinese biocontrol practices included constructing bamboo bridges between trees, so predatory ants could easily wander from tree to tree foraging for pests.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century: Tea is arguably the second most widely consumed beverage, after water. Tea production occupies 2.7 million ha (6.7 million acres) in 34 countries, with 78% of production in Asia and 16% in Africa. Sustainable tea production practices emphasize displacing pesticides with cultural and biological control practices to control spider mites and other pests in tea plantations.

“The application of natural enemies in tea pest control aroused a large amount of investigations in the tea producing countries,” reported Yang Yajun and colleagues at the Tea Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Sciences at the 2005 International Symposium on Innovation in Tea Science and Sustainable Development in Tea Industry. “In South India, investigations showed the introduction of three species of entomophagous fungi in the control of tea spider mite (Oligonychus coffeae). In Japan, the use of pesticide-resistant predatory mite resulted in successful control…In Japan, one fungal preparation and one bacterial preparation were registered and used in control of tea diseases.” In China and Japan, viruses stop pesky leafrollers and loopers. Japan also has five fungal biocontrol products, one bacterial biocontrol preparation, and several kinds of parasitic and predatory natural enemy preparations to control tea insect pests.

“Great achievements in the application of physical and agricultural control methods in controlling the tea pests were advanced,” said Yajun et al. In Japan, China, and Malawi (Africa), yellow sticky traps and reflective films (near ultra-violet light) help control tea aphids, thrips, and leafhoppers (70-80% pest reduction). “A special mist wind insect-sucking machine was developed in Japan,” and it reduces tea leafhopper, whitefly, and spider mite populations.

Sex pheromones have been used for mating disruption in Japanese tea gardens since 1983 to control a pesky tea leafroller. Sex pheromones are also being used against other tea pests in Japan and China. Natural volatiles from the tea plant that attract natural enemies but not pests are also under development. For example, the April 2004 Chinese Journal of Applied Ecology (15(4):623-626) reported that beneficial lady beetles, green lacewings, and hover flys (syrphids) controlling tea aphids were attracted by natural compounds such as nerol from tea flowers, n-octanol from intact tea shoots, and geraniol, methyl salicylate, benzaldehyde, and hexanal from aphid-damaged tea shoots.

At Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meetingss, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) officials report that T. Kanzawa’s 1939 translation of Professor Dr. Shonen Matsumura‘s 1931 book, 6000 Illustrated Insects of Japan-Empire, is still used to help with identification and control of invasive insect pests like the dusky-winged fruit fly (Drosophila suzukii). Oregon entomologist Jana Lee told the ESA that the Japanese get 100% fruit fly protection by placing 0.98 mm (0.04 inch) mesh over blueberries 20 days pre-harvest. After the harvest, 100% of fruit fly eggs and newly hatched larvae on cherries are killed by holding the fruit at 1.6-2.2 C (29-36 F). In Japanese experiments, fruit fly egg laying in cherries was reduced 30-60% with botanicals such as eucalyptus, neem, and tansy. In other promising Japanese research, Kotaro Konno and Hiroshi Ono told the ESA that latex from the same mulberry leaves used to safely grow silkworms since ancient times could be an effective botanical insecticide against other pests.

Since the 1920s, the USDA has been importing Japanese and Korean biocontrol organisms, like Tiphia wasps to control Oriental beetles and Japanese beetles attacking golf courses, turf, crops, and landscape ornamentals. Japan is currently patenting decoy tree technologies to help stop an explosive outbreak of oak wilt fungus (Raffaelea quercivora), caused by mass attacks of ambrosia beetles (Platypus quercivorus), said Masahiko Tokoro of the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) in Ibaraki, Japan (See earlier blog post: The Asian Invasion -Insects in Global Trade).

In South Korean greenhouse tests, Sangwon Kim and Un Taek Lim of Andong National University told the ESA of greenhouse tests showing the superiority of yellow circles against a black background versus conventional rectangular yellow sticky traps for capturing pesky whiteflies and thrips. “In laboratory behavioral studies using different backgrounds and shapes, yellow sticky card with black background was 1.8 times more attractive than sticky card without background, and triangle attracted 1.5 times more sweetpotato whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) than square,” said Kim. Black sticky cards with small yellow circles caught 180% more sweetpotato whitefly than cards with larger circles.