Friday, January 20, 2017

Why entomology? Why study bugs?

I often get the questions of today's topic posed to me when I meet people.  Why did you go into entomology?  How did you decide to work with bugs?

It all started when I was a kid.  I loved insects.  I have various memories throughout my childhood that pointed to my future career as an entomologist, but I didn't know at the time that I could work with insects and get paid for it.

In 5th grade, we were assigned to research and write a report on the animal of our choice.  My friends picked normal things like dogs or giraffes or penguins.  What did I choose to do my report on?  Ticks.  Yes, you read it correctly.  The animal I wrote about was a blood-sucking ectoparasite known to transmit various diseases to mammals.  Why did I forego learning and writing about something cute and cuddly?  I could be glib and just say that I'm weird, which is true but doesn't quite give a complete answer.  We had three large dogs when I was a kid and lived in the middle of nothing.  Ticks- picking them off the dogs, checking yourself for them when you came in from playing outside, smashing the engorged ones with a hammer (not the best idea, I know now....)- were a way of life.  I wanted to know more about them and the report was the perfect way to accomplish my goal.

In 6th grade we were introduced to science fair.  We had to come up with a hypothesis, test it, draw conclusions and report on it.  What did I choose for this project?  I decided to buy an ant farm and build an ant farm to test which one would make the ants happier (i.e. tunnel further through the substrate).  This little project was inspired by one of my very favorite books to read as a small child- Ants are Fun by Mildred Myrick.  Yes, I was weird even as a small child.  I can admit it now.  The book was about a kid that just moved into a new house and his curious neighbor wondering what the new kid was doing digging around in the yard.  The new kid loved ants and had made an ant farm, so inspiration! I thought it would be a great idea to make my own ant farm.

Let's jump to high school where I got to go to Ohio State (it was called that back then, as opposed to THE Ohio State University) to tour the biological sciences department and learn about the different programs they had.  Entomology was one of those programs.  I was enchanted and giddy at the thought of learning more about insects.  For some reason, when I finally got around to going to Ohio State after graduating from high school, I decided I wanted to be a geneticist.  I began that course of study, changed to biology and then finally got around to taking an entomology class after I got all of my science prerequisites completed.  I changed my major to entomology about two weeks into the entomology course.  I remember calling my mom to tell her about changing my major and she said "What are you going to do with that?!"

Fortunately, things have worked out well for me.  I have two degrees in entomology, married an entomologist (who doesn't mind bugs in the freezer....the engineer I dated during undergrad was not fond of looking for food and finding bugs), and now my mom has someone to call whenever she has a bug that she needs to have identified.

Friday, January 6, 2017

It's freezing outside. Why are all the insects not dead?

So as I sit in my cozy office (with my sweater, scarf, fingerless gloves, and heater) I consider the poor insects that are having to deal with the drastic flip-flopping of the weather the past few weeks.  We've seen temperatures in the 20's and temperatures in the 80's, so I'm sure that they are a bit confused.  I was asked last week when it was warm how the mosquitoes came back so quickly if they died when it was freezing.  Well.......

Insects have certain adaptations that allow them to survive when temperatures get cold.  If you really think about it, they still have bugs in Minnesota when it warms up and they have to deal with much colder and longer winters than we do here in Texas (just ask my neighbors who are transplants from Minnesota).

Just like the snowbirds that drive their RVs to Texas or Florida to spend the winter, there are certain groups of insects that migrate to new areas to spend the winter where temperatures are not as cold.  A great example of this is the Monarch butterfly.

Another example that can be put into "human relation" terms would be insects that use cryoprotectants (anti-freeze compounds).  The most commonly used compound that insects use for this purpose is ethylene glycol, which is the same compound that is in antifreeze that humans put into our vehicles.  Ethylene glycol allows the insect's body tissues to supercool and remain above their freezing point.

Freeze tolerance is another modification that some insects use to survive freezing. With this method, freezing causes water to be forced out of living cells and causes the fluid around them to freeze.  These insects also need to empty their digestive tract as food can hold water which could freeze and cause problems.  Freeze tolerance is easier for smaller insects due to the fact that they have less fluid in their body because of their small size.

Some insects may gather together to create collective heat.  Honey bees do this inside the hive during the winter to keep warm.

Other insects seek areas of shelter in the immediate area where it is not so cold.  A good example of this is the ladybugs from my previous blog post.   These insects move into homes through cracks and crevices or other areas that are not well sealed when it gets cold.  This can lead them indoors to become nuisance pests.

I haven't covered all the methods that are used, so don't expect all the bugs to die just because it's freezing outside.  Like the Terminator...."they'll be back!".