Behind the Moth Meme

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Unless you’ve digitally cleansed your life recently, you’ll probably be aware that moth memes have taken over the internet – so much so that there is now, inevitably, a Reddit page dedicated to this unique sub-group of social media fodder.

The focus of this frenzy of meme-making has been moths’ famed love of artificial light. But here at Mastering Entomology, we’ve decided to delve a little deeper.

First and foremost, though, it’s worth pointing out that there are plenty of moths that fly during the day – so aren’t the types to be suckered into the seductive glow of a lamp. A study by Florida Museum of Natural History suggested that 15-25% of all Lepidoptera are day-flyers, while Butterfly Conservation has helpfully produced an overview of the UK’s non-nocturnal moths.

But of the nocturnal species, is there really a deep craving driving moth orientation towards our light sources? The fun-killing simple answer is probably no. The expert consensus seems to be that it’s all a misunderstanding; that they’re actually looking to orient themselves by the moon, and they’re simply drawn to alternatives because they’re brighter. As they move closer, their ability to triangulate is thrown off kilter, resulting in them returning to the light repeatedly.

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But given the distraction, as opposed to attraction, our light sources bring, are all moths equally likely to zone in on the bright lights, and are all electric lighting types equally likely to bring lepidopterans into their glow? That’s another no and no.

The tendency to head for the light could be greater for moths from areas with little light pollution. Altermatt and Ebert (2016) found that in the case of the small ermine moth (Yponomeuta cagnagella), ‘city moths’ from populations that had experienced high amounts of artificial light were less likely to fly to light under lab conditions than those from ‘dark sky’ populations. It has been suggested by several studies that natural selection should favour those less drawn to artificial light – pretty logical stuff – and this research provides some evidence that such selection may indeed be happening.

Altermatt and Ebert have serious form when it comes to advancing knowledge on moths and light. In their 2009 study with Adrian Baumeyer, male Yponomeuta cagnagella and Ligdia adustata were seen to be 1.6 times more likely to make a beeline for an artificial light source than females. A good argument to settle the ‘smarter sex’ debate, perhaps.

A PhD study in Exeter has recently shed further light (pardon the pun) on the type of illumination most attractive to larger moths, finding that short wave lighting attracts both greater numbers of species and individuals than long wave.

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The interplay of moths and light is, alas, not all online laughs and levity. There is growing evidence that artificial light may be having deeper effects on moth numbers than simply the deletion of those flying at speed towards the lamp. While the fact they are drawn to light is firmly established, there is evidence that it could be reducing moths’ attraction to each other.

A 2015 study in the Netherlands by van Geffen et al looked at the mating habits of Operophtera brumata, a member of the Geometridae family, when tree trunks were lit with different-coloured LED lighting. What the first phase of the research discovered was two-fold, and fascinating: a significant reduction in females on the illuminated trunks, again suggesting a sex bias in light attraction, and an inhibition of mating when they were under the lights. A side note, though: perhaps appropriately for this sexy moth discussion, more females caught on trunks lit with red light had mated than those with green or white light.

Mating is not the only matter that will pique concern amongst conservationists. Other research has found links between feeding and artificial light (they appeared to do less when subjected to it) and caterpillar development (they reached lower mass under white light and pupated earlier under green and white).

There is clearly multi-faceted interplay between moths and light, and a sense that we’re only beginning to understand the mechanics and effects of it. The ability of species to coexist with increasingly dense human habitation is a hot topic, so knowledge in this area is only set to grow in the coming years. Far from every aspect of this issue has been covered in this blog, but in the interests of brevity, it might be best to wrap up (although most of those readers who came for the memes have probably gone already).

Final note: this week and next we’re doing the taught elements of Biology and Taxonomy of Insects, the second module of the Entomology Masters here at Harper. Next Wednesday we’ll be looking at Lepidoptera, increasing our knowledge of these complex yet internet content-friendly insects.

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Shropshire Entomology Day – 04/02/2018

Yesterday, me (@EntoAqib) and three fellow entomologists (@pseudoliam, @ento_the_wild and @Apis_linzi) began our journey to the Shropshire Entomology Day at the Field Studies Council centre at Preston Montford, bright and early *shudders*. Upon arrival we were greeted with tea and biscuits, alas, we felt alive once more. After signing in and a warm welcome from Sue Townsend (the FSC chair) we saddled up and waited patiently for the talks to begin.

Starting off was Peter Boardman, a dipterist with a particular fondness for craneflies. He gave us an overview of his past year working for Natural England. He began with tales of traversing the country, sampling at stunning SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest); accompanied with pictures of beautiful critters. However, it’s not always sunny days spent sweep netting, there’s also an immense amount of post-fieldwork time and effort that goes into sorting, identifying and then recording specimens!

Next up, was Mike Shurmer, a micromoth super-fan and recorder. Turns out micromoths aren’t just boring brown things, they come in a bunch of different colours and patterns. They are the most diverse of UK Lepidoptera, trumping the substantially more popular butterflies and macro-moths, highlighting their importance and need for attention. Some notable records were mentioned, one of which was Crambus ulliginosellus:

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Crambus ulliginosellus © Jens Christian Schou

 

,this funky looking moth, with an equally funky name, was recorded in Shropshire recently for the first time in 50 years! The presentation ended with a challenge, so I’m going to re-present you guys with the same challenge:

Look out for these two micromoths:-

Twenty-plume moth

  • Keep a look out indoors, in wood stores, garden sheds and in garages.

Twenty-plume moth ©RodBaker

Ectodemia septembrella (slightly trickier)

  • Has leaf mining larvae (the larvae feed within the leaves).
  • Look out for feeding signs on Hypericum spp., commonly known as St. Johns Wort.

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    Feeding signs of the leaf mining larvae of Ectodemia septembrella ©BarryDickerson

If you do find them (or any other micromoth) remember to submit a record on iRecord!

Third on the agenda was a short presentation by Keiron Brown about BioLinks, a project being ran by the FSC which aims to train individuals of varying expertise in the identification and recording of several invertebrate groups, including relatively overlooked ones.

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Focus species groups of the BioLinks project ©HeatherCampbell

Following suit was a talk by Godfrey Blunt on the problems associated with mapping invertebrates. He began by highlighting the problems with current record mapping. Firstly, just because an organism was once there it doesn’t mean it’s still there now. Current mapping uses the botanists approach, but unlike plants, inverts can move. So, if something was found in a spot away from it’s range it doesn’t mean it’s expanding its natural range, it’s very likely that it’s just a chance recording. Therefore, it is important to note that record maps depict static resident population not mobile ones. He also stated that it shouldn’t just be about simply putting a blob on a map, we should be selective in the data we input (especially with old records), as too many inputs may make a map difficult to interpret. The other side of this problem coin is that not having enough records, which is just as bad. He offered an adequate manner (he stressed that this isn’t a solution) of addressing this problem by adopting the mapping approach used by ornithologists; using different sizes of dots and different shapes depending on the record. This provides a visual source of information which is clearer and substantially easier to interpret. Richard Burkmar gave a demonstration on how to use nifty QGIS to produce a base map with the necessary information and then overlaid the records onto it, followed by a resounding “ooooo” from the audience at the pretty result.

Lawrence Bee followed up with a presentation on what went into the making of the British Spiders Field Guide which he co-authored. It’s a handy dandy book jam-packed with lots of info and tons of gorgeous photographs of spiders. I just couldn’t resist grabbing myself a copy!

 

Lunch break!

With our stomachs full, we were ready for another round of talks. It was time for a talk which I was really looking forward to- rearing bushcrickets in captivity! Jon Delf talked through several aspects of rearing: starting a culture, suitable housing, feeding requirements, mating and how to treat their eggs. Everything you need to know to rear bushcrickets in the comfort of your own home.

Next up was fellow entomologist and @EntoMasters student, Liam Andrews. His talk was titled: “Pseudoscorpions of Shropshire”. He started off by informing the crowd about this understudied group with an overview. There’s only 27 species in the UK, but about 3500 worldwide (probably substantially more). He then went on to talk about their physiology and behaviour. Pseudoscorpions display phoretic behaviour- they hitch a ride on other organisms such as flies and beetles to disperse. Their physiology is pretty awesome, these little predators are armed with venomous pedipalps (but some don’t have any venom) and chelicerae which they use to subdue their prey. The chelicerae are also tipped with silk producing structures called the galea. The audience was also informed on how to sample for them. A Tullgren funnel can be used, however these aren’t readily accessible, but you can make your own (pic below)! Sieving compost heaps and leaf litter may also expose these elusive critters, as well as scouring under rocks and logs. The informative presentation came to a close with a run through all the species recorded within Shropshire.

 

Viv Marsh then delivered a talk on siting and managing artificial bee hotels, with a focus on Osmia bicornis, a stingless bee species which is an effective pollinator. The last presentation of the day was by dipterist Nigel Jones, on the insects which he found sweep netting a single ash tree in his back garden. His finds were very interesting to say the least, including a potentially new species to science! It’s incredible how a single tree can boast such diversity.

Aaaaand that’s a wrap! I’d like to thank the organisers and the speakers for such a fantastic day! Hopefully I can make it next year for another day full of ento-goodness.

Follow these folks on twitter:

FSC Centre Preston Montford: @PrestonMontford

FSC Preston Montford chair: @SueTownsend3

Peter Boardman: @pebo22 who runs the cranefly recording scheme @CRStipula

Keiron Brown: @KeironDBrown and the official BioLinks twitter account @FSCBioLinks

Mike Shurmer: @mike_shurmer

Liam Andrews: @pseudoliam who also runs @PseudoscorpUK

Lawrence Bee: @LawrenceBee

Richard Burkmar: @burkmarr

 

By Aqib Ali  (Twitter:@EntoAqib, Email: Aqib1996@hotmail.co.uk, Linkedin: Aqib Ali)

MSc Entomology Twitter: @EntoMasters

An Update (Part 2)

Welcome back peeps! Here’s the second part of the overview/highlights of what we’ve been getting up to so far on the course:

Module 2: Diversity & Evolution of Insects

This module was a nice transition from the previous module content-wise. The first day was a mixed bag, it started with a lecture from Prof. Simon Leather (@EntoProf) on the history of entomology as a subject and insect paleontology (come on, who doesn’t love a bit of Meganeura spp.). Followed by Dr. Andy Cherrill giving a lecture on intraspecific variation. Theeeeen, back to Simon, with a lecture on the super weird, awe-inducing and ever so slightly ridiculous aphid life cycle. The day concluded with the first guest speaker for this module: Professor Tony Dixon! He gave us a lecture on aphid thermobiology and coccinellids (ladybirds, namely on generation time and their usage in biocontrol). He was Simon’s PhD supervisor! It was a privilege to be lectured by someone who has been in the game for so long, is still publishing research and has taught one of our lecturers. The next day was also a healthy mix of topics, covering soil biodiversity to aquatic insects and estimating insect species diversity.

Leading on from the previous day, we had a lecture on Acari (ticks and mites). The study of non-insect arthropods meshes nicely with entomology. As entomologists, it is important for us to be able to identify relatives and to understand their ecological interactions. The rest of the day was full of the mighty Odonata! Starting with a series of lectures from guest speaker Steve Brooks (once again, from NHM) on the identification of British Anisoptera (dragonflies) and Zygoptera (damselfies). The afternoon was spent gleefully identifying odonatans using their larval exuviae with The British Dragonfly Society’s Shropshire County Recorder, Sue Rees Evans!

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The larval exuviae of the Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanea). Dragonfly larvae are predatory and possess a labial “mask”, a modified labium tipped with pincers. The mask is fired out to grab and immobilise prey. 

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The larval exuviae of a damselfly. The appendages on the rear are called lamellae and they aid gas exchange.

With Odonata checked off the list, we had a day dedicated to an assortment of insect orders with Dr. Mike Copeland. To name a few, we covered the Phasmida, Dermaptera and Neuroptera. The following day started off with a practical session in which we unleashed the fury of lacewing larvae onto some chubby mealybugs; a little taster of what is to come in the Commercial & Practical Biological Control module!

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A lacewing larvae chowing down on a mealy bug. They are voracious predators with specialised mandibles used to extract the bodily fluids of their prey.

The module and week ended on a mellow note, with another chill session of pinning and curation. Practice makes perfect!

Module 3: Experimental Design & Analysis

Being able to design an experiment to test a hypothesis and then analysing the acquired data using the appropriate statistical analyses, holds fundamental importance in science. Once again, the course is full of people with varying levels of experience in different areas, and statistics is no exception. The module reinforced the importance of a robust experimental design, and introduced the cohort to the statistical software R and how to run a range of tests using it. Of course, I would rather have fun practicals over this in a heartbeat, but you can’t replace bread and butter with more filling and expect to have a sandwich! Having just finished this module, we start the Commercial & Practical Biological Control module on Monday! *crowd cheers* HUZZA!!

Soooooo…that’s it from me for now! Linzi will be posting an article on Tuesday on insects which survive in extreme environments and their adaptations to the hostile conditions they live in.

Until next time!

 

By Aqib Ali  (Twitter:@EntoAqib , Email: Aqib1996@hotmail.co.uk , Linkedin: Aqib Ali)

MSc Entomology Twitter: @EntoMasters

An Update (Part 1)

It has been a hot minute since we posted the last article which introduced us, so a little update about what us budding entomologists have been getting up to on the course so far and my thoughts on it seemed rather apt. I present to you part one of the overview/highlights of what we’ve done so far:

Module 1: Biology & Taxonomy of Insects

Following the introductory Research & Information Skills module, this was the first entomology module with two weeks of entomological goodness for the cohort to get stuck into, and boy, we weren’t left disappointed. The module started with a session on Orthoptera and a general run through of insect anatomy led by Dr. Andy Cherrill. This was followed by practical session which involved a delightful dissection of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria).

 

The next day we covered the order Thysanoptera (thrips) with Dr Tom Pope (@ipm_tom), followed by a zoom through the superorder Dictyoptera (comprising of the orders Mantodea (mantids) and Blattodea (cockroaches and termites)) with Dr. Rob Graham. With everyone on the course being from varied backgrounds and holding different levels of experience within different things, the session on insect pinning and curation was extremely useful for everyone. The cohort spent the afternoon pinning, micropinning and carding insects in a thrilling practical session led by PhD student Francisca Sconce (@FranciscaSconce).

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Pinned 3rd instar desert locust nymph and carabid (specimens pinned and photographed by Linzi (@Apis_linzi)).

After a whizz through a lecture on sampling methods by Prof. Simon Leather (@EntoProf) we covered a range of methods, ranging from beating to sweep netting and from pitfall traps to malaise traps. The afternoon was spent in the great outdoors sweep netting and getting to use the Vortistm, a vacuum used to suck up and sample insects (and relatives).

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Fellow entomologist Brinna (@BrinnaBarlow) trying her hand at sampling some insects using the Vortis suction sampler.

The first week of this module ended with a bang, with the first guest speaker from the Natural History Museum: hymenopterist Dr. Andy Polaszek (@AndyPolaszek)! In a blitz through the hyper diverse Hymenoptera, we covered several groups, focusing on their identification as well as some tidbits on their biology. We put what we learnt during the morning lecture to test in an intense identification practical.

 

 

 

Week two of the module started with an aphid-packed day on Hemiptera. The next day was Lepidoptera-filled. We had a practical session which involved taking morphometric measurments in waxmoths (Galleria mellonella) and dissecting out the females ovarioles to count the number of eggs.

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A female wax moth (Galleria mellonella) dissected with ovarioles spread out, as part of the Lepidoptera class practical.

Speaker number two from NHM was THE fly girl herself, Dr. Erica McAllister (@flygirlNHM)! She vividly captured our interest and introduced us to the weird and wonderful world of flies. Leading on nicely from the zoom through Diptera, we had a session on Forensic Entomology, full of murder (not literally of course…that’d be bad) and maggots with one of the UK’s leading forensic entomologist’s Dr. Amoret Whitaker. The module ended with shimmer and shine a.k.a beetles, with coleopterist Dr. Max Barclay (@Coleopterist)!

 

This module was certainly a personal favourite of mine (so far), we covered SOOO MUCH in a relatively short space of time. With informative lectures from the university lecturers, plenty of hands on practicals, combined with several external speakers who are experts within their respective fields; I feel as though we thoroughly covered the major insect orders in a very engaging manner! A truly fantastic start to the course!

Make sure to check out the next post “An Update (Part 2)” on Saturday!

 

By Aqib Ali  (Twitter:@EntoAqib , Email: Aqib1996@hotmail.co.uk , Linkedin: Aqib Ali)

MSc Entomology Twitter: @EntoMasters

Insect flight – an evolutionary development that shaped the world

Flying animals have had a major impact on nonflying organisms. Briefly consider the ecological and evolutionary interrelationships between pollinators and flowers, or between mosquitoes, the parasites they transmit and humans. Even a cursory glance at the manifold relationships flying insects have with all other forms of terrestrial life evaporates any doubt whether the world would be a very different place if they had never evolved.

Continue reading

Parenting for Dummies (feat. burying beetles)

Festive greetings readership,

On a gloomy, mist-filled night, the life of a mouse is gently extinguished by disease. Its blood stills, its body cools, and a slight wind carries its almost imperceptible scent through the air. A faint buzzing approaches from the darkness, growing louder and louder; a flash of jet-black and red in the moonlight. Another. Then… silence. Two beetles scamper onto the carcass after their nightly flights. They are burying beetles, a male and a female, and have much to do over the next 2-3 weeks. Continue reading

Night takes Queen: where do all the wasps go in winter?

Season’s greetings readership,

As I type, millions of Vespula vulgaris (‘common wasp’) queens are in a deep slumber within dead logs, sheds, attic spaces, burrows, and innumerable other areas out of the British elements. Because all other members of a wasp colony die over winter, the survival of the queen is vital to regenerate populations in the spring and summer. But this process is far from simple, incorporating physiological and behavioural adaptations that must be timed accurately to prevent freezing, parasitism, predation,and starvation. The journey of a queen wasp is quite an incredible one involving death, opposition, sex, family, altruism, resurrection, and prejudice, and I would like to personally recommend it as a superior alternative to the biblical prose to which we are flooded at this time of year. Continue reading