Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Beetle Trapping Expedition

It was a beautiful, hot, Spring morning, and 3 out of shape committed scientists set out to bait and trap beetles in a mountainous and rugged sub-Mediterranean area of Romania.  Enthusiastic, we were carrying 50 traps, anxious to see what surprises will wait for us in those 50 cups over the next several weeks. We wanted to survey threatened and endangered longicorn beetles that live in the unique habitats that make up the Iron Gates Natural Park (IGNP) but we would have been excited to find even the most common of them all!  This was a brand new territory for us and one that has never been systematically surveyed. We were looking for one beetle in particular, the endangered European Maple Longicorn Beetle (Ropalopus ungaricus), but found more then we ever expected!

Pheromone Factory Line

The “Pheromone Factory Line”, here Gabriel Vanau, Viorel Popescu and I are tying multiple generic pheromone lures together in preparation for deployment in the field. The pheromone lures were provided by David Wakarchuck at Synergy Semiochemicals.  (Yes, we are wearing socks!  The lab is inside someones home… so, no shoes allowed! Next time I will be prepared and bring/wear slippers.) .

Hanging flight intercept traps and recording habitat data.

The pheromone lures are used in combination with flight intercept traps (above) provided by Joseph A. Francese at USDA APHIS.  …Here’s how it works, the pheromones are chemical compounds that transmit a seductive message to the beetles (i.e. “happy hour” or “ladies night”) and attracts members of the same species (often the opposite sex) to the trap location.  The responding beetle flies toward the pheromone message in search of a mate, bumps into the panel, and slides into the white cup below (trapped!).

The pheromones we are using are generic (many species of longicorn beetle produce the same or very similar pheromones) and we hope that they will attract a variety of beetle species (Hanks and Miller 2013, Wickham 2014). The pheromones and traps will help shed light on the diversity and community of beetle species, which is critical since the deciduous forests in Romania are among the last remaining habitat in the European Union suitable for the survival and persistence of a variety of endangered species and because knowledge about them is relatively scarce.  Additionally, the pheromones we are using have yet to be tested in Europe. So, what we find in the trap cups will be a great big surprise (like Christmas morning… but for insect nerds)!

We walked over 3 kilometres setting up traps, up steep mountains and through open fields. The elevation in Eselnita Valley increased from just under 200 meters above sea level to almost 500 meters in less than 1 km!  Within this landscape, there is a temperature inversion causing the Beech trees (which prefer a colder climate and usually grow at higher altitudes) to grow near the valley bottom (200-300 meters), where the river maintains a cooler microclimate.  The higher we climbed, the warmer it got, the Beech trees disappeared and were replaced by Oak trees.  In the open fields (Mala Valley) it is sunny, hot, and full of wildlife, including wild boar, deer, snakes (vipers!), and insects (lots of ticks!).

Vipera_ammodytes ammodytes_VGavril

Baby corn viper posing for the camera, Vipera ammodytes, IGNP, RO [Photo: Viorel Gavril]

While setting up our traps in Mala Valley, we just about walked into a barbed wire… and looked like we trespassed on someone’s land!  We had to be careful about setting up our traps because we didn’t know if our presence would be welcome, and didn’t know how serious people are about trespassing.  Carefully, we proceeded onto the property in hopes that we would be permitted access to continue our work… And we were greeted with kindness!  We met an old couple, Ion and Veta Jianu, who not only welcomed us, but they gave us coffee and homemade cheese (which became my staple food for the next several weeks), and also gave us permission to trap beetles on their land.  (In fact, Ion greeted me by hand-kissing without making eye contact, which I learned is a traditional way for a gentleman to greet a lady in Eastern Europe!)  Throughout the field season, I would continue to meet Ion every day (no hand-kissing since). Ion spoke no English, but he patiently waited while I strung together a few Romanian words (thanks iPhone data and Google translate!), and we made conversation for hours at a time.  We chatted about the beetles captured, the trees and plants I came across in the woods, our families, and the weather (always up to date with weather conditions in the area, as well as in the town where my in-laws were babysitting my son, at the other end of the country).  I would often bring leaves from trees where I was catching beetles and Ion would teach me the Romanian name of the tree and its traditional use (scythe handle, cane, etc.).  …So, as it turned out, on the other side of that barbed wire was a very good friend!

Ion Jianu

Ion Jianu waiting for us to finish our work for the day (Mala Valley, Eselnita, RO)

There are many vulnerable, threatened, and poorly understood beetles in the IGNF.  (I will post stories about many of them in the future.)  However, there is one beetle in particular that we were interested in finding, the endangered European Maple Longicorn Beetle, Ropalopus ungaricus.  This beetle has an endangered IUCN status due to severe destruction Ropalopus_ungaricus_copyright_Petr_Zabranskyof mixed forest habitat for intensive agriculture and urbanization, and because of deficient forest management, and most importantly, the abandonment of traditional land uses (fewer people like Ion and Veta). The Maple Longicorn develops in living and dying Maple trees (Acer spp.) with a preference for pollarded or open trees. Pollarding is a form of traditional forest management in Central and Eastern Europe used to produce more branches and foliage for use as animal feed or firewood. Pollarding also has a side effect of increasing the amount of light that enters the tree canopy, as well as its undergrowth, allowing for optimal conditions Maple Longicorn.

A "wolf beetle" overpowering a longicorn beetle, Hungary, Gerence Highlands. [Photo: Sig]

A “wolf beetle” overpowering a longicorn beetle, Hungary, Gerence Highlands. [Photo: Sig]

Over the next month and a half we checked the traps daily.  We wanted to ensure that none of the beetles were harmed… especially the Maple Longicorn beetle.  We were worried about them getting harmed because we caught more then just beetles responding to pheromones for romance (a mate), we also caught beetles looking for a meal!  We caught hundreds of checker beetles (Clerus mutillarius) daily (about 10-20 per trap)!  The Romanian people I spoke to called these beetles ‘gândacul lup’, or wolf beetles, because they’re amazing hunters and eat everything!    So, we had to check the traps daily to reduce the number of Longicorn beetles that would have been on the “wolves” menu.

After an entire month and a half of hiking 1.5 kilometers of rugged terrain daily, we decided to wrap up the project and take down the traps.  The pheromones were quickly depleting from the heat and we hadn’t caught any new beetles species in a week.  And, although we hadn’t found our target beetle, the endangered Maple Longicorn Beetle (Ropalopus ungaricus), we still had plenty of data for a great story!  (As it turns out it’s so elusive that even the Grigori Antipa Natural History Museum in Bucharest, RO, does not have one in their vast collections).  However, (and quite ironically) on the very last day we captured a similar species of Maple Longicorn beetle (Ropalopus insubricus), a cousin of our target beetle (and featured on the header this post).  So, we are getting closer!  We will be back in August to scope out better habitat to trap for the elusive Maple Longicorn Beetle.

Overall, we managed to collect 40 different species of Longicorn beetles and of those approximately 10 are rare, vulnerable, and threatened beetles.  One species of beetle was unidentified, possibly a new species or invasive species??  Many beetles were captured in specific habitats within our trapping areas or at different times of the day.  I will write more detail about the beetles, their identification, habitat, and behaviour in future posts… So, please stay tuned or “follow” this blog.

In the mean time, for more details on the project, please visit my new page “RO Beetle Project“!

Removing traps from the Eselnita Valley with Akis and Laurentiu Rozylowicz.

Removing traps from the Eselnita Valley with Alexandru Gavrilidis Athanasios (AKA “Akis”) and Laurentiu Rozylowicz [Photo: Laurentiu Rozylowicz).

The spot where the Maple Longicorn Beetle "should be" in the collection at the Antipa...

The blue arrow shows the empty location for the Maple Longicorn Beetle in the collection at the Grigori Antipa Natural History Museum, Bucharest, RO

Citations:

Hanks LM and Millar JG (2013) Field bioassays of cerambycid pheromones reveal widespread parsimony of pheromone structures, enhancement by host plant volatiles, and antagonism by components from heterospecifics. Chemoecology 23:21-44.

Wickham JD, Harrison RD, Lu W, Guo Z, Millar J, Hanks LM, and Chen Y (2014) Generic lures attract cerambycid beetles in a tropical montane rain forest in southern China. Journal of Economic Entomology 107(1):259-267.

Featured imageRopalopus insubricus 

Ten reasons why blow flies are stink’n awesome!

…And not just stink’n!  All joking aside though, blow flies don’t really smell, it’s the resources they are associated with (garbage, poop, carrion, etc.) that smells. The purpose of this post is to make you fall in love appreciate blow flies!  Blow flies are in the Family Calliphoridae and are considered filth flies because they are a terrible nuisance to people and are thought to be disease vectors. Overall, blow flies have a bad reputation because of their less than socially approved eating habits.  So just for a moment, try to look past their gross peculiarities and you will learn how important these insects are to us and the environment.

1. Recycling.  Blow flies are natures recyclers!  They are notorious for being able to quickly locate a dead body and lay their eggs in it.  The eggs hatch into maggots which, by eating dead flesh, break-down and recycle the nutrients back into the environment.  Other filth flies share in the blow flies ability to recycle. In Europe, house flies (Family Muscidae) are reared on pig farms and are used to decompose and reduce the amount of manure (Čičkova 2012).  Flies are a crucial step in the global nutrient recycling process.  It’s a dirty job… but someone’s gotta do it!

2. Art. John Knuth is a contemporary artist that allows blow flies to create paintings.  He provides the flies with water colour paint diluted in their food, sugar water.  Through their digestion process, the flies regurgitate (also known as bubbling) and defecate the watercolour onto canvas.

As part of our outreach program, to teach people about blow flies and related research at Simon Fraser University (SFU), we paint with maggots.  Below is a picture of my friend and colleague, Antonia Musso, holding maggot art at SFU’s science spectacular (a Halloween event).

Antonia Musso prepares the maggot art with some acrylic paint (Photo: Sean McCann).

Antonia Musso prepares the maggot art with some acrylic paint (Photo: Sean McCann).

Maggots crawl through paint to create the masterpiece (Photo: Sean McCann).

Maggots crawl through paint to create the masterpiece (Photo: Sean McCann).

Antonia with the maggot masterpiece (Photo: Sean McCann).

Antonia with the maggot masterpiece (Photo: Sean McCann).

3. pollination.  Although I love them, I think bees are totally over-rated when it comes to pollination.  In fact, honey bees are not native to North America!  So, before the honey bees were brought here, guess who was pollinating our wild flowers? Flies!  (Okay, credit is also due to solitary bees, beetles, and butterflies)  Blow flies are excellent pollinators and, on certain plants, are incredibly effective at transferring pollen grains onto a flower stigmas (King et al. 2013).

Blow fly covered in pollen grains (Photo: Mike Hraber).

Blow fly covered in pollen grains (Photo: Mike Hraber).

4. Measuring Biodiversity.  Scientist extract DNA samples from the guts of blow flies and use their last meal (carrion and/ or faeces) to assess exactly which animals they had been feeding from (Calvignac-Spencer et al. 2013).  The gut contents of blow flies provide essential data about species abundance and distribution.  In places where it is difficult for people to survey (dense jungle environments) or when animals are difficult to find (nocturnal, rare, shy) the blow flies do surveys and data collection for conservationists.  The information is used then to update current inventories of wild animal communities, and identify conservation strategies.

5. Beauty.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but, look closely and you will see a fly that is quite striking!  Blow flies have an shiny, metallic green/ blue colour often with bright red eyes (so why would the red-eyed green tree frog take all the credit?)

6. Forensic Entomology.  Blow flies are used to determine the time of death of a corpse.  Immediately after death, a body begins to decompose and release specific odours.  Using the odours produced, carrion flies are attracted to the corpse within minutes post mortem. The female flies deposit their eggs on the corpse.  The eggs hatch into maggots which eat and grow on the corpse.  It is the information from this life cycle, or speed of growth, that is then used to determine time of death.  The timing of the blow flies is so accurate can be used to narrow the time of death down to a matter of days.  This method is used in our legal system to put criminals behind bars.

Female blow flies and eggs on a vertebrate carcass (Photo: Sean McCann).

Female blow flies and eggs on a vertebrate carcass (Photo: Sean McCann).

7. Flying ability.  Blow flies are able to fly with such precision that we are never able to swat them.  This is because of the very tiny second pair of wings called halteres, which function like mini gyroscopes and help the fly to calculate in flight maneuver instantly.  Scientists use Blow flies to study flight muscles and split second flight maneuvers. They have discovered flies in mid-turn have the ability to roll on their sides 90º or more (flying upside down) just like a jet fighter (Hines 2014).

The halteres are the tiny drumstick-like wings. Located on this photo just beneath the large wings between the thorax and abdomen (Photo: Mike Hraber).

The halteres are the tiny drumstick-like wings. Located on this photo just beneath the large wings between the thorax and abdomen (Photo: Mike Hraber).

Blow fly coming in to land on a rat corpse (Photo: Sean McCann)

Blow fly coming in to land on a rat corpse (Photo: Sean McCann)

8. Maggot therapy.  Blow fly maggots, or ‘medical maggots’, are used in hospitals to clean wounds because they are faster and more efficient than modern technology.  The maggots of certain blow fly species are applied to chronic wounds,  like ulcers and non-healing traumatic or post surgical wounds, because they eat only dead and necrotic tissue.  The practice of maggot therapy began during World War I, surgeons used them to clean gangrene infections.  Unfortunately, at the time they didn’t know which blow flies to use (some species eat dead tissues and others eat live) and the treatment worked only 50% of the time.  Fortunately, we know more about these blow flies now and the method is now 100% effective. In Canada (as well as in Japan and European Union) the maggots are classified as drugs and require a full marketing licence.

Blow fly maggots are used to treat wounds that won't heal (Photo: Jaroslaw Wojcik)

Blow fly maggots are used to treat wounds that won’t heal (Photo: Jaroslaw Wojcik)

9. The movie ‘The Fly’.  OK, it probably wasn’t exactly blow flies hat inspired these movies, but who cares…? Arguably Jeff Goldblum is even more handsome as a fly!  The 1958 film was so popular Hollywood did a re-make in 1986.  Many people think this is one of the best horror films… average rating 7.2/10 (for the first, 1958 version) and 8.2/10 (for the 1986, Goldbloom version) on Rotten Tomatoes.  Don’t watch if you have a fly phobia (also called pteronarcophobia)!

Kurt Neumann's The Fly (1958) film poster

Kurt Neumann’s The Fly (1958) film poster

Daid Cronenberg's The Fly (1986) film poster

David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) film poster

10. Fish food.  Long before David Suzuki came up with the idea, Jason Drew has been using maggots to feed farm reared fish.  Farm raised salmon, trout, and shrimp need a lot of protein in their diet.  Currently the fish farming industry fishes small wild fish out of the ocean, grinds them up into fish meal, and feeds it to the farmed fish.  Drew has developed an alternative and sustainable method to fulfill their protein requirements; he has been rearing blow flies on blood left over from slaughter houses and feeding the maggots to the farmed fish (Barclay 2012).  This ideas has been so lucrative that he has opened his own business, Agriprotein, and is trying to license and expand the technology.

and lastly,

11. The Blow Fly.  The first dirty rapper (disclaimer: NOT for all audiences; very dirty rapper)!  He wrote all his songs in the 60’s and 70’s… classic.  He got his name because his Grandmother said the was, “nastier than a blow fly”.  He’s also the nemesis of my PhD, every time I Google something legitimate for my research, something undoubtedly pops up about this guy. He’s neither awesome or stink’n awesome… but I felt like he needed to be be listed.  So, he’s number 11.

The Weird World Of Blowfly (2010) Movie Poster

The Weird World Of Blowfly (2010) Movie Poster

 

Citations:

Barclay, E. 2012. How Fly Farming May Help More Fish Stay in the Sea. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/10/15/162961073/how-fly-farming-may-help-more-fish-stay-in-the-sea on 19 May 2014.

Calvignac-Spencer S., Merkel K., Kutzner N., Kühl H, Boesch C., Kappeler P., Metzger S., Schubert G., and Leedertz F. 2013. Carrion fly-derived DNA as a tool for comprehensive and cost-effective assessment of mammalian biodiversity. Molecular Ecology 22: 915-924.

Čičkova H et al. (2102) Biodegradation of Pig Manure by the Housefly, Musca domestica: A Viable Ecological Strategy for Pig Manure Management. PLoS ONE.http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0032798 . DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032798.

Hines S. (2014) Fruit Flies, Fighter Jets use similar nimble tactics when under attack. Retrieved 20 May 2014 from http://www.washington.edu/news/2014/04/10/fruit-flies-fighter-jets-use-similar-nimble-tactics-when-under-attack/

King C., Ballantyne G., and Willmer P.G. 2013. Why flower visitation is a poor proxy for pollination: measuring single-visit pollen deposition, with implications for pollination networks and conservation. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. 4: 811-818.

Wajcik J. 2014. Blow fly maggots [photograph] Retrieved 19 May 2014 from http://www.straight.com/life/hungry-maggots-crawl-modern-medicine