Insects constantly clean their antennae, even when they appear to be clean. A group of researchers decided that the phenomenon warranted a closer look, and they used American cockroaches to see what was going on. It turns out that the obsessive behavior is actually the way many insects keep their sense of smell sharp—though it may also lead to their eventual demise.
Cockroaches use their front legs to stick their antennae in their mouths and essentially lick them clean. In the lab, researchers prevented the cockroaches from performing this self-cleaning ritual to see what would happen. A waxy substance accumulated on the insects’ antennae, which turned out to be a mix of environmental pollutants and cuticular hydrocarbons. The latter is a fatty substance the cockroach produces as a sort of moisturizer to prevent water loss through its antennae. After just one day, the non-grooming cockroaches had amassed three to four times as much of the wax as compared to the control group.
They may spend their lives rolling around on balls of poop, but dung beetles have their eyes on the stars. A new study shows that these simple bugs actually depend on the Milky Way to find their way around.
Christopher Columbus traveled by following the stars, as did Harriet Tubman. There are even birds and seals that use celestial navigation, but in the insect world, this finding is a first. In fact, the dung beetle is the first animal known to navigate via the subtle glow of the galaxy as a whole, rather than by individual stars. This may be because its compound eyes give the dung beetle a wide-angle view but poor image resolution.
This lucky wasp did not get eaten by the spider attacking it. But when we say “lucky,” we mean it only in a certain sense: moments after the wasp’s capture, they were both overtaken by a flow of tree resin and were preserved in amber for the next 100 million years, while their species and their dinosaur contemporaries from the Early Cretaceous period went extinct. The amber fossil is described in a new paper by George Poinar, the entomologist whose investigations into extracting dinosaur DNA from amber-locked mosquitoes inspired the book and movie, Jurassic Park. New research into the half-life of DNA puts that out of the question, but who knows: it might not be too late for these ancient bugs to cut a movie deal.
Photo via Oregon State University/Flickr
Turning the sun’s rays into usable energy is a skill thought to be limited to plants, algae, and solar panels. But a new study suggests that aphids may be also possess this ability.
Aphids already stand out from other animals for their production of carotenoids, pigments that also help out the immune system—most organisms get carotenoids from food, rather than making them themselves. A group of French and Israeli researchers now suggests that the reason aphids expend energy making these pigments is because they play an additional role in aphid life: Carotenoids, which plants use in photosynthesis, could be helping aphids do some of the same tricks.
Praying mantises are really preying mantises, capable predators that capture and eat smaller insects. In the case of the larger, stronger female mantises, “smaller insects” also famously includes males of the same species. To mate with a potential predator, the males have to sneak up on their ladies, and a new study suggests that they use the wind to help them out: males approached females more readily when a breeze shook the females’ perch and disguised the males’ motion.
For mantises to mate, the male must creep up to the female and leap onto her back. If he fails, he will become a meal before he has a chance to reproduce. (Even if he succeeds, the female may bite his head off during copulation—but the decapitated male body is still able to continue mating and pass on his genes. So, mission accomplished?) Reaching the female undetected is thus an important male ability, and researchers tested how wind would affect it. They placed a male Chinese mantid on a kudzu leaf, upwind from a female, and set up a fan to blow air at them. Once the male detected the female, the researchers timed how long it took him to make his move, and whether the female would detect and attack him. With the artificial wind shaking the leaf, the male tried to mate with the female more quickly than in windless conditions. Windy conditions also impaired the female’s ability to sense the male: she was less likely to attack him when the fan was on.
A pest-eating ladybug attacks an aphid.
As angry debates about genetic modification continue, GM crops are quietly going about their business—and producing some positive side effects. In China, with Bt cotton reducing the need for insecticides, pest-eating bugs have rebounded and brought natural pest control with them.
China’s genetically modified cotton is not new. Farmers used to spray their cotton with a protein, naturally produced by the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) bacteria, which is toxic to certain insects. As research into genetically modified crops advanced, scientists implanted the cotton itself with the Bt genes that code for production of the insect toxin, creating so-called “Bt cotton” and alleviating the need for the sprayed insecticide. Since China approved its use in 1997, Bt cotton has proved itself particularly effective against the cotton bollworm moth, reducing the costs and side effects of spraying pesticides, but it has had may also decrease the number of non-pest insects compared with organic fields.
With the advent of Bt cotton, pesticide use became specialized, only affecting insects that both were vulnerable to Bt’s toxin and that fed on cotton, which allowed the populations of other insect species to rebound. Some of the now-thriving species, like mirids, are pests, but others eat pests, and their recovery is making natural bug control possible.
What’s the News:
For a mosquito, venturing out during a heavy rainstorm means risking collisions with droplets 50 times its weight—but this doesn’t deter it from living in humid, rainy climes. In fact, researchers have discovered that the mosquito’s low mass, along with a sturdy exoskeleton, helps it weather (so to speak) the impacts of raindrops without much trouble.
How the Heck:
Peering inside an ancient piece of amber, scientists have uncovered the oldest direct evidence of pollination: insects covered in pollen grains, likely from a gingko tree, from between 105 and 110 million years ago. These insects—a new genus of thrips, insects that still scuttle around today—had likely gathered pollen for food, trailing it from plant to plant along the way. To get an even closer look at the specimens (without cracking open the amber), the researchers took the lump to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. There, they used synchrotron X-ray tomography to generate a detailed 3-D image of the bugs, revealing tiny, specialized hairs they used to collect pollen grains (which are shown here in yellow).
Remnants of a Cryptocarya woodii leaf, which researchers
say was part of the oldest bedding ever found
In a South African cave, researchers have uncovered traces of the oldest known human bedding, 77,000-year-old mats made of grasses, leaves, and other plant material. While it’s not especially surprising that early humans would have found a way to improve the cold, generally unpleasant experience of sleeping on a cave floor, archaeologists know little about our ancestors’ sleeping habits and habitats.
Parasitic wasps have a terrifying but weirdly impressive knack for taking over the bodies and brains of other many-legged creatures, making spiders weave them bespoke silk cocoons, obedient cockroaches incubate their eggs, and paralyzed, partially devoured ladybugs guard their young. But for the European paper wasp, as a new study describes, the tables are turned: It’s the host rather than the parasite—and the things the Xenos vesparum fly larvae inside it lead it to do are at least as odd as any of the above.