Costa Rica’s Insects In The Limelight

Green Orchid Bee, Euglossa dilemma. Pablo Piedra

Some of our favorite topics–Costa Rica & insects & photography–are covered in this interview:

A Longtime Military Photographer Has A New Passion Project: Bugs

Digger Wasp, Sphecidae
Pablo Piedra

Field Cricket, Gryllus assimilis
Pablo Piedra

Pablo Piedra is a military photographer turned insect fanatic. After retiring in 2019 from 22 years with the military, he moved to Costa Rica with his family. Here he started doing macro photography of the country’s native bugs as a way of staying creative during COVID-19. His wife Daniela helps him look for insects and his son Jaden loves the final results.

How did you transition from being a military photographer to an insect photographer?

After my retirement in 2018, I began working as the Multimedia Director for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) in Arlington, VA. In 2019, my family moved to Costa Rica and I became a freelance multimedia content creator. Continue reading

Care For The Little Ones Among Us

Illustration of insects

Thanks to the Guardian for providing this biologist the platform to explain to us why insects matter so much:

The insect apocalypse: ‘Our world will grind to a halt without them’

Insects have declined by 75% in the past 50 years – and the consequences may soon be catastrophic. Biologist Dave Goulson reveals the vital services they perform

I have been fascinated by insects all my life. One of my earliest memories is of finding, at the age of five or six, some stripy yellow-and-black caterpillars feeding on weeds in the school playground. I put them in my empty lunchbox, and took them home. Eventually they transformed into handsome magenta and black moths. This seemed like magic to me – and still does. I was hooked. Continue reading

Bombus Polaris, An Adaptive Winner

PHOTOGRAPH: KATIE ORLINSKY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX

Arctic bumblebees came to our attention nearly five years ago, and this story below reminds us that while climate change is not a zero sum game–it is more like a game of perpetual loss, which is more like what we have witnessed with bees in general–there are some winning adaptations in some locations:

The Quest to Tally Alaska’s Wild ‘Warm-Blooded’ Bumblebees

Extreme environments offer them an unexpected paradise. Now researchers and conservationists want to get a head count.

“People don’t come to Denali and other parks in Alaska to look at bumblebees, but they should,” says Jessica Rykken, entomologist for Denali National Park and Preserve. The “Last Frontier” state may be known for supersized wildlife, from bears to moose, but on a smaller scale, the diversity of bumblebees (or bumble bees, depending on whom you ask) there is unusually high, and powers entire ecosystems. Continue reading

Crazy Yellow Ants, Be Gone From This Island

Hundreds of frigate birds and boobies fly over a Crazy Ant Strike Team crew of volunteers at Johnston Atoll NWR.
USFWS

In common language, they are called crazy. They terrorize birds on an island where they did not belong. On this platform we are always going to side with the birds. Full stop. But, even these lousy things ants do are impressive. They remind us that one day ants will rule the planet.

Yellow Crazy Ants, An Enemy To Seabirds, Have Been Wiped Out On A Remote Atoll

The yellow crazy ant was last spotted by Crazy Ant Strike Teams on the vital seabird nesting grounds in December 2017, but it was too soon to tell if they’d been fully extinguished because their colonies are found underground. Robert Peck/HCSU/USGS

After more than a decade, the terrorizing reign of the yellow crazy ant is over on the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

The nonnative invasive insect had been threatening ground-nesting seabirds on the atoll since at least 2010, nearly wiping out the island’s red-tailed tropicbird colony in just a few years and wreaking havoc on other seabirds. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday that its campaign to eradicate the insects has been a success. Continue reading

Milkweed, Monarchs & Meaning

A monarch butterfly on a milkweed plant in Vista, Calif. Gregory Bull

We feature monarch butterflies in our pages to highlight conservation challenges, and milkweed is often part of the story. Claire Fahy’s story below reminds me that the link between the insect and the plant, and the effort in California to repair that link, is one example of why we created, and why I continue to post on, this platform. A short statement of purpose might be something like: in hope there is meaning. June 15 will mark the 10th anniversary of the first post, and I intend to start the next decade with a more regular series on our regeneration efforts on a few acres of land here in Costa Rica. Because it provides a sense of meaning, among other reasons. So we thank those in California who are doing the same on a 200x scale:

A coalition of conservation groups have partnered with the state to add 30,000 milkweed plants in an attempt to restore the species’ population.

A consortium hoping to rescue the Western monarch butterfly is planting three varieties of milkweed: showy milkweed, narrowleaf milkweed and a desert milkweed. Rob Cardillo for The New York Times

Known for their windowpane wing design and bright orange color, Western monarch butterflies add a dash of magic to the California coast, where they spend the winter. Now a coalition of conservation groups, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the environmentalist organization River Partners are working together to extend a lifeline to the monarchs, whose population has been dwindling drastically.

The groups have embarked on an effort to add 30,000 milkweed plants across the state to provide the butterflies with places to breed and acquire the sustenance for migration.

The Western monarchs’ California population has fallen 99 percent since the 1980s, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. A major factor in that drop has been a decline in milkweed caused by farming and pesticide use. Milkweed is vital to monarchs as a place to lay eggs and as a food source for their caterpillars. Continue reading

Ants, Food Raids & Evolution

Image #1 Army Ants reproduced with permission from “Army Ants: Nature’s Ultimate Social Hunters” by Daniel J.C. Kronauer; Image #5 painted clonal raider ants photograph by Daniel Kronauer. Credit: #1: Daniel J.C. Kronauer, #5: Daniel Kronauer

It is rainy season, therefore the season for starting the growth cycle of some plants, in Costa Rica. It is always ant season here. Some of the trees we planted last year, mostly citrus varieties but also pomegranate, have become feasting locations for ants who devour their leaves and haul them off.

My assumption, seeing this constantly during the 25 years since we moved to Costa Rica, has always been that ants are primarily vegetarians So, today a bit of ant-wonk from a team of scientists at Harvard University, summarized on Phys.org’s website, to correct my assumption (the video alone is worth visiting the source article):

How army ants’ iconic mass raids evolved

Army ants form some of the largest insect societies on the planet. They are quite famous in popular culture, most notably from a terrifying scene in Indiana Jones. But they are also ecologically important. They live in very large colonies and consume large amounts of arthropods. And because they eat so much of the other animals around them, they are nomadic and must keep moving in order to not run out of food. Due to their nomadic nature and mass consumption of food, they have a huge impact on arthropod populations throughout tropical rainforests floors. Continue reading

Respect For Insects In Human Food

The old joke that begins “waiter, there is a fly in my soup” was already stale. Now it is long past its sell-by date. We have been selling this protein bar, made in Costa Rica, for long enough now to say without reservation: insects are not repellant. These bars compete alongside dozens of other snack products we offer, and have become a surprise best-seller.

I had expected occasional curiosity-driven sales, but instead they have outsold more established protein bar brands and other snack options. Insects have already earned more respect as a food source than I had imagined. Thanks to the Guardian for this partial explanation of the phenomenon, and its potential:

A bug’s life: inspecting the produce at Ÿnsect’s lab. Photograph: Reuters

If we want to save the planet, the future of food is insects

Fried crickets on the school menu, milk made from fly larvae and mealworm bolognese for dinner? These are the environmentally friendly meals we can look forward to. Bon appetit!

My first attempts at feeding insects to friends and family did not go down well. “What the hell is wrong with you?” asked my wife when I revealed that the tomato and oregano-flavoured cracker bites we had been munching with our G&Ts were made from crickets. Continue reading

Bee Survey, Bee Hotels & Other Bee News From The Netherlands

A ‘bee hotel’ in Hennipgaarde in the Netherlands. Photograph: Andre Muller/Alamy

Any time we see news on new bee hotels, we are inclined to share. Seeing this news from the Netherlands about a bee survey is also particularly smile-producing. Our thanks to Anne Pinto-Rodrigues and the Guardian’s Environment section for this article:

Bee population steady in Dutch cities thanks to pollinator strategy

Scheme involving ‘ bee hotels’ and ‘bee stops’ reaps rewards as census shows no strong decline in urban population

More than 11,000 people took part in the national bee survey. Photograph: Martijn Beekman/Hollandse Hoogte

Bee hotels, bee stops and a honey highway are some of the techniques the Dutch are crediting with keeping their urban bee population steady in recent years, after a period of worrying decline.

Last week, more than 11,000 people from across the Netherlands participated in a bee-counting exercise as part of the fourth edition of the national bee census. Continue reading

Cycling With & For Monarch Butterflies

Sara Dykman biked from the monarchs’ overwintering grounds in Mexico to Canada and back, covering a total distance of 10,201 miles in 264 days. (Timber Press)

We have featured the plight of monarch butterflies plenty of times on this platform. And bicycle travelogues feature, together with bicycle activism, even more frequently. Today, at the intersection of butterflies and bicycles, we thank Sara Dykman for writing and Smithsonian for publishing this travel-with-a-cause story:

BIKING 10,000 MILES WITH MONARCHS

I set off to be the first person to cycle alongside the butterflies to raise awareness of their alarming decline

Dykman works in amphibian research and as an outdoor educator. (Tom Weistar)

The idea to bike from Mexico to Canada and back with the migrating monarch butterflies arose from a simple wish to visit them. In 2013, crossing Mexico by bike for the first time, a friend and I entertained the idea of visiting the monarchs at their overwintering sites. Because it was April and the monarchs had already begun migrating north, we decided to forego the side trip.

I spent the next few years idly daydreaming about returning. Continue reading

The Locus Of Locust Control

A swarm of desert locusts in Meru, Kenya, in February. Yasuyoshi Chiba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

We respect all things natural, but we acknowledge there are phenomena that test our principles. Historic swarms of locusts, for example, make us believe that getting control over their impact is essential for communities where they can lay waste to human endeavor, so we thank Rachel Nuwer for this story from one of the hardest-hit regions:

A swarm inundating Naiperere, near the town of Rumuruti, in Kenya in January. When the rains come, locusts can form swarms of more than 15 million insects per square mile. Baz Ratner/Reuters

As Locusts Swarmed East Africa, This Tech Helped Squash Them

A hastily formed crowdsourcing operation to contain the insects in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia could help manage climate-related disasters everywhere.

Lake Joseph, a locust tracker, in Samburu County, Kenya in May 2020. Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty Images

Melodine Jeptoo will never forget the first time she saw a locust swarm. Moving like a dark cloud, the insects blotted out the sky and pelted her like hail.

“When they’re flying, they really hit you hard,” said Ms. Jeptoo, who lives in Kenya and works with PlantVillage, a nonprofit group that uses technology to help farmers adapt to climate change. Continue reading

Ant Respect

Common black ant (Lasius niger) workers and three queens.

Any given day in Costa Rica the number of insects one is likely to encounter is too great to count. Ants are not automatically loved, but they are respected. Brooke Jarvis, whose writing we saw primarily in the New Yorker previously, has spectacular photography to accompany her text in this New York Times article in the Science section:

Let Us Now Praise Tiny Ants

Even in the densest human habitations, there are orders of magnitude more ants than there are of us, doing the hard work of making our crumbs disappear.

 

It is telling, the entomologist Eleanor Spicer Rice writes in her introduction to a new book of ant photography by Eduard Florin Niga, that humans looking downward on each other from great heights like to describe the miniaturized people we see below us as looking “like ants.” By this we mean faceless, tiny, swarming: an indecipherable mass stripped of individuality or interest.

Daceton armigerum, male, from northern South America.

Intellectually, though, we can recognize that each scurrying dot is in fact a unique person with a complicated and interconnected life, even if distance appears to wipe away all that diversity and complexity. Continue reading

One More Reason Why Native Plant Species, Not To Mention Insects, Matter

ENZO PÉRÈS-LABOURDETTE / YALE E360

As the curvy berm we started forming earlier this year, combined with 100+ newly planted trees, transition from wet season to dry season, we have been noticing an uptick in insects. While most of my early life experiences in Connecticut led me to believe that the world (or at least I) would be better off with fewer insects, I now think exactly the opposite. Last Sunday I had my first sighting of a bird (same species as our friend Daniel captured by camera in Guatemala a few weeks ago) that is likely here for some of those insects. That sighting alone would have been enough to convince me that more insects are better than fewer. Janet Marinelli‘s article in Yale Environment360 gives me more to ponder on this topic:

How Non-Native Plants Are Contributing to a Global Insect Decline

The impact of introduced plants on native biodiversity has emerged as a hot-button issue in ecology. But recent research provides new evidence that the displacement of native plant communities is a key cause of a collapse in insect populations and is affecting birds as well.

Zebra swallowtails are entirely dependent on pawpaw trees, which have leaves that are the butterflies’ larvae only source of food. COURTESY OF DOUGLAS TALLAMY

For years, Doug Tallamy sounded the alarm about the grave threat that plants introduced from abroad pose to native insects. By transforming native plant communities into so-called novel landscapes increasingly dominated by exotic species on which many insects cannot feed, the University of Delaware entomologist speculated, they imperil not only insects but also the birds and other animals that depend on insects for survival. Continue reading

Bees & Citizen Science

A rusty patched bumblebee. Nature Picture Library/Alamy

If you are a regular here you have seen plenty about citizen science. And plenty about bees. We have posted only one time previously about the intersection of bees and citizen science. Today makes twice:

How You Can Help Count and Conserve Native Bees

Honeybees and their problems get the most attention, but scientists are using tactics learned from bird conservation to protect American bees. Continue reading

What Very Hungry Caterpillars Really Do

Today’s post is a finding from the natural world that intersects with the premise of a favored book for kids:

Don’t Get Between a Caterpillar and Its Milkweed

Before metamorphosis, monarch butterflies will aggressively head butt each other for access to their favorite food.

In the 1969 children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” the tiny protagonist spends a week snarfing his way through a smorgasbord of fruits, meats, sugary desserts and, finally, a nourishing leaf. This family-friendly tale was missing one crucial and far less G-rated plot element: the pure, unadulterated rage of an insect unfed. Continue reading

Smelling Without A Nose

Common blue butterfly in Weymouth, Dorset, UK. © Verity Hill

Common blue butterfly in Weymouth, Dorset, UK. © Verity Hill

Thanks to Alex Morss for this second opportunity to feature her work:

How can butterflies and moths smell?

How can butterflies and moth find food-plants and mates by smell if they don’t have a nose? Ecologist Alex Morss explains how they can sense with other parts of their body. Continue reading

The Little Things We Can Do

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A hairstreak butterflies in a Florida backyard. Photo © Bill Spitzer / TNC Photo Contest 2019

If you are fortunate enough to have a yard of your own, consider this suggestion by Charles Fergus:

Create Wildlife Habitat Around Your House

By itself, a plain grass lawn is stark and visually unappealing—which is why most homeowners add shrubs, flower beds, and specimen trees. Today, there’s a new movement afoot known as natural landscaping: using native trees, shrubs, and low plants to add textural diversity to a yard while attracting and benefiting wildlife.

Research has shown that seeing wildlife around your home—hearing birds sing, glimpsing brightly colored butterflies and dragonflies, seeing a garter snake slither into a stone wall— makes life more enjoyable.

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Common milkweed growing in Illinois. Photo © Timothy T. Lindenbaum / TNC

Many of us have a visceral need to be in touch with wild creatures and to acknowledge that we ourselves are part of nature, even if we live in suburbs and other settings where housing is dense. Continue reading

Imagining Better Food

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A culinary student preparing mealworm quiches at the Rijn Ijssel chefs school in Wageningen, Netherlands. Jerry Lampen/Reuters

JoAnna Klein has a nack for getting me to think twice on a topic. My imagination is moving in the right direction. I may be embarrassed by my insufficient progress at cutting meat consumption, but I have made zero headway in the realm of insect appetite. It must change. But even with this story, and its beautiful pictures, my likelihood to indulge in one of these meals is best captured by the biblical phrase about the spirit being willing but the flesh being weak; I get why I must do this, but my body is not cooperating and I am not looking forward to the first such meal:

How to Develop an Appetite for Insects

Scientists who study bugs are thinking harder about how to turn them into good food.

Repeat after me: entomophagy.

It’s derived from Greek and Latin: “entomon,” meaning “insect,” and “phagus,” as in “feeding on.”

Some think it’s the future of food.

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Justin Butner

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report declaring the need to swap traditional protein sources for insects to support a sustainable future. The report helped drive an explosion of efforts all dedicated to making mealworms your next meal. Continue reading

Animal Migration In A New Light

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Craig K. Lorenz

It’s been a while, Carl Zimmer! Welcome back to our pages and thanks for this new consideration of what is included in the definition of animal migration, a pair of words normally associated with big mammals and birds:

These Animal Migrations Are Huge — and Invisible

Swarms of insects move across continents each year. Scientists used radar to track one species and discovered a vast ecological force.

Ladybugs briefly took over the news cycle.

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In this radar image, green indicates a swarm of ladybugs over Southern California. National Weather Service, via Associated Press

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service were looking over radar images in California on the night of June 4 when they spotted what looked like a wide swath of rain. But there were no clouds.

The meteorologists contacted an amateur weather-spotter directly under the mysterious disturbance. He wasn’t getting soaked by rain. Instead, he saw ladybugs. Everywhere.

Radar apparently had picked up a cloud of migrating ladybugs spread across 80 miles, with a dense core ten miles wide floating 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet in the air. As giant as the swarm was, the meteorologists lost track of it. The ladybugs disappeared into the night. Continue reading

Green Building Techniques Inspired By Insects

The air conditioning system of the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, was inspired by termites’ nests. Credit David Brazier, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been quite some time since we posted about biomimicry. Thanks as always to JoAnna Klein for this illuminating story:

What Termites Can Teach Us About Cooling Our Buildings

“We think humans are the best designers, but this is not really true,” a researcher said.

In the capital of Zimbabwe, a building called Eastgate Centre holds nearly 350,000 square-feet of office space and shops. It uses 90 percent less energy than a similar sized building next door.

What’s Eastgate Centre’s secret? Termites.

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Three views of a termites’ nest, including from left, a photo of the nest, a tomography of the the nest’s interior and the networks of galleries and paths in it. Credit G. Theraulaz, CRCA, CBI, CNRS, Toulouse

In the 1990s, Mick Pearce, the building’s architect, took his inspiration from mounds built by fungus-farming termites he saw on a nature show. The insects created their own air conditioning systems that circulated hot and cool air between the mound and the outside.

As architects and builders seek new and improved ways to cool buildings without using more energy in a warming world, a study of another type of termite mound suggests that Mr. Pearce won’t be the last human to take design tips from these cockroach cousins. Continue reading

The Little Creatures We Cannot Live Without

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Photo illustrations by Matt Dorfman. Source photographs: Bridgeman Images.

Brooke Jarvis has written a longform feature article with the word apocalypse in the title, which may make you wince and turn away. As might the word insect, even if you find the illustration above mesmerizing as I do. And reading to the end is an investment in time. But do not turn away just because the illustration below is alarming. It is another alarming topic we are responsible for taking account of.

02mag-insects-image2-superJumbo-v5.jpgSune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed? Continue reading