A blue morpho butterfly sits on a leaf. A new study finds that butterflies likely originated somewhere in western North America or Central America around 100 million years ago. Kristen Grace/Florida Museum
It is almost a certainty that if you visit Costa Rica you will see the blue morpho fluttering by somewhere. And you may be in the location of its origin story:
Akito Kawahara remembers being eight years old when he went on a special tour of the insect collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He marveled at the vast array of pinned bugs before stopping in front of a large picture of the butterfly family tree.
A red lacewing butterfly perches on a plant. Rachit Pratap Singh
A number of spots on that tree, he saw, were curiously blank.
“Just looking at it, realizing that scientists at these museums still don’t know these basic things — I’ll never forget that day,” Kawahara says.
That moment sparked a lifelong passion in Kawahara to fill in those blanks and determine where these charismatic insects originated. Now, he’s gotten a little closer to an answer. His latest research shows that butterflies probably first flapped their wings in present-day western North America or Central America. Continue reading →
Some crows “cry wolf” to snatch food from their neighbors; some caterpillars trick ants into treating them like queens. What can we learn from beasts that bluff?
On April 20, 1848, Alfred Russel Wallace and Henry Walter Bates set off for the Amazon on a boat named Mischief. The two young men—Bates was twenty-three, Wallace twenty-five—had met a few years earlier, probably at a library in Leicester, in England’s East Midlands. Both were passionate naturalists, and both were strapped for cash. (Neither had been able to afford university.) To finance their adventures, they planned to ship specimens back to London, where they could be sold to wealthy collectors.
For reasons that no one has ever been able to explain—but that many have speculated about—Wallace and Bates separated soon after they reached Brazil. In the decade that followed, Wallace amassed an immense trove of new species; lost most of them in a ship fire; set off again, for Southeast Asia; and, with Charles Darwin, discovered natural selection.
Bates, meanwhile, remained in Brazil. He sailed up the Tapajós, an Amazon tributary, and then up the Cupari, a tributary of the Tapajós. Travel in the region was often agonizingly slow; to get from the town of Óbidos to Manaus, a journey of less than four hundred miles, took him nine weeks. (At some point during the trip, he was robbed of most of the money he was carrying.) Bates would find a congenial town and spend months, even years, there, making daily forays into the surrounding rain forest. He tromped around in a checked shirt and denim pants, an outfit considered outré by the British merchants he encountered in Brazil, who wore their top hats rain or shine. Continue reading →
An entomologist races to find them before they disappear.
The Devils River, in southwestern Texas, runs, mirage-like, along the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, through some of the most barren countryside in the United States. Access to the river is limited; unless you’re in a kayak, the only way to travel upstream is along a skein of rutted dirt roads. It was on one of these roads that, a few years ago, David Wagner noticed a shrub that seemed to him peculiarly filled with promise. Continue reading →
A legal quirk leaves officials in at least a dozen states with little or no authority to protect insects. That’s a growing problem for humans.
It’s tough being an insect. They get swatted, stomped and sprayed without a thought. Their mere presence can provoke irrational panic. Even everyday language disparages them: “Stop bugging me,” we say. Continue reading →
Light pollution is disruptive to many species, from corals to bats to the humans who put up all those lights. “The Darkness Manifesto” urges us to reconsider our drive to dispel the dark.
Artificial lights disorient many species, including the grasshoppers that swarmed the powerful lights over the Las Vegas strip in 2019. Bridget Bennett/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Losing a connection to the night sky is losing our connection to nature, said Johan Eklöf, but it is also losing some of our history. “What we see now is the same sky as our ancestors were looking at and making up stories about.” Nora Lorek for The New York Times
The zoologist Johan Eklöf began to consider the disappearance of darkness in our brightly lit world in 2015, when he was out counting bats in southern Sweden. The surrounding grounds were dark, as they had been decades earlier when his academic adviser had tallied the bat populations in the region’s churches. In the intervening years, however, those churches — whose belfries are famously appreciated by the winged mammals — had been illuminated with floodlights. “I started to think, how do the bats actually react to this?” Eklöf says. Continue reading →
Charley Eiseman, a naturalist who conducts biodiversity surveys for conservation groups, became interested in leaf mines because of patterns like this one. It’s the handiwork of the moth Phyllocnistis populiella in a quaking aspen leaf (Populus tremuloides).
Leaf mines on columbine (Aquilegia) can be serpentine squiggles or blotches. Larvae of flies in the genus Phytomyza make these familiar markings when they feed between a leaf’s epidermal layers. Margaret Roach
Don’t jump to the conclusion that those mysterious marks are evidence of disease. They may be leaf mines or galls — and that’s a good thing.
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, some of us mastered bread-baking (if we could get our hands on flour) or devoted ourselves to nurturing some new mail-order houseplant. Continue reading →
The earthworm in the photo above had been in a bag of soil where a coffee seedling started germinating earlier this year. I was moving the seedling from its small “starter” bag to a larger one, and the earthworm jumped out, wriggling under the nearby supplies I was working with. I did not see it again until it was too late. Since earthworms are good for soil, and we are in the early stages of a soil regeneration project, I was sorry to see the worm lose its life. This particular species of ant is currently everywhere on the property where we are re-planting coffee. I have not seen so many of this type of ant at any point in the last 22 years on this property, and their shocking abundance made me think of that new ant study. Normally we do not repeat sharing of news stories here, unless new information has come to light. It has only been a couple days, but I must share more on the study because my planting work is keeping the subject in front of me, and the photos in this article are that good.
Leaf cutter ants in Costa Rica. The researchers sampled 1,300 locations around the world, estimating ant abundance in different environments in areas such as forests and steppes. Bence Mate/Nature Picture Library, via Alamy
Rebecca Dzombak, who authored this article for the New York Times, will be on our radar from now on:
Weaver ants engaged in teamwork. Sunthorn Viriyapan/Alamy
There are 20 quadrillion ants worldwide, according to a new census, or 2.5 million for every living human. There are probably even more than that.
Male leaf cutter ants on the move over the Sonoran Desert in search of females and to make more ants. Norma Jean Gargasz/Alamy
Right now, ants are scurrying around every continent except Antarctica, doing the hard work of engineering ecosystems. They spread seeds, churn up soil and speed up decomposition. They forage and hunt and get eaten. You may not know how much you rely on them. Continue reading →
In this photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, yellow crazy ants are seen in a bait testing efficacy trial at the Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in December, 2015. An invasive species known as the yellow crazy ant has been eradicated from the remote U.S. atoll in the Pacific. Robert Peck/AP
For every human on Earth, there are estimated to be about 2.5 million ants — or 20 quadrillion in total.
A new study published by researchers at both the University of Hong Kong and University of Würzburg in Germany attempts to count the total number of ground-dwelling and tree-dwelling ants. Continue reading →
A Monarch butterfly, which is now placed in the endangered category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, perches at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, Canada July 21, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
GENEVA, July 21 (Reuters) – The migratory monarch butterfly, which has for millennia turned North American woodlands into kaleidoscopes of colour in one of nature’s most spectacular mass migrations, is threatened with extinction, international conservationists said on Wednesday. Continue reading →
A cartoon from the mid-1800s, using apparently sophisticated insects to satirise French society (Credit: Getty Images)
Thomas Moynihan, a research fellow at Forethought Foundation and St Benet’s College, Oxford University offers this entertaining treatment of how Western culture has seen and thought about its insect co-habitants of the planet.
Lubbock’s wasp, described by one journalist as “a little gentleman in a brown overcoat, with black and yellow nether garments” (Credit: Alamy)
When looking to other creatures for signs of intelligence, insects are rarely the most obvious candidates, but as the historian Thomas Moynihan writes, it wasn’t always so. What can the early-20th Century fascination with bug societies tell us about our own?
It is 1919, and a young astronomer turns a street corner in Pasadena, California. Something seemingly humdrum on the ground distracts him. It’s an ant heap. Dropping to his knees, peering closer, he has an epiphany – about deep time, our place within it, and humanity’s uncertain fate. Continue reading →
Wasps are one of the least appreciated creatures on the planet, but we have always suspected they deserve some respect. We just never investigated why that might be the case. So, our thanks to the Guardian for bringing this book to our attention in an article titled Why we should all love wasps:
Wasps have always had a bad press. But Dr Seirian Sumner, who has spent her life studying them, argues they are sophisticated, socially complex and essential to the environment
In The Wasp Woman, a 1959 B-movie directed by Roger Corman, the owner of a failing cosmetics company becomes the test subject for a novel anti-ageing formula manufactured from the royal jelly of wasps. Continue reading →
This book, about a scientist who has featured in plenty of posts on this platform, is introduced by one of our favorite writers with some juicy gossip from the halls of academia. I had no idea that the biology department at Harvard divided along the lines described here; the how is the juicy part and the why makes some sense–all for the best–knowing what we know now. As an aside, having taken my first calculus course as a doctoral student at age 30, with undergrads as classmates, I had a jolt of painful memory that made me even more respectful of this biologist’s determination.
Scientists who once documented new species of insects are now charting their perilous decline—and warning about what it will mean for the rest of us.
In the summer of 1942, Ed Wilson, age thirteen, decided that it was time to get serious about research. He had already determined that he wanted to be an entomologist, a choice made partly out of interest and partly out of injury. As a child, he’d been fascinated with marine life. One day, he jerked too hard on a fish he caught, and one of its needlelike spines lodged in his right eye. The lens had to be removed, and, following the surgery, to see something clearly he needed to hold it up near his face. Insects were just about the only animals that submitted to this treatment. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
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:
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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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):
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 →
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
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 →