© Josef Gelernter
There are several generations of Acherontia atropos per year, with continuous broods in Africa. In the northern parts of its range the species overwinters in the pupal stage. Eggs are laid singly under old leaves of Solanaceae: potato especially, but also Physalis and other nightshades. However it also has been recorded on members of the Verbenaceae, e.g. Lantana, and on members of the families Cannabaceae, Oleaceae, and others. The larvae are stout with a posterior horn, as is typical of larvae of the Sphingidae. Most sphingid larvae however, have fairly smooth posterior horns, possibly with a simple curve, either upward or downward. In contrast, Acherontia species and certain relatives bear a posterior horn embossed with round projections about the thicker part. The horn itself bends downwards near the base, but curls upwards towards the tip.
A bee extends its proboscis in response to flower scent. It’s part of the bee’s ‘memory test’ in experiments to determine if pesticides are harming them.
Video: Geraldine Wright.
The study is part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative, joint-funded by the BBSRC and other partners.
Meet The Predator That Becomes Blind When It Runs After Prey
The tiger beetle (Cicindela hudsoni) can run so fast that it blinds itself.
There are 2,600 species of these long-legged predatory insects, and the fastest can sprint at up to 5 miles per hour, covering 120 of its body lengths in a single second. For comparison, Usain Bolt covers just 5 body lengths per second. To match the beetle, he’d have to run at 480 miles per hour.
Tiger beetles use this incredible speed to run down both prey and mates. But as they sprint, their environment becomes a blur because their eyes simply can’t gather enough light to form an image. They have extremely sharp vision for insects, but when they’re running, the world smears into a featureless smudge. To compensate, the beetle has to stop to spot its prey again, before resuming the chase.
It seems like a bad evolutionary joke: a hunter that loses sight of its prey whenever it runs.
But tiger beetles don’t mind because… well… they are really, really fast.They can afford to stop in the middle of a chase because they are so ridiculously quick when they’re in motion. It’s like the aforementioned Bolt pausing at the 50-metre mark for a drink, and still winning.
Cole Gilbert at Cornell University discovered the tiger beetles’ staccato hunting style in 1998. Now, together with Daniel Zurek, he has worked out how they cope with another problem: obstacles.
At high speed, it’s hard enough to avoid incoming obstacles. But try doing it when your eyes can’t make out anything, much less small pebbles or sticks. A running tiger beetle is permanently in “collision mode”, says Zurek. “It’s like when I’m driving a car really fast and not wearing my glasses. When something hops in the road, I can’t stop in time.”
He discovered how they cope by watching an American species—the hairy-necked tiger beetle, Cicindela hirticollis. When it runs, it always keeps its antennae in the same fixed position: straight ahead, angled at a V, and held slightly above the ground. The antennae can move, but they never do while the beetle’s in motion.
The antennae are obstacle-detectors. If they hit an obstacle, their flexible tips bend back before springing forwards again. The beetle moves too fast to change course, but it can tip its body slightly upwards so that it skitters overthe obstacle rather than running headlong into it. It’s like a blind person holding two white canes (and wearing rocket skates).
“Because of their shape, the antennae can slip over the edge of an obstacle, which tells the beetles that there’s a top they can run over,” says Zurek. He saw how effective this is by filming tiger beetles running down a long track with a piece of wood in the middle. If their antennae were intact, they cleared the obstacle most of the time, even when Zurek painted over their eyes. But if he cut the antennae off, the beetles frequently face-planted into the wood.
This solution is not only effective, but cheap. The beetles could potentially deal with motion blur by evolving more sensitive eyes, but it takes a huge amount of energy to pay for an eye with good temporal resolution. They would also have to analyse that information, and their small brains probably don’t have the processing power. Fortunately, they don’t need anything that over-engineered. Their antennae provide them with all the collision-detection they need.
Zurek thinks that human engineers should take note. One of the first autonomous robots—Shakey—found its way around with some “bump detectors”. If they hit an obstacle, they bent, and Shakey would back up.
But modern robots rely on cameras. NASA’s Curiosity rover, for example, is currently trundling over Mars with the help of eight hazard avoidance cameras, or Hazcams. “As humans, we tend to think first and foremost from a visual standpoint,” he says. “Many really sophisticated robots rely on an array of cameras that analyse on the fly, which is very computationally intensive.” The tiger beetle’s solution would be simpler, and might help robots to move much faster than Curiosity’s leisurely pace.
PS: How does one catch an insect that moves so quickly? With great difficulty at first, but Zurek says, “It’s pretty fun once you get the hang of it,” he says. “You have to fool them by coming up behind them really slowly and then lowering yourself. I get them around 60 percent of the time.”
Exploring their new playhouse
Allow me to introduce you to Miss Bean. Bean is a female Regal Jumping Spider (Phidippus regius). Jumping spiders are brilliant little creatures- smart, curious and harmless. They have wonderful eyesight and whenever I am at my computer, she will hop down in her cage and watch me. She’s quite possibly the cutest spider on the planet, but I might be a bit biased. ;)
Moments from filmmaker Catherine Chalmers beautiful short — We Rule — which delves into the mesmerizing lives of leafcutter ants.
Leafcutter ants live in complex colonies and use their sharp, knife-like jaws to cut leaves from plants and bring these clippings (which can sometimes be almost ten times their own weight!) to feed the fungus garden that serves as their food.
In a talk at TEDxIndianapolis, Catherine provides an inside look at collaborating with these fascinating fungus farmers (say that three times fast).
Some larvae and adults from the Osmylidae family.
Osmylids are net-winged insects, like Antlions and those little Green Lacewings you’ve probably seen attracted to your lights at night.
The larvae are often found right next to streams, where they use their long, needley mandibles to suck out the innards of prey.
Most of them grow up to be small and brown. A few, like Australia’s Pied Lacewing, become pretty redheads.
Udo Schmidt is fascinated by beetles. Now 70-years-old, the retired German researcher has been collecting them since his late 20s. The drawers housing Udo’s awesome collection contain 30,000 specimens representing over 6,000 species.
“Since more than 350,000 species of beetles have been classified, and I have published photos of just 1,600 of them, there is absolutely no danger that I will run out of work,” Schmidt told Wired.
Schmidt’s hobby has taken him to 22 countries around the world. “I prefer to collect in Africa, in the dung of mammals,” he said.
He is inspired by the “overwhelming variety of shapes and colors, beauty and elegance,” of beetles — the largest group of insects in the world. Evolutionary biologists struggle to explain this seemingly excessive diversity.
Thankfully Udo is also a skilled photographer, so we don’t have to knock on his door in order to get a close look at his stunning insect archive. Visit his website and Flickr stream to view many more astonishing images of Udo’s beautiful beetles.
Mantis Fly (Mantispidae, Neuroptera)
These extraordinary, seemingly prehistoric insects belong to the same order of insects as lacewings and owlflies. They get their name from their mantis-like appearance, as their spiny “raptorial” front legs are modified to catch small insect prey and are very similar to the front legs of mantids. The adults are predatory insects that are often nocturnal.
by Sinobug (itchydogimages) on Flickr.
Pu’er, Yunnan, China
See more Chinese insects and spiders on my Flickr site HERE……