All posts by Hulett Environmental

Insect Bomb Detectors

Why use big clumsy dogs when you can use tiny, barely detectable insects to sniff out bombs? It turns out the military is looking into retiring man’s best friend and turning to insects to use as bomb detectors. At the moment researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are doing experiments with cyborg insects to see if they can harness their incredible sense of smell to turn them into biorobotic sensing machines that will be used to sniff out bombs in the near future.

Apparently, insects such as locusts have an incredible sense of smell, many times more powerful than that of dogs, and can detect masked odors that no dogs could ever hope to find. Scientists and the military are teaming up to see of they can capitalize on this unique ability by experimenting with putting implants of microscopic sensors in insects’ antennae. The insect is then sent out to find a bomb, and if the insect detects one, a small red LED light on its’ back lights up and alerts the bomb squad.

But that’s not all the military is thinking of using these creepy crawly critters for. They are also playing around with developing a way to control the insects movement so they can direct the tiny soldiers to be something akin to a remote control spy. Their current attempts to control their movement involve heat lasers. The researchers’ idea is to point a laser at the insect’s wing, heating it up, which should then make the insect move in the direction of the heat. I’m not sure if this idea is the most solid they’ve had, as in my experience, insects tend to move away from fire when you point it at them…not that I’ve ever chased around an insect with a lit match before…

The military is already in this for the long haul. The Navy has given the research team a three year grant of $750,000. It looks like bug bomb detectors are going to be a reality for us in the near future. I wonder what else they have planned for our tiny six-legged friends…

What else do you think the military could use insects for?

Being a Mosquito Magnet is in Your Genes

Being a Mosquito Magnet is in Your Genes
Do mosquitoes flock towards you whenever you dare to step outside? Well, according to a recent study you can blame a good part of this on your genes. We already knew that biology had something to do with how attractive or repellent a person is to a mosquito. We know that pregnant women are much more attractive to mosquitoes than those that are not pregnant. We know that a person’s body odor can attract or repel mosquitoes. Bacteria on your skin is partly responsible for your body’s odor, but skin cells also most likely play a role. This could mean that your genes could play a role in your body odor that attracts or repels mosquitoes.

Scientists performed a study on 18 identical twins and 19 fraternal ones, who were made to put their hands in a glass tube that would allow the test mosquitoes to smell their hands without letting them bite them. The idea behind using twins for the experiment was that if a mosquito is attracted to one of the twin’s scent, then they are likely to be attracted to the other one as well if genes do in fact play a role in whether a person attracts or repels mosquitoes. The researchers released 20 mosquitoes into these Y-shaped tubes and gave them 30 seconds to smell the scents inside, after which the researchers opened a gate and watched which hand the mosquitoes chose to go towards and which they avoided. The results proved that around 62 to 83 percent of a person’s level of attracting mosquitoes was attributed to DNA. Some unfortunate people are literally programmed by their genes to be attractive to mosquitoes.

Are you genetically programmed to attract mosquitoes? What do you think of these new findings? How could they help scientists develop ways to better protect humans from mosquitoes?

New Super Soldier Termite

Asian Subterranean Termite
You may have heard of the Formosan “super termite” that has been eating through houses along the Southern U.S. Until recently this termite was thought to be the most destructive in the world. However, Nan-Yoa Su, professor of entomology at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), has just discovered a new termite ravaging houses in Florida that is even more destructive and terrifying.

This new super soldier termite, known as the Asian subterranean termite, was thought to only live in tropical climates in places such as Brazil and the West Indies. Unfortunately for us Americans, it has just been discovered in Florida, and seems to have a well-established foothold in South Florida. Scientists are puzzled by its rapid spread as they believed it could not survive in areas north of the tropics. The terrifying termite is now considered to be a serious threat to homes in Florida. Infestations have already been found in four buildings in Riviera Beach in South Florida, and officials believe there are probably more buildings infested. Officials are asking people to contact them at the UF/IFAS if they see this termite.

This new destructive termite is considered one of the most destructive pests in the tropics and now the Southern United States. Su, along with assistant professor of entomology Brian Cabrera, is working to track and hopefully stop the advance of this invasive insect.

Officials are asking residents to look out for the winged termites, which may be seen around dusk and in the evening flying around lights. The termite can be identified by its dark brown head and dorsal surface on the top of its body, which stands out in contrast to its yellow-brown underside. The “two-toned” appearance of the termite makes it fairly noticeable when compared to other termites. The termite “soldiers” can be identified by the teardrop shape of their heads and a pore on their body that secretes sticky, milk-like fluid. Officials recommend that any homeowners unsure of whether the termite has infested their homes should immediately contact a pest control professional and have them thoroughly inspect their property.

Thankfully, a successful baiting system has been developed that can control the new Asian subterranean termite. The bait system uses a chemical called noviflumuron, which is a growth regulator that stops termites from being able to molt. Without the ability to molt the worker population of the termites cannot sustain their underground colonies. We’ll beat this bad guy in no time!

Have you ever had a termite infestation in your home? How did you get rid of them?

Insect Colonies Share Brain Power

social insects

Scientists recently performed a study comparing the complexity of brain function in social insects as opposed to solitary insects. They found that unlike vertebrate species, which evolve to have increasingly complex brains the more complex the society becomes, social insects that share information among the members of the colony reduces their need for complex brain function and the complexity of their cognitive brain functioning actually decreased as the complexity of their societies increased.

In vertebrate animal societies as the social environment grows more complex over generations the cognitive abilities of the individuals in that society are forced to adapt and also become more complex. More complex social societies tend to have an increased amount of competition between their individuals. As individuals have to navigate more and more challenges such as conflict over resources, their cognitive abilities are forced to evolve in order to continually sharpen their intelligence so they can continue to survive in more and more complex societies.

However, in social insect species the colony tends to be made up of family groups, with the children staying to help their parents, and while there may be some conflict in these colonies, the survival of the group depends on their ability to work together as a cohesive unit. The more cooperative structures of social insect colonies end up affecting the evolution of the brain differently.

Researchers studied the brains of 29 related species of wasps from Costa Rica, Ecuador and Taiwan. They studied both solitary and social species that had varying colony sizes and structures. They found that the solitary species had evolved to have larger brain parts associated with complex cognition used for such things as spatial memory, associative learning, and multi-sensory integration. On the other hand, the social insect species had less complex cognitive function. The researchers believe that this is because social insect colony members are able to rely on group members, meaning they don’t have to invest as much energy in more complex individual cognitive functions. These social species evolved to survive cooperatively, utilizing such things as sharing information among colony members, which reduces the need for individual cognition.

Do you think humans could have evolved in this manner if we had more cooperative societies, or is that impossible due to our conscious brains? How might our humans society be different if our brains had evolved in the same way as our societies became more complex?

Florida Isn’t Prepared to Fight the Zika Virus | Florida Mosquito Control

Zika Virus

Things aren’t looking too good for Florida and the Zika virus today. The numbers of cases continue to rise and they have received no help from the federal government. Two weeks ago, Osceola County Manager Donald Fisher sent a plea to the state Health Department, in which he explained just how unprepared Florida is to battle the Zika virus. The state is lacking in sufficient staff, the resources in the counties are exhausted, and they lack readily available funds to respond to the disaster. He warns that people’s lives are at stake.

Osceola’s letter was taken to the Senate and read by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to try and convince his colleagues that the bill to fund 1.9 billion dollars to contain and eradicate the virus needs to be passed soon. He pointed out that Osceola on their own needs close to a million dollars in funding to fight this “global public health emergency.”

The mosquito-borne Zika virus causes fairly mild symptoms such as fever, headache, red eyes, skin rash, and joint pain, and it only causes these symptoms in 20 percent of the people infected. However, the virus, which we now know can be transmitted sexually, is also linked to the possible development of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder that can cause temporary paralysis. The biggest threat that the Zika virus poses, however, is its link to infected pregnant women giving birth to children with severe disorders, namely microcephaly.

Despite the heartwarming plea from Florida, the U.S. Senate refused to pass the bill, and instead countered with a lower offer of $1.1 billion package. After much debate, the Republican controlled House of Representatives agreed to provide a $622.1 million package, which simply combines $352.1 from an Ebola fund and $270 million from a Department of Health and Human Services administrative fund, arguing that the $589 million in Ebola funds that have been repurposed for the Zika virus will get us through just fine.

Of course, Florida is still woefully unprepared as it sits on the front line in the battle against the Zika virus.

What are your thoughts on how congress is dealing with this emergency?

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Which Mosquito is Responsible for the Large-Scale Outbreaks?

Which Mosquito is Responsible for the Large-Scale Outbreaks?

As many of you already realize, the most devastating outbreaks of the Zika virus have occurred in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean’s, while the United States is quickly mobilizing the best preventative methods to avoid similar devastation.  However, despite the best efforts on the part of health officials and scientists, the particular species of mosquito that is responsible for the greatest amount of infection had yet to be determined.  But now it seems as though public health officials have nabbed their culprit.

Public health officials had long suspected the particular species of mosquito known as Aedes aegypti.  This species has already been found to be largely responsible for the most rapid transmission of other insect-borne diseases such as Dengue and Yellow Fever.

Entomologists captured thousands of mosquitos and found A. Aegypti to be the most numerous of the mosquitoes caught, as well as the most infected.  This is likely due to the fact that this mosquito is very common in Latin America.  And Latin America has had to suffer much more terrible consequences than any other continent.

Hundreds of thousands of Latinos have been infected since the outbreak, which leads entomologist to believe that the A. Aegypti is the most deadly carrier of all Zika carrying mosquitos.  Extermination efforts will now be focusing on this particular mosquito, as it seems to cause more Zika outbreaks than any other mosquito on earth.  So if Latin public health officials manage to contain or exterminate this deadly species, then it follows that the rest of the world will feel some relief.  The question is how can they be killed? I do know that a great big fly swatter won’t do the trick.

Do you think pinpointing the exact species of mosquito spreading the disease will help scientists develop cures and better treatment? In what way?

 

A Colorectal Surgeons Love for Odd Bugs

A prominent colorectal surgeon named Dr Francis Seow-Choen is already fascinated with bugs of the parasitic sort found in the human gastrointestinal system.  However, he grew up fascinating over other types of creep-crawlies–Stick and Leaf Insects.

The surgeon has just completed his fourth and most comprehensive book covering the vast species of these types of insects.  So comprehensive in fact that the doctor dedicated twenty years of his life to studying the species found in his book, and the book itself took three years to complete.  His book looks extensively at fifty-two different and new species of leaf and stick insects located in Borneo.  Even the director of Natural History Publications of Borneo has found the doctors book to be a major advancement in entomological science.

What makes the good doctors discoveries so unique to bug-science is that finding these particular species of bugs is incredibly dangerous as locating them for study normally involves spending several days and nights in the harsh south east Asian jungles.  Also, stick and bug insects are, as you would assume, very difficult to find in the wild, as these bugs are known for their evolutionarily advanced forms of camouflage.  The doctor has risked his life in the harsh and dangerous wilderness to indulge his love for these unique bugs, or, just maybe, he needs a break from examining people’s rectums, you make your own call.

Do you have a labor of love similar to this? What is it?

Researchers Effectively Blindfold Spiders in the Name of Science

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you blindfolded a spider?  Well, a team of presumably very bored entomologists at the University of Nebraska have managed to do just that.  However, and to the scientists’ credit, the spider that they managed to somehow blindfold is not just any spider.  The spider in question possesses the largest eyes known to science.  This spider has been named Deinopis Spinosa and is found in Australia, Africa, and the Americas.

This spider hunts prey at night, which could be why this spider has evolved a pair of abnormally large eyes, which, combined, equal eight eyes in total.  A very dedicated biologist was not content with this theory and decided to camp out in the spider’s habitat for a total of eight months to see how it would behave after he blindfolded it with dental silicone.

It turns out that these blindfolded spiders could not catch ground dwelling prey as easily as they could with the use of their eyes, but their ability to catch flying prey remained largely unaffected.  This is likely due to the spiders preferred taste for ground dwelling insects, as they tend to be more nutritious.  Why do I get the idea that this entomologist just really loves camping?

Can you think of an insect that wouldn’t be negatively affected by being blindfolded? How would they adapt to survive without sight?

The Things a Wasp Will Have to Do to Feed Her Young

The Things a Wasp Will Have to Do to Feed Her Young

Although it is hard to picture a wasp attacking an enormous tarantula, this scenario can happen.  Your ordinary wasp has been known to attack the Baboon Spider.  The Baboon Spider can grow to be as large as a small bird.  It has large fangs, hairy legs, and a very sticky web, whereas the typical wasp has only the advantage of its ability to fly and, of course, its sting.  So can the wasp emerge as the victor if these two creatures are pitted against each other

Well, as it turns out, yes!  But the wasp does not just kill the tarantula.  The wasp easily breaks through the tarantula’s web, and proceeds to rudely invade the tarantula’s home, craving the three and a half ounces of protein that this particular tarantula is packing.  Naturally, this home invasion catches the tarantula off guard, forcing them to retreat.  The ordinary wasp can easily catch up to the tarantula and sting the poor guy, putting him into a coma.

The rest of the tarantula’s days involves it being used as an incubator for the wasp’s offspring only to be eventually eaten by the wasps larvae.  Not a bad story if you cannot stand tarantulas, and cannot get enough of wasp babies.

Have you ever seen a smaller insect attacking a larger one? Do you know of any animals that do this as well?

Memorial Day Marks the Beginning of the Insect Party

Memorial Day weekend officially marks the start of the most wonderful season of all: Summer. This means fun in the sun, no school, pool parties, trips to the beach, and…mosquitos. With the Zika virus on the rampage, people need to be especially careful of avoiding mosquito bites. The biggest problem the country has when it comes to these bloodsuckers is people who are misinformed.

Health officials across the country are banding together to try and spread education about mosquitos and the Zika virus to every person in the U.S. Prevention of infection is actually pretty straight forward. You need to carry around some insect repellent containing DEET at all times, and make sure you keep yourself liberally covered in the stuff.

The CDC is advising pregnant women, in particular, avoid traveling to areas where the Zika virus is active. I’d say everyone needs to postpone travel to these areas until this epidemic is over, but it seems people just can’t seem to understand how dangerous this virus is and are still determined to go on their vacation even if it means they might catch it. Well, if you’re still set on going, at least wear insect repellent. Some clothing companies such as L.L. Bean and ExOfficio have come out with shirts treated with permethrin, which they promise can repel mosquitos and other bugs for up to 70 washings.

Are you making sure to stay covered in insect repellent this summer? How many people do you know are still uninformed about the Zika virus?