Ento-musings from the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Look out for the six-legged terrorists!

By: Logan Minter, UK Public Health Entomology

They’re coming. They search for you in the night. Whether you are relaxing by the pool or you are innocently sleeping, they will find you. They are cruel assassins armed with sharp weapons they plan to use for one purpose and one purpose alone.

They are thirsty…..thirsty for blood. Your blood.

Who are these terrorists? Although they go by several aliases, such as Culex pipiens, Aedes albopictus, and Anopheles quadrimaculatus, they are collectively known to us as the mosquitoes. That’s right, the wicked thieves who steal so many summer evenings to their persistent vexation of anyone who dares to venture outdoors.

While mosquito season might seem as far away as the dog-days of summer, the beginning is just around the corner, and the time to make preparations is now!

But how?

During the final week of March, the American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) will be meeting in Lexington, KY for their annual conference where scientists and vector control officials from all over North and South America will share insight and ideas on managing these adversaries of humans and animals. As part of the conference, volunteers from the AMCA and the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology will provide an opportunity to learn more about these and other insects to the people of Lexington.

The event will take place at the Lexington Explorium, located on Short Street in downtown Lexington, from 10 am – 3 pm on Tuesday, March 30th. This is during the spring break for Fayette County and several other local schools and will provided a great opportunity for kids to learn some fun and cool facts about mosquitoes and other insects. Students who attend will also learn about life cycles, food chains, and other aspects of ecology which are components of the State of Kentucky’s Life Science learning outcomes for many grade levels. Admission to the Explorium is only $6.00 Parking is available nearby and your ticket can be validated with the Explorium.

Kentucky is home to nearly 60 different types of mosquitoes which have a variety of lifestyles and habitats. However, all mosquitoes must have water to develop as young.
In the spring, snow-melt or rain waters refill the area where the eggs were laid, which coupled with warmer temperatures and longer day lengths, triggers the mosquito eggs to hatch.
Homeowners can also help to do their part by eliminating breeding areas on their property, such as neglected containers, dented or damaged gutters, rain barrels, untreated swimming pools, and ruts in soil.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Insect Conservation vs. Private Property

by Julie Peterson, UK Entomology Graduate Student

A battle that's been going on for a long time is ecological conservation vs. the interests of private property owners. Usually, insects are one of the last groups to be considered in this fight, however. The large, charismatic animal species (think cuddly koalas, majestic eagles, etc.) are the ones that tug at the heartstrings of the public, while entomologists think that the dung beetles, spiders, and flies are the charismatic ones! Luckily, arthropods are often protected by the "umbrella effect" of conservation: saving the habitat of larger vertebrates often helps the smaller invertebrates as well. So I was sort of surprised to find this article titled "Cliff residents might lose homes to save endangered beetles" in the Washington Post. In my opinion, the title should be changed to "Cliff residents might lose homes because they built their homes on cliffs!" I personally would not want to battle with tiger beetles, they're beautiful, very fast runners, and have powerful jaws. This article really bothered me: it seems like beetles are getting all the blame, when a lack of foresight by neighborhood planners (and the inevitable power of erosion...) are the true culprits.

I'm interested in hearing other people's opinions on this topic, so feel free to reply!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Spider-Web Tattoos

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

A few posts ago I mentioned that I was trying to determine the meaning of a tattoo that adorns the left arm of Demarcus Cousins (UK men's basketball player... #15... Big Cuz... who will need dental work after our most recent game...). The tattoo is big and it features a spider web with a star in the middle. I think I can also see a large spider below the web, and the words "stuck in" on top. Here's the best picture I could find on Google Image Search (AP Photo/Ed Reinke):

Since I posted this topic on the blog, I haven't made much progress in solving the mystery. A couple of people told me that they saw the blog post, but that they don't know anything about the tat. I also asked Demarcus about the tattoo on his Facebook fanpage, but of course, crazed fans like me rarely get responses on those kinds of pages (especially when there are over 10,000 fans on the page!).

So I did a little research about spider-web tattoos in general. Interesting stuff. It turns out that a spider or web tattoo can carry a variety of meanings, or none at all.

I remember that a long time ago I was told that spider-web tattoos, especially those that appear on elbows, are racist in nature, and are meant to symbolize acts-of-violence that the wearer has committed. I always thought that this was a myth. Predictably, an internet search did not help me to determine whether or not this was true. I'll mark this one as "apocryphal."

I found some of the best info about spider-web tattoos at www.tattoosymbol.com, where the motto is Think About the Ink. There, I learned that spider webs are sometimes used as a part of dreamcatcher tattoos. According to the site, the original dreamcatchers of legend may have been created by Spider Woman, a figure from Anishinabe mythology. The site mentions other mythological connections as well: the spider is an important symbol in Japan, Africa, the Bible, and Buddhism.

I read on several other sites that the spider-web tattoo traditionally symbolizes time spent in jail: if you are incarcerated, you are stuck in the system. Hmmm... if I am seeing it correctly, Cousins' tattoo features the phrase "stuck in." I don't think he's been in prison. Does he feel like he's trapped in something? Life? The Game? The Dribble-Drive System?!?

It seems, though, that many times (maybe, most of the time) spider and web tattoos do not carry any meaning, or else they carry a meaning that is non-traditional, and unique to the wearer. Heck, people sometimes get spider tattoos because--believe it or not--they like spiders, as shown in our previous blogpost by Andy Boring, Tattoo Taboo: Insect body art.

Regarding spider tattoos, SGOSMB (Some Guy On Some Message Board) may have said it best:

Well, the spider web tattoo can mean any thing:
1. You've killed, hate, or hit a minority
2. Drug or substance abuse addiction
3. Jail Time (prison tat)
But, the best I think, is:
4. It means what you want it to mean...

By the way, most of the spider-web tattoos that I have seen depict the webs of orb-weaver spiders. Most of the world's spiders do not build organized, circular webs. Instead, most spiders build dense, messy webs, or no webs at all. Only the orb weavers and a few other types of spiders build flat, circular webs.

Read more about orb weavers and their webs at the Critter Files: Orb-Weavers.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Website De-Bugging

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Yes, yes... debugging... pun intended... whatever. A few posts ago I mentioned that we recently updated our website, and that we were in glitch-finding mode. So far, a couple of major glitches were reported.

When our site was opened in Internet Explorer 6, there were two major problems:

1. Our butterfly logo in the upper-right hand corner was supposed to be transparent, but it was not in IE6. It turns out that this is a common IE6 problem. Luckily, there was a simple workaround for this. We simply added a small javascript file to our directory. Solved!

2. The left-hand navigation bar was moving around the page in IE6. Very freaky. Here's what it looked like:

There was a fix for this also, but it wasn't as easy.

It would also help if I showed you what the site is supposed to look like!

Here's what our front page SHOULD look like:

Some possible problems with the front page that you might see:
-no large central image
-the left or right navigation bars are moving around or they are not visible

Here's what a typical "interior" page should look like (this is http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef110.asp):

Some possible problems with interior pages:
-pictures do not load
-the left navigation bar is moving around the screen

So, please let us know (by commenting on this blog post) if you find glitches on our website.


by Josh Adkins, UK Entomology Graduate Student

Study suggests theory for insect colonies as 'superorganisms'

A team of researchers including scientists from the University of Florida has shown insect colonies follow some of the same biological "rules" as individuals, a finding that suggests insect societies operate like a single "superorganism" in terms of their physiology and life cycle.

I know very little about the structure of social insect "societies". It's fascinating to think of insect colonies in terms of individuals, with all the insects comprising them effectively acting as cells, or organs, for the good of the collective whole. It makes me want to read E.O. Wilson's book The Super-Organism!

Grayson County Students Fight Invasive Species

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

In the post below, Julie Peterson mentioned that a story about invasive species showed up on the Yahoo! home page. I'm glad that this topic is getting more press.

On Tuesday, Jan 19, I got a chance to meet a group of middle-schoolers in Grayson County who are doing their part to slow the spread of invasive species. Grayson County is about two hours west of Lexington, KY. As many people in our region know, the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) is a very serious invasive pest that was found in central Kentucky in 2009. We knew it was coming: it has been moving in our direction, via Ohio and Michigan, for the past few years. It is a devastating beetle that has killed tens of millions of ash trees.

So far, the pest has not been found in Grayson County. But it is likely to be there soon, probably within the next two years, so the students in Grayson County Middle School decided to take action. Their first step was to learn about the insect. They spent the last several months researching the creature by reading about it and by consulting with us (the Entomology Dept, that is) and with their local Kentucky Division of Forestry representatives. Then they ordered boxes of EAB pamphlets and distributed them. Their culminating event was a public seminar that occurred on this most recent Tuesday evening. I think that the kids were disappointed by the attendance (welcome to extension!), but I thought that it wasn't too bad for a Tuesday evening: there were about 25 people there, and many of them were homeowners and they were very concerned about their ash trees. The speakers for the evening were representatives from UK Entomology, the KY Division of Forestry, and the kids themselves. The take-home message that the audience received was a simple one: the bug is coming, and here are the steps that you can take to minimize the impact.

By the way, if you are concerned about EAB, here is what you can do:
1. Learn about the bug:
2. Spread the info to your friends and family.
3. Identify the trees on your property. Do you have any ash trees? How to identify ash trees: http://www.mda.state.mn.us/news/publications/ext/ashtreeid.pdf
4. If you have ash trees, look for signs and symptoms of ash borer infestation. The best time to do this is during the summer.
Signs and symptoms: http://www.emeraldashborer.info/files/e-2938.pdf
5. Report suspected infestations to the USDA APHIS Emerald Ash Borer Hotline: (866) 322-4512, or to the Office of the State Entomologist: (859) 257-5838

-don't move firewood from one county or state to another. The bug can travel in firewood! Purchase only local firewood and burn it where you buy it.
-don't plant new ash trees
-get the latest info about EAB in Kentucky, including a continually updated list of infested counties:

If you have a treasured ash tree that you want to save from ash borer infestation, it is possible to do so, although it can be expensive. If you are interested in doing this, one of your best options is to consult a certified arborist. They can examine your tree(s) and determine the best course of action. To find an arborist:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Invasive Insects on Yahoo!

by Julie Peterson, UK Entomology Graduate Student

I was happily surprised to find this article on invasive pests (focusing on the hemlock woolly adelgid) among the featured news articles on the Yahoo! homepage.

Our Forest Entomology lab does some really interesting research concerning this pest.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

UK Entomology Website update

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Our main UK Entomology website has just received a major facelift. Take a look here:

Like any new site, it will probably have a few bugs (pun intended), so please comment here if you notice any glitches.

The primary reason for the update was to make our site look more like the main UK College of Agriculture website. In particular, we needed to add the new College of Agriculture headers. I really like the new look, so it was pleasure to implement it on our site!

There were other changes as well (most of this is only interesting for website-design nerds--read at your own risk!):
1. The site is now "liquid." This means that the width is flexible instead of fixed. Our old site was fixed at a width of about 800pixels. In 2007, we decided to fix it at 800px because many of our visitors used screens with a resolution of 800px. These days, according to Google Analytics (which gives us detailed--but anonymous!!--information about our site's visitors), only about 3% of visitors are using 800px. Most of the other visitors are using higher resolutions. Our new liquid design allows the content to fill the whole screen, no matter what the user's screen resolution is. So, our website still looks good at 800px, but it now also looks good on screens with higher resolutions.

2. In addition to horizontal flexibility, the updated site is now more flexible VERTICALLY. This means that it can stretch to better-accommodate text-size changes. Users often change the text size in their browser's "preferences" menu. Our old site didn't handle this very well because some of the elements had a fixed height. Now, all of the heights will stretch down to accommodate larger text sizes.

By the way, the most popular (at 28%) screen resolution for our site's visitors is 1024x768. The second-most popular (20%) is 1280x800. And... hmmmm... the 9th most popular resolution (about 3% of users) is 320x396. This confused me at first... seems tiny. Why would 3% of our visitors have a computer with a screen-width of only 320px?? Well, I'm a dummy, because a lot of people are using this screen-resolution: this is the typical screen-size of a hand-held web-browsing gadget, such as an iphone or a Blackberry. In fact, according to Google analytics, 306.82% more people used this resolution in 2009 than in 2008. Will this percentage continue to grow? I'm not sure. On the one hand, more and more people are using these devices. On the other hand, the screens on these devices are improving: the new Google nexus has a resolution of 800x480. Either way, though, it might be smart for our department to develop a mobile version of our website. Such a version would have bigger, easier-to-read text, simplified menus, and probably a bunch of other changes that I don't understand very well yet.

Back to the drawing board!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

UK basketball forward DeMarcus Cousins (Big Cuz) has a spider tattoo of some kind on his left arm... I've been trying to figure out what it is all season... I saw the word "stuck" above the spider-web in tonight's win vs. Florida. Does anyone know what this tattoo is all about?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Hungry Hungry Odonata

by Josh Adkins, UK Entomology Graduate Student

I found some videos of immature dragonflies on YouTube and thought I'd share them here.

Of all the groups of predators, I think dragonfly naiads are the most intriguing. They are truly alien looking, and that hinged, extendable labium makes them look formidable!

In addition, they are fast! They are generally content to sprawl and wait for prey. But, they have a unique "jet propulsion system" thanks to their internal rectal gills. They can squeeze the water out of this rectal gill very quickly, and get a boost of speed to help get out of harm's way. This video isn't the best, but you can get a sense of how quickly they can move if threatened!

Pretty cool stuff, and definitely one of my favorite groups!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hazards of Pet Tarantulas

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

My boss sent me a link today from Reuters, called "Got a pet tarantula? Better protect your eyes":

The article discusses a medical case involving doctors who discovered tarantula hairs in a man's cornea. According to the article, the pet tarantula was a Rose Hair, which is one of the most common types that are sold as pets. These are also the kind that our department keeps in our laboratory and that we show at museums and schools.

The message here: a tarantula really isn't the best pet for everyone. A lot of people ask me about pet tarantulas, and I usually advise against the idea, especially for kids. Although it is possible to safely keep a tarantula in a terrarium, they shouldn't be handled, especially not by children. And, honestly, they aren't very interesting. In the wild? Sure. Tarantulas are really cool to observe. But in a terrarium they don't do very much and people usually get bored with them after a while. If you just like they way that tarantulas look, download a high-resolution image and put it on your desktop. It's free!

There are a few situations, though, where pet tarantulas ARE a good idea. No K-12 science or biology classroom, for instance, should be without a live tarantula. A tarantula is cheap, easy to take care of, safe (as long as it is not handled--the same is true for hamsters!), and kids enjoy watching it and feeding it crickets. Sure, the kids will get bored with it after a while, but a new group of kids will arrive soon enough.

Here is a link to our guide: selecting and caring for pet tarantulas.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Bugs on Hoarders

by Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

My favorite new TV show seems to be everyone else's, too. According to realitytv.suite101.com, Hoarders on A&E is the "number one non-fiction series among adults ages 25-54" (and as far as demographic numbers go, those aren't all that obscure).

Hoarders focuses on compulsive hoarding behavior, a condition that afflicts (according to the show) about 3 million Americans (that's about 1% of the population). The homes of compulsive hoarders tend to have lots of clutter, such as boxes, piles of clothing, unused furniture, and even garbage. These conditions can provide an excellent environment for insect pests. There's harborage, food, climate-control... everything an insect needs. Insects played a part in at least 2 recent episodes of Hoarders.

On Season 2, Episode 8 (Judi and Gail), one of the participants was hospitalized due to infections on her feet. I thought it was interesting that the patient's daughter assumed that the infections were caused by insect bites. She said that police who were involved with the case believed the same thing. But: no one mentioned that any insects were actually found. I think it's important for people to know that infections and sores can result from many possible cuases, and that it shouldn't be assumed that insects or spiders are the cause unless there is evidence (such as dead insects or an eye-witness report of a biting incident) to support the case. HealthBlurb.com lists the common causes of skin infections. Take a look at the list: insect and spider bites are just one possible cause out of a list of over 40! Other causes can include: acne, allergies, warts, athlete’s foot... the list goes on and on. Why is it that people always want to blame insects and spiders?

On Season 2, Episode 10 (Bob and Richard), a family has resorted to living in a tent in their own yard because their home has become infested with bed bugs. The home is so cluttered that the local pest control company refuses to treat the home. Unlike the episode listed above, bed bugs were actually shown in this episode (crawling on mattresses), and they were the real thing. From this episode, a casual viewer might get the idea that clutter and unsanitary conditions are the cause of bed bugs. This is generally not believed to be true by entomologists. Although clutter can make it very difficult to find and treat bed bugs, the insects can infest in almost any conditions. In fact, bed bugs are often found in hotels, which are kept very clean and clutter-free compared to many homes. I was also a little disturbed when the pest control guy showed up toward the end of the episode. Even though the house was still very cluttered, he was confident that he would be able to eliminate the bed bugs. Every pest control guy that I've talked to has said that it is very difficult to control bed bugs, and that it often takes lots of treatments to get rid of them, and that treatment typically involves a THOROUGH inspection of EVERYTHING (and this house had plenty of everything). Read more about Bed Bugs in our factsheet, EF-636: Bed Bugs.

UPDATE: More bugs on Hoarders! In last night's episode(Season 2, Episode 12), Jim was a beekeeper from Indiana. It seemed that he made his living by making honey and delivering it to local grocery stores. Also, his cupboard was infested with some type of a pest that he referred to as "moths." I couldn't see the insects, but they were probably something like the Angoumois grain moth or the Indian meal moth, both of which are very common in homes and are discussed in our factsheet, "Stored Product Pests in the Pantry." I was also pretty sure that I saw the eggcases of American house spiders in his cupboard. I have them in my house too, and you probably do also if you live in the U.S.! American house spiders are very common and totally harmless. My cats eat them.