Biodiversity Citizen Science Conservation Miscellany Pollinators, Molluscs and Other Invertebrates

December 2022: Pollinator & Invertebrate Round-up

Image courtesy of Empress of Dirt

‘Bees get all the credit’: slugs and snails among 2023 Chelsea flower show stars: Stag beetles and hornets will be among the stars of Chelsea flower show next year as horticulturalists encourage people to welcome invertebrates into the garden. Bumblebees and butterflies tend to get a lot of press, but in a 2023 garden sponsored by the Royal Entomological Society, less glamorous creepy-crawlies will take centre stage. The garden may startle those used to more pristine spaces, as it will feature rotting wood and leaves as habitat for beetles and other insects, but it will still include a vast array of native and non-native flowering plants, which will be there to encourage pollinators. It will highlight how pollination, food security and preventing vector-borne diseases are critical to our survival in a changing world and that insect conservation is often undervalued compared with mammal and bird conservation. [Editor’s note: this article includes tips on insect-friendly gardening.]

(A) Overall view of the experimental setup during training. The wooden box was covered by a transparent cover, which allowed observing the behavior of the bees accessing the inner compartments. After passing the first inner compartment, the focal bee faced a training stimulus placed in the middle of the back wall. An Eppendorf tip delivered sucrose solution in the middle of the image. (B) Overall view of the experimental setup during a test. After passing the first inner compartment, the focal bee faced two lateral walls displaying the same test alternative on each side. The test stimuli were novel to the trained bee, i.e. they were never experienced during the training. No reward was provided during the test. The first choice and the cumulative choices performed during 40 s were recorded. (C) Examples of stimuli used in the first and second experiment. (D) Stimuli used in the third experiment. (E) Examples of stimuli used in the fourth experiment. Credit: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2203584119

Honeybees use a ‘mental number line’ to keep track of things: A small team of researchers with members from the University of Toulouse, the University of Lausanne and the University of Padova has found evidence that honeybees have a mental number line in their tiny brains. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group describes experiments they conducted with captive honeybees. Prior research has suggested that in to addition humans, baby chickens possess what scientists call a mental number line. Numbers of things are represented in the brain and are processed in a left-to-right direction. For example, when most people are asked to sort piles of grapes by the number, most do so from left to right, with the smallest pile on the left. In this new effort, the researchers wondered whether honeybees might also use a mental number line to keep track of things. To find out, they conducted a two-stage experiment.

Credit: N. Gamonal, Didde Sørensen

Following insect ‘footprints’ to improve crop resilience and monitor pollinator biodiversity: Bees and other insects leave behind tiny “footprints” of environmental DNA on plants each time they visit, giving researchers a way of tracking where insects have been, and offering clues on how to help them flourish. A team of researchers, including the Wellcome Sanger Institute and led by the University of Copenhagen, have used these DNA footprints as a non-invasive way to collect information on insect biodiversity, giving new insight into how to boost pollination and protect insect biodiversity and crops against threats such as climate change. The new study, published in Environmental DNA, is the first time DNA footprints have been used alongside visual observations to track the kind of insect visitors to crops, helping to see if there are any pests and informing new ways to encourage beneficial insects. Didde Hedegaard Sørensen, laboratory technician and an author from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark says, “The exciting thing about this study is that it can have an immediate, real-world impact on agricultural systems. Our results can assist farmers in managing their crops against the rising threats of reduced pollinators. Environmental DNA can be used to investigate the biodiversity in agricultural landscapes beyond apple orchards, making it a fast and non-invasive way to gain more knowledge about the world around us.”

AI rendering bees and electricity. Credit: Ellard Hunting

Insects contribute to atmospheric electricity: By measuring the electrical fields near swarming honeybees, researchers have discovered that insects can produce as much atmospheric electric charge as a thunderstorm cloud. This type of electricity helps shape weather events, aids insects in finding food, and lifts spiders up in the air to migrate over large distances. The research, appearing in the journal iScience, demonstrates that living things can have an impact on atmospheric electricity.

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

California county sees highest number of monarch butterflies in more than 20 years: There’s some hope fluttering around San Luis Obispo County this holiday season. It comes in the form of an iconic orange-and-black striped butterfly that makes tall eucalyptus or Monterey cypress trees its home up and down the coast. More than 129,000 western monarch butterflies were counted in the county by Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation employees and volunteers in November, according to preliminary data shared by local volunteer coordinator Jessica Griffiths. That’s the most counted in San Luis Obispo County in more than 20 years—in 1998 there were about 182,000 counted, according to the Xerces Society’s data. The numbers are giving some researchers hope that the western monarch butterfly population could be rebounding from devastatingly low numbers a few years ago that left some worrying the insect was on the verge of extinction.

Arizona’s state butterfly, the two-tailed swallowtail butterfly, can be found at Tucson-area botanical gardens. Credit: Jeff Oliver/University Libraries

Botanical gardens are ‘hot spots’ for butterflies amid climate change: Despite their relatively small footprint in urban areas, botanical gardens are important hotspots for butterfly biodiversity in the arid Southwest, according to a new study by University of Arizona scientists published in the journal Insects. Using more than 10,500 community science observations spanning roughly 20 years, researchers compared butterfly species richness and diversity in botanical gardens versus in the gardens’ surrounding metropolitan areas. The study focused on five large, urban cities in the Southwest, including Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona; Palm Desert, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and El Paso, Texas. Each city averages less than 11 inches of precipitation annually and, with the exception of Palm Desert, each has a population over 500,000 residents. While botanical gardens represent less than 1% of metropolitan landscapes—between 0.002–0.22% on average—these urban green areas have disproportionately high butterfly species richness and diversity compared to the much larger surrounding city areas. In fact, species richness in these gardens scored in the 86th percentile or above, according to the study.

Screen grab from YouTube video.

These bumblebees like playing and it’s the sweetest thing: Playing is an important behavior in humans — it helps us learn new skills, improve control over our bodies, and also helps with bonding. In other mammals, play has also been documented as an important behavior — but in insects, playing has been far less studied. For Lars Chittka, a behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), peering into the minds of bees has been a long-term interest. Chittka recently published a book called the Mind of a Bee, where he highlights many of the remarkable findings about the intellect and behavior of bees. But this new study came almost by accident. Chittka and his team were looking at how bumblebees learn complex behaviors. In a scientific setup, bees had to move wooden balls, and if they moved them to the right place, they got a sweet reward. But the researchers started noticing how some bees would just push the balls around even without any reward. This was puzzling, so the researchers started looking at this in more detail. The study followed 45 bumblebees in an arena who chose between walking through an unobstructed, clear path and reaching a feeding area and deviating from this path to fiddle with wooden balls. There was no advantage to rolling the balls, and there is no analogue behavior in the wild that would prompt bees to roll the balls. Still, all individual bees rolled the balls between 1 and 117 times — a strikingly large number that strongly suggests the bees found pleasure in this activity. Note article includes 1:30 video from the BBC that shows the bees playing with wooden balls. (See also: First-ever study shows bumble bees ‘play’)

Screen grab from YouTube video showing leafhopper baby “Mildred” in her new dress.

True Facts: Leafhoppers and Friends

This 5-minute video features stunning macro shots of tiny leafhopper  babies with scientifically accurate and hysterically funny commentary. You’ll never look at leafhoppers quite the same way again! Thanks to reader Carol English for sharing.

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