This moth supplements its diet with bird tears

In the forests of Brazil lives a moth that drinks tears of birds. It perches quietly at the back of an antbird at night – when the bird’s not very active – and uses its long, flexible proboscis to lap up its tears. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

*I’m not crying; there’s something in my eye*

You can read the story behind the video over at Science magazine.

Multimedia credits: Leandro Moraes

Caterpillar vs. Beetle: Who wins?

I have a new video story up at Science magazine about an amazing moth caterpillar that fights off things that try to eat it, including beetles that are called ‘caterpillar hunters’. Check it out, folks!

The accompanying short story is available to read here.

Multimedia credit: Shinji Sugiura

Fungus creates zombie bugs with a short afterlife

Dying on a bed of flowers might seem like a good way to go. Except it’s not when you’re a beetle suffering a gruesome fungal infection.

Goldenrod soldier beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) feed and mate on flowers – and that’s where some of them meet their end, too. When infected with the fungus Eryniopsis lampyridarum, the beetles clamp their jaws onto a flower and die soon after.

Hours later and still stuck to the flowers, the dead beetles’ wings snap open as though ready to fly. With their wings raised, these beetles even attract mates – live males were seen having sex with zombie females.

Read more about the zombie beetles here at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Donald Steinkraus

Female dragonflies drop dead to avoid males

Moorland Hawker Dragonfly-1-Credit-Rassim KhelifaOnce a female dragonfly has mated, all she is interested in doing is laying eggs and getting on with her life. So, when stalked by an unwelcome lover (or two), she crashes to the ground and plays dead. When the duped males eventually leave, the female flies off. The behavior was reported recently in the journal Ecology.

This may seem counter-intuitive, for one “purpose” of a species is to leave as many offspring as possible. But female dragonflies “know” what’s best for them. And what’s that? Find out in my story for Live Science.

Photo credit: Rassim Khelifa

Wasp turns host into a self-sacrificing zombie

If there were a horror movie set in the animal kingdom, a turquoise-green insect named the “crypt-keeper wasp” would likely play a starring role. A new study has found that this crafty, parasitic wasp can manipulate other parasitic wasps to finish an assigned task and then become its meal.

The amber-colored victims are known as “crypt gall wasps” (Bassettia pallida). They nest in tiny cavities called “crypts” on their host tree, which provides free nutrition throughout its development. Typically, when the adult wasps are ready to leave, they chew a hole through the trees’ woody tissue and make their way out. But for some gall wasps, things don’t go according to plan.

To find out why, go to Live Science.

Photo credit: Andrew Forbes

For these bees, being the firstborn girl is a curse

Some small carpenter bees have a clever way of getting help with their domestic chores, such as raising their young. The mom forcibly turns her firstborn daughter into a maid and babysitter. The mom does this by underfeeding that eldest bee. This daughter not only gets small portions of food but also a diet especially low in protein, new research shows. And before long, this bee is the runt of her brood — and bullied by her mom.

In bees and some other insects, growth of the young largely depends on how much food they get. So, by tinkering with their diet, a mother can control her offspring’s size.

Small carpenter bees are a type of solitary insect. No hives for them. Adult females carve a tunnel into the dead, broken stem of a flowering plant. The bees don’t eat that chewed wood but throw it away. Inside her tunnel, a mom will fashion a comfy nest in which to lay eggs and nurture her young. Ceratina calcarata is a common species of small carpenter bee in eastern North America. Only about the size of an eraser at the top of a pencil, females of this species nest in spring.

Read more about the fate of the firstborn girl over at Science News for Students.

Photo credit: Molly Jacobson

Newfound bugs have strange body proportions

g-shengiFour species of parasitoid wasps have been discovered in northwest China, a new study reports.

The new species belong to the genus Gasteruption. These wasps have slender bodies and inflated, club-shaped hind legs. They also have elongated necks, and keep their abdomens raised and hind legs dangling during their slow, quiet flights. Their heads have a satin-like sheen and long eyes that extend almost to their mouth, the researchers said.

The four new species — G. bicoloratum, G. huangshii, G. pannuceum andG. shengi — have a body covering that resembles black leather with grooves and stitches. The bugs range in size from 0.3 inches (8 millimeters) long to 0.5 inches (13 mm) long, and females are typically larger than males.

The newfound species are parasitoid wasps whose larvae are parasites that kill their hosts. Adults hover outside the nests of solitary bees. While females hover to find an opportunity to sneak their own eggs into solitary bee nests, males typically linger in search of these females.

Read more about the new bugs over at Live Science.

Photo credit: Jiang-Li Tan

Queenless ant colony trapped in nuclear bunker forever

Keep calm and carry on building. That’s the motto of 100,000 or so wood ants stranded without food in a nuclear bunker until they starve.

Wood ants (Formica polyctena) typically build a cosy mound nest on the forest floor. They seek out the sugary secretions of aphids living on trees and supplement their diet with insects. Now, scientists have uncovered a population of wood ants that has sustained for years without food and light inside a bunker where temperatures are constantly low.

The ant population was discovered in 2013 by a group of volunteers counting bats overwintering in the bunker, which is part of an abandoned Soviet nuclear base near Templewo in western Poland.

Later, Wojciech Czechowski at the Museum and Institute of Zoology in Warsaw, Poland, and his colleagues, entered the bunker to study the ants more closely. They noticed that the wood ants had built a nest on the terracotta floor of the bunker – right below a ventilation pipe. Looking up through the five-metre-long pipe, they realised where the bunker ants come from.

Read the rest of the story over at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Wojciech Stephan

Poo matters: Earwig young survive on siblings’ poo

Desperate times call for desperate measures. As food shortages hit, European earwig babies resort to eating each other’s faeces in their underground homes, helping to keep hunger and death at bay.

In times of plentiful food, the earwig offspring, or ‘nymphs’, feast on scraps of plant and insect material that their mother brings back from her trips above ground, and on food she regurgitates.

But when faced with limited supplies, the nymphs have to make do with what’s around them to survive.

Unlike many other insects that live in groups, European earwigs don’t clear their nest of faeces. Availability of faeces in hard times keeps the nymphs alive for about two more days on average than without them, researchers have now found.

In the lab, researchers deprived 56 five-day-old nymphs of food, and offered 28 of them faeces from their siblings. Nymphs with nothing to feed on survived for an average of 14 days, but those with access to their siblings’ faeces lived for an average of 16 days.

Read the rest of the story over at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Joël Meunier

Secrets of the insect architects

Insects are skilled architects that build homes of all kinds, from basements to tree houses and even skyscrapers.

Weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina)

This ant weaves a nest out of tree leaves high up in the canopy. To build one, a group of workers forms live ant bridges to bring the leaves together, while another fetches larvae from an existing ant nest.

Worker ants hold these larvae in their jaws and squeeze them while moving along the leaf edges. On squeezing, the weaver ant larva produces a fine silk fibre that glues the leaves. As more and more leaves are pulled along, a lump of fresh green leaves lined with a white silk mat is formed.

Know about other insect architecture in my story for BBC Earth.

Velvet ants are almost invincible

In a dry, open field in New Mexico, US, a hungry lizard spots a brightly-coloured, hairy insect scurrying across the sandy soil. Thinking it has found a meal, the lizard sprints to catch the insect. But once it has the insect in its mouth, it finds it is too hard to chew.

The lizard then moves the insect around to find a softer chewing angle but gets nowhere. Meanwhile the insect starts to squeak and finally stings the luckless lizard in its mouth. Alarmed, the lizard spits it out.

The insect, still squeaking, gets away unscathed. The lizard is left with nothing but a sore mouth and a foul taste.

This sturdy insect is a female velvet ant. These females have an arsenal of defences unmatched by their male partners, or any other insect. The question is, what terrifying predator forced the females to evolve so many defences? And if they are in such dire threat from predators, why are they brightly coloured?

Answer to these questions (and more) in my feature at BBC Earth.

Photo credit: Joseph Wilson

How Ant-Man ants got this Cheerio home

Study explains how wandering ants guide a group of food gatherers back to the nest.

When out of their nest, workers of the longhorn crazy ant (Paratrechina longicornis) band together toward a common goal: to bring food back to the nest. But even when a few of these long-legged, silver-haired ants (of Ant-Man fame) team up to carry a large item—such as a wasp—they often lose their way home.

Read the rest over at Science.

Electricity from silk cocoons?

Researchers in India say they have developed a prototype of an energy-harvesting device from the cocoons of a domesticated species of silk moth. They hope to put the technology to practical use while also tackling waste materials from the silk processing industry.

The researchers found that the cocoon membranes of the mulberry silk moth Bombyx mori contain trace amounts of several elements such as sodium, chlorine, potassium, magnesium, sulphur, calcium and copper; as well as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen.

Wetting the cocoon makes the elements form mobile charge-carrying ions, producing an electric current across the cocoon membrane. The researchers used this current to light an LED.

They attached an aluminium electrode to the inner surface of a cocoon and a copper electrode to the outer surface, and exposed the cocoon to water vapour. Three such cocoons were connected in series to light an LED.

Read the rest at SciDevNet.

Serrated egg-laying organ gives wasps an edge

Parasitic fig wasps of the genus Apocrypta lay their eggs inside unripe fruits of fig plants. Larvae that emerge from eggs of parasitic fig wasps feed on larvae of another species — the pollinating fig wasps. So, to ensure best nutrition and survival for its own eggs, a parasitic wasp female lays them near larvae of pollinating wasps already developing in the fig fruit.

To lay eggs inside, parasitic wasp females have to dig through the hard and woody skin of unripe figs several times in their lifespan. Evolution has gifted them with a long, flexible and slender egg-laying organ called the ovipositor, which they use to manage this feat. But there is more to an ovipositor that gives the wasps an edge…

Read the rest at The Hindu.

Photo credit: Lakshminath Kundanati