Why jewel beetles are colourful

This 11 July 2020 video says about itself:

Jewel beetles are pretty eye-catching with their glossy, bright coloration. But if you were a small creature that needed to avoid predators, you might think that eye-catching is the last thing you’d want to be. But it turns out that their iridescence doesn’t hinder their camouflage…it IS their camouflage!

18 new South American water beetle species discovered

Chasmogenus beetles

From the University of Kansas in the USA:

Undergraduate student discovers 18 new species of aquatic beetle in South America

June 22, 2020

It would be striking for a seasoned entomologist with decades of fieldwork to discover such a large number of species unknown to science. But for University of Kansas student Rachel Smith, an undergraduate majoring in ecology & evolutionary biology, the find is extraordinary: Smith recently published a description of 18 new species of aquatic water beetle from the genus Chasmogenus in the peer-reviewed journal ZooKeys.

“The average size of these beetles, I would say, is about the size of a capital ‘O’ in a 12-point font,” said Smith of the collection of new species. “They spend a lot of their life in forest streams and pools. They’re aquatic, so they’re all great swimmers — and they can fly.”

The research involved Smith traveling to Suriname to perform fieldwork as well as passing countless hours in the lab of Andrew Short, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and associate curator with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, who co-wrote the new paper.

Smith said many of the aquatic beetle species are virtually indistinguishable simply by looking at them, even under a microscope.

“Something unique and fascinating about this genus, particularly the ones I worked on, is that many look almost exactly the same,” she said. “Even to my trained eye, it’s hard to tell them apart just based on external morphology. Their uniqueness is in there but kind of hidden in this very uniform external morphology.”

To identify the new species, Smith compared DNA evidence from the aquatic beetles with a few external morphological differences that could be observed. But this was not enough: Much of Smith’s work also hinged on dissecting these tiny specimens collected in northeastern South America to spot key differences in their internal anatomy.

“Because it’s difficult to tell them apart from external morphology, you kind of have to go inside,” she said. “I ended up doing over 100 dissections of these beetles to extract the male genitalia and look at it under a microscope. That really was the true way to tell them apart. Ultimately, it came down to male genitalia and genetic divergence that I used to delimit many of these species.”

The aquatic beetles described in the new paper were collected over multiple trips to Venezuela, Suriname and Guyana. Smith herself participated in one expedition to Suriname to collect specimens.

“In Suriname, almost every day involved a boat ride down a river or kayaking to a location,” she said. “And there would have been either a short or a long hike. One day it was up an entire mountain, another day it was just a short little hike down a river trail. Well, not necessarily a trail because there aren’t trails in the rainforest. We’d find an area that had some small, slow-moving or stagnant pools. The best ones are usually still and have dead leaves and mud and detritus — that’s where a lot of these beetles are found. You definitely have to get dirty to do this work, but it’s very satisfying.”

Indeed, one of the beetles Smith and her fellow researchers discovered in the Suriname rainforest ended up being unknown to science.

“I was part of a group that collected one of the beetles that was named in this paper,” she said. “So, I was involved in the entire process of naming a species — going to the rainforest, collecting it, bring it back to the lab, naming it and describing it. It was so nice to be a part of the whole process of discovering a new species.”

Smith’s co-author and faculty mentor Short said her paper reflects two years of work and is a remarkable accomplishment for any scientist, much less an undergraduate student.

“While new species for me are common, this is quite a lot for one paper and a huge amount for a student to describe,” he said. “Rachel has done a great job. An undergraduate describing 18 species is extraordinary — it’s rare even for experienced scientists. I’ve described a lot of new species but never as many as 18 at once. This work highlights just how little we know about how many species there are in South America.”

Smith said after graduation from KU in December, her aim is to develop a career in fieldwork and research, to uncover hidden biodiversity in hopes that it can empower conservation efforts in threatened areas.

“I’ve always had my sights set on a larger picture, and conservation really is my ultimate goal,” she said. “You have to start from the bottom up, with taxonomy. You can’t really know the efficacy of any kind of conservation effort without knowing what you’re protecting or any idea of how many species are there. As I described in this paper, over half of these species are microendemic, meaning that they only occur in one specific locality. So, it begs the question — is there something unique in that area that these beetles are specializing on, and what kind of kind of niches or roles do they play in that ecosystem? Hopefully, it leads to a larger conversation about taking action to get certain areas protected.”

Smith said destruction of such habitats could lead to an incalculable loss of biodiversity, but taxonomists could inform debates that pit species conservation against economic gains that come from extraction of natural resources.

“There’s deforestation and logging and a lot of gold mining in this particular area where I was at in Suriname,” she said. “But I think the take-home message from this paper really is that biodiversity is found in even in the smallest puddles in South America.”

How bombardier beetles bomb

This March 2020 video says about itself:

Bombardier Beetle Sprays Acid From Its Rear | Life | BBC Earth

These oogpister and bombardier beetles have developed a deadly defence mechanism – a sharp spray of boiling acid from the rear!

From the Stevens Institute of Technology in the USA:

Chemistry behind bombardier beetle’s extraordinary firepower

June 16, 2020

Summary: Researchers show how the bombardier beetle concocts its deadly explosives and in the process, learn how evolution gave rise to the beetle’s remarkable firepower.

If you want to see one of the wonders of the natural world, just startle a bombardier beetle. But be careful: when the beetles are scared, they flood an internal chamber with a complex cocktail of aromatic chemicals, triggering a cascade of chemical reactions that detonates the fluid and sends it shooting out of the insect’s spray nozzle in a machine-gun-like pulse of toxic, scalding-hot vapor. The explosive, high-pressure burst of noxious chemicals doesn’t harm the beetle, but it stains and irritates human skin — and can kill smaller enemies outright.

The beetle’s extraordinary arsenal has been held up by some as a proof of God’s existence: how on earth, creationists argue, could such a complex, multistep defense mechanism evolve by chance? Now researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. show how the bombardier beetle concocts its deadly explosives and in the process, learn how evolution gave rise to the beetle’s remarkable firepower.

“We explain for the first time how these incredible beetles biosynthesize chemicals to create fuel for their explosions,” said Athula Attygalle, a research professor of chemistry and lead author of the work, which appears today in the July 2020 issue of the Science of Nature. “It’s a fascinating story that nobody has been able to tell before.”

To trace the workings of the beetle’s internal chemistry set, Attygalle and colleagues at University of California, Berkeley used deuterium, a rare hydrogen isotope, to tag specially synthesized chemical blends. The team led by Kipling Will then either injected the deuterium-labeled chemicals into the beetles’ internal fluids, or mixed them with dog food and fed them to the beetles over a period of several days.

Attygalle’s team sedated the bugs by popping them in the freezer, then gently tugged at their legs, annoying the sleepy insects until they launched their defensive sprays onto carefully placed filter papers. The team also dissected some beetles, using human hairs to tie closed the tiny ducts linking their chemical reservoirs and reaction chambers, and sampling the raw chemicals used to generate explosions.

Using mass spectrometers, Attygalle checked the samples sent to Stevens for deuterium-labeled products, enabling him to figure out exactly which chemicals the beetles had incorporated into their bomb-making kits. “People have been speculating about this for at least 50 years, but at last we have a clear answer,” Attygalle said. “It turns out that the beetles’ biochemistry is even more intricate than we’d thought.”

Previously, researchers had assumed that two toxic, benzene-like chemicals called benzoquinones found in the beetles’ spray were metabolized from hydroquinone, a toxic chemical that in humans can cause cancer or genetic damage. The team at Stevens showed that in fact just one of the beetle’s benzoquinones derived from hydroquinone, with the other springing from a completely separate precursor: m-cresol, a toxin found in coal tar.

It’s fascinating that the beetles can safely metabolize such toxic chemicals, Attygalle said. In future studies, he hopes to follow the beetles’ chemical supply chain further upstream, to learn how the precursors are biosynthesized from naturally available substances.

The team’s findings also show that the beetles’ explosives rely on chemical pathways found in many other creepy-crawlies. Other animals such as millipedes also use benzoquinones to discourage predators, although they lack the bombardier’s ability to detonate their chemical defenses. Evolutionarily distant creatures such as spiders and millipedes use similar strategies, too, suggesting that multiple organisms have independently evolved ways to biosynthesize the chemicals.

That’s a reminder that the bombardier beetle, though remarkable, is part of a rich and completely natural evolutionary tapestry, Attygalle said. “By studying the similarities and differences between beetles’ chemistry, we can see more clearly how they and other species fit together into the evolutionary tree,” he explained. “Beetles are incredibly diverse, and they all have amazing chemical stories to tell.”

Foxglove flowers and cockchafer beetles

Flowers, Gooilust, 8 June 2020

This 8 June 2020 photo shows foxglove flowers in Gooilust nature reserve near Hilversum.

Cockchafer, 8 June 2020

A bit further, there was this beetle.

Cockchafer beetle, 8 June 2020

A cockchafer beetle.

Cockchafer, on 8 June 2020

This species is also called Maybug, though this beetle was still around in June. After the photo session, the beetle flew up to a treetop.

Foxglove flowers, 8 June 2020

Then, once again foxglove flowers.

Stay tuned for more Gooilust photos!

New beetle species named after Beatles

Ptomaphagus thebeatles, newly discovered beetle species, © Menno Schilthuizen, Taxon Expeditions

Translated from Taxon Expeditions in the Netherlands, 4 June 2020:

Researchers announced today that they have discovered a new beetle species and named it after The Beatles. The insect was found during a citizen science ‘expedition’ in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam – near the Hilton Hotel where John Lennon and Yoko Ono did their “Bed In For Peace” fifty years ago.

Insects are sometimes named after famous musicians: Lady Gaga was given a cicada, Beyoncé a fly, and four species of damselflies were named after all Queen band members. But strangely, a beetle (beetle) has never been named after the Beatles. This has now been rectified in a new publication in the scientific journal Contributions to Zoology.

A team of insect researchers took a group of local residents on an ‘expedition’ in the Vondelpark. There they discovered a new beetle species (only 2 mm long and living in the soil) and decided to call the animal Ptomaphagus thebeatles. …

During the research in the Vondelpark, the group previously discovered a new parasitic wasp, which they called Aphaereta vondelparkensis.

Superworms help fighting plastic pollution

This 17 March 2018 video is called Mealworms & Superworms Can Digest Styrofoam? with Eddy Garcia.

From the American Chemical Society in the USA:

Superworms digest plastic, with help from their bacterial sidekicks

May 27, 2020

Resembling giant mealworms, superworms (Zophobas atratus) are beetle larvae that are often sold in pet stores as feed for reptiles, fish and birds. In addition to their relatively large size (about 2 inches long), these worms have another superpower: They can degrade polystyrene plastic. Now, researchers reporting in ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology have linked this ability to a strain of bacteria that lives in the larvae’s gut.

Polystyrene is used in packaging containers, disposable cups and insulating materials. When thrown in landfills or littered in the environment, the plastic takes several hundred years to completely break down. Recently, several studies have found that mealworms and superworms can ingest and degrade polystyrene within a few weeks. In mealworms, this ability was linked to a certain strain of polystyrene-degrading bacteria in the worms’ gut. Jiaojie Li, Dae-Hwan Kim and colleagues wanted to search for similar bacteria in superworms.

The team placed 50 superworms in a chamber with polystyrene as their only carbon source, and after 21 days, the worms had consumed about 70% of the plastic. The researchers then isolated a strain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria from the gut of the worms and showed that it could grow directly on the surface of polystyrene and break it down. Finally, they identified an enzyme from the bacteria, called serine hydrolase, that appeared to be responsible for most of the biodegradation. This enzyme, or the bacteria that produce it, could someday be used to help break down waste polystyrene, the researchers say.

Beetles may help human health

This 2019 video says about itself:

The Ambrosia leaf beetle Ophraella communa

“Do you know this insect?

It is the ragweed leaf beetle called Ophraella communa.

It could become very useful for thousands of allergic people.

Allergic to what? To the pollen of the ragweed: Ambrosia artemisiifolia”.

From the University of Connecticut in the USA:

Got seasonal allergies? Beetles could help

April 21, 2020

It’s time once again for the misery familiar to millions of people around the world: seasonal allergy season. But there may be hope, courtesy of a tiny critter with a big appetite: a new study published in Nature Communications suggests that a species of beetle could help control an invasive and highly allergenic weed at the root of many people’s suffering.

Allergies caused by the common ragweed, Ambrosia artemisiifolia, impact millions, and in Europe alone, around 13.5 million people suffer with symptoms, resulting in 7.4 billion Euros worth of health costs per year, according to the research. The study suggests the leaf beetle, Ophraella communa, could reduce the number of people affected by the pollen and the associated economic impacts, since the beetle — itself a recent arrival in Europe — loves to munch on the invasive plant.

Invasive alien species, such as common ragweed, have a significant effect when introduced into new ecosystems — from crowding out ecologically important native plant species to altering and damaging the ecological services a landscape can provide, invasive plants can lead to substantial economic costs. However, the researchers note very little research has been done on the human health impacts of these species.

Using data from the European Pollen Monitoring Programme, a team of researchers including co-first authors Sandro Steinbach of UConn’s Agricultural and Resource Economics Department and Urs Schaffner of the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International, mapped seasonal total ragweed pollen in Europe from 2004-2012. They then determined ragweed sensitization rates in the European population to estimate the number of allergy sufferers.

“Assessing the human health impacts of IAS is a difficult task; it requires collaboration among scientists from different disciplines, including plant and insect ecology, aerobiology, medicine, and economics,” says Steinbach.

They estimate that 13.5 million people were affected by seasonal ragweed pollen allergies, with economic costs of approximately 7.4 billion Euros per year, including factors such as medical costs and work absences. These numbers are prior to the unintended arrival of O. communa in Europe in 2013.

By modelling the number of generations of the beetle across its suitable habitat range in Europe, the authors project that biological control of common ragweed could reduce the number of people suffering from the ragweed allergy to approximately 11.2 million, and bring the health costs down to 6.4 billion Euros per year.

“Our conservative estimates indicate that biological control of A. artemisiifolia by O. communa will reduce the number of patients by approximately 2.3 million and the health costs by Euro 1.1 billion per year,” says Steinback. “Future costs of this management approach will be basically zero since the beetle has established permanently and is propagating by itself.”

Though this research is specific for Europe, this method of biological control is already happening in China where the beetle is reared and distributed for the control of ragweed. Fortunately, the authors note that previous studies suggest the beetle would have no negative impacts on native or ornamental plants in Europe, so this form of biological control may have no unintended consequences on the local landscape.

Schaffner says, “We were not sure at first whether the leaf beetle was useful or harmful. Laboratory tests had shown that O. communa might be detrimental to sunflowers. However, field tests in China and Europe could not confirm this finding.”

This research also underscores the need for more work to be done on the human health impact of invasive alien species, since the benefits of management strategies are likely greatly undervalued, as shown by the authors’ estimated public health costs being higher than previously reported.

“Mainstreaming invasive species management into policy and decision-making is dependent on the availability of robust data regarding their ecological and economic impacts. Our study provides evidence that the health costs incurred by a single species, A. artemisiifolia, is in a similar range as the currently discussed overall economic costs of all invasive species in Europe, suggesting that the overall costs of invasive species in Europe are grossly underestimated,” says Steinbach.

Schaffner adds, “Because O. communa was accidentally introduced into Europe and did not go through a thorough risk assessment typical for deliberate releases of biological control agents, we started investigating whether this beetle can damage native European plant species. The good news is that there is only one European plant species, which is closely related to A. artemisiifolia. The risk assessment is still in progress, but so far, we have not found evidence for significant damage by this leaf beetle on native European plants.”

Schaffner says another aspect the team is currently looking into is how climate change will affect the distribution of the weed and the beetle and whether the beetle’s impact on pollen production by A. artemisiifolia will increase or decrease in the future.