Saturday, January 30, 2010

"Bug Eric" Wins Online Praise

I am pleased to announce that this blog was recently praised as one of the “Top Twenty-Five Entomology Blogs” by Anna Miller of It came in number six.

Anna had this to say:

”Writer and entomologist Eric R. Eaton hosts a nice, down-to-earth blog where he shares daily encounters and observations with the insect communities. He enjoys posting snapshots from everyday cockroach, aphid, and butterfly encounters as well as summaries of visits to conservatories and other biological institutions. In addition, Eaton is also very eager to answer any questions professionals and amateurs alike may have regarding any aspect of entomology, though he prefers them directed through his account as opposed to the blog. If he does not know the answer himself, he professionally admits as such before suggesting alternate resources.”

Interestingly, I found out about this article through What’s That Bug, another winner in the list. Thank you for the compliments, Anna.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Funnies

When Gary Larson debuted “The Far Side,” I was thrilled to see that I was not the only person on the planet with a bent sense of humor. That someone could actually combine their knowledge of natural history with a cynical view of human nature was even more astounding. That is when I decided to try my own hand at cartooning.

Insects are obviously a great source of comedic fodder because of the crazy things they do, but I’ve done cartoons about other forms of wildlife, and people, too. I started making personalized greeting cards for Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Earth Day, and other occasions.

A handful of my creations actually made it into print. The American Entomologist, magazine of the Entomological Society of America, published this one along with the several other “Insectoons” by other entomologists/cartoonists in the spring, 1991 issue (volume 37, number 1):

I got solo appearances in the summer, 1991, winter, 1992, and spring, 1992 issues before the editor found other ways to fill space (advertisers, I presume).

This cartoon made it overseas into the publication Lucanus, a Swedish journal of entomology, in 2004. Funny to see the punchline in Swedish, of course.

Thanks to editor Bengt Andersson for making the effort to publish it.

I’d like to do more of this kind of thing, but I need to take a course or something to learn how to do it on the computer, or a combination of both freehand and digital renderings. Meanwhile, I’ll try and get my scanner up and running and share more of these. Don’t hold your breath, though.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Saga Concludes

Like I haven’t written enough already about the brown-banded cockroach (see All Grown Up and The “University Roach”), along comes another chapter.

I was visiting the insect collection in the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson yesterday, when in the process of moving a cart to get to a cabinet, I discovered a cockroach, belly-up on the floor. I could tell it was a brown-banded roach even before I turned it over. I had seen another dead one here before (before I had a camera). The neat thing about this one was that it was a male.

Oddly, I have never seen a living adult male of this species. Then again, until I saw live ones at the University of Massachusetts, I had not seen a living example of either gender. I suspect they are less populous than other “domestic” roaches, and maybe more secretive, too.

In any event, Supella longipalpa is an outstanding example of sexual dimorphism in the order Blattodea. While the females are broad-bodied with shortened forewings (called tegmena), males are more slender, with long tegmena and fully-functional hindwings as well.

Other cockroach species have even more dramatic differences between the sexes, males being fully winged and females totally wingless. The sand roaches in the genus Arenivaga come to mind. They occur here in the Arizona outdoors, so maybe I’ll eventually be able to share their story here on my blog as well. For now, though, I can close the book on the brown-bandeds.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mud Masterpieces

Solitary wasps are among the most amazing architects in the animal world, many of them creating beautiful nests in clay and sand. Each such dwelling will house a single offspring, provided with food in the form of paralyzed spiders, or insects of one sort or another. Sometimes more than one cell is created and the resulting multi-unit residence can be quite astonishing, too.

Perhaps my own personal favorites are the “potter wasps” in the family Vespidae, genus Eumenes. Females craft exquisite urns about the size of a marble, but usually complete with fluted “neck.”

She finishes one of these containers in its entirety before going off to hunt small caterpillars. She paralyzes several and stocks the pot with them. She then lays a single egg inside the clay sphere and seals the top with a final plug of mud. Inside, a larva hatches from the egg to find fresh food (paralyzed victims do not spoil like dead ones would). Once it has fed and matured, the larva molts into the pupa stage, and an adult wasp hatches a few weeks later, if the pupa is not overwintering for a longer period. The new adult chews a large exit hole in the side of the pot, crawls out, and flies off.

More commonly seen than potter wasp pots are they clod-like structures build by the black and yellow mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium, in the family of thread-waisted wasps (Sphecidae).

The nests of this wasp are usually a cluster of several cells all covered in additional layers of mud. Some nests can be quite weighty, and thus are usually adhered beneath rock overhangs, or plastered under bridges and other man-made structures. Only one female is responsible for each nest, stuffing each cell with paralyzed spiders as food for the larva in each cell.

Another spider hunter is the aptly-named “pipe organ mud dauber,” Trypoxylon politum, family Crabronidae, found throughout most of eastern North America. Each female normally fashions two or more adjacent mud tubes, again adhered to a flat surface.

Each tube is actually a series of cells arranged in a linear fashion, partitioned on the inside. Trypoxylon are also spider-hunters, but in T. politum, they often work in pairs, male and female. While the female hunts or gathers mud, the male stays at home to defend the nest from potential parasites, predators, and rival wasps looking to usurp the rightful owners. The male has a wicked-looking hook on the underside of his abdomen that may help anchor him to the nest or substrate while doing battle. New nests of T. politum will be intact, while old nests will have large round exit holes down the length of each tube.

There is one other group of spider-hunting wasps that are accomplished masons. Spider wasps in the family Pompilidae, tribe Auplopini, construct delicate mud barrels to hold their spider prey and larval offspring.

Those in the genus Auplopus are small, with a widespread distribution. Phanagenia bombycina is a slightly larger wasp found east of the Rocky Mountains. Ironically, these wasps often build their mud cells inside the old nests of the pipe organ mud dauber.

Many people destroy the mud nests of wasps when they find them attached to their own home. They think the nests are an eyesore at best. Please consider tolerating them instead. Once finished constructing their nest, the female wasp goes off to build another somewhere else. She won’t “attack” even while building her nest. Solitary wasps are not at all aggressive like social wasps.

Those of you more scientifically inclined might consider “rearing” mud nests that you find. While you usually know what species will come out of one, there are many species of parasites that could emerge instead. Host-parasite relationships are not terribly well known, and you could make a significant contribution to science.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Next Job, Please

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled programming to bring you this important message: I need a new job. One that let’s me use my knowledge, one that let’s me use my skills, one that pays enough so that I can pay my bills….Oh, sorry, I got confused with that Huey Lewis & the News song, “I Want a New Drug.” Well, the basic premise is the same: I would like my next career position to be as rewarding as the last one at the University of Massachusetts.

Ideally, I would like to be at the interface between the scientific community and the general public. I am nothing if not creative and skilled in communications. Scientific journalism, natural history interpretation, and related fields do not seem to be valued here in the United States, however, and such positions are difficult to come by. There is great reliance on docents and other volunteers at museums and parks for example. Most of the professional naturalists I know are behind desks, pushing pencils, and training volunteers to do the actual public programs.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic that I can find a niche. I do need to develop additional professional networks, though. Currently, my professional network consists mostly of entomologists, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I need to start befriending more writers and media professionals, however, if I am to advance to a point where I can reach a much larger audience with my message of tolerance and appreciation of the natural world.

I already owe a debt of gratitude to Gwen Pearson for connecting me with a project that promises to take me in the general direction I want to go, and that will help supplement whatever regular income I eventually obtain. Thanks also to Troy Bartlett and Joe Clapp, who understand where I want to go and keep providing job leads. I welcome even more of those potential opportunities from the rest of you. Don’t hesitate to ask me for the same for yourself, either.

Thank you for your indulgence. We will return you shortly to your regularly-scheduled episodes of Bug Eric.