May Berenbaum with an insect
Photo by UIUC News Service
October 03, 2014

White House Honors U of I Entomologist May Berenbaum

President Barack Obama on Friday awarded the National Medal of Science to a group of researchers that includes University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum.

An announcement from the White House describes the award as "the nation’s highest honor for achievement and leadership in advancing the fields of science and technology."

Berenbaum credits good timing for her award.  She has studied the disappearance of bee colonies in recent years, and says many of the insects she researches are particularly newsworthy.

She says she’s been pinching herself since getting the news.

“I don’t think you can top this one.  I really don’t. This one is such an enormous honor," Berenbaum says.  "Many people (being honored) this year are science heroes of my own. And I’m so incredibly thrilled to be on the same list.”

Berenbaum has taught at the U of I Urbana campus since 1980. She also created the Insect Fear Film Festival, an annual event that combines film screenings with discussions of insects and an insect petting zoo.

This year’s recipients will receive their medals at a ceremony at the White House later this year.

Notes From Nature allows volunteers to digitally catalog thousands of scientific specimens, like this insect from the Calbug project.
March 12, 2014

Evolved Science: Crowds Can Catalog Bugs Faster

The next evolution of science is not happening in a lab, but in a basement in a rural Florida county. Thanks to online crowdsourcing, thousands of non-scientists can visit a site called Notes From Nature and lend a hand to university researchers cataloging their collections, from bark to bugs.

Non-scientists help university researchers catalog thousands of specimens, like this one from Florida State University's herbarium.

Bill Stinson, one of those non-scientists, sits at his PC, looking at a picture of a plant he found on Notes From Nature. Stinson's task is to parse the information on an index card associated with each record and then enter the data into nine fields.

Stinson is a member of the Florida Native Plant Society, and has completed more than 50 entries for Florida State University's herbarium, a giant repository of plant species native to the Southeast U.S.

There are more than 5,000 people just like Stinson — all contributing to science one keystroke at a time.

FSU biology professor Austin Mast runs the lab, which contains some species so rare they're only found in a few locations.

The non-scientists who contribute their time to Notes From Nature catalog much faster than his researchers could, Mast says.

"We in the herbarium had databased about 76,000 of our specimens in the last 10 years," he says. "It took 10 days to get through that many on the Notes From Nature site."

Science is no longer as reliant on singular minds like an Einstein or an Aristotle, says Rob Guralnick, one of the website's founders and the zoology curator at the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History. Contributions like Stinson's are increasingly important.

"We've kind of passed through that phase of our understanding of how to know the world and the ways that one person can transform our understanding of science," Guralnick says. "Now, a lot of the questions that are most challenging and vexing that are left on the table are really about collective intelligence."

Non-scientists help university researchers catalog thousands of specimens, like this one from Florida State University's herbarium. (Screengrab/

More than 210,000 specimens are housed in rows of green metal cabinets at FSU. Inside are stacks of color-coded folders with a variety of plant specimens.

There's a lot of time and work left, with about a billion specimens in collections like this in the U.S., and an estimated 10 percent of those databased, Mast says.

"We have a 900-million-specimen backlog," he says.

Stinson is ready to transcribe another entry. What pops up next resonates with him.

"This particular collection comes from my home county, Walton County," Stinson says.

He's participated in crowdsourced science before, but most of it was passive. Stinson allowed someone in the world to harness his computer's processor to calculate tough problems when he wasn't using it.

Stinson grew up walking out his back door into the woods. Now, even on the days he can't get outdoors, he can help to preserve nature.


Arvin Pierce, 61, removes a bee colony.
(Peter Gray/IPR)
August 26, 2013

Honeybee Health In Illinois: A Tale Of Two Apiaries

The stakes are high for honeybees. A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows apiaries continue to lose nearly one third of hives each year.

That has led some environmental activists to push for further restrictions on a pesticide used to treat seed corn. Two central Illinois beekeepers are seeing very different results as they work to keep bees healthy in the Midwest Corn Belt.

Arvin Pierce, 61, has been preventing calls to the exterminator for seven years.  Each colony removal is a discovery.

“You’ll get these open and it’s kind of like a present,” Pierce said. “You know, ‘cause you open it up and it’s a little surprise.”


Pierce stands in a dark, cave-like basement of a cabin at a hunting club near Chandlerville.  The owner of the hunting club, who is severely allergic to bees, called Pierce to remove the buzzing colony under his floor.

Work to remove the colony, Pierce does not wear any gloves. Instead, he has duct tape wrapped around the cuffs of his shirt. He climbs a metal scaffold and begins prying open the ceiling.

“I started doing these cutouts – and taking survivor bees out of trees and houses and barns – and my bees are doing really well,” he explained. “ It’s certainly not anything I’m doing.  I don’t have any special secret or talent.”

Pierce calls these colonies especially valuable. He believes natural selection makes these bees - thriving in the wild - stronger than those treated with chemicals to ward off pests and infection.

“I don't like chemicals,” Pierce said. “I grew up on a little black dirt farm and it is just the principle I have that the less chemicals you use, the better off you are.”

Pierce lives in the rural community of Lowder, in south Sangamon County, but he has 58 hives scattered across central Illinois - in backyards, orchards - even the rooftop of a restaurant in downtown Springfield.

While beekeepers around the nation report losses of bees around 30 percent, Pierce's winter loss rate is closer to three percent.

Rick Nuss of Rantoul, who is another central Illinois beekeeper and also collects swarms of live bees, has not been that lucky.

"As a beekeeper, bees are like a member of your family. And when you go out there and you find them dead, it’s very disheartening," he said.

In May, Nuss filed a complaint with the EPA and the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture, claiming a farmer planting pesticide-treated seed corn triggered a massive die-off in his backyard.

“I went out after he got done planting and looked, and there were piles of dead bees out in front of my hives,” he added. “The next morning when I went out and looked it was like a carpet of bees.”

Nuss said he will be lucky if he can produced a tenth of the honey he did last year. His local beekeeping association alerted him of the suspected danger of pesticides used to treated corn known as neonicotinoids.

“It's one of the worst chemicals I've ever seen for killing things. I mean it's instant,” Nuss said.

So how dangerous are neonicotinoids? 

If the following records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are any indication, not enough to warrant much reporting to government regulators.

Ill. Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Misuse Complaints:

• 2010 (unavailable, read why)
2013 (through May)

Only Rick Nuss and one other Illinois beekeeper have filed incident reports in the past four years. That is two beekeepers in a state with 2,000 registered apiaries.

"Screaming about it to the media and reporting it to the EPA, who can actually do something about it are two very, very different things," said Randy Oliver, a veteran beekeeper, biologist and contributor to the American Bee Journal.

Oliver said petitions circulating on the internet and alarmist news reports linking neonicotinoids with dying bee colonies will not help his fellow environmentalists. he said instead of grabbing headlines, beekeepers concerned about chemicals should get in touch with regulators:

"If it's not reported onto paper somewhere, it does not exist, as far as the regulatory system is involved,” Oliver said. “So beekeepers have only themselves to blame about this."

Nuss defends Illinois beekeepers, saying they simply have not had enough information.

“They're not reporting because they don't know what's going on,” he said. “ Now that we're aware of it, in our Association, next year when it happens they're going to get all kinds of reports.”

While the debate over honeybee health continues, Pierce presses on with his colony removals.  He started preventing calls to the exterminator for a very personal reason.

"I really like them and I really don't like the idea of them being killed,” Pierce said. “They are really beneficial, they're helpful to all of us and… I think I like the challenge of it too.”

Pierce said just because his bees are thriving while others are dying doesn’t mean he has any answers. If anything, he only has more questions.

But Pierce said the unknown - and the unexpected - are just part of the job.

“If you like flying by the seat of your pants, you will make a good beekeeper,” he said. “Because you never know what you gonna find when you open a hive.”


Crop consultant Dan Steiner inspects a field of corn near Norfolk, Nebraska.
(Dan Charles/NPR)
July 09, 2013

As Biotech Seed Falters, Insecticide Use Surges In Corn Belt

Across the Midwestern corn belt, a familiar battle has resumed, hidden in the soil.

On one side are tiny, white larvae of the corn rootworm. On the other side are farmers and the insect-killing arsenal of modern agriculture.

We've reported on earlier phases of this battle: The discovery of rootworms resistant to one type of genetically engineered corn, and an appeal from scientists for the government to limit the use of this new corn to preserve the effectiveness of its protection against rootworm.

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like Syngenta or AMVAC Chemical that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

This is a return to the old days, before biotech seeds came along, when farmers relied heavily on pesticides. For Dan Steiner, an independent crop consultant in northeastern Nebraska, it brings back bad memories. "We used to get sick [from the chemicals]," he says. "We'd dig [in the soil] to see how the corn's coming along, and we didn't use the gloves or anything, and we'd kind of puke in the middle of the day. Well, I think we were low-dosing poison on ourselves!"

For a while, biotechnology came to his rescue. Biotech companies such as Monsanto spent many millions of dollars creating and inserting genes that would make corn plants poisonous to the corn rootworm but harmless to other creatures.

The first corn hybrids containing such a gene went on sale in 2003. They were hugely popular, especially in places like northeastern Nebraska where the rootworm has been a major problem. Sales of soil insecticides fell. "Ever since, I'm like, hey, we feel good every spring!" says Steiner.

But all along, scientists wondered how long the good times would last. Some argued that these genes — a gift of nature — were being misused. (For a longer explanation, read my post from two years ago.)

Those inserted genes, derived from genes in a strain of the bacterial Bacillus thuringiensis, worked well for a while. In fact, the Bt genes remain a rock-solid defense against one pest, the European corn borer.

In parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, though, farmers are running into increasing problems with corn rootworms.

"You never really know for sure, until that big rain with strong wind, and you get the phone call the next morning: 'What's going on out there?'" says Steiner.

Entire hillsides of corn, with no support from their eaten-away roots, may be blown flat.

Monsanto has downplayed such reports, blaming extraordinary circumstances. But in half a dozen universities around the Midwest, scientists are now trying to figure out whether, in fact, the Bt genes have lost their power.

At the University of Nebraska, entomologist Lance Meinke is turning colonies of rootworms loose on potted corn plants that contain different versions of the anti-rootworm gene, to see how well they survive.

The larvae get to feed on the corn roots for about two weeks. The soil from each pot then is dumped into a kind of steel container. If the larvae are still alive, a bright light will drive them into little glass jars filled with alcohol. "They try to escape from the heat," says David Wangila, a graduate student who is managing this experiment.

If the rootworm-fighting genes in the corn are working well, no larvae should emerge.

But some have. Wangila points to one of the little glass jars. Inside, there are three nice plump corn rootworm larvae.

This is not good. Those insects, originally collected from a cornfield in Nebraska, were feeding on corn that contained the first rootworm-fighting gene that Monsanto introduced ten years ago. Technically, it's known as the Cry 3Bb gene.

Meinke and Wangila will compare the survival rate of these rootworms with others that have never been exposed to Bt. They're looking for signs that rootworms in the corn fields of Nebraska have evolved resistance to genetically engineered crops.

An identical experiment in Iowa, carried out more than a year ago, found corn rootworms resistant to the Cry 3Bb gene.

Nobody knows how widely those insects have spread, but farmers aren't waiting to find out. Some are switching to other versions of biotech corn, containing anti-rootworm genes that do still work. Others are going back to pesticides.

Steiner, the Nebraska crop consultant, usually argues for another strategy: Starve the rootworms, he tells his clients. Just switch that field to another crop. "One rotation can do a lot of good," he says. "Go to beans, wheat, oats. It's the No. 1 right thing to do."

Insect experts say it's also likely to work better in the long run.

Meinke, who's been studying the corn rootworm for decades, tells farmers that if they plant just corn, year after year, rootworms are likely to overwhelm any weapon someday.

The problem, Meinke says, is that farmers are thinking about the money they can make today. "I think economics are driving everything," he says. "Corn prices have been so high the last three years, everybody is trying to protect every kernel. People are just really going for it right now, to be as profitable as they can."

As a result, they may just keep growing corn, fighting rootworms with insecticides — and there's a possibility that those chemicals will eventually stop working, too.


An insect's eye lets it see really well because each of its light-sensitive cells has a dedicated lens. This miniature camera, which mimics an insect eye, is made from an array of microlenses arranged on a stretchable sheet that can be inflated
(University of Illinois and Beckman Institute)
May 02, 2013

Of Flybots and Bug Eyes: Insects Inspire Inventors

A smartphone can tell you where to get a cup of coffee, but it can't go get the coffee for you. Engineers would like to build little machines that can do stuff.

They would be useful for a lot more than coffee, if we could figure out how to make them work.

But the rules of mechanics change at small scales. Friction becomes dominant; turbulence can upend a small airplane.

"Gears and rotors and belts and pistons and all of the things that work really well at large scales, they just don't work at small scales," says Michael Dickinson, a zoologist at the University of Washington. One solution: insects.

Dickinson, who studies flies, says that insects are the ultimate micromachines: They've got acute sensors, superfast reflexes and lots of little moving parts. "Insects just excel at small," he says. "They really do small well."



This week, two groups of engineers have unveiled two new machines that rip off insects. The first, published in the journal Nature, is a miniature camera. It looks just like a bug's compound eye, and works like one too. John Rogers, an engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed the dime-sized camera by staring deep into the eyes of a bark beetle.

"It's just this amazing rainbow of colors and this amazing hemispherical shape in what is otherwise kind of an ugly beetle insect," he says. "And it only gets more interesting when you start to think about the details."

An insect's compound eye sees really well because each of its light-sensitive cells has its own dedicated lens. That means insect eyes have a huge field of view, are highly sensitive to motion, and keep everything in focus automatically. Copying that design lets Rogers' camera do things no other camera can, like view things over very wide angles without distortion. Rogers thinks his new camera could be used in hard-to-reach places. It could look inside the human body, for example, or be used for surveillance.

The second piece of insect imitation is published in the journal Science. Robert Wood at Harvard University has spent years trying to make miniature flying robots that could go do stuff in the world. Wood's flying robot copies real flies.

"If you just look at the aerial agility that flies have, it's quite astounding," Wood says. So it makes sense to try to replicate it.

The team built their robot by cutting flat pieces of different materials and sticking them together. Then they got the pieces to fold up into a robot. It took a while to get the little flybot working, Wood says.

"We would inevitably fly them and crash them, and fly them and crash them, and they would break," he says. Now the flies are able to stay aloft as long as 10 minutes or so (although they're still tethered by a cable for power and control).

Super-eyed fly robots could be used for all sorts of things. Individually, they might search through rubble of a collapsed building. A swarm of them might be used to help pollinate crops. With onboard batteries and microprocessors, they could network together to extend their reach and increase their intelligence.

Both projects still have a ways to go before they can really venture out on their own. In the meantime, zoologist Dickinson says that insects will continue to inspire engineers. And they should.

"It's been the age of insects for about 400 million years," Dickinson says. "So I think it's very appropriate to spend some of our energy trying to figure out how they work and sort of see the world from their perspective."


A Honey Bee collecting pollen.
(Wikimedia Commons)
March 29, 2013

Bee Populations in Decline, Debate Swarms Around Pesticides

As the spring pollination season approaches in Europe, there’s growing concern about the impact of a widely-used group of pesticides on bees–pesticides which are also used in the US.

In a vast cherry orchard outside Lleida, Spain, beekeeper Antoni Areste sets his honeybees loose on the first flowering crop of the season.

It’s a busy time of year for Antoni Areste, a beekeeper with 600 hives of honeybees. It’s also a worrying time, because Areste says his bee mortality rates are going up year after year.

“We’ve always had a five to 10 percent yearly loss of hives,” Areste says. “But now it’s 30 percent. It’s not viable. We beekeepers are the protectors of the environment.”

Because without bees, flowering plants don’t get pollinated.

And it’s not just honey producers who are concerned. Bees of all kinds are vital to the pollination of dozens of crops in Spain and around the world. If bees are in trouble, so is much of the food supply.

That’s why Areste has closely followed the growing debate in Europe over the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or ‘neonics’ for short. Neonics are widely used on an array of flowering crops. And Areste believes traces of the chemicals are contributing to his losses.

A bee “ghost town”

He says the neonics take their toll gradually.

“You notice how the population of a hive slowly begins to drop,” as the bees eat contaminated pollen, Areste says. “Until finally one day the hive just dies. You open the box and you find only some remains of honey and pollen. It’s like a ghost town.”

No one disputes that neonics – a widely used class of pesticides that attack insects’ nervous systems – can kill bees. The question is whether they’re harmful at the sub-lethal doses bees and other pollinators currently encounter on food crops.

Neonics have been around for about 30 years, but about 10 years ago they started being used to coat seeds before they’re planted. The chemicals are absorbed into the crops and spread throughout their tissues, to fight off insect predators.

The problem, said British bee researcher Dave Goulson, is that when used to treat seeds, traces of the toxins also end up in a plant’s flowers, where bees feed, and collect pollen.

Goulson says the amounts of pesticides that the bees encounter on the flowers isn’t typically enough to kill the bees. “But these are neurotoxins,” he says, ‘so they’re still going to be affecting its brain.”

Study finds huge drop in queen production in exposed hives

Goulson and a team of researchers in Scotland have just published their findings from a study on the effects of neonics on wild bumblebees. In their experiment they fed some bumblebees nectar laced with amounts of neonics similar to what you’d find on, say, sunflower or corn crops. Meanwhile they kept a control group of bees pesticide-free by putting their nests outside on their university campus, “and just (letting) them grow as bumblebee nests do.”

Weeks later they brought the nests in and measured a key indicator of bee hive health: queen bee production. Each year it’s the queens who go out and start new hives. Without them, bee populations die off.

Goulson’s team found a huge difference between the pesticide-free bees and the bees exposed in the lab — an 85% drop in queen production.

Goulson believes the drop occurred because the bees exposed to neonics were disoriented, and collected less food for the hives’ grubs, which include the next generation of queens.

“Its like they’re drunk, or have been taken some other kind of drug,” he says, “and it makes them more easily confused, more easily lost, and so on.”

It’s studies like these that have given European regulators pause. Several European countries already restrict the use of neonics, including France, Italy, Slovenia and Germany. In January Europe’s Food Safety Authority concluded that neonics pose an unacceptably high risk to pollinators. That, in part, led the European Commission to propose a two-year ban on their use on flowering crops.

No alternative?

But Europe’s agro-chemical industry says studies like Goulson’s are flawed. Angel Martin, of the European Crop Protection Association, said such a moratorium would be devastating for agriculture.

“For the major crops like sunflowers, maize, and rapeseed,” Martin says, “the lack of availability of this technology for farmers will mean loss of economic growth of 5 billion euros.”

And Martin says for some of the pests, growers won’t be able to find alternatives.

Environmental groups like Friends of the Earth say there are non-chemical alternatives to the neonics. But Martin says farmers would just stop planting some crops, at the cost of thousands of jobs.

Those arguments convinced enough European governments to block the moratorium, at least for now. The ban fell short of an absolute majority in a vote last week. But it will be reconsidered later this spring.

The vote will be watched closely in the US Neonicotinoids are used heavily on corn there, and last week a coalition of activists filed a lawsuit against the EPA, hoping to force the agency to ban some of the pesticides because of the risk to bees.


February 25, 2013

Emerald Ash Borer Now Found in 59 Indiana Counties

A beetle that kills ash trees now has been found in 59 Indiana counties.

The Indiana Department of NaturalResources said Monday the emerald ash borer has been detected in Vigo County, on the Indiana State University campus in Terre Haute, and in southern Indiana's Martin County.

The first detected in Indiana in 2004 has spread largely through the movement of firewood in campgrounds.

A quarantine now covering 79 counties regulates the movement of ash and lumber and firewood of any hardwood species with the bark attached.

WISH-TV reports recent heavy winds blew down several ash trees in an Indianapolis park that been killed by the borer. It says the city will cut down 500 more ash trees in another part of the city.

a mosquito
(Mark Duncan/AP)
February 21, 2013

Mosquitoes Ignore Repellent Deet After First Exposure

The widely used insect repellent Deet appears to be losing its effectiveness against mosquitoes, scientists say.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine say mosquitoes are first deterred by the substance, but then later ignore it.

They say more research is needed to find alternatives to Deet, which was first developed by the US military.

The research was carried out on Aedes aegypti, a species of mosquito that spreads dengue and yellow fever.

The findings are published in the journal Plos One.

Dr James Logan from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "The more we can understand about how repellents work and how mosquitoes detect them, the better we can work out ways to get around the problem when they do become resistant to repellents."

Human bait

Deet - or N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide - is one of the most widely used active ingredients in insect repellents. It was developed by the US military, following its experience of jungle warfare during World War II.

Mosquitoes are very good at evolving very very quickly”

Dr James Logan London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

For many years, it was not clear exactly how the chemical worked, but recent research suggests that insects simply do not like the smell.

However, there are concerns that some mosquitoes are growing resistant to it.

To find out more, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine took some A. aegypti mosquitoes in the laboratory, and tempted them with a human arm covered in Deet.

As expected, the repellent put the insects off their potential meal.

However, a few hours later when the same mosquitoes were offered a chance to dine again, the researchers found that the Deet was less effective.

To investigate why this might be happening, the researchers attached electrodes to the insects' antenna.

Dr Logan explained: "We were able to record the response of the receptors on the antenna to Deet, and what we found was the mosquitoes were no longer as sensitive to the chemical, so they weren't picking it up as well.

"There is something about being exposed to the chemical that first time that changes their olfactory system - changes their sense of smell - and their ability to smell Deet, which makes it less effective."

Arms race

Earlier research by the same team found that genetic changes to the same species of mosquito can make them immune to Deet, although it was not clear if there were any mosquitoes like this in the wild.

Dr Logan said it was vital to understand both these permanent genetic and temporary olfactory changes that were taking place.

He said: "Mosquitoes are very good at evolving very very quickly."

He stressed that the findings should not stop people from using Deet in high risk areas, but that they would help scientists who are trying to find new versions that could be effective.

To follow up on the study, the researchers now plan to find out how long the effect lasts after the initial exposure to the chemical.

The team would also like to study the effect in other mosquitoes, including the species that transmit malaria.

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