Skip navigation

Curator of Diptera's blog

3 Posts tagged with the bees tag

Sorry folks – my fault on the delay. Five million visitors and a conference have waylaid me in posting this! Worth the wait though…here's the next installment from my partner Dave, who joined our team of Museum scientists on a field trip to Peru earlier this year.


Day 3: San Benito to Cajamarca


Another early start. As the mountains began to blush with colour, we (I) loaded up the van with samples and sweepers and the ubiquitous “Fanny” trout and tomato sandwich materials. The idea was to get to Cajamarca, 150km away, by the end of the day. It is the main town in the region, and the only road for us was over a mountain pass some 50km away and then down by a similarly circuitous route. In all, some 150km away, which sounds a doddle, but by now I had an inkling what 150K would be like up here.


Erica here - just thought I would interupt at this point. On the previous trip Dave decided to track our movements. We had to travel 100km in a day and he informed us that Google said that this would take maybe two hours...10 hours later...


With the van wrapped, packed and strapped, we lurched once more upward on the dusty track in the cool morning air. Our pace was slow, all the better to spot more of the introverted nightshade family. Our first landmark was a village called Guzmango, where we might have stayed in had we made better progress the previous day. It looked close on a map, but it was also above us by some stretch – mile upon mile of precipitous mountain track with yawning roadside drops. I enjoyed this very much. Erica enjoyed it less – Erica’s happier when she’s driving, but seems to be quite a nervous passenger, even if my driving is impeccable.


Erica - ...


The scenery became more and more spectacular – much more like the prior idea I’d had in my head of Peru. We were now above 2,000m, and the vegetation was more varied – still dry, but with pines and deciduous trees dotting well-cultivated land. San Benito was far below us.



Driving up into the moutains, with San Benito far below us.


As the road rose and we turned yet another hairpin bend, Sandy called for a stop – she’d spotted something. There was a good clump of Solanum habrochaites, the wild tomato we saw yesterday with its distinctive yellow flowers, nestled in the shady bend. I parked the beast, and the science people took up their weapons of choice, while I padded about enjoying the breathtaking views, taking field notes and observing the cows. Cows mean faeces and faeces means flies. I was learning.



Erica and the team searching for specimens by the roadside.


Sandy interrupted my reverie with a job – collecting the seeds for DNA sequencing from another Solanaceae species – possibly a S. neorickii  – she had spotted on the verge. This was a wild relative of tobacco. Like many of the Solanum genus, it appears to like disturbed ground, and these plants were clinging to a road cutting. It has sticky ova protecting hundreds of tiny seeds. I collected a small handful, feeling pleased with myself, until Segundo revealed his fistful.


Meanwhile Erica and Evelyn flapped about filling flasks and baggies full of lovely winged beasties of every description – already enough for several hours’ pinning. We were ready to get a wiggle on, but all hopes of further progress were abandoned when Erica spied a lonely Bombyliid (beefly) minding its business on a roadside leaf. An excited Erica stalked clumsily upon it through the treacherous underbrush, I felt it polite to point out that there were clouds of them in the air above her head.


Erica - I would like to have thought as myself as an elegant creature of the countryside...


As Erica’s knickers eventually become untwisted, she was able to explain that this was a rather exciting beefly mating display. Other minibeasts flitted about in jubilant swarms enjoying the early sunshine, including a very handsome black bumble bee displaying unusual hovering behaviour.


No matter: all were swept into the nets with gruesome efficiency and inhaled into the killing jars. Many of the unfortunate beeflies were rewarded for their display with a dose of deadly ethyl acetate. Science is a cruel mistress.



Animals obstacles on the dirt roads.


Eventually we were able to make further (slow) progress, every lurch of the truck met with protest, as I swerved goats and pigs and ambitious wheelchasing mutts, all the while stopping for samples along the way. We picked up more Solanaceae of various description, and an interesting purple Iochroma.



A purple Iochroma found at the side of the road.


Our last morning stop was off the main “highway” and down an even narrower mud track, where I had to drop the crew off and keep driving in order to find a place to turn round. I don’t know how Segundo finds these sites, but you can bet we wouldn’t have without him. It was in the lee of a hill, facing a fantastic valley full of cornfields and grassland, some crops perched at seemingly impossible angles on the side of mountains. Here oxen will beat your tractor any day in a ploughing competition.



We made slow progress along hillside tracks.


I noticed there were quite a few gum trees prevalent in the area. As they aren’t native I couldn’t fathom what they were doing up here, but Sandy says they were planted for firewood – quick growing and very flammable. I could have worked that out if I’d tried. Altitude?


We reached the top of the pass about noon. Time for a sandwich stop, and for me to properly take in the views at the top of the mountain. Some steps had been carved into the hillside where vegetables were growing. I ventured up, and soon started to feel how the altitude – about 3,400m – was indeed affecting my progress. Everything seemed a little a bit harder.



After a climb up the hillside the effects of high altitude were more obvious than ever.


The steps began to peter out. Then they disappeared into a maelstrom of brambles. But as I reached the brow of the hill a hint of a way seemed to reveal itself. I followed it for a few metres, scratching the hell out of my legs then vaulted an ancient wall at the top to reveal a grassy oasis at the summit, surrounded by an unforgettable panorama.


Worth the effort. Driving, you don’t always get to appreciate the view until you stop.





View from the top - well worth the climb.


Now it was a bumpy, dusty ride mostly downhill all the way to Cajamarca, still some way off.


I was expecting a smallish town, but it’s a sizeable settlement with some style – it has a lovely cathedral and church either side of a spacious Plaza de Armas, and atmospheric, narrow streets lined with colourful colonial mansions where campesinos in traditional dress mix comfortably with sharp-suited 9-5ers. Also, plenty of cheese shops. I found it bizarre that we reached such a place by dirt track.



Cajamarca, our next stop.


Beautiful old buildings in Cajamarca.


We checked into our hostel dead beat, dusty and desirous of a beer, but we’d had a good day and a terrific haul.


Erica - it was a great haul. Today (20 August) - all the material that I and evelyn collected and put into ethanol every night has only just been sorted into Order Level (beetles, bugs, flies etc)...As Dave comes to the end of the journey I may have some results to tell you about the amazing insects we found. Till next time!


Recently, I have been quiet in the land of blogs but fear not - this was not due to the lack of things fly-related but rather the opposite. I have been working on a three-part BBC Radio 4 series on all things funky about insects and what we can learn from them - not just on a taxonomic or ecological scale but also thinking about their adaptions and functionality, and how we can utilise this.


Over the last month or so, I have possibly had the most fun an entomologist can have without a net and a few million dead flies. I was approached a while back by Laura Thomas, a BBC radio producer, about presenting a three-part series on insects that would involve me interviewing some of the most innovative individuals whose work focuses on many different aspects of insect ‘technology’ (I use that term loosely) ...


And so I have dangled from a ceiling, played with spiders, eaten bees, admired bot flies, and seen entomo-bots, to name just a few things. And it’s been amazing. I have probably said “that’s marvellous” more than any other phrase, and have wound up all those around me with astonishing facts - I am a pub quiz waiting to happen; my brain is full of wonder and awe. Anyone who does not love insects does not love life!


OK, so to my first story from the series … sniffer bees. I was possibly most excited about this out of all of my encounters (however, next week I will say the same about the story I'll cover then, and then the same the week after). These amazing creatures are actually your bog-standard honey bees - making honey and saving us as part of their daily routine!



An amazing honey bee, Apis mellifera


And I am not alone in thinking that they are amazing - sniffer bees have caught a lot of other people's imagination:






So, my producer and I headed out of London one cold day to visit Inscentinel, based in Harpenden, Herts. In one innocuous-looking building, up a flight of stairs and round the corner in a small lab, all the action happens. There are two fume hoods, both being used by people wafting chemicals to bees in pods. And to talk me through everything was Dr Maxim Rooth.  Now his biog tells us that he is not an entomologist - far from it:



‘Dr Maxim Rooth has a BSc in biological and medicinal chemistry and an MSc in biological chemistry. He went on to specialise in optical biosensors … and completed his PhD in chemistry at Exeter University. He has a thorough knowledge of biosensors, surface chemistry, colloid chemistry and bio-conjugation.’



So what is it about his background that makes him so useful? It is his knowledge of biosensors that is the key. Maxim's group use the bees' natural responses to certain stimuli and, by using optical biosensors, they have developed a machine that is capable of detecting chemicals to help us in locating - among other things - bombs and drugs! Way to go bees.


For years we have been using bees in warfare: hurling nests of angry bees about. We have chucked them across the water at opposing ships and launched them on specially developed trebuchets. But recently we have started to think about how to use them to assist us in ways other than warfare, such as detection of drugs, and even more cunningly in detecting illnesses within humans.


Previous studies have used bees and their famous waggle dance to determine the position of land mines ... have I said it yet, what marvellous little creatures. For example, the BBC have already covered a story of work conducted by Professor Nikola Kezic, about the use of this technology to find land mines in Croatia. Sandia, University of Montana is another making use of bees in this way. This research is happening all over the planet - and quite rightly so as land mines are still a huge problem (the Red Cross states that there are 45 to a 100 million land mines still active).


So how does this work? You make a concoction of a sugar solution containing the chemical (in this case TNT - or one of the smelly components of it; I am very technical!). You then feed this to the bee! Different studies use different methods to do this. This is an image from the Sandia group where they have made up pots of the solution. The bees in this instance feed on the sugary solution and then head off into the wilderness:



Feeding bees chemical-laced sugar solution


You can either spot the bees that have detected land mines with some binoculars(!) or you can develop highly sophisticated sensory devices to do the same ... I think you can probably guess which technique is the favoured one. Inscentinel have used this idea of chemical detection and taken it a step further ... bees have tongues, and long ones at that:


bee tongue.jpg

Bees have a long tongue relative to their body size


What happens when you feed them a solution with the chemical of choice is that, when they then come across the chemical again, they stick their tongues out! “Marvellous”, I hear you cry (I almost did when they let me feed one to see this in action). And they respond this way because they associate the chemical with the sugar solution upon which they have been fed.


Now, in the past, we have used sniffer dogs and they are very effective, but dogs are expensive and take a long time to train ... and then retrain, because they eventually forget. Bees on the other hand take about 5 seconds to train (to be sure though, they repeat the training six times and then they give them a dummy test). In a Naked Scientist article on sniffer bees, research scientist Dr Nesbit says:


“Bees are at least as good as sniffer dogs but are cheaper and faster to train, and available in much larger numbers ... Bees can detect some odours that are present in parts per trillion - that’s equivalent to detecting a grain of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.”


Just as Pavlov's dogs salivated at the sound of a bell due to their associating it with food, when the bees next smell the target chemical they automatically stick out their tongue as they believe that food will appear. And, unlike sniffer dogs, bees cannot help but do this time and time again as it is an innate response - dogs often get bored and forget they are being employed on top military assignments!



For the sniffer machine, each bee is placed in a little pod (they are put in a fridge first to make them dozy!). Then they place the suspect solution on their antenna, where chemoreceptors cause a Pavlovian response if it contains the target chemical.


pavlov.jpgOne of Pavlov’s actual dogs is now a museum specimen! Though, sadly, not one of ours.


And how does this relate to Maxim and his knowledge of biosensors? Well when the bees stick their tongues out, it passes through an infrared beam thus disrupting it. When all the bees are doing this (there are 36 in the machine) at once we can be pretty confident that the chemical is present.


bee pods.jpg

Bees lined up in their pods and ready for action!



The hand held sniffing machine!


Such a simple and inexpensive idea, showing us once more that nature is very clever! P.S. I want one of these machines...


Listen to Episode 1 of Who's the pest?


Work experience

Posted by Erica McAlister Apr 6, 2010

As well as a marauding mass of volunteers….


french guyiana project.jpg
I also take on work experience students who are in Year 10 (this means nothing to me). I thought that you would like to know what he thinks of it so far....




My name is Elliot Neillands and I am currently doing work experience in the Entomology Department with my supervisor Erica McAlister and one thing I’ve learnt so far from “working” here is that a lot of Entomologists have an un-healthy obsession with genitalia simply mention the word and they get all excited and worked up about how they are going to dye, dissect or scan a poor fly or beetles whatsits. And yet they insist it’s perfectly natural and healthy even to poke about an insect’s nether regions. Although they seem to be perfectly friendly I often wonder if they are actually bordering on the insane. But in all fairness they have been extremely nice despite some scarring conversations involving masking tape.


I have actually been doing some pretty interesting things here including sorting a bowl of tiny insect soup from French  Guiana into their groups. I have learnt the proper names for some of the groups including Diptera for flies, Hymenoptera for bees, wasps and ants and lepidoptera for moths and butterflies. I have also learnt how to tell these groups apart using their number of wings and the structure of their body. I had the pleasure of enlightening some students (yes, from uni) about how the bark beetle was attracted to ethanol of which all of the insects were drenched in with the smell leaking onto me (this lead to some vicious look from old ladies’ on the tube.) My next task of the day after writing this is to remove the wings from flies which I find Ironic since that is often in the nature of cruel little children to do, albeit they will be dead when I do it (I think.)


I will be here all next week.

Erica McAlister

Erica McAlister

Member since: Sep 3, 2009

I'm Erica McAlister, Curator of Diptera in the Entomology Department. My role involves working in the collection (I have about 30000 species to look after and over a million specimens), sometimes in the lab, and thankfully sometimes in the field.

View Erica McAlister's profile