Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The President of Panamá walks into a bar ….

There’s not really a punch line to the header. It’s not totally accurate, anyway, because it was a restaurant, not a bar. And I was eating dinner there at the time (Friday evening), with a group of Panamanian, American, and British acquaintances. The informality of the whole thing was surreal; except for the presence of a couple of obvious bodyguards near the door, nothing about the ambience changed. And the sad part is that it took very little red wine to render my reflexes so slow that I missed a chance to shake hands with President Martin Torrijos as he circled the room on the way out. Some of my tablemates did, though, so I’m now only one degree of separation from a head of state. (Apparently the place is one of President Torrijos’s favorites; one of my tablemates had encountered him there before.) I’m trying to imagine a similar scene in the U.S., but I just can’t.

I have bug photos in the pipeline, but Blogger's upload feature is taking more time than I have free. So, more later.

Friday, May 26, 2006

A day at the bench

Not much to report today, since I'm sorting insects in the lab. (The sheer size of many of the critters here makes keying a much easier task, of course.)

During my time on Barro Colorado, I did encounter quite a few reproductive swarms of ants and termites. Although I don't really think the insects can understand human languages, I'd appreciate it if someone with a good grasp of Spanish could translate: Who are you, and why are you de-alating yourself in my fruit salad?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Buzz off, lady

24 May 2006

I’m now in Ciudad de Panamá, where I’ll spend the next two weeks sorting insects, exchanging notes on molecular work with our collaborating lab, and, with luck, planning both some field trips and some recreational exploration. My week on BCI has caught up with me much more effectively than I’ve caught up with it; that is, I did more physical labor on the island than I’ve probably done in any previous single week of my life, and my body is now attempting to shut itself down for repairs. This will be a very early night.

Two notable things today. One is that my low capacity for spatial navigation, combined with fatigue, caused me to take a wrong turn out of the winding lot of the dorm and spend a frustrating twenty minutes trying to navigate myself to the lab (it’s supposed to be a ten-minute walk). Fortunately, that was the turn that got me lost in a nice neighborhood instead of a dicey one, and I was able to communicate well enough in my primitive Spanish to a local resident for him to hail me a cab with a friendly driver. (The driver had a cuddly stuffed toy spider hanging from his rearview, and when I smiled and said “¡Me gustan las arañas!” it not only broke the ice, but clarified that I must be going to the Smithsonian lab, where I arrived only fifteen minutes late.)

The second notable thing happened in the outdoor courtyard of the STRI cafeteria, where I had lunch with my faculty host. The heat has knocked back my appetite a bit, and I was picking at my salad plate when a honey bee suddenly landed on my tray and began licking the inside of my espresso cup. I expressed my surprise that a bee would go for a sugar source that was so heavily caffeinated, and Don said, offhandedly, “That’s a killer bee.”

“Did you say ‘killer bee’?”

“Yes, all the honey bees here are Africanized now.”

A second bee had arrived and began to inspect the pineapple chunks in my salad plate. Both bees then started to buzz around my head.

“Don, what would you suggest I do?”

“Just ignore them. And don’t ingest them.”

One of the bees started to crawl on my hand, about an inch below the spot where two Parachartergus wasps had stung me a couple of nights back.

“Oh, and don’t crush any. The nest is probably in that tree over there.”

Both bees returned to my coffee cup and resumed sipping. I figured that I’d better observe Don’s second safety rule and eat the salad before they returned. By the time I was done, the bees had become sufficiently bored with my coffee to circle my head twice more and leave.

And, yes, I did drink the coffee afterwards. First of all, I needed the caffeine. And, second, the day I become too squeamish to share an espresso with two killer bees is the day I hang it up and return to a career in computer support.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Wasps 3, Julie 1

These ladies live just over the dormitory room where I've spent the past week. I decided to take a sample of them last night. Unfortunately, the wasps got more replicates of me than I did of them.

At one point I actually had a half-dozen or so in my net, but they were so adamant about making me leave the area that I lost all but one. When these wasps get ticked off, they grab whatever parts of you they can reach -- fingers and noses seem to be favorite targets -- and inflict annoying little stings that prickle and burn for at least several hours. So, I've decided to assume that the Wolbachia infection status of my lone specimen will reflect that of her sisters. I've also decided to assume that everyone who advises against swinging an aerial net too close to a nest of Neotropical vespids is correct, and should be heeded.

I'll be leaving Barro Colorado Island today for the main STRI site in Ciudad de Panamá; more as it breaks.

Monday, May 22, 2006

I love the smell of ants in the morning....

I've come to some understanding, I think, with dolichoderine ants, while collecting several species on the island over the last few days.

I can identify ants to subfamily with a microscope, and to genus with a good key, but my vision isn't super-sharp, and a lot of the ants here in the tropics are completely new to me. Included among these ants are many that can deliver a potent sting, and as much as I like Hymenoptera, I prefer not to get myself envenomated, so I handle all unfamiliar ants with care. Fortunately, I don't always have to rely on vision alone. Dolichoderines don't sting, but many of them are aggressive, nervous little biters, and members of this family are also notorious for giving off strong-smelling secretions. (We encountered some Iridomyrmex in Australia that smelled like toluene.) So, when you stir up a dolichoderine nest, you get sprayed with potent ant gas and pinched by a whole lot of mandibles.

In one major group of dolichoderines, riled-up ants give off a strong scent of bleu cheese and coconut. So, when I approach a nest or trail of unfamiliar ants, I'll handle them with forceps or an aspirator. If I start smelling (or, while using an aspirator, tasting) bleu cheese and coconut, I know I've got dolichoderines. This means two things. One, they can't sting me. Two, if I stick my fingers into the nest or trail, so many will bite me that it's a reasonably easy task to scrape them off into an alcohol vial. That is, if I can get the mandibles unlocked. Some of them bite so firmly that they hang on even when dead.

I've had to not only collect dolichoderines, but use some of them for parasite bait. So, it seems only fair that I've been using myself for ant bait from time to time. And, at this point, the early afternoon rain has stopped, so I'm going to go annoy some leafcutter ants for what will probably be my last field experiment on BCI. Leafcutters are myrmicines (not dolichoderines), so there will be no bleu cheese or coconut involved. In fact, although many myrmicines sting, leafcutters don't. So I expect a mellow experience, although the ants may have a different opinion.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Bugs of the day, Barro Colorado Island

Seen around the place, last night and this morning. None of these critters were collected or otherwise harmed -- at least not by me.

This mole cricket (Gryllotalpidae) came to a light last night. I didn't realize these things were such good fliers -- or such strong biters.

This cute green mantid was perched on a screen at the Barro Colorado Island visitor's center...

... as was this giant wild silkmoth (Saturniidae). The wingspan on this beauty was somewhere between 4 and 5 inches at its widest.

And, finally, to prove that I notice things other than bugs: Can you spot the amphibian in the above photo?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Where I work (at least for this week)

Not much science today -- just a photo of my lab building on Barro Colorado Island, with Gatun Lake in the background (crocodiles not shown).

Friday, May 19, 2006

Hundreds and hundreds of steps ....

... again today. Brought in my first mushroom baits, and set up the last ones on a trail. Also collected some ants.

I'm also hoping to bait for ant parasites, and that protocol is simple: Beat up an ant, put it into a petri dish, and wait for the parasitoid flies to go for it. Now, I've checked thousands of live insects into things from which they cannot check out -- usually ethanol vials or an ultracold freezer. Also, if you don't watch where you step here on BCI, you'll undoubtedly flatten a few leafcutters, some of them incompletely. But there's something about deliberately leaving an insect injured and helpless but alive that really distresses me. I gave the parasitoid-baiting one try, and then had to duck into my office for twenty minutes to compose myself. I think I'm going to be able to try again, but only if the bait ant is, like the Wicked Witch, not merely dead but really most sincerely dead.

Julie-rific bugs of the day: Actually, I encountered these scarabs last night. This time, my hand is present for scale.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Where the bugs are big, and the lizards are nervous.

There's no ruler here to show the scale. There are also no tricks of perspective here. The gecko on the ceiling and the katydid just below it on the wall are indeed roughly the same size. I'm guessing about four inches in length for each.

Things that I saw today that refused to pose for the camera (links available through other sites):

* Two poison-dart frogs.

* Blue morpho butterflies. They keep buzzing me in the field, in fact.

* Leafcutter ants. Well, actually, I see them every day. I'll get a good picture of the little buggers yet.

For the entomologists aboard: I've been trying to collect parasitic phorid flies from the vicinity of ant colonies, so I tried sweeping over a leafcutter trail today. Didn't get many phorids, but nabbed quite a few parasitoid wasps. In fact, I was actually bemoaning not having gotten enough bugs today when I found a eucharitid wasp in the midst of my ant sweep. For those who think it looks like a scary invader from outer space: That's nothing compared to how it makes the ants feel!

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A lab rat turned loose in the rain forest

¡Un saludo de Panamá!

Last summer, I set a number of mushroom baits in the Rochester, NY area, in order to collect fungus-feeding insects. I'm also trapping some of them here, using much the same method. The only difference: In Rochester, where I often set my baits in city parks, I could set 20 baits in about 15 minutes. Today, it took two hours, for several reasons:

* It was hot.
* It was humid.
* The trail was all uphill.
* Oh, let's face it. I kept watching bugs.

And, of course, I got off to a late start, because right after breakfast I had to go through various channels to get my laptop onto the network, and after that I made a beeline for a different trail from the one where I actually set the baits. The reason I changed trails: After I climbed 200 steep steps to the trail head, I chatted briefly with another researcher at the top of the hill, and she suggested that this trail might be a bit too steep for optimum bait-setting. So, back down I went, all the way to this dock:

Swimming was clearly out of the question, which was too bad because it would have been nice to cool off right after I suddenly realized that I'd left my hat at the top of the hill. So, back I went, up the 200 steps, where the researcher I'd met before smiled and said, "Did you lose your hat? Because one of the maintenance guys just took it back down to the office for you."

Fortunately, by the time I got back down the steps, it was time for lunch.

The good news is that, after re-charging with fish and rice and hot sauce and mango-ginger juice, I went back out, found the other trail, and spent the aforementioned two hours setting my first ten mushroom baits. If the baits don't get eaten by the local mammals, I'll be able to sweep them tomorrow and set some more. If they do get eaten by the local mammals, I'll figure out something else to do with the next set. One way or the other, I'll probably also be annoying some leafcutter ants tomorrow, so there will be more photos. I figure I've gotten all the kinks out of the process of keeping track of all my field gear. So, at this point, I'm just going to let the ibuprofen kick in, and rest my knees until the next day's climb. There are clearly some bugs out there with my name on them!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Stridulations is back after an unplanned hiatus; I've been extremely busy preparing for my upcoming trip. I'll be leaving for Panama tomorrow, and in the meantime I've resolved the camera situation. Since I don't have any big tropical bugs to show my readers yet, I'll just share a photo of this beautiful handiwork of a Kalamazoo, Michigan craftsperson whose name I seem to have lost. To the woodworker in question: If you recognize your work, I'd love to contact you. Just post a response in the comments area.

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