Researching Pelecinids – Part 2

One of the most useful resources the Triplehorn Insect Collection has to offer is its extensive HOL database, an online taxonomic initiative that documents collected specimens of various insect groups. This database already contains records for over 845 thousand Hymenoptera specimens, and it continues to grow every week through the hard work of countless contributors.

One way to contribute to HOL is to photograph and upload images of collected specimens, further enriching the available data on specific taxa. Prior to the start of my research on pelecinids, there were zero images of the genus Pelecinus available in the database. To remedy this, I had the opportunity to work with Jordan Reynolds, an undergraduate student in Art & Technology who is currently working on specimen photography for the collection. Over the last several weeks, Jordan taught me about the technologies and techniques required for taking high-quality images for the database.



My goal in photographing a selection of the collection’s Pelecinus polyturator specimens is three-fold. First, I will obtain a more in-depth understanding of the external anatomy of these intriguing insects. Second, I can compare the morphologies of males and females of different sizes and localities. Third, I will contribute previously unavailable data to the HOL database.

Photographing collection specimens is not as simple as taking a picture with a camera. Because the specimens are relatively small, and because we require intricate detail in the images, we instead use a method known as focus stacking. With this method, the camera gradually moves along a track and takes multiple images at different distances. The focused areas of each image are then “stacked” together by a computer program so that the entirety of the final image is clear. Because the P. polyturator specimens required a large depth of field, we sometimes had to photograph and stack up to 100 images to create a sufficiently focused final image.

In addition to taking individual specimen images, we also took several comparison images. These provide a quick side-by-side comparison between two different specimens. Some of the images we took compare males and females of similar localities. Other images showcase females of similar localities and their dramatic variance in size.

comparison image of P. polyturator females

Comparison image illustrating the size variation in P. polyturator females

Of course, no system is perfect, and we faced many challenges along the way. Most of the parasitic wasps that get photographed by the collection are very small in size (no more than a few millimeters long). Therefore, the collection’s microscopic camera that is traditionally used for parasitoid photography is designed to take highly detailed images of very small specimens. P. polyturator females are unusual in that they are very large parasitoids that can exceed 40 mm in length. Because of this, many of the specimens we wanted to photograph could not fit under the microscopic camera. We instead opted to use a DSLR camera, which is used for macrophotography of larger specimens such as beetles and butterflies. Using this nontraditional method of parasitoid photography, we were able to produce high-quality images of the larger specimens by exploiting various imaging techniques.

Another challenge we faced was the handling of the specimens. All mounted insects in a collection must be handled with great care because they are dry and brittle. Pelecinids must be handled with extra caution because their long, string-like antennae and fragile abdomens will break with even the slightest bump.

We ended up with many beautiful images of these wasp specimens. The complete collection of images has been uploaded to HOL and is available on the page dedicated to P. polyturator. I would like to thank Jordan for all of his help with this photography endeavor. Without the countless hours he spent performing behind-the-scenes image processing, the final images could never have turned out so well.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 1

image of a pelecinus wasp

Wasp in the genus Pelecinus, image by Cynthia L. McLaughlin and licensed under CC BY 2.0

Many years ago, arthropods were one of my greatest childhood fears. I was so petrified of bugs that I hardly ever went outside during the summer. Anyone who knew me as a child would never have guessed that I would someday develop a passion for entomology and a love for the insect world. I began to collect insects in little plastic jars, but my rudimentary “collection” might as well have been a dermestid buffet; this was long before I understood how to properly store, curate, and preserve specimens.

It wasn’t until my final year of high school that I realized that I could become an “entomologist” as a profession, a life-changing revelation. During the summer of 2016, I finally learned how to make a proper insect collection at the Ohio State University’s Stone Lab, where I enrolled in a week-long course on insect field biology. That autumn I started my first semester at Ohio State as an entomology major, commuting every day from my home in Westerville, Ohio.

I recently completed my first year in the entomology undergraduate program, and I couldn’t be more excited about my academic future. I have met so many great peers and faculty members within the entomology department, and I have had the chance to explore entomology in ways that my younger self could never have imagined. I joined my general entomology class on an all-day collecting trip in Hocking Hills. I visited the on-campus insectary and learned about rearing insects with Chrysalis Entomology Club. But perhaps the most enlightening experience I have had so far was my interaction with the Triplehorn Insect Collection. I participated in an internship at the collection during autumn semester, then continued to work there part-time during spring semester. This summer I plan to continue working at the collection, but now the collection has presented me with yet another exciting opportunity: working on my first undergraduate research project.

image of a June bug

Unidentified June bug (Phyllophaga) from central Ohio, image by author

I will work with Dr. Norman Johnson and Dr. Luciana Musetti over the summer to research wasps belonging to the genus Pelecinus. These beautiful insects may appear intimidating with their long, slender abdomens, but they are not aggressive toward humans and stings inflicted by their small ovipositors are rare. Their flexible abdomens are instead used to parasitize the larvae of Phyllophaga beetles, more commonly known as “June bugs”. The female wasp does this by thrusting its abdomen into the ground and ovipositing into the subterranean grubs.

My research will focus on Pelecinus polyturator, a species that can be found in areas of South America and in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, including here in central Ohio. One of the most interesting aspects of P. polyturator is that males are extremely uncommon north of Mexico but become much more common further south.

The goal of my research is to examine P. polyturator specimens from both northern localities and southern localities and determine if they are one species or if they are actually multiple distinct species. This can be determined using nondestructive DNA extraction and barcoding, which consists of using a species-specific genetic marker in a specimen’s DNA for species identification. I do not have any prior experience with DNA barcoding, or even molecular genetics in general, so I see this as an incredible opportunity to learn new skills that will benefit me throughout my entire scientific career. I will also get to learn first-hand how specimens such as Pelecinus wasps end up in an insect collection by going through the complete collecting process, from malaise trapping all the way to entering specimen data in the collection’s online Hymenoptera database.

At the conclusion of this research project, I plan to present my findings at both the Denman and the CFAES Undergraduate Research Forums. One of my main hopes for this project is that it can be used to illustrate the research experience for other students interested in undergraduate research, both entomological and otherwise.

As I continue to learn more about topics such as DNA barcoding, specimen collection, and Pelecinus wasps themselves, I will update this blog so that everyone reading can learn alongside me and watch the progress of my research in real-time. Keep watch for another post from me next week about taking photographs of P. polyturator specimens currently owned by the collection. I can hardly wait to share these images and the photography process behind them.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.

Collection moving day

 


As I mentioned in the previous post, we received the Parshall Butterfly Collection on October 15th. Here’s a quick account of the events of that day as I remember them.

It was a splendid Autumn day: dry, sunny, and cool.  Great weather to move an insect collection!  By the time I arrived at the Triplehorn collection (8:15 AM or so), Sara, Riley, KatherineB and Huayan were already there. Matt arrived right after I did.  Almost immediately after that Matt and Norman left to go pick up the 17-ft rental truck that we had reserved for the occasion. We decided on this size truck after calculating the total cabinet footprint of the Parshall collection. We also reserved a bunch of moving blankets (that’s what they are called) to serve as padding and protection for the cabinets.

When Cody arrived, we loaded ‘Dale’ (that’s what we call our heavy duty hand truck) plus all the other supplies we thought we were going to need (bubble wrap, packing tape, cardboard boxes, box cutters, scissors, rope, king size markers, plastic bags) and rolled away. Sara stayed behind to hold the fort and to get the home team ready for the unloading of the Parshall collection when we got back.

Riley, KatherineB, Cody, Huayan, and I arrived at Dave Parshall’s house a little before 10 AM. Norman and Matt had just arrived with the (large!) moving truck.  Dave was waiting at the door. He was excited to pass the collection on to us, but understandably sad to part with it. We got right to work.

Splendid day to move an insect collection.

Splendid day to move an insect collection.

The collection was in a dedicated room up two flights of carpeted stairs — they did not look as steep and narrow the first time I was there. Oh, well.

The pinned specimens were stored in two ways: 1) in drawers inside (three different size) cabinets and 2) in regular and large size Schmidt boxes (wood boxes with hinges and tight-fitting lids).

The papered specimens were stored in miscellaneous boxes that were already packed in large cardboard boxes. We started by moving those boxes downstairs and out of our way.  Next, KatherineB, Riley and I started preparing the Schmidt boxes for transportation. I’ll only say this: that process involved lots of bubble wrap and shrink wrap.

Meanwhile, Matt, Norman, Huayan, and Cody started moving the cabinets down the two flights of stairs — the carpet helped!

The two groups worked quickly and efficiently. By 1 PM we had the collection safely packed into the truck, which, by the way, was full almost to the door.

Before heading back we took a well-deserved lunch break at this small (and great) Greek restaurant located on a strip mall right across the street from Dave’s house — a sweet find.

Tummies full, we drove back to the Museum and got there around 2 PM. Our home crew (Sara, Lauralee, Cherokee, Alex, Gisele, Zach, and KatherineN) was ready to help unload the truck. Together we moved everything safely and in record time. By 3:00 PM the Parshall Butterfly Collection was neatly stored in our temporary quarantine area. The freezing process was scheduled to commence the next week.


A quick peak at the collection:

I went around opening random cabinets and boxes for a first view of the collection. Here’s some of what I saw:

 

Big thanks to our dedicated, skillful and overall amazing undergraduate curatorial assistants: Matt Elder, Riley Gott, Katherine Beigel, Cody Cardenas, Zach Hunt, who came in during their Fall Break to help with the move.  They worked long hours and could not have been more professional! Thanks also to our fantastic interns and volunteers: Alex DeMilto, Cherokee Hill-Read, and Lauralee Thompson, who generously give their time, knowledge and enthusiasm to the benefit of the collection. A special thank you to the graduate students in the Johnson lab: Huayan Chen, Gisele da Silva Katherine Nesheim, who put their own research aside for a day to provide support to the staff of the collection during this move. Finally, thanks to Sara Hemly, our Curatorial Technician, for her always efficient work.

 

About the Author: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the (now significantly larger and more valuable) C. A. Triplehorn Insect Collection at The Ohio State University.

 

A gem of a butterfly collection

 


On October 15th the Triplehorn Insect Collection received the David K. Parshall Butterfly Collection, a gift of over 50,000 pinned specimens, plus many thousands more neatly preserved in envelopes. This is a first-rate scientific collection of mostly Arctic and Ohio butterflies and is in pristine condition.

One of the drawers of the Parshall collection. Photo by L. Musetti.

One of the drawers of the Parshall collection. Photo by L. Musetti.

Mr. Parshall is an Ohio State graduate and was on the faculty of the Pataskala High School here in central Ohio for many years until his retirement. His interest in butterflies started when he was 11 years old, and it never faded.  Dave not only collected, but also dedicated many years of his life to the study, dissemination of information about, and conservation of butterflies in Ohio and the country. He is a recognized authority on the local fauna of butterflies, particularly the skippers (family Hesperiidae). Dave is currently the president of the Ohio Lepidopterists Society, a group he’s been an active member of since 1979.

Among Dave’s many achievements as a lepidopterist are numerous scientific publications, checklists, and extensive butterfly surveys, reports and conservation assessments for parks and wildlife areas in Ohio. Dave co-authored the Checklist of Ohio Butterflies and Skippers, a tool used by thousands of butterfly aficionados to record butterflies and skippers that are observed in the field. (Download PDF)

In addition to his own work, Dave’s collection and expertise were used as reference and source of data in a number of publications by several other lepidopterists (see some examples below).

The David K. Parshall Butterfly Collection is a significant enhancement of the Lepidoptera holdings of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.  It contains beautifully mounted and preserved specimens of all known Arctic species of North American butterflies, including paratypes of several species that Dave described, such as the now endangered Mitchell’s Satyr, one of the rarest, if not the rarest, butterfly in the US.  There are also long paratypes series of Oeneis polixenes luteus that Dave described from the Yukon and Alaska.

In addition, this is probably the best Canadian Arctic collection every assembled.  Dave was, in many cases, the first person with a net to ever visit some of the Canadian sites represented in the collection.  The specimens he collected served, in part, as base for his publications on the butterflies of Churchill Manitoba — that’s a classic study site, made famous by Alexander B. Klots, who wrote the first Peterson Guide on the Butterflies of North America.

The Parshall collection has also the distinction of being probably the best collection of Ohio butterflies ever made, containing, in some cases, the only currently know specimens of several rare Ohio butterflies. Most of the US butterfly species are also represented, especially from the west (mainly California and Colorado).

As an Ohio State University alum, and a life-long Buckeye, Dave wanted his excellent collection to be kept at his alma mater; as a lepidopterist he wanted his collection to be fully available to the scientific community now and in the future. Dave’s wishes are now fulfilled and will benefit us all.

What we know about the diversity and distribution of insect species, including butterflies, is based largely on collections built up over many decades by dedicated amateur collectors” says Dr. Andrew Warren, Senior Collections Manager at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity.  “Once these collections are deposited in a publicly-available institution, they become part of our collective scientific knowledge. Newly donated collections are invariably the source of surprising new finds – including new county and state records. In addition, more and more studies on insects rely on fresh genetic material, and incoming collections almost always provide an exciting new source of genetic material, both among the spread and papered specimens.”

We can’t wait to see what other exciting new findings will come out of the Parshall Butterfly Collection. But for now, we need to be disciplined and follow careful curatorial protocols. Over the next weeks and months we will be processing the specimens in order to add them the Triplehorn Insect Collection. That involves 1) submitting the whole collection to a prophylactic freezing treatment (on our -40°C freezer), followed by 2) a careful visual inspection, and 3) a detailed accounting of the contents. With over 300 insect drawers, 110+ Schmitt-style boxes, and a yet-to-be-counted number of boxes containing papered specimens, we expect this to take quite a while. After this is all done, Dave’s butterfly collection will be fully incorporated into the Triplehorn collection and become available to the scientists and students of Lepidoptera. We will keep you posted on our progress.

A heartfelt thank you to Dave Parshall for his thoughtful and valuable donation to the Triplehorn Insect Collection and The Ohio State University.  Thanks also to the absolutely awesome staff and volunteers of the Triplehorn Insect Collection, for moving the Parshall collection safely to its new home.


Specimens in the Parshall collection. Photo by L. Musetti.

Specimens in the Parshall collection. Photo by L. Musetti.

Publications by David K. Parshall:

Oosting, D.P. & Parshall, D.K. (1978) Ecological notes on the butterflies of the Churchill Region of Northern Manitoba. Journal of Research in Lepidoptera 17(3): 188-203.

Parshall, D.K. & Kral, T. (1989) A new subspecies of Neonympha mitchellii (French) (Satyridae) from North Carolina. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 43(2): 114–119. (available online at images.peabody.yale.edu/lepsoc/jls/)

Parshall, D.K. & Watts, J. (2002) The Dainty Sulphur butterfly in Ohio. The Ohio Journal of Science 102(2): 24-26.

Rings, R.W., Metzler, E. H. & Parshall, D.K. (1991) A checklist of the Lepidoptera of Fulton County, Ohio with special reference to the moths of Goll Woods State Nature Preserve. Great Lakes Entomology 24: 265-280.

Troubridge, J.T. & Parshall, D.K. (1988) A review of the Oeneis polixenes (Fabricius) (Lepidoptera: Satyrinae) complex in North America. The Canadian Entomologist 120(7): 679-696.


Reports & other non-peer reviewed publications by David K. Parshall:

Parshall, D.K. (1983) A primary check list for the butterfly and skipper populations of Zaleski State Forest, Vinton County Ohio. Mimeographed. Dist. by the author. 4 pp.

Parshall, D.K. (1993) A new state record butterfly. The Ohio Lepidopterist (Newsletter of the Ohio Lepidopterists) 15(3): 32.

Parshall, D.K. (2002) Conservation Assessment for the Southern Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus centaureae wyandot). Unpublished report for US Forest Service.

Parshall, D.K. (2002) Conservation Assessment for Olympia Marble butterfly (Euchloe olympia). USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region.

Parshall, D.K., Davidson, H.B. & McCormac, J. Common Butterflies and Skippers of Ohio. Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Publication 204 (808). 79 p. Online publication. (Download PDF)

Parshall, D.K. & Davidson, J. Checklist Of Ohio’s Butterflies & Skippers. Online publication. www.ohiolepidopterists.org/bflymonitoring/checklist.htm


A few publications that mention the David K. Parshall Butterfly Collection:

Albrecht, C.W. (1974) The Lepidoptera of Cedar Bog, Champaign County, Ohio I. and Annotated Check List of the Rhopalocera.  The Ohio Journal of Science 74(2): 126-132.

Klassen, P. (1984) Checklist of Manitoba butterflies (Rhopalocera). Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 38(1), 32-39.

Metzler, E.H., Shuey, J.A., Ferge, L.A., Henderson, R.A. & Goldstein, P.Z. (2004)  “Adapting a Floral Biogeography Model to Prairie-Dependent Lepidoptera”. Proceedings of the North American Prairie Conferences Paper 76. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/napcproceedings/76

Whan, P.W. & Belth, J.E. (1992) Brief Note: Second Ohio Record of Agraulis vanillae (Lepidoptera, Nymphalidae). The Ohio Journal of Science 92(4): 121-122.

 

About the Author: Dr. Luciana Musetti is an Entomologist and Curator of the C. A. Triplehorn Insect Collection at The Ohio State University. Thanks to Dr. Norman Johnson for review and to Dr. Andrew Warren for helpful comment.

What Happens to Insects in the Winter? — Guest post by MaLisa Spring

 

So kids (and kids at heart), we have been getting a lot of questions about what happens to insects in the winter. Do they build little homes with elaborate hearths to keep warm? Or perhaps they take a really long nap like bears when they hibernate?

The answer is: it depends. Although we can easily say they do not build miniature houses with a wood fire to stay warm, they might use several different strategies to get through the winter.

Some insects invade houses, much to the chagrin of the human occupants. You might not notice most of these temporary residents, but a few others make themselves known. The recent invasion of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Halyomorpha halys, caught the public eye when they were found to invade houses in large numbers. (Brown Marmorated Stink Bug fact sheet – PDF to download)

The exotic Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle, Harmonia axyridis (below), is also notorious for invading houses in the fall. They spend the winter months in the cracks and crevices throughout the house. They form huge aggregations where they huddle together for warmth. However, our native species of lady beetle do not invade houses. So where do they go?!

The Multicolored Asian Ladybeetle.

This is the Multicolored Asian Lady beetle that most people are familiar with. A common house pest in the winter, they are still considered beneficial for their voracious appetite of aphids. Photo by the author.

Good question! Some lady beetles migrate. The Convergent Lady Beetle, Hippodamia convergens (below), and the Two-Spotted Lady Beetle, Adalia bipunctata, are both thought to travel long distances to find suitable hibernation sites where they tend to huddle together in large numbers. That causes temperature and humidity to increase under tree bark or boulders, and that in turn helps the lady beetles survive the winter.

Convergent lady beetle.

Our native convergent lady beetle, Hippodamia convergens, can be identified by the oval shape and two converging lines on the pronotum. Photo by the author.

In addition to lady beetles, there are many other insects that also migrate. When most people think of migration in insects they think of the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. However, many other moth and butterfly species migrate south for the winter. What better way to deal with winter than to avoid it entirely?

Going back to lady beetles, they have even more strategies to survive winter. With over 450 species in North America, it is not surprising that they have developed multiple strategies to survive winter.

Many of our native species find refuge a bit closer to home. Like bears with hibernation, many insects go through diapause, a period of suspended development. Once in diapause, it takes several cues to get an insect to “wake up.” That is one of the reasons wh,  on those random warm days in the middle of winter, we are not surrounded by bleary eyed insects enjoying their one day of warm weather. Diapausing insects might bury themselves deep in the soil or in the crooks of trees to avoid most of the winter weather.

Some insects overwinter as eggs, as pictured here with these lady beetle eggs.

Some insects overwinter as eggs, as pictured here with these lady beetle eggs. Photo by the author.

Other insects have a secret weapon to survive in the brutal cold: they have a form of antifreeze in their blood! That keeps them from freezing to death during the winter. In some cases the insects keep foraging during the cold months! A good example is the Snow flea (not a flea, but actually a springtail). They have a special protein that keeps their blood from freezing in subzero temperatures. You can find them crawling around, albeit slowly, on snow in the winter. Just look for the tiny moving dark specks.

Overall, insects have many strategies for dealing with winter. I mentioned just a few of them. Insects do not disappear in the winter, you just have to know where to look to find them. Try digging in the soil or look closely at snow and you are sure to find some of those evasive little bugs.

 

About the Author: MaLisa Spring is an Entomology Graduate Research Fellow M.S. in Mary Gardiner’s Lab here at The Ohio State University. She is working on pollinator networks in urban environments. Find MaLisa Spring on Twitter @EntoSpring