Monthly Archives: February 2014

UNR opens a new Museum of Natural History

The University of Nevada, Reno is opening a brand new Museum of Natural History and they’re having an open house to kick it off! The museum, located in the Fleischmann Agriculture building (room 300) on the UNR campus, will be open Wednesday, March 5th from 4-6 PM, and Nevada Bugs and Butterflies will be there too. We will have a variety of insects to hold and observe, and you can come check out some of the great collections at UNR and meet some of the researchers that use them. See the announcement below or online here for details.

Hope to see you there!

Meet our bugs- velvet ants!

For this week’s installment of the “meet our bugs” series, we’re profiling a fascinating example of Great Basin biodiversity, our velvet ants. Despite their name, these cuties are actually wasps (Hymenoptera) in the family Mutillidae. Velvet ants are all solitary species, unlike many of the un-friendly wasps you might be more familiar with. Species of these wasps are found all over North America, though they are especially diverse in the arid West, and you can sometimes find them if you are hiking in undisturbed habitat. One feature almost all species share is the presence of aposematic coloration, or bright coloring that is meant to convey danger to potential predators. In the case of velvet ants, females are armed with a powerful sting, one of the most painful in North America! However, they are not aggressive and very rarely sting if unprovoked. As shown in the picture, many species in a given area will mimic each other to increase the protective ability of their coloration, a process known as Mullerian mimicry. So, it can be hard to identify individuals as different species; we do know that our wasps are all in the genus Dasymutilla.

Velvet ant in our display

Velvet ant in our display. Cotton ball is soaked in nectar solution.

Figure of Dasymutilla diversity in North America, along with associated mimicry rings (figure from Wilson et al. 2012).

Figure of Dasymutilla diversity in North America, along with associated mimicry rings (figure from Wilson et al. 2012). You can read more at the website of Joe Wilson at Utah State University Tooele.

Velvet ants have a number of interesting biological features. Males and females are extremely sexually dimorphic, meaning the sexes look very different. Sometimes, males and females of the same species don’t even share the same color pattern, making it hard to tell which species is which. In addition, females are all wingless (thus, all of ours are females), and are also the sex with a stinger; males fly and are harmless. One other characteristic of velvet ants is an extremely tough exoskeleton, which comes in handy for their lifestyle. Velvet ants share an unusual reproductive strategy in that they are ectoparasitoids of other solitary hymenoptera. A female velvet ant will locate the burrow of a solitary ground-nesting bee or wasp that contains a developing larva, invade the nest (often to the dismay of the host), and lay an egg next to the larva. The velvet ant egg will hatch into its own larva and proceed to kill the developing host, devouring it and/or any prey items in the burrow. However, once the velvet ant metamorphoses into an adult, the wasp will be a nectar feeder, visiting flowers during the morning and evening, making these species important pollinators of arid regions. Adult velvet ants can live for one to a few years, relatively long lived for wasps. Below are a couple short videos that demonstrate the nectaring behavior of velvet ants (the white ball is a cotton ball soaked in nectar solution).

Velvet ant drinking

Velvet ant drinking

In addition to the mimicry of velvet ant species to each other, other types of insects that may not be as well defended also mimic velvet ants to try and gain protection via association, a process called Batesian mimicry. These species include spiders, beetles, and antlion larvae. In fact, the spider mimic below was found right at the butterfly house, and we have seen velvet ants on the site as well. The unusual biology and ecology of these organisms, along with their diversity in the Great Basin, make them great species to exhibit at our butterfly house and outreach events.

Jumping spider velvet ant mimic

Spider velvet ant mimic


Up close and personal. Big eyes are essential for a hunting lifestyle.

Up close and personal. Big eyes are essential for a hunting lifestyle.

Spider mimic dorsal view

Spider mimic dorsal view

Velvet ant dorsal view

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day! Charles Darwin was born this day in 1809. Today many institutions and people across the globe celebrate his many important contributions to science and natural history.

One of Darwin’s many predictions of natural selection was the existence of a pollinator (a moth, specifically) to fertilize the orchid Angraecum sesquipedale, published in 1862. This species is unique in that the nectar lies at the bottom of a flower over a foot deep. Dismissed at first by scientific contemporaries, this moth was later discovered in 1903. Xanthopan morgani has a proboscis measuring almost 35 cm (over 13 inches)! This is a classic example of coevolution, where the fitness of both plant and pollinator is on the success of the interaction that is plant pollination.

Go Darwin!

Angraecum sesquipedale

Angraecum sesquipedale


Xanthopan morgani

Meet our bugs!

We recently acquired a bunch of new bugs to take with us to schools and outreach events. These are all organisms you could find in and around Nevada. Some of them are great to hold and handle; others are best to observe from a distance. Over the next few weeks we’ll introduce them, along with some information about their biology.

Today’s bug is the blue death-feigning beetle, otherwise known as the blue iron-clad beetle, Asbolus verrucosus. These beetles belong to the family Tenebrionidae, the darkling beetles. This is a large family, with over 20,000 named species! One species you may already know in this family is Tenibrio molitor, also known as the mealworm, which is often used as food for common pet reptiles, fish, and birds. Other species in this family are sometimes (incorrectly) called ‘stink bugs,’ as they can release a bad-smelling odor when disturbed. Death feigning beetles, however, have no such chemical defense, and so are great to be handled. The genus, Asbolus, comes from Greek mythology- Asbolus was a centaur whose name translates to “sooty.” The species name, verrucosus, comes from the Greek meaning “warty,” a reference to the bumpy appearance of their abdomen. Their common name comes from their behavior of playing dead when picked up by some curious passer-by, human or otherwise. This behavior deters predators who only eat living prey items.

side shot

Asbolus verrucosus


Feigning dead

These beetles are native to the desert southwest, including southern Nevada, southern California, and the Sonoran Desert. Their color comes from a waxy coating, which helps protect them from evaporative water loss, a major danger in the desert. As with many beetles, they are detritovores, feeding on rotting vegetation or other decomposing debris. This makes them key players in helping cycle nutrients through ecosystems, especially desert areas where bacterial decomposition is extremely slow.

Above all, these beetles are great fun- they are active throughout the day, easy to hold, and big enough to get a good close look at them. We will have them with us at the butterfly house this year and we hope you’ll stop by and see them! Feel free to ask any questions below in the comments section (click on the post title to access the comment space).

body closeup bumps closeup face closeup

Also, here’s a small video from Bugs in Cyberspace, where you can purchase these bugs to keep as your own!