Wednesday, March 23, 2011

DST and Entomology

Welcome back, everyone! I hope you all are enjoying the recent flowering of Spring and the emergence of all the wonderful insects breaking out of diapause. Stoneflies in particular are plentiful around where I am and I’m planning on catching a few when I have some free time.

Now, I know that I said that I would write about my recent trip to the North Central Branch meeting for the Entomological Society of America, but that article is still in the works, so I’ll probably have it ready for the next post. In the meantime, I have something else to talk about.

Now, how many of you woke up disoriented two Sunday’s ago, realizing that time seemed to slip you by? If you did, well then congratulations! Daylight savings time snuck up on you once again!

Daylight savings time (DST) is practiced on and off across the globe and its existence is often subject to contentious political debate. The general principle of DST is to provide more daylight hours in the afternoon during the summer and more daylight hours in the morning during the winter. For retailers and other industries that depend on the day-lit hours for their businesses, this is a blessing. But for farmers, early-birds like me, and evening entertainment industries, it robs us of our early starts. This has led to many attempts to both install and repeal DST, with supporters on both sides of the debate arguing strongly.

Now, DST has an interesting history, with a connection to entomology, no less. The ancient Romans used a variable-hour clock during the time of the empire, so summer day-lit hours were longer than summer night hours. Widespread adoption of DST occurred during World War I, to help promote energy conservation, with Germany being the first to adopt it. However, the start of the modern DST movement began with a New Zealander named George Vernon Hudson.

Hudson had humble origins (ahh, alliteration): He was the son of a stained-glass artist in Victorian England and ultimately spent most of his life working for the postal service in New Zealand. But at an early age, Hudson was an avid amateur entomologist, writing his first published paper in The Entomologist at age 14.

After moving to New Zealand, he kept active as and wrote a total of thirty-six papers over his life-time. Not bad for a non-professional with a day job. His papers really show how in-touch with the greater entomological community he was. In his “On the Senses of Insects (Hudson, 1901), he talks about prominent entomologists of his day and their endeavors to understand insect sensory behavior. It is really interesting to listen to him discuss the function of the butterfly antennae. Hudson’s personal observations demonstrated that they have no auditory function, which one might infer from their location. So, he instead duplicated experiments done by John Lubbock, Lord Avebury, and concluded that it was involved with the sense of smell, yet one different than we are used to. Today we understand this sense to be an insect’s response to complex pheromone signals, which serves as one of the primary means of communication in the insect world.

So how does George Vernon Hudson fit in with Daylights savings time? Well, as I had mentioned earlier, Hudson was not a professional entomologist and so he pursued his passion after-hours in his free time. Much to his annoyance, though, he found that the majority of daylight was wasted early in the day during the summer months, leaving him with less light after work, comparatively. To give himself more time, he submitted a proposal to shift 2 hours forward in the summer (to even out the day) to the New Zealand parliament in 1895. This makes it one of the earliest, if not the earliest, attempts to institute Daylight savings time in the modern world. Understandably, it was not widely regarded, but following World War I and the implementation of DST in many of the warring nations, the idea gain general acceptance in New Zealand. In the end, DST was adopted in 1927.

Whether you love or hate Daylight Savings Time, you cannot deny that it has a significant effect on our lives, at least twice a year. So when you are next debating with your friends or loved ones the relevance of its existence in our daily lives, remember that it all started because a man wanted more time to catch butterflies.

To learn more about George Vernon Hudson and to read his published papers, please visit The National Library of New Zealand website at:

Credit goes to them for the above entry.


Hudson, George V. 1901. On the senses of insects. Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Monday, March 7, 2011

War and Pestilence

Hello and welcome to the first edition of The Political Bug!

My name is TC and before I get into the heart of what I want to talk about, I would like to say a few words about this blog: To begin with, I want to state that I am currently an entomology grad student at a mid-size university located somewhere in the Midwest (have fun figuring that out, ha, ha). I’m not naming it because I want to make sure that nothing I say in this blog, whether fair or unfair, comes back to negatively reflect on the department I work for. Secondly, I should admit that this is my first attempt at blogging. I got the idea to set it up from a discussion I was having with my department’s IT committee. I decided that this would be a great platform to practice writing on subject material that I am passionate about and to develop skills that will serve me well in my later career.
            The purpose of this blog is to locate an intersection between current events and how entomology impacts or is affected by these events. As an avid news reader, I keep abreast of what’s going on in the world. By reviewing news outlets, the scientific literature and adding my own insights, I hope to provide my readers a glimpse at the interconnectedness of the world, while providing objective and informed commentary.

            So, for the first entry of The Political Bug I chose to focus on what is currently going on in Libya and the general region of North Africa and the Middle East. While most people are already familiar with the situation, to make sure everyone is on the same page, here is a summary of events: On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian man named Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire to protest the loss of his vegetable cart to the police. His self-immolation and eventual death on January 4, 2011 sparked protests throughout Tunisia against the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, eventually forcing him to flee the country and establishing an interim government. From then, protests flared across the Middle East and North Africa as popular uprisings began to demand reform in Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen and other countries. On February 11, Egypt’s long-time president, Hosni Mubarak ceded power in the face of overwhelming opposition. Now, international attention has shifted to Libya, which began experiencing its own popular uprising on February 15, 2011. Since then, what started out as a popular uprising has devolved into a bitter conflict between loyalists of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and populist rebels based in the eastern half of the country.
            The outcome of this conflict has been the sudden flood of refugees pouring over the boarders to Tunisia, and Egypt. Though early estimates had fleeing Libyans and foreign workers crossing the boarder at a rate of thousands a day, more recently this number has dropped, prompting concern that Libyan forces are preventing refugees from leaving the country. Like many other refugee cases, while the many evacuated men, women and children wait for the opportunity to be evacuated to a safe location, they are obligated to live in crowded camps where proper hygiene and sanitation is difficult to maintain. In these conditions, disease-borne illness can become a huge concern, especially those transmitted by insects.

            In an article publish in the Annual Review of Entomology, Dr. Philippe Brouqui (2011) gives a general discussion of the inter-related dynamics of poverty, political disorder, and arthropod disease vectors. While he covers a broad range of pests, Brouqui spends the majority of his time discussing lice and the diseases they vector. It was pretty eye-opening article and I would recommend reading for yourself. Among the more interesting facts was the proposed evolution of body lice (Pediculus humanus humanus) from the head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) three separate times. This theory is backed up by the presence of three separate mitochondrial lineages for body lice, suggesting that branching occurred three separate times.
Now, what make body lice a particular concern is that they thrive in conditions where the sanitation is poor and humans are forced into close proximity to one another… like in refugee camps. With populations able to increase up to 11% per day, the body louse can become a serious pest in just a matter of weeks. The only factors working in the favor of the host are its aversion to extreme temperatures (they will die at 50°C) and that they are quick to dehydrate as blood is their only water source and they can only take in small quantities at a time.
            Of the three louse-borne diseases Dr. Brouqui discusses, the one that stood out as the most likely to cause sudden and widespread problems is typhus. Caused by the bacterium R. prowazekii, this disease can be highly lethal if untreated (up to 60% mortality), though mortality is widely dependent on the age of the infected person. The troubling aspect of the disease is that even after recovery, the patient may retain the R. prowazekii bacterium in his or her system for life. This can lead to a mild recurring disease called Brill-Zinsser disease, which is triggered by stress.
Few things can be considered more stressful than the sudden mass of humanity that exists in a refugee camp. If body lice are present, it could lead to the transmission of typhus to large swaths of the refugee population. The push by the international community to evacuate the refugees to their countries of origin or other accepting nations is probably the best tactic to prevent this from happening. It relieves the crowding and hopefully prevents previously infected individuals from being exposed long enough to the general population for body lice to pick up the R. prowazekii bacterium and spread it. With a combination of informed and well-managed quarantine policies and luck, disease outbreaks stemming from the Libyan conflict should be minimal. However, and I write this admitting that I am no epidemiologist, it does not seem like too far a stretch to say that the possibility of a international spike in reported cases of typhus or some other disease in the countries receiving refugees is probably pretty good.

Well, that concludes this installment of The Political Bug. I hope that you all enjoyed what I had to share and that it made you think just a bit more about how the drama of human geopolitical events and the menagerie of the insect world intersect on a daily basis. If you enjoyed this post or have a suggestion on how it can be improved, please leave a comment. This is an evolving project, so any bit of constructive criticism is helpful.
I am not certain of what schedule I can reasonably keep at the moment, but I am setting a goal of at least two entries a month and hoping to increase it to once a week once I work out the kinks. I will, however, be attending the North Central Branch of the Entomological Society of America meeting this coming week, so I hope to have my next entry relate to what I learn there. I thought that I would close this installment with a little trivia question for you all. No special reward for being first, sadly, other than the pride and satisfaction of guessing first. But here’s the question anyway:

“In a recent film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, this character is portrayed as an amateur entomologist who wishes that he could put relatives into jars like bugs.”

Thanks again!


Sources of information

Paper cited in post:
Brouqui, Philippe. 2011. Arthropod-borne diseases associated with political and social disorder. Annual Review of Entomology. 56: 357-374.

Timelines for Middle East and North African revolts: