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Ranching Caterpillars

I'm in the caterpillar ranching business this week. One of my postdoc mentors works on butterflies, and I'm helping him get more raised while he is out of town.

Caterpillar ranching works a little like this: baby caterpillars start out tiny and then grow big and strong as they roam the wilds of the flower beds, munching their way through everything in sight. Then, once they're ginormous and start stretching out along plant stalks or hit the road, quickly covering some serious ground, then I round them up.

These are some pretty bad-ass caterpillars: red and black and spiky. And when they get angry, little yellow horns emerge from their heads. Seriously. Red and black like that: we call that warning coloration, ladies and gentlemen. Which is good, because these guys eat plants with toxic compounds that they sequester in their cute little bad-ass bodies.

Anyway, after the daily caterpillar round-up, I move them into the caterpillar stockyard, which is a cage full of yummy plants and a luxury rack on which they can attach themselves and pupate. Sort of like a caterpillar spa. It seems these guys are quite ravenous, because I can never keep them stocked with enough leaves. The cage will be full one afternoon and they will have eaten them down to the stems and less by the next day.

After they form their little chrysalis, which honestly looks like something from a science fiction film- all spiky and weird-looking, then they go into a large netted cage for their emergence as adults. Below is an adult: you can sort of see the irridescence in the wings. And of course, the coloration on their underside has blue and white spots. This adult is basking, which seems to be the scientific term for "chillaxin'" And of course, its a great way to gain some heat for the whole thermoregulation thing.
Honestly, I used to think butterflies were boring, but pretty little things that floated around, and people planted bushes for them, and you could pay chunks of cash to walk around in a greenhouse or a tent full of them (where if you were lucky, you'd find some big praying mantids with a pile of butterfly wings underneath them). But now that I've seen this species learning in the lab (with amazing speed) and searching for their host plant out in the desert (far more successfully than I did), I have concluded that this is a seriously cool system.

Blooming Bishop's Cap

I've been getting more into cactus cultivation, now that I live in a place where they are supposed to grow. One of the niftiest cacti I have is an Astrophytum. And this week, it has been blooming.

So here is my little cactus, or rather cacti, since there's a smaller one budding off. The flowers last less than a day. I'm lucky I was not out of town to miss the show! So in the case of these two flowers, they were barely open by the time I left in the morning, looked great in the afternoon (when I took the pictures), and were gone after that. It is a little hard to tell from the pictures, but cactus flowers have this wonderful iridescence about them. I assume it is to attract pollinators.

Isn't it a cool cactus? It has the five sides, and those neat striations. So give an idea of scale, that's an 8 inch pot. I got the cactus at a Tucson Botanical Society sale, where they said it is a 15-20 year old plant!

I'll know if they were pollinated if the fruit appears. I don't know what pollinates these guys, but I have seen butterflies around.

Sonoran Desert Adventures


I actually made it into the field today, like a real biologist. I was in the Santa Rita mountains chasing butterflies with one of my postdoctoral mentors. There were butterflies, wasps, jackrabbits, various birds, and --exciting for me-- the Sonoran bumblebee, Bombus sonorus. They were even nectar robbing. For you non-insect people out there, nectar robbing is where an insect bypasses that whole crawling into the flower, getting coated with pollen, and acting like a pollinator should game. They cut a slit at the end of the flower and just take the nectar. Little thieves. I've read about it, but never actually seen it.

The butterflies we were chasing were pipevine swallowtails, and they only lay eggs on one type of plant. This plant is small, grows close to the ground, and is hard to find (especially this time of year). The easiest way to find a plant is to follow a butterfly. The females do this host searching flight that is really distinctive, and boy do they home in on these plants. Truly amazing. The more I learn about the system, the more completely fascinating it becomes. I was watching these butterflies learn in the lab, and it was one trial learning: one experience and they knew what "flower" to look for. Super cool stuff.

Now I'm a little tired and feel sun-worn. My sunblock, excellent hat, pants and long-sleeved shirt ensured no sunburn, but the bright light and the dryness really has an effect. I drank plenty of water before, during and after, but I just want to dive into a pool of water and then curl up in a dark room surrounded by soft things.

Why soft things? Because the desert is sharp and spiky. Cactus is prickly, but so was just about every plant and tree I saw. Trees covered in spines. Dead plant material made up of huge spines. Shrubs with little spines everywhere. I stepped on a spiny something or other that nearly went all the way through my shoe! So spiny things, dry things, rattlesnakes (though I didn't see anything), flies buzzing about, glaring sun. Certainly not a welcoming kind of ecosystem, if you ask me. But beautiful nonetheless.

A Lost Day... sort of

I apparently spent most of the day in bed. I got up, got ready, but on a cute set of clothes, and the next thing I know, I'm waking up at 2:30 in bed. With my clothes on and my hair dried into some ungodly mess. And a migraine.

I really hate migraines. I get all kinds of annoying neurological symptoms with mine... the neurologist said I have a dissociative disorder, of the type they usually see in people who have had a great level of trauma. Looking back, I have had some pretty crappy things happen to me, and there was that great bout of PTSD. I just don't see any of it as particularly traumatic. So I'm going with the migraine explanation, which is also on the table.

Of course, the day wasn't totally lost in terms of work. I have been super productive this afternoon. I played with MatLab, got a huge whack of treatments and trials and rewards randomized for my bumblebee friends. I think I'll spend the evening throwing all of that into a database and set up some assignment sheets and bee training sheets.

The nerdy side of me truly gets into this kind of nuts and bolts of an experiment. I also love designing data collection schemes. Yesterday I worked on replicating a published model and playing with it until I decided on treatment levels and such. I don't know why it gave me such fits, but I decided to be stubborn and do it in excel first, and excel doesn't make giant equations easy.

And of course, things looks theoretically nice and separate, but then you work in actual values and you find yourself wondering: would a bee really notice/care about a sucrose difference of 5%? I don't know. But I think I have it worked out to some degree of satisfaction.

Maybe I deserve some tacos for dinner...

My New Food Addictions...

I have a confession. I have become a regular at the Mexican fast food place right next to my house. It is just so close and so cheap and so yummy. I can't help myself. I have not had a single thing there that was not good.

For example, let's take my dinner from a few nights ago. On the left there is a chile relleno taco and on the right is a fish taco.
You know, there are a lot of bad versions of the chile relleno out there. Eggy fried crap covering some pathetic little chile. Not this chile relleno. It was awesome. I've had them alone from this place, but the taco version was amazing. I'll have to try the burrito version some time.

The same thing goes for fish tacos. The first time I heard of a fish taco, I thought the idea was disgusting. Ten years later, I had one by accident shortly after I moved to San Diego. It was love at first bite. I do love a good fish taco. Then I moved to Minnesota, which sadly is a bit of a black hole for good indigenous food. Walleye and hotdish don't exactly catch my imagination. Anyway, I could get a fish taco there at one of those now-ubiquitous Baja fast food places, but it just wasn't good. It was the sauce. The sauce was missing! The taco pictured above? Perfect. The sauce was lovely. Lovely enough for me to forget about the lettuce instead of cabbage.

Since I've been tasting my way through the menu, I finally tried horchata. That's a really great drink. And as the lady behind the counter said, it goes great with a churro. I never would have imagined a rice and cinammon drink, but its great. And to think, I had never tried it before. I tried the jamaica also... hibicus-ilicious.

And I won't even get started about the world of tamales. Just thinking about them makes me hungry enough to walk over and get some. Did I mention my new house of addiction is open 24 hours a day?

Making my Office Nicer

So I'm set up in my office. I'll eventually share it with 2 other people, but for now, it is a blank wasteland of old fine cabinets, old green metal shelving, and old, huge metal desks. I'm on the 2nd floor, which here is a bit below ground. This means, that while there is a window, its way, way up high and I can't see out of it. Well, I can see a glimpse of the sky. Being Tucson, that sky tends to be blue. Blue is nice.

I grabbed the desk in the far corner. I like hearing hallways noise, but don't need to be tempted to watch the hallway traffic. I have internet and light, so I guess that's all I need. But not all that I want. You spend enough time in one place and you need things that make you happy.

So I brought a few pictures from home. Pictures of SNOW!

How more un-Tucson can you get? These are pictures my father-in-law took last winter. I had them blown up a but and threw them in frames. Winter in Finland can be very pretty. The snow brightens things up, so in a way, it reminds me of sunny days.

I need to decide what else I'm going to add. Not much, I think. But a couple of plants are a must. Maybe a nice palm to balance out the snow?

Texas Ranger, Leucophyllum frutescens

I figured out what the nifty bush in the middle of my front yard is. Its called Texas Ranger, or Texas Sage. Yesterday I suddenly saw little pink buds all over the plant, towards the ends of the branches. I thought, "wow, I'm going to have some flowers in about a week." Ha! I woke up this morning to a bonanza of purple flowers. Amazing. Everything happens faster in the desert.

Of course I still had no idea what the plant was, but flowers always help on an ID. I took some pictures and brought my camera in to work. Surely in a building chock full of biologists, I would solve my puzzle. Luckily, the first person I asked knew. He's a desert gardener, so I was hoping that would be the case.

Since this morning, I've seen this plant everywhere. It is super common with the landscaping around here. Funny how well it blended in when it was just those tiny silvery leaves. Add a bevy of purple flowers and suddenly a plant gets noticed. Maybe this is why women get breast implants... I'm just sayin' there's a likely reason there.

Designing Mazes for Bumblebees


I'm taking a break from work for a few minutes. I've spent the day reading papers and settling details for my first experiment. To the right is a picture of the fetching critter I am working with now. To be completely unscientific for a moment, I'd like to say that bumblebees are super cute.

I've been working on a design for a maze for the bees to crawl through. I am trying to get a scenario where I can force them to make multiple dichotomous choices (like 8 or 10), and where I can change the stimuli and the reward values. It also needs to be easy to clean and fit in a table.

I think I have something worked out and made a little mock-up out of heavy paper to check my dimensions. Of course, with any animal experiment, all sorts of annoying and unexpected things can go wrong. Getting it to fit on one table is going to be a stretch... one choice segment is about 10 inches long, so multiple that by 10 and you get a maze that's more than 8 ft long. Maybe I can do something to shorten that.

On the other hand, I spent part of the day ordering colored craft foam. Its washable and will make excellent colored stimuli, if I can get some colors that the bees will like, and will like equally (or nearly equally). Of course, while I'm designing and decorating these mazes, perhaps the bees would appreciate some crystal chandeliers and and maybe a honey water fountain? Passed silver trays of tiny pollen balls?

For the weather update, its a mere 94F outside, and yet my office is cold. The bike ride home will make up for that. At least I have a few hours before I attempt that little round of fun. And tomorrow is very exciting: I get hot water again. Yippeee! When I was setting up the utilities for the house, I had no idea that the only gas powered anything was the hot water heater. So I've been dealing with cold showers since I moved in since it takes more than 5 business days to get on the schedule for gas hook ups.

Alright, break over. Its back to the grind for me. Since I'm nice and brain dead, this seems like the perfect time to count fly eggs.