Sunday, July 12, 2015

A trap at last!

Right after breakfast on Friday morning Jose Montero and I marched down the Camino Real trail to the spot I had scoped out. He carried his machete and rope and I proudly hauled my mesh Malaise Insect Trap and chemicals. Down, down, down the slope, just past the looped tree and into the brush we walked. The sun broke through the canopy in this one spot and several hopeful saplings were taking advantage of the sunlight among their older counterparts. One such young woody plant was of the Myrcia genus and had several green, swollen branches than slightly hummed with larvae. Those larvae are most likely Eurytomidae wasps, parasitoids of the plant and the ones I'm seeking. I tried to keep my wailing at bay, but excitement and anticipation at what I may catch with my trap or what might emerge from my rearings made me yelp and coo. Everything that I have worked for and worried over has finally come together. With my traps set I will wait 5 days for the trap head to fill up before I exchange it out. Once I switch them I'll sort through the past week's collections and very well may cry over the waspy friends I find.

Rio San Luis--ole' frio swimmin' hole
Once my trap was staked down with local limbs, and ready to withstand the fierce Costa Rican winds, I hiked back up to the lodge to join my group from Hendrix College. We had an arranged hike through la Finca Bella, the local coffee plantation, and to the Rio San Luis, where we could finally have a chance to swim in fresh, although frigid water. All of us embraced our inner water nymphs and braved the cold water by dipping under. The cold water kept reminding us that this was real--we were really here--a paradise of tropical plants, flowing water, and blue morpho butterflies.
The Hendrix sirens in Rio San Luis on the 4th of July!

 Just at lunch on Sunday, I found a Tarantula Hawk buzzing around in the comedor. I set my food aside, grabbed a cup, and almost held an insect with one of the most painful stings. According to the Schmidt sting pain index, it's the second most painful sting and one victim described it as "having all your blood suddenly turn to hydrofluoric acid while being electrocuted." The rest of his encounter is captured here. Tarantula Hawks (Pepsis sp.) are members of the family Pompilidae which is contained within division Parasitica, that I study. Parasitica is a group of wasps that encompasses all groups except for Aculeata, which is commonly known as "the stinging wasps," which are most wasps, ants, and bees even. Although most members of Aculeata sting, not all of them do. Still it is believed that the ancestors of present-day Aculeata did sting, so now all of their social descendants But Tarantula Hawks sting...and it's no whimpy pinch. This transformation of blood to hydrofluoric acid is caused by a modified fluid that was originally used for just laying eggs. That's right, stingers are female reproductive organs (ovipositors) and so it's only the females who can sting. But that's not all, the ecology of Tarantula Hawks is even more potent fodder for death metal songs. Living up to their name, Tarantula Hawks and other spider wasps of family Pompilidae capture a spider and paralyze it with their nothing-but-screams stinger. This paralyzing sting, whose pain last 5 minutes for us, immobilizes the tarantula for the rest of it's life. Afterward stinging, she drags her prey to a nest where she lays a single egg on the abdomen of the spider. The entrance to the nest is sealed and the spider left alive, but paralyzed in the tomb of darkness. Over time the egg hatches and a wormy larvae crawls out to suck fluid from the spider's abdomen. After weeks of this alien-esque torture, the grub reaches it's final moult where it then devours the rest of the spider and emerges as an adult Tarantula Hawk. It's an intense initiation into adult hood, almost as horrible as middle school, but you should be proud of your ability to have just read through that. SO, with that in mind, I caught a little black and orange-winged metal angel and showed it to the naturalists on campus. I have yet to have been stung by these wasps, but am sure that once I am that I will continue to love them. For all of their horror and gore, they're still beautiful and amazingly adapted to their environments.
The Tarantula Hawk I caught in el Comedor

You may wonder what could top the Tarantula Hawk's sting, and let me tell you that right here in Costa Rica, you can find the top menace. It's another member of the order Hymenoptera (ants, bees, and wasps) and it too is very appropriately named. The number one most painful sting can be found from the small, but menacing Bullet Ant. It's sting is described as being shot and I'm happy to have not yet run across this devil. There are plenty of biting army ants that swarm the ground, turning leaf litter into black rivulets of arthropod anger, but solitary bullet ants have yet to come across my radar.

In other, more delightful news, I learned how to milk a cow Monday morning. I'll have to work on my effciency, but now I can proudly say that I know my way around an utter. UGA has 3 dairy cows on campus and they use the milk that these cows produce in the kitchen for all of our hot coco and cooking needs. The cows are hand-milked by a lighting fast udder-master and grass fed alongside their babies. When they're not being milked you can find them playing in the field, looking strange in the area of a cloud forest, but oddly homey. Many locals have cattle and sell milk to the local cheese factory. The cheese factory and most of this area was settled by Quakers and has grown well over the years to be more and more sustainable. A big waste concern for most farm is where all the manure can go. Most farms have many more cattle or pigs and in recent years UGA and some surrounding farms have adopted the method of using a biodigester. This simple design allows for waste to accumulate in a giant, underground bag where anaerobic bacteria from the animals guts flourish. The bacteria consume the waste, breaking it down into methane, which is light and naturally flows up. This methane is collected in a second bag above ground and piped to the kitchen up the slope to be used for cooking. This is an excellent way to re-use materials and sustainably obtain fuel. Not only is this great for the environment, but simply economic considering the lodge's rural location. More methods of sustainability are being researched here on campus, while still more are trying to be spread throughout the community. Like I said in my last post, people have to live here too, so now it is a matter of finding more methods of coexistence.
My sorting and wing venation station

By Wednesday I switched out my trap and started sorting through what was collected to begin my search for Eurytomidae wasps. Jose generously gave me two bags full of extra vials so that everything I collected could be stored here at UGA to add to their insect collections. My wasps, of course, will leave with me and travel to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History where I get to sit down with Mike Gates to work on my first manuscript. He recently told me that I would get to be senior author on the paper and I cried a little. First author on a publication is the badge of being a legitimate scientist. Although this publication has a long road ahead of it and will probably not be published for a year or two, I'm thrilled to be working on it!

For more fun, you can always find more pictures on my instagram: justanothernakedape and there is a ugacostarica_blog where other students have reflected on their study abroad experiences here in Monteverde and San Luis.

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