Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Entomology-themed Trip to Central Connecticut

Magicicada septendecim
There were some interesting insect-related events going on in Hamden, Connecticut this past weekend. The Brood II 17-year cicadas are out, and the nearest location to see them in large numbers is the Connecticut River Valley. I don't think I've ever run into periodical cicadas before, so it was a new experience for me.

Adults and shed skins from nymphs on a birch tree.
As promised, in the right places there were a lot of the little guys. I went to some hiking trails near the intersection of Old Lane Road and Old Farms Road, and saw many thousands of them perched on vegetation and flying through the canopy. The humming call of the males was constant, but not overwhelming. The weather was partly overcast and the volume of the cicada song seemed to rise when the sun peeked out, only to recede into the distance when a cloud passed overhead.

Nymph emerging from the soil.

Adult shedding its skin
There was a van and a car from Canada parked in a power line right of way in the area with the cicadas and some French Canadians were out beating the bushes. The leader of the Canadian group turned out to be a freelance entomologist, Andre Desjardins, who was visiting to check out Connecticut insect life. Southern New England is apparently the closest that Magicicada gets to Quebec. He thought that the cicadas would be active well into July and was very excited to be able to see them and collect some specimens.

Tom Seeley and an artificial honeybee swarm.

The other motivation for a trip to Hamden was a visit by Thomas Seeley of Cornell University, who was invited by the Connecticut Beekeepers Association to talk about his research. I had read Tom's recent book, Honeybee Democracy, and enjoyed it quite a bit. His talks mostly covered material from the book, but with a lot more illustrations and videos. Since the 1970s, he has conducted a series of really clean, clever experiments designed to tease apart how bees decide on a new home when a colony reproduces by swarming. He's figured out in surprising detail how scout bees evaluate potential nest sites, how they integrate this information with the rest of the swarm and make a decision about which is the best site, and how at last they manage to move tens of thousands of bees and a queen to a new home, which most of the swarm has never actually visited before.

Tom also demonstrated one of his basic experimental tools, an artificial swarm with a caged queen set up in the fields at the state agricultural experiment station. We could watch the scout bees advocating for nest sites (using the famous waggle dance) on the surface of the swarm, and see how different locations at various distances and directions gained or lost popularity over the course of the day. The swarm never actually came to a decision and tried to take off (apparently, they would have returned once they realized the queen was left behind in her cage), but it was fascinating to observe the process for a while.

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