November 02, 2010

Creepy crawlers take contest to another dimension

Posted: November 02, 2010
image of a milkweed bug
The large milkweed bug, a true bug and one of the contenders in the 2010 Ugly Bug Contest, uses it mouth to pierce plants (mostly milkweed) and drink the juices. This scanning electron micrograph was prepared and photographed at the Northern Arizona University Imaging and Histology Core Facility using a Zeiss 435 VP Scanning Electron Microscope. The photography was done there by Therry The and Marilee Sellers. Colorization was done by Page Baluch at the Arizona State University W.M. Keck Bioimaging Laboratory.

‘Ugly Bug’ contenders boast on ‘Bugbook’ page 

“You’ve just entered another dimension – a dimension of insects, a micro dimension, where milkweed bugs, assassin bugs, crickets and fruit flies crawl, walk or fly side by side to show off features that are the envy of the insect world and quite possibly beyond.” This isn’t the opening narration of the late 1950s television series “The Twilight Zone,” but the introduction of a video announcing the 2010 Ugly Bug Contest

Last year’s Ugly Bug Contest attracted insect enthusiasts from around the world. Some 8,025 insectophiles cast their vote for their favorite ugly bug. This year, voters will have until Dec. 15 to show their support for the bug they deem the most fascinating, unique, or downright detestable. Until then, each bug’s fate hangs in a virtual balance. 

The adaptation of the Twilight Zone theme for this year’s video is well-suited for a contest whose contenders, all somewhat alien to a human viewer, resemble creatures one might see on the show. The house cricket, for example, with its passion for decayed insects while dining, resembles a flesh-eating zombie; while the assassin bug, whose beak-like mouthparts inject toxic saliva into its prey, becomes multiply monstrous in multifaceted eyes of insect victims. 

Other creatures determined to be crowned the ugliest bug of 2010 include the earwig, flour beetle, fruit and house flies, male ant, milkweed bug, jewel wasp and yellow dragonfly. The video is at http://askabiologist.asu.edu/video/ubc2010

The annual contest, now in its third year at Arizona State University, was created by Marilee Sellers of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. For 10 years, it was a local fixture – part of the Flagstaff Festival of Science and the Mount Campus Science Day. In 2008, Sellers teamed up with ASU’s Charles Kazilek to bring the competition to the Web. 

The contest is housed online in connection with ASU’s popular children’s science education website “Ask A Biologist” created by Kazilek, director of technology innovation and outreach in ASU’s School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Sporting the moniker “Dr. Biology,” Kazilek says the contest not only provides a chance for individuals to become engaged in viewing insects, but is also a great opportunity for learning to occur. 

Visitors to “Ask A Biologist” have access to downloadable wallpapers, a poster and coloring pages. The site also houses modules designed to improve students’ basic reasoning skills and a variety of experiments and “how-to” projects. Additionally, viewers find stories about scientists and their career paths. The entire website activities offer students of all ages insight into the capacious field of biology, says Kazilek. 

The creators of the Ugly Bug Contest added something new to the contest this year: the True Bug Story. The story teaches visitors that the word “bug” has a very specific usage within entomology, says Kazilek. The tale also explains that while all bugs are insects, not all insects are bugs. “True bugs” belong to a very specific subset of insects and the contest allows viewers to see some of them up close, explains Kazilek. 

Each of the contest’s 10 competitors has a personal photo and biography on the website, complete with details such as its size, weight and Latin, genus and species names. The biographies also include interesting facts about the insects, which range from the enlightening to the somewhat frightening.

The images of the insects are taken using a scanning electron microscope, which allows viewers to explore a magnified view of the competitive world of bugs – a world that would otherwise be unattainable with the human eye. Viewers are provided with colorful mug shots of the bugs, as well as the original black-and-white images of the bugs as actually seen through the microscope. The two contrasting images provide viewers a kind of before and after view that few can see outside of a laboratory. 

Bugbook, another new feature of the contest, gives viewers a look at bugs as they’ve never been seen before. Modeled after the homepage of the social networking site Facebook, Bugbook is filled with the bug’s own status updates and comments to each other. The comments reveal each bug’s personal thoughts about the contest, while giving viewers some unique insights into the life of a bug. “What’s on your mind” comments include some of the bug’s thoughts on the current results of the contest. 

With more than 400 votes, the jewel wasp was leading in the polls. Also known as Nasonia vitripennis, this winged stinger is one of the spookiest critters in the contest. The jewel wasp lays its eggs inside a living host. As the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the host from the inside out. 

Will the jewel wasp win the title of Ugly Bug Champion 2010? Only the public can decide. To seal this bug’s fate, a vote can be cast at http://askabiologist.asu.edu/activities/ubc. There, a new, real-time tabulation feature will show how each vote is counted toward making “some lucky bug’s dream come true,” says Kazilek. 

Last year’s champion, the snake fly, might be considered by some far less fearsome in the insect world in comparison to the jewel wasp. Kazilek admits that his favorite bug this year, the yellow dragonfly, resembles a character one might see in the Disney movie “Monsters Inc.”

When asked what draws people to the competition, which has already received almost 1,800 votes, Kazilek said: “Most people don’t have a scanning electron microscope. The contest presents an opportunity to see these insects up close in a way that you typically are unable to.” 

The Ugly Bug Contest offers an intimate look at some of the insects who inhabit our world and who are often overlooked, he says. While one main objective of the contest is to allow visitors to become engaged in science, Kazilek notes that another goal is “capturing the imagination.” 

The contest is sponsored by Northern Arizona University Imaging and Histology Core Facility, Dow AgroSciences, and ASU’s International Institute for Species Exploration, School of Life Sciences and W. M. Keck Bioimaging Laboratory

Written by Jessica Stone (Jessica.Renee.Stone@asu.edu). 

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