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My lab at Colby College has an opening for a postdoc, supported by NSF funding through April 2019. The project takes an integrative set of approaches to examine the developmental mechanisms and evolution of wing polyphenism is soapberry bugs.

Jh morphs Continue Reading »

Bugs In Our Backyard

New posts to our lab website have been slow in recent months. Students and I have been busy with experiments, and of course the new semester is upon us. However, I’ve also been occupied with a new project. In collaboration with Scott Carroll at soapberrybug.org, generous help from Colby ITS, and support from NSF, I’ve been working to build a website and educational resources to involve K-12 public school teachers and students in our work on soapberry bugs. The project and website are called Bugs In Our Backyard.

Bugs in our Backyard
is a “citizen science” initiative. Since our lab is studying the genetics, development, and evolution of alternative wing morphs in the soapberry bug, we are interested in the relative numbers of long- and short-winged bugs in different populations. Over roughly the last 70 years, soapberry bugs have been expanding north from Florida on introduced golden rain trees, planted in mostly urban areas. They now live as far north of Maryland. However, only long-winged bugs are capable of flying to these new locations. So how have wing morphs influenced this expansion? Are bugs in the north more likely to have long wings than those in the south? — We can’t answer these questions form the lab. However, there are hundreds of young students and teachers across the East Coast who have these bugs living, literally, in  their own backyards and schoolyards. Our hope is to provide them with the background knowledge and a little training to enable them to become partners in this research project. The data will be publicly available for everyone to analyze. Complementary teaching modules on related topics are also in the plans. Ultimately, I hope to organize a companion program at Colby, in which students here can interact with teachers and students at our partner K-12 schools, exploring the genetics and ecology of soapberry bugs, while also studying the history, art, and social experiences of American urbanization.

Lot’s to do. We’re just getting started. But it’s very exciting. Look for more updates in the future!

What’s with the tents behind the baseball field?


These tents contain several colonies of a native bumblebee, Bombus impatiens. These colonies are commercially available for large scale pollination. This summer our lab is investigating the expression of antimicrobial peptides in bumblebees, under different pesticide exposures. With the decline of honeybee populations, bumblebees are increasingly important pollinators of crops and wild plants. However, there has been concern that certain pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, may have adverse affects on the immune response in bees.

Our goal in this project is to sample bumblebees from a variety of wild and agricultural settings around Maine and to measure their parasite load and expression of antimicrobial peptides. These small proteins are an important part of the immune response in insects. These field surveys will be coupled with controlled experiments here at Colby, so that we can establish a baseline effect for these compounds on the bee’s immune function.

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This mother’s day I was at my in-laws north of Boston. Their house has an old barn that’s been converted into an in-law apartment (ironic) with a large wooden carport. (It’s used for parking boats just as often.) The wooden overhang is perfect for the nest built by carpenter bees, Xylopoca viriginica. This weekend the area around the carport was patrolled by male bees guarding their territory and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. I’m curious whether the males are in a rush this early in the year to define territories with the best nesting sites. In any case, they ignore humans completely. (Male bees are incompletely incapable of stinging.) When they’re not chasing one another, they hover and slowly rotate to survey their domain for rivals.
Xylocopa in flight cropped dodged

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The Colby Magazine has broken news that the lab will be supported over the next five years by a grant from NSF. The funds will support work on an integrative investigation of wing polyphenism in the red-shouldered soapberry bug, Jadera haematoloma. Polyphenisms are a fascinating biological phenomenon that appear in some animals and plants, where individuals of the same species have the ability to develop distinct adult forms based on environmental cues. In other words, the capacity for polyphenic development is genetically determined, but not the specific outcome. Jadera haematoloma have adult morphs of each sex in which the wings are either fully sized or foreshortened, and we don’t see many between those extremes. Resources not used in wing and flight muscle development may then be used for gonad development and production of more offspring.


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first insect 2014

Spring has arrived.

I sometimes have to resist the instinct to collect insects. However, during winter in Maine, it’s not much of an issue. So I was please to see this stonefly, so I could celebrate the arrival of spring.  Actually, this was on the outside of our kitchen window, so I didn’t collect it. This is only our second winter in Maine, but locals have told me it’s been long and cold, even by their standards. So I can’t say whether April 3 is late for the emergence of these insects. However, it’s certainly late completed to the more southern states, we’re used to. Of course, this isn’t quite the first the insect of 2014. Rowan has already found a wholly bear roaming about, and we managed to somehow get thrips on an “indoor lawn” that Serena started.

The new insectary

This March the lab received a partial renovation, providing us with a dedicated space for insect husbandry, micro-dissection, micro-injection, and photomicroscopy. Our area for molecular biology had always been adjacent to an old “hot lab”–a room used for work with radioisotopes. However, when I arrived at Colby, no one had actually logged any use of radioisotopes since 2007. The room was full of old equipment and boxes, reams of dot-matrix printer paper, and of course all manner of lucite and lead containers. The biology department was generous enough to approve a complete overhaul of this room to its new purpose. (The Chemistry department still maintains an active hot lab, so thankfully this doesn’t limit any potential future research.)


New space for microscopes used in injection, dissection, and imaging.

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My family and I are enjoying the last days of summer, and we have been visiting my wife’s parents in Massachusetts. Thursday we drove out to  Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston. North-central Mass is where I grew up, and it’s always interesting to visit. Tower Hill has only been around for a few years, but it’s already a really impressive garden. The place features a Linnaean garden, where plants are grouped by taxonomic family. This is a great idea for learning some plant taxonomy, although it makes for weirdly assymetrical gardens as some areas get all the showy plants. I was disappointed that the soapberrys (Sapindaceae) didn’t have a section.

One of my favorite parts though, was that huge summer sweet bushes were being pollinated by tons of bees and other insects. Including a giant black wasp that got everyone’s attention. I happened to have a collection vial, and so had to catch one. (Yes, without a net.) This was the Great Black Wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus). The picture below is from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee field station, and it doesn’t convey that this thing is about 2 inches long and fast!

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What to call it?

brevicornisIn 2007 I was working on a molecular phylogeny for pest species of the genus Tribolium. Phylogenetics is a set of methods for using information about organisms, like DNA sequences, to decide who is more closely related to whom. In principle, phylogenetic methods can be very simple. If organisms share more of some same state for certain characters, for example the same nucleotide base at a certain position in the DNA sequence, then they should be more closely related than a third who does not have those things in common. However, it can get complicated quickly. Which characters or genes do you compare? How do you account for the fact that multiple mutations at the same DNA position can make two mutations look like one? Or that a mutation back to the original state is undetectable? For that matter, how do you decide what the “same” positions are in DNA from different organisms? — Maybe I’ll revisit this topic here in the future.

Naming things can be a pain. I finally decided to start a website to discuss the research and teaching, and I’m left with the annoying problem of what to call it. “The Angelini Lab Website” seemed far too boring. Besides, this will hopefully also be a place to discuss topics I’m teaching, or just highlight interesting biology news.

Anyway, for a while it looked like one species, Tribolium brevicornis, wasn’t closely related to other members of that genus. Continue Reading »