Insect Astronauts: Eclipse Watchers Learn About Entomology in Orbit
By Tanya Josek
On August 21 in Goreville, Illinois, hundreds of people from the Midwest gathered at the town’s village park to witness a breathtaking event—a total solar eclipse. While there were lawn chairs, cameras, and telescopes scattered throughout the park—as you’d expect—the gathering also featured a group of outreach tables for pre-eclipse activities hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). The Astronomy Department had a booth for visitors to make their own viewing devices, the Geology Department had an informational display about meteoroids, and the School of Integrative Biology discussed how animals change behavior during eclipses. But that’s not all: The Entomology Department was there, too, discussing insects in space.
Yes, you read that correctly: insects in space. Three graduate students from UIUC—Brenna Decker, Katie Dana and Tanya Josek—hosted a booth to highlight the important, if not widely known, connections between astronomy and entomology.
Right in the middle of the table was a collection of dung beetles belonging to both Scarabaeidae (scarab beetles) and Geotropidae (earth-boring dung beetles). Dung beetles are a group of insects that are well known for rolling big balls of dung, but they are less known for their ability to utilize the Milky Way and the moon to navigate with great precision here on earth. Recently, Jennifer Harrison (@GeneticJen) posted a long thread on Twitter discussing the research conducted on this phenomenon
So today I was talking about evolution being amazing and literally every animal being awesome and I'm told the dung beetle isn't. Thread 👇
— Jennifer Harrison (@GeneticJen) August 14, 2017
In addition to the dung beetle display was a Cornell drawer filled with “Insect Astronauts,” insects that have gone in to space on NASA space missions. Among these insects were the common house fly (Musca domestica), the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), and the velvetbean moth (Anticarsia gemmatalis). All three of these insects have provided spectacular insights on the effects of zero gravity on flight.
Flies have a variety of physiological adaptations that help them interpret gravitational forces (e.g., their halteres). Maybe somewhat surprisingly, though, in space flies ceased normal flying behavior and merely crawled around their terrarium. The European honey bee, on the other hand, was able to learn how to fly short distances after being in space for six days.
For the velvetbean moth, scientists compared adult flight among moths reared on Earth and moths reared for part of their lifecycle in space, and their findings were fascinating. Moths hatched from eggs on Earth and brought to space as adults struggled to adapt in their new environment; they flapped their wings frantically and were able to fly but had trouble controlling parameters such as pitch. The velvetbean moths that eclosed in space, however, barely flapped their wings at all, instead spreading their wings flat and using them as gliders rather than for powered flight.
Since no entomology booth would be complete without a petting zoo, the table also consisted of live tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta), Madagascar hissing cockroaches (Gromphadorhina portentosa), and a variety of local cicada species. Both tobacco hornworms and Madagascar hissing cockroaches were paired with the “Insect Astronauts” section, as both these species have been taken up to space to be studied for varying reasons. Tobacco hornworms were used to study the effects of gravity on insect development, and G. portentosa cockroaches were occupants of the first mini-inflatable space hotel.
The cicadas, meanwhile, were there to act as an experiment during the eclipse. Prior to the eclipse, visitors could come to hear the alarm call of these cicadas; during the eclipse, they could come to see if the eclipse-induced nighttime would induce the cicadas to start calling. Unfortunately, come 1:22 p.m. (the start of the total solar eclipse), despite being surrounded by other (confused) calling cicadas in the park, the cicadas at the table did not call.
It’s interesting that entomology and astronomy have a strong connection, and the insects’ presence at the eclipse made the whole experience a little more extraordinary. Totality in Southern Illinois lasted 2 minutes, 40 seconds and was an incredible sight to behold. We cannot wait for the next total eclipse. Hopefully we will see you and a large variety of insects on April 8, 2024, when Goreville will again be in the path of totality.
Tanya Josek is a graduate student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org