Ep 38. Mr Do Bee, Katydids and Superstars of STEM with Kate Umbers

Stop murdering invertebrates. OK? Good.

Dr Kate Umbers is an animal behaviour expert from Western Sydney University who is fighting to make sure that invertebrates are recognised as the wonderful creatures they are. In an interview with In Situ Science she says that perhaps the arts are the best way of teaching people about the majesty of the other 99% of the animal kingdom. By forming meaningful relationships between people and invertebrates, we can start appreciating them as things other than the creepy, crawly stereotypes they have been given.

Kate along with 29 other women across Australia is a ‘Superstar of STEM’, recognised by Science and Technology Australia for their contribution to science. These superstars are acting as role models to increase the representation of women in science. We talk about her experiences with the Superstars of STEM initiative as well as her breakthrough role on Romper Room as a child.

Follow Kate on Twitter @kateumbers and find out more about her research at www.kateumbers.com

Find out more about the Superstars of STEM scienceandtechnologyaustralia.org.au at or check out #SUPERSTARSOFSTEM

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com


Bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

A rare species of clearwing moth, that appears to mimic a bee, has been rediscovered in the rainforests of Malaysia after being ‘lost’ for 130 years. Scientists have recorded footage of the metallic blue moths (Heterosphecia tawonoides) flying around the banks of rocky streams as described in an article published in Tropical Conservation Science. ‘When I first saw the clearwing in the Malaysian rainforest, I was absolutely amazed. It was beautifully coloured: shiny blue in sunlight… I couldn’t think of any specimen from literature or museums which had that kind of colouration,’ said the lead scientist Marta Skowron Volponi.

The clearwing moth Heterosphecia tawonoides hasn’t been seen alive since 1887 – Footage by Marta Skowron Volponi and Paolo Volponi


Heterosphecia tawonoides was originally discovered in Indonesia in 1887. The specimen was deposited in the Natural History Museum in Vienna and, as far as we know, it hasn’t been seen alive since. After finding unique iridescent blue moths in the Malaysian rainforest, scientists compared them to museum specimens and discovered that they had rediscovered the elusive Heterosphecia tawonoides. ‘In total, during several years of studies, we only observed 12 individuals of this species,’ says Skowron Volponi.

Filming these clearwing moths for the first time has revealed some remarkable aspects of their biology that were previously unknown. Their narrow transparent wings, combined with tufts of white hair-like scales and blue iridescent scales across their body, means that at close glance they look more like a bee than a moth. The dull buzzing sound of their wing beats only adds to the illusion. ‘I usually also have to wait until the clearwing moth lands to be sure it’s not a bee! In flight, they are perfect mimics,’ says Skowron Volponi.



The moth Heterosphecia tawnoides looks remarkably like a bee. Photo by Marta Skowron Volponi

The clearwing moths of the family Sesiidae, to which Heterosphecia tawonoides belongs, are famous for their deceptive appearances. Another newly described clearwing moth Pyrophleps ellawi, also from Malaysia, looks remarkably like a wasp. Having thin wings, long slender bodies and black and orange colouration, it would likely take a skilled entomologist to correctly identify these insects as actually being moths.

Resembling bees and wasps is a common strategy for protection. Many insects, including flies, beetles and moths, are known to sport bright yellow bands and make buzzing sounds as they fly. Despite being harmless insects predators often cautiously avoid these tricksters on the chance that they are packing a dangerous sting.

Pyrophleps ellawi
The moth Pyrophleps ellawi is also a newly discovered species from Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by Marta Skowron Volponi

The scientists also observed a curious behaviour called ‘mud-puddling’ where the moths would land near moist patches of ground near the edge of streams and use their long mouthparts to ’lick’ water from the surface of rocks and soil. In other moth species their long mouthparts, or proboscises, are used to drink fluids such as nectar. However in many species of tropical butterflies and moths the proboscis is used in ‘mud-puddling’ to ingest important minerals and nutrients dissolved in groundwater.

The native habitat of Heterosphecia tawnoides is deep in the rainforest, very little is known about the animals and plants that live there. ‘I reached the area… by boat and on foot, carrying all our camping and filming equipment… everything we needed to survive in the jungle on our backs,’ says Skowron Volponi. These early observations open up new possibilities for research that will uncover more about the behaviour and ecology of this resurrected species.

Whilst encountering a species presumed to be extinct is an exciting discovery, it highlights the vulnerability of these rare animals to extinction. Scientists believe that clearwing moths may be especially vulnerable to climate change and deforestation. This is especially worrying given that Malaysia has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

The rediscovered species is just an example of an animal associated with unique habitats within primeval rainforests. Most probably, it won’t be able to survive in human-modified habitats and will vanish along with many other species if the jungle disappears,’ says Skowron Volponi. With ongoing destruction of South East Asian rainforests it appears we may be losing species faster than scientists are able to discover them.


IMG_8491Article by James O’Hanlon

James is a research scientist and science communicator currently based at the University of New England, Armidale. He hosts the In Situ Science podcast and is sick of hearing people say bad things about spiders.

How to launch a space agency

Australia’s announcement that it would launch its very own space agency was heralded with much jubilation from the scientific community. However, little has actually been said about how the nation will step forwards to create this national body.

What information we do know was provided by the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Arthur Sinodinos at the 68th International Astronautical Congress Industry Day Luncheon in Adelaide on the 26th of September. In his speech to the Congress, Sinodinos discussed the Expert Reference Group which has been tasked with reviewing Australia’s space industry capabilities and reporting its findings back to the government in March 2018. It will be chaired by former Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) chief Dr Megan Clark.

I have heard people ask ‘Why even have a review?’” Sinodinos said.

Well, the space industry of today is not the same as it was a decade ago, and likely not the same as it will be a decade from now. It is crucial that we take the time now to understand that landscape and create the structures and policies – and the agency – that are right for the industry of today and tomorrow, not the industry of yesterday.

So what is the way forwards when it comes to preparing for the industry of the future today? Michael Brown, astronomer at Monash University told In Situ Science that while waiting for the conclusion of Clark’s review before announcing any details was sensible, how Australia proceeds would ultimately be determined by the scope of the agency’s ambitions.

A key thing is making sure the budget matches those ambitions. If the ambition is way out of step with the budget and remit of the agency, then we’re destined for failure,” Brown said.

Mt Stromlo Observatory, Australian Capital Territory. Photo: John Edwards/Wikimedia Commons

Brad Tucker, research fellow and outreach manager at Mt Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University, added that the approach be methodic. He suggested forming a roadmap of the goals in stages: where we want to be in five years, 10 years and 25 years.

One thing we have to realise is that we don’t have to do it all in one go. We’re not going to go from nothing to NASA overnight. That’s not going to happen,” said Tucker. “There are ways of ramping up infrastructure, support and funding that can happen over a gradual increase and that we can build into a large group doing lots of things, but it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen immediately.

Collaboration and coordination

According to Penny King, Australian Research Council (ARC) future fellow at the Australian National University and past science co-investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory mission (Curiosity Rover), we don’t have to start from scratch and can tap into the expertise found at other space agencies. Making formal links with other agencies such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a country-to-country level will make difference in how Australia moves forward.

Linking with those agencies that have those capabilities is crucial. And then talking to the agencies that have successfully linked in the past is also crucial,” King said.

Australia can further tap into local expertise through agencies such as the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), Geoscience Australia and the CSIRO. The creation of a centralised body will be useful to organise scientists and engineers in different fields, bridging their varying perspectives and jargon, she added.

Tucker suggested that the first stages of the space agency should involve the country working as a whole towards a few key projects, goals and ideas. He also stressed that we should focus on developing the base level of satellite infrastructure, support and development, allowing a blossoming industry to further grow.

We don’t want to try and be doing different things and doing everything at once. We should not worry about things such as astronauts any time soon… It’s really a stepping stone. You want to go up the ladder. You don’t jump for the top, so we really have to go up each rung,” Tucker said.

Reversing the funds flow

With Australia already sending significant amounts of money to overseas space agencies for essentials such as government satellites, telecommunications and GPS, these funds can be reallocated back into developing local capabilities and building satellites within the country. Australia can also partner in international space endeavours meaning that local contractors are eligible for work done within Australia, providing a net economic benefit back to the country.

We already have an astronomical instrumentation industry… There are satellites where we should consider whether we are partners in those satellites in the future. For instance, we make extensive use of Japanese weather satellites at the moment. Should we be partnering with the Japanese on those satellites?” Brown said.

The facilities Australia currently has, such as Tidbinbilla and Parkes, are not enough, according to Tucker. Mount Stromlo however has made great strides in reducing overseas reliance by allowing the federal government to test satellites on local soil.

That made a big change. It reduced costs because previously you’d have to go overseas. We need more of those things. We need to be able to build more of these satellites, even building them for private companies. We’re trying to do that so they can have their own infrastructure here and not pay overseas rates,” Tucker said.

Money for future discoveries

A better funding framework for research grants is also important, so those doing experimental prototypes, development or even fundamental research can develop their findings into much larger things.

If you don’t plant the seed and water it, it’s never going to grow. We need to plant little seeds – that’s the ideas and the projects. Really the water should be the space agency, giving support and letting it grow into something big. That’s how we take off into doing very big things,” Tucker said.

An issue with cutting edge research such as this is that it is impossible to tell what will work and what won’t, he added.

The problem we have now is that we can only do things that we’re pretty confident in working. We don’t have a lot of time for experimentation and research so to speak and we need that.

The European Space Agency’s New Norcia Station in Western Australia. Photo: ESA/Wikimedia Commons

King gave advice along the same lines, arguing that current timeframes for research grants are simply not long enough.

The timeframes involved in developing instrumentation and being involved in missions are longer than the timeframes that most small start-ups or the government can allow… For example, I’m a university researcher and Australian Research Council (ARC) grants are three years. If I don’t get my ARC, I have to say ‘Oh sorry, I can’t be on your team anymore’. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you have to be on the team for seven years before the mission is a go. Then there is also additional time while the mission is active,” King said.

Having a space agency with a longer timeframe suitable for space exploration that can support times needed to develop instruments is important. Tucker says that a model paralleling NASA’s would work, with different research centres located across the country each specialising in a different field.

Uniting different facilities and different specialists allows us to become experts in building these things, doing it more quickly and more efficiently… This is how space is going. We’re not spending a billion dollars to build a satellite that takes 20 years or more. We want to spend $2 million and churn out a satellite in three to six months,” Tucker said.

Regardless of how we proceed, the fact that Australia is moving forwards with a space agency is thrilling.

King summed it up by saying, “I just think it’s exciting from a perspective of looking at Earth, looking beyond, creating new ways of exploring, and understanding our place in the universe and life in it.”


MiklosArticle by Miklos Bolza

Miklos Bolza graduated with an honours degree in science from UNSW (majoring in maths and physics), now works as a freelance science journalist, and can’t wait until space tourism really ramps up.

Feature Image: Parkes Radio Telescope. Robert Kerton/Wikimedia Commons