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What an odd-looking creature I found on my desert milkweed flower this week. It is bright orange with striped legs. Look at the black spines on back end (abdomen). It also seems to have its straw-like beak piercing a black insect.

This insect is a young assassin bug, a stage called a nymph. If it were an adult, it would have wings.

Assassin bugs use their front legs to capture other insects for food. They stick their proboscis or beak into their victim and suck out the juices. In this case the nymph has caught a tiny parasitic wasp. The wasp was probably searching for aphids, which is what its larvae use for food.

assassin bug nymph

Edit: I was able to find an adult to show in this later post.

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Nothing is more fun than a science-based field trip. We went on a field trip on Friday to Arizona State University's Polytechnic Campus. After getting off the bus, our first stop was the Laboratory for Algae Research and Biotechnology, where we met Dr. Milton Sommerfeld, a scientist who studies algae.

You might think algae would be pretty boring. After all, it is that stuff that turns your pool green or grows on the sides of your fish tank, making it hard to see the fish. It is slimy and sometimes really smelly. Who would spend their life studying something like that?

We learned algae is actually exciting stuff and may have a huge impact on our future. In fact, that green goo may soon be golden. It turns out certain kinds of algae contain a lot of natural oils in their cells. The oils can be extracted and turned into a form of biofuel (fuel that comes from recently living things).

Algae have a lot of advantages over other sources of biofuel. First of all they aren't a crop, so making them into fuel does not take food away from people (although one of the by-products of the extraction process is a protein powder that may some day be used for food, too.) The algae can be grown in wastewater from farms high in manure or other forms of water that may not be suitable for drinking. They can be grown in areas that aren't good for farming. And they produce more oil per acre than soybeans.

Of course there are costs too. The algae grow in large tanks, sort of like fish tanks. Electrical pumps are needed to circulate the water in the tanks. Dr. Sommerfeld's group is looking into a way to produce the electricity using solar panels. Extracting the oil also requires some energy, but as the techniques are modified and perfected the process will likely become more efficient.

After visiting the laboratory and seeing all the tanks full of brightly colored algae, it is not hard to imagine cars, trucks and planes running on biofuel in the near future.

For more information, see this recent article from Arizona State University's Research Magazine.

September update: Check for more recent post and link to newspaper article.

Spring is in the air. What a wonderful opportunity to get outside and go for a walk. Do you have a favorite trail or park to visit? What about the local nature center, arboretum or botanical garden? Take a few minutes from your hectic schedule and go on a stroll.

While you are outside, take a look around at the spring flowers. In some areas you may see the pussy willows just starting to bud and snowdrops peaking through melting snow. In other areas, the poppies may be starting to wane as the heat builds up. Wherever you may be, stop and enjoy the color and beauty of flowers.

You might be wondering what a nature hike has to do with science, even though it is certainly fun. It turns out you can do science while on a nature hike and it won't even be hard.

Take a closer look at the flowers you find. Notice if you can smell anything. Are the flowers all one color or are they a mix of colors within a single flower, like the darker orange patches in the yellow flower below? Are there any insects around? Observing is an important science skill, which is simple to do and can lead to further explorations. Do you find the plants in a certain place, such as out in the open or hidden under some brush? Do the plants change over the season? All of these observations can lead to further questions and even to experiments.

Do you know what kind of plants you are finding? Classifying is another important science skill, but it doesn't necessarily mean you have to learn the scientific name of everything you see. Classifying can simply mean grouping things based on similarities and differences. For example, you can group all the flowers you see based on the their color, leaf shape or size. Is the flower you are seeing now is the same as the one you just saw over there, or is it different? With children, start a conversation about how they would name the flowers. You can also ask how they would find out the name others have given the flowers.

When you get home, you might want to look up the common and/or scientific names of one or two of the flowers. There are many excellent books or you can use Internet sites like this one from Texas. In any case, hope you have an enjoyable weekend.

nasturtium