This is what my backyard looked like yesterday:
… and after melting off completely today, is what it will look like again tomorrow. That’s not good insect weather right there… I’m really ready for spring!
This is what my backyard looked like yesterday:
… and after melting off completely today, is what it will look like again tomorrow. That’s not good insect weather right there… I’m really ready for spring!
Imagine this. You and some buddies pack a bunch of stuff into a truck or SUV or Subaru and head off into the wild for the night. You carry with you some snacks, perhaps an adult beverage or two, a headlamp (because it’s going to be dark out there!), and some gear. When you arrive at some place that’s truly out in the middle of nowhere, you set up some sort of frame, drape a white sheet over it, and shine some lights on it. Then you wait. You spend the next several hours drinking your adult beverages, lounging in camp chairs, and exclaiming with glee that “Citheronia splendans” or some other spectacular insect just showed up on the sheet. Woo! Some people sit and talk, others stalk the sheets obsessively with collecting jars or glassine envelopes, and still others collect photographs only. Maybe you stay overnight, or maybe you pack up about 2am and drive back to town. Either way, you’ve just experienced a beloved pastime/collecting technique of entomologists everywhere: blacklighting.
I love blacklighting! I was hooked on it from my very first blacklighting trip. You’ll see things at lights at night that you might never see anywhere else. But, lugging a bunch of lights and associated equipment into the field is a pain. After observing dozens of rigs utilized by a variety of entomologists and blacklighting extensively myself, I set out to design a portable, collapsible blacklighting rig that didn’t require a generator (those things are heavy and often very loud) and I could set up and break down within a few minutes. Today I’m going to share what I came up with.
First, let’s talk about surfaces. Blacklighting rigs usually have some sort of white surface on which you shine your lights. That surfaces reflects the light and glows, but it also gives the insects something to hold onto when they arrive. Most entomologists I know rely on white bedsheets. I buy mine from Goodwill because you can walk out with a big pile of sheets for less than the price of a single new one. A hot wash with bleach and you’ve got a cheap, clean sheet to use for your rig! My favorite sheet cost $3.
Once you’ve got some sort of white surface to project your lights onto, you need a frame to hold it upright. Now if you live in a place that has a lot of trees, you can get away with simply using a rope and a handful of strong clothespins or binder clips: tie the rope between the trees, clip the sheet to the line, and use rocks or tent stakes to pin the bottom down. I started blacklighting in Arizona, however, and trees are too far apart to make that work. I currently work at a prairie field station and have similar issues if I want to blacklight anywhere outside the forested area. There are some great collapsible, freestanding blacklighting rigs available through companies like Bioquip that you can fold up and carry in a backpack. They are shockingly (and I think unnecessarily) expensive – I refuse to buy a $150+ blacklighting sheet! You can make your own rig with a similar design with a few king sized white sheets, though you need to have some sewing skills and some cannibalized tent poles from an old dome tent to make one. I’ll be honest: I made one like that and I wasn’t ever happy with it (too short, too small), so I decided to come up with something else. I eventually built my current rig out of PVC pipes:
This rig required three 10 foot pipes (I used 2 inch diameter pipes, though I’m going with 1 inch next time), two elbow connectors, two t connectors, four threaded end connectors, and four threaded caps to fit inside the end connectors, the latter two only so I wouldn’t get dirt and/or water in the pipes that sit against the ground. For my bases, I cut four short pipe sections of equal length (about 2.5 feet) and used PVC joint compound to fix two of them permanently into the ends of each t connector, then glued the end connectors onto the opposite ends and screwed in the caps. I glued the two elbow connectors to the ends of the pipe that was going to run across the top, and voila: my stand was ready! When I want to set my blacklight frame up, all I have to do is thread my sheet over the horizontal top pipe, push one end of the upright pipes into the t connectors, push the other into the elbow joints on the top pipe, and the frame’s in place! I cut a little hole in the center of my sheet and wrap a nylon cord around the top pipe a couple of times and stake the ends into the ground on either side of the frame to keep it from blowing over in the wind. I don’t have a photo of the sheet I currently use with this frame, but I trimmed the width to match the frame, added a few grommets along the sides, and use small pieces of nylon cord or tiny bungee cords to attach the sheet to the vertical pipes and keep it taut. The whole thing takes just a few minutes to set up, and I can easily carry my little bunch of 5 pipes and the sheet with a velcro strap/handle I got at a hardware store. The frame cost about $20 altogether, including the joint compound. That means my whole frame with the sheet cost less than $25 – a WHOLE lot cheaper than the $150+ portable models!
Now let’s talk lights! I experimented with a lot of lights and I alternate between two styles. If I’m close to a building and have access to power (e.g., in my backyard), I use a CFL blacklight bulb (they’re about $7) and a clamp style lamp with a aluminum reflector that I hang from a shepherd’s crook and plug into an outlet:
In more remote areas, I usually use a portable jump starter as my power source and plug in a DC powered blacklight bulb from Bioquip, which is what you see in the image at the top. I can get a good 8 hours of run time from a single charge of the jump starter, which I think is pretty good given the ease of using it and minimal weight. Sometimes I’ll get a little more fancy in the field and use two of the clamp lamps, each with a CFL blacklight bulb, plug them into a multi-socket extension cord, and plug that into my portable jump starter via a power inverter. It requires a little more gear, so more to carry, and the jump starter battery doesn’t last quite as long, but you can get some really excellent light for about half a night that way.
A lot of people who blacklight to collect things for research favor mercury vapor lights, but I do not have one. They’re painfully bright for me, can’t get wet (they tend to explode when cool water hits the massively hot glass!), are a burn and fire risk, and they use more power. If I ever decide to take a mercury vapor light into the field with me, I will break down and buy a real generator, but it certainly won’t be as portable as my current rig.
The things I like most about my rig are that I can carry the pipes in one hand, the jump starter in the other, and the rest in a backpack and walk a pretty good ways with everything, so it’s very portable. The lights stay on a long time because they draw a very small amount of power, whether I use the CFLs or the UV light, and that’s great. I get a pretty good diversity of insects coming to this rig, regardless of where I’ve set it up, so I know it is reasonably attractive to a lot of night active insects. I can set this baby up anywhere – it’s free standing and battery powered. The main downside is that it’s not sturdy enough to withstand high winds and blows over if the winds pick up. Of course, you don’t get a whole lot of insects on very windy nights anyway, so I think it’s a small price to pay to have a lightweight, portable rig I can easily chuck in my car and take with me anywhere I want to go.
There are endless variations on blacklighting rigs and setups, so this might not be the best solution for everyone, but it works for me. Anyone want to share some alternative setups so that we can all learn from each other and steal each other’s ideas? I’d love to see/hear about what other people are using to attract insects at night – leave ideas in the comments!
Whew! It’s been a really busy few weeks! I recently received a grant to start up a citizen science after school program (which you’ll hear all about at some point – it involves bugs!!) and have poured almost every moment of my work time into that since the beginning of February. Then, right in the middle of that chaos, I attended the first ever conference for the Citizen Science Association. That took me to San Jose, CA last week! One conference activity that I really wanted to do and couldn’t was a bioblitz of downtown San Jose. If you don’t know what a bioblitz is, it’s a comprehensive biodiversity survey of an area, typically done over a short (or at least limited) time frame. People participating in the San Jose bioblitz were encouraged to photograph any species they saw and upload their sightings to iNaturalist, my favorite wildlife sighting website/app, throughout the meeting. I lead biodiversity survey programs that use iNaturalist all the time and I very much wanted to see what the people who oversee iNaturalist do when they lead programs, but I unfortunately needed to be somewhere else during the organized part of the event. However, the moment I had a few minutes free, I dashed outside with my superzoom camera to add some of my own sightings to the survey! Because it was California, it was lovely and warm and there were actually insects out in the middle of winter. I still haven’t worked out how to use my superzoom to take decent macro shots (I remain unconvinced this is even possible with my particular model…), but here are my five favorite invertebrates I saw in downtown San Jose!
I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get anything close to a focused shot of the many hover flies buzzing around the area, but this one’s not too bad, if a little far away… I honestly have no idea what type of hover flies these were (Toxomerus perhaps?), but I was thrilled to see them. Dozens of hover flies flying around in mid-February! Don’t think I’d realized how much I missed that sort of thing until I found myself standing on a sidewalk in downtown San Jose grinning like a fool and pointing excitedly at hover flies. I would bet several passersby thought I was totally nuts, but whatever. I was just so happy to see insects in winter again!
Found this beauty sucking on a rosemary flower! I mistook it for a bee from a distance (how embarrassing!), but was very pleased to see it was really a hover fly when I got close. The spectacularly speckled eyes make me think this might be something in the hover fly genus Eristalinus (which would probably also make it non-native), but if you couldn’t tell from the previous insect, these are well out of my identification skill wheelhouse. Whatever it is, it’s crazy pretty if you get a good look at it! Makes me feel a little sorry for all those people out there in the world who don’t even know something like this exists.
I found dozens of these huge snails in a planter outside an office building and was instantly struck by their beautiful form. One of the nice things about iNaturalist is that you can ask other iNat users for identification help. It’s no BugGuide for insects and other invertebrates, but a lot of people came up with the same ID for this one and I think they’re probably right: garden snail, Helix aspersa. Though we do have a lot of snails in North Carolina, these snails were quite large and were a surprise in the dry environment. They are non-native and considered a pest in California, though these are also one of the snails that end up in escargot in Europe, so apparently edible!
Confession time: I have embarrassed many companions by squealing happily when I come across standing water and crouching down beside puddles to poke around for invertebrates. I found this little worm and about a dozen more just like it in a tiny puddle, just 1/4 inch deep, that had formed in a depression at the top of a light fixture in a park. Seriously, people must think I’m nuts… I was wearing a nice skirt, nice shoes, and a nice shirt with my hair pulled back in a tight bun – all business-like – when I yelled “Oooh! Water!!!” to no one in particular and plunged my hands into a random puddle. If you’re ever out in public with me, be warned that I might do the same thing to you. I have zero shame!
Who doesn’t love a good roly poly? This one didn’t roll up when I picked it up (sad!), but I thought its brown pattern was especially lovely for an isopod. These little guys are land-dwelling crustaceans, the lobster of the land! I love that there are little land crustaceans running around all over the place. If I can trust the iNaturalist users, this lovely brown one is the same species as the horde of more standard grey ones I found with it. Was hoping I had two species, but apparently I just found a weird one instead.
I absolutely loved getting out and looking for bugs in San Jose! I didn’t find all that many species, about 15 invertebrates in all, but that’s certainly more than I’ve seen in Raleigh for a while. I was also thrilled to discover that I was hot in the February sun! That happiness was short-lived however. After 11.5 hours and three flights back home, I stepped off the plane in flip-flops and shorts into 25 degree weather. It started snowing/sleeting a few days later and some schools have been closed ALL WEEK because of it! Nothing like being snapped back into reality the moment you get home…
For those of you that live in places that aren’t buried in snow or covered in a massive sheet of ice, what’s the best invertebrate you’ve seen recently? I want to live vicariously through you – I miss warm winters!!
I have a giant water bug for you all this week!
That’s a Lethocerus uhleri nymph, a very large giant water bug common in North Carolina. This particular individual was only an inch long when I scooped it out of the pond at work, but it was still a baby. They get quite a bit larger before becoming adults! I like the way that they looked wholly menacing, even as young’ins. :)
It’s been cold in Raleigh recently (it’s supposed to dip below zero tomorrow!), so I’m missing my aquatics. Stay warm, everyone!
Sometimes I wonder about my neighbors. There’s one that wanders up and down the street at odd times and another that has some pretty intense conversations with his dog as they walk. Wondering about my neighbors makes me wonder what they think of me. I mean, I had this going in my yard every night for a month last summer and spent at least 2-3 hours every night staring at the sheet:
My neighbors probably think I’m much stranger than they are – and they’re probably right. :)
One of the best parts of my job is getting to lead a variety of educational programs for the public at the field station where I work. Though I don’t get to form the bonds with my students that used to be a part of teaching at a university, it’s still great fun to watch people learn new things and see things clicking in their heads. For today’s Friday 5, I’m going to share 5 great teaching moments I had last year. All of these moments still make me smile when I think about them, and are great reminders of why I love my job on days when things just aren’t going my way or I feel overwhelmed.
As much as I love doing insect programs, I think my very favorite program is one I call Photography for Science. The program is aimed at photographers, amateur or professional, who love nature and want to use their photography to support conservation efforts and science. We spend about 1/3 of the program going over citizen science projects that invite photographs and how to take photos that are useful to scientists. We spend the other 2/3 of the class out in the field taking nature photos and practicing the things they learned. What I like about this program are the people who attend it. They are the happiest, most enthusiastic bunch of people and they absolutely love learning. The women in the photo above were among those that attended the program last January on what ended up being one of the very coldest days all winter. We have no heated indoor space for teaching at the field station and I warned everyone it was going to be cold, but every single person who registered for the program showed up! They were all very cold the whole time, but not one complaint and they still all went away with a smile. That group was hard-core and I loved every moment of that program.
I met an awesome state park ranger last year. In addition to being a park ranger, she and her husband lead science classes for kids at a science toy store they own in the area, so we met when she wanted to make a citizen science program and came to me for suggestions. A few months later, we began offering a program together on tracking. She is a great tracker and I really love doing the program with her. The second time we offered the program, we came across the long, double lined tracks above. The group spent quite a lot of time debating what it was and eventually someone suggested millipedes. We looked it up on my phone and sure enough, it WAS a millipede! Rather, a whole bunch of them, roaming about in this one sandy area on the trail. I loved that we saw all sorts of great mammal prints – coyotes, deer, foxes, raccoons – but everyone was most excited about the millipede tracks that day. Those are my kind of people!
The group of high schoolers in this photo… I can’t say enough good things about them! They come out to the field station after school every three weeks and sample aquatic insects in a couple of locations in the stream and we have a big ID session at the end of the semester. They are all polite, personable, funny, wonderful people and I just love working with them. They’re also all wicked smart and would give some of my very best former aquatic entomology students a run for their money with their insect ID skills. Any day spent with this group of kids is a good day, AND we’re learning some interesting things about the stream and its aquatic insect community to boot.
North Carolina State University has this awesome fellowship program for K-12 teachers called the Kenan Fellowship. Teacher selected spend 5 weeks in an intensive internship program with researchers in a variety of fields and then develop curriculum for K-12 students based on their experiences. Kenan Fellows tend to be amazing teachers who love what they’re doing and are always a joy to work with. Last summer, I got to work them twice. The museum where I work is part of a grant called Students Discover that aims to bring citizen science into schools that partners with the Kenan Fellows program to bring teachers into the Museum’s research labs. The first day of their fellowship, I led them in a dragonfly citizen science program. Let me tell you that few things beat watching a bunch of adults running around with bug nets catching dragonflies with huge grins on their faces! I also teamed up with one of the teacher education staff at the Museum and led a full day workshop on citizen science for ALL of the Kenan Fellows for 2014. It was such a great experience. Hope I get to work with them again this year too!
The museum where I work is free to visit, so those that are willing to pay for a membership get some pretty awesome perks. Last year, we hosted our first ever member camp out at the field station and offered several evening programs as entertainment. I set up the great blacklighting sculptures that Sigma Xi donated to us and talked to people about nighttime insects. Most people spent just a few minutes at the sheets looking for insects before moving on, but the little boy in the photo above was absolutely riveted! His mother kept telling me about how he had already decided he wanted to be an entomologist and how much he loved insects. She practically had to drag him away when it was time for bed. Funny how one person can make up for an otherwise lackluster crowd! Loved that little guy.
Yep, teaching can be a really great thing when it’s something you enjoy and you have a great group of people. I know a lot of you out there are also teachers of various types. Want to share some of your best teaching experiences? I always find it inspiring to hear other people tell me stories like that, so leave comments below if you’d like to share!
I know I don’t exactly live in the Arctic or anything, but I’ve been really cold recently. It’s cold in my office at work, it’s cold in my house (both are very poorly insulated with spotty heating), and I still haven’t gotten used to the fact that humidity makes it feel a lot colder than I feel like it should be. It makes me long for days like these:
Ah, summer. It can’t get here fast enough! I don’t care if it’s close to 100 degrees and super humid and I have to tuck my pants into my socks and wear long-sleeved shirts to keep the grass and the ticks off my skin. I just want to feel warm again. Plus, bugs! I miss bugs…