A Spring in His Step (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Yesterday was an absolutely perfect day outside and I spent a half hour after work looking for cool bugs in the pond to photograph.  I found a great diversity of pond critters, but one of the things I was most excited to try my hand at photographically were the springtails I found hopping about on the surface.  Those little buggers are SO small that they’re really terrible to photograph in the tank! EVERY flaw in the glass shows up, every smudge, and the springtails get sort of trapped in the surface tension near the walls of the tank. This is my favorite shot so far:

Springtail

Less crisp than I’d like for sure, but it only makes me more determined to get a better shot next time!  It’s always good to have new photographic goals.  Besides, it gives me a good excuse to watch these little guys some more.  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Birth of a Snail (Friday 5)

On March 4th, I was in the midst of an all out race to prep curriculum for an insect-themed afterschool citizen science program I’m developing.  One of the things we wanted to provide to the state park rangers who will be implementing the bulk of the program was a couple of vials containing examples of hand sanitizer preserved dragonfly and damselfly nymphs.  That meant getting into the pond to look for nymphs.  I had spent four straight weeks in front of my computer working non-stop on the afterschool program and was thrilled to get outside, even though it was cold in the water and we found only a single dragonfly and a couple of snails.  One of my coworkers needed photos of the snails for our pond field guide, so I promised to take them home and photograph them.  I set up my tank and put the snails in and left them overnight so the bubbles would dissipate.  The next day, I realized that one of the snails had laid eggs.  A LOT of eggs.  There were only two snails in the tank, so it had to be this one:

Physid snail

Pouch snail (family Physidae)

… or this one:

Planorbid snail

Ram’s horn snail (family Planorbidae)

 

And I have to say: those snails and their eggs enthralled me!  I was exhausted and overworked, so nothing gave me more satisfaction than watching my two snails, one of which was going to be a mother of several hundred baby snails, gliding around the tank every evening after work.  I took the photos we needed for the pond guide the day after I set everything up, but I kept watching and kept photographing over a few weeks.  Today I am going to show you what happened.  Let’s start at the beginning…

March 6, 2015

Snail eggs, Day 1

Snail eggs, Day 1

I added the snails to the tank on March 5 and left them overnight, so these eggs were less than 24 hours old when I first saw them.  I love that you can see a little dot in the center of the mostly clear eggs!  Nutritious yolk perhaps?  A little cluster of cells that would become the snails?  I really have no idea as I know little about snails, but I thought they were rather beautiful.  There were lots of clusters like this in the tank.

March 11, 2015

Snail eggs, Day 7

Snail eggs, Day 6

After 6 days, the shape of the little embryos inside the eggs were becoming much more snail-like.  You could see some little curved snail bodies and the very beginnings of their shells.  The color comes from the light hitting a piece of wood in the tank under the leaf these were laid on – they were largely transparent.

March 16, 2015

Snail eggs, Day 12

Snail eggs, Day 11

The snails were now 11 days old and you could definitely tell they were snails!  Most of the developing snails inside the egg cluster had mostly to fully developed shells, though still tiny, and had taken on a distinctively spiraled shape.  A few had already broken free of their eggs and left the cluster, including the one in the lower right of the egg cluster who is making a break for it in this photo.

March 18, 2015

Snail eggs, Day 14

Snail eggs, Day 13

By this point, most of the snails had escaped the egg cluster, though a few late bloomers were left.  You can still see the leftover egg compartments and the jelly that held the cluster together if you look hard.  Looks like there may have been a couple of dud eggs in the lot too that probably won’t ever hatch.

March 19, 2015

Baby snails

Baby snails

Baby snails!  There are now about 50 of these on the loose in the tank, each about 2-3 mm long.  They’re absolutely tiny – small enough you’d mistake them for shmutz on the glass if you didn’t know what you were looking for – but they move pretty darned fast for such tiny little animals!  They’ve spread out across the entire tank in just a couple of days.  For some reason, I feel like this is an impressive feat for a 2mm long snail.

And, now that the baby snails have hatched, I can look at their shells and tell that they are pouch snails and not the ram’s horn snails.  That meant that possible baby mama number one above was the parent of dozens and dozens of eggs that are still developing and many more than have already hatched.  She was rather prolific in her laying and I just found another clutch today.  I’m going to have SO many snails in a couple more weeks!  In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy watching these grow.

While all of this epic snail drama was going on, I had a similar situation happening with a bunch of backswimmers.  I’ll share my baby photos of those guys soon.  In the meantime, have a GREAT weekend everyone!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Walks on Water (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Hey everyone!  I’ve been missing for a while again, I know.  I had twelve 10-12 hour works days in a row last week thanks to a whole lot of things going on at once, so I’ve been basically drowning in work. However, yesterday I had an opportunity to go down to the pond to look for dragonflies for a little while for the first time in ages.  I saw my first dragonfly of the year – a common green darner (Anax junius) – and was very pleased to see it.  Also saw this little guy out of the corner of my eye skittering over the surface of the water:

water strider

There are insects out and about again here, including water striders!  Not very many yet, but some.  Spring is coming and the bugs are coming with it.  I can’t wait!!

Hope you all have a great week!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz… (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Last fall, I was watching a movie at home after a long day at work and kept hearing a really loud buzzing sound coming from the bookcase next to our couch.  I assumed it was a house fly that had gotten trapped in the lamp (they often do) and tried to ignore it, but it just kept going and going.  It was also LOUD!  I eventually couldn’t stand it anymore and went to see what it was that was making all the racket.  I found this:

Horse fly

Horse fly

That horse fly had gotten trapped upside down somehow and was trying to right itself, but it just kept spinning around in place, over and over and over, buzzing frantically.  Horse flies scare me – how is it even possible for their bites to hurt so much?! – but it’s hard to beat the beauty of their eyes!  I took pity on this big guy and scooped him into a cup and took him outside.  It was a lot quieter afterwards!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

A Dragonfly Story

I’ve been sick the last several days and I’m not up to writing a whole Friday 5 blog post today, but I still wanted to get SOMETHING up today.  So, I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s a story about this dragonfly:

blue dasher

Blue dasher

That’s a blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and it is a largely unremarkable dragonfly inasmuch as it’s incredibly common in the US.  However, the particular blue dasher in the photo was a part of something exciting and stands out in my memory as being wonderfully interesting.  Allow me to elaborate.

Last summer, I attended Bug Shot 2014 on Sapelo Island in Georgia.  It was, as on past trips, a great weekend full of insect nerdery, endless photography, and a lot of great conversations with good people.  I really love attending Bug Shot as the people there are my kind of people and we have this one huge thing in common: a deep and pervasive love for photographing insects.  However, because I’d been twice already and was attending after a rather brutal week at work, I was exhausted and skipped a few of the sessions on the last day to get a little time to myself.  I wandered over to the pond to look for dragonflies and attempt to get some photos of the many whirligig beetles on the surface.

Now, Sapelo Island has some dangerous things you need to look out for, and alligators are among them.  I adore alligators.  They scare me and I give them a ton of respect when I see them – I have zero desire to get close to them! – but I really love them.  They are just so ancient and powerful that it’s hard not to love them.  When I heard there were several alligators in the pond on Sapelo, I had to go looking for them.  I failed to see them most of the second day, but I finally saw the two adults out in the pond on that last day and was thrilled.  So, imagine my excitement when I was photographing that unremarkable dragonfly at a different area of the pond 10 minutes later and noticed a small, juvenile alligator swimming by, just a few feet from where I was standing on shore.

I grinned as I watched the alligator swimming.  I pointed it out to my friend Suzanne from Buglady Consulting, who had wandered over to see what I was doing, and we watched it swimming in the clear water together.  Then, all of a sudden, it burst out of the water…

and…

ate the dragonfly in the photo above!  One moment the dragonfly was there and the next it was in the belly of an alligator!  Suzanne and I both yelled, “Whoa!!!” and started excitedly asking one another if we’d seen really just seen what we thought we did.  If I had been alone, I wouldn’t have been convinced that the alligator had actually swallowed the dragonfly, that it had just scared it off, but Suzanne confirmed that we had, in fact, just seen a 3 foot long alligator launch itself out of the water, snag a dragonfly from a perch two feet above the water line, and swim quickly away, hidden by a plume of mud the quick motion had stirred up. Coolest. Thing. EVER!

As much as I love about and learn at Bug Shot every time I’ve attended, I suspect that one observation is going to stand out in my mind as the very best thing I’ll ever experience at Bug Shot.  It represented new information for me: that alligators will occasionally eat dragonflies, even if they’re a couple of feet above the water line, which means that dragonflies are a significant enough food source to merit the speed and power it requires for an alligator to catch one.  It was fascinating to watch two ancient creatures interact, alligator and dragonfly, and see just how fast and powerful alligators really are.

I just wish I’d gotten a photo of it…

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Bad Weather for Insects (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

This is what my backyard looked like yesterday:

snow

… 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!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Blacklighting Rig

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:

Blacklight rig with UV

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:

Blacklight rig with CFL

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!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth