A New Bee House

Maybe it’s the time of year, but last week I started thinking “I need a new project.”  Not a science project – I’ve got a ton of those already.  No, this needed to be a personal project, preferably something that involved creating with my hands.  I quickly developed a pattern for a little elephant plush and made a few of them, but it wasn’t enough.  I needed something bigger, something that involved a bit more heavy construction.  It hit me when I noticed a fallen tree branch in my yard as I was cleaning up after my dogs (a great time to think by the way!): I needed a new bee house!  A fancy bee house!  It was too late for a trip to the hardware store at that point, so I drew up my plans and headed out early Saturday morning to get the supplies I needed.  I am seriously the worst woodworker on the planet, so this project could have ended in disaster, but I’m rather pleased with the results.  Thus, I’m going to share the plans with you all today!

Bee House No. 2

Materials

– Three pieces of equal sized lumber.  I bought a 2″ x 10″ x 10′ board and had the hardware store cut it into nine 11-inch long pieces (enough for three houses) plus one smaller reject piece.  (I have a good saw, but honestly I didn’t want to bother.)  The piece of wood you choose can really be anything that’s more than 6 inches deep, so go with what feels right!  My boards ended up being wider than they needed to be, so I would get something a little less wide next time, something in the 8 inch depth most likely.
– Drill
– Long drill bits in assorted sizes.  I used 1/4 inch and 21/64 inch, but anything between 1/4 and 3/8 inch or so works.  The more different sized holes you provide, the more species of bees you might attract!
– Sandpaper (and a sander if you have one, but you can just rub the wood with the sandpaper by hand if you don’t).  I used 120 grit paper, but considering it’s going to be sitting outside I didn’t bother with getting it perfectly smooth, just enough to get rid of rough edges.
– Wood stain (optional).  I like the stains that stain and seal in one.  This gives the wood a nice finish, but also protects the wood from the elements to some extent.  I went with the walnut stain.  For a more rustic look, you can leave the wood unfinished.
– Foam brush or other paint brush.
– Newspaper or masking paper
– Paper towels
– Carpenter’s glue

– Copper hanger strap (in the plumbing department)
– Ruler
– 24- 1/2 inch #8 wood screws - or more if you choose not to use the…
– Thumbtacks or upholstery tacks (optional)
– Screwdriver
– Hammer 

Instructions

Step 1.  Cut

If you don’t have them cut at the store, cut your board into three equally sized pieces.

Step 2.  Drill

 Drill the different sizes of holes in whatever pattern you find appealing along the narrowest edge of the board.  Drill as deep as you can, avoiding the edges.  If you’re a perfectionist and abysmal woodworker like me, trust me: random hole placement is the way to go.  You’re never going to get the holes lined up as nicely as you’d like without a drill press and a good workbench and it will just frustrate you if you try!

Step 3.  Sand

Sand every side of the boards, making sure the edges and the drilled holes are free of any sharp pieces that could result in splinters.  I used an orbital sander and it made quick work of this step.  Look over your boards and choose the two pieces that have the most pleasing appearance to be your top and bottom boards, then sand those especially carefully so that they’re quite smooth.

Step 4.  Stain

This step is optional, but I wanted to protect the wood and make it darker.  If using, place the boards on newspaper or masking paper, then apply the stain in a thin, even layer.  You really don’t need to stain the parts of the board that will be hidden inside the bee nest, so I only stained around all the edges and what were going to be the top and bottom edges.  Wait 5-15 minutes and then gently and evenly wipe any remaining stain from the boards.  Let them dry for at least a few hours, or even overnight.  If you want to make the nest extra weather resistant, you could seal the wood with polyurethane or some other sealant at this point, but I wanted my wood to look a little rustic and left it with just stain.

Step 5. Glue

Apply a thin layer of glue to the bottom of the top board and fix it to the middle board.  Do the same with the bottom board on the other side.  Make sure all the holes are facing the same way!  This will make the next step a lot easier.  Pile a few books on top and leave to dry overnight.  You could even stop here if you want to keep things simple.

Step 6.  Strap

I love the look of the welded metal frames of some bee houses I’ve seen around town, so I wanted to easily duplicate the sort of metal on wood look without buying welding equipment or burning my house down.  To do so, I used copper hanger strap.  Measure around the house and cut two pieces of hanger strap the measured length plus 1/2 inch.  Choose which part of the house will be the bottom.  On the chosen bottom, measure in 2 inches from one edge and place one end of the hanger strap there.  Drill a screw into the wood through the first hole to fix the hanger strap in place.  Then wrap the hanger strap around the house, always keeping it 2 inches from the edge.  Use the hammer to bend the strap around the edges tightly.  Fix the strap in place every 3 inches or so along the long edge by adding a screw.  Use one screw in each board on the narrow sides.  Repeat this step on the other side of the bee house  so that there are 2 bands of hanger strap around it.

Step 7.  Decorate

I decided to jazz up my bee house a bit more by pressing gold thumbtacks into the hanger strap at regular intervals.  Simply press them into the gaps in the hanger strap, then tap them gently with a hammer to seat them well.

Step 8.  Display

Once complete, the bee house should be placed somewhere it will get shade during the day so it won’t get too hot for the bees.  I’m going to thread some wire under the hanger strap and hang mine from the tree my other bee house is in, but you could simply set it along a fence, retaining wall, or raised garden bed too.  It could lay flat or stand vertically – your choice!

Step 9.  Enjoy!

Enjoy watching the bees build their nests in their new bee box!

I bought enough supplies for 3 bee houses and they ended up costing $12.74 a piece to build.  Not a bad deal for several years worth of bee observing happiness!  My new nest looks just how I wanted it to, was easy to build (seriously, if I can do this anyone can!), and will provide extra cavities for my yard bees to build nests in.  And, I don’t need three nests, so I’m giving two away as gifts.  What can be better than the gift of native bees?

Now I’m itching to come up with some new designs…  I’ll post them here when I do!

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Want a printable copy of this tutorial?  You can find it here!

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

Friday 5: Aquatic Invertebrates of Southern Arizona

I recently had an opportunity to go aquatic insect hunting for my class.  We had a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted for the behavior lab, so I decided to do an activity I’ve done many times in my aquatic entomology and insect behavior labs: studying aquatic insect respiration.  It was also the only lab apart from the arthropod lab where my students got to work with live animals, so it was very important to me that I collect a variety of insects for them to choose from.  So, I headed to the mountains south of town and collected as many different things as I could.  Among them were the following five aquatic invertebrates:

1. Red Rock Skimmer Dragonfly Nymph

Paltothemis lineatipes

Red rock skimmer dragonfly, Paltothemis lineatipes

This little guy was a beast to ID because it wouldn’t sit still, but look how cute it is!  Dragonfly nymphs are great predators in aquatic systems because they have the specialized mouthpart you see wrapped around this dragonfly’s face.  It’s a modified version of the labium that they’ve turned into a blood-powered, extensible arm that reaches out and grabs prey with fantastic speed!  I’ve written about the mouthpart in detail in an earlier post, but I think this gives a good indication of how it looks on a skimmer dragonfly nymph – and in a live animal.  Just look at those teeth!

2. Horsehair Worm

horsehair

Horsehair worm

That little curly white thing in the picture isn’t a root or any other plant part and it IS alive!  It’s a horsehair worm, a parasite of crickets and grasshoppers, but some other insects as well.  It’s not entirely certain how they infect their hosts, but once they do they can do some amazing things!  At least one species will eat the host alive from the inside out and, when the host is nearly entirely digested yet still alive, will change the brain chemistry of the host so that it seeks water.  Once there, the worm works its way out of the host and enters the water where it will spend its adult, reproductive life.  These worms are completely harmless to people and I find them rather amusing to watch as they slither about the water.  And, you’ve got to love any parasite that turns its insect host into a zombie that does the parasite’s bidding.  Really cool animal!

3. Backswimmer

Notonecta lobata

Backswimmer, Notonecta lobata

I love backswimmers!  I thought they were some of the coolest insects even before I became interested in aquatic insects and I spent a lot of time watching them paddling around my grandparents’ swimming pool in high school.  In the US  these charismatic little bugs are called backswimmers, a name they get from their tendency to swim upside.  These bugs hunt upside down, collect oxygen upside down, paddle about in the middle of the water column upside down.  Their bodies are perfectly shaped for this motion too with a long keel running down the back.  Some species of backswimmers (though not this one) are even more amazing because they have a hemoglobin-like protein that binds oxygen similarly to the hemoglobin in our blood.  This is thought to allow the backswimmer species that have the protein to adjust their buoyancy so that they can float suspended right in the middle of the water, something almost no other insects can do.  It’s an impressive feat!

4. Painted Damsel Damselfly Nymph

Hesperagrion heterodoxum

Painted damsel damselfly nymph, Hesperagrion heterodoxum

This is the nymph of the painted damsel, Hesperagrion heterodoxum, a bright, multi-colored damselfly as an adult.  There is surprisingly little known about these damselflies, especially considering their showy colors, so about all I can say about this nymph is that it was found in the sort of place you’d expect to find them: a permanent stream in the southwestern US with some emergent vegetation.  I kind of love the expression on this damselfly’s face.  I know it’s not good to anthropomorphize insects, but doesn’t it just look like it knows how cool it is?

5. Whirligig Beetle

Gyrinus plicifer

Whirligig beetle, Gyrinus plicifer

This was a seriously difficult insect to photograph live – they just never sit still!  Whirligig beetles get their name for the whirling, frenetic movement they exhibit as they skim about on the surface of the water.  I’ve talked about whirligigs a bit in the past, but they’re pretty amazing beetles.  Apart from their unique eyes, they also have amazing sensory structures (especially their very sensitive antennae that sense vibrations on the water’s surface – you can see them in the picture), they live in groups, and they have specialized hind legs (broad and flattened for oar-like movement, but VERY short).  Whirligigs are incredibly entertaining to watch too!  They just keep moving and keep moving so that it’s uncommon to actually see one just sitting still.  Fabulous beetles!  I encourage everyone to watch a group of these at some point in their lives.  Trust me – it’s worth it!

I absolutely love having a job where I can go out and collect aquatic insects for work!  Those are some of my favorite days as a teacher because getting outside to collect bugs in a beautiful place like the following is wonderful:

creek

Beautiful cool water, shade on a hot day, and lots of interesting insects.  What could be better?

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Peek-a-Boo!

I love the way caddisflies hide in their cases when disturbed, and how they slowly peek out when they seem sure the “predator” has moved away.  For example…

Phylloicus caddisfly

Caddisfly (Family Calamoceratidae, genus Phylloicus)

Isn’t it cute, hiding there under its case?  Adorable.

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

Explaining My Research to 10 Year Olds

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon. Photo by Jess Gwinn.

Last week, the Bug Geek issued a challenged to the science blogging community: explain your research to 10-year-olds in 250 words or less.  She’s writing an application that will allow her to do science outreach with kids and part of it is writing a description of her work to 8- to 12-year-olds.  She thought it was a good experience for everyone.  I adore doing outreach and I work with a lot of kids, so being able to communicate to the younger crowd about science is something near and dear to my heart.  So, I sat down and started typing out my response to the challenge immediately.

I promptly ran into a roadblock though: I couldn’t talk about all three areas of research I’ve been involved with in only 250 words.  And it turns out that I wasn’t the only one with this problem!  Ted MacRae at Beetles in the Bush ended up writing one paragraph for his actual work dealing with genetically modified crops and another for his full-time hobby of collecting and describing beetles from around the world.  In the end, I decided to choose only one area of research, my work monitoring aquatic habitats using insects, and focused on that.  Maybe I’ll write two more paragraphs describing my work with giant water bug egg respiration and my dragonfly swarm research in the future, but for now I present my exactly 250 word summary:

Sabino Canyon

Me sampling for aquatic insects. Photo by Dave Walker.

I love bugs!  In fact, I love them so much that I got a job working with them.  I am an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects!  But not just any entomologist.  I study insects that live in the water, aquatic insects.  Did you know there are thousands of species of insects that live in lakes and rivers?  Some have really interesting structures like snorkels to help them breathe or suction cups to keep from being washed away in a river.  They have fun names too, like caddisfly, predaceous diving beetle, and water scorpion!  All of these underwater insects have a place they belong and a job that they do that ultimately help the plants and animals that live with them survive. 

Studying aquatic insects is important because they can tell us about the water they live in, like whether their water has been polluted or flooded.  We often drink the water that insects live in, so we can tell if water is safe and unpolluted by looking at the insects living in it.  If there are a lot of insects that like clean water, then there has been little pollution or other problems in the water.  If you find mostly insects that can live in very dirty water, that tells you that there is something wrong and you can try to fix the problem. 

By studying aquatic insects, I am learning more about our world, but also helping the people who live here.  I have the best job ever!

Me Sampling the Salt River

Me Sampling the Salt River

I work with a lot of second graders, so I think this statement might actually be a bit young for the average 10-year-old.  I adjust how I speak about my work based on the average intellectual level of whatever group I’m working with.  It’s a lot harder to do that in print though!  So, I’m hoping I don’t insult any 4th graders out there by being condescending.

Now, how to summarize why I study giant water bug egg respiration in 250 words or less…  Yikes, that’s going to be a tough one!

(Morgan Jackson at Biodiversity in Focus also took up the Bug Geek’s challenge and described his work with fly taxonomy in his 250 word statement.  It’s really great, so I recommend that you head on over and check it out!)

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

Friday 5: Insects Behaviors I Observed At the Park

I went to a local park with my husband late yesterday afternoon.  He’s continuing to recover from his surgery and is becoming more and more active, so he wandered around the park listening to a podcast while I took some photos.  While we were there, I observed several insects flying about in the warm air.  Today I’m going to share five behaviors I saw during the 30 minutes we spent along the pond at the park!

WARNING: I didn’t think to check my camera settings before I started shooting today, so I took all of my shots at 1600 ISO.  My camera starts to get noticeable grain at 400 ISO, so today’s photos are going to be, well, rather cruddy.  Won’t be making the mistake of forgetting to check the ISO setting again though!

Damselfly Seeking Shelter From the Wind

Damselfly on lee side

Damselfly on lee side. It's halfway up that yellowy-brown cattail leaf, in case you're not finding it. Told you the photos from today were awful!

Yesterday was rather windy.  Damselflies don’t fly well in strong winds and I’ve observed them doing one thing over and over again in high wind conditions like I saw yesterday: they fly around to the sheltered side of the vegetation rather than continuing to fly in the wind.  Perhaps they’re moving to the sheltered side hoping to wait out the wind or maybe they’re just optimizing their hunting by finding a place they can fly reasonably well – I don’t know.  But, they seem to either hunker down in the vegetation or move around to the lee side and continue on with their business.  Considering my interest in odonate responses to changes in weather, I find this behavior fascinating!

Dragonfly Patrolling

patroller

Patroller, that blur indicated by the arrow.

I only saw a handful of dragonflies (probably due to the wind), but there was one impressively large darner (blue-eyed darner I think, though it was quite far away) flying back and forth along the stream between the spring outfall and the pond.  It flew by several times as I watched, mostly in the shade of the palm trees.  It was definitely doing some hunting because I saw it chase several small flies up into the “beards” of the palm trees, as is sort of evident from the photo above.  Wow do the darners fly well!  It’s always a treat for me to watch them!

Fly Mating Swarm

Several insects are known to form mating swarms.  Often they’re made up of male insects swirling about in a column in the air, competing for the best position.  When a female flies into the swarm, several males will try to grab her first, but only one will be successful.  I was at the park just before the photographic magic hour, so it was very apparent that there was some serious fly nookie happening at the pond!  With the great backlighting I saw several mating swarms around the park: over the water, over the grass, over the trees.  I couldn’t even begin to tell you what kinds of flies they were (best description I can give is “small!”), but they were fun to watch.

Ants Foraging

Pogos on Bread

Pogos on bread

I came across the scene above directly across the path from the sign telling people not to feed the wildlife, to resist the urge to feed bread to the ducks.  Apparently someone wasn’t paying attention!  But these ants seemed quite thrilled with their bready windfall and kept swarming over it.  There were little bite marks all along the crust!  I believe these are Pogonomyrmex harvester ants, though the photo is WAY too grainy to use to get a better ID from anyone.  You’ll just have to trust that I know at least a few ant genera.  :)

Butterflies Puddling

Puddling blue

Puddling blue

I’ve written briefly about butterfly puddling before, but I am always thrilled when I see it in action!  Today’s puddlers were lycaenid butterflies, the delicate little blue butterflies that are common in many areas.  Though it looks like the butterfly is on dry sand in the photo, it was actually quite damp – and salty too I’m sure!  Butterflies often puddle (i.e., suck liquid out of dirt or from shallow puddles) to get the salt they need in their diets.  It’s always nice to know that beautiful, flimsy little butterflies are potentially sucking up the salt from dog urine.  (Or maybe I’m the only one that thinks that the gross things butterflies make them infinitely more appealing!)

It’s not really within the realm of entomology, but there was some interesting fish nesting behaviors happening at the pond today too.  Several fish had these little round depressions in the pond bed that they were guarding from the other fish.  Really fun to watch, so I feel I should mention it too.  All in all, another fun day of wildlife sighting (if not a great day for photography)!

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Oars for Swimming

The predaceous diving beetles in the genus Thermonectus are some of the most elegant swimmers I’ve ever seen.  They paddle around serenely in open pooled areas of desert streams and you can look down into the water and see dozens of them calmly swimming about at all depths.  They accomplish their smooth, beautiful swimming because they are completely smooth and slippery and water just slides right over them.  But they also have enormous, oar-like hind legs, easily visible in this photo:

Thermonectus

Thermonectus marmoratus

Wish I could swim as gracefully as these beetles do.  Apparently I need to grow some different legs!

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

A Trip to Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon

The class I’m teaching this semester has very few field trip opportunities compared to the classes I usually teach, so I was very excited to go on the optional field trip this past weekend.  Students who wanted to get some extra experience in the field were asked to meet us on campus at 7:45 on Saturday.  As one might expect, only a handful of the 1400 total students (mostly freshmen) taking the course this semester wanted to get up early to do extra work on a weekend, so very few students signed up.  Then there was a freakish cold front that brought in a frigid rain the morning of the field trip, so even fewer people actually showed up.  But I still wanted to go!  And I’m glad I did.  We went to Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy property near Sierra Vista, AZ, and it was a really great day.

Ramsey Canyon

New spring foliage in Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon is a beautiful canyon in the Huachuca Mountains of south central Arizona.  The canyon is rather short by Arizona’s standards.  The walk from the visitor’s center at the bottom to the very end of the Nature Conservancy property is only a little over a mile, and most people never get past the first half mile.  But it is a spectacular half mile!  Ramsey is filled with oaks and sycamores and pines, a gorgeous clear creek full of bugs, bears and squirrels and birds galore.  In fact, the canyon is a very popular birding area thanks to the presence of the elegant trogon and several species of hummingbirds.  I haven’t ever seen a trogon myself, but I’m still hoping to catch a glimpse of one someday.

Coue's deer in Ramsey Canyon

A rare mammal photo on The Dragonfly Woman! Coue's deer in Ramsey Canyon

Our group of 18 staff members and students split into three groups and headed up the canyon to work.  We were there to count Arizona grey squirrel nests, collecting data about the nesting trees and the surrounding area when we found them.  I found a nest shortly after we started up the trail and my group took the required measurements before we sat down for lunch.  Then we didn’t find any more nests.  But that turned out to be fine for everyone in the group!  We kept looking for nests, but everyone pulled out their cameras and we stopped every 10-20 yards to take photos.  Between the six of us I’m sure we took well over a thousand photos.

Ramsey Creek

Ramsey Creek

We also took a bit of time to scoop some insects out of Ramsey Creek with the soup strainer I brought along just for that purpose.  Even though we were technically there to learn about squirrel nesting habits, I think my group ended up learning more about aquatic and other insects simply because we found many more insects than we did squirrels or squirrel nests (though it could have also had something to do with the two entomologists leading the group).

I’ve been to Ramsey before to look for a special aquatic insect that’s found there, a water scorpion with a very limited range called Curicta pronotata.  It’s a glorious insect, more robust than the Ranatra water scorpions I’ve featured several times here, but more stick-like than the more giant water bug shaped Nepa species.  Alas, we didn’t find any Curicta during our trip, but we did find several other things.  We found a lot of these leaf case making caddisflies:

Phylliocus aeneus, caddisfly family Calamoceratidae

I found those on my most recent collecting trip, so you’ve already seen them.  They were incredibly abundant in Ramsey Creek and I caught hundreds (and threw them all back).  It was a lot of fun sharing them with the students because they’re the sort of thing that they would have never suspected was alive if I hadn’t pointed them out.  We found a few diving beetles, including this Agabus species:

Predaceous diving beetle

Predaceous diving beetle, Agabus sp.

I love predaceous diving beetles!  If you ever have a chance to watch some of the larger species swim, I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes admiring their elegance as they paddle about.  It’s truly stunning!  I didn’t find any giant water bugs or whirligig beetles as I’d expected, but we did come across these:

Water striders on Ramsey Creek

Water striders on Ramsey Creek

Water strider nymphs!  Water striders are often gregarious, meaning that they like to stay together in groups.  I really enjoyed watching them skittering around on the surface of the water.  In fact, I recorded them doing so.  If you’d like to experience a taste of what it was like to sit next to a clear, cool creek in a gorgeous canyon photographing water striders, just watch this 30 second video:

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Really, can it get any better than that?  Absolute heaven for me!

Ramsey Creek

Ramsey Creek

It was quite cold almost the whole trip and we were alternately subjected to rain, sleet, hail, snow, and high winds, but it was still a really great day.  I felt like the boundaries between the students and the TAs in our group eventually melted away so that we became a rather cohesive group of photographer scientists out in a beautiful place on a cold and cloudy spring day.  The trip to Ramsey was completely worth getting up early on a Saturday, even if it meant extra work!  At least, it was for me.  I spent the day with a group of very enjoyable people in a stunning mountain canyon teaching and hiking and photographing and watching bugs.  Honestly, I can’t imagine a nicer day in the field!

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