Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Halloween Decor

I think spiders have a bad rep, especially on Halloween, but I’m jumping on the bandwagon and bring you a “creepy spider” for the holiday:

Halloween

Spider for Halloween

Spider webs are just so cool!  I don’t enjoy having spiders on me (few people do!), but I really appreciate their mad homebuilding skills and engineering marvels.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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

Friday 5: Insects and Pumpkins

I am quite possibly the worst pumpkin carver of all time.  I can only remember a handful of successfully carved pumpkins in my entire life, and I have a freakishly long memory.  Most of my best pumpkins were carved when I was very young and stuck to the simple designs.  This could have very well been the last pumpkin I did that looked halfway decent when I was done carving:

Me and my sis

Me and my sis

You can probably tell from looking at me in the photo (I’m the one on the right) that this was not a recent photo.  I was probably 6, 7 at the very oldest, in that photo.  See, we didn’t try to do anything fancy with that pumpkin and I think that was why it was successful.  A few triangles for eyes, a square for a nose, and what looks like a fairly sorry attempt at making a toothy grin.  But hey, we were 6 and 4 (or maybe 7 and 5), so I give myself credit for not cutting myself horribly with the knife AND ending up with something that looks rather like a Jack o’ Lantern.

Since then, things have gone downhill.  When I was in junior high, they started selling those fancy pumpkin carving kits that had patterns and little plastic knives.  Disaster!  You know how hard it is to cut through a crusty old pumpkin with a plastic knife?  You can barely get a sharp kitchen knife through those!  Still, year after year I would try to carve something amazing with a 2 inch long serrated plastic monstrosity.  Without fail, I would spend an hour carving one of the patterns perfectly, then cut through the all important support piece and watch my beautiful design crumple into a steaming pile of crap.  Ah, pumpkin, my old nemesis!  I hate those little buggers, yet I keep at it year after year.

Last year I decided to go a different route.  I’d seen all those cool pumpkins that had just the surface carved rather than cutting all the way through and thought, “Hey, I can do that!”  I’ve carved wooden sculptures and kachina dolls in the past and I do linoleum block printing as a hobby.  I’ve got skills, and I was FINALLY going to make my masterpiece!  I carved and carved and had this gloriously intricate design with a dragonfly on a cattail filled pond done.  It was masterful!  So, I lit the candle inside, carefully replaced the top just so, and prepared to awe my neighbors.  Then…

Nothing!  I hadn’t carved deep enough for the light to show through the pumpkin and it wasn’t glowing at all.  I decided to shave a little off the inside of the pumpkin, thin it up a bit so it would glow, and used my handy melon baller to start scooping the back away from my design.  And then I punched a big hole right in the middle of the design.  It was toast.  I was sad.  I consoled myself with toasted pumpkin seeds, the only good thing that had ever come out of my pumpkin carving obsession.  I might not be able to carve one of them buggers, but at least I can toast a mean pumpkin seed.

A month ago, I followed the siren call to the pumpkin carving kit aisle in Target.  I’d been down that road so many times before, yet there I was, a glutton for pumpkin-induced punishment once again, looking at cruddy tools I KNEW weren’t going to work when there it was: THE SOLUTION!  It was a pumpkin carving kit that was INTENDED to be a surface only design.  You didn’t even have to cut the top off the pumpkin, just shave off the dark orange skin and reveal the lighter orange underneath.  The tool was ridiculous and looked, I kid you not, exactly like a disposable razor.  It came with 4 little interchangeable blades, one for each of four different styles of lines.  I was so excited by the possibilities that I bought the set.  Then I headed to my neighborhood grocery store, bought the two (TWO!) least horrible looking pumpkins of the five seriously deformed pumpkins they had available, and plopped down on my back patio to carve.

Not surprisingly, the little safety razor looking tool was a bust.  I’d decided to carve a tiger beetle-like beetle on the first of my pumpkins, but I relearned a lesson I’ve learned oh-so-many times before: pumpkins have REALLY thick skin.  A piece of cheap plastic with a tiny piece of minimally sharp metal just isn’t going to cut it.  I spent a good 30 minutes carving and out came a sad little tiger beetle-like beetle:

Beetle pumpkin

Tiger beetle-ish pumpkin

My stupid little $2 safety razor/pumpkin carver was a total bust.  What did I expect?  Given my track record with pumpkins, a $2 safety orange disposable razor wasn’t going to perform miracles.  But… I liked the concept of the surface-only carving…  And, didn’t I have a whole box of wood carving tools upstairs…?

So I grabbed my wood carving tools and started to carve a giant water bug on my second pumpkin.  I plunged the wood carver into the thick skin and it went right through!  It went almost exactly where I wanted it to!  10 short minutes later, I had the best pumpkin carving I’d ever done:

Lethocerus pumpkin

Lethocerus pumpkin

I made the legs a little too long, but look at those wing veins on the hemielytra!  Flushed with success, I quickly carved another design on the same pumpkin, a jumping spider:

Phidippus pumpkin

Phidippus pumpkin

I was on a roll, so I did another beetle on the pumpkin with the crappy tiger beetle-like beetle on it, just so it wasn’t a total reject pumpkin:

Dytiscid beetle pumpkin

Dytiscid beetle pumpkin

I was just going to do a generic predaceous diving beetle, but then I got cocky and decided to make the “Charlie brown beetle,” as my students always called Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.  I made the legs too long, but it was STILL better than the vast majority of my life’s pumpkin carving work.  Finally I added a third carving to the water bug/jumping spider pumpkin:

Ant pumpkin

Ant pumpkin

I decided to stop when my ant ended up with a crazy giant head and no neck.  Clearly, my success had gone to my head and it was time to put the tools away.

This year, I have enjoyed my toasted pumpkin seeds more than ever, knowing that my pumpkins are actually displayed out on my front walk.  I had to put SOMETHING out there.  I live in the ‘burbs.  My neighborhood’s Home Owner’s Association is having a Halloween decoration contest and people seem to be rabidly competing for the top prize.  It’s like the Halloween aisle of Target exploded all over my neighborhood.  Then there’s our house, which until yesterday had absolutely nothing going for it except our creepy black shutters and a sorry little maple tree that was deformed when a tornado hit it a few years ago.  But, we’re no longer the only house with no Halloween decorations.  Now we’re the people with the fashionable insect pumpkins.  Life is good.

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

Adventures with Autumn Arthropods

When I moved to North Carolina, I was excited to see a real fall.  The trees are changing colors and we’ve had some gloriously crisp nights, but I have to admit I expected it to be cooler at this point.  It’s getting to be late October, yet there are still days when I get so warm that I shed clothes down to the base layer.  I also expected most of the insects to be gone by now, but that hasn’t been the case at all!  The dragonfly season is largely over as I’ve seen only one lone green darner and one blue dasher at the pond over the last month, but there are otherwise lots of insect activity still.  Let me give you a brief overview of some of the highlights of the last month.

This is cheating a bit as this was the live butterfly exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, but I got to see my first butterfly emerge from its pupa in several years:

A beautiful owl butterfly!  It was shocking how fast that little guy wiggled out of its pupal case and puffed its wings out too – under 2 minutes from a shriveled butterfly to this.  Wow.  Nature is amazing.  Truly.  The macro capabilities of my iPhone without any adapters leave much to be desired, however.

I’ve seen more of these…

Chinese mantids over the past month than I’ve seen in my entire life!  This beauty was incredibly pregnant and I’m sure she laid a huge egg case out in the prairie somewhere after she was re-released back into the wild after her trip to BugFest.

I have two eighth grade volunteers who are doing a service learning project with me in the citizen science center in the museum where I work.  We promote a new citizen science project, or group of related projects, each week.  A few weeks ago, we promoted monarch butterfly projects and I was shocked that I was able to find so many of these out and about still:

What sort of self-respecting butterfly is still in the caterpillar phase in the middle of October?  Crazy!  I haven’t seen any larvae since then, but up until the last few days I’d seen many adults flying around.  Last Thursday I saw a good 50 or 60 of them in just a few hours!  Some were tagged with the little Monarch Watch tags (thanks to our trusty 10-year-old butterfly catcher/tagger – he is awesome at it!), and some had yet to have found themselves in the clutches of citizen scientists eager to report their findings.  Is seeing monarchs on October 19 strange?  I really don’t know yet.

Speaking of pollinators… I walked through the prairie yesterday (it was my weekend to work) and stood there for a moment, marveling at the incredible sound the bees, wasps, and flies were making as they gathered nectar and spread plant reproductive cells bits about.  Bumblebees still make me happy every time I see them, and probably always will:

Look at that cute little fuzzy butt!  Bumblebees are adorable.  I have been amazed at how very many pollinators, like the bumblebees, are still out, but I suppose I shouldn’t when vast swaths of the prairie look like this:

Wow!  There are a lot of opportunities for a pollinator to both dine and spread plant genetics around out there!  Those are frost asters, in case you were wondering.  I’m slowly learning my prairie plant species, so I feel the need to show off my latest bit of acquired plant knowledge.  :)

Speaking of reproduction… One of the most exciting of the natural events I witnessed in the past month was the rise of the stinkhorns after a series of soaking rains.  If this doesn’t remind you of a particular anatomical part, I don’t know what will:

Then there are these:

Those are actually commonly called dog phallus mushrooms.  It might be a little hard to see, but flies LOVE stinkhorns, and both of these fine specimens have flies on them.  It’s nice being in a place where things like this actually have a shot at growing.  Shortly before I moved away from Arizona, we had a big rain and a mushroom popped up in my backyard.  It was the first mushroom I’d seen growing in the wild for a few years and I was SO excited!  Now I can step outside on any given day and typically find 5-10 species.  It’s great!

But this blog isn’t about mushrooms.  It’s about insects.  There were a lot of insects at the North Carolina State Fair, where I helped out with the museum’s tent.  This fine specimen was in the garden exhibit:

Love the creative use of recycled materials!  There were also a ton of these around:

Adults using them outnumbered kids 3 to 1.  I found that very amusing, and happily took a photo of a pair of women who asked if I could get a shot of them as the butterfly and bee.  I love it when these sorts of things get used by adults more than kids.  I’ve even considered making one for a party sometime and setting up a little photo booth with it.  I think it would be heavily used!

For all the ant loving people out there, I got to see a really cool battle between an ant colony and a termite colony recently:

The ants won.  Handily.  I watched several termites get stung by the ants and it looked awful.  Poor little guys…

Finally, I was photographing some moss sporophytes yesterday when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was this lovely creature:

… crawling down a moss-covered tree trunk.  That’s the American dagger moth, Acronicta americana.  Awesome caterpillar!  But, I say it again: what sort of self-respecting moth is still in the caterpillar stage as of October 21?  I can only hope it was headed down the tree to find a nice, cozy place to pupate for the winter.

I suppose I should be grateful that it’s still warm enough to see butterflies and grasshopper and bumblebees out, but I do hope it cools down more soon.  I have a whole store of sweaters ready to go that I rarely got to wear in Arizona.  Come on, North Carolina: bring on the winter!

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

Friday 5 (On Saturday): 5 Micrographs

I have been in love with the electron microscope ever since I first learned of its existence as a child.  When I was in college as an undergrad, I desperately wanted to take the scanning electron microscopy course, but due to the way my college assigned courses to students I was never able to get in.  So, I was the happiest person on the planet when I got to take Biological Electron Microscopy shortly after starting grad school.  Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity to use the scanning electron microscope and have amassed a lovely little collection of micrographs (microscope + photograph = micrograph).  Here are five from my collection!

Blue Orchard Bee Foot

I helped with a study looking at pollination by blue orchard bees a while back.  As the project’s microscopist, I took a ton of micrographs of pollen from almond trees, but occasionally I’d run across a body structure of a bee that I found interesting and snapped a quick shot of it.  This is the foot of the blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria:

bee foot

Blue orchard bee foot

Insects have some amazing structures when you look really closely!  Look at all those hairs, the claws, the joints!  There’s so much texture there!  Another good example of this is the…

Honey Bee Eye

Honey bee eyes are SO hairy!  That includes their compound eyes:

bee eye

Honey bee eye

When I taught Insect Behavior, we had one morphology lab (morphology = body structures and forms) where we would spend half the lab period in the classroom and half in the electron microscopy lab.  I let students bring in insects they wanted to examine with the microscope, and one student brought in this bee.  No matter how much you think you know about a species, electron microscopy can open up a whole new world to you!  I never noticed that honey bee eyes were hairy until I saw one under the scanning electron microscope, but those hairs are big enough to see without the microscope too.  Now I see it every time I look at a honey bee.  I wonder if this is where the term “giving you the hairy eyeball” comes from…

Whirligig Beetle Antenna

Have you ever seen whirligig beetles darting about frantically on the surface of the water?  If so, have your noticed how they don’t run into each other as they swirl around?  Whirligigs are highly maneuverable beetles with funky stubby little legs that allow them to change directions very quickly.  However, they have to be able to sense when they’re getting close to their comrades to avoid hitting them.  That’s where these come in:

whirligig antenna

Whirligig antenna

That antenna is quite sensitive to vibrations on the surface of the water and lets the whirligig beetle know when it’s about to collide with one of its relatives with just enough time to swerve out of the way.  Utterly cool!

Water Scorpion Beak

Water scorpions in the genus Ranatra are my favorite true bugs.  I absolutely love them!  I wrote a whole post about them a while back so you can read more about them there if you’re interested, but I want to focus on one part for now:

Water scorpion beak

Water scorpion beak

That’s the water scorpion’s piercing-sucking mouthpart, often called it’s beak.  Beaks like that are the defining characteristic of the true bugs in the order Hemiptera.  In the case of the water scorpions, they use that beak to stab a prey animal, then pump digestive chemicals into the prey, wait for the tissues inside to liquefy, and suck up the juices through the beak like a straw.  Awesome mouthpart, though a run in with a beak like that can be unpleasant.  I generally leave true bugs alone or handle them very carefully to be sure I’m not bitten.

Mite on Blue Orchard Bee

I wrote a post about the mites I found on the blue orchard bees when I did the pollination study I mentioned above, but it never hurts to take another look at one of the most adorable little parasites on the planet:

mite

Krombein’s hairy footed mite on blue orchard bee

If you must have a parasite, you might as well have a cute one!  That’s Krombein’s hairy-footed mite, in case you were wondering.  I think it would make a fantastic plush.

Hope everyone’s having a good weekend so far!  It’s glorious weather here, and I intend to spend part of tomorrow collecting aquatic insects.  Life is good.

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Darner in the Dark

One of my roomies at BugShot (Suzanne “Buglady” Wainwright) is the most amazing bug finder!  We were wandering around in the dark at Archbold one night looking for a weevil she wanted to photograph and she found this:

Darner in the Dark

Darner in the dark

I’ll admit that I would have been very unlikely to come across this insect without the Buglady’s help, so thanks Suzanne!  What a beautiful find.

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

Dragonfly Entomophagy

dragonfly

Eastern pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis)

I wrote a post about entomophagy, people eating insects, a while back that talked about a few new ideas about eating insects, including one that has been pushed heavily by a group in the Netherlands: commercially farming insects for human consumption as a replacement for our current meat sources.  I am intrigued by this idea, though I also don’t personally eat insects and I’m not entirely convinced that it is going to work.  But, I’ve already written about that topic and I don’t want to rehash things I’ve already done.  Today’s post is going to focus on a specific type of entomophagy: dragonfly entomophagy.  Yes, that’s right!  Many cultures eat dragonflies, and today I’m going to cover the importance of dragonflies in cuisine.

Americans aren’t typically big proponents of eating insects, so it’s not surprising that we don’t find dragonfly nymphs or adults for sale in our food markets.  That’s not the case in other parts of the world though!  Dragonflies are eaten by many cultures, though they are most popular in Asian cuisine.  In many countries, especially in southeast Asia and Indonesia, dragonflies are available for sale in markets, intended for consumption by people.  In Japan, a variety of aquatic insects are considered delicacies and can be purchased on skewers to be taken home to eat.  Dragonflies are also popular in Papua New Guinea, where they are either boiled  or skewered and roasted over a fire, and in the Philippines.  In most parts of Asia, both the nymphs and the adults are eaten, typically boiled or fried and often served on rice.

Dragonfly haul on Bali.  Photo by Peter Menzel and made available on the NOVA website.  Click image for source.

Dragonflies seem to be especially popular as food on Bali in Indonesia.  There, some people still engage in a traditional dragonfly hunting method that involves a bamboo pole tipped with a long strip of palm.  The palm is coated in a sticky substance produced by the jackfruit tree and dragonfly hunters catch their prey by flicking the palm strip toward the dragonfly.  If the strip touches the dragonfly, it sticks and the insect can then be transferred to another string to carry it home.  This is, however, a dying hunting method.  With the modernization of Indonesia and other dragonfly eating cultures, many of the traditional hunting methods are being lost.  In the book Man Eating Bugs, the authors Peter Menzel and Faith D’Alusio recount a conversation with one Balinese man who could not convince his children to hunt dragonflies the way he used to as a child.  They had enough money to buy food and had a television, plus it was too hot outside, so the kids couldn’t be bothered to catch dragonflies to eat.

Fried dragonflies on rice

Fried dragonflies on rice. Click on image for image source.

Whether captured by the people who intend to eat them or purchased from a market, dragonflies tend to be cooked in one of a few ways on Bali.  The simplest method is to simply remove the wings and fry the dragonflies, usually in coconut oil.  The same technique can be used on nymphs by popping them into the hot oil as is.  The fried dragonflies can then be eaten plain as a snack, or placed atop rice to be eaten as a meal.  Fancier preparations are made as well.  Boiling wingless dragonflies in coconut milk seasoned with ginger and garlic is said to be especially tasty, giving the adult dragonflies a flavor somewhat reminiscent of soft-shelled crab.  Not surprisingly, the aquatic dragonfly larvae are reported to taste more like fish and are sometimes cooked using the same methods.

squeamish eater

A young girl looks on in horror as her mother samples a dragonfly hors d’oeuvre. Click on photo for image source.

While dragonflies are most commonly eaten in Asia, it’s not the only continent on which dragonflies are consumed.  You can even try dragonflies right here in the USA!  Just head to the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans, where one cafe is dedicated entirely to sampling insect cuisine.  One dish that has been served there features native dragonflies, eastern pondhawks, fried in Zatarain’s fish fry, settled on top of a sautéed mushroom, and drizzled with Dijon soy butter (on the plate in the image).  You can even occasionally find dragonflies on the menu at the annual Explorer’s Club banquet, an evening of adventurous eating for members that can feature many insect dishes.

If dragonflies sound completely delicious to you, let me offer a few suggestions for cooking your own!  In her book Creepy Crawly Cuisine, Julieta Ramos-Elorduy recommends using dragonfly nymphs in mecapale tamales.  The tamales are made by layering masa, a tomato salsa, and dragonfly nymphs (or predacious diving beetle larvae, hellgrammites, or stonefly larvae), wrapping the contents in banana leaves, and steaming them.  This is a style of tamale that people still eat in some parts of Mexico.  And how can you go wrong with dragonfly tempura?!  A recipe featured on the website World Entomophagy offers the following technique for preparing your dragonflies (edited slightly as there are a lot of typos in the original):

Dragonfly Tempura
Serves 2

7 ounces dragonflies (about 12 large nymphs or 12 adults)
1 egg, beaten
1 cup flour
1 cup ice water
salt and pepper to taste
vegetable oil for frying

Heat oil to 340-350 degrees F.  Meanwhile, rinse the dragonfly larvae or adults and remove the wings from any adults being prepared.

Make the tempura batter by mixing the egg, flour, ice water, salt, and pepper.  Whisk together until smooth.

When oil is hot, lightly flour the dragonflies and dip them into the tempura batter.  Drop them into the oil immediately.  Cook until brown and crispy.

Serve promptly with soy sauce or Siracha.

I personally think that if you’re going to eat tempura dragonflies then you should dip them in the tempura sauce made from soy sauce, mirin, dashi, and sugar that you get at Japanese restaurants.  It is super tasty!  Although I’m unlikely to sample dragonfly tempura any time soon myself, I imagine that tempura sauce would pair marvelously with this dish.

I am sure there are more cultures that eat dragonflies and preparations I have missed, but this should provide a basic overview of dragonfly entomophagy around the world!  So, who’s hungry for dragonflies?!

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Congratulations to my contest winner, Dave Stone of Things Biological, for suggesting this fun topic.  Congrats Dave!  A hearty thank you to everyone else who participated in the contest too.  Even if you didn’t win this time, you might still  see the topic you suggested here in the future.  There were several excellent topics proposed, and I had a hard time making a final decision.  Dave, I will contact you to get an address where I can send your loot.  For everyone else, I’ll have another contest soon!

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