Friday 5: Starting an Insect Garden

I adore gardens and plants!  That doesn’t mean that I’m a competent gardener because that’s not the case at all.  Still, every now and again I will very successfully grow something, just enough that I’m not completely discouraged and really enjoy mucking about in the dirt planting and harvesting.  I’ve been especially taken by the native plant garden at work.  It’s a demonstration garden and I want to implement several new ideas I’ve learned from my coworkers and the garden they’ve built in my yard.  I finally have a yard that’s big enough to plant both a good-sized vegetable garden (this always comes before flowers for me!) and several ornamental flowering plants and I’ve been happily plotting and planning so I’m ready to go in the spring.  I’ve got my native plants picked out already, based mostly on their height and their (wait for it…) attractiveness to insects.  I want to have the same pretty bees, butterflies, flies, and beetles visiting my yard that I see at work!  Here are the plants I’ve chosen to start with.

Tickseed, Coreopsis major

tickseed lowers with butterfly

Tickseed, Coreopsis major, with sleepy orange butterfly nectaring

This is a very common native plant at work as it’s found out in the prairie and it is planted in both the roof garden and the native plant demonstration garden.  It’s a beautiful yellow color and doesn’t get very tall.  Plus, butterflies and other nectar feeders, like the sleepy orange butterfly you see in the image, love it!  I got some of these from work when our garden volunteers thinned the plants for the fall, so they’re already in the ground next to my house.  They’ll bloom in May or so and remain in flower for a few months if all goes well.  Exciting!

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

cardinal flower

Cardinal Flower, Lobelia cardinalis

I got some of these plants from work too and I love them!  Mine were recently planted, so I won’t get flowers until late next summer, but the plants are a gorgeous, vibrant green that are quite pretty even without flowers.  These are, as you might imagine from the color and shape, hummingbird flowers and I’m excited by the possibility of their bringing ruby-throated hummingbirds into my yard.  They’re also attractive to several bee species.  They require moist soils, but I happen to have the perfect place right in my backyard!  The drain from my air conditioner releases a small stream of water into a low point in my yard, so I planted my cardinal flowers there.  I suspect they’ll have a fighting chance of surviving as I won’t have to remember to water them and my new flowers will be a nice little side effect of cooling my house in the summer.

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis

buttonbush flower with butterfly

Buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, with a zabulon skipper

I was shocked to see how many different species came to the flowers of this shrub last summer!  Butterflies, bees, flies, beetles…  Seems that if there was a pollinator out and about, it would eventually find its way to the buttonbush.  It’s a beautiful tall plant with fantastic flowers, so I’m hoping I can find a good place in my yard to grow one.  It does well in moist soils, so I might plant one near my cardinal flowers.

Frost Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum

Frost aster

Frost aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum

Frost asters are often considered weeds and they can become weedy.  However, if you don’t let them spread all over everywhere they are lovely fall-blooming plants!  Plus, fall insects LOVE these.  Frost asters are all over the prairie at work and when they bloomed there were so many they looked like snow!  I saw dozens of different pollinator species lurking among the flowers and you could hear hundreds and hundreds of bees and flies happily buzzing away out there.  The migrating monarchs loved them too!  I don’t see any real downside to planting some of these in my yard, so long as I keep and eye on them and start pulling up the recruits.  They’re nice little bushy plants, the flowers are adorable, and I can get them from work for free.  What’s not to love?

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca

common milkweed with bumblebee

Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, with an unidentified bumblebee

This is far and away the least handsome of the plants I’ve chosen, but after spending a summer looking for monarch larvae for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, I’m very excited about the idea of having some of these in my yard.  I’ve already collected seeds, so I just need to choose a place in my backyard to grow them in the spring.  These will go in the backyard for sure, so the neighbors can’t see them.  The plants are nice enough while they’re green and lush and the flowers are rather pretty, but then all the leaves fall off and leave the ugly pods out in the open.  Then the pod and the stem both turn brown and crispy and stay that way for a very long time.  They really are ugly plants and I can only imagine the nasty notes we’d get from our homeowners association if I planted these in front of the house.  But, there’s nothing stopping me from planting some in the backyard!   Calling all monarchs: I’ll have dinner waiting for you in a few months!

There are a few other plants I’m considering as well, including aromatic aster (gorgeous purple flowers in the fall) and purple coneflower, that are insect magnets in North Carolina.  I think there just might be enough water to grow some pitcher plants in that wet area of the yard too!  It’s really exciting to think of all the possibilities and learn about all these unfamiliar plants, so I hope I can get a great garden going come spring.  If I do, expect a lot of photos of my bugs!

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Decomposer

Flipping logs is a lot more exciting in North Carolina than it was in Arizona!  Well, that’s not exactly true.  There was a high likelihood of running into something venomous under logs in Arizona and that made it VERY exciting, but there seems to be a much greater diversity of things under logs in North Carolina.  Case in point:

Millipede

Millipede

There were three millipedes under this one log, each doing its part to break the log down and return it to the soil.  Alongside the millipedes were sowbugs, fungi, ants, and some worms.  Woo, decomposers!  They don’t get nearly enough love considering the invaluable services they perform.

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

Giving Thanks

Okay, let’s try this post again! Here’s hoping the blogging gremlins aren’t out to get me two days in a row…

I have never been a big Thanksgiving lover. I rarely stuff myself silly, I hate turkey with a burning passion, and I really, REALLY hate going around the table saying what I’m thankful for each year. When I was a kid, I always wondered if anyone would notice that I recycled the list of things I was thankful for – my family, my pets, the dinner – when it came time for the dreaded thanksgiving roundtable. I don’t know. There’s something about Thanksgiving that just doesn’t suit me.  I am not a group sharing kind of person.  I was incredibly shy as a kid and being forced to talk about my feelings…  Well, I didn’t like it.  It soured me on Thanksgiving, maybe forever.

That’s not to say that I’m not thankful for things. I am grateful for so, so many things! Today I’m going to share 5 insect and science related things I’m thankful for this year. They include…

Belostoma flumineum in the pond

Upper Pond

Upper pond at Prairie Ridge, home of the Belostoma

I spent several summers trying to find the giant water bug Belostoma flumineum in Arizona. It’s not an uncommon species there and both my students and I would find them all the time on field trips. However, without fail, as soon as I wanted even 10 to do some sort of experiment, they were absolutely nowhere to be found. Imagine my delight when I discovered a huge population of them in one of the ponds at the field station where I work last month. I’m FINALLY going to be able to do a few experiments I’ve wanted to do. Exciting!

Dramatic Changes in the seasons

Fall

Fall foliage

I’ve mentioned before that I come from the land of unimpressive falls, so I have been particularly fascinated by the seasons in North Carolina. One of the best parts has been watching the insects disappear for the winter in succession. While I am sure I’ll miss going out on a warm December or January day to find a whole slew of insects like I did in Arizona, there’s something about the finality of fall, the approach of the cold weather, that I find appealing. Besides, nothing is more exciting than seeing something completely out of place. I was leading a tour group last week and actually squealed out loud when a monarch flew past. I couldn’t help it. She was ratty, worn, and hardly able to fly in the cool weather, but there she was, a whole month after I saw my last adult. That wouldn’t have been so exciting in Arizona, but it’s terribly exciting here.  Now I can’t wait for spring to watch everything reappear!

Comet darners

comet darner female

Comet darner female

You know when you’ve spent your whole life looking at photos of something, hoping you’ll have a chance to see it in the wild one day? That’s how I felt about comet darners from the moment I learned to appreciate dragonflies. They’re huge, showy, fantastically beautiful creatures, so I’d always hoped that I would run into one someday. Then I saw one the very first day I visited the field station. I’ve since learned that they’re often at the pond, so I now see them on a semi-regular basis. I feel so lucky to be close to comet darners! A five-minute walk down the hill and there they are, zooming around over the water.

Carnivorous plants

Venus fly trap

Venus fly trap

I’ve been fascinated by carnivorous plants as long as I can remember. Now I live in one of the best places in the world for finding carnivorous plants! I was so excited to see that venus flytrap up there, I almost cried with happiness. I am not a weepy woman by any means, but some things are just so exciting that you start to feel teary. I am thankful to live close to so many carnivorous plant species.

5. My job

Whales

Whale skeletons

It occurred to me the other day that deep down, I’ve always wanted a job at a natural history museum. I’ve never wanted to be a taxonomist or systematist though, so I had always assumed that I would never get the museum job I dreamed of. Suddenly, I find myself working at a natural history museum!!! Right when I needed it, everything I love to do was wrapped up into a single museum-based position and dumped right in my lap. I have awesome coworkers and I work in a beautiful place with people appreciate the natural world the same way I do.  I love the variety of tasks that I get to do and the fact that I get to work at both the swanky museum buildings downtown and the field station. Honestly, I don’t think I could ever find another job as perfect as this one. I am very thankful that I have it.

These are only a few of the things I’m thankful for, but it’s a start. Anyone else want to share an insect or science-related thing they’re thankful for? I’d love to hear them if you’re willing to share! Just leave a comment below.
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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Friday 5: Giving Thanks… Tomorrow

I had a post planned for today and had it all ready to go, but the blogging gremlins seem to be out to get me. I’ve retyped and lost my whole blog post FOUR times already. Curse you blogging gremlins!! I can’t deal with losing it again, so I’ll try again tomorrow. I had a really great day and I don’t want to ruin it by hurling my computer across the room.

Hope everyone has a fantastic weekend, and look for Friday 5 tomorrow!

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

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my American readers!  I hope you all have a great day full of warmth, delicious food, and family.  As an extra special Dragonfly Woman Thanksgiving bonus, I present my one and only photo of a turkey:

Turkey

Turkey, circa 2009.  You can just make out the tail end of a second turkey off to the left.

Fabulous photo, huh?  That’s what you get when you see a little flock of wild turkeys dashing off into the woods as you scramble to get your camera on your way to a long weekend of camping, collecting bugs, and fishing with one of your favorite friends.  Heck, I’m just happy I got a turkey in the shot!  They were moving FAST, hence the horrendous blur.

To my non-American readers: I hope you all have a great day too, even if it is just another Thursday.  Don’t want to make you feel left out.  :)

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Field of Antlions

We have a great outdoor classroom at Prairie Ridge. Under the outdoor classroom, there’s a patch of fine-grained soil that’s perfect for antlions.  There are several hundred antlions down there now:

Antlions

Antlions

If you don’t know about antlions, each of those little holes has a fierce predator at the bottom, waiting with its long, sharp jaws just below the surface for some hapless insect to fall into its trap.  Think Return of the Jedi and the Sarlacc, the creature in the pit Jabba the Hut tries to feed Luke Sywalker and Han Solo to.  It’s a good analogy.

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

Friday 5: Tips for Citizen Scientists

I spend a huge part of my time thinking about citizen science these days.  I think a lot about how to engage participants and provide them the best experience too.  As part of that, I’ve come up with a list of tips for citizen scientists to maximize their enjoyment as they participate in the scientific process.  These include…

1. Be Patient

Citizen science projects work in part because a very large number of individuals work together to collect data on a specific topic.  Some projects have immediate gratification and your contributions to the project will appear online as soon as you submit them.  However, if you’re submitting a sample of any sort, sending in a paper data sheet, sending your data in via e mail, or there is no interactive online component on the project’s website, SOMEONE at the project’s headquarters is going to have to process your sample/data before it appears online.  If your sample involves identifying something (insects, bacteria, parasites, etc) and is not a part of a crowdsourcing effort (such as Project Noah or iNaturalist), it may take a long time to see your specific results.  Trust me: the scientists running these projects really appreciate your efforts and cannot do the project without you, even if processing is slow.  Be patient!  You’ll be a much happier citizen scientist if you have realistic expectations for sample/data processing times.

2. Follow the Protocol

Citizen science projects typically include a protocol for how to collect data.  Those protocols were developed specifically so that the scientists running the projects can compare data collected by hundreds or thousands of different people.  If you don’t follow the protocol, your sample is no longer comparable to other samples in the project, making them less valuable, if not entirely worthless.  If you’re going to spend the time and effort to participate in a project, follow the instructions.  If you cannot or don’t want to follow the instructions, I recommend that you either a) let the scientists know how deviated from the protocol so they can decide whether your data is still useful or not or b) pick a different project.  There are so many projects out there that there’s no reason to do a complicated, fidgety project if you aren’t the type of person who will enjoy it.

3. Commit to Collecting Data

Some projects depend on repeat measurements.  If you’re doing Project Feeder Watch, for example, you are expected to check your feeders once a week.  The Dragonfly Pond Watch asks that you check your pond once a month.  If you want to do these projects, great!  They would love to have you.  However, it’s best for everyone if you commit to collecting the data as often as the project asks before you start participating.  Be realistic too.  I, for example, leave myself exactly enough time in the morning to take a shower, get dressed, make a cup of black coffee that I drink on my way to work, and dash out the door.  I sleep in on weekends.  I cannot commit to checking a CoCoRaHS rain gauge between 7 and 9am daily, so I don’t participate in the project.  Life happens and you won’t always be able to collect data according to schedule, but try your best to collect as specified by the project if you decide to participate.

4. Behold, the Power of Nothing!

One of the hardest things to make people understand is the value of nothing in citizen science.  A huge number of citizen science projects out there today are designed to map the distribution of species.  These studies can help scientists research a wide variety of topics, such as migrations, movement of invasive species, or phenology (recurring seasonal patterns).  For these types of projects, reporting that you didn’t see something is just as important as reporting that you did.  For example, I have a new citizen science project that I’m running (I’ll write more about it soon) that involves defining the habitat preferences of some water scorpion species.  Knowing where no water scorpions are found tells me that the habitat is unsuitable.  That’s incredibly valuable information!  Embrace the value of nothing.  Embrace it!

5. Don’t Go Out of Your Way – Unless You Really Want To

I have learned as I promote citizen science that people are really excited about being a part of science – so long as they don’t have to go too far outside of their daily routine to do it.  I have encountered a few people who are super gung-ho about going new places and trying new things. You guys rock!  However, most people prefer to make more casual observations in places they already go.  If you fall into the latter category, you are still important.  Consider an idea for a moment.  Let’s say you walk through the woods in your neighborhood everyday, but the nearest common milkweed patch is a 30 minute drive from your house.  It’s a lot easier to tap a few buttons on your smart phone once a week to submit data to Nature’s Notebook about a tree you encounter on your daily walk than setting up a Monarch Larva Monitoring Project site at the milkweed patch.  Most people are more likely to find excuses not to collect data for MLMP than Nature’s Notebook in this example because it’s a lot more difficult to do.  So, my suggestion is this: choose a project that fits into your schedule, your interests, and your life.  There are so many citizen science projects that there is just no need to go out of your way to collect data – unless you really want to.

I’ve got more tips, but I think these are the biggies.  Anyone want to contribute any more suggestions for people who participate in citizen science?  Ultimately, I think citizen science should be something you enjoy.  There is something for nearly everyone, so it’s all a matter of finding the project that’s right for you.

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