Friday 5: In the Stream

Hey everyone!  Took me a bit longer to get back on track after my recent travels and some very busy time at work, but I’m getting a Friday 5 up today.  Woo!  Feeling good about that.

I spent a big chunk of today working with various volunteers to collect data around the field station.  We tracked one of our box turtles this morning, and then I had a quick lunch before one of my school groups came out for their regular data collection.  The group I was working with today is a really excellent group of high schoolers from a nearby charter school.  They’re incredibly smart (they know it, but they’re really down to earth too) and they are all excited about learning.  They come every three weeks after school with their biology teacher to work with me as part of a research club they’ve developed at their school.  That’s right: these young men and women are coming to do science for fun on their own time, just because they want to learn something.  How can you resist loving a group like that?!

We have examined the stream to try to understand why there are so few insects living in what seems to be lovely water.  I’ve mentioned in a past blog post that I think flooding is to blame in this particular case, but my high schoolers are helping me monitor the stream as we try to solve the mystery of the missing bugs together.  They actually did a lot of the prep work for the project and have developed their own protocols and methods for the sampling they do.  I think it’s awesome, so let me take you through today’s visit so you can learn about what they’re doing!  First, we measured several water quality parameters:

Measuring water

Measuring the water

We’re using Vernier probes for this.  Someday I’d love to get a grant to buy a Hydrolab or some other swanky probe so we can measure all the water quality parameters at one time rather than plugging and unplugging every probe to get the readings, but for now it’s a long, involved process to get the data recorded.  We’re looking at temperature, dissolved oxygen, flow, salinity, nitrate, conductivity, turbidity, and pH.  Then we collect an insect sample from the stream.  I sadly didn’t get a photo of this part of the process, but they lay down what is essentially a quadrat (a plastic frame they built themselves) in the stream, hold a net at the end, and shake the hell out of the materials inside the quadrat to wash any insects into the net.  It’s a sort of MacGuyvered serber sampler.  Works pretty well!

Once we have a sample in the net, we sort the insects from the rest of the crud that ends up in the net with the insects:

Picking bugs

Picking bugs

Picking is a pretty easy process.  You just dump the sample into a white dish pan and remove any bugs you find.  We transfer any bugs we find into a super fancy sorting tray:

Sorting tray

Sorting tray

Okay, okay, so our sorting trays are ice-cube trays.  They work well!  At this point, all the insects are still alive, swimming around in the water.  Everyone watches them moving around and makes comments about what they think they might be doing.  However, because we can’t identify them down to a useful level at the stream, we preserve the bugs in alcohol and the group takes their samples back to school with them.  We’re planning a sorting/identification date so we can identify our insects to family and genus, and then all the data will go into a database.  At some point, we’ll tackle the data analysis and see what sorts of water parameters might be leading to the lack of insects in the stream.  Over the 3-4 years we’re planning to keep this project going, we’ll also be able to see seasonal patterns in the life histories of several of the insects and will document the aquatic insects living in the Prairie Ridge stream in a systematic way for the first time.

While I know the group enjoys the data collection part of the experience, we typically take the scenic route back to the top of the hill, wandering slowly about the grounds.  We’ve sampled grapes and persimmons.  We’ve watched birds and looked at plants. We go exploring up and down the stream.  A couple of trips ago, the group found an enormous cow femur in one of the pools upstream of their sampling area, and that was absolutely thrilling to them!  This time we wandered down to look at the pool where the damselfly nymphs live, and it had some lovely reflections:

Roots

Roots at the stream

And just because they hadn’t done it yet, today we wandered into the Nature PlaySpace, a nature-based play area we recently built for families with young kids to help get everyone out in nature.  I’ve got to say that it was really entertaining to see high schoolers running all over the play area like maniacs, sliding down the slide, and climbing up the center of the mole hill:

Mole hill

Mole hill.  The port with the ladder comes out of the center of the hill.

Five of them packed into the opening at the top of the mole hill at one point and had their teacher take a picture of them.  They all giggled the whole time!

All in all, a pretty good day!  A little chilly, but I spent a lot of time in the water, and that’s always good.  Add a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers into the mix and it’s even better!

Hope everyone has a good weekend, and to my American readers, have a great LONG weekend!

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

Friday 5: Things I Taught 6th and 7th Graders

Last week was the busy week from hell for me at work.  It was program after program after program all week, including Saturday.  In spite of my exhaustion and the fact that I’d already taught hundreds of people many different things, I spent last Friday at a middle school in rural eastern North Carolina teaching nearly 250 6th and 7th about my experiences as a scientist working with aquatic insects.  Essentially, I talked for about 5.5 hours straight.  And when I say talked, I really mean that I yelled over the many conversations going on and the window-mounted air conditioner and was to the point I could barely even speak by the end of the day.  So, I went home, didn’t talk the rest of the night, and photographed a bunch of the bugs I shared with the kids.  Today, I give you five factoids about some of the insects I shared with those 250 rural North Carolinian middle schoolers (who knew WAY more about aquatic insects than your average urban kid) on that completely exhausting, but exhilarating, day.

1. Ever see the Alien movies?  The dragonfly nymph mouthpart is rather like that little mouth inside the alien’s mouth.

Common green darner, Anax junius

Common green darner, Anax junius

Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs have one of the coolest mouthparts ever!  It’s essentially a long, flat grabber that they keep folded up under their heads.  When they encounter something they want to eat, they squeeze a lot of blood into their heads, which causes the mouthpart (the labium) to shoot out away from the body.  (Thus, the allusion to the Alien movies!)  Hooks on the end of the labium grab the unfortunate animal and then everything is quickly retracted, bringing the still living animal into contact with the dragonfly’s chewing mouthparts so it can be eaten.  This all happens really fast.  It’s a pretty amazing, yet somewhat gruesome spectacle.

2. Dragonfly nymphs breathe through their butts.

Dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly nymphs are gill breathers and absorb oxygen through the water via their gills, but their gills aren’t on the outside of their bodies. Instead, they are packed inside a rectal gill chamber, which is inside the body.  The nymphs pump water into and out of their back ends, moving water over the gills inside the rectal gill chambers and stirring everything around so they can breathe more efficiently.  Thus, they breathe through their butts!  Imagine a super giggly 4-year-old girl.  Now imagine a 6th or 7th grade boy sounding just like that.  You say “dragonflies breathe through their butts” and giggling ensues, every time!

3. Damselflies breathe through gills at the end of their abdomens.

damselfly nymph

Fragile forktail, Ischnura posita

While studies have shown that nymphal damselflies can live without their gills, the gills vastly increase the amount of oxygen the nymphs can absorb.  They’re quite pretty too, with a long, slender leaf-like shape.  damselflies also use those gills to help them swim, making them look a lot like fish as they dart through the water.  It’s a pretty cool movement!

4. Giant water bugs are among the tiny handful of insects that exhibit paternal parental care.

Giant water bug, Belostoma flumineum

Giant water bug, Belostoma flumineum

You know what’s interesting?  You ask a group of 6th or 7th graders if anyone wants to guess what “paternal parental care” is and you’re met with a bunch of blank stares.  Then you tell them that you’re going to give them a hint and ask, “Who knows what a paternity test is for?” and a dozen hands shoot up instantly!  It’s fun to watch the gears grinding in their heads as it suddenly dawns on them that they can use the meaning of one word (“paternity”) that they know to understand what another unknown word (“paternal”) means.  I love those moments!  Every single class I talked to was able to work it out without my telling them based on their surprisingly vast knowledge of what a paternity test was for.

5. Predaceous diving beetles are SCUBA divers.

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus basillarus

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus basillarus

I talked a lot about aquatic insect adaptations to water while talking with the middle schoolers, especially respiratory adaptations.  I started by asking the kids this question: if you suddenly decided that you wanted to go live underwater in a pond, what would you need to survive?  I would listen to the kids come up with ideas (take a snorkel, bring flippers so you can swim, learn how to hunt food while swimming, etc) and then tell them that insects had come up with nearly all the same ways to deal with living in water that they had suggested.  I led the students into admitting that getting enough oxygen should be their top priority.  Then we discussed ways that people can get oxygen while they’re in water, and I demonstrated each method they described with live insects that did the same thing.  There were the breath holders, the snorkelers, and the gill breathers, but the kids really loved the idea of the SCUBA divers.  Insects like the predaceous diving beetle above have a space under their wings that they use to store air, rather like a SCUBA tank, and then use that air to breathe while they’re underwater.  Just like a person with a SCUBA tank, eventually the air runs out and the beetle needs to return to the surface to refill its “tank,” but then it can dive underwater again.  It’s a pretty neat trick if you think about it!  And, when you can relate it something a human can do, I find that it’s a lot easier for kids to understand.

Ah, middle school kids.  They’re an adventure!  They have an unbelievable amount of energy and an intense need to look cool, but you can still get them excited about things if you are animated and show them amazing new things.  I really enjoyed that school visit, and as tired and hoarse as I was at the end of the day, it was a totally worthwhile and fun experience.  Might even volunteer to do it again next year!

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

Searching for Lost Ladybugs

Seven spot ladybug

Seven spot ladybug

I do a ton of citizen science outreach programs in my job.  I like different citizen science projects for a variety of reasons, but when I’m working with kids, you can’t beat the Lost Ladybug Project.  Lost Ladybug is great!  It appeals to little kids because all of them have interacted with ladybugs at some point in their lives and very few kids, even girls, are scared of them.  Also, when you ask the typical 5-year-old what their favorite insect is, ladybugs are right up there in the top two, just behind butterflies. Citizen science programs are often hard to do with young kids because they have only the vaguest idea of what science is, so trying to convince them that they should do science, that they can help scientists learn more about a subject, is a really hard sell.  But not with Lost Ladybug!  In my experience, kids LOVE that project.  They understand why they should do it (that they are helping scientists learn more about native and non-native ladybugs and their interactions) and no one beats a 5-year-old as a ladybug spotter.  Lost Ladybug is, I think, the very best citizen science project you can do with the really little guys.  I teach a lot of people about it.  A LOT.

Kids at Homeschool Day

Kids at the Homeschool Day bird lesson

My museum had a Homeschool Day on Monday, a day where homeschool families could bring their kids to Prairie Ridge for a variety of nature-themed lessons taught by several different educators at the museum.  I was scheduled to teach my Lost Ladybug lesson during my session for 7-9 year olds.  I had no idea what to expect!  I had done the same lesson just a few days before and we hadn’t found a single ladybug in the hour that we looked.  I had even looked at the bronze fennel in the Prairie Ridge garden, the place I can almost always find ladybugs, and we STILL didn’t find any!  It’s all well and good when you’re leading a small group on a free walk, but when you’ve got a larger group and they’ve paid to learn something from you, well…  It would suck if you didn’t find anything!  So, I scooped a couple of larvae I found into the magnifier boxes and hoped for the best.

ladybug 1I had about 10 kids in my group, and I started by telling them about the Lost Ladybug Project, what we were going to be doing, and handed out some identification guides for the ladybugs they were most likely to see.  The plan was that they would spread out in the prairie and look for ladybugs.  If they found any, they would bring the ladybug to me or my awesome volunteer and we would record some basic information on the data sheets I created for the project.  Then we would snap a photo and release the ladybug back into the field when we were done.  I had 6 magnifier boxes with me, but I had little hope we would find that many.  And things started off slowly as expected.  We walked out into the field and everyone started looking for ladybugs.  The kids looked really hard and were so excited!  Eventually one kid yelled, “I found one!” and we all rushed over to see.  It was just a ladybug pupa, so my volunteer and I talked about the ladybug life cycle a bit and showed off the larvae, then sent the kids back out to look.  It wasn’t looking good.

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

A few minutes later, another kid yelled, “I found one!” and came running over with hands cupped in that way that can only mean they’re holding something that’s likely to get away.  I grabbed a magnifier box and we carefully transferred our first ladybug into the box.  A few kids came over to see, so we all looked at the ID guide, counted the spots, and learned that our first find was a seven spotted ladybug.  It’s a non-native species, so the kids all said, “awwww!” in a very disappointed manner, then went back out to look for more.  Soon another kid came running over, hand carefully cupped around a ladybug.  Into a box it went, and before we’d even finished, a mom brought over another.  Soon it was all we could do to keep up with the flow of ladybugs!  Kids were running to us from all over the field.  My six boxes weren’t nearly enough, so we started doubling up, then tripling, the ladybugs in the boxes.  My volunteer and I gave up trying to record the data as the data was the same for every ladybug and there was no way to keep up with the photos.  Eventually, we took photos of two ladybugs just so the kids could see us doing it, then we gave up and decided to finish photographing ladybugs after everyone left.

Convergent ladybug

Convergent ladybug

One of the other museum people went to find more bug boxes for us, and soon my pockets were full of ladybug boxes.  My assistant was carrying even more in my lunchbag.  We counted our ladybugs and learned that we found 28 of them.  And it was great!  The kids were having a ton of fun.  Their parents were getting really into it too.  Every time a kid would bring a ladybug over, they would say, “It’s just another seven spot…” and sigh heavily before running off to find more.  I even heard a few kids whine, “ANOTHER non-native ladybug!  Are there ANY native ladybugs out here??”  That’s the sort of thing that makes your heart leap a bit when you’re doing a program, a kid that has voluntarily demonstrated that they understand what you’re doing.  I even had a few kids teach one of the other museum educators what a ladybug pupa looked like because she hadn’t ever seen one.  The kids knew just where to find one and were really happy to share their new knowledge.

Polished ladybug

Polished ladybug

After making a quick trip to the garden to look at the larvae on the fennel plants, we gathered together to discuss our findings.  Of the 28 ladybugs we found, 25 were the non-native seven spots.  One was another non-native, the Asian multicolored ladybeetle.  Considering how very many of them make their way into the trailer where the Prairie Ridge offices are during the winter, I was quite surprised that we found only one in the field.  Happily, we did find two native species, one convergent ladybug and one polished ladybug.  The kids that found those were incredibly excited because they’d found something special – they’d found native ladybugs in a sea of non-natives.

Seven spot ladybug

Seven spot ladybug

We finished up the session with a discussion of warning coloration in ladybugs and what it means, then I gave each kid a coloring sheet so they could draw a ladybug with warning coloration (real or imaginary) and had them write down what kind of animal the coloration protected them from.  We had a great mix of realistic and imaginary ladybugs, then all the kids proudly took their art, a Lost Ladybug bookmark, and an ID sheet home so they could continue finding and submitting ladybugs on their own.  I’ve told thousands of people about Lost Ladybug, but this was the first time I’d ever really felt like most or all the people in the group would go home and actually do the project.  It was a great feeling!

Days like this are the reason why I love my job and why I love teaching people about insects.  Getting a bunch of kids out in the field collecting bugs…  There’s really nothing better!  Seeing that excitement and energy directed toward something you’re passionate about is incredible.  And I’m teaching this lesson again this Saturday!  We’ll be collecting in downtown Raleigh this time, not at the field station, so it will be interesting to see if there are differences in the things we find or not.  And this time, I’ll bring a LOT more boxes, just in case.

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

BugFest!

mantid

Mantid

I’ve written about how I love doing outreach events several times in the past, so it should come as no surprise that I jumped at the opportunity to participate in one of the biggest insect festivals in the country.  BugFest is a gigantic celebration of insects and their arthropod relatives put on each year by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the museum where I work.  This event is truly huge: over 30,000 people visit the museum on the day of BugFest alone.  Just imagine: 30,000+ people crammed into a museum to learn about bugs!  I absolutely loved it, so let me walk you through my experience.

I started my day with a fantastic mantid (this year’s BugFest theme insect) when I picked it up from my coworker’s house for use in the Prairie Ridge booth:

Brunneria borealis

Brunneria borealis

That’s Brunneria borealis, the stick mantid.  They’re native to North Carolina and are one of the coolest insects I’ve encountered here so far.  Most excitingly, they’re parthenogenetic, so there are no males in this species.  I packed this little guy (or gal) into my car with two other live mantids and the rest of the things that we needed for the Prairie Ridge exhibit at BugFest and off we all went!

Once I arrived at the museum, I quickly set up our table in the Nature Research Center (NRC – the new wing of the museum) so it would be ready when my coworker arrived and changed into my official BugFest staff t-shirt before heading up to the Arthropod Zoo.  The curator, Bill Reynolds, is a great guy and likes for his people to have the best possible day at BugFest.  We were given a lot of freedom to move around and fill in anywhere we were needed, so I spent a good part of the first hour wandering around the fourth floor of the museum talking to the other exhibitors.  I talked to the APHIS people about citizen science projects, learned that there are vet students who want to treat arthropod illnesses (imagine taking your tarantula to the vet – they’re trying to make that possible), did a mantid papercut under the direction of a local papercut artist, applauded the bookstore people for having aquatic insects in their coloring sheet collection, and viewed some live butterflies from the live butterfly exhibit across the hallway:

BugFest butterfly table

BugFest butterfly table – very early into the morning, before the big crowds started to arrive.

What a great range of things to see!  And that was just the fourth floor, the most sparsely filled space in the main museum building, too.

At that point it was time to see how my coworker was doing at our table in the NRC.  Everything was working well and people were excited about seeing the live mantids that we had on display, so I didn’t stay long.  I made a quick detour through the biodiversity lab:

Biodiversity lab

Biodiversity lab

… on my way back to the Arthropod Zoo.  One of the great things about the NRC are these labs, glass enclosed research spaces where scientists go about doing their science as usual, but behind glass where everyone can see them.  For BugFest, however, the research labs were open and people were streaming through.  There’s always something interesting happening in the lab pictured during these big museum events, so it’s a great place to visit.

I planned to check in at the Arthropod Zoo to see if anything specific needed to be done before making rounds to check on exhibitors, but I got sidetracked: Art Evans was there with his friend Chris Wirth, getting a behind the scenes tour from Bill.  I had made plans to have lunch with Art that day anyway, but I was delighted to talk with the three of them for ten or fifteen minutes.  Art’s book An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles has been one of my most treasured books since I was in high school, so I couldn’t have been happier to finally meet him.

I had promised that I would man the Prairie Ridge table so everyone else could have a lunch break, so I went back to the NRC.  The crowds were getting bigger at that point:

BugFest crowds

BugFest crowds!  This was the last photo I took of the crowds – after this it was so crowded I spent all my time simply trying to get from point A to point B and didn’t stop to take photos.

… so it was more difficult to get through.  It was worth it though: I had carefully scheduled my time at the table so that I could see the one talk I didn’t want to miss, Mark Moffett’s:

Mark Moffett

Mark Moffett in the Daily Planet Theater

The Daily Planet Theater has a 40 foot tall presentation screen and I’ve got to say that Mark Moffett fills that space beautifully!  He is a very entertaining speaker (I recommend his bot fly YouTube video as a great example of his speaking style, even though it’s quite gross) and seeing his National Geographic photos on that screen was really something.  I was lucky that the traffic to our booth was slow enough and we were close enough to the theater that I caught most of his talk.

Then it was time for lunch!  I spent the next hour chatting with Art and Chris over tasty Mediterranean food and it was an entirely pleasant hour.  I couldn’t have asked for better lunch companions!

After that, it was a whirlwind of activity.  I saw a brief talk that Bill gave on North Carolina’s insects, helped man the eastern Hercules beetle cart, chatted briefly with a friend I haven’t seen for a few years, manned the Prairie Ridge table for another hour, and packed everything up when I was done.  I helped organize a few things in the Arthropod Zoo and was headed out when BugFest’s organizer told me that one of my former Insect Behavior students had asked if I was around.  He’s a grad student in Wake Forest now, so I went to say hi before I left and was thrilled to see that he’s doing so well.  There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing one of your students (especially the good ones you really hope will go on and do something great) presenting their awesome research at something like BugFest.

What a great day!  I didn’t have a chance to see everything (and I barely even touched on the things I saw and learned here) and the crowds were absolutely insane after I got back from lunch, but I went home in a lovely euphoric state.  I learned new things, made some new professional contacts, promoted Prairie Ridge, got to play with cool bugs, talked to several people I know, and got to meet Art Evans.  My first BugFest was fantastic – and I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

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

Moths All Night

Moth

Unidentified moth

I hosted a public moth night for National Moth Week over the weekend.  I was really ready.  I had enough lights, traps, and baits to have about 8 moth viewing stations spread across the grounds.  I had a good 50 people signed up to come, several of whom were planning to stay the full 8 hours, and four entomologists ready to teach people about moths and help with identifications.  I had a computer ready to go so we could start uploading photos to a citizen science website and even had coloring sheets for the kids in case they got bored.  I was so excited!

You know what they say about the best laid plans.

Rosy maple moth

Rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubidunda

I met the visitors out by the entrance gate and looked off into the distance.  There were some really dark clouds out there, but they looked like they were headed a different direction and wouldn’t cause us problems.  I decided to press on with the event, hoping that we could sit out any rain in the outdoor classroom and then carry on as planned.  I took everyone down to our outdoor classroom and did my little introduction to the moths.  Then we wandered out to some of the lights.  A few people disappeared down the path to see the trap and baits that one of the entomologists had set up and I took people over to my blacklight.  But the clouds kept coming.  It was soon clear that it was going to rain, so about half the people left.  The other half headed inside the classroom and watched as a wall of black clouds engulfed us.

Then it rained.  Oh boy did it rain!

Ailanthus webworm moth

Ailanthus webworm moth, Atteva punctella

It was what I imagine sitting through a hurricane would feel like!  I am never one to shy away from watching a storm, but it’s one thing to watch a heavy storm from the safety of the indoors and quite another to watch from a glorified screened porch.  It was unbelievably noisy.  Rain slammed down onto the roof.  There was lightning crashing all around.  Thunder boomed as wind blasted through the room.  Rain started blowing over everyone taking shelter in the classroom and everything got wet.  I’ll admit: it was a little scary.  But, oh!  It was so beautiful!

Sadly, most of the remaining people bailed as soon as the rain let up well over an hour later, but some hearty souls stuck it out.   A couple of people stayed after midnight and one person stayed until close to 1 am.  In the end it was just me and one other bug person from the Museum sitting on the porch of the classroom watching the moths that came to the mercury vapor lights.  We were out there until 3:30 am, watching moths and talking about bugs.  I even saw my very first flying squirrel and that alone would have made the whole night worth it.

Unidentified moth

Unidentified moth

But we saw a lot of moths too!  It certainly wasn’t the explosion of thousands of huge moths that I’m used to from the Arizona monsoon season and we never did get any of the big silkworm moths or hawk moths, but we still saw several gorgeous species.  Nearly all of them were new to me and therefore exciting.  I didn’t start photographing the moths until late in the evening and I missed documenting several of the early evening species, but I still walked away with photos of thirty species.  (You’ll notice I don’t have the species names on two of the photos here – I’m waiting for confirmation so I don’t reveal my abysmal moth identification skills!)  The moth expert with the trap sent me a list of the things he caught and brought my total up to 40 species.  A very few participants also left photos with me before they left and added another five.  45 species ain’t half bad, especially considering the circumstances.

Southern pine sphinx moth

Southern pine sphinx moth, Lapara coniferarum, the largest moth I saw

And now I have a moth evening program planned too!  I can easily do another one of these moth nights as I have all the equipment, books, and handouts I need ready to go.  I’m thinking of trying again in a month or so.  It won’t be National Moth Week anymore, but I love spending nights by blacklights and sharing that with the public is so much fun.  It will be good to get back out there and work on my moth identification skills too.  I really need some more practice with that.

So, my National Moth Week event wasn’t the huge success I hoped for, but I still walked away happy.  I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than sitting through a gorgeous storm, talking to people about bugs, photographing insects, and seeing a flying squirrel.  Not a bad night.  Not bad at all.

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

National Moth Week

moth on the car

Moth on car window

The US has all sorts of bizarre “holidays” that celebrate some really random things, such as Talk Like a Pirate Day, If Pets Had Thumbs Day (seriously – that’s a real holiday!), and Nude Recreation Week.  Many of these holidays are silly and very few people either know about or participate in them, but some have more educational or cultural significance.  There’s a new holiday this year that fits into the latter category, and it’s one I’m very excited about: National Moth Week is July 23-29, 2012!  A whole week devoted to moth appreciation, moth observation, and general mothy goodness.  I can’t wait!

National Moth Week logo

National Moth Week

National Moth Week celebrates the lesser loved Lepidoptera, the moths.  In case you don’t know, moths are an incredibly diverse group of organisms with over 10000 species in the United States alone.  There are a lot of drab brown moths, but there are some absolutely spectacular, colorful moths too.  (My favorite colorful moth is Citheronia splendens, the splendid royal moth.  Beautiful!)  Moths range in size from the “microleps,” the tiny moths that most people barely acknowledge, to the giant silkworm moths with wingspans of over 10 inches in some species.  Moths also have some fascinating behaviors.  I always loved the mass emergence of the miller moths when I lived in Colorado, but that’s not even a particularly unusual moth behavior.  Some moths avoid predation by bats by dropping out of the sky when they hear a bat coming, and don’t even get me started on caterpillar behavior!  There are some pretty wild caterpillars, things that look scary and are perfectly harmless (e.g. hickory horned devils) while some of the most adorably fuzzy caterpillars are full of painful stinging hairs (e.g. puss moths).  In essence: moths are cool.  Really cool.

antennae

Moth antennae!

The goal of National Moth Week is to get people outside observing moths so that they start to appreciate some of that coolness and diversity.  The team behind the event is encouraging people to participate in a moth related event during that week or start their own.  Events can be either public or private and there is a wide range of things people are doing.  Some people are simply going to stare at their porch light one night and see what shows up.  Other people are hosting big, public events aimed at education and moth celebration.  Some hardcore moth people will set up traps and lights every night to do a comprehensive survey.  There are even competitions recognizing the best moth-ers for various achievements, such as recording the most moth species during Moth Week.  Ultimately, anything goes for Moth Week – so long as you get out there and appreciate those moths!

luna moth

Luna moth

As you all know, I recently started a new job and part of my responsibility is to develop programs at Prairie Ridge Ecostation where I work.  So, I’m having a public moth event for National Moth Week!  Moths All Night will be held July 28 from 8PM until 4AM July 29 at Prairie Ridge.  It should be fun!  I’m giving a very short introduction to the major moths groups that people are likely to see and then I’m turning everyone loose on the grounds to observe and document the local moths.  I adore blacklighting, so there will be a few blacklighting stations set up for moth viewing.  With the help of local moth experts, we’ll be setting out baits and traps to sample the local species, improve the Prairie Ridge species list, and start to develop a reference collection for use in future programs.  I’m also encouraging everyone to bring cameras to photograph the moths we see so we can submit our sightings to a couple of National Moth Week partner citizen science organizations.  That way we’re doing something useful while celebrating moths.  By the end of the night, I hope participants walk away having learned about moths, observed the diversity of the local species, talked to a moth expert, and contributed valuable moth data to scientists.  That would be a night very well spent in my opinion!

tiger moth

Tiger moth

If you happen to be in the Raleigh area, please join us!  You can find more information about the program, such as how to find Prairie Ridge and how to let me know you’re coming, on the Museum website.  I’d love to see you there.  Or set up your own moth event!  Plan to spend 10 minutes starting at your porch light one day that week?  Register it at the National Moth Week website to make it official!  Then be sure to enter the drawing for a signed copy of one of several fabulous moth guides.  Wouldn’t it be great to win a book for doing something as simple as spending part of a night appreciating nature?

National Moth Week.  Hope you’ll all join in!  I think you’ll be glad you did.

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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