My Kick-off to National Moth Week

Hey everyone!  Haven’t been able to spend much time on my computer at home for a long time, but I’ve been dying to share several things with you all.  The next few posts will feature my favorite insect-themed celebration of the year, National Moth Week. I LOVE Moth Week! I’ve hosted a big moth-themed open house at the museum field station where I work every year since National Moth Week started and then I go out every night that week and blacklight at home.  For my public event, I bring my blacklights, bait, and my brand new mercury vapor light (so, so happy to have it!) to attract moths.  Usually, there’s some freak storm the day of my public event that sends everyone running for cover, but we lucked out and got no rain at all this year.  About 55 people came, and they were a marvelous group!  It was a punishingly hot day and it stayed hot well into the evening, but those 55 people were enthusiastic and very excited about getting to see moths and other nighttime insects. No complaints at all. So. Much. Fun!!

I usually bring my Nikon DSLR camera with me to my public moth event and start taking pictures when things calm down after most of the visitors have left for the evening.  We never get many big moths, so this year I brought my Canon with my super close up MP-E 65 lens so I could get good photos of the smaller moths. I pulled it out about 10:30pm, got my flashes set up and the diffusers in place, strapped my headlamp onto my head, and was about to get started photographing our far-better-than-average moth haul for the evening when I realized my battery was dead – and my spare AND my charger were plugged into the wall at home.  Doh!  I ended up taking all my photos with my headlamp and phone this year.  However, given the large size of several of the moths that showed up, my camera choice was a mistake anyway.

I’ve shared my current blacklighting rig before, so I won’t go over it again here.  I set up four blacklights:

blacklight rig at night

One on each side of the building.  I kept things easy and just thumbtacked the sheets to two of the wooden walls of the building, and set a couple more up on the PVC frames I normally use.

The mercury vapor light is a new acquisition.  I’ve been dying to have one for years and was so very excited to actually get one.  I normally do my moth night with one of my coworkers, and we’ve used his mercury vapor lights in the past.  He wasn’t going to be at this year’s event though, so I just bought my own light.  It’s very bright and very hot:

mercury vapor light

I have had the very fortunate experience of blacklighting in southern Arizona during the monsoon, where this sheet would be absolutely packed with insects, including many very large moths.  However, this is a really good haul for this particular location, probably the most moths I’ve ever gotten on a sheet during National Moth Week.

The lights attracted a wide range of moths.  Some of them are very common at the field station, like this common tan wave:

common tan wave

and this Ailanthus webworm:

ailanthus webworm

These are both very common moths in my area, ones you would expect to see at any blacklight, or even a porchlight, on almost any summer night.  A few of the moths we saw certainly aren’t rare, but we don’t see nearly as many of them.   This rosy maple moth is one of my favorites (I call it the rainbow sherbet moth):

rosy maple moth

And we get these esther moths most years:

esther moth

Beautiful wood nymphs are not super common at my lights, but I’ve seen them at this event more than once:

beautiful wood nymph

Some much less common moths also decided to show up this year, like this Hebrew:

hebrew

This is the second time I’ve seen Hebrews at this event.  I just love them!

I gave a little talk about moths during the event that included photos of some moths we’ve seen in past years.  Conveniently, all the moths above were included, so it was a lot of fun listening to people exclaim over moths they recognized from the presentation!  People saying, “Ooh, look!  It’s an elegant grass veneer!” or “Oh, oh! It’s a rainbow sherbet moth.  What was the real name, rosy maple moth?”  I felt like people were walking away from the event knowing a few moth species they might not have known before because they saw them on a big screen and then immediately saw them in real life at the lights.  Very nice to be able to provide the moths I shared in the presentation on command!

We did see some new-to-the-event moths this year too!  There were several Virginia creeper sphinx moths:

virginia creeper sphinx

Everyone was really excited to see these!  They should be at the lights every year as their host plant is all over the place all around the building where I set up the lights, but for whatever reason they never appear.  We got 6 this time.  Another first was this tiger moth:

tiger moth

Very white, and high up on the wall so I never got a good look at it to get a good ID.  We got some new small moths, like this unidentified moth (I think it’s one of the leafrollers):

Archips leafroller

Might be an oblique banded leafroller?  I’m still learning my moths, and these little ones are definitely not easy.

And finally, my favorite moth of the night, a small-eyed sphinx moth:

small eyed sphinx

Everyone had left and I was just getting ready to take down my lights when this moth showed up.  I was thrilled!  Such a gorgeous moth.  Shiny, velvety, perfect.  I really regretted not bringing my Nikon DSLR so I could get better photos of this stunner.  The whole night was great, but this moth made the oppressive heat and having to take all my gear back down alone after midnight absolutely worth it.

This particular event takes a lot of setup and takedown on my part, but I absolutely love it!  Every year I get good people who are excited to learn about moths and other nighttime insects and every year I leave work around 1AM sweaty and exhausted and completely happy.  What’s better than hanging out at a light looking at bugs with interested people all night?

I’m going to post a few more posts about National Moth Week soon, so be on the lookout for those!  One will feature the moths I found in my yard that week and the other will be about the other insects I found while looking for moths.  Hope you’ll enjoy them!

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

Lestid Laying Eggs

A few weeks back, I was relaxing after a big science event I had hosted at the museum field station where I work and was taking some photos.  I was sitting on the platforms we have near the pond and watching green darners flying around, looking for some common whitetails and other early spring dragonflies.  I noticed a large spreadwing damselfly on a plant in a strange position and slowly approached so I could get a photo.  This is what I saw:

Spreadwing damselfly laying eggs

Spreadwing damselfly laying eggs

She was laying eggs!  You can see her egg laying tube, her ovipositor, protruding from her abdomen and stuck down into the plant in the photo.  It’s the black pointy bit just to the right of her abdomen just above the plant.  I watched for a little while and saw her pull her ovipositor out of the plant, move down a half a centimeter or so, and stick it back in several times.

Eventually I got distracted by a freshly emerged common whitetail and went over to take some photos of it.  When I went back over to the pond, the damselfly was gone. However, you could clearly see the evidence that she had been laying eggs inside the plant:

Punctures in the plant after the damselfly flew away

Punctures in the plant after the damselfly flew away

I’ve read about spreadwings laying their eggs in plants before, but hadn’t ever seen it. So exciting!  The nymphs that hatch inside plants eventually make their way to the water where they will spend the rest of their childhoods as long, relatively large and robust damselfly nymphs with funky mouthparts.  In this particular pond, few things get much bigger than the spreadwing nymphs, just the frogs, yellow-bellied sliders, and the three monster snapping turtles I saw sunning themselves last weekend.  Always good to know that a pond you regularly get into has multiple gigantic snapping turtles lurking in it…

I’ve got a long list of things I want to share, so hopefully I’ll be able to get another post up soon!

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

Smoky Mountain Insects

Oh wow, it’s been a month since I last posted anything.  Whoops!  Can only say that it’s been a REALLY busy month and work with a lot of long hours and evening programs. But things slow down for a little while and that means I have the time and energy to blog!

Last weekend I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped one of my coworkers lead an educator trek.  At the museum where I work, educator treks are open to formal and informal educators (people who work at museums, zoos, environmental education centers, and the like) and take them out into the field for one to seven days to learn about nature and science firsthand.  For this particular three-day trip, we spent a day at the facility at Purchase Knob learning from the rangers about citizen science efforts that are being done at the park and getting some hands on experience.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful place:

We looked at the status of a bunch of trees for the Nature’s Notebook project and did a leaf litter arthropod study that the park oversees.  The latter involved putting leaf litter into a shaker box, shaking it vigorously, and then using an aspirator (also known as a pooter or, as our ranger calls them, “suckie upper thingies”) to transfer any animals to a vial for examination back in the classroom.  It was fun watching the teachers respond to the insects they caught once they were projected onto a big screen with a video microscope:

In the afternoon, we walked a very long way down a very steep mountain to get to a stream to check for salamanders along some transect lines the park has set up in the area.  I know next to nothing about salamanders, but apparently the pygmy salamanders we saw are very interesting and we saw 7 species altogether.  As the last group finished measuring the salamanders they’d caught and recorded their data, the rest of the group wandered down to the stream to look for more salamanders.  Now I love salamanders, but you all know I’m much more into stream insects than anything with  a backbone.  We found a bunch of flat-headed mayflies clinging to rocks and someone brought over this stonefly:


I think it’s a perlodid stonefly, but honestly I didn’t look at the mouthparts because I was partly in charge of the group.  One of the teachers was looking for salamanders in a little puddle between a big rock and the shore and found one of these:

A roach-like stonefly!!!  I did a little happy stonefly dance and may have yelled a little as I tried to get everyone else excited about it.  Sadly, most of the group was much more interested in the salamanders to care about this amazing stonefly, but it didn’t diminish my excitement over it.  The same teacher found another one too.  I’ve seen specimens, but never a live one, so it was very, very exciting for me.  It’s hard to describe the joy you get from seeing something in the wild that you’ve been hoping to see for a while. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

After the long trek back up the hill, we went on a wildflower hike.  The Smokies are known for their amazing wildflowers and there were many species in bloom.  We had the group do some nature journaling so they could just sit and look at the flowers for a while. Totally by accident, the trillium that I chose to sketch had insects on it:

Two longhorn beetles that ended up getting frisky as I drew my flower and a teenie, tiny caterpillar was starting to make a tiny hole in the petal when I left.  Insects always improve flowers as far as I’m concerned, even one as awesome as a trillium.

It had apparently been unusually dry in the Smokies for a while, but it rained hard our second night there.  We went to Cataloochee Valley the last day to hike a bit, look for elk, and learn about human impacts in Great Smoky and everything smelled clean and bright.  When we arrived back at the vans, we were treated to a HUGE group of butterflies puddling in the damp dirt:

This photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to the number of swallowtails in the area!  I suspect that because it had been dry for a relatively long time, the butterflies may have been hard up for the salts and minerals that they usually suck out of the soil when they “puddle.”  Dry weather means dry soils and limited puddling opportunities, but the rain seems to have brought the butterflies out in force.  I have never seen so many large butterflies in one place at one time in the wild and they were swirling all around us.  It was amazing!  One of the teachers wandered off a bit and came across this:

That’s a big bunch of butterflies on a big pile of scat, happily sucking nutrients from the wet surface.  If you look closely, you’ll also see a burying beetle.  The butterflies were doing a pretty good job keeping it away from the scat as they fed, so at one point it climbed right over the top of their wings in an unsuccessful attempt to find a place where it could feed also.  The beetle made the whole amazing butterfly experience even better!

Even though I was with a group and didn’t get to spend nearly as much time poking around for insects as I would have if left to myself, the whole trip was just fabulous. The teachers we had with use were amazing and very excited to get out into the mountains and we saw a lot of really excellent wildlife.  The insects were just a happy bonus!  But they make me want to go back and explore more.  Planning another trip there this summer!

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

Triumph

Today’s the last day of my Photography 101 course and the final theme is “triumph.”  It just so happens that moments after I read the theme, I managed to get two shots that I’ve been trying to get for 4 years, a clear shot of two beetles that a) either bury themselves in the rocks at the bottom of my tank or b) just don’t stop moving for more than a fraction of a second so there’s no time to focus and get a shot before it moves on.  So, here are my triumph shots, shots that have been a long time coming and very hard-won!  The first is a beetle in the water scavenger genus Berosus (peregrinus, I think):

Water scavenger beetle

Water scavenger beetle

I particularly like this genus.  For one, they’re herbivores, feeding on algae and aquatic plants.  They’re also a very weird shape relative to the other water scavenger beetles. Rather than a long, sleek domed top and a sharp spike on the flattened bottom, these beetle are much more bulbous and round.  I think they’re just adorable.  Their best characteristic though, in my opinion, is the sound they make.  They have a delightful squeak, loud enough to be noticeable without being overbearing, and swim about very quickly while making the sound.  I love that little squeak!  In fact, I can tell immediately when I have scooped one out of the water, no matter how much vegetation and other critters I pull out with them, based entirely on their sound.

This little beetle has become the bane of my existence:

Crawling water beetle

Crawling water beetle

That’s a crawling water beetle in the genus Peltodytes.  They seem to bury themselves in the rocks, dash up to the surface periodically with lightning speed, and then zip back down into the rocks.  SO hard to photograph!  But I happened to look into my tank and it was sitting on one of the little pieces of wood in my tank above the water line.  And it just sat there!  I was able to get about 6 shots before my movement, the flash, or both scared it back into the water, but I got some decent shots of this stupid little beetle after several years of trying.  I was thrilled!  Pumped my fist in the air and grinned like an idiot once it disappeared back down into the rocks.  A triumph for sure!

So, TWO major aquatic beetle photography accomplishments in one day!  I am so excited to have gotten these.  I’ll keep trying to get even better shots, but I consider this a good day’s photography for sure.

Now that my class is over, I’m definitely not going to be posting everyday anymore. This pace is one I just can’t keep up with!  However, I’m going to try to get back into my 3 or 4 posts a week habit and keep that going for a while.  We’ll see how long I can keep that up, but I’m feeling good about the little jump-start this class provided.  Just what I needed to get back into the blogging habit!

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

Double

Today is the next to last day of my Photography 101 course, and the theme is “double.” Because I’ve been excited about photographing aquatic insects recently, I’ve got another photo from my aquatic setup for you:

lestid gills

Those are gills of a juvenile southern spreadwing damselfly.  A lot of people don’t know that dragonflies and damselflies actually spend most of their lives underwater as nymphs.  In fact, some dragonflies spend up to three years as nymphs, and then 4-5 weeks as adults on land.

As nymphs, damselflies get everything they need from their aquatic habitat, a pond in this case.  They eat small animals as prey, use cattails and other vegetation as shelter, and they get the oxygen they need from dissolved oxygen in the water.  The gills of damselflies help them breathe by improving their ability to absorb oxygen through their exoskeletons.  The gills massively expand the surface area of their exoskeleton, essentially adding another quarter or third of an exoskeleton to their bodies through which they can breathe.  The gills also improve their swimming, the way wearing flippers while snorkeling can help people swim.

However, damselflies lose gills all the time too.  The one in the photo above only had two of the three it should have when I saw it in the water.  Damselfly nymphs will sometimes fight each other and lose a gills.  Sometimes a predator will try to eat a nymph and get a mouthful of loose gills while the damselfly swims away.  While the gills do improve the lives of the damselflies and one missing its gills has a harder time getting oxygen or avoiding predators, they can survive with no gills at all.

I love the way damselfly gills look!  Another fascinating textured surface, compliments of insects.

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

Edge

The theme for Photography 101 today is “edge,” which immediately made me think of the under surface of the water and the aquatic insects that must visit the surface to breathe.  So, I give you a backswimmer getting air:

Notonectid at surface

Backswimmers swim upside down and carry an air bubble with them underwater that they use to breathe (think scuba tank).  Most of their body is coated with a thin film of air as well, which you can see as the shiny, silvery spots in the photo.  All that air they carry with them only lasts so long, however, so they have to go to the surface now and again to get more.  They break through the surface with their butts and allow air to fill their storage space.  Sometimes they’ll sit at the surface for a little while, but most of the time they’ll dart back underwater where birds and other predators have a harder time getting to them.

I love the look of the water’s surface when photographing things underwater.  My kind of edge for sure!

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

Glass

I promised pond insects yesterday, so pond insects you shall receive!  The theme for my Photography 101 course for the day is “glass” and that’s perfect for the type of aquatic insect photography I do.  If you want to photograph things in water, there are a few ways to do it.  You can put the subject in a small, shallow bowl and shoot it from above, but then you miss out on a lot of fun angles and interesting behavior shots.  You can get a waterproof camera, but none of them are nearly as good at macro work as I need them to be for the sorts of shots I’m after.  My way is one I learned from an awesome photographer, Steve Maxson, at an insect photography workshop in 2011. It’s more or less the same technique used by a lot of the people you’ll see posting photos of aquatic insects online.  Basically, you fill a transparent vessel (I use a small aquarium) with water, place your subjects in the tank, and you shoot the photos through the side of the tank with whatever camera you favor.  It’s a great method and lets you get some great shots using the equipment you already have, no special waterproof housing required!

So, here are a few new shots of aquatic insects underwater using my 2.5 gallon aquarium setup and shooting with my Canon 7D and MP-E 65 lens through the glass. All of these are predators, so they’re among the meat eaters in the pond.  First up, a couple of predaceous diving beetles, a small one…

Predacious diving beetle

Predacious diving beetle (I am tentatively IDing this one as Laccophilus fasciatus)

… and a larger one:

Predacious diving beetle

Predacious diving beetle (Agabus disintegratus, I think)

And these are true bugs, a giant water bug…

Giant water bug

Giant water bug (Belostoma flumineum)

… and a creeping water bug:

creeping water bug

Creeping water bug (Pelocoris sp., likely femoratus)

The beetles have chewing mouthparts, so they eat smallish things that they can chew up quickly.  They eat a lot of insects, aquatic worms, and other invertebrates, though every now and again you’ll see a bunch of them pile onto something like a sickly or injured fish that’s not strong enough to get away.  The bugs have piercing-sucking mouthparts, so they cannot chew their food.  Instead, they grab their prey, jab it with a hypodermic needle-like mouthpart, and inject paralytic chemicals and digestive enzymes.  The chemicals both paralyze the prey and liquefy its tissues.  Once the tissues are nice and soupy, the bug will suck up the juices through its mouthpart like a straw. Essentially, true bugs are digesting their food outside of their body, which they need the paralytic to accomplish.  It takes a LONG time for a true bug to eat anything! However, the paralytic also allows them to eat much larger food, like larger insects, small tadpoles, and fish.  It also gives their bite a little extra punch, should you accidentally step on one or grab one without realizing it.

Photographing aquatic insects is totally my happy place – and I hope some of you will give it a try.  It’s amazing what you can learn by simply following an insect around a tank with a camera for a few days!

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