Friday 5: My Favorite Dragonflies

Welcome to another Friday 5!  For your reading enjoyment, today I bring you a list of my top 5 dragonflies.  You’ll notice an obvious southwestern bias.

Numero Uno: The Wandering Glider or Pantala flavescens

Wandering glider (Pantala flavescens)

Wandering glider, Pantala flavescens

This species has been my favorite for a long time and is unlikely to be displaced from it’s top position.  I love this species almost entirely for its amazing flight abilities and its prominent role in nearly every dragonfly behavior that fascinates me.  It’s not much to look at in the grand scheme of dragonflies, but this baby can fly across oceans, it’s migratory, AND it uses storms to help determine where it travels and when to lay eggs.  It is such a strong flier that it is one of the only species known to fly in moderate to heavy rains.  That flight ability also makes them extremely difficult to catch.  Essentially, this is one bada$$ dragonfly and I love it!  As I’ve mentioned before, this will be the tattoo I get – when I get over my EXTREME aversion to needles.  Maybe my tattoo dream would come true if I took up drinking, to lower my inhibitions and all that.  A lot of people get tattoos while drunk, right?  :)

Numero Dos: The Giant Darner or Anax walsinghami

Anax walsinghami

Giant Darner, Anax walsinghami. Photo by John C. Abbott. Click on image for image source.

This dragonfly is HUGE!  The biggest in the US in fact.  And they’re in Arizona, which makes me a very happy person.  I am proud to say that the one specimen in my collection I caught with my bare hands!  Ignore the fact that it was a very hot day in July and it was effectively passed out in a tree trying not to overheat when I snagged it…

Numero Tres: The Filagree Skimmer or Psuedoleon superbus

Pseudoleon subperbus

Filigree skimmer, Pseudoleon subperbus. Photo by John C. Abbott. Click on image for image source.

The “superb” part of the species name is spot on as far as I’m concerned!  This species has absolutely gorgeous spot patterns on the wings and an elegant black body.  It’s simply stunning flying around streams!  I unfortunately don’t have any of these in my collection.  I swear these things are teasing me…

Numero Quatro: Mexican Amberwing or Perithemis intensa

Perithemis intensa

Mexican amberwing, Perithemis intensa

Tiny, cute, orange, yet oddly fierce (perhaps related to their stubbiness?).  I think these are simply adorable.  Enough said.




Numero Cinco: Roseate Skimmer or Orthemis ferruginea

Orthemis ferruginea

Roseate skimmer, Orthemis ferruginea

Because this species is flaming pink in sunlight and because I’m a girl, the roseate skimmer has to make it onto my list.  This species is terribly gaudy, but for me it represents the reason why dragonflies are so popular with the public: their beautiful colors and ornamentations.  And, this one can get bug squeamish girls to appreciate bugs too!  No offense to anyone reading this – I used to be one of those squeamish girls when I was young, so I COMPLETELY understand your hesitation!  Still, I’m a teacher and this is what I’ve personally observed: the squeamish people are sometimes hard to reach because they often flat out refuse to go anywhere near an insect.  I never force anyone to participate.  But that pretty pink dragonfly…  Well, maybe that one’s okay.  And, look at that other dragonfly, the orange one!  That one’s rather pretty too…  Soon the squeamish people are hooked and participating with everyone else.  Success all around!  Roseate skimmer.  Try it!

That’s my Top 5 list.  Anyone else want to share their favorite dragonflies?  Leave a comment below!

Next up: 5 fun facts about webspinners!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Using publicly collected data to study dragonfly swarms: Part 1

It’s October and most of the dragonfly swarming activity has stopped for the winter.  As promised, it’s time to share what I learned about dragonfly swarms from the data that I collected from my readers this summer.  But first, a huge thank you to the many people who took a few minutes out of their day this summer to satisfy the scientific curiosity of this entomologist!  I never dreamed I would get as much participation in this project as I did, nor that the interest in this topic would be so great.  In fact, this “little side project” of mine ended up consuming a massive amount of my time this summer.  I got SO much data I think I can actually get a publication out of it at some point!  I may present the data at an aquatic sciences conference next summer as well.  Thank you thank you thank you for making this project a success!  I can’t describe how happy it’s made me to be working on dragonfly research again and this was made possible in part due to my fabulous readers.  I really can’t thank you enough.

dragonfly swarm banner

I’m going to present my swarm data in three parts.  Today will be the fluffiest and shortest post and will include some basic stats, some information about the species that were identified from the swarms reported, and some interesting facts.  Next time I’ll present my maps of the swarms with some more detailed information and I’ll finish up this series with some analysis of the data and conclusions in the third post.

Without further ado, some interesting facts about the dragonfly swarm data:

  • I received 639 reports of dragonfly swarms since I started collecting data on my blog in late July
  • Swarms were reported in nearly all 50 states.  The exceptions were Alaska (didn’t expect them there), Hawaii (ditto), Wyoming (perhaps because the tiny population = lack of observers?), and Louisiana (very strange!).  These swarms are very widespread in the US.  I would recommend caution though: don’t read too much into this fact just yet and I’ll come back to the distribution info in the next post!
  • The states with the 5 largest total numbers of dragonfly swarms reported were: Illinois (97 reports), Wisconsin (56 reports), Indiana (52 reports), Iowa (50 reports), Missouri (38 reports)
  • The states with the fewest total reports of swarms reported were: Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Louisiana (0 reports), Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota (1 report)
  • Non-US swarm reports came from: Canada: Ontario (8 reports), Saskatchewan (1 report), British Columbia (1 report); Belize (2 reports – state/territory unknown to me)
  • The greatest number of migratory swarms were reported in: Florida (11 reports), Nebraska (7 reports), Oregon (6 reports), Iowa (5 reports), Wisconsin, Washington, Montana, North Carolina, Illinois (3 reports)
  • There were massive swarm events in several major US cities, including Milwaukee, St.  Louis, Minneapolis, Omaha, the Chicago area, and Long Island in NYC
  • The most commonly reported dragonflies in swarms (either IDed by the reporters or from photos submitted by reporters) were the green darner (Anax junius), the wandering glider (Pantala flavescens), the black saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), the Carolina saddlebags (Tramea carolina), the blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis), and the variegated skimmer (Sympetrum corruptum).  Photos of all of these species can be found on my common migratory species and less common migratory species posts from earlier this summer.  A few other species were reported to a much lesser extent.
  • Every type of static swarm that has currently been identified was reported by numerous witnesses and in several regions.
  • Reports from rural areas were more common than reports from urban areas, but not significantly more so
  • Reports from the midwest were much more numerous than reports from the west or the east.  You’ll see this for yourself when I present my swarm maps in my next post!
  • Female reporters vastly outnumbered male reporter.  I found this completely fascinating!  And people say women don’t like bugs.
  • There were more people who were fascinated by their swarms than people who were terrified of the dragonflies they saw.  This makes me happy.

One of the things that made this project so fun was finding information that other people had posted online about swarms they’d seen in their areas.  A few of my favorites included:

  • Bryan Pfeiffer has a great blog called The Daily Wing.  This summer he came across a swarm of wandering gliders that prompted him to write a great post about dragonfly swarms.  This is a really good scientific account of dragonfly swarms – and thanks, Bryan, for encouraging your readers to submit reports to me!
  • Pauline at Perrenial Student writes a great account of her encounter with several dragonfly swarms.  I love the lyrical quality of this account.  A lot of reports that were submitted to me sounded just like this.
  • Still on the Track contributer Jon Downes tells a tale of a gigantic swarm he witnessed as a child in Hong Kong that was very unlike what people see in the US.  The post included the glorious photo of the couple struggling through the swarm on a beach that I used in a previous post.
  • Jim McCormac attempted to put Ohio’s residents at ease about the massive numbers of dragonflies they were seeing in an article on his Ohio Birds and Biodiversity blog.

Dragonfly swarms were SO conspicuous this year that they made the news in several areas as well:

Clearly, dragonfly swarms were big news this summer!  In fact, I think this was a particularly special year for dragonflies.  I’ll go into this further in the third post in this series, but I’ll say this: I’m VERY happy I started collecting dragonfly swarm data when I did!

Well, that’s it for today!  Next time, I’ll dive into the distribution of the swarms and include a series of my swarm maps.  One of the best parts of this project for me was adding the pushpins to my Google Earth map and seeing how the patterns changed over time.  I hope you’ll find it interesting too!


Have you seen a dragonfly swarm?

I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes!



Want more information?

Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Friday 5: Top 5 Entomological Tools I Never Leave Home Without

I’ve decided to start Friday 5. This feature will include short posts that include lists of five things about me, collecting, insects, entomology, entomologists – anything that I think might be interesting.  They’re likely to let my sense of humor out a bit more than my regular blog posts too, for better or worse.  Hope you enjoy my lists!

Top 5 Entomological Tools I Never Leave Home Without

I am one of THOSE entomologists.  The kind that is often discovered crawling around in the dirt trying to photograph an insect, who stops at EVERY puddle looking for insects (and sometimes even gets in!), and who carries supplies for catching/observing insects with her everywhere she goes.  As you might imagine, my bag is quite heavy.  So here are the things I carry with me everywhere:

Canon G11

Canon G11. Click image for image source and a review.

1. My camera. If there was a fire at my house, after saving my husband, my dogs, and my gerbils, I would save my cameras.  I LOVE my cameras!  The one I carry with me is a point and shoot Canon G11.  This is a fantastic camera for photographing insects.  In fact, I got it specifically so I could photograph the insects I come across in my daily life.  I use it nearly everyday.  It’s not the smallest point and shoot on the market, but the macro is amazing, so it’s worth the extra bulk for me.  The majority of the videos I post on my blog were recorded with this camera as well.  The Canon G12 was just released.  Tempting.  So tempting…

feather foceps

Feather forceps. Click image for image source.

2. Feather forceps. These get a lot of use so I love them, even though people laugh at me for carrying them with me and in spite of the hubbub they cause when I go through metal detectors forgetting they’re in my bag.  Need to pluck an insect from between cactus spines?  Feather forceps!  Want to pick up ants that are likely to sting you?  Feather forceps!  Want to grab any soft bodied insects?  Feather forceps!  Don’t leave home without them.

3. Plastic Ziploc bags. Useful when I need a secure place to put a live insect I’ve collected, so I don’t, say, end up with a dung beetle roaming around inside my lunch bag with my food.  Not that I’ve done that… more than once…  :)


Notebook. Click image for image source.

4. Notebook. The camera will record the date and time, but it’s nice to be able to jot down a few notes about any insects I see, maybe a few “helpful” drawings.  I always have a notebook with me.  And no, I will not be sharing any of these quick sketches. You don’t deserve to be tortured.

magnifying loupe

Magnifying hand lens. Click image for image source.

5. Magnifying hand lens. As much as you might want to, it’s just not practical to carry a microscope around with you.  In a pinch, a hand lens like this one is very useful when you need to get a close look at something.  They’re small and lightweight, so I carry one in my bag at all times.

So that’s my top 5.  Friends of mine carry vials, paint brushes, little containers of alcohol (for preserving insects – what were you thinking it was for?!), pins, glassine envelopes, etc, so there’s a wide range of tools that we entomologists might lug around with us at all times.  Any entomologists want to share the things they carry with them?  Leave a comment below!

Next week: My top 5 dragonflies!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Caterpillar Camouflage

Today I have a short post for you!  I was out collecting with my students during class last week and one of them took us to a nice spot on campus, a secluded little courtyard of one of the old buildings with a handful of citrus trees.  We looked around and found some stink bugs on a tree, some butterfly cocoons hanging off the buildings, and some spingtails.  One of my students found this:

Papilio cresphontes

Papilio cresphontes

If you think this looks like something that was ejected from the back end of a bird, you’re not alone!  This is the caterpillar of the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes).  As you might imagine, looking like bird droppings has its advantages.  This caterpillar blends very well into the background and it is hard to recognize that it is an insect at all.  That’s the whole point of looking like bird droppings!  Any insectivore (an organism that eats insects) looking for a tasty caterpillar to eat is likely to pass right by this one because it looks so much like something else – and something most animals wouldn’t consider eating.  The appearance of this caterpillar is part of its defense against predators.  If it stays still, most predators won’t even notice it’s there.

But say something happens to bump into the caterpillar (such as an insect systematics student looking for insects for her collection) or otherwise detects the caterpillar’s presence.  Then the caterpillar brings out it’s backup defense!  It’s depicted in this video:

That little orange slimy looking thing that pops out of the caterpillar is called an osmeterium.  Normally, it’s hidden in a pouch inside swallowtail caterpillars, right behind the head.  When disturbed, the caterpillar can squeeze some of it’s hemolymph into the osmeterium, causing it to pop out of the pouch.  The everted osmeterium is then waved at the predator.  Now how might this little organ be useful in deterring predators that might want to eat the caterpillar?  It’s covered in potently stinky chemicals!  Any animal that gets a big whiff of a foul smelling substance from something it’s considering eating, especially from something that looks a whole lot like bird poop in the first place, is probably going to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s worth eating.  Most things will leave the caterpillar alone rather than eating it.  And when the predator wanders off and leaves the caterpillar to itself, it can pull the osmeterium back into the pouch behind its head until the next time it’s needed.

Pretty fun, eh?  If a caterpillar that looks like bird poop isn’t fun, I don’t know what is!  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010


Cochineal Bugs

I’ve been on several insect collecting trips with my students recently thanks to my position as teaching assistant and official bug collecting expedition guide for insect systematics.  I like to collect, so it’s been a great way to spend a semester so far!  Last week, I took a few students to a local park after work to collect until dusk and blacklight after dusk.  (If you don’t know what blacklighting is, I’ll be posting about it soon!)  Ultimately, we got there a little too late in the day to get much while it was still light, but I did come across this:


Prickly pear

Prickly pear cactus.


Even though this is a very common sight in the southern US, Mexico, and parts of South America, a lot of people son’t know what that white gunk on the prickly pear cacti is.  I can’t really blame them.  After all, this does look a whole lot like a fungus or some bizarre, super fast growing lichen:


Fluff on prickly pear.

Fluff on prickly pear.


And if you pull some of the fluff off, it gets even more bizarre when you find these little round blobs under the fluff:


cochineal in fluff

Little round, reddish blob in fluff.


Some people think these are ticks full of blood and others think they are a type of plant mite.  Others can’t see any legs at all and have no clue what they are (rocks? seeds?).  Most people only know that is that when you see these on your cacti, you end up getting dense mats of white fluff full of little round blobs all over the plants.  So what are they?

Meet the cochineal bug:


Cochineal bug

Cochineal bug.


That’s right!  That little round, indistinct blob is an insect!  You might have a hard time identifying the 3 body segments, the six legs, the mouthparts – even trained entomologists can’t always distinguish them! – but these are insects.  They’re just highly modified insects that fill very specialized roles.

Cochineal bugs belong to the insect order Hemiptera which makes them one of the true bugs.  (See my post on true bugs for more information about the order.)  Within the Hemiptera, the bugs are divided into three suborders: Heteroptera, Auchenorrhyncha, and Sternorrhyncha.  Most people are familiar with the heteropterans, which include a lot of our common bugs such as plant bugs, stink bugs, assassin bugs, and the group I study, the giant water bugs.  Most people also know something about the auchenorrhynchans if they’re familiar with cicadas, leafhoppers, planthoppers, or treehoppers.  Apart from the aphids and whiteflies (both serious pests of crops and gardens), the sternorrhyncans aren’t nearly as well known by the general public.  It’s too bad.  The group contains some of the most gorgeous and alien looking insects, including the scale insects, the group to which the cochineal bugs belong.

Scale insects are bizarre, even by entomological standards.  Most of them are herbivores and several species specialize on one specific type of plant.  The cochineal bug, for example, loves prickly pear cacti (Opuntia spp.).  Most scale insects exhibit funky structural modifications including reduced or absent legs in females, loss of the wings in females, strong reduction of the hindwings in males, and larviform bodies in adult females (i.e. they look like caterpillars as adults rather than looking like normal insect adults).  The females of many species, including the cochineal bugs, are sessile.  This means that they hardly move at all, preferring instead to remain in one place.  They simply plug their piercing-sucking mouthparts into the plant and spend most of the rest of their lives eating plant juices in the same spot until they get so fat they can barely move.  (If you’ve seen the movie WALL-E, imagine the people on the spaceship and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how female scale insects spend their lives!)  The males usually have wings and fly around looking for females to mate with during their 1-3 day adult lifespans.  The nymphs that hatch from the eggs they produce are call crawlers.  Crawlers, as the name suggest, have legs of a more normal size and are much more mobile than the adult females.  They can move around the plant to explore until they complete their hemimetabolous metamorphosis and become adults.  If they’re females, they’ll spend most of the rest of their lives on one tiny patch of plant, often secreting waxes that can take on some very complex forms.  In fact, because the adult females are basically little sacs of fluids and barely have any features to use for identification, the shape of these waxy secretions are essential for identifying several scale insect species.

Cochineal bugs secrete waxes too, which is why you find them under those white, fluffy patches on the prickly pears.  Like many scale insects, cochineal bugs tend to be colonial, so you will often find large numbers of them living on the same plant.  So, if you see prickly pears with paddles that look like this:


prickly pear paddles

Prickly pear paddles covered in cochineal.


they are hosting a large colony of strange little insects hidden under the piles of fluff.

Cochineal bugs may not be terribly interesting behaviorally since they mostly sit in one place eating, but they are extremely important culturally.  Take a look at what happens if you accidentally squish a cochineal bug while trying to collecting it:


cochineal on finger

Red spot on my finger.


Remember, these are nearly immobile little blobs of plant juice so they’re not biting me.  And no, I didn’t have a close encounter with the cactus I was collecting from!  That red spot isn’t my blood.  It is cochineal hemolymph (the insect equivalent of blood) and it is red because it is full of carminic acid.  Carminic acid can be extracted from the bugs and mixed with salts to form carmine, a highly valuable, bright red dye.  So where might you find this dye in use?  Well, many people are familiar with the exquisite hand-woven rugs of the Navajo.  The bright reds, pinks, and some oranges you see in their rugs are brought to you by cochineal bugs!  British redcoats? Cochineal bugs were imported from the Americas to dye the fabrics used in army uniforms.  The pink color in your delicious strawberry milk?  Check the label.  If you see dye E120 or carmine on the label, you’re drinking extract of cochineal bug!  That’s right, we still use cochineal based red dyes for fabrics, foods, cosmetics, some paints, and other products.  There are even massive farms devoted to producing cochineal in South America specifically so they can be used to make carmine dye.  Harvesting cochineal is hard to do, but it also fetches a high price.  According to Dr. Marcel Dicke’s TED talk, a gram of dry cochineal is worth more than a gram of gold!

So there you have it.  That fluff on the cactus at the park was hiding a mini-gold mine of little, immobile insects.  Someday I’m going to get around to collecting a bunch of these, drying them, grinding them up, and making the dye myself.  I haven’t decided what to dye yet, but I think it will be a fun project.  I’ll post the results here!  If you want to give it a try yourself, you can buy dry cochineal online.  This packet:


Dried cochineal

Commercially available dried cochineal. These bugs may be ground and used as a dyes for yarn, thread, or fabric. From


is available in England and fetches £3.10.  The website also includes information on how to dye wool, silk, and cotton with dry cochineal.  There are sources of cochineal within the US as well.  Just search for dry cochineal sales online and you should be able to find several sources.

Next time, I’m doing a quick post on a fun caterpillar my students found yesterday, and then I’ll start my summary of my dragonfly swarm data!  If you’ve been interested in that project, it’s time to tell you what I’ve learned from the information my readers have sent in.  I’ve been absolutely astounded by the success of this project, so I’m looking forward to sharing my results!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

The End of an Era

When I started grad school, I made about $650 a month.  That wasn’t that long ago, so you can imagine how much I had to scrimp to make it by on that little money.  I couldn’t use my air conditioner (my apartment was 95 degrees in the summer) or my heater (50 degrees in the winter) and I had to really watch how much I spent on food.  It was the first time I had ever really felt poor.  So, when an opportunity to take a second job working with aquatic insects came up, I took it and doubled my salary.

Rio de Flag

Rio de Flag, downstream of the wastewater treatment plant in Flagstaff, AZ. This is one of the "good" effluent streams. Photo by one of my coworkers.

I really loved my job.  I was originally hired on to do the insect identifications for a project looking at effluent dominated streams in Arizona.  I collected aquatic insects from some of the most disgusting streams you’ll ever encounter, helped with water quality sampling, and drove many different rentals crammed full of gear. Then there was the time I practically begged my boss not to take all of out to eat in a fancy restaurant AFTER we’d been sloshing around in a stream made up of poorly treated wastewater while it was 110 degrees the whole day.  I was overruled and all of my fellow employees and I had to sit through an awkward lunch while people in the restaurant gave us dirty looks.  Little did I know, we would do this sort of thing a lot.

sampling Lake Pleasant

Sampling zooplankton in Lake Pleasant, AZ. (One of the worst days of my life was spent on Lake Pleasant.) Photo by one of my coworkers.

That project was intended to shape the state’s environmental regulations regarding effluent released into streams and it was something I felt good about.   Over the next few years, I was involved in a variety of projects concerning water use and quality.  I got to spend a lot of time on a big Boston Whaler speedboat collecting water for analysis in the Phoenix area reservoirs.  We analyzed the water and the insect populations in the rivers flowing into and out of the reservoirs.  We analyzed algae from the Central Arizona Project canal.  We looked at toxins produced by algae that were thought to be causing massive fish kills in some of the Phoenix reservoirs.  We looked at the impacts of the large Aspen Fire on the invertebrate populations of Sabino Creek and Bear Creek so that the Forest Service could decide when it was safe to put the endangered fish they had rescued back into the stream.

sampling at Rincon Creek

Me sampling one of our sites in Rincon Creek. Photo by one of my coworkers.

Eventually, my boss handed me a project in Saguaro National Park that used insects as indicators of water availability in a stream that the Park Service was making a water rights claim for.  It was a big project, one that any sane person would turn into a Master’s degree rather than the biggest side project of all time, but I loved it!  I helped plan the project, wrote the budget, did the majority of the sampling myself, processed all of the insect samples, analyzed the data, and wrote the report, so I was a major player in the work every step of the way.  This water rights claim was the first time anyone in Arizona had made a claim for water for use by wildlife based largely on insects.  I’m proud to be involved in that project and I hope that, when it is all said and done at some unknown point in the future, the Park Service gets their water so they can protect the insects in their stream.

With the downturn in the economy, we’ve started focusing on water quality monitoring and lake management because the funding for the more interesting projects dried up.  In the last 2 years, my main role in this job has become data entry guru, occasional caretaker of the fish being used in my friend’s Master’s research, and lake water sampler.  We sometimes have an insect sample sent to us that I process and sometimes we do little mini-projects that are fun, but mostly we sample lake water.



I have to admit, I hate sampling the lake that we work on.  I’m out on this metal boat about once a week sticking probes into the water and filling bottles with water from the lake.  We also put a salt in the lake to control algae.  The salt is packed into dense, heavy bags, and it dries out any bit of skin it touches.  During the summer, we end up being out on the lake during the hottest part of the day.  Sometimes it’s 110 degrees – and we’re sitting in a metal boat flinging skin drying salt into the lake.  Sometimes we dodge storms.  Sampling the lake was fun for about 3 months, but it lost it’s excitement after the first few 100+ degree days.  Besides, nearly every day on the lake is the same.  It’s become monotonous.


One of the pelicans. The other was a brown pelican.

The things that change up a day on the lake aren’t usually good things.  Sure, we did have a couple of pelicans on the lake for a while and they were fabulous to watch.  We saw the dragonfly swarm that prompted my interest in the behavior there.  We’ve talked to some adorable children and met some very nice people.  However, the lake is located in a bad part of town.  Someone once cut the lock on our shed, stole my handtruck, and dumped a few bags of salt into the lake.  The caretaker came to give us a new lock and regaled us with stories of drugs she had found in the park, vandalism she’d encountered (she had been painting over swastikas someone had spray painted in the men’s bathroom when she got the call to come help us), and the unpleasant people she had to deal with in the park.  My coworkers and I see a lot these things ourselves.  One time we had to drag some gigantic trash cans out of the lake for the city because someone thought it would be fun to dump them in the lake.  One time a guy who was stoned out of his mind tried to get into our truck.  We are yelled at by fisherman often and have been downright verbally abused by a few lake patrons.  We get blamed if the fish aren’t biting (not our fault!), if the lake is muddy after a monsoon storm (we can’t control that), if the stock truck didn’t arrive (we don’t have any say in that), if the pelican is eating all of the fish (like anyone tells a pelican where it can and cannot feed).  One day, an older drunk guy jogging in the middle of the day in the summer fell off the dam and started gushing blood, but wouldn’t let us call an ambulance.  Another day, we had to kill a green heron because it had been irreparably mangled by a vicious dog.  And one time, they found a dead body in the lake a few hours after we’d sampled.  All in all, the lake experience has not been that enjoyable.

After working this job for several years, I was informed a couple of weeks ago that there was no longer enough money to pay me and I was laid off.  Knowing the financial status of the lab, I knew it was coming.  I can’t say that I’m sorry to lose the job though.  I do hate sampling the lake.  I was ready move on and find something more intellectually stimulating, finally finish my Ph.D. and get a real job.  I was going to have to quit in another month anyway.  That said, I am thankful that I had this job.  It kept me rooted in reality and reminded me of the bigger picture in a way that my water bug research does not.  This job introduced me to new skills and concepts that I never would have learned otherwise.  I got to write grants, develop several projects, do several projects, analyze data, write reports – things I really don’t get to do with my Ph.D. because it is only one project and I don’t have any funding for it.  I will eventually be an author on several publications for projects I participated in and the job added several notches to the bedpost that is my CV.  As a whole, the experience has been valuable and I will incorporate things I learned from this second job into my work in the future.

So, sayonara second job!  You’ve been good to me for a long time, but it’s time you and I part ways.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010

Collecting Insects: Making an Insect Kill Jar

Insect kill jars are an essential piece of equipment for anyone making an insect collection and allow the collector to quickly and easily dispatch the insects they find in the field.  While it is possible to make a very simple kill jar that contains only a paper towel soaked in a killing agent, it is nice to have a more permanent jar so you’re not getting the fluids all over your bugs.  You can buy pre-made jars from entomological supply companies such as Bioquip (, but they’re cheap and easy to make yourself!

Note: I use different jars and different chemicals depending on the age of the people I am going to work with.  The set of instructions presented here are for children 12 and older and adults.  Instructions for adapting the jars for safe use by younger children are included in the notes section at the end.



Kill jar supplies


Things You’ll Need:

  • large wide-mouth jar with a one-piece metal lid (pasta sauce jars are perfect!)
  • plaster of paris (about 1/2 cup – available at craft supply stores , online, and sometimes at Target or Wal-Mart type stores)
  • water
  • disposable cup
  • disposable spoon or knife
  • paper towel
  • killing agent (more about this below)

To make the jar:

To make the jar easy to see into, it’s best to remove the label if your jar has one.  Soak the jar in warm water for about 30 minutes to soften the label, then peel it off and scrub away any leftover adhesive.  Wash and dry the jar.



Empty, clean jar


Working quickly, mix the plaster of paris and water in the disposable cup using the disposable spoon or knife.  Follow the directions on the plaster package or use about 1.5 parts plaster to 1 part liquid.  I’ve found that using slightly wet plaster makes better jars than using thick plaster because it traps air inside the plaster and makes it more porous, but it does take longer to dry.  I usually start with about 1/2 cup of plaster and add water, stirring gently, until the plaster is pourable, about 1/4 cup.


mixed plaster

Mixed plaster


Carefully pour plaster into the jar until the plaster is about 1/2 inch deep.  If you get plaster on the sides or top of the jar, wipe it off as soon as possible if you don’t want it to remain there permanently.


dry plaster

Jar with wet plaster


Allow plaster to dry.  If your plaster package says you can microwave it, you can speed the drying time by microwaving for one minute and allowing it to cool, then microwaving and cooling two more times or until dry.


dry plaster

Jar with dry plaster


Dribble your killing fluid into the jar and allow it to soak into the plaster to charge your jar.  Depending on how thick your plaster was when you poured it, this may take some time.  There are several options for killing fluids.  See the note below for more information to help you choose the fluid that’s right for you and the amounts you might want to use.


charging a kill jar

Charging the kill jar


After the killing agent has soaked into the plaster, add a paper towel, a tissue, or a small wad of toilet paper to your jar.  This gives the insects a place to hide and helps keeps them from eating one another or beating against one another inside the jar as they expire.


complete kill jar

Complete kill jar


Use your new jar.  If you’ve never used a kill jar before, never fear!  I’ll post a tutorial on how to use a kill jar soon.


Killing agents

There are several different fluids you can use as your killing agent.  The one currently favored by many entomologists is ethyl acetate.  It kills insects very quickly without having to use a ton of fluid.  However, it is also mildly toxic (don’t breathe it in if you can help it) and not readily available in local stores.  If you wish to use ethyl acetate, you can purchase a big bottle of it from scientific supply companies such Fisher Scientific ( or VWR (  It’s expensive though ($350 or so for a 4L bottle), so if you only need a small amount, purchasing it from Bioquip ( is a lot cheaper.  They sell it in a little squeeze cap bottle (pictured in the image of me charging the jar above) that is easy to use and won’t break the bank.  Note that ethyl acetate is a solvent and it can strip color off of some surfaces.  It’s best to keep the ethyl acetate off your insects, so let the fluid completely soak into the plaster before you use the jar if possible.  It won’t discolor most insects, but it can discolor some of them.

There are also other options for killing agents that are more readily available.  Acetone-free nail polish remover is mostly ethyl acetate and works fairly well, though a bit more slowly than pure ethyl acetate.  It is also mildly toxic due to the chemical mixture and may discolor some of your insects.  Rubbing alcohol will also work, though you will need to use a lot more of it to make it work (a few tablespoons as opposed to a half teaspoon to a teaspoon of ethyl acetate or nail polish remover) and it also takes longer to kill your insects.  The latter may be problematic for some people, especially children, because the insects struggle for much longer before they die.  It also allows the insects time to thrash around inside the jar as they die, which can destroy delicate parts.  On the plus side, rubbing alcohol is relatively safe to use, very inexpensive, and available almost everywhere.  I’ve purchased it in tiny little general stores in towns of fewer than 100 people!

Bioquip has other killing agents available, but I have not used them and can’t comment on how well they work.

Making jars for children

Glass and small children don’t mix.  Ethyl acetate and small children also don’t mix.  If you want to create jars for use with small kids, here’s how to make them safe for use.

First, use a plastic jar with a screw top rather than a glass jar.  You can buy these from grocery stores, stores like Target and Wal-Mart, and kitchen supply stores.  They’re often available at craft stores as well.  Plastic containers don’t break as easily as glass when you drop them and are less harmful if they do, so they’re better options for use with children.

If using a plastic jar, you can’t use ethyl acetate because it will disintegrate the plastic over time.  Besides, it’s better if kids aren’t sniffing ethyl acetate (you know there’s a kid in every group that does this sort of thing!).  With kids, I prefer to use rubbing alcohol.  It doesn’t work as quickly as a killing agent, but it won’t destroy a plastic jar and it’s much safer for use with children.

Recharging your jar

All of the killing agents I suggested are volatile and they evaporate a little every time you open the lid of your jar.  Thus, you will need to recharge your jar often to keep it working at peak capacity.  I recharge mine before every trip by adding more killing agent to the jar.  If you use your jar for several hours, you might need an additional recharge.  If you know you’re going to be out for more than a few hours, bring some extra killing agent with you and recharge your jar in the field.


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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010