Friday 5: Great Insect Books

I am a huge reader.  I read everything from sci-fi to classic Brit lit to non-fiction science books and everything in between.  I have a massive collection of books, but if a book is good enough to claim a space in one of my 8 large bookcases, it’s likely there for life.  This also means that every time I move (which has been much more often than I expected since I moved to AZ), I lug around at least 30-40 heavy boxes of books.  As you might expect, my friends love helping me move.  :)

Today I thought I’d highlight a few gems in my collection of insect books.  Narrowing it down to 5 is nearly impossible – I have so many!  I narrowed my choices to books that will be of broad interest to non-entomologists as well as entomologists, but even that was hard.  So, I mentally lumped books into categories and chose my favorite in five categories:

In the category “Old Books,” the winner is Entomology for Beginners: For the Use of Young folks, Fruit-Growers, Farmers, and Gardeners by A. S. Packard

Entomology for Beginners coverI have a thing for old science books.  There’s something so elegant about the lyrical way early biologists described the natural world.  It is so poetic!  So I own a lot of old biology books.  I have had my copy of Entomology for Beginners since I started college as an undergrad.  It was well loved by at least 6 different people before me (their names are written on the inside front cover) and it is even better loved now!  My 3rd edition was published in 1899, so it is over 100 years old.  I love this book largely for its gorgeous engravings of insects, engravings that have become classics of entomological illustration.  The information is, of course, very outdated and a lot has changed in 111 years, but it’s also very entertaining to read what people thought about insects in 1899.  I just discovered that this book has been scanned and re-released by several different groups, so you can actually buy a new copy of this book on Amazon (link above), or an old used copy like mine pops up from time to time.  I think it’s worth at least a look.

In the category “Insect Photography/Art,” the winner is Night Visions: The Secret Designs of Moths by Joseph Scheer

Night Visions coverIf you’ve never taken a good, close look at a moth, you’re probably missing out!  Those often drab grey or brown fluffy insects are actually quite beautiful.  If you don’t believe me, Joseph Scheer’s stunning book will help change your mind.  Scheer pioneered a means of scanning moths at very high resolution using a high end flatbed scanner.  In the process, he produced some truly inspired moth images.  And these things are really high resolution!  I was lucky enough to see an exhibition of Scheer’s images at an art museum a few years ago and they looked as fantastic as 3 feet tall museum pieces as they do in the book.  My dog went through a horrifying book eating phase for a while when I first got him and one of the 50 or so casualties was my copy of Night Visions.  I bought another one immediately because I just couldn’t live with a copy that was imperfect.  The images inside are too great to be marred by a lack of cover and mangled spine.

In the category “Aquatic Insects,” the winner is A Dazzle of Dragonflies by Forrest L. Mitchell and James L. Lasswell

Dazzle of Dragonflies coverIn some ways, this book is similar to Night Visions in that it is full of images of scanned insects.  However, this book is so much more than an art book!  More than any other book, this one expresses my fascination for/love of dragonflies and it’s clear that the authors both love their subject.  The book is gorgeous and very well illustrated with crisply captured dragonfly images, but it’s also got great text.  This book brings together a wide variety of information about dragonflies, from their life histories to “oding” to photographing dragonflies to building water gardens to attract dragonflies to your yard.  The chapter on dragonfly cultural entomology is fantastic!  And, the information in this book is scientific, yet wholly accessible to non-scientists.  It’s the perfect book for someone who wants to know more about dragonflies, but doesn’t want to read a field guide or the dragonfly behavior bible.  I love this book, though I did not replace this one when the dogs nibbled on one end of the spine.  Sigh…

In the category “Insect Non-Fiction,” the winner is The Dangerous World of Butterflies by Peter Laufer

Dangerous Lives of Butterflies coverMy husband bought this book for me for my birthday last year and I started reading it the same day.  I barely put it down until I finished!  The book is essentially a series of stories about people who interact with butterflies.  It begins with a tale of a butterfly farm in Nicaragua and ends with the inspiring story of the captive rearing program for a highly endangered butterfly from the Bay Area of California.  There are stories about butterfly smugglers, conservationists attempting to save the monarch overwintering grounds, and people who raise butterflies to be released at weddings.  I have long thought that butterflies are completely over-hyped and I consider them terribly wimpy insects, but the book was fascinating and made butterflies seem so much more interesting.  I highly recommend this one!

In the category “Non-insect Arthropods,” the winner is The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson

Secret Life of Lobsters coverOkay, okay.  I made this category up specifically so I could put this book on my list because it is one of my all-time favorite books.  I love lobsters (live, not to eat – they’re are on my list of animals I don’t eat), so I snatched the book up when I found it on the bargain rack of a local bookstore.  I was hooked by the second page!  Like the butterfly book, this is a sort of story book, a deftly crafted tale of lobsters and the people who love them.  However, it focuses on two main stories that are intricately linked and meld together into one narrative: lobstermen and lobster researchers.  The narrative discusses what scientists have learned about lobsters – their mating practices, their movements, their distributions and abundances – and how Maine’s lobstermen have contributed to our understanding of these remarkable animals.  It also discusses how lobstermen have self-regulated themselves for the last 100 years, setting up socially and culturally enforced rules to protect both the lobsters and the livelihoods of those that hunt them.  This book is highly engaging and tells the story of the lobsters in such a way that you almost forget you’re reading non-fiction.  Seriously, I couldn’t put it down.  I bought several copies and gave them out to aquatic biologist friends.  I’ll read it several more times over my lifetime.  It’s that good!

Hope you enjoyed my list this week!  If you have your own favorite insect or arthropod book, I’d love to hear what they are.  Leave a comment below!


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


The Nightmare After Christmas

Lethocerus as Santa

Santa Water Bug

Black Friday marks the start of the Christmas season, so I want to get a jump start on the holidays by sharing an entomological Christmas story with you!  This is no happy Miracle on 34th Street type story though.  Oh no!  This is more like Nightmare Before Christmas.  Except it happened after Christmas.  Hence the title.

Let’s start at the beginning.  About 5 years ago, I got a call from my dad saying that he was going to come visit me for Christmas.  I was ecstatic!  It was going to be the first Christmas I hosted at my house.  I was only going to have one guest and make a fairly small dinner, but I finally felt like an adult.  Imagine my subsequent disappointment when my dad told me a few weeks later that something had come up and he was no longer able to come visit me for Christmas.

So, rather than my first Christmas at my place, I ended up visiting my dad for a few days before Christmas, then went back home December 23.  Going home two day before Christmas to spend Christmas alone is a rather depressing activity.  I also knew my Christmas would consist of a trip to drop some friends off at the airport at 6AM and then a day at home alone.  I felt sorry for myself when I got back to my empty apartment.  I don’t like feeling sorry for myself, so I decided to do something fun to cheer myself up.  On Christmas Eve, I decided that the thing that bummed me out more than anything was not having the Christmas tree I was so excited about.  Then I went out and bought one.

The tree I chose was Canadian and maybe 3 feet tall.  It was kinda spindly.  It was shockingly expensive for a tiny, spindly Christmas tree that I bought after noon on Christmas Eve.  (Who else is still looking for a tree 12 hours before Christmas?!)  It had this little white piece of fluff near the top that I couldn’t get off.  I ended up calling nearly every shop in town trying to hunt down a Christmas tree stand and 2 hours later I finally tracked one down.  It was gigantic, the kind of stand we used for the 17-foot Christmas trees my family had when I was growing up.  The screws were barely long enough to hold the tree up and it looked ridiculous.  I didn’t care.  I lovingly decorated my tree with the little box of ornaments I’d collected since I first went away to college, wrapped tons of lights around the branches, and then stepped back to admire my handiwork.  I was really happy with the result (though apparently not happy enough to take a photo that was in focus – my apologies!):

Christmas tree

My first Christmas tree! I cleverly hid the flat, spindly side in the back. :)

Having my little tree made me feel so much better about being stood up on Christmas.  It made me really happy and I spent a lot of time staring at it. And, because I had bought it so close to Christmas and it was completely fresh, I knew it would last well beyond Christmas.  I was determined to keep it up as long as it lasted.  “Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!  Let’s gather around the tree!”  MY tree wasn’t coming down until it started drying out.

And then one day in late January, I woke up, walked into my living room, and realized in an instant what that little white fluff on the tree was.  I was greeted that morning by hundreds or thousands of tiny baby spiders crawling on a MASSIVE web they had built in my living room.  It was a spider egg sac!  The warm temperatures in my house must have let them hatch and then they started building.  The web stretched from the wall behind the tree clear across the room to my couch.  There were spiders all over my CD player, my insect books (oh, the irony!), the floor, the bookshelves, the art on the wall.  They were EVERYWHERE!

Now I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of spiders.  I’m good with a lot of them and don’t care if they crawl on me if they’re the right kind of spider, but they still elicit this serious shivers-down-the-spine creepy feeling on occasion.  And let me tell you, starting a lazy weekend morning off with thousands of baby spiders in the house sort of short circuited my brain.  I couldn’t get the tree out of the house fast enough!  Off came the ornaments, off came the lights, off came the tree stand, and the tree was flung hastily and utterly unceremoniously out the back door.  Then came the arduous task of vacuuming up the spiders and the web.  Two hours later, I flopped down on my couch exhausted, but secure in the knowledge that my Canadian spider scourge had been vanquished and my living room was once again free of the tiny arachnids.  Of course, I imagined them crawling on me for the next week, but what can you do.

And that’s my holiday spider story!  I hope everyone has a marvelous Thanksgiving and has fabulous plans for the upcoming holiday season!


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

Friday 5: Insect Inspired Artists I Love

Welcome to this week’s edition of Friday 5!  I’m getting this out a bit late today, but it couldn’t be helped.  I spent 11 hours working on revising a paper yesterday, then I spent 4 hours baking for a friend’s Ph.D. defense this morning.  I got about 4 hours of sleep and forgot all about finishing this post!  Oops!

I’m one of those lucky people whose career and main hobby happen to be the same thing.  I don’t really separate my work and my home life, so my passion for insects is clearly reflected in the things I own and the decor of my home.  There are insects EVERYWHERE!  I also really enjoy making things by hand and have a lot of crafty hobbies.  As a crafter, I really appreciate beautiful handmade things, particularly if they feature insects.  I buy a lot of insect art and I love supporting people who are inspired by insects.  Today’s edition of Friday 5 is about artists I love whose work is heavily inspired by insects.  In no particular order, I present 5 of my favorite insects artists!

Alex Wild, Insect Photographer Extraordinaire!

A lot of the people who read my blog regularly also read Alex Wild’s awesome Myrmecos blog, so you know what he can do.  If you’re not familiar with his work, you should be – Alex is a phenomenal insect photographer!  I’d consider myself an excellent photographer if I were 75% as good as he is with a camera.  Unlike the rest of the people on my list today, I don’t actually own any of Alex’s work yet.  When I eventually get around to buying a photo (and I will as soon as I have some spare cash and some more wall space), I think it’s going to be this one:

Alex Wild, honey pot ants

Honey pot ants by Alex Wild. You can view or purchase a print of this photo at

Love it!  The colors make me so happy.  And I don’t even like ants!  (I get stung a lot.  What can I say?)

Margaret Zinser, Glass Wizard

Margaret was a grad student in my department several years ago.  She’d just learned how to make lampworked beads when I met her, but she became a full time artist after completing her entomology master’s degree and now supports herself entirely on the sale of her exceptional work.  Margaret also has a house full of insects and her love for them has inspired her to create several lines of insect related glass beads.  I adore Margaret’s insect beads and feel lucky to own one of them myself:

Margaret Zinser bead

Beetle bead by Margaret Zinser. You can view or purchase Margaret's work at

This is one of the very first beetle beads she made and is downright rough compared to her current work.  Her recently introduced lines of butterflies and bees are gorgeous!  These beads require a ton of labor, so they’re expensive, but I think they’re worth it.  Someday I’ll be able to add another MZ Glass insect bead to my already large collection of her work, but I will have get a higher paying job first.

Catherine Reece, Insect Potter

The curator of the UofA entomology collection has two coffee mugs that I absolutely love, heavy handthrown mugs with a rich turquoise matte glaze.  I wanted one of my own so badly!  When the woman who made them showed up at a Fourth Avenue Street Fair one year, I was ecstatic.  I love Catherine Reece’s work!  A lot of her pottery pieces features bright, colorful, and whimsical insects.  Even better, she puts insects on things that people eat out of, so people pay good money for the privilege of eating out a cockroach bowl or drinking out of a mantid mug!  I buy a new piece or two every time she’s at the street fair, so now I have my own little collection of cherished coffee mugs:

Insect mugs by Catherine Reece

Insect mugs by Catherine Reece. View her currently available pieces on Etsy:

If I ever win the lottery, I’m replacing all of my dinnerware with Catherine Reece’s pottery.  Maybe I’ll get the cockroaches…

Brigette Zacharczenko, aka Weird  Bug Lady, Plush Insect Goodness

I am a total fabric addict!  I love sewing and I’m good at it, but I also buy a lot of fabric pieces and clothing handmade by other people because I can’t get enough.  I was thrilled to discover Brigette Zacharczenko’s work on Etsy!  If you haven’t seen her work, check it out.  Her plush insects are positively adorable and I love that some of her pieces feature animals that you wouldn’t ever see in plush form such as water fleas and water bears.  She also does a lot of custom work.  Behold, my custom plush giant water bug:

Brigette Zacharczenko's giant water bug plushie

My custom made giant water bug plushie by Brigette Zacharczenko's. Check out her other pieces at

My water bug is based on Lethocerus americanus and I love him!  He keeps watch over my desk, looking down on me menacingly from atop my scanner.  He’s huge and makes a great impromptu pillow.  I also use him as a prop for a lot of outreach events.  Stitch this bad boy onto a jacket and I can effectively demonstrate just how big some water bug prey is relative to the size of the bugs!  I am drawn to Brigette’s work for several reasons, but I think the fact that she is an entomology Ph.D. student with a crafty side like me appeals to me more than anything.  I admire her for taking the plunge and selling her fantastic creations!  (Aside: Weird Bug Lady is a great blog if you haven’t seen it!)

Foster Beigler, Printmaker

I love linoleum block prints.  There’s something so primal about their sharp lines and the somewhat rustic look of the final pieces.  I have a lot of block prints, but my favorite is this beetle by Foster Beigler:

Coleoptera by Foster Beigler

Coleoptera by Foster Beigler.

The thing I love most about her work is the size of her block prints.  I know you can’t really tell from the photo, but this beetle print is huge, about 2 feet by 3 feet!  A lot of printmakers stick to smaller pieces that max out at about 8×10 inches, so my beetle is impressive.  Insects feature heavily in Foster’s portfolio and she has done prints of a wide variety of species.  I still regret not buying her smaller dobsonfly print.  It was $70 I didn’t have at the time, but I’m still kicking myself for not buying it when I had the chance.  Where am I ever going to find another dobsonfly print?  If you want to see more of Foster’s work, you can check out her website.  However, please note that the few images she has made available on her website don’t do her work justice at all.   The collection of work on display when I bought my beetle far surpasses the few pieces you can see on her website.

I hope you enjoyed learning these artists!  I have no idea what to do next week, so it will be a total surprise.  Have a great weekend!


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

Using publicly collected data to study dragonfly swarms: Part 3

Before I get to the buggy stuff today, I’d like to extend a hearty thanks to WordPress for selecting my post on Arizona’s beetles for Freshly Pressed!  It was an unbelievable honor and I am so very thrilled to have been chosen.  The publicity resulted in a bunch of new subscribers to my blog, so I want to give a warm welcome to all of you who recently subscribed!  I hope you like what I have to offer.  And to my subscribers who’ve stuck around for a while, thank you so much for your continued support.  The blogging experience is so much more fun when you have the opportunity to interact with your readers, so a big thank you to all of my readers for injecting an extra little dose of joy into my life!

dragonfly swarm banner

Well, most of the dragonflies that going to migrate in the U.S. already have and many of those left behind are nearing the end of their lifespans.  This will therefore be the last of my posts on dragonfly swarming behavior this season!  As promised, today I’ll be making some conclusions about dragonfly swarming behavior from the data that I collected from my readers this summer.  Making conclusions of this sort is ultimately what we biologists strive to do: we try to explain something extraordinary about our world using the evidence we gather via our research.  In this case, my research involved several hundred people from all over the US, Canada, Belize, India, and Mexico, and it’s a lot of fun to go through the data!

Considering I have enough data to write a full-length scientific paper on this topic,  I could write the mother of all blog posts.  But you all don’t want to listen to me ramble on and on and on about this.  (Just ask my husband!  He bore the full brunt of my obsession with this project over the summer!)  Instead, I’ll limit myself to discussing three main conclusions to keep it a decent length.

Conclusion 1: Dragonfly swarms, both migratory and static, are more common in the midwestern and eastern US than they are in the west.

There are several reasons why this might be, but the most obvious explanation is that we just don’t have as much water in my third of the country as the areas where the major swarms took place this summer.  The majority of the reports I received were from areas that had major bodies of water within 10 miles, especially rivers.  Dragonflies are thought to use landscape features for navigation during migratory flights, and indeed most of the migratory swarms reported occurred along major rivers, lakes, or coastlines.  Static swarms also occurred more frequently in areas with a lot of water than in more arid regions.  So, the more water nearby, the more swarming activity an area had.

I think there are two reasons why water in an area would lead to increased swarming activity.  For one, dragonflies are aquatic insects.  They find mates near water, lay their eggs in water, and their offspring spend the majority of their long lives in water.  It stands to reason that areas with lots of water might therefore also have a lot of dragonflies.  And lots of dragonflies means that swarming behavior should be more common, or at least more obvious to human observers because more individuals will be nearby and able to participate.  However, consider also why static swarms form: dragonflies are attracted to locally abundant, swarming prey.  Dragonflies love to eat  insects such as mosquitoes, non-biting midges, and biting midges.  And where you get big swarms of these insects?  Near water!

I think water plays a big role in shaping the distribution of dragonflies in North America.  Take another look at the swarm map video I posted last time if you want to confirm this for yourself.  Notice how many swarms were reported near the Great Lakes, along the Mississippi River, along the Missouri River.  Then take a look at the west, where we just don’t have many big rivers and two of our biggest lakes are saltier than the ocean.  I’ll have to do some fancy analyses to properly test this idea statistically, but my preliminary data suggests that water availability largely explains the patterns in dragonfly swarm distribution reported across North America.

Conclusion 2: Dragonfly swarms are closely tied to weather patterns.

As someone whose pet research project has long been determining the impacts of weather on odonate behavior (I just had a paper published on this topic and I’ll be posting about it soon!), I was overjoyed to learn that weather plays a major role in shaping dragonfly swarming behaviors.  Migratory swarms, as observed by other researchers, usually occured after cold fronts move through an area.  Indeed, in nearly all of the migratory swarm reports I received, the reporter mentioned that it had become dramatically cooler in the area 12-48 hours prior or that a cold front was due to arrive soon after.  My data further suggest that migratory swarms may occur just before major storms hit an area.  The static swarms were also mostly weather related, typically occurring just before or just after storms.

There are tons of things coming into play here, but here’s what I think is happening.  Storms are known to assist in moving dragonflies over long distances (especially the migratory species)  and some species have been observed feeding more heavily just prior to and after storms.  This means that there are more dragonflies in an area that is about to be hit with a storm or just after a storm passes and they’re eagerly looking for things to eat.  Any small swarming prey insects that happen to come out at that time, especially in response to the storm, are going to attract dragonflies and cause static swarms to form.  Storms might also prompt many dragonflies to move from one area to another, using the wind generated by the storm to assist in their dispersal, especially in areas where the density of the dragonflies is very high.  This could be the reason that I had so many reports of migratory swarms that occurred along with storm activity rather than cold fronts.

Weather likely impacts dragonfly swarming behavior directly in these ways, but there are also indirect effects.  Heavy storm activity in an area can cause major changes in the aquatic landscape and these changes have a direct impact on many dragonfly prey species.  Mosquitoes are especially adept at utilizing new and temporary bodies of water and populations of the flies can explode following major storm events.  Increases in mosquito populations promote increases in dragonfly populations as well: more food means more dragonflies are able to live in the area.  In many areas where major swarming activity was reported this summer, significant flooding also occurred days or weeks before the swarming began.  For example, Milwaukee  was bombarded by storms this summer and I’m told many areas of the region flooded.  Mosquito populations skyrocketed in response to the flooding, and then the dragonflies started forming massive static swarms over an enormous area of Wisconsin.  It looks as though storms cause spikes in dragonfly swarming activity in general, but areas that experience major flooding are especially likely to see a massive increase in dragonfly swarming.

Conclusion 3: 2010 was a special year for dragonfly swarms.

Although I know from personal experience that it’s uncommon to see dragonfly swarms, I was quite shocked that about 98% of reporters told me that they had never seen anything like what they’d witnessed before.  Though I say this tentatively because I don’t have enough data to truly support this idea, I believe that 2010 was an extraordinary year for dragonflies in the midwest.  A perfect combination of events seems to have occurred that allowed the dragonfly population to explode.

Let’s take a moment to consider just how many events had to fall into place to allow so very many dragonflies to make an appearance this summer!  Dragonflies often spend over a year in the water as nymphs, so 2010’s dragonfly swarming boom probably began 1-3 years ago.  Conditions in the water had to be just right to allow millions or billions of dragonfly nymphs to survive to adulthood.  This means that the dragonflies likely experienced mild conditions during the winters, the water quality was decent, and that there was abundant prey available for them to eat.  Once the millions or billions of dragonflies emerged from the water and molted into adults, they all required food for continued survival.  Luck was on their side this year as major flooding occurred in several parts of the northern midwest, driving mosquito and midge populations up to abnormally high levels.  Swarming flies attracted dragonflies, so dragonfly swarms formed very often.  I think that this combination of factors, high nymphal survival followed by an overabundance of prey, caused the explosion of dragonflies observed in the midwest this year.  The response of the incredibly high number of dragonflies to the highly abundant prey then in turn led to a much greater than normal level of swarming behavior.

I think that this perfect combination of events probably occurs rarely.  How else do you explain the number of people who said they had never seen anything like it before, the number of reports on television news programs, the number of scientists in the midwest trying to allay the fears of the populace as millions of dragonflies descended on their homes?  That said, I still have 2 questions.  The first: is this really an extraordinary event or does it just seem that way from the reports?  For those of you who are familiar with statistics, my n=1 summer, so I won’t really know the answer to this question until I collect data for a few more years.  The second: how is climate change going to impact this behavior?  If global warming occurs, you might expect to see warmer, milder winters that support explosive populations of dragonflies like the ones witnessed this year, making these sorts of summer more common.  On the other hand, recent studies suggest that the midwest might have colder, more severe winters as climate change occurs, so fewer dragonflies may survive through the winter in the future.  In essence, I need more data collected over more time to begin to answer these questions.  I intend for this to become a long-term research project, one that may occupy a part of my summers for many years to come, so hopefully I’ll have some better answers in the future.


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: Arizona’s Amazing Beetles

Welcome to another Friday 5!  My state is one of the best places in the country to collect insects and people are known to come from all over the world to improve their insect collections here.  I have some AMAZING insects in my collection, ones that are widely known to be among the most beautiful or most spectacular of all insects.  These are my 5 favorite Arizona beetle species:

5. The palo verde beetle or palo verde root borer, Derobrachus hovorei:

palo verde beetle

Palo verde beetle, Derobrachus hovorei

This beetle is amazing due largely to its size and its fierce demeanor.  These things are huge, about 3 inches long, and are among the biggest beetles in the country.  They’re so big, in fact, that they don’t fly well at all.  I find the majority of these beetles by sound when I hear them crashing into walls, fences, bushes, etc!  See those big mouthparts in the front?  These beetles will use them to fight with other palo verde beetles – and they’re not above waving both those and the spikes on the thorax about to intimidate you.  You probably don’t want to be unfortunate enough to let one get a hold of your fingers either.  Still, I adore these!  They’re impressive beetles and they’ve always been one of my favorites.  I’ll write a whole post about these eventually.

4. The sunburst beetle, Thermonectus marmoratus

sunburst beetle

The sunburst beetle, Thermonectus marmoratus. Image from

This is my favorite aquatic beetle!  It’s not the biggest (they’re about half an inch long) and it’s not the most unique as far as behavior or habitat goes.  It’s certainly not the most uncommon as it’s all over southern Arizona in abundance.  However, I think this beetle is gorgeous.  They’re predaceous diving beetles (family Dytiscidae), so they are phenomenal swimmers.  If you haven’t seen one of these gliding through the water… well, you’re missing out!  And, these beetles have the ability to float nearly motionless in the middle of the water column, which most aquatic insects are unable to do.  Between their curvaceous shape, their stunning looks, and their serene movements, this one easily makes my list of the 5 most amazing Arizona beetles.

Quick aside: I love these beetles so much that I planned to have them swimming in bowls of water at my wedding.  People use goldfish in bowls at weddings all the time, so why not sunburst beetles?  They have a lovely calming and elegant appearance that is just right for a casual, outdoor, spring wedding by a lake.  I was quite pleased with myself for coming up with something so creative, yet so appropriate for my wedding and personality.  However, two close relatives (the kind I couldn’t have a wedding without) were vehemently opposed to having live insects near them at the wedding and threatened not to come if I went through with it.  So, I didn’t have any sunburst beetles at my wedding. You’d think the relatives of entomologists would be a little more tolerant of insects.  Sigh…

3. Chalcolepidius ostentus

Chalcolepidius ostentus

Chalcolepidius ostentus (let’s call it, oh, the metallic click beetle)

These beetles are stunning!  Metallic blues and greens, big, and surprisingly hard to find among the trees they like to sit ins.  Honestly, I don’t know much about these beetles beyond knowing where I collected the 2 in my personal collection and knowing that they’re click beetles so they have the normal click beetle associated behaviors.  I’ve had a hard time finding information about them and they don’t appear to even have a common name!  But the joy you feel upon coming across one of these in southern Arizona is indescribable.  For that reason, they make my top 5 list.

2. Grant’s Hercules beetle, Dynastes granti

Dynastes granti

Grant’s Hercules beetle, Dynastes granti

Like the palo verde beetles, these rank among the biggest beetles in the United States.  This particular species is one of three found in North America and it’s only found in the 4 Corners states and northern Mexico.  It’s reasonably common in Arizona and is often collected at blacklights around the state.  As with most insects that have those super long horns, the males of these species get into some pretty intense battles over females.  The winner  scores the gal!  Now that I think of it, I actually don’t have a single Dynastes granti in my collection…  I need to fix that sometime!

And finally, 1. Chrysina gloriosa, the glorious scarab

Chrysina gloriosa

Chrysina gloriosa. Photo by John Abbott and from

This beetle’s name says it all: the glorious scarab.  Chrysina gloriosa (also commonly known by its former name Plusiotis gloriosa) is quite glorious!  It’s bright, apple green with metallic bronze highlights and thick metallic silver stripes down the elytra.  This is one of the most beautiful beetles you could ever encounter and will simply take your breath away if you are lucky enough to see a live one.  However, this beauty comes with a cost.  Because they are so exquisite, these are highly prized beetles.  When collectors find them, a strange hoarding mentality often overcomes them.  There’s a suspicion among some entomologists in my area that this is going to eventually lead to significant declines in the populations of these beetles.  They may be collected to near extinction in time!  Many of the collectors in my state have one or two of these beetles in their collections and leave the rest alone to help conserve these beetles for future generations.

I’ll finish up with one quick note about the image of this beetle.  I recently came across John Abbott’s photography online and found the image above in his beetles gallery.  The man is amazing!  His photographs will leave you speechless.  I encourage you to check them out.

Next week: 5 artists whose insect work I adore.  Let’s get some cultural entomology on!


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

Using publicly collected data to study dragonfly swarms: Part 2

dragonfly swarm banner

Whew!  Last week ended up being really busy!  But it’s time now for another summary of the dragonfly swarm data I collected this summer on my blog.  Today’s topic: distribution of dragonfly swarms and the maps!

If you read my first summary post, you know that I learned that dragonfly swarms were very widespread across the US this year.  It actually became a sort of game for me to collect reports from all the lower 48 states as the summer went on.  I was thrilled that I got reports from nearly every state.  WAY too thrilled actually.  And, it irked me to no end that I didn’t get any reports from Louisiana.  I should have.  There were swarms in every neighboring state.  There have been dragonflies recorded flying across the Gulf of Mexico.  There should have been at least one report from LA!  Alas, the summer ended with my dream of collecting the 48 states unfulfilled.  Maybe next summer…

Part of the excitement of this project for me this summer was mapping out all of the reports I collected on Google Earth.  When I inputted the swarms on the map, it was easy to see when and where massive swarm activity was occurring.  It was also easy to see the patterns in the distribution of the swarms.  And, I learned that, though a lot of the work on migratory dragonflies has been done on the east coast, the total dragonfly swarms in the midwest vastly outnumbered the eastern swarms, nearly 20 to 1!

The best way to illustrate the distribution of the swarms is to show you my maps.  Now I could put up a ton of maps and have you scroll down through the longest blog post of all time, but I think video captures the activity much better.  As you watch the video below, you’ll see a series of maps, one for each week starting with the week of 7/4/2010 and ending in mid-October.   A few things to keep in mind as you watch:

  • The maps are cumulative.  The pushpins for a week are added to all of the pushpins from the weeks previous.
  • I’ve zoomed out sufficiently to see all of the areas from which I received reports, including Belize down at the bottom right of the frame.  Every report is represented by its own pushpin on the map, but with this level of zooming you can’t see all of them.  Remember that this map represents about 640 reports!
  • The colors of the pushpins have meaning, which is explained in the video.
  • The viewer is tiny, so the pushpins are hard to see.  This is a high definition video, so I highly recommend that you push play, the click on the resolution button at the lower right of the viewer (it’s the one that says 360p) until 1060p is displayed.  Then make the video full screen by clicking the button at the very lower right.  Press the ESC key to exit full screen mode when you’re done.

On to the video!

I think these maps are fascinating and I’ve thought of a hundred different ways I can display the information they contain.  I’ll discuss what I think this all means in the third and final post in this series, but I think you can take away a few ideas from simply looking at the maps.

First, the swarming activity in the Great Lakes region was intense this summer!  I have a few hypotheses for why this might be that I’ll share next time, but it’s obvious that there was some major swarming happening in the north central US this year.  However, if you look at the colors of the pushpins, you’ll notice that the vast majority of the swarms in the midwest were static feeding swarms.  Some migratory swarms were reported in the midwest (most notably in Nebraska), but most of them were reported along coastal areas.

And speaking of coastal areas, there were reports of dragonfly swarms on both coasts!  Western areas do see both migratory and static feeding swarms.  But, take a look at the video again if you missed it: the dragonfly swarms reported in the western US were much fewer than in the eastern half of the country.  In fact, in most western states, I only received a single dragonfly swarm report.  Some of these were bizarre reports too.  The report from Colorado described thousands of dragonflies sleeping on a ranch until disturbed when the rancher returned in his truck at 10PM.  The dragonflies burst into frantic activity in the dark in what sounded a lot like the climax of Hitchcock’s The Birds.  So, swarms might occur in many different regions and I may have gotten to check off nearly every state on my US map, but it does look like swarms are more common in the midwest and east than they are in the west.

I feel obligated to caution readers about reading too much into these data though.  Consider the person who sends in a report.  This is a person who happened to see a swarm in his or her area, then felt interested enough in the event to look it up online, then spend a few to several minutes making a report.  However, my blog had hundreds of hits a day from people looking for information about dragonfly swarms while I maxed out at about 30 daily swarm reports.  This means that for every person who saw a swarm and was interested enough to look up more information about it (and I think most of these people had seen a swarm or they wouldn’t have thought to seek more info in the first place), there were about 20 others who didn’t submit reports.  The data is somewhat subjective because it is depends on the individual’s level of interest in the behavior and that’s going to vary a lot from person to person.  We don’t all love this subject as much as I do!

The data is also somewhat subjective based on some simple demographics of the states.  The state of Wyoming has a total state population less than that of the city I live in (about 544,000 people)!  It’s also the 10th biggest state in the country.  The lack of people and the space between them in Wyoming means that there is a huge potential for swarms to occur without human witnesses.  Swarming almost surely occurs in WY, but I didn’t receive any reports.  I think this may have occurred in many areas of the western US.  Note that there are several pins in my area in southern Arizona.  There are likely lots of reports in my area simply because I live here!  People in my entomology department tell me about how they saw this interesting dragonfly behavior and wonder if I know anything about it.  When I hear anything about dragonflies that suggests “swarm” to me, I question that person.  My friends are on the lookout for swarms – and they find them – because it’s something I’m deeply interested in!  Hence, lots of pushpins in my area, in spite of its western location.  As a result, I think western swarms may be much more widespread than the maps lead me to believe.  If we can find this many swarms in the Sonoran Desert, there are likely many more swarms in areas with more water.

Because I think it’s interesting, I want to finish this post up with an image of my final dragonfly swarm map and this year’s monarch migration map:

dragonfly swarm map

Dragonfly swarms

monarch map

Overnight roosting sites reported for 2010 monarch southern migration. Image from

I’m not going to say too much about this because I don’t know what it means, but I would like to point out a few things:

  • The distribution of dragonfly swarms is nearly identical to that of monarch roosting sites.
  • Monarchs were reported flying with dragonflies in migratory swarms in the majority of the reports I received.
  • Both sets of data were collected via submission of reports by people who chose to make reports online.

The similarities between the two data sets surprised me, so I am putting them out there for you to make your own tentative conclusions.  I intend to continue collecting data on dragonfly swarms on my blog for several more years and think pursuing the links between the dragonfly and monarch activity could be prove very interesting.

In spite of my cautions, I still think the swarming activity in the midwest this summer was something special.  I also think that swarming is much less common in the west than in the midwest and east.  Next time, I’ll share why I think these things and make some tentative conclusions based on the data I collected.  Check back soon for the final installment!


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: Webspinners

Welcome to another Friday 5!  I hope to get another dragonfly swarm data post out tomorrow or Saturday, but for now enjoy a short post about an insect that most people know nothing about: webspinners!

Behold, the mighty webspinner!:


Webspinner, Oligotoma nigra

Okay, okay.  These insects aren’t that mighty.  In fact, they’re pretty soft, flexible little beasts and have a delicate structure.  Their wings are very easily damaged (more about why in a moment).  Basically, these are the 95 pound weaklings of the insect world!  But, these insect are still super interesting on many different levels and they deserve your love and respect in spite of their overall wimp factor.  Here’s why:

5. Webspinners belong to their own insect order, the Embiidina (sometimes called Embioptera).  As far as insect orders go, it’s pretty small, less than 400 species worldwide.  If you consider that one single family of beetles, the weevils, has over 40,000 described species, it really puts that number into perspective!  Most people will go through their lives without ever knowing that they exist too.

4. Webspinners aren’t very common in the US, so lots of entomologists get excited when they collect them in Arizona.  However, the most commonly collected Arizona species, Oligotoma nigra, isn’t native to the US!  It is an introduced species normally found in India and accidentally brought to the US, perhaps as early as the mid-1800’s.

3.  Webspinners are among the few insects that exhibit parental care outside of the ants, bees, wasps, and termites.  Females build nests and raise their young in them.  I’ve already written about webspinner parental care, so for more information please see my post on parental care in insects.

2.  Webspinners are sexually dimorphic.  The males have wings while the females are wingless.  (A more complete discussion of dimorphisms can be found on my post on color polymorphisms in dragonflies.)  The wings of the males are really cool too!  They are completely soft and flexible and utterly lack the rigidity of most insect wings because the wing veins are very soft.  They can fold, bend, curve, and otherwise move their wings in ways that are impossible in most other insects.  They have these soft wings for a reason: to allow them to maneuver easily in the nests of potential mates.  Webspinner nests are filled with narrow tunnels, spaces that would be difficult to navigate with stiff wings.  Most insects would become trapped within the tunnels when their wings became tangled, but the soft wings of webspinners allow them to move easily about the tight spaces.  On the other hand, such wings are completely useless in flight because they are too soft.  Never fear!  Webspinners have also evolved a means of making their wings stiff when they need to fly.  There’s a special pouch called the radial sinus along the front edge of the wings that they can fill with hemolymph.  When filled, the pouch acts like a wing vein, stiffening the wing enough for the webspinner to fly.  When he finds a nest, the male can deflate the wing pouch and make his wings floppy again before he enters the nest.  Pretty cool, eh?

1.  But the best thing about the webspinners is their web spinning abilities!  The nests they make are created from silk that is excreted from a special structure in their forelegs.  One part of the foreleg is enlarged (see it depicted here) and packed full of silk glands.  They then move their feet around, extruding silk, to create silken tubes in which to raise their young.  Now I could explain how they do this, but Sir David Attenborough is so much better at explaining these things than anyone else.  Enjoy this clip from his superb Life in the Undergrowth:

Webspinners!  They look like wimps but they have a sort of elegant charisma that few other insects possess.  And, they’re darner cute to boot!  They’re always going to be one of my favorite insects.

Next week’s Friday 5 will be a surprise!  Until next time!


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