Field Stories: Scary Situations

(The post I planned to do today is taking longer than I expected, so it won’t get posted until next Monday.  In the meantime, I give you the following field stories!)

I believe that all entomologists have some sort of horror story from time spent in the field.  I’ve already shared my centipede story and my giant water bug attack story, but I have oh so many more!  Today I’m going to share a few scary stories from my deep treasure trove of memories.

field site

The desert around my field site

Drug Dealers

I live in Southern Arizona.  If you know anything about this area, you know that it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to wander around in the desert.  I don’t worry about the illegals crossing the desert.  Give them some water and they will be so grateful they’ll name children after you!  But the drug dealers…  That’s an entirely different matter.  One of my field sites is in a prime drug running area.  The area is absolutely crawling with Border Patrol agents, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.  Every time I go out to that field site, I hope I don’t see anyone.  I never go alone.  I carry a gun with me.  It’s scary being out there at the best of times, but one time there was this ominous black truck parked along the little dirt road you take to get to the pond.  A really nice truck.  The kind of truck you wouldn’t ever see on a tiny little overgrown ranch road for legitimate reasons.  There was a guy sitting in it.  My companion and I drove past and collected water bug eggs anyway (I would have turned around if it were up to me, but I wasn’t driving), and we were totally on edge the entire time.  We stopped and listened carefully every time we heard a car (extra stressful considering there is a busy dirt road obscured by a small hill just on the other side of the pond!) and prepared to shoot our way out if necessary.  It was incredibly stressful.  It’s hard to convey the fear I felt!  The experience made me so much more cautious than I’d ever been in the past though, so I suppose some good came out of it.

Rattlesnakes

I don’t see many snakes for someone who spends time outdoors in Arizona.  I’ve only seen a total of 9 snakes over the 18 years I’ve lived in Tucson!  The most exciting snake was one I was lucky to see.  I was out sampling a creek in the Rincon Mountains for a project I was doing for one of my jobs.  At one of the sites, there were steep banks on either side of the creek and limited places where it was easy to climb out.  My coworkers and I were just about done sampling and realized we needed to ask our boss a question, so I headed toward the car to get my cell.  I walked up the bank the same way I always did, using this perfect little foothold in the bank to take the last step up to level ground.  I was I just about to slam my foot down on the foothold for that last step when I happened to look down and see this:

rattlesnake

Rattlesnake!

My foot was 3 or 4 inches from the snake when I saw it, so it was a huge challenge to change my momentum sufficiently that I didn’t come crashing down on top of it with my sandaled foot!  I jerked my entire body backwards as hard as I could and essentially launched myself back down the bank toward the creek.  I landed on my knees about 10 feet away and just sat there shaking for a few minutes.  I had nasty bruises.  I was in pain.  But I didn’t get bitten!  And then I used a different foothold, ran to the car, got the phone and a camera, and snapped some photos of the rattler.  What can I say?  I’m a biologist.  That’s what we do.  :)

Dead Bodies in the Lake

the lake

The Lake

Most of you probably know that I worked at an urban lake in Tucson once a week for most of three years.  The lake is in a crappy neighborhood, so we saw lots of crazy things.  Before we started working there, my coworker and I were told that someone once found a dead body in the lake.  We couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Every time we got the anchor stuck on something, we’d worry just a little that it might be a dead body.  Then one week they found a dead body in the lake 6 hours after we finished sampling.  The presence of an actual dead body in the lake made pulling one up with the anchor seem so much more possible!  What if we had been there?  What if we had found it?  Was it in the lake while we were sampling?  The idea disturbed our other coworker so badly that the next time he got the anchor stuck on something, he made me promise that we would quit sampling immediately if it was a dead body.  I have never seen anyone look so relieved to pull up a lawn chair covered in algae and mud!  Poor guy.  He probably still worries about finding a body in the lake…

Bears

At one point, my advisor decided that we should collect some special water scorpions that we have in Arizona in the genus Curicta.  We headed to Ramsey Canyon, a lovely little canyon run by the Nature Conservancy, to try to find some:

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon. Image source: http://bit.ly/igSoy7

We talked to the people in the visitor’s center when we arrived and they warned us that there had been a bear in the area that day, hanging out around the ponds we were intending to collect.  We promised we’d keep an eye out for it and headed into the canyon with a volunteer as our guide.  As we walked up the hill, a couple came down saying, “There’s a bear!  There’s a bear!”  They pointed up the hill and practically ran toward the visitor’s center.  A minute later, a family told us that they’d just seen a bear and pointed up the hill as they rushed past us on their way out of the canyon.  When we get to the pond and prepared to collect, we fully expected the bear to wander in at any moment.  Guess who had to take her eyes off the surroundings and get into the pond to collect?  Me!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared collecting in my life!  I kept looking up to make sure the bear wasn’t coming, which made collecting very difficult.  And then I didn’t catch any of the bugs we wanted!  Nor did I ever see the bear!  Total bust.  The canyon was gorgeous though, and the threat of the bear made it so much more zesty.  As a result, I now remember that adventure rather fondly!

Ah, the joys of bug collecting in Arizona!  I’m sure some of you have some great stories like these.  I’d love to hear them if you want to share them in the comments!

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I’m giving away another aquatic insect mug!  If you haven’t done so already, you can enter here.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

The Dragonfly Woman Turns 2! (And another contest)

Happy blogoversary to me!
Happy blogoversary to me!
Happy blogoversary to DW!
Happy blogoversary to me!

The Dragonfly Woman is two years old today!  Crazy to think that I’ve kept this little blog o’ mine going for two whole years.  When I started my blog back in 2009, I posted once a week and struggled to post that often.  Thankfully, it was a requirement for an academic  fellowship I had at the time, so I stuck it out.  Thank you Biosphere 2 for not only helping me get a blog started (I had always wanted to write a blog), but forcing me to stick with it long enough to create something worthwhile!

Now blogging has become completely routine.  I walk around thinking, “Ooh!  This would make a good blog post!” when I see something interesting.  I notice things in a way I never did before.  I carry my P&S camera with me everywhere, just in case I see something I want to photograph for my blog.  I’ve vastly improved as a photographer with both my DSLR and my P&S and I’m finally getting bug shots that I’m proud of.  In the past year, I’ve also expanded from posting once a week to posting thrice a week.  (Yes, I worded that specifically so I could use the word “thrice” for the first time ever.  What a glorious word!)  I’ve built up a regular following of fantastic people who apparently enjoy the same sorts of bizarre things that I do.  And, last weekend, I topped 100, 000 views!  Overall, I’m feeling pretty good about where my blog is now and where it’s headed in the future.  What a fabulous experience!

My main goal for the coming year is to move my blog over onto my own  website.  I just can’t do some things that I would like to using WordPress.com.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love WordPress, and I heartily recommend it to other bloggers.  Still, I am feeling limited by the system. on WordPress.com  None of the templates make me entirely happy and why pay for a custom CSS upgrade when I can pay for my own site?  I also need to streamline my dragonfly swarm data collection.  Can’t do that on WordPress.com.  Need my own site.

Otherwise, I hope to keep things going as they are now!  I enjoy mixing science, education, and random entomology topics together, so I’ll keep on doing things as I always have.  It seems to be working okay so far!

mug

My aquatic insects mug.

Because I love you all for supporting my blogging habit and I’m in the mood to celebrate my blogoversary, I’m going finish up here with another contest!  Lots of people wanted a mug last time I offered one, so I’m offering another one.  No need to follow me on Facebook or on Twitter this time!  Just leave a comment below and I’ll enter you in a drawing for an aquatic insect mug hand painted by me.  Same rules apply as last time: if you win, you can have the mug pictured at left or you can choose up to 3 aquatic insects of your choice for a custom mug – black ink on a white mug in the style you see in the photo.  I’ll collect entries for one week and announce the winner next weekend!

Thank you all for sticking with me and supporting what I do here!  The very best part of the blogging experience has been forming online relationships with other bloggers and my readers.  I used to scoff at my computer science geek friends in high school and college for forming online “friendships” and swore I wasn’t ever going to stoop to doing it myself.  Yeah…  Sorry high school and college friends!  I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about.  I love feeling like part of a community, even if I haven’t met the majority of the people in my community offline – and I look forward to the day that I get to meet some of you in person!

Now excuse me, but I need to work on my post for Monday.  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Friday 5: 5 Steps to a Native Bee Cavity Nest

I quite enjoyed writing the bee nest cap post last week, so I’m going to do another Friday 5 about my bees!  This week I am focusing on how the bees (Megachile sp.) are making their nests.  It involves these 5 steps:

1. Find a cavity

finding nest

Finding a nest

My bee house was designed to provide cavities to attract native cavity nesting bees and it seems to being doing its job!  At any given time in the last month, there have been bees looking for nesting sites.  They fly around in front of the bee house (like the bee in the lower center of the photo), find a cavity that looks good, and crawl inside to inspect it.  If it is acceptable, they fly off and start gathering nesting materials.  If they don’t like it, they fly around and look for a better cavity.

2.  Build and provision a cell

building a cell

An incomplete cell

After a suitable cavity is selected, the bee starts building cells in her new nest.  She flies away from the nest and returns a few minutes later with leaf bits, small rocks, and globs of resin in her mouth.  She crawls into the nest head first and starts plastering the walls with the nesting materials.  On most trips into the cavity, she carries a load of bright yellow pollen on the underside of her abdomen.  Presumably, she deposits the pollen inside the cell for the future larvae to eat because the bees nearly always come out of the nests clean.  When the cell is about 8 – 10 mm long, they move on to the next step.

3. Lay eggs

laying eggs

Bee looking out after laying eggs

After a cell is completed, the bee crawls all the way out of the nest, turns around, and backs into the nest.  She spends several minutes inside the nest laying eggs in this position.  When she’s done, she crawls to the front of the nest, pauses for a minute or so, and flies off to start gathering nesting materials for the next step.

4. Cap cell and repeat

capping a cell

Capping a cell

When the bee returns to her nest after laying eggs, she appears with more nesting materials in her mouth, but no pollen.  She then builds a cap for the cell in which she has laid her eggs using the nesting materials.  There is a similar wall between every individual cell within the nest.

The bees typically make about 8 cells in the cavities in my bee house. Once a cell is sealed, the bee starts a new cell, lays more eggs, and caps the new cell.  It’s taking my bees 2-5 days to complete all of their cells, depending on the diameter of the hole and the length of the cavity.  The bigger the diameter, the longer the bee takes to build her complete nest.

5. Cap nest

building a nest cap

Building a nest cap

When cavity is nearly full of cells and there is only about 0.5 – 1 cm of the cavity still empty, the bee starts to build her nest cap.  She carries leaf bits, rocks, and resin to the nest and starts packing the materials in front of the last cell, often leaving a space between the last cell and the nest cap.  She starts building with a mixture of what is apparently leaves and saliva, then starts adding sand, rocks, and resin closer to the end of the cavity.  Depending on the nest cap type she builds, the bee may build out beyond the cavity 3 – 5 mm, but many of them are finished flush with the edge of the nest.  Most of the bees start a new nest almost immediately after finishing one, often moving into the next closest available and suitable cavity.

I have to say that I’m rather addicted to watching my bees.  I gave myself a sunburn one day because I was out photographing the bees building their nests for so long.  Another day I stepped into one of the many ant nests in my yard because I was so absorbed by the bees (have I mentioned lately that ants and I don’t get along?)  One day it was so windy I was worried another branch like the one I used to build my bee house would break off the tree and smack me in the head.  Still, I go out every day and watch.  I’m mean really, who can resist this?:

giant resin glob

Giant resin glob!

Look how big that resin glob is compared to the bee!  Anything that puts so much work into building a nest while looking so darned cute is alright in my book.  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Green

Most years when I head out into the 100 degree, super humid days of the southern Arizona monsoons to do my field work, everything looks pretty brown and crispy in spite of the rains.  Last summer, it rained SO much that I could barely do my work, but just look at what sprung up at one of my field sites:

grassy

Waist high grass!

So pretty, so heavenly, so unusual.  Love it!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Why Insects Make Great Water Quality Indicators

giant water bug

Giant water bug, AZ tolerance value = 8

I’ve had a lot of time to think during my trip out of town for a family emergency (it’s going to have a happy ending, but does mean all recycled photos today) and I spent some of it thinking about what insects-and-water-quality post I should do next.  I had several ideas about what I might write about.  Perhaps I should talk about diversity and water quality or the metrics and bioassessment tools that are used by state and federal water quality managers.  Suddenly it occurred to me that I haven’t ever discussed one of the most important topics!  I’ve never explained WHY insects are such great indicators of water quality and why using them in this manner is so popular with researchers and water quality managers.  Today I’m going to do just that!  Really should have done this post ages ago, but sometimes inspiration doesn’t hit at convenient times.

There are several reasons why using insects as bioindicators of water quality is so popular.  One of the most important is that aquatic macroinvertebrates are found in nearly every body of inland (non-marine) water, so they are ubiquitous.  A little puddle of water in a rock the desert?  Yep, there are bugs in there.  A huge river in the Amazon?  Lots of bugs there!  A stream with a pH of 2 (highly acidic for those of you unfamiliar with the pH scale)?  Even there  – and I’ll talk about the insects I found in just such a stream in a future post.  There are insects that can live in pools of petroleum, hot springs that would boil a human alive, and water that’s hundreds or thousands of times saltier than the ocean.  All in all, there are very few biological organisms that you can find in so many different aquatic habitats.  As a result, insects and other macroinvertebrates are the darlings of water quality researchers while many other aquatic plants and animals are completely ignored.

Hydrophilid lateral

Water scavenger beetle, AZ tolerance value = 7

Macroinvertebrates are also useful as indicators because they are abundant.  If there are insects in a body of water, there are usually lots of insects in that body of water, even in highly polluted water.  This means that you can get a decent sample without severely impacting their populations in most places.  This isn’t always the case with some of the bigger animals like fish.

Sometimes you need a tissue sample to see how water quality is impacting aquatic wildlife, such as an analysis of the amount of lead being absorbed by the wildlife in a stream.  You often need fairly large tissue samples to run these sorts of tests, so the bigger the animal the better.  Fish are perfect, but they’re not found in every body of water.  Microorganisms such as algae, bacteria, and protozoans abound in many types of water, but they’re very small.  If you need even a small tissue sample the size of, say, a bloodworm, imagine how many bacteria you need to collect from the water to create a big enough sample!  Not only are insects abundant and ubiquitous, but they’re a lot bigger than most other abundant and ubiquitous organisms.  This makes them more useful as indicators.

Skinny legs

Water scorpion, AZ tolerance value = 11

Insects are easy to collect compared to a lot of other things too.  Consider how difficult it is to sample fish!  You can use a rod and reel and spend days collecting 10 or 12 fish, carry a massively heavy electroshocking unit with its associated risk of electrocution if something goes wrong, or poison all the fish in an area with a chemical like rotenone (which can also kill insects and amphibians).  You could always just sample the water directly, but the last thing you want to do in a remote location is carry gallons of water to your vehicle.  Insect samples are easy!  One aquatic insect net and a decent sized bottle containing alcohol is enough to collect the sample and get it back to the car.  Lightweight, portable sampling equipment is preferable to heavy gear, particularly if you have to hump it into remote locations on foot, and sampling insects is one of the lightest choices.

Water quality analyses of any sort are very expensive.  While it might seem like the easiest way to determine whether a body of water is polluted, analyzing the water itself is particularly spendy.  There are so many man-made and naturally occurring compounds that could be in water that you can run hundreds of tests on a single sample looking for every possible pollutant.  Even running a very simple set of analyses looking at nitrogen, phosphorous, and carbon compounds, biological oxygen demand, and a few other parameters can cost nearly $1000.  Insect samples are also expensive to process and analyze, but they’re not as expensive as water analysis, maybe $300 per sample as opposed to $500-$1000 or more.  For any given budget, you can collect more insect samples than you can water samples, so insect sampling is often preferred.

predaceous diving beetle

Predaceous diving beetle, AZ tolerance value = 7

Finally, one of the things that makes aquatic insects and other macroinvertebrates such great indicators is that they live in the water all the time and are reasonably long-lived.  Pollution can and sometimes does occur steadily over time (imagine a wastewater treatment plant outfall or a paper mill dumping waste into a river), but a single event can cause massive problems in a body of water.  Sometimes, every trace of the pollutant has disappeared from the water by the time a researcher can collect a water sample from the stream.  However, many of the insects were in the stream during the pollution event!  This means that, even if you can no longer find the pollutant in the water, or never even knew a pollution event occurred, the organisms in the stream can show you that something is wrong.  You might not be able to figure out exactly what caused the problem, but you can at least see that there was a problem and start looking for possible sources.

All in all, I think it makes sense to use aquatic macroinvertebrates to assess water quality!  They make fantastic indicator species for so many reasons that they have become one of the best tools researchers have for determining water quality.  They’ve proven themselves in countless studies and their use has become a standard part of sampling protocols for many state and federal water quality agencies.  They’ve become very important to a lot of people.  As an aquatic insect lover, it makes me happy that my favorite bugs matter.  And really, who doesn’t love an aquatic insect?  :)

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Friday 5: Leafcutter Bee Nest Caps

The bee house I put up in my yard in mid-April has been a complete success!  Nearly every cavity has been filled with nesting materials and eggs and now I’m waiting for the new bees to emerge.  I’ve watched them obsessively and am keeping hard-core notes about the whole process, so I am totally in love with my bees!  One thing that has fascinated me is the variety in the capping stuctures and materials used among cavities.  To the best of my knowledge, all of my bees are these:

bee

A leafcutter bee (Megachile) bee making a nest

They’re a species of leafcutter bee in the genus Megachile.  Even though they’re apparently all the same species, they’re still building their nests according to… something!  Maybe it’s individual preferences or access to the building materials that controls it, but three different caps might be built by three different bees on the same day.  Fascinating!  My bees have been spending 2-3 days busily building their nests and laying eggs and then spend part of a day building a cap to seal everything safely inside.  They’ve made 5 different types of caps so far, perfect for Friday 5!

Resin Caps

resin cap

Resin caps

The first several bees made these caps.  Then they stopped making them.  Most recently, bees have been STEALING the resin from the completed resin caps, cutting pieces away from the caps and hauling them off, and then recapping the nests with mud.  Odd!  I assume there’s a resin shortage now and they’re scrambling to find it wherever they can.  When the bees build this kind of cap, they bring big globs of it from somewhere on the other side of my house, then stretch it across the opening.  (The bee in the photo at the top has a big glob of it in her jaws, ready to stick it onto the cap.)  Then they pile a bunch more on the front, making a thick, flexible cap.  They smell awesome too!  You can smell the resin from several feet away.  Reminds me of vacations in the pine topped mountains in Colorado…

Leaf Caps

Chewed leaf cap

Leaf cap, in progress. (This one is still green, even though it's now dry.)

Some of the caps, though not many, are made of chewed leaf bits.  The bees bring in large pieces of leaves or flower petals or other plant materials, then chew them up and stick them onto the nest.  Presumably they are sticking the leaf fragments together with saliva.  The best thing about the leaf caps is the variation in color!  Most of them are green like this one, but I have one yellow, one purple, and one vivid red one too.  Awesome!

Rock Caps

Rock cap

Rock cap

These seem to be the least popular choice, but there are a few.  The bees use resin to attach little pebbles (which they collect from the corner of my yard) onto the front of their nests.  After they build up a few layers of rocks, they call it good and either start a new nest in another hole or fly away.  I love watching the bees make these caps!  There’s something about a bee flying around with a rock nearly the size of her head clamped in her mouth that is both inspiring and terribly entertaining.

Flat Mud Caps

Flat mud cap

Flat mud cap

The mud caps are very popular with the bees in my bee house and they take one of two forms.  The flat mud caps are built so that the outer edge is flush with the face of the log in which the cavity is located.  After they dry a bit, they tend to sink inward in the middle a little, giving them a gentle concave look.  To the best of my knowledge, the bees are making the mud themselves by carrying little piles of dirt from another part of my yard, mixing it with saliva and chewed leaf bits, and then spreading the whole mess across the nest entrances.

Round Mud Caps

Round mud cap

Round mud cap

This was the last style of cap to appear in my bee house, but they look really fabulous!  The round mud caps are a sort of mixture of the flat mud cap and the rocks cap.  The bees stick a bunch of little rocks onto the front of the nest, building out past the edge of the log.  Then they plaster over the whole thing with mud as in the flat mud cap.  The result is a cap that extends well beyond the nest entrance, almost like the little developing bees inside are blowing bubbles in the mud!

Watching my bees has been great and I’m very pleased my bee house has worked as well as it has.  And just look at all the individual choices being made by the bees!  Fabulous.  I’m definitely going to make myself some new bee houses (even bought a new power tool – my first circular saw – to do it!) because it’s been great fun watching them build their nests.  I highly recommend the experience!

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I am going to do my best to get a blog post up on Monday, but there’s a good chance it won’t happen.  I am leaving town for a family emergency today and that is a lot more important than getting a blog post out on time.  I will be back, and as soon as I can, but if you don’t hear from me for a while that’s why.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Pollen Hoarder

I’ve watched the bees visiting my bee house in my yard a lot recently and I’ve become totally enraptured by them!  A bee photo seems in order, so this week I give you this little bee, happily hoarding pollen (sadly, not at my house):

 bee in flower

Bee in flower

Isn’t she darling?  I just love her!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com