Friday 5: Insect-Themed TV Show Episodes

I am always excited when TV shows feature insects.  For some reason, I don’t much care whether they get things completely right.  Considering how much I grumble about news stories and websites getting their bug facts wrong, I feel like this should bother me more.  Of course, I also tend to watch a lot of shows that aren’t based in reality.  When people are travelling to alternate universes to battle bad guys, it’s hard to expect them to get their entomological facts straight!

Today I’m going to highlight 5 of my favorite insect-themed TV episodes that have been aired within the last few years.  Crime dramas have latched onto forensic entomology like dung beetles on cow pies, but I’m going to ignore them in favor of some of the more ridiculous insect episodes I’ve seen.  In no particular order, my 5 favorites are:

Immortality, Fringe, Season 3

I don’t know why I like Fringe as much as I do.  The plots are COMPLETELY unrealistic and the situations the characters find themselves in are sometimes laughable, but I can’t stop watching.  The show is a sort of X-Files style experience dealing with strange paranormal events that are investigated by a brilliant, but insane scientist, his estranged son, and a female FBI agent.  Immortality takes place in the alternate universe that has become a major part of the show.  You learn during the episode that an entomologist was just about to make a major health related breakthrough using “skelter beetles,” but the beetles’ sheep host went extinct before the research was completed.  The entomologist alters the beetles to accept human hosts to continue his work and murders several people with the bugs, hence the Fringe Division is after him.  The episode definitely has problems – the “beetles” are really roaches and no insect could reproduce as quickly as the beetles in the episode do – but it’s still a lot of fun!

SHow ME the Mummy, Eureka, Season 3

Eureka is a lot more “cute” than Fringe, but they’re very similar in many ways – lots of crazy, unrealistic science that just couldn’t happen.  If you aren’t familiar with it, the show features a town full of scientists who work at a military R&D lab (Global Dynamics) developing some mind-boggling (i.e., impossible) inventions and scientific techniques.  Show Me the Mummy is the show’s main insect offering.  The episode begins with the usual snotty scientist with a massive ego arguing with a similar scientist over a mummy.  Long story short, the sarcophagus is housing insects that have been in diapause (a sort of hibernation) for a couple thousand years, are reanimated, and require water to reproduce.  The scientists at Global Dynamics happen to be full of water, so the bugs kill a few people and wreak havoc on the town of Eureka.  Eventually, the town’s sheriff (of all people) suggests that they try killing them with cold.  You can guess what happens from here – or just watch it yourself.

Sight Unseen, Stargate SG-1, Season 6

Image source: stargate-sg1-season-8.html?action=reply

I finally got around to watching Stargate SG-1 recently and I really enjoyed it because I’m a massive geek.  In it, the four member military team SG-1 travels to other planets via a transportation device called the Stargate.  They battle aliens and whatnot and Richard Dean Anderson’s character makes a lot of jokes.  Cheesy sci-fi goodness at its best!  In Sight Unseen, the SG-1 team returns to Earth and start seeing giant bugs everywhere, bugs that phase in and out of sight.  Then people in Colorado Springs start seeing them too and they know they’ve got a problem on their hands.  You later discover that the giant bugs are in a different dimension (of course!) and that a radiation that is somehow transmitted from person to person by physical contact (yeah…) allows people to see through into the other dimension.  The bugs aren’t really there after all!  It’s a ludicrous plot, but I loved the giant bugs so this is one of my favorite episodes anyway.

All Mine, Reaper, Season 1

Ah, Reaper.  This has an even worse overall plot than the other things I’ve mentioned so far and I’m kinda embarrassed I actually watched it.  The general idea is that a young man learns that his parents sold his soul to the devil when he was a child – and the devil has come to collect!  The guy then has to track down various baddies who have escaped from Hell and send them back using various objects the devil provides for collection.  Seriously – cheesy, awful plot!  In All Mine, the plot is even worse than usual.  An escapee, this time a seductive woman, is killing people with bees.  In turns out that her entire body is made up of bees!  And then the main character and his inept friends send her back to Hell with a toaster…  Yeah.  Not a good episode, but it made me laugh anyway, so here we are.  :)

Bzzzzzzz!, Pushing Daisies, Season 2 

Pushing Daisies is one of my favorite shows of all time.  It was bizarrely humorous and quirky, so I thought it was brilliant!  The overall plot involves a guy who learned as a kid that he has a gift – he can bring dead things back to life with a touch.  However, if he leaves them alive for longer than a minute, an equivalent organism must die in its place with some disastrous consequences.  A private investigator stumbles onto his secret and they team up to solve murders by asking the murdered person who killed him/her.  The main character brings his first and only love back to life in the first episode (but he can’t ever touch her or she’ll die for good) and she joins the team too.  In Bzzzzzz!, the undead girlfriend goes undercover at the bee-based cosmetics company Betty’s Bees (think Burt’s Bees) to figure out who’s been murdering people there.  Could it be the vindictive former owner, Betty, bitter over the loss of her company in a hostile takeover?  Woolsey, the creepy new owner?  The episode is creative, well written, and stunningly gorgeous.  I can’t find it online, but if you ever have a chance to see it, it’s really great and I highly recommend it!

Any other recent bug episodes I’ve missed?  I’d love to find some other great episodes to watch, so leave suggestions in the comments!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Flood!

I sampled aquatic insects for two years as part of a research study for the National Park Service, but the sampling period occurred during a drought and there was rarely water in the creek.  A month after we stopped sampling, a massive flood ripped through the creek:

Rincon Creek after the flood

Rincon Creek, after the flood

This flood uprooted hundred year old trees (notice all the exposed tree roots to the lower left), significantly widened and straightened the creekbed, and wiped out the USGS stream gauge entirely.  Impressive, though it would have been nice for this to happen during our study so there was actually some water…  :)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

What is a June Bug?

Most people know that most living organisms have more than one name.  Scientists often stick to scientific names, two-word names that are attached to individual described species.  Every scientist uses the same scientific name when referring to a species, regardless of the country he/she lives in.  However, the scientific name of an animal is sometimes hard for a non-scientist to say or remember.  Consider the predaceous diving beetle Thermonectus marmoratus.  Look at how long that name is!  It’s a mouthful for most people, so a common name is often used in its place: the sunburst beetle.  Sunburst beetle rolls off the tongue a lot more easily than Thermonectus marmoratus and it’s a lot easier to remember for someone who doesn’t work with scientific names on a regular basis.

There are problems with using common names though.  Think about some of the many common names that members of the aquatic bug family Gerridae have: water striders, water skaters, water skimmers, Jesus bugs, pond skaters, and pond skimmers are just a few.  Now imagine two people from different areas discussing the aquatic insects that live in or on their farm ponds over the phone.  Maybe they both like the gerrids best, the long-legged bugs that live on the surface of the water.  However, if one person calls them water skaters and  the other calls them Jesus bugs, they might never realize that they’re talking about the same insect!

I get a lot of questions about June bugs from non-entomologists.  (In spite of the “bug” in their name, June bugs are actually beetles in the scarab family.)  They are a prime example of how using the common name for an insect can cause massive confusion!  That’s because most regions of the United States have their own ideas about what a June bug is, so any one person’s June bug can be completely different from another’s.  I realized this at a very early age, long before I decided I wanted to become an entomologist, so let me use my own experience as an example of just how confusing the name “June bug” can be.

My father spent nearly his entire childhood in North Carolina.  In his part of North Carolina, June bug was the common name assigned to the Japanese beetle, an invasive green and brown scarab beetle in the area.  For my dad, June bugs will always be green scarabs because that’s what he grew up with.  My dad eventually ended up living in Arizona, so he naturally assigned the name June bug to another common green scarab, the fig beetle.  When I was very young, my dad taught me that these were June bugs (pardon the abysmal quality – today’s photos are very old, but I hope to replace them with better ones soon):

June bug - green

My June bug, the fig beetle (Cotinus mutabilis)

They might look like the June bugs my dad grew up with, but my June bugs are not my dad’s June bugs!  His June bug is an invasive species while mine is a native.  His has mostly brown elytra while mine has mostly green elytra.  My June bug is bigger than my dad’s June bug.  They have the same name, but they’re not the same species.  You can see where the common name confusion comes into play!  Geographic differences make a huge difference when it comes to assigning common names to species.  If two people from the same immediate family think of two different beetles when they hear the name June bug, it’s no wonder so many people are confused!

Now let’s complicate matters even further.  My mother grew up in Missouri.  In her part of the country, June bugs are beetles that look a lot like this:

brown June bug

Brown June bug

I didn’t know that this was a June bug to my mom until I was 9 or 10 years old and we were visiting our family in Kansas.  My sister and I were playing with the beetles we called potato bugs (i.e., the little brown scarabs, my dad’s name for them) that were crawling on the window screen under the porch light and my mom slipped and called them June bugs and not potato bugs for the first time.  My sister and I were so confused!  Weren’t June bugs those big metallic green beetles we had back in Arizona?  My mom had to explain that our dad called the green scarabs June bugs, but the little brown scarabs were June bugs to her.  We had no idea that such a thing was possible!  How could one name be applied to two completely different insects in two completely different areas?

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that I didn’t even have the same June bug as my dad.  The same June bug as my sister, yes.  The same June bug as nearly every other kid I’ve talked to in Tucson, yes.  We all grew up in the same city, so we share the same June bug.  But my June bug isn’t my dad’s June bug because he grew up in a different place.  My mom’s June bug is very different from both my June bug and my dad’s June bug because she grew up in yet another place.  Ultimately, it all boils down to this: there isn’t a single June bug!  In fact, the common name likely applies to 50 or more different species of scarab beetles.

Now that I’m an entomologist and people ask me what a June bug is, I ask them what color they think a June bug is before I give them an answer.  Nearly everyone I’ve polled thinks that June bugs are either green or brown, though the size of the green or brown scarab varies a lot according to where the person grew up.  I then explain exactly what I’ve written here: that June bug is a common name that is applied to a variety of scarab beetles, usually green or brown, and that one person’s June bug can be very different from the next depending on where they grew up.  I actually love the June  bug question because it lets me discuss the problems associated with using common names.  Common names have their place for sure, but they also cause confusion.  I think it’s good for people to be aware of that.

And just because I’m curious, I’ll finish with a quick poll:


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Swarm Sunday

dragonfly swarm banner

As most of you know, I started officially collecting data about dragonfly swarms on my blog last summer.  About 2 weeks later, I got SO many dragonfly swarm reports that I watched my humble little side project eat up 3 or 4 hours of my limited free time most nights.  I don’t have that kind of time this year, so I’ve been on a quest to simplify the way I collect data.  The first step was to create an automated dragonfly swarm report form that delivered the data to my e mail inbox, but it was still taking too long to process the reports.  I’m trying to write a dissertation after all.  There had to be a better way!

One problem though: I’m not a programmer.  In fact, I might be the worst programmer on the planet!  My father’s a software engineer and is a total whiz at sifting through code and finding problems.  Me…  Well, let me just give you an example.  I was tasked with learning PERL for a graphic design job I had before I started grad school and I spent nearly a month working on a 20 line piece of code.  It took twenty minutes to write, but 30 days to figure out why my code wasn’t working.  Armed with this knowledge of my utter failure as a computer programmer, I was horrified when I started looking into simplifying my data collection and learned that I was going to have to *gasp!* write programming code to make it work!  Eeek!  Serious heart palpitations ensued.

Then out of blue, I remembered that WordPress started supporting Goggle Docs a while back.  It got me thinking: doesn’t Google Docs have a spreadsheet program?  Hmmm…  I looked into it and discovered exactly what I wanted, code for linking a Google Docs form to a spreadsheet within blogs.  It involved copying one piece of code and pasting it into my blog, something I’ve done a million times since I started my blog.  Easy!  But, it didn’t work.  I spent 5 hours trying to figure out why it wasn’t working.  Copy, paste.  Even I couldn’t screw that up!  Eventually, I discovered that the code WordPress was generating was incorrect (i.e. I debugged a piece of code, in less than a day!!!), so I fixed the code manually and everything magically fell into place!  Now when you enter data into my swarm report form, it will dump the data into a spreadsheet for me.  Goodbye manually entering data, hello finishing my dissertation!

Of course, there are downsides to automating.  I think the biggest one is that, while they were really hard to sift through, letting people leave their reports as comments on my blog allowed people to look though comments other reporters left.  When they did, they could see when and where other swarms occurred in their areas.  People started asking each other questions and conversations were starting up.  It felt like a little community was starting to form, a community of vigilant dragonfly swarms watchers!  It was fabulous. I hate to lose that because it added something extra to my project, a great human element, but I simply have to make the data collection easier.

I think I’ve come up with a sort of compromise though: Swarms Sundays!  Every week during the dragonfly swarming season, I’ll post the locations of all the swarms that occurred the previous week.  If you’re interested in where dragonfly swarms have occurred, you can check my blog on Sundays and look!  And, if you want to leave comments and/or discuss sightings with others, you may still do so on the Sunday posts.  This way, I can collect my data quickly and easily, but you all can still have those conversations about sightings that I loved so much.  Hopefully this will offer the best of both worlds!

I’ll make my first post next week, with all the data I’ve collected from 2011 so far.  Hope you’ll check back!

(My Monday post is going to be a day late this week.  Check back on Tuesday for a discussion of a fascinating new scientific paper!)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Friday 5: Pretty Insect Photos

I love insect art!  I’ve already talked about some of the insect art pieces I own, so for today’s Friday 5 I’m focusing on books that feature gorgeous insect photography.  Any of these books would make an excellent coffee table book for guests to flip through as you visit and all of them are stunning.  I heartily recommend these 5!

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles by Arthur Evans and Charles Bellamy

This was the first insect book I wanted solely for the photos.  Don’t get me wrong – Drs. Evans and Bellamy’s text is superb and the book is well worth reading!  When we had to choose an insect book to read in my one entomology course as an undergrad (yep, we did old school book reports in that class!), I went straight for this one.  However, I can’t deny that I initially wanted this book for the photographs.  It’s filled with page after page of gorgeous beetle specimens from around the world, highlighting many unique, bizarre, and beautiful beetles.  I got this book as a Christmas present from my dad about half a year before I went off to grad school to study insects, so it holds a special place in my heart.  It really is an excellent book.  Anyone with a passing interest in entomology should own a copy.

Living Jewels by Poul Beckman

Although it’s another beetle book, Living Jewels is definitely a work of art – written and designed by artists, so no scientists were harmed in the making of the book – and has far less scientific value than Inordinate Fondness.  On the other hand, this oversized book is filled with huge, larger than life beetle photos!  It’s pure eye candy – little text, little attempt to educate the readers about beetle biology.  I doubt if the author and his colleague know much about beetles themselves.  Still, if this book doesn’t make you appreciate the absolute beauty of beetles then nothing will!  I should mention that after the success of his first book (though it’s rather hard to find now…), Beckman put out a sequel, Living Jewels 2.  I personally think the print job on the second book is quite inferior to the first, darker with stark contrasts that make the photographs seem too harsh.  Of course, I bought it anyway, so it’s not all bad…  :)

Night Vision by Joseph Scheer

This is one of my all time favorite insect books!  It features a group of often overlooked insects, the moths, and gives them the limelight they deserve.  The images in the book aren’t exactly photographs; they were produced by scanning moth specimens on a very high-resolution scanner.  The results are amazing, almost too good to believe.  The resolution is so high and the images so crisp that they can be blown up to massive proportions (several feet across) and retain their sharpness!  I bought this book shortly after it was released (I think Amazon recommended it to me – thank you Amazon!) and I was stunned by the quality of the images.  I think everyone should look through this book at least once.  However, if you ever have a chance to see Scheer’s exhibit of huge format moth prints at an art museum, DON’T MISS IT!  It was at my university a few years back and it’s even more amazing than the book.  Didn’t realize that was even possible!

Pheromone by Christopher Marley

I have to admit that in spite of being an entomologist and an insect art lover, I was probably one of the last people to discover Marley’s work.  You may have seen his work featured in calendars, postcard books, and their ilk.  But his book is way better than any of those things!  Like Poul Beckman, Marley is an artist who works with insect specimens.  He travels around the world collecting insects for his pieces, preserves the specimens, and then artfully arranges them into spectacular displays.  What draws me to his work is the precision.  You so rarely see specimens so perfectly arranged, and he’s not even an entomologist!  The book contains a blend of photos of the insects he uses in his artwork as well as photos of the final pieces.  It’s a stunning volume and I really love it.  Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford one of the pieces featured in the book, but for now I’ll flip through the pages and dream of walls covered with beautiful, perfect insects…

The Smaller Majority by Piotr Naskrecki

While not entirely devoted to insects, this book definitely makes my top 5 list.  Naskrecki is a master macrophotographer as well as a biologist, and you get the best of both worlds in this masterpiece.  The photographs are amazing and the text makes for a great read.  Plus, if you don’t want to read a whole book on insects (maybe you have interests in other invertebrates or amphibians – gasp!), this book gives you a much wider range of subjects than any of the other books I’ve featured here.  Nothing I can say really does it justice though – see for yourself!  This book was at the top of my wish list for Christmas about 5 years ago (so I ask for, and receive, a lot of books – I only bought one of the books on this list for myself!) and I absolutely love it.   I highly recommend it!

These are my five favorite insect photo books.  Anyone else want to add others to the list?  If so, leave a comment below!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Saguaro Bloom

One of the best parts of living in the Sonoran Desert are the cacti that the desert is known for: the saguaros.  I’ve always loved saguaros, but they are SPECTACULAR when they do this:

Saguaro flowers

Saguaro flowers - with bees!

Simply gorgeous!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Insect Investigations: Aquatic Insects as Indicators of Water Quality

aquatic insects

My mini aquatic insect tank for carrying to classrooms

I promised to post some lesson plans during the semester, but I never had a chance to actually do it.  Today I’m making good on that promise.  As it’s also related to my recent water quality series, I’ll use this post to finish up the series at the same time!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach at a top middle school in Tucson, a school that consistently ranks in the top 10 or 20 schools in the nation.  The kids at this school are very smart.  I taught 3 lessons, but the kids were in groups of 5th through 7th graders, all mixed together.  Odd!  These kids were also older than any other kids I’ve worked with over the past semester, so my usual “What is an Insect” presentation just wasn’t going to cut it.  Instead, I planned a presentation on aquatic insects.

One part of my presentation involved the kids doing an activity I developed that focused on using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality.  For the blog here, I’m going to describe how I ran the lesson in the classroom during the hour I had allotted.  However, if anyone wants to use this activity, you can find a more official, printable lesson plan on my Educational Materials page (it will be posted later today – having problems getting it uploaded).  Feel free to use and share it at will!


The roaches I share with the kids travel in this

I start all of my insect lessons by figuring out how much the kids already know about the characteristics of insects – number of legs, body segments, antennae, and wings and where their skeleton is located.  With the more advanced kids at this school, I also asked about spiders, crustaceans, and other arthropods as well.  Once we covered the basics, I got a hissing cockroach out and let them hold and interact with it.  The group of kids were mature enough to be able to pass the roach around without totally freaking out and dropping one of my little guys on the floor – one benefit of working with older, gifted kids!  We discussed what the roaches eat (they’re decomposers of plants) and how they eat (chewing mouthparts).  Then I got a giant water bug out.  I don’t let kids hold them so they won’t get bitten, but I showed them all the piercing-sucking mouthpart up close.  We compared the mouthparts of the water bug to those of the roach and I had them guess some of the amazing things that giant water bugs are capable of eating.

At that point, they’d seen an aquatic insect up close and several water bugs and water scorpions in the clear container at the front of the room, so they were aware that there are insects that live in water.  I spent a couple of minutes talking about aquatic insects and where they live before introducing the idea of using insects as indicators of water quality.  I briefly told them how aquatic entomologists use tolerance values of insects to determine the water quality of a stream or lake, explained the tolerance value scale, and let them ask questions.  Then we did the activity.


The insect "samples" from their "streams"

I had the kids get into four groups and set the tone by telling them that each group was a survey team sampling a different stream in southern Arizona.  They’d collected, sorted, and identified the insects in their samples, but they still needed to calculate the biotic index value to determine how polluted the water was in their stream.  I gave each sampling team an envelope containing 10 cards, the “insects” in their samples.  Each card had a picture, the genus, a common name, and the Arizona tolerance value (see below).  Their job was to calculate the biotic index value by taking the average of the tolerance values for all the insects in their sample.  I also asked them to count the number of species found in their sample and discuss what the number they calculated said about the water quality in their stream.  Then I let them loose!

I let the kids do the math and discuss the results with their groups for about 8 minutes and then got everyone back together.  I had one person from each group share the biotic index value for their stream and what they thought that meant.  After every group shared their results, I told them which specific streams their “insects” were from (I based my cards on actual samples, so they were accurate!) and a few facts about that stream that might impact the water quality.  We discussed their results in light of this new information.  For example, everyone decided that it was natural that the most polluted stream would be the one that only had water in it because a waste water treatment plant dumped its effluent into the streambed.  It was also natural that the stream that had the fewest human visitors was the least polluted.  They also discovered that the number of species was generally higher in less polluted streams than in highly polluted streams and that some insects with very high pollution tolerance values still lived in the cleanest water.  Essentially, they came up with all the ideas I had intended to point out, entirely on their own!

insect cards

The "insects" in the "sample"

The kids were enthralled by the insects that have tolerance values of 11 out of 10, so I ended my presentation by pulling out a water scorpion.  They were an example of and 11, and I let everyone get a close look at it.  I told them a few facts about the insects and we finished the lesson by briefly discussing why that particular insect might be more tolerant to pollution than other insects.  They came up with some great ideas!

All in all, I was happy with the presentation!  I think there was a good mix of live insects and fake insects.  I did some talking, but the kids spent most of the time making observations and doing the activity.  Even though the students at this school might not be the best from which to judge the success of my new activity, the kids seemed to get really into it the activity and asked questions that made it clear that they’d understood the greater implications.  I couldn’t have been happier!  Although my presentation was rather informal, I have some ideas for how to expand the activity to make it a full-blown science lesson that fits into the national science standards for 5-8 graders.  If you’re interested in teaching the activity, check out the lesson plan I’ve posted for more information!

This concludes my series on using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality… for now!  I have a few more topics I’d like to cover, but I think I’ll move on to other subjects for a while and revisit this topic again in the future.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011