Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: On Bug Bloggers

I really enjoyed getting to hang out with some of my fellow bug bloggers at Science Online at the beginning of the month!  I feel like we’ve got a great community online, a very supportive group of writers who are incredibly passionate about spreading the word about how great insects are to the world.  Sometimes there are costumes:

Bug Girl

Bug Girl

That’s Bug Girl, conquering the world in a stylish bug costume that she wore the whole last day of Scio13.  Maybe I associate with an odd crowd, but this seemed completely normal to me.  :)

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

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2012 Dragonfly Swarm Project Year-End Report: What the Data Suggest So Far

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

I could have sworn that I posted this last weekend, but when I went to post the next part of the report there it was in the drafts folder.  Whoops!  Well, here’s hoping it will go through this time…

In part III of my report, I addressed the predictions that I made at the end of the season last year and made some new predictions.  Today’s part IV will focus on the big picture, i.e. why I think dragonfly swarms form and what their purpose is in the environment based on the information that I’ve gathered from you all thus far.  Remember as you read that there are two types of dragonfly swarms, static (dragonflies form tight-knit groups over a well-defined area) and migratory (dragonflies fly together in a single direction as they move from one place to another) and they are very different types of swarms.  Please also note that there needs to be some additional experimentation to confirm nearly anything I say in this post – this is all observational data and you can’t show cause and effect with observational data like this.  With that disclaimer, however, I think there are several interesting patterns in the data that are suggestive of what’s going on.

First let’s consider how dragonfly swarms form, and let’s focus on the static swarms first.  Static swarms are all about feeding.  Where there is abundant food available to dragonflies, such as swarms of small flies (i.e. gnats, midges, mosquitoes), ants, or termites, you will often find dragonfly swarms.  The majority of people who have made reports of static swarms have noted that the dragonflies were actively eating some form of small insect and the scientific literature supports these observations.  It would be interesting to see if you could induce a dragonfly swarm by artificially creating a swarm of small insects as I think that would provide great experimental confirmation of the observational data.

If static dragonfly swarms form only in the presence of abundant prey insects, then what exactly is drawing the dragonflies in?  Having witnessed the start of one swarm, I think there are two potential explanations.  The first is that each individual dragonfly sees the prey insects and swarms form as each individual chooses to feed in the same place based on the availability of food, i.e. they’re using food as a cue to swarm.  An alternative explanation is that one dragonfly finds the food source and then other dragonflies recognize the flight pattern of the “founder” dragonfly, realize there’s food available, and join the dragonflies that have already begun to swarm.  In this scenario, the swarm is formed based on the behavioral cues of the dragonflies rather than the food.  If you’ve seen a static dragonfly swarm, you know how regular the flight pattern is.  Nearly every individual follows the same rectangular or figure 8 path back and forth.  Another dragonfly could potentially recognize this flight pattern as a signal that there is food available.  Either explanation could be correct (or neither!), so an experiment would be necessary to tease them apart.

What about migratory swarm formation?  We need to consider that dragonflies migrate for a variety of reasons.  First, there’s the annual fall migration where millions (billions?) of dragonflies fly from north to south in search of warmer overwintering sites.  I suspect this behavior is largely weather driven, that dragonflies recognize cues in the environment that tell them they need to move and they do it.  Swarms likely form because lots of dragonflies happen to be moving in the same direction along the same paths, but it’s always possible that the dragonflies toward the back are following those in the front.  (It would be really hard to test that experimentally though.)  Second, many people have reported migratory swarms during some of the static swarming mega-events where there are several million dragonflies in an area at one time.  In this case, I suspect that weather is partly responsible as those mega-events are typically associated with storms, but I think that these migratory events are partly a lemming-like response where there are so many dragonflies in an area that the environment can no longer support them all and some of them move to other areas.  Then there’s a third situation where conditions in an area deteriorate sufficiently that the dragonflies NEED to move to survive, so they get up and go.  I have no idea how the dragonflies in the lemming-like scenario or the deteriorating conditions scenario form swarms, however.  Somehow it seems unlikely that the dragonflies would follow the leader to a new area, but I don’t have a better alternative suggestion at this time either.

So that’s how I think dragonfly swarms form based on the information I’ve collected to date.  Now let’s consider what role dragonfly swarms play in the environment.  Based on the 2500 reports received so far, I can say that the majority of static swarms develop after a disturbance of one form or another – floods, droughts, fires, too many dragonflies in one area, disturbances of vegetation, etc.  I’ve discussed this idea before, but I think that flooding leads to localized population booms in a variety of fly species and that dragonflies move in to take advantage of the abundant food.  Similar things happen when it rains after a long period of drought in an area.  I’ve thought that rain, storms, and flooding play a role in swarm formation since I started the Dragonfly Swarm Project and I still think that’s true.  However, this was the first year I started to understand the role that other disturbances play in swarm formation.  Droughts were reported many times over the past season, and both static and migratory swarms were observed in drought stricken areas all over the country.  I suspect that drought conditions induce movement of a lot of insects and the dragonflies form swarms to swoop up any prey insects as they move around.  However, droughts can also lead to migratory movements of the dragonflies themselves.  I suspect these migratory swarms consist of dragonflies that are leaving an area that has deteriorated sufficiently to force them to find better conditions elsewhere.  Like I said before, I’m not sure why they might do this en masse (perhaps they’re avoiding predation?  Maybe they go the direction they do for a reason and every individual happens to be going in the same direction regardless of the other dragonflies?), but it sounds like a pretty amazing thing to see.

I’ve received many reports of dragonfly swarms immediately after or during disturbances to vegetation.  Several people have reported swarms forming around them as they mow their lawns or do extensive work in their gardens.  I’ve also received reports of smaller swarms forming around people walking through brushy areas.  I think these are related phenomena, that by disturbing vegetation people are disturbing the small insects resting in grasses, garden areas, trees, etc, causing a temporary cloud of small displaced insects.  The then dragonflies move in to eat the abundant prey.

This year I also had dozens of reports that mentioned fires in areas where swarms occurred, so I began to suspect that fires played a role in swarm formation.  When you think about it, fires are massive disturbances to vegetation, a much more severe form of mowing.  Just as I described above, fires potentially displace insects that are living in the burning grassland/forest/other area and the dragonflies are drawn to the all you can eat prey buffet that result.  This seemed like a crazy idea when I first had it, but let’s consider Colorado.  Colorado is an area where there are normally very few reports but had a huge boom in swarm reports in 2012.  If you compare the wildfire areas to locations where swarms were reported, all but one of the swarms were observed in areas impacted by fires.  I started looking through other reports and found that there were additional reports of swarms associated with fires in several other states as well.  Then I got to witness it myself!  One of my coworkers did a demonstration of a controlled burn on a small patch of the prairie at work for an event in September.  Over the next week there were swarms forming over the burn area every afternoon, and you could clearly see the dragonflies eating insects flying up from the burned patch.  All of this leads me to believe that fires can play a role in dragonfly swarm formation.

I estimate that at least 75% of all swarm reports submitted mention some form of disturbance.  As a result, I suggest that static dragonfly swarms can form anywhere there is abundant prey available due to a disturbance of some sort.  And, if I’m right about that, dragonflies are performing an incredibly important service!  They’re restoring balance to a disturbed area by eliminating displaced prey insects that may be a nuisance to humans.  A lot of those insects are things you probably don’t want around – gnats, midges, flying ants, etc.  Some of those insects are things that can spread disease, such as mosquitoes and black flies, or cause damage to your property like termites.  People ask me all the time why we should care about dragonfly swarms and I finally have an answer that a lot of people can get behind (something other than “because it’s an amazing, beautiful, crazy spectacle of nature that only a handful of people will ever see”): dragonfly swarms help restore balance in areas where prey insect population booms have occurred.  If that doesn’t make you appreciate dragonflies, I’m not sure what will!

That about wraps up my current thoughts about what’s going on in this system, and I want to stop here as this is getting very long.  There will be one final report next week that highlights some of the stories of participants and summarizes attitudes toward dragonflies that the people who make reports have expressed.  This is one of my very favorite parts of the project, all those great stories, so look for those next week!

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

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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! Thanks!

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: A Dearth of Insects

Apart from the occasional wayward ladybug that makes it into the trailer where my office is at work, there has been a shocking lack of insects out and about for me to look at/document recently.  It might have something to do with this:

Snowy

Snowy

It snowed for several hours on Saturday and Sunday followed with a frigid wind that ripped across the prairie and cut right through your clothes.  Methinks it may be a little too cold out for insects!  Soon though.  Spring is coming soon, and I expect it to be AMAZING, an explosion of life and green and beauty.  I can’t wait!

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

Friday 5: My Other Hobbies

Okay, this post is going to be completely non-scientific, but I want to post it anyway.  Be forewarned!

When I’m not working, spending time with friends or family, or photographing things, I typically have  SOMETHING in my hands I’m working on.  I am a huge craft geek.  I don’t think I am an expert at any of the crafts that I do, but I enjoy the process of creating something from raw materials regardless of how the final product turns out.  It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that insects make their way into a lot of the crafts I do!  I think insects are beautiful and, apart from a few “cute” insects like butterflies, ladybugs, and dragonflies (I really don’t understand why dragonflies make the “cute” insect list…), they are entirely underrepresented in most crafts.  So, I make insect things.  Today I’m going to share a few projects that I’ve particularly enjoyed making.  Please note that I only photograph the things I make so that I remember what they looked like after I give them away (because I give nearly everything I make to someone else), so these photos are FAR from spectacular.

Patches

I am hard on clothes.  Any biologist that does field work is going to have an occasional catastrophic wardrobe malfunction, and I am no exception.  However, I am also a tremendous clutz and I walk too close to walls, so I have ripped more holes in knees and torn more pockets entirely off by catching them on doorknobs than I care to admit.  So, patching holes in my clothes is something I have to do on a semi-regular basis.  But why settle for a boring patch when you can embroider an awesome invertebrate one?  Though this isn’t an insect, it IS an invertebrate and it IS aquatic, so it’s my very favorite patch to date:

Daphnia patch

Daphnia patch

Is there anything cuter than Daphnia?  I think not!  And how many people have Daphnia embroidered on their pants?  Probably not very many.  I’m sure some people think I’m weird for sporting a large Daphnia on my pants, but I don’t care.  I think it’s fun!

Block prints

One of my very favorite things to do is carve things.  I don’t know why exactly, but one day when I was 10 or so, I picked up a piece of wood and a pocket knife and two hours later had a pretty decent kachina doll on my hands.  I was hooked from that moment on!  Block printing is my very favorite art form entirely because it involves carving things.  I have a limited ability to draw so my prints tend to be rather simple, but I enjoy it anyway.   This was my first attempt at a large print:

Luna moth print

Luna moth lino block print

It was too boring with just the outline, so I turned the series of prints into mixed media pieces with the block print as the base, guache for the color fills, and metallic marker for the detail on the body.  I like the way they turned out.

T-shirts

I have always enjoyed decorating t-shirts, ever since I was a kid.  I use a variety of techniques from drawing directly on the shirt with Sharpies or bleach to screenprinting to using my linoleum blocks to stamp the design on.  For this shirt, I painted the rectangle with metallic silver paint (because silver glitter paint = feminine) and then block printed the beetle on top:

Dung beetle shirt

Dung beetle shirt

I have a thing for dung beetles.  They have the most beautiful, elegant shapes yet spend most of their lives seeking, forming, rolling, and otherwise working with dung.  I also really like the juxtaposition of entirely non-girly things with super girly things.  Hence, dung beetle printed on a women’s tee with glittery paints.

luminaries

My second favorite artistic medium behind linoleum is metal.  I’ve done everything from casting shapes from molten metal to upcycling soda cans.  You can make really fun luminaries by drilling holes in empty, clean cans, though they are surprisingly time-consuming to make.  I timed how long it took me to make this one as an argument against my sister making luminaries for her wedding:

Luminaria

Laminaria

I’m sure they would have been beautiful at her evening reception, but she had dozens of other projects planned and that simple little dragonfly took me close to an hour to do with a hand drill.  Probably would have gone faster with a drill press, but neither I nor my sister have one.  (Yet at least.  I’ve had a drill press on my Christmas wish list for 3 years now. Someday…)

Books

When I’m in the mood for a fiddly project that takes a long time, I always start a new handmade book.  But, they’re a ton of fun to make!  This the only book I’ve made that I’ve kept for myself, and only because it is covered with this amazing paper one of my best friends sent me a while back.  The paper features three different aquatic bugs, including two of my all-time favorite insects:

Blank book

Aquatic insect covered book

Coolest paper ever?  I made this book quite a while ago, but still haven’t used it for anything.  Has you ever gotten that feeling where you have a blank book and are paralyzed by the possibilities of what you can put inside?  I should just suck it up and use this book for taking meeting notes at work because my current meeting notebook get a lot of use.  Otherwise, I’m going to spend forever trying to come up with something “good enough” to put in my aquatic insect book…

Do any of you do any sort of insect crafts or artwork?  Got photos online somewhere?  If so, I would LOVE to see what you’ve done!  Just leave a comment below and I’ll be right over to take a look.

Have a great weekend everyone!

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: 4 Views of a Cicada

A while back I went collecting with a friend in one of my favorite places in Arizona right when the very large cicadas in the area (Tibicen cultriformis) were active.   You could hear their grand songs sweeping up the canyon every few minutes, like the auditory equivalent of the wave at a baseball game, each one picking up the song from its neighbor and passing it along.  Those cicadas were enormous, so I was delighted when I found some shed exoskeletons from the nymphs clinging to my favorite tree.  I brought a few home and photographed one of them from several different angles.  Just for fun, I combined all the shots into one a few days ago (click on the image to enlarge it greatly):

4-views-of-a-cicada-husk-3

I kinda like the way this looks.  What do you all think – kinda fun?  Or kinda creepy?

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

 

Friday 5: Things I Think About When Teaching Kids About Bugs

I love my job, but one of the very best parts is getting to teach kids on a semi-regular basis.  There are many ways that I do this, but recently I’ve been presenting information at a cart out on the floor of the museum where I work or teaching classes of elementary students who come out to the museum’s field station for field trips.  Regardless, there are several things I try to keep in mind.  I thought they might be of use to some of you, or maybe you might like to take a look into my odd little brain and see how I think, so here they are:

IMG_00611. Children don’t like to be treated like children.

One of the best compliments I got recently was being told that a class of 4th graders liked the lesson I taught them because I treated them like adults and not like kids.  In my experience, kids love to have fun and they do genuinely act like kids most of the time.  However, they don’t like to be spoken down to and they don’t like being treated like they’re stupid because they’re not.  I expect the kids I work with to act as maturely as they can for their age and in return I don’t treat them like babies.  It seems to work well, at least most of the time.

IMG_47952. Understand the level of vocabulary the kids have and adapt your language to meet that level.

I feel it bears repeating: kids aren’t stupid.  They’re just less experienced than older people.  That means that they (usually) don’t understand things at the same level that adults do and that you need to adapt how you explain things so that they understand.  I personally believe that you can teach almost anyone anything if you explain it in the right language.  That doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb it down,” just that you need to choose your words carefully so that the kids are sure to understand.  Yes, you can try to teach kids big words and use them as you teach, but I find that it’s much more successful for me to adapt to their level of vocabulary than the other way around.  If I’m going to teach kids big words, I only use a few, three at the very most (I usually stick to one or none), and then repeat them over and over and over again so the kids get them by the time we’re done.  Even then, I wonder how long they remember…

IMG_48763.  Be prepared for anything.

It’s hard to really be prepared for anything, but I’ve seen kids do amazingly shocking things that I never would have expected them to do.  I try to mentally prepare myself for crazy things, and roll with them as much as I can when those crazy things happen.  I do, however, answer all of those little deeply probing personal questions kids like to ask.  I think I do it because I like watching the parents cringe and fret over their children when they ask horribly personal, insulting, and/or inappropriate questions.  :)

IMG_98834. If you love what you do, let it show!

By now, you have probably figured out that I like bugs.  (Are any of you out there thinking, “Wait… The Dragonfly Woman likes insects?   Why didn’t I know about this before?!”)  Kids pick up on your enthusiasm and can get super excited about the subject if you show them how excited you are about it.  I bounce up and down a lot on my toes as I walk.  I talk loudly and excitedly.  I wave my hands all over everywhere.  I just can’t hide the fact that I think insects are the most amazing things on the planet.  Kids respond SO well to that sort of energy and enthusiasm.  Plus, when I invariably smack my hand into a book or a wall or something mid-wild gesticulation, they think it is hilarious.  Yep, adults acting like giddy little kids – kids can get behind that.

IMG_48065. Don’t force a kid to have an experience they’re uncomfortable with, ever.

Let me tell you a story about my childhood that illustrates why I think this is so important.  I had a nasty experience with electricity when I was 8 or 9 (I was essentially electrocuted by a vacuum cleaner).  Because of it, I absolutely dreaded the yearly presentation by the power company aimed at teaching kids how dangerous power lines are.  Retired electrical line workers would bring in this little diorama of a neighborhood, plug it into the wall, ramp up the voltage, and run 50,000 volts through the diorama’s power lines.  Then they’d show you what would happen if you were stupid enough to touch a power line by touching this little plastic doll to a kite string dangling off the lines.  The doll would melt.  One time it caught on fire.  Giant arcs of electricity shots out of that horrendous thing.  It was TORTUROUS to me.  I started having nightmares about being electrocuted after the third of six times I saw that presentation.  I still have those nightmares.  I know that damned electrified diorama is largely to blame.  So, having had this experience, I am hyperaware of the fact that some kids are really scared of insects.  I am respectful of that.  I can try to make a child feel more comfortable about the animal by explaining as much as I can about it, but if he/she doesn’t ever want to touch/hold it, that’s their choice.  Never, ever, ever make a kid have an experience that they think is scary or overly gross or otherwise disturbing.  Giving them a few gentle nudges to help them overcome their fears is one thing.  Shoving a large insect in their face and ridiculing them for not wanting to get near it…  That is completely unacceptable and you might scar them for life.

So those are the things I like to keep tucked away in the back of my mind.  Anyone else have some great suggestions to add?  I know a lot of you work with kids, so I welcome any further suggestions and/or insights into working with kids!

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