Friday 5: In the Stream

Hey everyone!  Took me a bit longer to get back on track after my recent travels and some very busy time at work, but I’m getting a Friday 5 up today.  Woo!  Feeling good about that.

I spent a big chunk of today working with various volunteers to collect data around the field station.  We tracked one of our box turtles this morning, and then I had a quick lunch before one of my school groups came out for their regular data collection.  The group I was working with today is a really excellent group of high schoolers from a nearby charter school.  They’re incredibly smart (they know it, but they’re really down to earth too) and they are all excited about learning.  They come every three weeks after school with their biology teacher to work with me as part of a research club they’ve developed at their school.  That’s right: these young men and women are coming to do science for fun on their own time, just because they want to learn something.  How can you resist loving a group like that?!

We have examined the stream to try to understand why there are so few insects living in what seems to be lovely water.  I’ve mentioned in a past blog post that I think flooding is to blame in this particular case, but my high schoolers are helping me monitor the stream as we try to solve the mystery of the missing bugs together.  They actually did a lot of the prep work for the project and have developed their own protocols and methods for the sampling they do.  I think it’s awesome, so let me take you through today’s visit so you can learn about what they’re doing!  First, we measured several water quality parameters:

Measuring water

Measuring the water

We’re using Vernier probes for this.  Someday I’d love to get a grant to buy a Hydrolab or some other swanky probe so we can measure all the water quality parameters at one time rather than plugging and unplugging every probe to get the readings, but for now it’s a long, involved process to get the data recorded.  We’re looking at temperature, dissolved oxygen, flow, salinity, nitrate, conductivity, turbidity, and pH.  Then we collect an insect sample from the stream.  I sadly didn’t get a photo of this part of the process, but they lay down what is essentially a quadrat (a plastic frame they built themselves) in the stream, hold a net at the end, and shake the hell out of the materials inside the quadrat to wash any insects into the net.  It’s a sort of MacGuyvered serber sampler.  Works pretty well!

Once we have a sample in the net, we sort the insects from the rest of the crud that ends up in the net with the insects:

Picking bugs

Picking bugs

Picking is a pretty easy process.  You just dump the sample into a white dish pan and remove any bugs you find.  We transfer any bugs we find into a super fancy sorting tray:

Sorting tray

Sorting tray

Okay, okay, so our sorting trays are ice-cube trays.  They work well!  At this point, all the insects are still alive, swimming around in the water.  Everyone watches them moving around and makes comments about what they think they might be doing.  However, because we can’t identify them down to a useful level at the stream, we preserve the bugs in alcohol and the group takes their samples back to school with them.  We’re planning a sorting/identification date so we can identify our insects to family and genus, and then all the data will go into a database.  At some point, we’ll tackle the data analysis and see what sorts of water parameters might be leading to the lack of insects in the stream.  Over the 3-4 years we’re planning to keep this project going, we’ll also be able to see seasonal patterns in the life histories of several of the insects and will document the aquatic insects living in the Prairie Ridge stream in a systematic way for the first time.

While I know the group enjoys the data collection part of the experience, we typically take the scenic route back to the top of the hill, wandering slowly about the grounds.  We’ve sampled grapes and persimmons.  We’ve watched birds and looked at plants. We go exploring up and down the stream.  A couple of trips ago, the group found an enormous cow femur in one of the pools upstream of their sampling area, and that was absolutely thrilling to them!  This time we wandered down to look at the pool where the damselfly nymphs live, and it had some lovely reflections:


Roots at the stream

And just because they hadn’t done it yet, today we wandered into the Nature PlaySpace, a nature-based play area we recently built for families with young kids to help get everyone out in nature.  I’ve got to say that it was really entertaining to see high schoolers running all over the play area like maniacs, sliding down the slide, and climbing up the center of the mole hill:

Mole hill

Mole hill.  The port with the ladder comes out of the center of the hill.

Five of them packed into the opening at the top of the mole hill at one point and had their teacher take a picture of them.  They all giggled the whole time!

All in all, a pretty good day!  A little chilly, but I spent a lot of time in the water, and that’s always good.  Add a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers into the mix and it’s even better!

Hope everyone has a good weekend, and to my American readers, have a great LONG weekend!


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

7 thoughts on “Friday 5: In the Stream

  1. What a cool program! Thanks for sharing. Those kids are learning so much about the process. Hopefully, you’ll grab a few future Entomologists out of the process.

    I love the super-sorters you’ve got there. Using everyday tools to do science makes the process accessible to everyone. It puts the focus on brain-power instead of cool gadgets. On the flip-side, I work with mostly k-3, and there are at least 2 or 3 kids that don’t know what an ice tray is when I break one out on a field trip!

  2. This makes me very sad. I would have thought it’d be more responsible to teach kids to respect insects rather than torment and kill them. Apparently the insects are difficult to identify in situ and this is sufficient reason to kill them and preserve them in alcohol. It’s not an argument that would convince me. I’d remove my kids from this class immediately and ask the school to teach them a more thoughtful approach to Nature.

    • I’m sorry you feel that way, though I do understand and respect your opinion. Please rest assured that even though we are collecting and preserving our samples for this activity, I do take it very seriously. I believe that there are situations where we have to collect samples because we cannot otherwise get a complete picture of what is happening in the environment. This is one of those situations – we cannot ID the bugs in our stream to a meaningful level in the time we have in the field each session, so we need to take samples for later analysis. That said, I do not tolerate the students taking it lightly that we do this. I don’t ever talk about the insects being “just bugs” or suggest that they are inferior to any other animals, because I do not feel that way myself. I talk about the importance of the insects in the stream, how these animals provide essential services in their environment, so that the students know how they fit into the bigger picture. We talk about how the fish and salamanders in the stream depend on them as food and how our collecting actions can impact other species, how we need to develop a responsible collecting plan so that we do not have a major, far-reaching impact on what happens in the stream. Because we talk about all of this and these are bright, environmentally conscious students, we collect small samples of insects from the stream that are unlikely to impact the overall structure and function of the environment. We dispatch our animals quickly following standard methods so that they do not suffer any more than necessary. I don’t allow the students to laugh about killing our insects or let them forget that we have killed animals to learn something about the environment. And after we’re done with this project, I want to submit our specimens to the insect collection at NC State University so that our collection activities can provide valuable data to other researchers. The value of large scientific collections such as those at NCSU is incalculable, so I would like to contribute something to the greater scientific understanding of our area and provide a snapshot of our site and collecting dates that will be preserved well into the future. If they are properly submitted to a large research collection, our efforts may provide useful information for future scientists, resource managers, and interested members of the public. We do also intend to publish our data at some point as well, so we’re not just doing this activity as a simple learning experience for the students – they’re doing real science. The information we are collecting will ideally become a part of the scientific literature so that others can learn from the things we discover in the stream where we are working.

      I do understand why some people are uncomfortable with the idea of killing anything for science, and I absolutely respect your opinion. I only hope that, because I respect the animals and do not take this activity lightly myself, that I can provide some insight to these high school students about the ethical issues surrounding what we’re doing.

  3. Love this post!! I’m fascinated to learn more about the “MacGuyvered surber sampler,” that sounds like something I need to build! We do bug hunts every year (sometimes in the winter), and I love showing off our “very expensive, high-tech gear:” ice cube trays, recycled yogurt cups and other white food-prep “disposable” containers, dishpans, and little scoops from powdered beverages (like baby formula or iced tea). Makes it easy for families to round up ten bucks’ worth of “gear” and get hunting themselves.

    Any chance there are plans somewhere or photos of this sampler your kids designed/used?

    Kelly Stettner, Director
    Black River Action Team

    • Our MacGuyvered surber sampler DOES involve one piece of somewhat spendy equipment: a D frame net. The sampler is essentially a .5 by .5 meter frame with three sides. They plop that down in their sampling area with the open edge pointing downstream. Then one student holds the D frame against the bottom of the stream at the open end of the frame while one or more additional students stir up the material inside the frame, allowing the insects to wash into the net downstream. I’ll try to get a picture of it in action for you next time we’re down there, but it’s pretty darned simple! That said, you can make this even easier by making a frame from a 1/2 inch PVC pipe, a couple of PVC pipe 90 degree fittings, and use a stainless steel soup strainer for the net! It isn’t quite as precise as far as gathering up the materials that wash downstream, but it does work if you’re careful.

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