Stereotypical Ladybug Behavior (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

You always hear about ladybugs eating aphids, but I’ll be honest: I’ve watched thousands of ladybugs, and I’ve never actually seen one eat an aphid.  Until, that is, I got this photo of a seven-spotted ladybug eating an oleander aphid on common milkweed recently:

Ladybug eating an aphid

Woo!  A ladybug doing what everyone always talks about them doing!  It was an exciting moment for me for some reason.  :)

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

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Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.

 

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

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Obelisk

The end of 2015 is almost here, so I’ve looked back over the year a lot recently.  I’m going to share my “Best of 2015” photos with you all on Friday, but this is one of my favorites for this year:

blue dasher obelisking

Blue dasher obelisking

That’s a blue dasher dragonfly doing a behavior called obelisking, a behavior that helps dragonflies control their temperature.  Because they are exothermic (= their body temps are more or less the same temp as their surroundings, aka they’re “cold-blooded”), insects often have to resort to behaviors to help them regulate their internal body temperatures.  You’ll see many dragonflies in the obelisk position on hot days, pointing the tips of their abdomens directly at the sun.  In this position, a dragonfly can minimize the amount of sun hitting its body and help keep itself a little cooler.  If even that doesn’t work, they’ll start to look for shade and get out of the sun completely.

Just a few more days until the start of 2016!  For those of you in the midwestern US, I hope you stay safe into the new year.  The flooding in your area looks really terrible from afar, so I can only imagine what it’s like firsthand.

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

June Beetle Mob

It’s been a long week, so though I started a Friday 5, I’m not going to finish it before I fall asleep… Instead, I wanted to quickly share a video of some eastern green June beetles I encountered today as I walked past a bald cypress.  There was a lot of frantic buzzing going on, so I peered into the tree and saw this:

Apparently there was a shortage of female June bugs in the area as a good dozen males were flying around the immediate area and several males were attempting to mate with the one female in this video at one time.  I felt a little sorry for her, pursued by so many amorous males at once…

The June bugs appeared about two weeks later than usual here this year (that seems to be the case for many species in my area of North Carolina), but they seem more numerous than I’ve ever seen them too.  SO many Jung bugs flying around!  But I love it.  What gorgeous, fun animals.

I am going to try to get the post I started up tomorrow, but we’ll see if I get it finished.  Here’s hoping I’ll feel a little more energetic tomorrow!

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

Playing Dead (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

This little snub nosed weevil can play dead with the best of them!

playing dead

Snub nosed beetle playing dead

Seriously, how convincing is that?  I wouldn’t have thought he was alive except that he (or she) was walking around moments before I took this photo and he was wandering around again moments later. Impressive play dead routine, little guy!

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

Scarab Grub Locomotion (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Hey everyone!  Long time no see again – been really busy at work and long hours have been preventing my blogging.  However, wanted to share this video I took last weekend after my coworker brought in a scarab beetle larva she found outside.  I set it on my desk, turned my back on it for a minute, and when I went back to take a closer look it was gone!  We looked around for it and found it speeding across the floor like this:

It’s crawling UPSIDE DOWN!!!  Super crazy cool.  Our hypothesis: it’s so huge and fat that the little legs aren’t strong enough to drag that massive body along, so it uses this “backstroke” sort of approach instead.

Yep, nature is cool.  And a little gross.  But mostly cool.

Going to try to get a post up on Friday!!  I have a huge backlog of stuff I want to post, so here’s hoping I’ll have a chance to get one of them online this week…

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

A Dragonfly Story

I’ve been sick the last several days and I’m not up to writing a whole Friday 5 blog post today, but I still wanted to get SOMETHING up today.  So, I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s a story about this dragonfly:

blue dasher

Blue dasher

That’s a blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) and it is a largely unremarkable dragonfly inasmuch as it’s incredibly common in the US.  However, the particular blue dasher in the photo was a part of something exciting and stands out in my memory as being wonderfully interesting.  Allow me to elaborate.

Last summer, I attended Bug Shot 2014 on Sapelo Island in Georgia.  It was, as on past trips, a great weekend full of insect nerdery, endless photography, and a lot of great conversations with good people.  I really love attending Bug Shot as the people there are my kind of people and we have this one huge thing in common: a deep and pervasive love for photographing insects.  However, because I’d been twice already and was attending after a rather brutal week at work, I was exhausted and skipped a few of the sessions on the last day to get a little time to myself.  I wandered over to the pond to look for dragonflies and attempt to get some photos of the many whirligig beetles on the surface.

Now, Sapelo Island has some dangerous things you need to look out for, and alligators are among them.  I adore alligators.  They scare me and I give them a ton of respect when I see them – I have zero desire to get close to them! – but I really love them.  They are just so ancient and powerful that it’s hard not to love them.  When I heard there were several alligators in the pond on Sapelo, I had to go looking for them.  I failed to see them most of the second day, but I finally saw the two adults out in the pond on that last day and was thrilled.  So, imagine my excitement when I was photographing that unremarkable dragonfly at a different area of the pond 10 minutes later and noticed a small, juvenile alligator swimming by, just a few feet from where I was standing on shore.

I grinned as I watched the alligator swimming.  I pointed it out to my friend Suzanne from Buglady Consulting, who had wandered over to see what I was doing, and we watched it swimming in the clear water together.  Then, all of a sudden, it burst out of the water…

and…

ate the dragonfly in the photo above!  One moment the dragonfly was there and the next it was in the belly of an alligator!  Suzanne and I both yelled, “Whoa!!!” and started excitedly asking one another if we’d seen really just seen what we thought we did.  If I had been alone, I wouldn’t have been convinced that the alligator had actually swallowed the dragonfly, that it had just scared it off, but Suzanne confirmed that we had, in fact, just seen a 3 foot long alligator launch itself out of the water, snag a dragonfly from a perch two feet above the water line, and swim quickly away, hidden by a plume of mud the quick motion had stirred up. Coolest. Thing. EVER!

As much as I love about and learn at Bug Shot every time I’ve attended, I suspect that one observation is going to stand out in my mind as the very best thing I’ll ever experience at Bug Shot.  It represented new information for me: that alligators will occasionally eat dragonflies, even if they’re a couple of feet above the water line, which means that dragonflies are a significant enough food source to merit the speed and power it requires for an alligator to catch one.  It was fascinating to watch two ancient creatures interact, alligator and dragonfly, and see just how fast and powerful alligators really are.

I just wish I’d gotten a photo of it…

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