Smoky Mountain Insects

Oh wow, it’s been a month since I last posted anything.  Whoops!  Can only say that it’s been a REALLY busy month and work with a lot of long hours and evening programs. But things slow down for a little while and that means I have the time and energy to blog!

Last weekend I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped one of my coworkers lead an educator trek.  At the museum where I work, educator treks are open to formal and informal educators (people who work at museums, zoos, environmental education centers, and the like) and take them out into the field for one to seven days to learn about nature and science firsthand.  For this particular three-day trip, we spent a day at the facility at Purchase Knob learning from the rangers about citizen science efforts that are being done at the park and getting some hands on experience.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful place:

We looked at the status of a bunch of trees for the Nature’s Notebook project and did a leaf litter arthropod study that the park oversees.  The latter involved putting leaf litter into a shaker box, shaking it vigorously, and then using an aspirator (also known as a pooter or, as our ranger calls them, “suckie upper thingies”) to transfer any animals to a vial for examination back in the classroom.  It was fun watching the teachers respond to the insects they caught once they were projected onto a big screen with a video microscope:

In the afternoon, we walked a very long way down a very steep mountain to get to a stream to check for salamanders along some transect lines the park has set up in the area.  I know next to nothing about salamanders, but apparently the pygmy salamanders we saw are very interesting and we saw 7 species altogether.  As the last group finished measuring the salamanders they’d caught and recorded their data, the rest of the group wandered down to the stream to look for more salamanders.  Now I love salamanders, but you all know I’m much more into stream insects than anything with  a backbone.  We found a bunch of flat-headed mayflies clinging to rocks and someone brought over this stonefly:

I think it’s a perlodid stonefly, but honestly I didn’t look at the mouthparts because I was partly in charge of the group.  One of the teachers was looking for salamanders in a little puddle between a big rock and the shore and found one of these:

A roach-like stonefly!!!  I did a little happy stonefly dance and may have yelled a little as I tried to get everyone else excited about it.  Sadly, most of the group was much more interested in the salamanders to care about this amazing stonefly, but it didn’t diminish my excitement over it.  The same teacher found another one too.  I’ve seen specimens, but never a live one, so it was very, very exciting for me.  It’s hard to describe the joy you get from seeing something in the wild that you’ve been hoping to see for a while. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

After the long trek back up the hill, we went on a wildflower hike.  The Smokies are known for their amazing wildflowers and there were many species in bloom.  We had the group do some nature journaling so they could just sit and look at the flowers for a while. Totally by accident, the trillium that I chose to sketch had insects on it:

Two longhorn beetles that ended up getting frisky as I drew my flower and a teenie, tiny caterpillar was starting to make a tiny hole in the petal when I left.  Insects always improve flowers as far as I’m concerned, even one as awesome as a trillium.

It had apparently been unusually dry in the Smokies for a while, but it rained hard our second night there.  We went to Cataloochee Valley the last day to hike a bit, look for elk, and learn about human impacts in Great Smoky and everything smelled clean and bright.  When we arrived back at the vans, we were treated to a HUGE group of butterflies puddling in the damp dirt:

This photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to the number of swallowtails in the area!  I suspect that because it had been dry for a relatively long time, the butterflies may have been hard up for the salts and minerals that they usually suck out of the soil when they “puddle.”  Dry weather means dry soils and limited puddling opportunities, but the rain seems to have brought the butterflies out in force.  I have never seen so many large butterflies in one place at one time in the wild and they were swirling all around us.  It was amazing!  One of the teachers wandered off a bit and came across this:

That’s a big bunch of butterflies on a big pile of scat, happily sucking nutrients from the wet surface.  If you look closely, you’ll also see a burying beetle.  The butterflies were doing a pretty good job keeping it away from the scat as they fed, so at one point it climbed right over the top of their wings in an unsuccessful attempt to find a place where it could feed also.  The beetle made the whole amazing butterfly experience even better!

Even though I was with a group and didn’t get to spend nearly as much time poking around for insects as I would have if left to myself, the whole trip was just fabulous. The teachers we had with use were amazing and very excited to get out into the mountains and we saw a lot of really excellent wildlife.  The insects were just a happy bonus!  But they make me want to go back and explore more.  Planning another trip there this summer!


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…


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…


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

A Trip to Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon

The class I’m teaching this semester has very few field trip opportunities compared to the classes I usually teach, so I was very excited to go on the optional field trip this past weekend.  Students who wanted to get some extra experience in the field were asked to meet us on campus at 7:45 on Saturday.  As one might expect, only a handful of the 1400 total students (mostly freshmen) taking the course this semester wanted to get up early to do extra work on a weekend, so very few students signed up.  Then there was a freakish cold front that brought in a frigid rain the morning of the field trip, so even fewer people actually showed up.  But I still wanted to go!  And I’m glad I did.  We went to Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy property near Sierra Vista, AZ, and it was a really great day.

Ramsey Canyon

New spring foliage in Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon is a beautiful canyon in the Huachuca Mountains of south central Arizona.  The canyon is rather short by Arizona’s standards.  The walk from the visitor’s center at the bottom to the very end of the Nature Conservancy property is only a little over a mile, and most people never get past the first half mile.  But it is a spectacular half mile!  Ramsey is filled with oaks and sycamores and pines, a gorgeous clear creek full of bugs, bears and squirrels and birds galore.  In fact, the canyon is a very popular birding area thanks to the presence of the elegant trogon and several species of hummingbirds.  I haven’t ever seen a trogon myself, but I’m still hoping to catch a glimpse of one someday.

Coue's deer in Ramsey Canyon

A rare mammal photo on The Dragonfly Woman! Coue's deer in Ramsey Canyon

Our group of 18 staff members and students split into three groups and headed up the canyon to work.  We were there to count Arizona grey squirrel nests, collecting data about the nesting trees and the surrounding area when we found them.  I found a nest shortly after we started up the trail and my group took the required measurements before we sat down for lunch.  Then we didn’t find any more nests.  But that turned out to be fine for everyone in the group!  We kept looking for nests, but everyone pulled out their cameras and we stopped every 10-20 yards to take photos.  Between the six of us I’m sure we took well over a thousand photos.

Ramsey Creek

Ramsey Creek

We also took a bit of time to scoop some insects out of Ramsey Creek with the soup strainer I brought along just for that purpose.  Even though we were technically there to learn about squirrel nesting habits, I think my group ended up learning more about aquatic and other insects simply because we found many more insects than we did squirrels or squirrel nests (though it could have also had something to do with the two entomologists leading the group).

I’ve been to Ramsey before to look for a special aquatic insect that’s found there, a water scorpion with a very limited range called Curicta pronotata.  It’s a glorious insect, more robust than the Ranatra water scorpions I’ve featured several times here, but more stick-like than the more giant water bug shaped Nepa species.  Alas, we didn’t find any Curicta during our trip, but we did find several other things.  We found a lot of these leaf case making caddisflies:

Phylliocus aeneus, caddisfly family Calamoceratidae

I found those on my most recent collecting trip, so you’ve already seen them.  They were incredibly abundant in Ramsey Creek and I caught hundreds (and threw them all back).  It was a lot of fun sharing them with the students because they’re the sort of thing that they would have never suspected was alive if I hadn’t pointed them out.  We found a few diving beetles, including this Agabus species:

Predaceous diving beetle

Predaceous diving beetle, Agabus sp.

I love predaceous diving beetles!  If you ever have a chance to watch some of the larger species swim, I highly recommend that you spend a few minutes admiring their elegance as they paddle about.  It’s truly stunning!  I didn’t find any giant water bugs or whirligig beetles as I’d expected, but we did come across these:

Water striders on Ramsey Creek

Water striders on Ramsey Creek

Water strider nymphs!  Water striders are often gregarious, meaning that they like to stay together in groups.  I really enjoyed watching them skittering around on the surface of the water.  In fact, I recorded them doing so.  If you’d like to experience a taste of what it was like to sit next to a clear, cool creek in a gorgeous canyon photographing water striders, just watch this 30 second video:


Really, can it get any better than that?  Absolute heaven for me!

Ramsey Creek

Ramsey Creek

It was quite cold almost the whole trip and we were alternately subjected to rain, sleet, hail, snow, and high winds, but it was still a really great day.  I felt like the boundaries between the students and the TAs in our group eventually melted away so that we became a rather cohesive group of photographer scientists out in a beautiful place on a cold and cloudy spring day.  The trip to Ramsey was completely worth getting up early on a Saturday, even if it meant extra work!  At least, it was for me.  I spent the day with a group of very enjoyable people in a stunning mountain canyon teaching and hiking and photographing and watching bugs.  Honestly, I can’t imagine a nicer day in the field!


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

Friday 5: Wardrobe Essentials for Field Work

I love working in the field!  Being outdoors watching insects do their normal things in their normal places is an incredibly pleasant experience for me.  I can literally spend hours sitting in one spot just watching the world around me or sloshing through some stream looking for/sampling bugs.  However, for maximum field work comfort, you have to dress the part.  Today I am going to share my wardrobe essentials for a variety of field situations.   Bet you never expected the world of high fashion and entomology to come together in a single blog post, did you?  :)

Working in Clean Water

Working in water means you’re going to get wet, even if you don’t intend to.  If I’m going to be working somewhere I can park near the water (i.e., I don’t have to go traipsing through the desert) and I am not going to be covered in pollutants and/or cow urine while I’m there, this is what I most like to wear:

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon.

Cotton shorts/capris or nylon board shorts dry quickly.  I like wearing tank tops in the field, but I also like to keep the sun off my skin, so I wear a cotton or SPF fabric shirt too.  The wide-brimmed, floppy hat and polarized sunglasses are a must for keeping the sun off your face and out of your eyes.  On my feet: Keen water sandals (great for when I’m kicking rocks like in the image above) or my fabulous Crocs trail sandals.  They don’t make the latter anymore, which is sad: they float marvelously if they get yanked off your feet, they stick to slippery rocks like nothing else, and you can’t tell they’re Crocs by looking at them!  Love my Crocs…

Working in Cold Water

I am reasonably hardy when it comes to climbing into cold streams with exposed skin.  But climbing into a sub-alpine stream in early April is an entirely different kind of cold.  Then you need something like this:

me at Three Forks

Me, about to climb into a very cold stream on a very cold day. Photo by Dennis Suhre.

Waders might not keep you much warmer, but they keep you dry and that makes a huge difference in cold water!  I look like the abominable snowman in this photo, but it was a very cold day (high of something like 35 degrees), we were over 9500 feet, and it kept drizzling this awful freezing rain. I wasn’t about to get in that stream without two layers of socks, long pants, long underwear, and waders!  I probably would have lost a few toes to frostbite otherwise.

Working in Polluted Water

Working in nasty water means you want to keep the water off your skin, so waders are essential:

water sampling

Me recording data during a sampling trip to an EDW. Photo by Dave Walker.

However, waders and the desert don’t mix at all.  You’ve just got to wear shorts under waders or you’re going to get heat stroke.  Thin fabrics that dry easily are the best choice because you are going to sweat, a lot.  I usually top this combo off with my standard tank/long-sleeved shirt combo and some sort of ridiculous looking wide-brimmed hat.  I own a lot of those things…

Working On Grasslands

I wish I were the kind of person who could go wandering through the gorgeous grasslands of southern Arizona and northern Mexico in shorts like everyone else I know, but I can’t.  No, I’m allergic to grasses and I come home with welts, hives, and rashes all over my legs if I wear shorts.  I usually have to wear something like this instead:

me at Los Fresnos

Me at Los Fresnos, Mexico.

Long cotton pants keep me as cool as possible.  I usually wear my high top hiking boots in grasslands, just to minimize grass-on-skin contact.  I also have to wear long-sleeved shirts that are actually buttoned up, to keep the grasses off my arms.  I thought this shirt was brown when I bought it, but it only looked that way under the horrible yellow light bulbs at the rummage sale.  So, I made it even uglier by drawing an enormous hellgrammite on the back.  I kind of love my flaming pink hellgrammite shirt.  Entomologist chic!  And, no one ever loses me in the field.  :)

Working in the Desert

Working in the desert is its own special kind of experience.  When I did the BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park last fall, I stupidly thought that I could get away with wearing sandals.  I had spines in my feet for days!  Normally, when I’m not being a total idiot, I wear something like this:

Me burying sampler

My desert attire, because I have to wander through a bunch of desert to get to this aquatic spot!

Canvas pants or jeans are great for keeping your legs cactus spine free, and you can maneuver through dense brush without getting all scratched up.  They don’t dry quickly, but sometimes it’s better to save your legs at the expense of staying wet a few hours.  Hard core, heavy leather boots protect your feet from cacti, rocks, and rattlesnakes.  Then there’s my standard tank, over-shirt (in my bag because it’s cloudy), hat, and sunglasses.  The shirt in the pack has a big aquatic beetle I screenprinted on the back.  More ento chic!

Okay, so I lied about the high fashion part at the beginning.  Instead, I treated you to 5 glorious pictures of me looking rather scuzzy.  (Muah ha ha ha ha!)  But I’m not trying to look fashionable in the field.  I’m trying to stay comfortable and safe.  I also rip my clothes all the time, wear holes in them, drip acids and other chemicals on them, stain them, and otherwise beat the hell out of them, so I don’t like to spend more than $10 on anything I wear in the field apart from my shoes.  But, my field wardrobe keeps the sun and grasses off my skin, dry quickly when needed, and I don’t have to worry about coming home a bloody mess because I had an up close and personal encounter with a cactus.  My field clothes get the job done, and in the end, that is all that really matters.


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

Ode to My Bug Nets

me at Los Fresnos

Me at Los Fresnos in Sonora, Mexico, with my aquatic net.

Every entomologist, amateur or professional, should have a bug net.  Collecting insects is an important and informative part of the experience of being an entomologist and you need a net to do most of it.  Plus, if you’re going to be an entomologist, it seems only proper that you have that big symbolic icon of our science.  I mean, who’s heard of an entomologist without a bug net?  It’s just unnatural!

I bought my first bug net in 2005.  It’s one of those fancy compact jobbies that fold up for easy storage and travel.  I got the swanky red plastic handle to go onto the end of the pole for easy gripping.  I got an extension pole so my net is about 4 feet long, long enough to snag a dragonfly from the shore of a pond.  I love my net!  It makes me feel good to own it, happy to use it.  It’s a great day whenever I get to haul my net out of my closet and chase some unlucky insect down.  I’m always a little sad when I fold it back up and hide it back in that corner of the closet.  I swing my net HARD, like a softball bat, so I have to be careful to pay attention to where people are around me when I collect.  But that’s okay.  Unless I’m out collecting with other entomologists, people give me a WIDE berth when I use my net.  It’s obvious from the way they carefully avoid me that most people think no sane adult runs around public parks with a bug net.

Even though I didn’t BUY a net until 2005 I’ve had a net far longer than that.  My first net was a homemade one that I built myself in the 9th grade.  Remember how I mentioned that I did all the girlie 4-H projects in my post about insect cakes?  Well, sewing was one of them.  I made rather non-traditional clothes, but I also put my mad seamstress skills to use in other areas: bug net making!  If there’s anything that makes sewing decidedly ungirlie, I think it’s making nets for catching insects.

My first bug net was a simple contraption I designed that cost less than $2 to make.*  The materials were simple: a wooden dowel, a wire coat hanger, duct tape, a needle and thread, a rubber band, and 1 yard of cheap white nylon netting (tulle – the stuff they use in wedding dresses and other formal women’s attire) from the fabric shop.  Making the net was incredibly easy!  All I did was fold the netting in half the long way and stitched up the side.  I wrapped the rubber band tightly around one end to form a nylon net sack.  I straightened the hook part of the coat hanger and formed the rest into a circle, then duct taped the straightened hook to the dowel tightly so that the circle stuck off the end.  Then it was a simple matter of folding the open edge of the nylon netting sack I’d made over the wire coat hanger and stitching it into place.  Very easy!  My nets took less than 15 minutes to make.

I used these nets for a good 12 years before I finally broke down and bought a professional net.  Why spend $30 on a net when I could spend $2?   I did the entomology project in 4-H for 4 years in high school and used these nets to capture nearly every insect in my collection.  I started teaching other people how to make them.  When my mom moved away and started to look out for insects for me, she made herself a net using my design.  It’s simple, cheap, and it works.  In fact, it was so simple, that I was able to make nets for outreach events on several occasions.  I worked as an intern at my county’s extension office throughout college and we did a lot of day camps and outreach events in the summer.  Because I helped plan, they often had insect themes or activities.  I took huge groups of kids out into Colorado’s high prairie to collect insects using those cheap little nets.  Someone loses one?  Who cares?  One get broken or ripped? Nothing a little duct tape and some thread can’t cure!  I could make enough nets for a whole group of kids for less than $50, which worked perfectly with the small budgets we had for these events, and the kids had a great time collecting.  It made me so happy to put my skills to good use.

Want to know why I eventually bought a professional net rather than continue using my homemade ones?  When I first moved to Arizona for grad school, my car was stolen.  I got it back 5 weeks later, but the thieves had taken everything in my car – my bike, my radio’s faceplate (but not the radio – who DOES that?), and all my bug collecting gear, including my nets.  I didn’t really care that they had taken my bike.  Annoying, but I bought a better one the day my car went missing.  I had to buy a new radio faceplate.  Whatever!  But my bug nets?  That was a major loss!  I was more angry that they’d stolen my bug nets, those stupid little cheap things I made that were completely worthless to anyone but me, than my car.  Those nets and I had some good times and I was sorry to see them go.  I didn’t really have the heart to make more, so I borrowed nets for a while, then finally broke down and bought my own.

That first net purchase led to other net purchases.  I use a soup strainer for most of my aquatic insect collecting, but I bought a good aquatic net eventually.  That’s it up there in the photo.  I bought a few other pro nets that don’t collapse because they’re a little more sturdy.  I’ve made some really fancy nets for aquatic research.  But it doesn’t matter which net I use.  Taking any of them out means I’m going to have a great day, one spent outdoors doing something I love. My nets make me all nostalgic, reminding me of long summers spent working on my insect collection nearly every moment of every day and chasing a western tiger swallowtail for THREE HOURS because I was too stubborn to let it go.  Ah, those were the days!

So here’s to my bug nets!  $2 or $100, my nets have been among my most treasured possessions for years.  I can’t imagine that changing any time soon – and I honestly don’t want it to.  After all, what kind of entomologist would I be without my net?


* If anyone happens to be interested in my net design, I could be persuaded to post a tutorial.  It should be pretty easy to figure out from the description above, but it’s nice to have pictures sometimes.


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

Wading For Bugs

Wading for Bugs coverLast week I was reading through the quarterly newsletter for the Society for Freshwater Science when I came across a book review for a book I hadn’t even heard of.  It was called Wading For Bugs and the review described the book as a series of stories told by aquatic biologists about their interactions with aquatic insects.  I of course had to have this book immediately (the book had been in print for three whole months by the time I discovered it after all!), so I clicked over to Amazon.  $13.16 and two days later I held a copy of the book in my hands.  And oh, it is marvelous!

The book has two main goals as I see it.  First, it introduces the reader to the benefits of aquatic insects and succinctly explains why everyone should appreciate them.  My only (minor) complaint is that the book focuses almost entirely on their usefulness as biological indicators of water quality to the near complete exclusion of other benefits they provide, but it’s understandable.  Aquatic insects do play a very important role in monitoring water quality around the world and that importance is rarely advertised to the public.  The book also provides basic information about aquatic insects.  Each section begins with information about an order (their structures, life histories, and role as bioindicators) to teach the reader a little about each group.  There’s a fair amount of knowledge contained in this 160 page book!

The second goal of the book is to help readers see aquatic insects through the eyes of the scientists who study them.  After a brief introduction to a group at the start of a chapter, you read through a series of stories (mostly non-fiction) that allow you to follow along with an aquatic entomologist as he/she works.  These stories are what attracted me to the book.  A lot of big name aquatic entomologists talk about their work and fascinations with aquatic insects while simultaneously teaching the reader a bit about a specific insect.

The stories are, I think, beautiful.  Many are love stories from scientists to the organisms that both enthrall them and provide their bread and butter, but there is a lot of variation in story styles and topics.  Ever been curious about how scientists discovered that the giant water bug Abedus herberti leaves streams before flash floods?  You’ll find out in the story by Dave Lytle.  Or maybe you’ve wondered if aquatic insects are useful in murder cases.  John Wallace can answer that.  The book contains stories about mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, true flies, dragonflies/damselflies, bugs, and beetles written by researchers studying a huge variety of topics.  In essence, it provides an overview of what aquatic entomologists actually do while giving you a unique insight into their psyches.

If you have an interest in aquatic entomology, this is a great little book to add to your collection.  The approach is rather unique and the book presents a viewpoint you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.  It’s a short book, but it’s full of inspiration and information.  I highly recommend it!

Wet Beaver Creek

Wet Beaver Creek

In the spirit of the book, I would like to share a very brief story about an encounter with an aquatic insect I’ve had.  About 5 years ago, I helped out a Park Service friend who was part of a team developing an aquatic monitoring plan for Arizona’s national monuments.  They wanted an outside opinion about the effectiveness of their plan and invited me to evaluate it.  We met up at the tragically named Wet Beaver Creek near Montezuma’s Well in central Arizona and got to work, spending the rest of that day and the following day sampling the insects in the stream.  It was great!  And the monitoring plan was sound too.  Fun, fun, fun!

Most of the team went back to Tucson at the end of the second day, but my friend and I stayed another night.  Lacking anything better to do, we wandered up to the Well in the dark, leaned against the railing overlooking the big water-filled crater, and talked about the monitoring plan and aquatic insects for about an hour.  I was really enjoying the whole experience!  Two days of collecting bugs in a beautiful river was making me very content with the world.

Right about as that feeling started to sink in, however, I felt something bite my calf just below my shorts.  Just a tiny pinch, so I swatted my hand at it and didn’t think more about it until I felt another one.  And another.  Then another.  The moon was very bright, so I eventually looked down to see what was nipping at my legs.  They were no see ums (aka, biting midges), tiny flies in the family Ceratopogonidae that are aquatic as larvae and terrestrial as adults!  Their common name stems from the fact that they’re so small they’re hard to see, but they are bloodsuckers.  I hadn’t ever encountered no see ums, so I thought, “What damage can such tiny flies possibly cause?” I started jiggling my legs a bit to discourage their landing on me and winced slightly whenever one bit me, but didn’t worry about it that much.  I fell asleep that night thinking, “That wasn’t so bad…”

Fast forward to the next morning.  Remember that photo I shared in my post about the downsides of entomology, this one showing all the bites on my legs?:

bug bites

No see um bites!

That was what I woke up with!  SO many bites, SO itchy, all over my legs and arms.  The 3.5 hour drive home was excruciating because I couldn’t stop scratching.  I essentially doused myself in hydrocortisone when I got home.  Then I counted my bites.  I had over 300!  THREE HUNDRED!  No wonder I was clawing my skin off.  No wonder I was miserable!  300 little bloodsucking flies had feasted on my legs!

That was my only bad encounter with no see ums though.  Now I wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, even when it’s hot.  I would rather get my pant legs wet than live through that misery again.  That night I was almost taken down by a 1mm long fly!  Never again.  Never again…

So that’s one quick little story, but I’d love to hear your stories too!  Does anyone want to share an encounter you’ve had with an aquatic insect?  If so, leave a comment below!  Let’s make our own little Wading for Bugs!  But read the book too!  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll understand aquatic entomologists like me a little better.


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Friday 5: Things I’ve Learned from My Students on Camping Trips

Two of the lab classes I’ve taught regularly as a grad student involve camping trips.  Dragging a mixed bunch of undergrads and grads out into the field together is always an adventure!  I am a huge night owl, so the best part of these trips to me is sitting around the fire until 1AM, 2AM, sometimes 3 or 4AM, talking with everyone.  I’ve learned some very interesting things from my students around the campfire, so I thought I would share 5 of these tidbits.

Reynold's Creek

Reynold's Creek, one of my favorite places to camp along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona.

1. South Park is the greatest TV show of all time.  Let me state up front that I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement and do not like South Park at all (kudos to those of you who do!), but to hear my students tell it, South Park is the most brilliantly hilarious show ever to grace our television screens.  They quote South Park endlessly and sometimes spend hours talking about nothing but South Park.  My most recent class camping trip involved a THREE HOUR long discussion of it, complete with reenactments of choice scenes as well as most of one episode.  Every time someone steered the conversation away from South Park they came right back to it.  It was a little crazy!  So, almost without fail, undergrads+grads+camping = South Park <3.

Sycamore Canyon

Sycamore Canyon. I camp here with students, and just for fun, a lot.

2. Some students drink entirely too much caffeine.  One of my students a few years back had a serious addiction to caffeine.  He literally drank 5 Monster Energy Drinks a day – and 5 hour energy shots in between.  Considering how recent findings have suggested that you should max out at about 3 cups of coffee a day, I don’t understand how his beverage choices didn’t make him horribly sick.  He seemed okay.  Awfully twitchy though…



3. Flaming marshmallows are dangerous projectiles.  Marshmallows usually happen around 11PM or so.  Everyone wanders off into the dark to find sticks, skewers a marshmallow, and gets toasting.  EVERY time, someone’s marshmallow catches on fire.  That person never calmly dumps the marshmallow into the fire and starts over.  Oh no!  He/she has to wave the flaming marshmallow wildly about trying to extinguish it.  Let me tell you that there are few things scarier than a flaming ball of molten sugar sailing through the air toward you!  If one of those were ever to hit someone… Or a patch of dry grass…  The last 4 or 5 trips, I’ve laid out some ground rules before passing the marshmallows around the circle, particularly this: If your marshmallow catches on fire, under no circumstances are you to try to put the fire out by waving your stick around!  Though I can’t be 100% certain of it, I think this rule has averted some disasters.

Harshaw Creek

We camp under a huge tree at this site, along Harshaw Creek

4. There’s a bar in Tucson where you can get branded.  As a non-drinker, this was news to me the first time I heard it!  There’s a bar called the Meet Rack with a very strange owner.  This owner has legally changed his name to God and has decorate his establishment with bras and sex toys.  At his bar, you can, among other things, tour his weird little sex dungeon and get branded.  Why might people want to be branded, with “God’s” likeness no less, you might ask?  For drink discounts of course!  If you get branded, you get $.50 off all drinks forever – and apparently hundreds of people have been willing to be branded for the perpetual coupon.  This simply blows my mind!  The majority of my students are just over 21, so drinking and going to bars is a really big deal to them.  Based on the number of stories I’ve heard, they’ve all been to the Meet Rack, though none of them have been branded yet.


Snow! It commonly snows on camping trips to northern Arizona.

5. Sometimes you just have to laugh.  I had a student once who grew up in Phoenix and had never been camping before.  She didn’t really understand the concept of “cold” even though I tried my best to scare her so she’d overcompensate and bring enough to stay warm.  On our trip to northern Arizona, she showed up with a little sleeping bag meant for indoor sleepovers and a cruddy little tent for kids (her little sister used both for Girl Scouts), things I wasn’t aware of until we started setting up camp the first night and it was too late for me to run home and grab my extra gear for her.  She and her tent mate were miserable both nights as we camped on top of snow and endured temperatures well below freezing.  The second night, there was freezing rain all evening that turned to snow around midnight.  At about 2:30 in the morning, I heard maniacal laughter coming from across camp.  The next morning I learned that the two girls were laughing because the snow piling up on their tent caused it to collapse.  They were so cold and so wet and so miserable at that point that they started laughing.  As they described it, laughing was the only thing they could do to make the situation any better, so they laughed.  Then they spent the rest of the night in the van.  I have always loved the sentiment, that sometimes things are so bad that all you can do to make things better is laugh.  This is probably the best thing I’ve learned from my students.

You have probably noticed by now, but I love to end Friday 5 posts with questions.  Have you ever gained knowledge or wisdom around a campfire?  I always come home from camping trips with new ideas and information and I love it!  I hope I’m not the only one though, so I’d love to hear your stories.  Leave comments below!


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