Why I’ve Been Gone

Hi everyone.  Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted anything for over a week, but I had a reason for that.  I got a call late last week that my dad was very sick and in the hospital, so I rushed out to California along with most of the rest of my dad’s tiny family to see him.  I’m glad I did because I had a chance to spend a few days with him before he passed away on Tuesday night.  As you might imagine, it wasn’t a very fun experience and blogging most definitely took a backseat to making sure my dad’s last few days were comfortable and then dealing with the immediate aftermath of his death.  It might take me a little while to get back to a more regular blogging schedule as there are still a lot of things to deal with that will take a lot of time, but I’ll post when I can.  But first, let me tell you about my dad and his role in making me the person I am today.

Dad and me at Broadmoor

My dad and me at the Broadmoor, the fancy 5 star hotel in Colorado Springs

My dad was one of the biggest supporters of my interest in insects from the very beginning.  I decided I wanted to be an entomologist before I was old enough to drive, so my dad took me out collecting all the time.  Most summer weekends that my family didn’t spend in the mountains of Colorado collecting minerals or fishing, my dad’s two favorite hobbies, I spent with my dad collecting insects.  He’d drive up to two hours to take me somewhere really cool to collect.  I am 100% sure that my dad was scared of most insects, but still he took me collecting. He was awesome like that.  Plus, if I saw something really cool and told him about it, he would get all excited about it.  He had very little interest in insects in general, but he would get excited about them just for me.

Dad at Yellowstone

My dad, looking on as my sister did her Park Ranger walk in Yellowstone

My passion for dragonflies is a direct result of my dad’s willingness to nurture the entomological tendencies of his elder daughter.  He would drive me three towns over to a big lake with a lot of dragonflies so I could collect.  It was the best place to collect dragonflies because you could hide in the cattails, using them as a little odonatological duck blind.  If you watched the dragonflies for a while, you could learn their flight patterns and choose the exact perfect moment to strike out with the net from your hiding place in the cattails.  I had a very high success rate there, and I loved that I had FAR more dragonflies in my collection than anyone else who did collections for the 4-H entomology project.  Collecting dragonflies with my dad was what made me love them.  If he hadn’t done that, I’m sure I would not be the Dragonfly Woman.  Heck, I might not even be an entomologist.

Dad at Pali

My dad at the Pali Overlook on Oahu. My dad always had a thing for nice views, and that was a particularly nice one!

I decided that I wanted to do a Ph.D. shortly after deciding I wanted to be an entomologist.  My dad was the reason why I thought that Ph.D. was so important.  He got his master’s degree and began his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona.  He didn’t finish it, however, and told me many times that that was one of the greatest regrets of his life.  I wanted to get a Ph.D. in part because I knew it would be important for what I wanted to do, but also because I wanted to finish my doctorate for my dad.  I am currently close to finishing, and I would have liked to have been able to tell my dad that I was done.  However, I am now more determined than ever to finish.  My dad was so proud of everything I did and even if he’s not here to cheer me on, I am confident that he would have been ecstatic to see me finish my degree.

Dad's favorite photo

The spider photo my dad loved – you’ll read about this shortly

And finally, I owe my interest in cameras to my dad.  He bought an awesome camera in the late 70’s so he could learn how to take photos of minerals.  He never got all that great at it because he never really understood how it worked, but we had a great camera with a macro lens my entire life.  I might never have even known it was possible to take close up photos of things without that camera and my very first macro photos were taken with it.  I splurged and bought my first macro capable camera, a Nikon Coolpix 995, soon after I started grad school.  That camera opened up a whole new world to me, a world that I shared with my dad by sending him shots via e mail.  His enthusiasm for my photos encouraged me to improve.  My dad went over a decade without using a camera much at all, but then I showed him how to use my little Nikon by taking a photo of a jumping spider on our house in Colorado when I was home for a visit.  It was just a poorly focused snapshot (that’s it up at the start of the paragraph), but he reminded me of it all the time.  He would say, “Remember that time you took that photo of that spider on the house?  You could see EVERY HAIR on its legs.  Wow!”  I gave him that camera when I bought a second one and it renewed his interest in photography.  I gave him the second one when I upgraded to my Canon G11.  And when my second Coolpix finally died on him, my dad got a Canon G12 because he knew I loved my G11.  He adored that camera.  It was something that my dad and I talked about a lot, something that we enjoyed together even though he had moved to California and I didn’t get to see him as often anymore.  That camera is sitting on my desk next to me at home as I write this.  I intend to put it to work come spring, and I’ll think about my dad every time I do.

Dad at Shoshone Lake

My dad taking a photo of me photographing Shoshone Lake in Yellowstone

I miss my dad terribly.  He was a really important part of my life and a person I truly enjoyed spending time with.  He shaped so much of who I am.  Still, I am grateful to have had such a wonderful father and even though I will miss him always, I carry a lifetime of memories.  I will cherish them always.

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

Friday 5: Insects and Pumpkins

I am quite possibly the worst pumpkin carver of all time.  I can only remember a handful of successfully carved pumpkins in my entire life, and I have a freakishly long memory.  Most of my best pumpkins were carved when I was very young and stuck to the simple designs.  This could have very well been the last pumpkin I did that looked halfway decent when I was done carving:

Me and my sis

Me and my sis

You can probably tell from looking at me in the photo (I’m the one on the right) that this was not a recent photo.  I was probably 6, 7 at the very oldest, in that photo.  See, we didn’t try to do anything fancy with that pumpkin and I think that was why it was successful.  A few triangles for eyes, a square for a nose, and what looks like a fairly sorry attempt at making a toothy grin.  But hey, we were 6 and 4 (or maybe 7 and 5), so I give myself credit for not cutting myself horribly with the knife AND ending up with something that looks rather like a Jack o’ Lantern.

Since then, things have gone downhill.  When I was in junior high, they started selling those fancy pumpkin carving kits that had patterns and little plastic knives.  Disaster!  You know how hard it is to cut through a crusty old pumpkin with a plastic knife?  You can barely get a sharp kitchen knife through those!  Still, year after year I would try to carve something amazing with a 2 inch long serrated plastic monstrosity.  Without fail, I would spend an hour carving one of the patterns perfectly, then cut through the all important support piece and watch my beautiful design crumple into a steaming pile of crap.  Ah, pumpkin, my old nemesis!  I hate those little buggers, yet I keep at it year after year.

Last year I decided to go a different route.  I’d seen all those cool pumpkins that had just the surface carved rather than cutting all the way through and thought, “Hey, I can do that!”  I’ve carved wooden sculptures and kachina dolls in the past and I do linoleum block printing as a hobby.  I’ve got skills, and I was FINALLY going to make my masterpiece!  I carved and carved and had this gloriously intricate design with a dragonfly on a cattail filled pond done.  It was masterful!  So, I lit the candle inside, carefully replaced the top just so, and prepared to awe my neighbors.  Then…

Nothing!  I hadn’t carved deep enough for the light to show through the pumpkin and it wasn’t glowing at all.  I decided to shave a little off the inside of the pumpkin, thin it up a bit so it would glow, and used my handy melon baller to start scooping the back away from my design.  And then I punched a big hole right in the middle of the design.  It was toast.  I was sad.  I consoled myself with toasted pumpkin seeds, the only good thing that had ever come out of my pumpkin carving obsession.  I might not be able to carve one of them buggers, but at least I can toast a mean pumpkin seed.

A month ago, I followed the siren call to the pumpkin carving kit aisle in Target.  I’d been down that road so many times before, yet there I was, a glutton for pumpkin-induced punishment once again, looking at cruddy tools I KNEW weren’t going to work when there it was: THE SOLUTION!  It was a pumpkin carving kit that was INTENDED to be a surface only design.  You didn’t even have to cut the top off the pumpkin, just shave off the dark orange skin and reveal the lighter orange underneath.  The tool was ridiculous and looked, I kid you not, exactly like a disposable razor.  It came with 4 little interchangeable blades, one for each of four different styles of lines.  I was so excited by the possibilities that I bought the set.  Then I headed to my neighborhood grocery store, bought the two (TWO!) least horrible looking pumpkins of the five seriously deformed pumpkins they had available, and plopped down on my back patio to carve.

Not surprisingly, the little safety razor looking tool was a bust.  I’d decided to carve a tiger beetle-like beetle on the first of my pumpkins, but I relearned a lesson I’ve learned oh-so-many times before: pumpkins have REALLY thick skin.  A piece of cheap plastic with a tiny piece of minimally sharp metal just isn’t going to cut it.  I spent a good 30 minutes carving and out came a sad little tiger beetle-like beetle:

Beetle pumpkin

Tiger beetle-ish pumpkin

My stupid little $2 safety razor/pumpkin carver was a total bust.  What did I expect?  Given my track record with pumpkins, a $2 safety orange disposable razor wasn’t going to perform miracles.  But… I liked the concept of the surface-only carving…  And, didn’t I have a whole box of wood carving tools upstairs…?

So I grabbed my wood carving tools and started to carve a giant water bug on my second pumpkin.  I plunged the wood carver into the thick skin and it went right through!  It went almost exactly where I wanted it to!  10 short minutes later, I had the best pumpkin carving I’d ever done:

Lethocerus pumpkin

Lethocerus pumpkin

I made the legs a little too long, but look at those wing veins on the hemielytra!  Flushed with success, I quickly carved another design on the same pumpkin, a jumping spider:

Phidippus pumpkin

Phidippus pumpkin

I was on a roll, so I did another beetle on the pumpkin with the crappy tiger beetle-like beetle on it, just so it wasn’t a total reject pumpkin:

Dytiscid beetle pumpkin

Dytiscid beetle pumpkin

I was just going to do a generic predaceous diving beetle, but then I got cocky and decided to make the “Charlie brown beetle,” as my students always called Thermonectus nigrofasciatus.  I made the legs too long, but it was STILL better than the vast majority of my life’s pumpkin carving work.  Finally I added a third carving to the water bug/jumping spider pumpkin:

Ant pumpkin

Ant pumpkin

I decided to stop when my ant ended up with a crazy giant head and no neck.  Clearly, my success had gone to my head and it was time to put the tools away.

This year, I have enjoyed my toasted pumpkin seeds more than ever, knowing that my pumpkins are actually displayed out on my front walk.  I had to put SOMETHING out there.  I live in the ‘burbs.  My neighborhood’s Home Owner’s Association is having a Halloween decoration contest and people seem to be rabidly competing for the top prize.  It’s like the Halloween aisle of Target exploded all over my neighborhood.  Then there’s our house, which until yesterday had absolutely nothing going for it except our creepy black shutters and a sorry little maple tree that was deformed when a tornado hit it a few years ago.  But, we’re no longer the only house with no Halloween decorations.  Now we’re the people with the fashionable insect pumpkins.  Life is good.

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

Buying Books About Insects

One of my commenters mentioned a book about insects that I have loved for as long as I’ve been seriously interested in insects, The Practical Entomologist by Rick Imes.  It came out about a year before I decided I wanted to be an entomologist and I was thrilled to find it at my favorite used bookstore in Colorado Springs, CO.  The bookstore has changed ownership and names several times and is a pale shadow of what it used to be, but I still have, and love, the book.  In fact, I just yesterday unpacked it and lovingly placed it on my bookcase in my home office after flipping through it for the thousandth time.  It took a place of honor among the several hundred insect books that fill up the entire bookcase and it is one I am sure I will always enjoy.

Thinking about that book again and seeing my well-loved copy of it made me think of how I got it.  My dad discovered the bookstore where I bought it.  He went nearly every weekend, looking for books about the Western US and geology and the bookstore was big enough and eclectic enough to have a lot of books that he wanted, unusual things you couldn’t find anywhere else.  I can’t even remember when I started going with him to the bookstore, but it was unusual for me to go a month without visiting it with my dad.  At first I was into buying collections of comics, The Far Side mostly.  But, as I started liking insects and then decided I wanted to become an entomologist, I gradually made my way over to the animal section of the store and found their phenomenal insect book collection.

Some of my all-time favorite insect books came from that shop.  The Practical Entomologist was an important book for my development as an entomologist because it told me, for the first time, how to make a proper insect collection and how to do things like photograph insects or create little habitats for them.  I absolutely loved that book when I got it.  I bought my first old entomology textbook there too, Entomology for Beginners: For the Use of Young Folks, Fruit-Growers, Farmers, and Gardeners by A. S. Packard.  I credit this book for inspiring my love of both printmaking and old science books.  That book set me back a measly $2.75 and I still consider it one of my best insect book finds ever.  It costs a lot more than that anywhere else now, which is part of why I loved that bookstore so much.

I bought my first field guides at that shop too.  My favorite at the time was a book called American Nature Guides: Insects by George C. McGavin.  This is far from my favorite field guide now, but the illustrations are marvelous and I found it incredibly helpful as I first learned my insect families.  I bought a lot of general insect books too, like the Time Life insect book and one about insect flight.  I had that butterfly alphabet poster that features photos by Kjell Sandved on my bedroom wall (and then my dorm wall and my first apartment’s wall) and was thrilled to find an entire book of his butterfly photography in the insect section at the bookshop.  Getting to see butterfly scales that close was a magical thing to me at the time.  That bookshop was marvelous, absolutely marvelous, and had a spectacular insect book collection.  No other bookstore has ever come close to matching that shop in my eyes.

I got $10 a week in allowance as a teenager and that had to pay for everything – movies with friends, meals out with friends, and everything other than clothes that I wanted to buy.  Choosing which books to  buy each week was an agonizing decision and I would frequently ask my dad for an advance of 2-3 weeks on my allowance so I could buy every title I wanted.  Every now and again my dad would “forget” that I owed him a week’s worth of allowance and would give it to me anyway.  Honestly, I think he enjoyed that fact that I shared his passion for eclectic books and was willing to forgo the normal teenager stuff to spend all my money on bug books.

And I still spend a good part of my spending money on insect books!  The books I buy now tend to be new rather than used and I usually buy them online, but my insect book collection keeps growing.  It currently takes up nearly an entire bookcase, and not a small bookcase either.  No, this bookcase is a foot taller I am and 5 feet across, a big, heavy oak bookcase that can stand up to the incredibly heavy science books I am most likely to buy these days.  I’ve got two whole shelves of nothing but dragonfly books, but I still have a dozen more on my wishlist too.  I love insect books, and I don’t think that is ever going to change.  I can think of much worse things to spend my money on.

Looking at my books brings back so many good memories – good times spent with my dad, fun classes that I enjoyed, places I’ve gone, and people I’ve met.  They’re a visual representation of my passion for entomology, of a life lived doing something I truly love.  Those books make me happy and remind me that I’m still on the right path.  I love my insect books.  Oh, that reminds me!  I still wanted that book on…  :)

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

On Catching Dragonflies and Softballs

I never had a job when I was in high school, but I didn’t fritter away my summers in a sea of laziness either.  One summer I worked as a volunteer for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and I think that experience started me down the road toward a life of working with children and teaching about the natural world.  After that I spent three summers volunteering 30 hours a week for the Red Cross.  I also played softball each summer and prepped my 4-H projects for the fair.  A typical day for me involved 6 hours of volunteering, a couple of hours of softball practice or a game, and then a whole evening of pinning and identifying insects or making cakes or sewing something for 4-H.  I was so busy I barely ate and barely slept, but I absolutely loved it!  I was doing something good for the world, playing a sport I loved with teammates I adored, and spending hours playing with insects or frosting.  It was fantastic!

On weekends, my dad would drive me to insect collecting sites.  One of my favorite places to collect was Palmer Lake in Palmer Lake, Colorado and the two of us went often.  The lake was the perfect place for collecting dragonflies and I fell absolutely in love with them there.  The banks were lined with a thin layer of cattails, but little sections were left bare so that fishermen could cast their lines from shore.  I would stand in one of those gaps, my little homemade bug net propped up on my shoulder, and watch the dragonflies flying back and forth several times.  Once I had the flight pattern down, I would swing the net out at the precise moment that the dragonfly flew by.  With this technique I was able to capture about 95% of the dragonflies I sought, and I was often the only person in 4-H that had dragonflies in my collection.

There was one problem though.  I played softball at the same time I was collecting insects.  I spent several days a week at softball practice or playing games.  I was the catcher, so I developed some pretty hefty upper arm muscles.  I batted a lot.  Then I spent my weekends at the lake with a net in my hand that just happened to be about the same length as my softball bat…  Because I was developing my insect collecting skills at the same time that I was playing softball, I found myself holding nets like a softball bat, two-handed with my hands choked up on the handle for control.  When I swung my net, I swung it HARD, just like my softball bat.

My technique was great for getting fast flying insects into my net and I credit my capture success to the power behind that net.  However, that power wasn’t always a good thing.  If I accidentally hit the bug with the net’s wire frame…   Well, it wasn’t pretty.  Body parts would go flying off.  I ended up with several headless dragonflies and I felt absolutely terrible every time because I hate taking an insect’s life for nothing.  The worst part was I could feel it when I hit the bug with the frame.  I had a very high capture rate, but it came at a cost: not all of my specimens were worthy of adding to my collection by the time I got them into the jar and it always made me a little sad to have to throw a dragonfly away.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I started collecting insects, but I still swing my net hard.  I have to pay very close attention to my surroundings when I have a net in my hand because I’m pretty sure I could really injure someone if I hit them.  When I’m around other people I often switch to a one-handed netting technique.  It lacks the precise control of the two-handed method and my capture rate of flying insects is much lower, but the power behind the swing is strongly diminished and a lot less hazardous to my companions.  It’s worth it to come home with fewer bugs if it means I’m not giving my friends black eyes or deep bruises.  I hit many fewer insects with the net frame too.  I consider that a good thing.  Still, if I am going after something important, I revert right back to that softball swing.  I haven’t even played softball since college (my knees can’t take it anymore), but I trained myself to use my net that way and old habits are really hard to break.

These days I spend more time collecting insects with my camera than I do with my net, but I don’t think I’m ever going to rid myself of that net technique I developed as a kid.  Honestly, I’m not sure I want to.  Dragonflies are very hard to catch, especially the ones that don’t perch often, so a fast swing is really useful for collecting them.  I might have to be extra careful when other people are around when I collect and every now and then someone will tease me for how hard I swing, but it works.  Sometimes the people who give me a hard time for swinging my net so hard are the very same people who ask how I catch so many dragonflies.  It’s all because of that softball swing.  And now, every time I collect, I think back to those great summers in high school, all those days of spending doing nothing but the things I love, and enjoying every minute of it.  That was a great time in my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

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

Overcoming My Childhood Fear of Spiders

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

Banded argiope, Argiope trifasciata

When I was a kid, I was scared of spiders.  As great as my parents were about letting their kids explore the world and letting us develop our own opinions about the organisms we encountered, I think my fear of spiders was largely my dad’s fault.  He still tells me stories about how our house would have been “overrun with black widows – overrun!!” if he hadn’t hauled a can of Raid out into the backyard and sprayed the heck out of every black widow he found once a week.  He talked about the sun spider (not a true spider, but still an arachnid) in the laundry closet with a hint of fear and has told me the story of my first encounter with a spider several times.  It goes like this.  One night, I called out to my dad, telling him that there was a spider in my crib.  He looked around and didn’t see anything, so he told me I was dreaming and should go back to sleep.  A few minutes later, I called out again, saying that there was a spider in my bed.  He looked again and still didn’t see anything.  I kept insisting there was a spider, so he eventually started pulling off blankets to prove that there was no spider.  Of course there was a spider, THE BIGGEST BLACK WIDOW OF ALL TIME!  Or at least that’s how my dad tells it.  You’d think this spider was about to devour his beloved firstborn, that I was lucky he was there to save me and vanquish the black widow foe.  He wouldn’t ever admit it, but these sorts of stories have led me to believe that my dad might have a touch of arachnophobia.

Long jawed orb weaver spider

Long jawed orb weaver spider, Tetragnatha sp

When my dad, who is rather fearless and tells stories of brave encounters with rattlesnakes and an angry swarm of yellow jackets, actually showed any sort of fear, it sort of rubbed off on you.  So, I was scared of spiders too.  I remember growing up thinking that most spiders were dangerous, that killing a spider was better than risking being bitten.  I used to be so scared of spiders that I’d have nightmares about them lurking menacingly under my blankets.  I would wake up in a panic and start ripping off the covers to prove to myself that there wasn’t actually a spider in my bed.  I knew there wasn’t a spider in my bed, but then again…  My dad had told me that story about the black widow in my crib, so maybe my subconscious mind was trying to tell me something…

Crab spider

Crab spider, species unknown

As I became more and more interested in insects, I learned that the vast majority of spiders really weren’t going to hurt me.  I knew that the wolf spider crawling up the wall or the little harmless brown spiders in the basement weren’t going to do anything to me, but the fear persisted.  I felt a little stupid for being scared of spiders when I wanted to become an entomologist because what entomologist worth her salt is scared of a little spider?  But I couldn’t help it.  They bothered me.  So, I arrived at grad school in the city of my birth imagining that black widows lurked in every corner and I would have daily encounters with all manner of huge spider.  Every now and again I would envision a spider crawling up the back of my couch while I was doing homework or something and it would make me shiver just a little.

crab spider

Crab spider

So, how did I get over my fear of spiders?  It all started on a class field trip along the border with Mexico that where there was a series of little ponds.  The desert is, by definition, a dry place where water is scarce.  Ponds are important to a huge variety of animals and there are often animals at any little pond you come across.  I wandered around one of the ponds looking for aquatic insects and happened to look down at one point.  The ground was absolutely covered in spiders!  Many different species were writhing about in a huge mass over the shores of the pond.  They were crawling all over my legs and I was scared at first.  But…  I also really wanted to scoop insects out of that pond.  So, I decided to ignore the spiders and keep collecting.  I let the spiders crawl all over my legs.  I let them crawl all over my backpack.  I didn’t worry about the fact that I might find a spider, dead or alive, in my pack when I got home.  I just went on with the more serious business of climbing into the pond to collect aquatics.  I wasn’t about to let some weenie little harmless spiders get between me and the aquatic insects in that pond!

Green lynx spider

Green lynx spider, pink phase (Peucetia viridans)

And you know what?  That was the end of my fear of spiders!  I don’t know how or why it worked, but I told myself to ignore the spiders and suddenly they stopped bothering me.  No more spider nightmares!  They can crawl all over me at those desert ponds and I don’t care.  Black widows are beautiful spiders and I love to watch them.  I enjoy seeing the big orb weaver spiders when I’m in the sorts of habitats where they’re found.  Sun spiders – spectacular animals!  And who doesn’t love a good jumping spider?  I might not pick spiders up, just in case I misidentify one I shouldn’t handle or have a strange reaction to tarantula hairs (those things make me itch like mad!), but I’m perfectly okay with spiders living in and around my house.  Sometimes I knock their webs down as I dust, but otherwise they’ve got a pretty good thing going living with me.  I just don’t care that they’re there.

All in all, I am happy I went on that field trip.  Forcing myself to walk through the spiders to get to the pond seems to have done me a world of good.  Now, if only I could get over my fear of centipedes…

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

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?

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* 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.

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On Insects and Cake

I’ve told the story of how my first 4-H entomology project was what convinced me that I wanted to become an entomologist, but I’ve never told you about the other projects I did.  I joined 4-H in 4th grade, after I quit Girl Scouts to escape the pink and frilly crafty things I didn’t want to do.  I eagerly pored over the project list that first year, and what did I sign up for?  Sewing.  Cake decorating.  Over my decade as 4-Her, I made dolls, painted ceramics, sewed countless clothing items, and made hundreds of cakes.  (I also learned how to use my SLR camera and collected insects, but that’s not important to this story.)  However, even though I did all these girlie crafty things, I always did them my way.  I made  functional clothes that I could wear to softball practice.  My dolls were hand carved kachina dolls and definitely did not involve scary fake hair.  And my cakes were non-traditional designs that fit my personal style perfectly.

But the 4-H cake decorating judge at the county fair hated my cakes.  They were well made and sometimes she had to give me the top prize because I did good work, but she made no secret of the fact that she didn’t think that making insect cakes was appropriate.  She cringed a little every time she came across a photo of an insect cake in my record book for the year.  One year I learned how to make flowers of many different types and she said that my cakes were beautiful that year, “for once,” as she plopped the winning ribbon on my cake.  At one point, and this was after I fell deeply in love with entomology and had incorporated insects into several of the wedding cakes I had created, she actually took me aside and told me this: “I am giving you first place, but I have to tell you: you really shouldn’t make insect cakes.  No one wants to be reminded of disgusting little insects while they’re eating cake.”

The judge didn’t seem to care that I wanted to be reminded of insects when I ate cake, so I took this as a personal affront.  She didn’t just hate my cakes: she hated everything that I loved!  I was so mad that the next year I brought another insect cake just to spite her, this time covered with sculpted fondant dragonflies and water lilies.  And when I replaced her as the cake judge in several counties in college…  Well, let’s just say I had a very different anything-goes approach to what constituted an “appropriate” cake design!  If it was well constructed, it got high marks, simple as that.  I never discouraged a child from making a cake that he or she loved.  I’m sorry, but that’s just wrong.

When I started grad school, I found a group of people who actually appreciated insect-themed cakes: entomologists!  Entomologists have absolutely no problem eating an insect shaped cake and will gleefully request part of the thorax or a saltitorial hind leg.  Life like?  No problem!  After years of discouragement by an insect-hating cake decorating judge, I’ll admit: I was thrilled to occasionally put that decade of cake decorating training to good use making insect cakes.  SO.  FUN!

However, entomologists aren’t the only people who are excited about insects on cake these days!  As I was looking for ideas for my own wedding cake (which I did not make, though I did make my sister’s!), I came across several gorgeous insect cakes.  For example, this cake is offered as a wedding cake design by the Village TeaRoom in New Poltz, NY:

How adorable is that?  The honeycomb design is filled with apricot jam and those bees are chocolate truffles with slivered almond wings.  Yum!  Or how about this cake, chosen by a couple being married at Penn State:

Ladybug cake

Ladybug cake. Image by redheaded ninja from http://redheadedninja.com/weddings/rachel-nathan/

Ladybugs!  An aggregation of ladybugs no less!  I think this cake is stunning, and it’s covered in bugs.

If you have a moment, you should check out this cake on Cake Coquette’s Flickr stream.  It is the sort of thing I always liked to do – combining girlie flowery and leafy stuff with insects – and the cake features a whole menagerie of vermin (bugs, mice, snails, ants, worms) while remaining wholly beautiful.  Then there’s this:

Beetle cake

Beetle cake. Image from http://www.edibleblog.com/wild-animals-cakes/. There are some other AMAZING wild animal cakes if you follow that link, including two scorpions.

Wow!  Boy would the cake judge have hated that…

Even the mighty Martha Stewart has promoted insect themed cake designs!  This cake was on the cover of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine while I was planning my wedding:

People went nuts over this cake!  While it was still on the Martha Stewart Weddings site, it got more comments than I ever would have imagined, people raving about how beautiful and unique the cake was.  Or at least it was unique before thousands of brides HAD TO HAVE the butterfly cake!  People selling the little plastic butterflies on Etsy had backorders a mile long thanks to this cover.  And it spawned several knock offs, including a less ostentatious design on the Martha Stewart Weddings site now:

Martha's new butterfly cake

Martha's new butterfly cake. Image from http://www.marthastewartweddings.com/227157/extreme-cakeover.

And this cake has been popular too!  There are countless examples of variations on the theme, such as this interpretation on Weddingbee:

Martha inspired butterfly cake

Martha inspired butterfly cake. Image from http://gallery.weddingbee.com/photo/our-wedding-cake-4

Beautiful!  Simple, elegant, understated, yet with a bold dash of color.

Honestly, I’ve always been bitter about that cake judge kicking me to the curb every year for designing cakes that worked for me.  But I feel vindicated for sticking with it now!  Tons of people want insect themed cakes these days.  BRIDES want insect themed cakes!  If thousands of brides want insects on their cakes, you know that people really aren’t being reminded of disgusting insects when they eat an insect themed cake, which is just what I’ve suspected all along.

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