The Smudge on the Wall (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

I’ve been seeing this little brown smudge on the side of my house when I’ve gone out to check my blacklight recently.  I thought it was just some crud on my siding, maybe a stain.  I caught it out of the corner of my eye tonight and noticed it was a completely different color – AND it was moving!  Had to stand on my toes, reach my camera up as far as I could, and hope for the best with the focus since this lens doesn’t autofocus.  This is what I captured:

Caterpillars

Caterpillars

Turns out that the little “stain” was actually a cluster of moth eggs!  Lots of little caterpillars are running about on my wall tonight.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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What Visited My Blacklight Last Week (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

I am part of a grant that is bringing together science and writing by partnering science museums, like the one where I work, with local chapters of the National Writing Project to create K-12 educational programs.  I’ll share more specifics about the activities we’re offering later (they’ll be online, so you can participate too!), but the activity that my team is developing and rolling out to the public next month explores nocturnal insects.  As my team’s science museum representative, it falls to me to create the science-related content that supports our activities – field guides, photos, videos, etc.  One of the things the English teachers and poets on my team really wanted was a time-lapse video of my blacklight sheet.  So, I took a camera out a few nights ago, snapped 2700 photos of my sheet, and this is the result:

Now, what I get on my blacklighting sheet in North Carolina is nothing compared to what I used to see in Arizona, but it’s still interesting to see what came to the light.  My favorite part: the damsel bug that shows up in about the last 30 seconds and starts eating other insects on the sheet.  :)

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy a glimpse at the insects I’ve been seeing at my backyard blacklight recently!

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

Blacklighting (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Know what makes for a good Wednesday evening?  This:

Blacklighting

Blacklighting

First “blacklighting” night of the year!  (I’m using the quotes because we only had a mercury vapor light and no blacklights.) A bunch of my coworkers and several interns got together to see what comes to Prairie Ridge and it was a blast, right up until a nasty storm blew in and we all had to scatter.  Here’s to many more blacklighting adventures this year!

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

My Blacklighting Rig

Imagine this.  You and some buddies pack a bunch of stuff into a truck or SUV or Subaru and head off into the wild for the night.  You carry with you some snacks, perhaps an adult beverage or two, a headlamp (because it’s going to be dark out there!), and some gear.  When you arrive at some place that’s truly out in the middle of nowhere, you set up some sort of frame, drape a white sheet over it, and shine some lights on it.  Then you wait.  You spend the next several hours drinking your adult beverages, lounging in camp chairs, and exclaiming with glee that “Citheronia splendans” or some other spectacular insect just showed up on the sheet.  Woo!  Some people sit and talk, others stalk the sheets obsessively with collecting jars or glassine envelopes, and still others collect photographs only.  Maybe you stay overnight, or maybe you pack up about 2am and drive back to town.  Either way, you’ve just experienced a beloved pastime/collecting technique of entomologists everywhere: blacklighting.

I love blacklighting!  I was hooked on it from my very first blacklighting trip.  You’ll see things at lights at night that you might never see anywhere else.  But, lugging a bunch of lights and associated equipment into the field is a pain.  After observing dozens of rigs utilized by a variety of entomologists and blacklighting extensively myself, I set out to design a portable, collapsible blacklighting rig that didn’t require a generator (those things are heavy and often very loud) and I could set up and break down within a few minutes.  Today I’m going to share what I came up with.

First, let’s talk about surfaces.  Blacklighting rigs usually have some sort of white surface on which you shine your lights.  That surfaces reflects the light and glows, but it also gives the insects something to hold onto when they arrive.  Most entomologists I know rely on white bedsheets.  I buy mine from Goodwill because you can walk out with a big pile of sheets for less than the price of a single new one.  A hot wash with bleach and you’ve got a cheap, clean sheet to use for your rig! My favorite sheet cost $3.

Once you’ve got some sort of white surface to project your lights onto, you need a frame to hold it upright.  Now if you live in a place that has a lot of trees, you can get away with simply using a rope and a handful of strong clothespins or binder clips: tie the rope between the trees, clip the sheet to the line, and use rocks or tent stakes to pin the bottom down.  I started blacklighting in Arizona, however, and trees are too far apart to make that work.  I currently work at a prairie field station and have similar issues if I want to blacklight anywhere outside the forested area.  There are some great collapsible, freestanding blacklighting rigs available through companies like Bioquip that you can fold up and carry in a backpack.  They are shockingly (and I think unnecessarily) expensive – I refuse to buy a $150+ blacklighting sheet!  You can make your own rig with a similar design with a few king sized white sheets, though you need to have some sewing skills and some cannibalized tent poles from an old dome tent to make one.  I’ll be honest: I made one like that and I wasn’t ever happy with it (too short, too small), so I decided to come up with something else.  I eventually built my current rig out of PVC pipes:

Blacklight rig with UV

This rig required three 10 foot pipes (I used 2 inch diameter pipes, though I’m going with 1 inch next time), two elbow connectors, two t connectors, four threaded end connectors, and four threaded caps to fit inside the end connectors, the latter two only so I wouldn’t get dirt and/or water in the pipes that sit against the ground.  For my bases, I cut four short pipe sections of equal length (about 2.5 feet) and used PVC joint compound to fix two of them permanently into the ends of each t connector, then glued the end connectors onto the opposite ends and screwed in the caps.  I glued the two elbow connectors to the ends of the pipe that was going to run across the top, and voila: my stand was ready!  When I want to set my blacklight frame up, all I have to do is thread my sheet over the horizontal top pipe, push one end of the upright pipes into the t connectors, push the other into the elbow joints on the top pipe, and the frame’s in place!  I cut a little hole in the center of my sheet and wrap a nylon cord around the top pipe a couple of times and stake the ends into the ground on either side of the frame to keep it from blowing over in the wind.  I don’t have a photo of the sheet I currently use with this frame, but I trimmed the width to match the frame, added a few grommets along the sides, and use small pieces of nylon cord or tiny bungee cords to attach the sheet to the vertical pipes and keep it taut.  The whole thing takes just a few minutes to set up, and I can easily carry my little bunch of 5 pipes and the sheet with a velcro strap/handle I got at a hardware store.  The frame cost about $20 altogether, including the joint compound.  That means my whole frame with the sheet cost less than $25 – a WHOLE lot cheaper than the $150+ portable models!

Now let’s talk lights!  I experimented with a lot of lights and I alternate between two styles.  If I’m close to a building and have access to power (e.g., in my backyard), I use a CFL blacklight bulb (they’re about $7) and a clamp style lamp with a aluminum reflector that I hang from a shepherd’s crook and plug into an outlet:

Blacklight rig with CFL

In more remote areas, I usually use a portable jump starter as my power source and plug in a DC powered blacklight bulb from Bioquip, which is what you see in the image at the top.  I can get a good 8 hours of run time from a single charge of the jump starter, which I think is pretty good given the ease of using it and minimal weight.  Sometimes I’ll get a little more fancy in the field and use two of the clamp lamps, each with a CFL blacklight bulb, plug them into a multi-socket extension cord, and plug that into my portable jump starter via a power inverter.  It requires a little more gear, so more to carry, and the jump starter battery doesn’t last quite as long, but you can get some really excellent light for about half a night that way.

A lot of people who blacklight to collect things for research favor mercury vapor lights, but I do not have one.  They’re painfully bright for me, can’t get wet (they tend to explode when cool water hits the massively hot glass!), are a burn and fire risk, and they use more power.  If I ever decide to take a mercury vapor light into the field with me, I will break down and buy a real generator, but it certainly won’t be as portable as my current rig.

The things I like most about my rig are that I can carry the pipes in one hand, the jump starter in the other, and the rest in a backpack and walk a pretty good ways with everything, so it’s very portable.  The lights stay on a long time because they draw a very small amount of power, whether I use the CFLs or the UV light, and that’s great.  I get a pretty good diversity of insects coming to this rig, regardless of where I’ve set it up, so I know it is reasonably attractive to a lot of night active insects.  I can set this baby up anywhere – it’s free standing and battery powered.  The main downside is that it’s not sturdy enough to withstand high winds and blows over if the winds pick up.  Of course, you don’t get a whole lot of insects on very windy nights anyway, so I think it’s a small price to pay to have a lightweight, portable rig I can easily chuck in my car and take with me anywhere I want to go.

There are endless variations on blacklighting rigs and setups, so this might not be the best solution for everyone, but it works for me.  Anyone want to share some alternative setups so that we can all learn from each other and steal each other’s ideas?  I’d love to see/hear about what other people are using to attract insects at night – leave ideas in the comments!

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

What Must the Neighbors Think? (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Sometimes I wonder about my neighbors.  There’s one that wanders up and down the street at odd times and another that has some pretty intense conversations with his dog as they walk.  Wondering about my neighbors makes me wonder what they think of me.  I mean, I had this going in my yard every night for a month last summer and spent at least 2-3 hours every night staring at the sheet:

backyard blacklight

My neighbors probably think I’m much stranger than they are – and they’re probably right.  :)

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

Beetles at Blacklights (Friday 5)

Last summer I spent almost an entire month blacklighting in my backyard every night.  I’m going to share my blacklighting setup with you all in the not too distant future so you can see what it involves, but I turned on my lights just before it got dark and then went out multiple times each night to document the things I found.  I focused on moths as I was participating in National Moth Week at first, but I saw a bunch of other really cool things too.  Though I have no interest at all in studying beetles (except maybe how various aquatic beetles breathe), I have always rather enjoyed looking at them.  I got some really great ones coming to my lights too!  Today I’m going to share 5 of my favorite beetles from my blacklighting adventure last summer.

A note about my identifications: I’m not 100% certain about any of the IDs I propose for these beetles!  I bought Art Evans’ wonderful book Beetles of Eastern North America, which anyone who has an interest in insects and lives in the eastern US should own, just before I started my month of blacklighting.  I used it for most of my identifications and though it is a remarkably comprehensive field guide that covers 1406 species, beetles are incredibly diverse and the book certainly doesn’t cover all of the species found in the eastern US.  It’s entirely possible (maybe even likely) I have some of these wrong – I welcome corrections if you see a mistake!

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

Stenolophus lecontei

LeConte’s Seedcorn Beetle, Stenolophus lecontei

This gorgeous little fellow is found throughout most of the eastern US and is known to come to lights at night.  They’re active from spring into late summer and belong to the ground beetle family Carabidae.  They’re common in fields, gardens, and suburban yards where they feed on live and dead insects and the occasional fruit, seed, or plant.

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Prodaticus bimarginatus

This little pond dwelling predaceous diving beetle is found throughout the southeastern US as well as the Bahamas and Cuba.  It is surprisingly hard to find information about this particular species, but I would suspect that they are predatory like most of their relatives in the family Dytiscidae and feed on other insects in ponds.  You can tell this one is a male because he’s got suction cups on his front feet.

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

Leptostylus asperatus

I was thrilled when this gorgeous longhorn beetle from the family Cerambycidae showed up at my porch light!  It was pretty high up and I didn’t get a good shot of it before I bumped it and it flew away, but wow!  What a spectacular beetle!  These beetles are common throughout the southeastern US and range into New England and are frequently seen at lights in spring and summer.  They feed on oaks and sumacs as larvae.

Long-necked Ground Beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

 

Cosnania pensylvanica

Long-necked ground beetle, Cosnania pensylvanica

This is a very interestingly shaped member of the ground beetle family Carabidae, with its long, extended prothorax separating its head from the rest of its body.  These are found in the southeastern US and into New England and are common in open grassy areas (like my backyard, for example), on plants along the edges of wetlands, or under piles of debris.  They’re most common in the spring and summer and are known to be attracted to lights.  They are thought to be ant mimics and are suspected to feed on aphids.

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

Ataenius spretulus

Black turfgrass Ataenius, Ataenius spretulus

During my month of blacklighting, I learned that these small, black beetles are far and away the most common thing I find at lights at night in my yard.  There were sometimes hundreds of them!  They belong to the scarab beetle family Scarabaeidae and are active most of the year throughout large parts of the US and into Ontario in Canada.  They are definitely attracted to lights!  They are also a turfgrass pest, which made me worry a bit for my yard.  Not that our grass is perfect anyway (it’s more a collection of neatly trimmed weeds than grass), but there were SO many of these that I was surprised I had any grass left at all!

Apart from this tiny handful of beetles that came to my lights, I found awesome click beetles and loads of aquatic beetles.  There were several scarab species, some of which were very numerous, and some wonderful long-horned and wood-boring beetles.  Some of the beetles had crazy antennae and others were comparatively uninteresting.  My very favorite beetle didn’t stick around long for me to photograph it, a click beetle with absolutely wild antennae!  The experience reminded me, as nature so often does, that there are seemingly endless beetle species in the world of countless colors, sizes, and shapes.  Makes me excited to see what I will find when I start blacklighting again this spring!

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

Friday 5: Good Week

This last week was a great one for me bug-wise!  I did several insect themed citizen science programs and presentations with a variety of groups, from leading lessons for a summer camp for middle school boys to teaching a training workshop for environmental educators and teachers.  It’s always fun to spend time teaching people who are genuinely interested about bugs and want to learn something, so it was fun even though it was terribly hot.  Here are some cool things I saw this past week!

Owl fly

Owl fly, Ululodes quadripunctatus

One of my coworkers came in a few days ago and told me that she’s seen a dragonfly on a tree branch outside our offices and wanted to know what it was because it was a really weird one.  Apparently I haven’t exposed her to my “dragonflies don’t have long antennae” mantra as she explained that the dragonfly she’d seen was odd because it was holding its wings in a funny way and had long antennae.  I followed her out to see what she’d spotted, expecting to see an adult antlion.  Instead, it was the insect above!  That’s an owl fly, a really cool insect in the net-winged insect group, and a relative of the antlions though they belong to their own family.  I think this one is Ululodes quadripunctatus in particular, and two things struck me about this insect.  First, it was crazy beautiful with those yellow patches down the abdomen and the divided eyes.  I was thrilled to be able to see it.  Second, how the heck did she even see this thing?  I am so impressed that she spotted it!

Another beauty:

Golden-winged skimmer

Golden-winged skimmer, Libellula auripennis

I got to visit a new-to-me state park near the Carolina coast yesterday to teach a group of 5th grade teachers about citizen science.  Part of the activity I had planned involved sending them outside with cameras to document the biodiversity around the environmental education center for a project we host at the museum where I work called Natural North Carolina.  I arrived early so I could scout before my presentation, but I made it as far as the parking lot before I stopped.  There were dozens of these golden-winged skimmers flying around the parking lot and resting in the trees around the edges.  They were gorgeous, so I stopped and stood in the hot sun watching them for about 15 minutes before I went inside to present.  We saw a few other dragonflies too, including some great blue skimmed females and some eastern pond hawk females.  It was great!

Speaking of dragonflies…

Blue dasher

Blue dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis

One of the activities I did with summer campers involved recording the dragonfly species we observed at the pond for three different citizen science projects.  I had them watch for the species the Dragonfly Pond Watch is interested in and count the number of common whitetails they saw for Nature’s Notebook.  Then I let them loose with nets to catch as many different species as they could so we could photograph them for our Natural North Carolina project.  These were 5th grade boys, and they got bored watching dragonflies fairly quickly.  I wouldn’t let them use the nets until we filled out the whole data sheet and we counted the whitetails, but then I let them loose.  They were THRILLED to be out catching dragonflies!  And they caught 12 species too.  Not bad for a group of nerdy 11 year olds!

I got to work with the same group of boys last night when I helped out one of my coworkers, the curator of our Arthropod Zoo, as he led a blacklighting activity for them:

Blacklighting

Blacklighting

About half of the dozen boys got REALLY into the blacklighting and would have happily stayed up all night watching bugs with us if their camp leaders would have let them.  It was great watching them stalking the sheets looking for cool things coming in to the lights.  My favorite insect of the night was this massive mayfly:

Mayfly

Mayfly, likely Hexagenia limbata

I haven’t ever seen one this big before, so I had to look it up.  I am 95% sure it’s Hexagenia limbata, a very large mayfly that is common in the eastern US.  It was nearly 4 inches long if you included the tails!!

That was my week.  What cool things did you all see?  I’d love to hear your stories, so I welcome comments below!

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