RIP Mr. Darcy

Well, today is a sad day.  I found my giant male roach dead on the bottom of his cage.  Poor Mr. Darcy…  I had him almost 3 years, and he was an adult when I got him, so he had a good, long life.  I never expected to enjoy my roaches as well as I do, especially since the only reason I have them is because a student dumped them with me at the end of a semester, but I really enjoyed Mr. Darcy.  He was one charismatic little insect and I’m sad that he’s gone.  Who knew I could get so attached to a bug!

So rest in peace Mr. Darcy.  I will miss your angry, loud hissing that I could hear three rooms away.  I’ll miss how you pushed your young ones around and dominated the log in your cage.  I’ll miss taking you to classrooms where you distracted the kids by loudly and viciously attacking the other roaches in the cage.  I’ll miss how you hissed at me every time I got your cage out to add water, dog food, and veggies and when I poked you a little every now and again just because I knew it would annoy you.  You were a good roach.  The best roach.

hissing cockroaches

Mr. Darcy

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Friday 5: Things I Love About My Two Favorite Roaches

We use a lot of Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the program I’m working for this semester.  They’re really great insects to work with because they’re big enough for the kids to get a good close look at them, yet they’re completely harmless.  Some of the kids have a hard time getting over the stigma that roaches are disgusting disease-ridden trash lovers, but hissing roaches are cute little forest roaches, happily eating decaying trees and other plant matter and turning them into very useful soil.  Even with the stigma against roaches, we can get most of the kids to at least pet the hissers and many of them will be brave enough to hold them.  It’s always fun watching a kid who’s very scared of insects hold the roach and watch their tense little body relax when they realize it’s okay.

We have a big colony of roaches that we maintain:

roach colony

Roach colony

But squeamish little kids are going to be absolutely horrified if we pull the roaches we show them in the workshops out of the writhing mass of roaches in the big colony.  Heck, most of the preceptors and TAs aren’t willing to stick their hands into the big colony to extract a roach!  Instead, we put a few roaches, a boy and a girl, into smaller cages:

roach apartment

Roach apartment

These roaches are easy to extract from their cages.  They are handled by thousands of children, dragged from their dark, happy place inside the toilet paper tube several times a day to be fondled.  These roaches have real names, not just names we make up every time.  They’re even written on labels on their cages!  Giving them names is often sufficient to make a squeamish kid open up and want to hold a roach, so they’re important.  Because they have names, the undergrads teaching the workshops and I also learn how individual roaches are going to behave when we handle them.  People start to develop favorites.  One undergrad won’t hold any roach but Winston because Winston has a particular personality that he likes.  My favorite roaches are Jeffrey and Bonita.  And here are 5 things I love about them:

Jeffrey

Jeffrey

1) Jeffrey is the best roach ever to let kids handle.  He’s THE most mellow animal I’ve ever held, except for maybe the 30+ year old gopher snake with one foot in the grave (or maybe one fork of her forked tongue since she doesn’t have feet?) I held the last time I had a job working with kids.  Jeffrey just sits there as he is in the photo, completely calm and collected – even if kids drop him or poke him a little too hard or scream at him.  He’s (dare I say it?) almost sweet.

Bonita

Bonita

2) Bonita is spicy!  In stark contrast to her boyfriend (or maybe they’re just roommates…), Bonita is fired up and ready to go at a moment’s notice.  She is a runner when she’s poked and has a habit of racing straight up some poor kid’s arm or right into their laps.  Screaming sometime ensues.  One time Bonita made me look like a complete fool in front of a whole class of 4th graders.  I was telling them the rules for holding the roaches and one kid asked why I got to hold Bonita standing up rather than holding her close to the floor like they had to.  I said that I could do it because I knew how to hold Bonita so that she was safe.  Bonita had sat in one place for 10 straight minutes, completely still, but she of course chose that exact moment to lunge forward.  I didn’t even have time to respond before she launched off my fingers and smacked into the floor upside down.  The look I got from the kids… well, let’s just say they thought I was a sorry excuse for an adult after that.  But I love Bonita in spite of this incident!  Her fiery spunk is very amusing and she’s a lot of fun to pass around to the kids who are really eager to hold a roach.

escape!

Escape!

3) Jeffrey might be mellow, but he’s a sneaky little guy!  He’ll sit there doing absolutely nothing the entire time I have him out.  I can pass him from child to child and he’ll barely move.  I can set him on my leg and expect him to stay right there.  Put him back in his cage without the lid though and he’s out of there in a flash!  I don’t get how he can be so slow with the kids and so very speedy when he tries to escape.  Bonita never seems to want to crawl out, but you’ve definitely got to keep an eye on Jeffrey!

4) They have the cutest little faces!  Roaches hold their heads tucked up against their bodies under their thoraxes so they’re hard to see, but if you ever have a chance to flip them up so you can see their faces, they’re really quite cute!  Check out Jeffrey’s adorable mug:

Jeff's face

Jeff's face

Giving the roaches names helps the kids get over their fear of them, but showing everyone Jeffrey’s face will often win over the last few holdouts.  Being able to look at their faces makes the roaches seem a lot less alien to the kids, and a whole lot less scary.

Jeff and Bonita

Jeff and Bonita

5) I know I probably shouldn’t because it’s so wrong to anthropomorphize the roaches, but I love imagining that Jeffrey and Bonita are a boyfriend and girlfriend.  They might not actually be getting any nookie in their cage, but he’s a boy and she’s a girl and they’re the only two hissers left on the planet as far as they’re concerned, so you never know.  Besides, it’s much more amusing to think of them fighting over who’s hogging the toilet paper tube while they sleep and who’s constantly leaving their exoskeleton on the living room floor.  You know, normal things that couples argue about when they co-habitate.  I always introduce the pair as Jeffrey and his girlfriend Bonita.  This probably spawns all sorts of horrible ideas in those little 7-year-old brains (yes, my cockroaches are living in sin, boys and girls!  Sin!), but it spills out before I can stop myself because that’s how they’re cemented into my brain.  Never sure exactly what to say when I’m asked if they’re married though.  I have no problem with the idea that they’re boyfriend and girlfriend, but married?  Well, that’s just  ridiculous.  :)

Now I know some of you might think that this is an April Fool’s post, but I assure you it’s not.  Honestly, I tried to come up with something clever to post for April Fool’s, but I was wildly unsuccessful.  So, you get to read about my roach love and my warped little mind that creates roach relationships where none may exist.  It’s probably just as good.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Why cockroaches will survive a nuclear holocaust

A lot of people have heard the predictions that the humble cockroach, those unwelcome denizens of our homes and workplaces,  will out-survive humans if we should ever be so unfortunate as to experience nuclear holocaust.  I have to say that I was skeptical about this broad, sweeping statement the first time I heard it.  I’m a scientist after all and we tend to be a rather skeptical bunch.  However, I have since witnessed firsthand how resilient those little buggers really are and have decided this is absolutely true.  Allow me to share the observations that led me to this opinion. This is the building I work in:

Forbes building

My building

I think it’s an amazing building.  It is the second oldest building on campus, so it’s got this great old feel to it.  There are columns and pillars and marble and old, old wood everywhere.  Some of the windows can still be opened, unlike most of the windows on campus, and there is a lot of natural light in most rooms.  I have an antique brass doorknob on my office door that I absolutely love that’s probably been on my door since it was installed in the early 1900’s.  My office itself is this bizarre little narrow room with an enormously high ceiling.  I have it all to myself AND it has a window that opens.  Love it, love it, love it!

However, every room has it’s downsides.  My office has a roach problem.  In fact, the whole building has a roach problem.  I’m commonly greeted by large, dead roaches when I walk into the building in the morning.  Dead roaches litter the otherwise elegant marble staircase.  They wander across my desk in broad daylight.  I’m scared to eat off of anything that’s been sitting in the entomology department kitchen because the brown banded roaches in that room just might number in the millions.  I don’t mind roaches, but there are SO very many in the kitchen that even I am a little disturbed.

Brown banded cockroaches. Image from a University of AZ publication on roach control, http://ag.arizona.edu/urbanipm/buglist/ cockroaches.pdf.

Allow me to relate one particularly memorable roach experience in the entomology kitchen to give you a better idea of the level of infestation.  At some point, everyone stopped loading paper towels into the dispenser and started setting them on top. After several months of finding the paper towels on top, I decided to do something about it.  I popped the front off the dispenser, happy that I was finally making things right.  But I was greeted with a horrific sight: about 300 roaches were hiding among the pile of 30 paper towels in the dispenser!  They didn’t take too kindly to my exposing their roachy hideout either and decided to flee the scene.  This unfortunately meant that they all came out the front of the dispenser and down my arms.  Having 100+ of them scurrying rapidly down my arms toward my face was a little much even for me.  I slammed the dispenser shut and never complained about the paper towels being on top of the dispenser again.

So there’s a serious roach problem in my building and the center of activity seems to be the entomology kitchen.  However, the microwave and the fridge are in the kitchen, so it’s hard to avoid going in there.  Furthermore, if you’re me, you have to drink at least 12 cups of hot tea a day, which means you go into the kitchen several times a day.  Sometimes there are roaches in the microwave.  Normally, I scoop them out before I put my mug of water in, but one day the roaches on the walls were irritating me more than usual.  I decided I was going to be really mean and microwave my water with the roaches still inside.

I spent the next three minutes reading all the snarky notices telling people to wash their own dishes and keep their dead animals out of the fridge.  I watched some roaches crawling on the walls and thought about the four in the microwave that were meeting their demise.  Upon hearing the buzzer, I opened the microwave door and pulled out my steaming mug, expecting to see four dead roaches in the microwave.  Instead, all four of them were not only still alive, but scurrying about inside the microwave like nothing had even happened!  They were microwaved on high THREE MINUTES and it didn’t seem to faze them a bit.  Amazing!

Armed with this new observation, I have since microwaved several other roaches.  I have yet to see one die, regardless of how long they’ve been nuked.  I cooked a frozen meal for 7 minutes once and the roach accompanying my delicious mac and cheese looked fine.  I think this is simply astounding! The microwaves almost have to be doing something bad to them.  I do worry a little that I’m creating a breed of giant super roaches by microwaving so many of them.  After all, this is the sort of thing that results in giant insects going on rampages in horror movies.  Ever see Mimic?  I’m sure there are giant roaches like those lurking in the basement of my building somewhere!

roach

Roach

But I can’t help it.  I am absolutely fascinated by the fact that these insects are able to withstand 7 minutes in the microwave.  And if they can stand that, I’m pretty sure they can withstand a nuclear holocaust.*  Now I’ll admit that my evidence is rather circumstantial.  I haven’t done a proper experiment with the roaches.  It’s possible that their reproductive abilities are altered by the microwaves (e.g. egg proteins are denatured), impacting their overall fitness.  They might not survive long past their stint in the microwave (they almost have to be getting hot enough to start denaturing proteins) and I haven’t followed them or kept them in cages to find out.  But still, how many animals are you aware of that can be microwaved 7 minutes and look as fresh and sprightly coming out as they did going in?  Yep, roaches are going to outlast us all.

* <DISCLAIMER> As pointed out by a reader in a comment below, I wish to clarify: microwaves are not at all the same sort of radiation as that which would occur during nuclear fallout.  Microwaves work by rearranging water and other molecules and that motion generates heat, so they’re not going to cause genetic rearrangements or other similarly catastrophic results.  In case it isn’t clear, the point of this post is simply to demonstrate the remarkable abilities of roaches to withstand some pretty unforgiving conditions by relating observations I’ve made personally that I thought were fascinating.  I’m not qualified to make any real claims regarding the ability of roaches to withstand nuclear fallout and simply wish to suggest that if anything is going to be able to withstand a tragedy of this nature, an animal that can survive being microwaved for 7 minutes is a good candidate. </DISCLAIMER>

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Friday 5: Five of my favorite experiences with insects

speakIf you can’t tell from reading my blog posts, I am a bit of a storyteller at heart.  I tell people about my experiences with insects in story form most of the time.  Partly, I think it makes the things I’m interested in more palatable to people who aren’t insect lovers and helps me relate to “normal” people, but partly it’s because that’s how I store information in my head.  I experience something, immediately turn it into a story, and pack it away into some dark corner in the basement of my brain for storage.  When a story finds its way back up to the surface, it’s in a format ready to share with others!  Today I’m going to tell five short stories about my experiences with insects.  I hope you enjoy them!

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Collecting Dragonflies

My sister and I were very active in 4-H as kids.  In high school, my favorite project was entomology (go figure) and I collected all the time.  I quickly captured nearly everything in my neighborhood, but I was 14 when I started and my range was limited by my inability to drive.  Enter my dad, the man who took his two daughters mineral collecting or fishing or camping nearly every weekend since we’d been born.  He drove me to the mountains (1.5 hours away) and collected minerals while I collected bugs.  He drove me to the river (an hour away) and fished while I collected.  After 4 or 5 of these trips, he started taking more of an interest in what I was doing and soon we were going on trips specifically so I could find insects.

Dad

My dad, watching bugs and birds.

I collected my first dragonfly in a mountain meadow far from water and we were both enthralled by it.  It was very hard to catch, but it was also amazingly beautiful.  I knew I needed to catch some more.  So, my dad found a lake an hour away and off we went!  I was so happy with my haul on the first trip (10 species!) that my dad took me back a few weekends later.  And again.  And again!  There wasn’t much he could do at the lake, so he’d watch the dragonflies while I hunted and we’d talk about the bugs we saw all the way home.  I loved those trips!  I was already sure I wanted to be an entomologist at that point, but my dad’s dedication to my hobby and his interest in the subject I loved really sealed the deal.

bumblebee

The bee.

The Bee Incident

Ah, the bee incident.  My dad, sister, and I went to visit family in Seattle one summer when I was an undergrad.  We made the two-day drive from Colorado, had a great time in Seattle, and were driving back through Wyoming when my dad started to get tired.  My dad’s always been a bit strange about being The Driver on road trips and he did not relinquish that role willingly.  Being next oldest and therefore the next most experienced driver in the car, the duty of driving was assigned to me.  I took the wheel and after backseat driving for a little while and making it abundantly clear that my driving made him incredibly nervous, my dad fell asleep in the back.

I think I drove about 15 minutes when a bug flew in through the window and slammed into my shoulder at 75 mph+.  I was startled that the bug had hit me, so I asked my sister what it was.  She looked over at my shoulder and all but screamed, “It’s a HUGE BEE!!!!!!!!”  For some reason her reaction struck me as incredibly funny (guess I unconsciously knew it was dead), so I started laughing.  This made my sister laugh too.  Of course, my dad snapped back awake, realized the driving duties were in the hands of a person who was laughing uncontrollably, and insisted I pull over.  I was crammed into the back seat for the rest of the day, but at least I ended up with a really awesome bumblebee for my collection!  I still have it, and I laugh a little every time I see it.

Photinus pyralis

Photinus pyralis firefly. Photo by Yikrazuul from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File: Photinus_pyralis_Firefly_4.jpg.

Catching Lightning Bugs

I spent half my childhood in Arizona and half in Colorado and neither place has fireflies that light up.  Luckily, I got to see lightning bugs every year when my mom took us to visit the relatives in the midwest.  My sister and I loved them!  Like most kids, we’d run around the yard collecting them and putting them into jars.  My aunt would poke holes in the lids for us and we’d take our glowing jars to bed with us, staring at the beetles until we fell asleep.  Of course we’d wake up with a jar full of dead bugs the next morning, but that never seemed to detract from the magic of the experience.  :)

Roach in a Hotel Room

When I decided to move to Arizona for grad school, I asked my sister and my mom if they wanted to keep me company on an apartment hunting trip before I moved.  The morning after we checked into our hotel, I was brushing my teeth when I noticed a huge roach on the wall.  They don’t bother me much, but I told my sister and my mom it was there because I knew it would bother them.  My sister insisted I squash it, so I went back in with a magazine ready to do battle with the roach.

roach

A roach similar to the one in the story. I sadly couldn't the photo my sister took of me crawling around on the floor with my butt in the air while I hunted the roach with the room in shambles!

I didn’t grow up around roaches, so I didn’t know how freaking hard it is to kill a them.  I was woefully unprepared!  As I halfheartedly swatted at it with the magazine, it leaped off the wall and scurried out of the bathroom, straight onto the bed I was sharing with my sister.  Needless to say, she was less than thrilled with this development.  So, I chased it around the room for 5 or 10 minutes, ransacking the furniture and our belongings in the process while my mom and sister yelled advice from the other room.  I thought I had the roach cornered at one point, but it escaped – and ran straight into a little hole in the bottom of the mattress!  Out of better options, I slammed the mattress back down onto the box spring and told my sister that although the roach was now INSIDE the bed, it couldn’t get out.  I had no idea if this was true or not, but I wasn’t ripping apart the mattress to get it either.  Thankfully, she accepted this argument (reluctantly) and the roach didn’t show its roachy little face again.

My Sister’s Cricket Presentation

My stories s0 far make my sister out to be seriously entomophobic.  That’s really not true.  She is certainly not as fond of insects as I am and she does have some of the more normal insect phobias (stinging insects, jumping insects, roaches), but she’s taken a few entomology courses, did several research projects with insects for classes in college, and won second place in the state Science Olympiad insect ID event in high school.  She’s pretty good with bugs!  She’s now an educational park ranger who works with K-12 students and is making good use of her entomological skills by helping the Park Service personnel identify some of the insects they find and doing insect presentations for kids.  I end up watching a lot of her interpretive programs or tagging along when she leads educational nature walks for school groups, so I know that she talks about insects a lot.

Sister

My sister, doing one of her nature hike presentations in Yellowstone.

One of my happiest moments as an entomologist came on a trip to visit my sis in Yellowstone and I watched her evening program for kids.  She talked about some of the nocturnal animals in Yellowstone and ended by discussing crickets.  Crickets fall into that jumping insect category she’s particularly disturbed by, so I was thrilled to see her up there entertaining and educating a bunch of little kids as she talked about how crickets make sound to attract mates.  It makes me very happy to know that my little sister is teaching people about insects and helping kids understand the important roles that they play in the environment, just like me!

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These stories always make me happy when I think of them and remind me that I am on the right path in my life.  In an ideal world, I think everyone would have at least five happiness-inducing insect stories to share!  Sadly, this is probably not the case for most people, but I’ll bet it is for the people who read this blog.  Anyone want to share an insect story that makes them happy?  They might be about people you’ve taught or interacted with, insects that you came in contact with, something an insect did that you found funny/bizarre/magical – anything!  I would LOVE to read some of your stories, so feel free to share in the comments below.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

I loved going on those trips!  I’d spent my whole life tagging along after my parents on their outdoor adventures, but these trips were about my interest and mycollection.