Heads Up – New Project Starting on Monday and YOU Can Get Involved!

As many of you probably know, I work for a natural history museum in North Carolina and my job focuses on getting people involved in citizen science efforts.  My museum is part of a really fun collaborative project called Remix, Remake, Curate that brings together museum-based science and the arts (writing especially).  It encourages participants (especially K-12 students) to get involved in fun, hands-on science activities and write creatively about their experiences.  We’re partnered with the Tar River Writing Project and the Poetry Project, so our particular project has students learning about science through a variety of activities and then writing/performing poetry based on what they learned.  Participants then share their results – scientific and written – through scheduled Twitter chats and Google Hangouts and post their poems and photos from their scientific explorations on the Google+ community.  The project is offered in a massive open online course format, so anyone anywhere can get involved!  You don’t even have to be a kid to take part.

Prodaticus bimarginatus

Predaceous diving beetle at a light at night

Why should you care?  Because year 2 of the project starts on Monday and my team created a fun insect-themed activity focused on nighttime insects!  Over the next two weeks, we’re encouraging people to go outside at night, look at lights, and record observations about the insects they see.  I’ve created a simple guide to porch light insects to help people identify their critters and a datasheet for recording observations.  (Both are now available on the Educational Materials page!)   After making some observations of nighttime insects, we are encouraging participants to write a two-voice poem based on their experience and share the results (whether the poem itself or a video recording of two people performing the poem) on our Google+ community.  At the end of our two weeks, we will have built a huge collection of insect photos, datasheets with awesome insect drawings, artwork, insect poetry, and other insect awesomeness that everyone will be able to see online.  I think it’s going to be a lot of fun!

Plume moth G12

Plume moth

Want to get involved?  You can participate in a variety of different ways!  If you’re an educator, consider following along with your class.  Most of the people developing the activities for this activity are language or visual arts teachers and the activities are built for teachers to use in their classrooms.  We’d love to have you join in.  If you would simply like to participate in the project on your own, please do!  Even if you’re not a K-12 student or a teacher, we’d still love to see some of your porch light insect photos, poems, etc.  And, if you want to really make a kid’s day, you could also visit our Google+ community page over the next few weeks and comment on poems submitted by participants.  Last year, the kids who participated told their teachers that one of the best things about the project was the feedback they got from strangers, knowing that people out there were actually reading the things they had created.  I don’t expect any of you to become poetry trolls, but it’s worth saying that we hope that commenters will be kind.  Most of the participants are kids, after all!

Hebrew

Hebrew

I am planning to blacklight in my backyard each night next week and write a whole bunch of poems for the project.  I’ll likely post some of them here, so if you see my blog invaded by poetry, that’s why!  And just to get you in the mood, I thought I’d share a poem today.  The woman who administers Remix, Remake, Curate,  Stephanie West-Puckett (an instructor at Eastern Carolina University), attended the Educator Open House at my museum last week to drum up interest in the project.  She had the teachers who visited her station do a blackout poem, a type of poem where you take a piece of text and then black out all of the words that will not eventually become a part of the poem.  She chose my recent post about antlions as the text, so I’ll leave you with an antlion blackout poem.

Hope to see a few of you join the project starting Monday!

Going, Going, Gone
A Blackout Poem Created by North Carolina Teachers

Entomologist.
Prairie Ridge antlions at work
moving about.  There are hoards.
Hoards!!

For a moment, digging.
Abdomen, thorax, head.
Disappeared.
Mouth-parts for a moment.
Antlion.

Like the Sarlaccc in Star,
Sci-fi lover.  Antlion pits.
Little craters. Monster.
Rawwr!

Predators wait.
Unsuspecting victims slip into the cone-shaped pits,
Tumble to the bottom.
Loose sand.
Down.

Whole larva swallowed by the sand,
Cone-shaped pit, sand all over the place.
Lurking.

Hapless ant, it’s next meal.
Antlions are crazy cool.
Larvae, they roll.  Ball.
Damselfly-like antlion. Same species.
Ant.

As that antlion lying in wait,
Jaws poised,
Just below the surface,
Hidden.
Sight. Life. Over.

Series of photos, re-burying itself.
Larvae crawl backwards,
Butt first, bewildered.
Larvae hooked the easiest
Misidentification pet.
Feel.

Repeating, burying itself.
Pit.  Lurks beneath surface.
Nightmares…

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

Friday 5: In the Stream

Hey everyone!  Took me a bit longer to get back on track after my recent travels and some very busy time at work, but I’m getting a Friday 5 up today.  Woo!  Feeling good about that.

I spent a big chunk of today working with various volunteers to collect data around the field station.  We tracked one of our box turtles this morning, and then I had a quick lunch before one of my school groups came out for their regular data collection.  The group I was working with today is a really excellent group of high schoolers from a nearby charter school.  They’re incredibly smart (they know it, but they’re really down to earth too) and they are all excited about learning.  They come every three weeks after school with their biology teacher to work with me as part of a research club they’ve developed at their school.  That’s right: these young men and women are coming to do science for fun on their own time, just because they want to learn something.  How can you resist loving a group like that?!

We have examined the stream to try to understand why there are so few insects living in what seems to be lovely water.  I’ve mentioned in a past blog post that I think flooding is to blame in this particular case, but my high schoolers are helping me monitor the stream as we try to solve the mystery of the missing bugs together.  They actually did a lot of the prep work for the project and have developed their own protocols and methods for the sampling they do.  I think it’s awesome, so let me take you through today’s visit so you can learn about what they’re doing!  First, we measured several water quality parameters:

Measuring water

Measuring the water

We’re using Vernier probes for this.  Someday I’d love to get a grant to buy a Hydrolab or some other swanky probe so we can measure all the water quality parameters at one time rather than plugging and unplugging every probe to get the readings, but for now it’s a long, involved process to get the data recorded.  We’re looking at temperature, dissolved oxygen, flow, salinity, nitrate, conductivity, turbidity, and pH.  Then we collect an insect sample from the stream.  I sadly didn’t get a photo of this part of the process, but they lay down what is essentially a quadrat (a plastic frame they built themselves) in the stream, hold a net at the end, and shake the hell out of the materials inside the quadrat to wash any insects into the net.  It’s a sort of MacGuyvered serber sampler.  Works pretty well!

Once we have a sample in the net, we sort the insects from the rest of the crud that ends up in the net with the insects:

Picking bugs

Picking bugs

Picking is a pretty easy process.  You just dump the sample into a white dish pan and remove any bugs you find.  We transfer any bugs we find into a super fancy sorting tray:

Sorting tray

Sorting tray

Okay, okay, so our sorting trays are ice-cube trays.  They work well!  At this point, all the insects are still alive, swimming around in the water.  Everyone watches them moving around and makes comments about what they think they might be doing.  However, because we can’t identify them down to a useful level at the stream, we preserve the bugs in alcohol and the group takes their samples back to school with them.  We’re planning a sorting/identification date so we can identify our insects to family and genus, and then all the data will go into a database.  At some point, we’ll tackle the data analysis and see what sorts of water parameters might be leading to the lack of insects in the stream.  Over the 3-4 years we’re planning to keep this project going, we’ll also be able to see seasonal patterns in the life histories of several of the insects and will document the aquatic insects living in the Prairie Ridge stream in a systematic way for the first time.

While I know the group enjoys the data collection part of the experience, we typically take the scenic route back to the top of the hill, wandering slowly about the grounds.  We’ve sampled grapes and persimmons.  We’ve watched birds and looked at plants. We go exploring up and down the stream.  A couple of trips ago, the group found an enormous cow femur in one of the pools upstream of their sampling area, and that was absolutely thrilling to them!  This time we wandered down to look at the pool where the damselfly nymphs live, and it had some lovely reflections:

Roots

Roots at the stream

And just because they hadn’t done it yet, today we wandered into the Nature PlaySpace, a nature-based play area we recently built for families with young kids to help get everyone out in nature.  I’ve got to say that it was really entertaining to see high schoolers running all over the play area like maniacs, sliding down the slide, and climbing up the center of the mole hill:

Mole hill

Mole hill.  The port with the ladder comes out of the center of the hill.

Five of them packed into the opening at the top of the mole hill at one point and had their teacher take a picture of them.  They all giggled the whole time!

All in all, a pretty good day!  A little chilly, but I spent a lot of time in the water, and that’s always good.  Add a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers into the mix and it’s even better!

Hope everyone has a good weekend, and to my American readers, have a great LONG weekend!

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

Friday 5: Things I Taught 6th and 7th Graders

Last week was the busy week from hell for me at work.  It was program after program after program all week, including Saturday.  In spite of my exhaustion and the fact that I’d already taught hundreds of people many different things, I spent last Friday at a middle school in rural eastern North Carolina teaching nearly 250 6th and 7th about my experiences as a scientist working with aquatic insects.  Essentially, I talked for about 5.5 hours straight.  And when I say talked, I really mean that I yelled over the many conversations going on and the window-mounted air conditioner and was to the point I could barely even speak by the end of the day.  So, I went home, didn’t talk the rest of the night, and photographed a bunch of the bugs I shared with the kids.  Today, I give you five factoids about some of the insects I shared with those 250 rural North Carolinian middle schoolers (who knew WAY more about aquatic insects than your average urban kid) on that completely exhausting, but exhilarating, day.

1. Ever see the Alien movies?  The dragonfly nymph mouthpart is rather like that little mouth inside the alien’s mouth.

Common green darner, Anax junius

Common green darner, Anax junius

Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs have one of the coolest mouthparts ever!  It’s essentially a long, flat grabber that they keep folded up under their heads.  When they encounter something they want to eat, they squeeze a lot of blood into their heads, which causes the mouthpart (the labium) to shoot out away from the body.  (Thus, the allusion to the Alien movies!)  Hooks on the end of the labium grab the unfortunate animal and then everything is quickly retracted, bringing the still living animal into contact with the dragonfly’s chewing mouthparts so it can be eaten.  This all happens really fast.  It’s a pretty amazing, yet somewhat gruesome spectacle.

2. Dragonfly nymphs breathe through their butts.

Dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly nymphs are gill breathers and absorb oxygen through the water via their gills, but their gills aren’t on the outside of their bodies. Instead, they are packed inside a rectal gill chamber, which is inside the body.  The nymphs pump water into and out of their back ends, moving water over the gills inside the rectal gill chambers and stirring everything around so they can breathe more efficiently.  Thus, they breathe through their butts!  Imagine a super giggly 4-year-old girl.  Now imagine a 6th or 7th grade boy sounding just like that.  You say “dragonflies breathe through their butts” and giggling ensues, every time!

3. Damselflies breathe through gills at the end of their abdomens.

damselfly nymph

Fragile forktail, Ischnura posita

While studies have shown that nymphal damselflies can live without their gills, the gills vastly increase the amount of oxygen the nymphs can absorb.  They’re quite pretty too, with a long, slender leaf-like shape.  damselflies also use those gills to help them swim, making them look a lot like fish as they dart through the water.  It’s a pretty cool movement!

4. Giant water bugs are among the tiny handful of insects that exhibit paternal parental care.

Giant water bug, Belostoma flumineum

Giant water bug, Belostoma flumineum

You know what’s interesting?  You ask a group of 6th or 7th graders if anyone wants to guess what “paternal parental care” is and you’re met with a bunch of blank stares.  Then you tell them that you’re going to give them a hint and ask, “Who knows what a paternity test is for?” and a dozen hands shoot up instantly!  It’s fun to watch the gears grinding in their heads as it suddenly dawns on them that they can use the meaning of one word (“paternity”) that they know to understand what another unknown word (“paternal”) means.  I love those moments!  Every single class I talked to was able to work it out without my telling them based on their surprisingly vast knowledge of what a paternity test was for.

5. Predaceous diving beetles are SCUBA divers.

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus basillarus

Predaceous diving beetle, Thermonectus basillarus

I talked a lot about aquatic insect adaptations to water while talking with the middle schoolers, especially respiratory adaptations.  I started by asking the kids this question: if you suddenly decided that you wanted to go live underwater in a pond, what would you need to survive?  I would listen to the kids come up with ideas (take a snorkel, bring flippers so you can swim, learn how to hunt food while swimming, etc) and then tell them that insects had come up with nearly all the same ways to deal with living in water that they had suggested.  I led the students into admitting that getting enough oxygen should be their top priority.  Then we discussed ways that people can get oxygen while they’re in water, and I demonstrated each method they described with live insects that did the same thing.  There were the breath holders, the snorkelers, and the gill breathers, but the kids really loved the idea of the SCUBA divers.  Insects like the predaceous diving beetle above have a space under their wings that they use to store air, rather like a SCUBA tank, and then use that air to breathe while they’re underwater.  Just like a person with a SCUBA tank, eventually the air runs out and the beetle needs to return to the surface to refill its “tank,” but then it can dive underwater again.  It’s a pretty neat trick if you think about it!  And, when you can relate it something a human can do, I find that it’s a lot easier for kids to understand.

Ah, middle school kids.  They’re an adventure!  They have an unbelievable amount of energy and an intense need to look cool, but you can still get them excited about things if you are animated and show them amazing new things.  I really enjoyed that school visit, and as tired and hoarse as I was at the end of the day, it was a totally worthwhile and fun experience.  Might even volunteer to do it again next year!

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

Searching for Lost Ladybugs

Seven spot ladybug

Seven spot ladybug

I do a ton of citizen science outreach programs in my job.  I like different citizen science projects for a variety of reasons, but when I’m working with kids, you can’t beat the Lost Ladybug Project.  Lost Ladybug is great!  It appeals to little kids because all of them have interacted with ladybugs at some point in their lives and very few kids, even girls, are scared of them.  Also, when you ask the typical 5-year-old what their favorite insect is, ladybugs are right up there in the top two, just behind butterflies. Citizen science programs are often hard to do with young kids because they have only the vaguest idea of what science is, so trying to convince them that they should do science, that they can help scientists learn more about a subject, is a really hard sell.  But not with Lost Ladybug!  In my experience, kids LOVE that project.  They understand why they should do it (that they are helping scientists learn more about native and non-native ladybugs and their interactions) and no one beats a 5-year-old as a ladybug spotter.  Lost Ladybug is, I think, the very best citizen science project you can do with the really little guys.  I teach a lot of people about it.  A LOT.

Kids at Homeschool Day

Kids at the Homeschool Day bird lesson

My museum had a Homeschool Day on Monday, a day where homeschool families could bring their kids to Prairie Ridge for a variety of nature-themed lessons taught by several different educators at the museum.  I was scheduled to teach my Lost Ladybug lesson during my session for 7-9 year olds.  I had no idea what to expect!  I had done the same lesson just a few days before and we hadn’t found a single ladybug in the hour that we looked.  I had even looked at the bronze fennel in the Prairie Ridge garden, the place I can almost always find ladybugs, and we STILL didn’t find any!  It’s all well and good when you’re leading a small group on a free walk, but when you’ve got a larger group and they’ve paid to learn something from you, well…  It would suck if you didn’t find anything!  So, I scooped a couple of larvae I found into the magnifier boxes and hoped for the best.

ladybug 1I had about 10 kids in my group, and I started by telling them about the Lost Ladybug Project, what we were going to be doing, and handed out some identification guides for the ladybugs they were most likely to see.  The plan was that they would spread out in the prairie and look for ladybugs.  If they found any, they would bring the ladybug to me or my awesome volunteer and we would record some basic information on the data sheets I created for the project.  Then we would snap a photo and release the ladybug back into the field when we were done.  I had 6 magnifier boxes with me, but I had little hope we would find that many.  And things started off slowly as expected.  We walked out into the field and everyone started looking for ladybugs.  The kids looked really hard and were so excited!  Eventually one kid yelled, “I found one!” and we all rushed over to see.  It was just a ladybug pupa, so my volunteer and I talked about the ladybug life cycle a bit and showed off the larvae, then sent the kids back out to look.  It wasn’t looking good.

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

Asian multicolored ladybeetle

A few minutes later, another kid yelled, “I found one!” and came running over with hands cupped in that way that can only mean they’re holding something that’s likely to get away.  I grabbed a magnifier box and we carefully transferred our first ladybug into the box.  A few kids came over to see, so we all looked at the ID guide, counted the spots, and learned that our first find was a seven spotted ladybug.  It’s a non-native species, so the kids all said, “awwww!” in a very disappointed manner, then went back out to look for more.  Soon another kid came running over, hand carefully cupped around a ladybug.  Into a box it went, and before we’d even finished, a mom brought over another.  Soon it was all we could do to keep up with the flow of ladybugs!  Kids were running to us from all over the field.  My six boxes weren’t nearly enough, so we started doubling up, then tripling, the ladybugs in the boxes.  My volunteer and I gave up trying to record the data as the data was the same for every ladybug and there was no way to keep up with the photos.  Eventually, we took photos of two ladybugs just so the kids could see us doing it, then we gave up and decided to finish photographing ladybugs after everyone left.

Convergent ladybug

Convergent ladybug

One of the other museum people went to find more bug boxes for us, and soon my pockets were full of ladybug boxes.  My assistant was carrying even more in my lunchbag.  We counted our ladybugs and learned that we found 28 of them.  And it was great!  The kids were having a ton of fun.  Their parents were getting really into it too.  Every time a kid would bring a ladybug over, they would say, “It’s just another seven spot…” and sigh heavily before running off to find more.  I even heard a few kids whine, “ANOTHER non-native ladybug!  Are there ANY native ladybugs out here??”  That’s the sort of thing that makes your heart leap a bit when you’re doing a program, a kid that has voluntarily demonstrated that they understand what you’re doing.  I even had a few kids teach one of the other museum educators what a ladybug pupa looked like because she hadn’t ever seen one.  The kids knew just where to find one and were really happy to share their new knowledge.

Polished ladybug

Polished ladybug

After making a quick trip to the garden to look at the larvae on the fennel plants, we gathered together to discuss our findings.  Of the 28 ladybugs we found, 25 were the non-native seven spots.  One was another non-native, the Asian multicolored ladybeetle.  Considering how very many of them make their way into the trailer where the Prairie Ridge offices are during the winter, I was quite surprised that we found only one in the field.  Happily, we did find two native species, one convergent ladybug and one polished ladybug.  The kids that found those were incredibly excited because they’d found something special – they’d found native ladybugs in a sea of non-natives.

Seven spot ladybug

Seven spot ladybug

We finished up the session with a discussion of warning coloration in ladybugs and what it means, then I gave each kid a coloring sheet so they could draw a ladybug with warning coloration (real or imaginary) and had them write down what kind of animal the coloration protected them from.  We had a great mix of realistic and imaginary ladybugs, then all the kids proudly took their art, a Lost Ladybug bookmark, and an ID sheet home so they could continue finding and submitting ladybugs on their own.  I’ve told thousands of people about Lost Ladybug, but this was the first time I’d ever really felt like most or all the people in the group would go home and actually do the project.  It was a great feeling!

Days like this are the reason why I love my job and why I love teaching people about insects.  Getting a bunch of kids out in the field collecting bugs…  There’s really nothing better!  Seeing that excitement and energy directed toward something you’re passionate about is incredible.  And I’m teaching this lesson again this Saturday!  We’ll be collecting in downtown Raleigh this time, not at the field station, so it will be interesting to see if there are differences in the things we find or not.  And this time, I’ll bring a LOT more boxes, just in case.

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

Friday 5: Things I Think About When Teaching Kids About Bugs

I love my job, but one of the very best parts is getting to teach kids on a semi-regular basis.  There are many ways that I do this, but recently I’ve been presenting information at a cart out on the floor of the museum where I work or teaching classes of elementary students who come out to the museum’s field station for field trips.  Regardless, there are several things I try to keep in mind.  I thought they might be of use to some of you, or maybe you might like to take a look into my odd little brain and see how I think, so here they are:

IMG_00611. Children don’t like to be treated like children.

One of the best compliments I got recently was being told that a class of 4th graders liked the lesson I taught them because I treated them like adults and not like kids.  In my experience, kids love to have fun and they do genuinely act like kids most of the time.  However, they don’t like to be spoken down to and they don’t like being treated like they’re stupid because they’re not.  I expect the kids I work with to act as maturely as they can for their age and in return I don’t treat them like babies.  It seems to work well, at least most of the time.

IMG_47952. Understand the level of vocabulary the kids have and adapt your language to meet that level.

I feel it bears repeating: kids aren’t stupid.  They’re just less experienced than older people.  That means that they (usually) don’t understand things at the same level that adults do and that you need to adapt how you explain things so that they understand.  I personally believe that you can teach almost anyone anything if you explain it in the right language.  That doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb it down,” just that you need to choose your words carefully so that the kids are sure to understand.  Yes, you can try to teach kids big words and use them as you teach, but I find that it’s much more successful for me to adapt to their level of vocabulary than the other way around.  If I’m going to teach kids big words, I only use a few, three at the very most (I usually stick to one or none), and then repeat them over and over and over again so the kids get them by the time we’re done.  Even then, I wonder how long they remember…

IMG_48763.  Be prepared for anything.

It’s hard to really be prepared for anything, but I’ve seen kids do amazingly shocking things that I never would have expected them to do.  I try to mentally prepare myself for crazy things, and roll with them as much as I can when those crazy things happen.  I do, however, answer all of those little deeply probing personal questions kids like to ask.  I think I do it because I like watching the parents cringe and fret over their children when they ask horribly personal, insulting, and/or inappropriate questions.  :)

IMG_98834. If you love what you do, let it show!

By now, you have probably figured out that I like bugs.  (Are any of you out there thinking, “Wait… The Dragonfly Woman likes insects?   Why didn’t I know about this before?!”)  Kids pick up on your enthusiasm and can get super excited about the subject if you show them how excited you are about it.  I bounce up and down a lot on my toes as I walk.  I talk loudly and excitedly.  I wave my hands all over everywhere.  I just can’t hide the fact that I think insects are the most amazing things on the planet.  Kids respond SO well to that sort of energy and enthusiasm.  Plus, when I invariably smack my hand into a book or a wall or something mid-wild gesticulation, they think it is hilarious.  Yep, adults acting like giddy little kids – kids can get behind that.

IMG_48065. Don’t force a kid to have an experience they’re uncomfortable with, ever.

Let me tell you a story about my childhood that illustrates why I think this is so important.  I had a nasty experience with electricity when I was 8 or 9 (I was essentially electrocuted by a vacuum cleaner).  Because of it, I absolutely dreaded the yearly presentation by the power company aimed at teaching kids how dangerous power lines are.  Retired electrical line workers would bring in this little diorama of a neighborhood, plug it into the wall, ramp up the voltage, and run 50,000 volts through the diorama’s power lines.  Then they’d show you what would happen if you were stupid enough to touch a power line by touching this little plastic doll to a kite string dangling off the lines.  The doll would melt.  One time it caught on fire.  Giant arcs of electricity shots out of that horrendous thing.  It was TORTUROUS to me.  I started having nightmares about being electrocuted after the third of six times I saw that presentation.  I still have those nightmares.  I know that damned electrified diorama is largely to blame.  So, having had this experience, I am hyperaware of the fact that some kids are really scared of insects.  I am respectful of that.  I can try to make a child feel more comfortable about the animal by explaining as much as I can about it, but if he/she doesn’t ever want to touch/hold it, that’s their choice.  Never, ever, ever make a kid have an experience that they think is scary or overly gross or otherwise disturbing.  Giving them a few gentle nudges to help them overcome their fears is one thing.  Shoving a large insect in their face and ridiculing them for not wanting to get near it…  That is completely unacceptable and you might scar them for life.

So those are the things I like to keep tucked away in the back of my mind.  Anyone else have some great suggestions to add?  I know a lot of you work with kids, so I welcome any further suggestions and/or insights into working with kids!

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

2012 Dragonfly Swarm Project Year-End Report: Conclusions

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

It’s time for part 3 of the yearly Dragonfly Swarm Project report! Today, I present the results of the predictions I made last year based on the data you all have contributed over the last 3 years, plus I’m proposing a challenge to you. Last year I made three predictions, so I’ll address those first, but then I want to get some feedback from YOU and see what you think. Ready? Let’s go!

This year was an interesting year in many ways, so the conclusions I thought were going to be so clear-cut and consistent from year to year aren’t necessarily as predictable as expected. That makes for exciting science though! The first prediction was the most straightforward:

Old Prediction: Dragonfly swarming will be most commonly reported east of the Missouri River in the U.S.

This is the one constant in this project each year. The space between the Missouri River and the Mississippi River typically produces several swarms each year, but I think it’s safe to make a new prediction based on the data gathered so far:

New Prediction: US dragonfly swarms are most common east of the Mississippi River.

As I stated last year, I think a lot of this has to do with the amount of water in the eastern US relative to the west. There is more habitat available to dragonflies in the east and likely more dragonfly individuals present in the wetter areas than in the arid west (though I don’t have data to back this up – will be looking through the literature for evidence). To have swarms, you need a lot of dragonflies in one area. You see dragonfly swarms in the west, but there are often identifiable special conditions that concentrate the dragonflies within an area at the time of the swarm. I have a few ideas about that that I’ll get to…

Old Prediction: Most swarms reported will follow flooding or heavy rains.

This prediction was… partially correct. While there were still reports of flooding or heavy rains in 263 of the 705 swarm reports made in 2012, you’ll notice that that’s not even half the reports. In fact, 314 reports indicated that there was no flooding or heavy rains in the area prior to swarming events, which suggests that rains might not play as strong a role in swarm formation as I previously thought. That said, I still think that flooding is an important factor and if you compare the areas of the country where flooding took place in 2012 and the location of swarms, there appears to be a nice correlation between the two. Sadly, I don’t possess the technical expertise to actually show that to you at this time, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Based on the 2012 data, I have developed a new idea about possible factors in swarm formation, which I’ll discuss later. And I make this prediction:

New Prediction: 40% or more swarms will be observed after flooding or heavy rains in 2013.

I still think heavy rains and floods are a major factor in swarm formation, so I suspect that I will continue to get a lot of swarms reported that occurred with major rains/floods.

Old Prediction: There will be more dragonfly swarms reported from the northern Midwest (Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, etc) in 2012 than in 2011. Similarly, there will be very few reports of swarms from eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.

This prediction was based on an idea I had after two years worth of data collection: that areas where there were big weather events and massive dragonfly swarming in one year would not have many reports the following year when that massive swarming was due to flooding.  My idea was that flooding in an area might deplete the nymphal population that would emerge the following year. I made the prediction based on a comparison from two seasons and wasn’t sure it was going to hold true in 2012. However, I crunched a few numbers and made a few maps, and here’s what I discovered. In 2010, there was heavy activity in the north central US, with reports from Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin making up 36.8% of the total reports for the year. Iowa and Illinois alone made up over 20% of the reports. In 2011, however, those five states made up only 7.8% of the reports. Things picked up in 2012 such that 18.9% of observations were made in the north central US. So, that part of the prediction was correct: swarming activity dipped strongly the year after the flooding in these states and then increased the following year. So far so good! But what about that second prediction? I have numbers if you are interested in them, but the map will show it so much more clearly. In 2011, a massive number of reports were made in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, close to half of the reports. The map of the 2011 data in that area looked like this (click images to make them larger), and focus on the four states of interest, that big blotch of nearly solid green on the upper mid-Atlantic states:

2011 Static NE

Clearly, there was a major event happening in OH-PA-WV-VA, and indeed there was a lot of rain and flooding in that area that resulted from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Lots of flooding meant lots of swarms in 2011. This is that same area in 2012:

2012 Static NE

Now THAT is a huge difference! Clearly there were far more swarms taking place in this region in 2011 than in 2012, so the second part of the prediction held true as well. The sample size is small and it’s hard to make broad conclusions without at least a few more year’s worth of data, but I think the data so far suggest that heavy swarming in a location one year results in low swarming the following year.

That said, there was no obvious and large center of activity this year. In fact, there were only two areas where large swarming events occurred: the New Jersey/southeastern New York area and Colorado. Comparing the 2012 data to 2013 data for Colorado isn’t fair because Colorado is a western state that doesn’t normally have a lot of swarming activity. So, I am going to make this prediction for 2013:

New Prediction: There will be fewer swarms in the New Jersey area in 2013 than in 2012.

Ultimately, however, the event in New Jersey wasn’t one the mega events you all have documented in the last few years, so it might not show the same sort of pronounced dip in activity highlighted in the maps above. Plus, the data from New Jersey is confounded because the eastern migration passes through the state in the fall.  We’ll just have to wait and see what happens!

I have a few ideas about why dragonfly swarms form and why they are important, but in the interest of keeping this post a reasonable length I am going to save them for another post. However, I promised you a challenge, and here it is: what do YOU think? I want to see if you all can come up with exciting, new ideas that I haven’t considered by answering two questions:

1. Why do static dragonfly swarms form? Feel free to list multiple suggestions for why they form at all, in addition to why they form in the locations where they have been observed. And…

2. What roles do you think static dragonfly swarms play in the environment? I.e., why are dragonfly swarms important?

I have my own ideas for about this behavior, but sometimes it’s good to get some fresh perspective.  That’s where you all come in! Feel free to base your answers on your own observations, the information I have shared on my blog, or any other source.  And just to keep things interesting, I’m offering a small dragonfly themed prize pack for a few of my favorite responses. If you want a chance at winning, offer some answers to the questions before 10AM EST Sunday, February 10, when I’ll post the reasons I propose for why these swarms form and why they’re important. I look forward to hearing your ideas!

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

2012 Dragonfly Swarm Project Year-End Report: Distribution of Swarms

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

It was another great year of data collection for the Dragonfly Swarm Project!  I continue to be impressed by the number of people who participate in this project, especially as it’s hard to promote it  in the hopes that someone might see a swarm and most people actually find the project after they’ve already seen a dragonfly swarm.  Still, over 700 reports were made in 2012 and that’s pretty darned good!  So, what does that data tell us?  The next two posts will focus on what we can learn from the data so far.  Today, I present the long-awaited maps (I think this year’s maps took a year or two off my life with all the stress they caused…) and next week I’ll discuss some of the patterns that I’m seeing in the data after three seasons of data collection.  Let’s dive into that data!

Like last year, I’ve split the map data into two videos.  It’s easiest to see changes over time when the images I create are presented as a series, so each map you’ll see in these videos represents the swarms that occurred during the time frame indicated at the top of the screen.  The pushpin colors mean something too: red represents a static swarm and blue represents a migratory swarm.  My apologies that the blue pins are a little hard to see on the map – they show up easily in Google Earth, but not so well in the images it produces.  For the best viewing experience, try watching the videos in full screen mode by clicking on the icon with the four arrows in the bottom right corner of the video player.  You’ll be able to see the changes from week to week more easily that way.

The first set of maps document the cumulative data for the year and show the overall pattern of swarm locations in 2012.  Each week’s new sightings are added to the previous weeks’:

The second set of maps shows the data for each month individually and by swarm type.  The first set of maps are the static swarms and the second are the migratory.  Each map represents only the data for the month indicated at the top of the video rather than showing the cumulative data.  For the migratory swarms, look closely along the southeastern and east coasts.  The pushpins are hard to see against the blue water of the ocean:

As you can see, there were once again more swarms reported east of the Missouri River than west of it.  In spite of the fact that Colorado made it into the 5 states with the most reports in 2012, there just aren’t that many dragonfly swarms in the west and some states (Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico) were entirely unrepresented this year.   Dragonfly swarms definitely appear to be more common in the east than the west.

In 2010, the center of activity was the western Great Lakes states and Iowa and last year it was the Pennsylvania/Ohio area.  This year, the activity was heaviest in the New Jersey area and northern New England coast in the mid to late summer and around the Chicago area in the late summer.   Each year seems to have a different center of activity, and I have a hypothesis for why this happens.  I’ll get to that in the next year-end report!

This year was an odd migration year.  The migration down the east coast has been documented several times in various publications, so it’s a fairly well-established route.  This year, there were very few reports of migratory movements in the east during the typical migration season in late August and September.  In fact, there were hardly any!  While most of the migratory movements reported this year did occur in the usual place, within a few miles of the coastline, the timing was all wrong: most were observed in June and July, much too early for the usual migration.  Again, I have a hypothesis that might explain this, but you’ll have to wait until next time.

The migration along the west coast was also quite weak this year.  That migration has a known set of conditions associated with it, a particular wind direction and a specific temperature.  The dragonfly people in Washington and Oregon were going out this year to the places they usually see migrating variegated meadowhawks on fall days with the right conditions and… nothing!  People were looking, and looking hard, so it seems that it was just a weak year for the migration overall, on both coasts.  I don’t even know how to explain the western migration fail though.  That’s just weird as that one is SO specific and occurs every year almost like clockwork!

Finally, I can say with more certainty that dragonfly swarms really aren’t a rare phenomenon and they happen more often than I’d ever expected when I started this project.  That is in keeping with the last two season’s worth of data.  However, last year I was uncertain whether I would continue to see an increase in the number of swarms reported every year and that has not been the case.  In 2010, I got about 650 reports.  Last year I got over 1100!  This year, I’m back down to 700.  I have a feeling that 600-800 swarm reports per year is normal and that the several hundred reports I got over a 3 week period last year were related to a set of perfect conditions that allowed a massive boom in dragonfly activity right toward the end of the year rather than an increase in participation in the project.  I’ll explain why I think that boom happened in the next part of the year-end report, but I predict that next year we’ll see the same sort of numbers we did this year, barring any sort of odd convergence of conditions that allow another 2011-style reporting boom.

If you’d like to see images of the maps of all the data for the year, I’ve uploaded them to my Yearly Maps page.  There, you can view the maps for static, migratory, and all swarms by year, which should make comparing between years fairly easy.  Click on the images to see a larger version of the map – they’re very tiny on the yearly maps page.

That’s it for this installment, but part three of the year-end report (the conclusions) will be up on Sunday.  It should be pretty interesting!

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

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Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

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Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!