Arizona Insect Festival

I participated in a fantastic event a few weekends ago, the Arizona Insect Festival. Hosted by the Department of Entomology at the University of Arizona, the event harnessed the enthusiasm and knowledge of the many people in the Tucson area who work with insects and brought them all together to provide a fun an educational event for the public. If you read my brief post advertising the event, you know that there were 20 different booths/activities planned for the event – and something for everyone. I was really excited about the event and was thrilled that I was going to be a part of it. But it was so much better than I’d even imagined! Let me walk you through my day so you can see just how amazing the festival was.

I woke up at 5:30 the morning of the festival.  This was the worst part of the day.  I am a crazy night owl.  I’ve been staying up until 5AM recently.  I got 2 hours of sleep the night before the festival.  Still, I voluntarily dragged my butt out of bed, downed a few cups of coffee, and drove to campus.  I needed to get the aquatic insects I was contributing to the insect zoo organized before I started helping with setup at 7AM.  I somehow made it to campus without getting into a car accident and spent 20 minutes packing up my bugs before hauling them out to the festival tents.  It looked so quiet and peaceful at first:

empty booths

Empty booths

I plopped my bugs down on the mall’s stage and then headed back inside to help.  Over the next hour, I changed into my official festival t-shirt, hung posters on the backs of the tents, and helped my fellow Insect Zoo peeps get our 2-tent display set up.  8AM arrived and everything was still a little disheveled and some things were still being set up.  But there were a fair number of people there!  People started wandering into the Insect Zoo a little before 8AM, though not very many at first:

early birds

The early birds

And hour later, however, things were very different!


The crowd

There were so many people!  We had a very steady stream coming into the tent – and rows and rows of people waiting to get in.  Sometimes people had to shove their way through to get to where they could see the bugs in the zoo, wading through people 10 deep just to hold a water scorpion…

girl holding water scropion

Future aquatic entomologist?

… or a horse lubber grasshopper.  The whole time, I was crammed right up against the wall of the tent in this tiny space behind the table, but people were so excited to see, hold, and learn about aquatic insects that it was worth it!  We had several different aquatics for visitors to look at before they visited a variety of terrestrial insects further down the tent.  And people kept coming and kept coming.  It was a little insane!

I talked to several hundred people.  I was also the person mostly in charge of stamping the spot for the Insect Zoo on the kids’ festival booth checklist, so I had a fairly steady stream of papers thrust at me, sometimes by people reaching their arms in over 3 or 4 people because they couldn’t get any closer to the tent.  And more people came and I talked to more people.  At 10AM, I realized that I had stood in a 2 foot by 2 foot space, smashed against the wall of the tent for two whole hours.  I was hot and uncomfortable, so I decided to tour the rest of the festival.  I escaped out the back of the tent, stretched my arms out as far as I could just because I could, and then plunged into the fray on the other side of the tables.  This is what it looked like:

people everywhere

People everywhere!

I should have known that it was going to be insanely crowded outside the tent considering what I’d seen from behind my table, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw.  The place was packed!  But I was determined to see the other booths while I was out on the lam and attempted to see the social insect booth a few tents down.  No go.  There were too many people for me to get in!  Same deal with the Meet the Beetles booth and the Life in Miniature booths.  Basically, everywhere I turned there were people learning about bugs, enjoying themselves, holding live insects they might never have experienced otherwise.  I was a little sad I didn’t get to see what everyone else had come up with for their booths, but I was also so thrilled that SO many people were there and apparently really excited about what they were seeing.  The crowd was well beyond my expectations, and I think that was a good thing.

The only booth I could cram into was the decomposers booth.  It consisted of the decomposer box that we used when I TAed Insect Discovery in the spring, so I’d seen it all before, but it was great fun to see kids playing in the dirt again:

digging in the dirt

Kids enjoying the decomposer box.

They also had the hissing cockroaches out for the kids to hold:


Holding a hissing cockroach.

The decomposer booth was partly staffed by some of the Insect Discovery preceptors I supervised last semester, so it was nice to say hi before moving on.  I wandered around to the other booths, but was unable to get into the edible insects booth (I was actually going to try something!)…

insect salsa

Yum! Insect salsa!

… or the Build-A-Bug booth…



… where kids were making their own insects out of clay, pipe cleaners, and other standard children’s craft supplies.  Because I didn’t want to push people out of the way to get into the booths myself, I made the circuit in about 30 minutes, getting just a glimpse of most tents as I held my camera high over my head in an attempt to actually see something through the crowds.  I somehow completely missed the Insect Olympics, where kids were imitating dung beetles and rolling huge “dung balls” (big blue balls) and racing hissing cockroaches.  I came across several friends in the crowd along the way, former classmates or friends who just like bugs, else it would have taken me less than 30 minutes to see what I could of the booths.  But when I got back to the Insect Zoo tent, I heard several people talking about how it was taking 2 hours to see everything – if you actually waited your turn and got to see everything.  I thought that was pretty awesome!  People were spending two whole hours learning about and interacting with bugs!

I couldn’t get back into my spot in the corner when I returned to my booth, so I helped out (less successfully) on the terrestrial insect side of things.  Lots of people were in love with the big, showy moth caterpillar:



It was fun watching people interact with the horse lubbers too:

horse lubber

Horse lubbery goodness!

I haven’t worked with terrestrial insects at an outreach event for so long that it was a nice change of pace.  For the last hour and a half of the festival, I talked to several hundred more people, showed off the caterpillars and mole crickets to visitors, and was filmed by a news reporter as I showed off the queen caterpillar to a kid.  And then, a mere 4 hours after it started, the festival was over!  It was time to pack up and head home!

According to the news report on TV that night (I was on it!), 5000 people attended the Arizona Insect Festival that day.  Mind you, the festival ran from 8AM till noon, so that was 5000 people in four hours!  I consider that a huge success!  I haven’t heard whether this is supposed to become an annual thing or not, but I really hope it does.  It was hugely successful, a ton of fun to participate in, and we spread the bug love to thousands of people.  And, I got a free t-shirt.  That alone was worth waking up at 5:30AM, right?  :)


If you are interested in reading more about the event, Margarethe Brummermann wrote a lovely post about the festival on her Arizona Beetles, Bugs, Birds, and More blog.  Also, the leader of the event, Dr. Wendy Moore, developed a brief narrated slideshow of the event with the help of UA News and posted a great gallery of photos taken by several people who either participated in or attended the festival.  There are some really fun photos so it’s worth a look!


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To Know a Fly

For last week’s Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday, I shared a photo of a fly that a lot of people in my city think is a bee.  I can see why people think it is a bee because it’s got that bee-like coloration, but to me the insect all but screams “I’m a fly!”  Nature can be tricky sometimes, especially among the insects.  Thousands of insects look a lot like other insects, many mimicking stinging, biting, or poisonous insects for protection.  Today I’m going to go through the things you should look for to be sure an insect is actually a fly.  This is a fly:

fly in house

A fly, specifically a cactus fly (Copestylum isabellina)

There are several things to look for to determine whether something is a fly or not.  Let’s first consider the name of the order that the flies belong to: Diptera.  As is so frequently the case in biology, the name tells you a lot about the insects within the order.  The prefix di- means two and -ptera refers to wings.  Thus the order Diptera contains insects with two wings, the defining characteristic of the group.  Most insects (with a few non-fly exceptions, including the bizarre order Strepsiptera and some scale insects) have four wings in the winged stage.  Some insects, like the bees and some butterflies, have special structures that hold the fore and hind wings together so that they can look like they only have two wings at first glance (tricky!), but they have four if you look closely.  The flies don’t have hind wings at all!  Instead, they have these little knobby things:

Crane fly halteres

Crane fly

I talked about these structures, called halteres, in a previous post so I won’t say too much about them here.  Briefly, the halteres are remnants of the hind wings in flies and act as gyroscopic organs to tell flies how they are positioned in the air as they fly.  The halteres are likely the reason flies have such amazing control over their flight.  All flies have halteres, though sometimes they’re hidden under the wings and hard to see.

So, adult flies have two wings and two halteres.  Most other adult insects have four wings or no wings and no halteres.  Easy, right?

Not always!  Sometimes it’s hard to get a good look at the wings so that you can count them.  Luckily, the eyes can often provide a clue to whether an insect is a fly or something else.  Flies tend to have very large eyes that wrap around the front and/or sides of their heads, sometimes even meeting in the middle:

fly eyes

Fly eyes

You’ve tried swatting flies, right?  It’s pretty hard to do!  Not only are flies expert fliers, but they also have those giant eyes.  They can see you coming at them with a fly swatter and move out of the way before you squish them.  Not all flies have giant eyes like the fly in the photo, but most of them do.  Bees and wasps tend to have smaller eyes than flies, which can help you distinguish the two groups.

Flies often have strange antennae too.  These are called aristate antennae:

aristate antennae

Aristate antennae

For the most part, if you see an insect with large eyes and antennae like this (with a large, pouch-like structure with a bristle coming off it), you’re looking at a fly and not a bee or a wasp.  This is a rather typical fly with large eyes and aristate antennae:

fly aristate antennae

A fly with large eyes and aristate antennae

Not all flies have aristate antennae though.  Many of them, such as the crane fly, have longer antennae.  Flies tend to have short antennae compared to other insects, however, and they are often very complex in structure.  Bees and wasps have longer, simpler antennae than flies, making the two groups easy to tell apart.

Finally, flies generally have mouthparts designed for sucking liquid food.  The variation in mouhtparts among the flies warrants its own post though, so I’m not going to go into detail here.  If you’ve ever been bitten by a mosquito or a horse fly or watched a house fly lap up food off a dirty plate, you have an idea of how some of the fly mouthparts work.

I want to end this post with a bit of trivia.  Ever wonder why a crane fly, a flesh fly, or a hover fly is considered a true fly while a mayfly, a dragonfly, or a stonefly is not?  They all fly, but they’re not all flies.  Take a close look at how I spelled those names for a hint!  According to traditional entomological naming practices, a true fly in the order Diptera has the “fly” part of its common name separated from the rest of the name while things that are not true flies have the “fly” part tacked on to the end.  Thus, a crane fly is a true fly while a dragonfly is a flying insect belonging to an order other than Diptera.  This distinction is muddled a bit these days with people changing how the names are spelled here and there, but for the most part this trend still holds.  Next time you see the word “fly” separate from the rest of a name, you can be pretty sure that the author is referring to something belonging to the order Diptera and not some random flying insect with four wings.  Consider my favorite quote from Shrek:

“You mighta seen a house fly, maybe even a superfly, but I bet you ain’t never seen a DONKEY FLY!”

If you follow the traditional entomological naming format, one would have to assume from this quote that Donkey is a true fly, NOT a donkey!  To indicate that Donkey is not a fly and is in fact some other flying creature, he should technically be a Donkeyfly.  :)

For more information about flies, I highly recommend Morgan Jackson’s wonderful blog, Biodiversity in Focus.  He takes much better fly photos than I do and his love for flies oozes out of his writing.  Be sure to check it out!


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Friday 5: Books That Just Might Make You Fall In Love with Insects

The enormous and wonderful Tucson Festival of Books is this weekend!  This year I’m helping out by manning an insect station in the Science Pavillion with some of my students and the head of Insect Discovery.  Because the entire University of Arizona campus currently looks like a refugee camp tent city and everyone has books on the brain, it seems only fitting that I do another book post.  Besides, I read a lot.  A whole lot.  I often prefer reading to everything else I might do in my spare time and I blast through lots of books each year.  My taste is quite broad and I often switch back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, mixing classic literature with modern masterpieces.  Naturally, I read a lot of insect books.  For today’s Friday 5, I’m going to share 5 insect appreciation books for the masses that have a great potential to make you fall in love with insects – assuming you’re not already.  :)

For love of InsectsFor Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner

Eisner is a well-known and highly respected entomologist.  He’s done some brilliant studies that are now considered classics of entomological science and he ranks among the best entomologists of all time.  This book is a memoir of sorts, a recounting of a life as an entomologist and biological researcher.  It’s also a sort of love letter to the 6 legged animals that Eisner has dedicated his life to.  It’s a fantastic book!  You’ll learn about some of the cool things insects do, but you’ll also walk away with a better understanding of entomologists and discover why we love what we do so very much.

life in the undergrowthLife in the Undergrowth by David Attenborough

If you aren’t familiar with Sir David Attenborough’s enormous body of work, you really should be!  He’s been involved in some truly inspiring works of biological film and has drawn the public’s eye to the natural world in a way few other people ever have.  Life in the Undergrowth is a companion book to his excellent television series of the same name.  The book introduces you to the world of invertebrates through excellent writing and colorful, vivid imagery.  Excellent read!  And when you’re done, you should watch the TV series.  It’s stunning!

Bugs in the system

Bugs in the System by May Berenbaum

May Berenbaum is another well-known and well-respected entomologist!  She does great research, heads an entomology department (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and is the founder of the fabulous Insect Fear Film Festival.  She also has an amazing sense of humor and is an incredibly entertaining speaker.  I love all of Berenbaum’s books, but this one is particularly good because it highlights the many ways that the insect world collides with ours, for better or worse.  It’s geared toward non-entomologists, but even entomologists can benefit from reading this wonderful book.  It’s funny, engaging, and educational – definitely worth the time to read!

Life on a Little Known Planet by Howard Ensign Evans

This book is a bit older, published in the 60’s and updated in the early 90’s, but is considered a classic of entomological writing for the masses and remains popular.  Evans takes readers on a journey through the world of insects, focusing on specific groups in each chapter.  His prose is marvelously well crafted and he describes insect mating habits and flight abilities with the skill of a poet.  And if that isn’t enough to convince you to read it, the dedication gives you a really good sense of what the book is like: “This book is dedicated to the book lice and silverfish that share my study with me.  May they find it digestible!”  Read it.  Love it.  Share it with others.  You’ll be glad you did!

A Walk Around the PondA Walk Around the Pond by Gilbert Waldbauer

Last but not least we have Waldbauer’s excellent tribute to the aquatic insects. Now I’m a little biased, but I think this book is marvelous!  The book is divided into easily digestible chunks of information so that you’re never overwhelmed by a barrage of information.  As you read the book, you’ll collect a vast store of short stories that you can share at parties and other social gatherings to entertain your friends.  (Non-entomologists do that, right?)  The writing style is highly accessible to non-entomologists and brings the biota of ponds and streams to life in an engaging way.  Plus, aquatic insects are fascinating, but few people know much about them.  This book helps remedy this sad state of affairs!  It’s well worth a read.

So those are my top 5 insect appreciation books.  Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend?  There are a lot of excellent insect books out there and I’d love to get some suggestions for what to read next!

(If anyone has an opportunity to attend the Festival of Books this weekend, I’ll be at the Insect Discovery table in the Helios Science Pavillion on Sunday afternoon.  Fellow bug blogger Eric Eaton, author of the fabulous Kaufmann Field Guide to Insects of North America, will also be at the Festival as part of a panel called “Southwest Dangers: Things That Sting, Bite, Poison … and Kill!” Saturday at 2:30 in ILC 130.  He will be signing his book afterwards.  Justin Schmidt, creator of the famous-among-entomologists Schmidt Sting Pain Index for bees, ants, and wasps, will also be a part of the panel.  Between the two, it promises to be good!)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Collecting Insects: Preserving Insects in Hand Sanitizer

Entomologists on Twitter got all excited last week when a tutorial for preserving insects in hand sanitizer was passed around.  As a teacher and an entomologist who does a lot of aquatic insect outreach activities, I was very excited to learn about this method!  Aquatic insects are typically stored in glass vials filled with alcohol, which unfortunately means the insects all sink to the bottom.  It’s then really hard to position them so that you can see particular features.  If you want a good look at the insect, you usually have to take it out of the vial and put it in a dish of alcohol.  This all makes insects in vials hard to use in outreach activities.  However, the hand sanitizer method featured photos of insects suspended in the middle of vials.  No sinking to the bottom, no turning the vial over and over and over trying to get the insect flipped over just right to get a close look at a particular piece.  They’re supposed to be durable too.  I decided I had to try it – and it totally worked!

I love this method, so I wanted to share it here.  While it is probably not a great way to preserve insects for research (I’m sure there are things in hand sanitizer that are not so great for, say, genetic analyses), it is perfect for display specimens.  I think this is going to work especially well with kids, those cute little destroyer of specimens in vials.  :)

Hand Sanitizer StepThings You’ll Need:

  • clear hand sanitizer
  • vials (clean – can be ordered online in a variety of styles, search for “glass screwtop vial” or visit Bioquip)
  • insects – dry or preserved in alcohol (fresh supposedly don’t work well)
  • forceps or toothpick/wooden skewer
  • eye dropper or pipet with bulb
  • small saucepan
  • stove or hot plate


You’ve gathered your gear, so let’s get started!  First, pour or pump hand sanitizer into the vial, filling about 2/3 full:

Hand Sanitizer Step 2I overfilled mine when I was taking the photos – you definitely want to leave more space at the top!  Next, put a bug in the vial and press into the hand sanitizer using forceps or a toothpick:

Hand Sanitizer Step 3Don’t worry too much about the exact position at the moment.  Just get them into the gel.  Notice how many air bubbles are in the vial with the bugs:

Hand Sanitizer Step 4That defeats the purpose of creating gorgeous display bugs!  The original tutorial spoke of a few different ways to get the bubbles out, but I followed their preferred method and boiled my vials.  This has the dual purpose of getting the air bubbles out of the gel surrounding the bug and removing the air bubbles from inside the bug if you are using dry specimens.  Fill a saucepan with about 1 inch of water (water should come about halfway up the side of the vials) and place the open vials upright on the bottom of the pan:

Hand Sanitizer Step 5Carefully bring the water to a gentle simmer, taking care not to let the vials fall over.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes or until most of the bubbles are gone.  NOTE: Be very careful that no hand sanitizer comes into contact with the burner or any open flames or it will burst into flames!  ANOTHER NOTE: Unless you want little glass-shard-and-alcohol-gel bombs simmering on your stove, be sure to leave the lids off.  The gel inside the vial will boil, so this is where over-filling the vials like I did becomes a problem.  It’s not the end of the world if they boil over, but it does give you extra work later.   After the bubbles are gone (there may be some large bubbles coming up from the bottom – don’t worry about those too much for now), carefully remove the vials from the water.  Your vials should look like this:

Hand Sanitizer Step 6No bubbles!  Now position your insects in the gel as you would like for them to be displayed:

Hand Sanitizer Step 8You can be as picky as you want during this stage!  The insects will become soft as they boil in the hand sanitizer, so you can position legs and antennae and other parts relatively easily at this stage, even if you used dry insects.  I didn’t care so much about the exact position of the body parts, so I just put them in the center of the vials where they were easy to look at.  If there are any remaining bubbles, remove them with an eye dropper or pipet with a bulb:

Hand Sanitizer Step 7Next, you need to fill up the rest of the vial.  Leaving air at the top of the vial will eventually result in air bubbles working their way into the gel.  I also learned through trial and error that putting cold hand sanitizer on top of hot sanitizer results in a WHOLE lot of bubbles!  Let the vials cool to about room temperature, then add more hand sanitizer:

Hand Sanitizer Step 9

To avoid getting bubbles later, you don’t want to leave any headspace above the gel.  Fill your vials a little overfull so that some hand sanitizer will squish out when you put the lid on:

Hand Sanitizer Step 10If there are bubbles in the gel after you top off the vials, remove them with the pipet or eye dropper as described above.  Then, screw on the lids!:

Hand Sanitizer Step 11Wipe the excess hand sanitizer off the glass around the lid.  Then, if your vials boiled over like some of mine did, run them under some hot water for a few seconds and wipe the vials with a soft cloth until all the gel remnants are gone and the glass is clear.

Voila!  You now have some spiffy insects suspended in the center of a vial, perfect for displaying, taking to outreach events, showing to your colleagues, letting little kids look at, giving as gifts to your entomologist friends, etc.  The insects will remain in place, regardless of how you hold the vials:

Hand Sanitizer FinalI think these are going to be fabulous for my outreach events!   The insects are a hundred times easier to deal with when suspended in the alcohol gel than when left in vials of alcohol.  You can also see all the parts rather well, even if the bug is pretty far from the edges of the glass.  I can think of two downsides though.  One is that, though this method is easy to do, it is a bit fiddly and thus takes some patience and time.  The two vials I created for the photos together took about 45 minutes.  Second, depending on the style of lid on your vials, you may need to check the hand sanitizer levels inside the vial now and again.  I will be checking my display vials often so that I don’t get bubbles.  Because bubbles are bad.  At least if you’re a compulsive perfectionist about this sort of thing like I am…  :)

Because you can suspend things inside the gel, you can do some fun things with your vials.  Maybe try layering several morphs of the same species in one vial.  I’m thinking of creating some life cycles vials that will demonstrate how my water bugs develop from an egg into adults.  You could layer a whole bunch of insects in one really big container and use it as a home decor item.  Okay, okay.  I’m probably the only person in the world who would ever do that, but I would love it!  Still, there are lots of possibilities.  Play around and have fun!


Print, save, or e mail this tutorial in PDF format!  Click on this link and the PDF will appear in a new tab or window.  Also, the original tutorial has more images of completed vials, including some vials containing several specimens.  Enjoy!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Friday 5: 5 signs your neighbor is an entomologist

One of the topics that comes up over and over again in conversations with my entomologist friends are the personality traits, behaviors, and wardrobes that distinguish entomologists (amateur and pro) from the rest of society.  As you might imagine, your average entomologist tends to stand out from other people, though some stand out to a greater extent than others.  Over the years, we’ve come up with a pretty comprehensive list of characteristics that identify the stereotypical passionate field entomologist.  I thought it would be fun to post some of these characteristics for this week’s Friday 5!

Let’s begin with a scenario to set the mood.  You have a suspicion that your new next door neighbor might be an entomologist, but she tends to keep to herself and you haven’t had a chance to ask her.  Never fear!  Just look for the signs.  Your neighbor is probably an entomologist if:

porch light

A green lacewing near the porch light in my backyard.

1.  She stares at porch lights, street lights, or parking lot lights for long periods of time. Lights at night are an amazing source of insects!  Many entomologists will leave porch lights on simply to see what comes to the lights.  We also spend hours and hours out in the middle of nowhere staring at generator-powered UV lights that we shine onto white sheets.  If your neighbor spends a lot of time staring at her porch light, she is probably an entomologist looking for bugs.  I lived in an apartment complex with about 40 units when I first moved to Arizona.  I was constantly wandering around the complex staring at lights at night.  Based on the looks, comments, and questions I got from my neighbors, it was clear that everyone there thought I was completely nuts for staring at the lights for 30+ minutes at a stretch.  Several people even went out of their way to avoid me when they saw me!  But I was just looking for bugs.  This is perfectly normal behavior for an entomologist.  We really aren’t crazy…  :)

looking at ground

Looking at bugs on the ground!

2.  Similar to #1, she spends long periods of time staring at tree bark, off into space, at the ground, into ponds/streams/swimming pools, into bushes, etc. There are lots of great insects at porch lights, but there are things out during the day too!  Your average entomologist will watch bugs when he or she sees them, even if they’re very small.  It might not look like your neighbor is looking at anything if she’s in a pose similar to that of the entomologist in the photo to the right, but if she’s an entomologist, she is probably looking at insects.

mantid at night

Mantid at night

3.  She occasionally crawls around on her hands and knees or lies on her belly with a camera, sometimes in the middle of the night. You never know when you might find an interesting insect!  These situations warrant running into the house, grabbing the camera and macro lens, and snapping some shots before the insect flies away.  The mantid in the photo was one I took at 1:30 AM a few years ago.  I saw it on the ground outside my apartment when a friend dropped me off after a night out.  I bolted into the house for the camera and ended up lying on my stomach outside my front door in the middle of the night while I took my photos.  And of course, because it couldn’t happen any other way, my next door neighbor’s new boyfriend just HAD to be walking through the parking lot to his girlfriend’s door at the exact same moment.  I got a nervous look as he asked, “Ummm…  What are you doing?”  I cheerfully explained that I was an entomologist and there was this gorgeous mantid on my porch.  I’m not sure that my explanation convinced him that I wasn’t crazy, but I couldn’t have been happier with my up close and personal encounter with the mantid!

me at Los Fresnos

Me at Los Fresnos, Mexico

4.  She wears clothes with a lot of pockets on them (maybe adding a backpack, fishing vest, or fanny pack for even more pockets), sport sandals (sometimes with socks!) or hiking boots, and very wide-brimmed hats. Your neighbor could be going on an urban safari, but chances are she’s an entomologist if she’s wearing something along the lines of the outfit I’ve got on in the photo, especially if she’s wearing this to work.   Notice the cargo pants and the broad-brimmed hat.  The hiking boots are there even though you can’t see them.  If your neighbor is wearing a bug shirt as part of this ensemble (there’s a hellgrammite on the back of my shirt!) or carrying a bug net (I’ve got an aquatic net with me), you can be sure that she’s an entomologist!  Ted MacRae has a photo of his beetle hunting ensemble on his Beetles in the Bush blog, so I shall direct you there to get another visual of the sort of outfit I’m talking about.  Not all entomologists will wear similar outfits, but if they spend any time in the field they will eventually end up in something rather like these.

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon

Me sampling in Sabino Canyon.

5.  She wears entomological tools (a hand lens, forceps, etc) on a lanyard or cord around her neck. I know of several people who carry entomological tools with them all the time!  I personally only wear my forceps when I’m out in the field working (I carry them hidden in my purse the rest of the time!) , but I know people who ALWAYS wear their tools.  When one of the profs in my department was married, his students reported that both bride and groom were married wearing their hand lenses!  What can I say?  We’re dedicated to our work.  It’s a little hard to see the lanyard around my neck in the photo, but it’s a super fancy one with multiple clips and a quick release connector at the neck.  I actually PAID something like 10 bucks for this lanyard rather than getting it free as part of some conference swag bag.  I love it!

There are several other signs you can look for, but I’ll stick with these five for now.  Any other entomologists care to add some characteristics to the list?  If so, I’d love to read your comments!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Teaching 2nd Graders Science With Insects

Madagascar hissing cockroaches

Hissing cockroaches!

As in most past semesters of my graduate school existence, I’m currently earning my living by teaching.  This time around though, I’m doing something a little different.  Rather than teaching college undergrads and grads, I’m teaching undergrads and 2nd graders!

My university offers some undergraduate-led biology outreach programs.  There’s Sonoran Desert Discovery where students learn about the ecology of the desert we live in.  There’s a Marine Discovery course where students learn about marine habitats (and people give me a hard time for teaching Arizona’s students about aquatic insects!  Sheesh…).  The program I am involved with is, of course, Insect Discovery.  In all of these courses, college students learn to teach science to K-8 grade students by learning how to lead a series of age appropriate, inquiry-based science activities.  After a period of a month or so in which the undergrads are trained and practice teaching the lessons among their peers, K-8 teachers bring their classes to the university.  The undergrads enrolled in the course teach the elementary kids science by leading the inquiry-based activities that they’ve learned to teach.


One of two Insect Discovery classrooms. It's hard making a room designed for college science students work for little kids.

I’m very excited to be involved with Insect Discovery!  I first became interested in teaching by teaching entomology to kids, so it feels like I’m coming full circle.  And, this is the first time that I will be teaching other people how to teach.  This is very exciting for me!  Teaching is one of my passions and having an opportunity to train students how to do it is going to be a lot of fun – and a nice change of pace from my usual teaching responsibilities.

Let me tell you a little more how the program works.  Insect Discovery is the brain child of Dr. Kathleen Walker and she is ultimately in charge.  However, she likes to make Insect Discovery a collaborative effort each semester so that all the participants have a good experience.  She has built some measure of flexibility into the program so that the students who participate are able to teach the activities in the manner in which they feel most comfortable.

classroom decor

We tried to spruce the room up by posting a ton of drawings done by former Insect Discovery visitors.

Undergrads enroll in Insect Discovery as one of their classes for the semester.  These students are the preceptors, the ones who will be leading the bulk of the activities with the kids.  For the first quarter of the semester, they learn how to teach the kids who will visit.  We get 1st – 3rd graders in our program, thought most will be 2nd graders as a lot of their science curriculum for the year is based on insects.   The preceptors learn about insects, inquiry-based science, a little about science standards in Arizona, the general format for the activities (we offer 5 activities and the teachers choose 4), and practice teaching the activities.  After the initial training session, they jump right into teaching!  To earn their grades for the semester, they have to participate in the lectures and labs, teach the kids, observe and evaluate the teaching of their peers, and develop a new activity for the kids.  Near the end of the semester, we’ll test the new activities they’ve developed to see which ones work and which ones don’t.  The really good ones may be incorporated into the program next year.

For this class, we also have undergraduate teaching assistants.  These are students who have enrolled in Insect Discovery in the past and wanted to come back to help with the program for another semester.  They help lead the training for the preceptors, are classroom overseers when the kids are visiting, and lead activities themselves.

decomposer box

A decomposer box. This activity involves the kids digging through the dirt!

And then there’s me, the lone grad teaching assistant.  I do a bit of everything!  I’m Kathleen’s co-instructor for the course, teaching some of the activities to the students who will teach the kids.  I will teach the kids the activities myself.  I am one of the administrators of the program, an insect caretaker, and a scheduler.  I’m developing some new activities and incorporating some aquatic insects into the program.  I am the person who will be doing classroom visits to schools.  And one day a week, I will be running the program entirely by myself.  Basically, this is everything I like to do rolled into one fantastic experience: playing with insects, teaching college students, teaching K-12 students, developing curriculum, learning new things, and visiting classrooms to do outreach activities.

So what do the kids do when they visit Insect Discovery?  For one, they get to meet some real scientists, which few of them have ever done.  They’ll get to play with lots of live insects.  They’ll be guided through four of five inquiry-based science lessons.  They’ll learn about decomposers by playing in a box of dirt, petting/holding hissing cockroaches, doing an experiment to figure out what food crickets most like to eat, making observations of live butterflies in a large walk-in cage, developing their own taxonomic scheme for insects while learning about diversity, and learning about adaptations in insects.  My contribution so far has been adding a lesson about giant water bug feeding to the end of the cricket experiment so that the kids will understand that different insects eat different things.  There will be lots of insect touching, drawing, getting dirty, etc.  Basically, I would have died of happiness if I’d gotten to visit Insect Discovery as a kid, fear of insects notwithstanding!

diversity boxes

Kids doing the diversity activity will get a bunch of these boxes and play taxonomist. They'll develop a logical organizational scheme for the bugs they receive.

Because my posts are generally influenced by what I’m doing for work in any given semester, you’ll hear about Insect Discovery again.  At the very least I’m going to post some lesson plans, some for lessons that we teach the kids who come to the university and others that I am developing for classroom visits.  Many of these should be rather easy to do with kids, either at home or in a classroom setting.  For the teachers who read my blog, feel free to poach these ideas as all good teachers do!  I’ll also likely describe how to care for some of the insects we use in the program.  Should be a fun semester – and I’m finally going to get to work on my long-standing goal of posting some lesson plans on my blog!  I hope you’ll enjoy the posts!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011

Friday 5: My Favorites Places to Collect Aquatic Insects in Arizona

I shall begin today’s Friday 5 with a quick true story.  Imagine a girl of 21 who loves insects and is applying to grad school.  She knows she wants to be an entomologist, but she hasn’t narrowed down her area of focus.  All she knows is she loves dragonflies, those gorgeous aquatic insects that flit happily around streams, wetlands, and ponds.  She applies to schools and then has to choose which one to go to.  She eventually chooses Arizona, where she will work with an aquatic entomologist.  She tells her family members the good news: she’s moving to Arizona to work on dragonflies!  Hooray!  Now imagine the look of dismay on the face of each relative when she tells them.  That look is followed by what quickly becomes the dreaded question: “You’re going to Arizona to study AQUATIC insects?!”

So, yeah.  My family generally thought I’d lost it when I told them I was packing up and moving to Arizona for grad school.  Never mind that a good number of them had been to Arizona several times themselves and know that there’s a decent amount of water here.  I myself remember trips to the local spring-fed oasis and several streams in the mountains when I lived here as a young child and came back to visit my grandparents.  I knew there was water here and I wasn’t going to let any of those naysayers get me down.  I was going to study aquatic insects in the desert, gosh darn it!

Since I started grad school, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many, many aquatic habitats in Arizona.  Some of them, like the area where I do my summer field work, are appallingly disgusting.  Others are gorgeous and pristine.  Today I’m going to share my top 5 places to collect aquatic insects in Arizona.  Some are favorite locations due to the insects they contain and others because the area itself is so amazing, but they’re all special to me.

Arivaipa Creek

Arivaipa Creek

Arivaipa Creek. I just wrote about this creek, so I won’t say much more here.  This creek is one of my favorites because getting to go there is something special in and of itself.  The area is also incredibly beautiful and is home to some fantastic insects.  Really love this creek!  Check out the post linked above if you would like more information about the area or my recent trip there.

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon.  I’ve been going to this canyon stream all my life.  In fact, some of the very first photos I ever took were at Madera!  Madera Canyon is in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson and east of Green Valley, AZ.  The creek flows mostly over the big rocks you see in the photo, and for the most part it flows year round.  (Yes, I count that little 4 inch wide trickle you sometimes get in the summer as “flow!”).  Madera is very pretty, but I also love the insects I find there: lots of caddisflies, sunburst beetles, two types of whirligig beetles, water scorpions, fly larvae, lots of other beetles and bugs.  The creek is even home to a unique beetle (an riffle beetle)  that is thought to be found only in this one creek!  The downside is the canyon is VERY popular for birding (there are some rarely spotted birds there), so there are usually a lot of people there.

Reynolds Creek

Reynolds Creek

Reynolds Creek. I recently wrote about aquatic insects with suction cups and described my joy at discovering net-winged midge larvae for the first time.  I found them in this creek.  Reynolds Creek is in the mountains south of Young, AZ and north of Globe.  It’s way out in the middle of nowhere, so it’s usually visited only by campers and hikers.  The pine forest surrounding the creek is stunning and the water is cold and clear, so it is an entirely pleasant place to spend a few hours or the night.  There are all kinds of interesting things in this creek too.  However, the sheer elation I experience every time I find the blepharacerid fly larvae here would be enough to keep me coming back, even if there was nothing else to find.

Salt River

Salt River

Salt River (a few miles upstream of Roosevelt Lake).  The Salt River is one of the few big, perennial rivers in Arizona.  As such, it is heavily utilized by people who enjoy water sports (tubing and rafting are both very popular – the location in the photo is a raft pullout point) and is therefore far from pristine.  However, this is still one of my favorite places to collect.  The water flows swiftly and powerfully, and it gets quite deep in places.  This means that there are some excellent flow-adapted insects in the river.  My favorite: the gigantic hellgrammites this river produces!  They’re close to 3 inches long and they’re fierce.  In fact, I tell my aquatic entomology students to put them into their own bags when they collect them from this river.  The hellgrammites will eat everything else in the bag before they expire, leaving you with a single bloated hellgrammite floating amongst an assortment of insect legs.  This river is also one of the only places I’ve found sisyrid larvae, but I’ll discuss them further in a future post.

Three Forks

Three Forks

Three Forks. Three Forks is located in the White Mountains east of Alpine, AZ at the confluence of the East Fork of the Black River, Coyote Creek, and Boneyard Creek.  The photo doesn’t do this location justice at all as the bright sun at the high elevation consistently causes me problems when photographing this area.  Three Forks is a high elevation, cold, fast flowing stream, so it’s got some great insects in it.  My favorites are the water pennies, the flat mayflies (heptageniids), and the aquatic moth larvae.  You can only collect in specific areas of Three Forks though.  It has become a conservation site for an endangered snail that is being decimated by invasive crayfish, so you now need special permission to access the protected area.

So those are my top 5 areas in Arizona for collecting aquatic insects!  If you ever visit Arizona, any of these places are well worth visiting even if you have no interest in collecting.  I think they are some of the most beautiful areas of Arizona.

I wish everyone a happy New Year!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2010