Why I Am an Entomologist

The end of 2011 is coming up fast!  This time of year is often a time of reflection where we ponder the past and make plans for the future.  In that spirit, today I’d like to tell you all a bit about my childhood and my family, what I believe led to my becoming an entomologist.  I’ll get back to the sciencey posts on Science Sunday and into the new year.


My Grandpa with me (right) and my sister

My grandfather died just before I turned 6, so I barely remember him, but I do remember a few things.  He had a fantastic collection of turtle figurines that I absolutely loved.  He would pick up bumblebees without fear, even though he was deathly allergic.  (I later learned that he only picked up the non-stinging males, but it was so magical as a kid!)  And my grandfather was a birder.  A serious birder.  Any time my cousins (who are all much older than I am) tell stories about our grandfather, they talk about being outside with him, carrying binoculars and squinting at birds up in the trees, learning about the plants and animals around them.  I remember my grandfather telling me about the birds in my Arizona backyard.  My grandfather built up an impressive bird life list and passed his love of birds and nature on to his kids and grandkids.

Now I didn’t know my grandfather very well, but my cousins are outdoorsy in various ways.  They claim to owe a lot of their nature loving personalities to my grandfather.  They hike and learn about the natural history of their areas.  They bird and camp and raft and teach their kids how to do everything they learned from my grandfather.  I think it’s great to be a part of a family that is so inclined to appreciate the changes of the seasons, who save up money to buy really expensive binoculars, and carry bird books in their back pockets.  Even though my cousins were much older than me when I was growing up, I always felt like I got to experience a little of what they experienced with my grandfather through them.


My parents on one of their many outdoor excursions before I was born.

My grandfather’s influence is very apparent in my mother too.  She is a birder.  She also learned to fish and swim and shoot rifles from my grandfather.  Thanks to my mom, I can make a mean campfire and cook an excellent fireside meal, swim quite well, and I’m a good shot.  And my mom never cared if my sister and I brought animals into the house when we were kids.  We were both little tomboys, so we spent most of every day outside catching lizards and snakes, watching birds, pressing flowers and leaves, and building enormous snow forts in Colorado.   My mom may never have picked up a bee, but she was really into nature and allowed her kids to be too.  And she barely even cared when the snake got out of its cage and said, “Eh, it will turn up eventually.”  I thought that was awesome.

my dad

My dad with his beloved Porsche. He was about to start mineral collecting in this photo!

Then there’s my dad.  He spent his childhood in the woods in North Carolina.  I don’t really know where his interest in nature came from, but I’m pretty sure he developed it on his own.  He told my sister and me stories about accidentally releasing snakes in his school and how he was stung many, many times by a swarm of angry wasps when he stepped on their nest.  My dad loves birds and enjoys fishing.  My dad’s first love, though, is geology.  He is obsessed with minerals!  When I was very young, he spent nearly every weekend going out to various locations in Arizona to collect, sometime rappelling down into old mines or blasting rocks apart with dynamite.  (I’m sure there are laws against the latter now!)  When we moved to Colorado, he left the dynamite behind, but the whole family went mineral collecting nearly every weekend.  When it was too snowy to get to his favorite collecting spot, or just to change things up occasionally, we’d head to the river instead where my sister and I would swim (the very thought makes me cold as an adult!) or ice skate and spend whole days fishing and playing in the river.  We were fascinated when we found a big aquatic insect under a rock one day and screamed bloody murder every time a harmless little garter snake swam past us down the river.


A columbine I photographed in high school. Pardon the dust!

When I headed into my teenage years, I was starting to get a little sick of spending every weekend in the mountains covered in dirt or river water with my dad.  But then I started collecting insects.  And then I learned that being an entomologist was a real profession.  And ten I started photographing things.  Suddenly the mountains were a grand place to collect insects or practice with my camera and I actually wanted to go again.  I built up a large collection of Rocky Mountain insects and a massive photo collection over 3 or 4 years.  It was great!  My dad started to get interested in insects too, and sometimes we went to the mountains specifically so I could collect.  And my mom still didn’t mind if I brought home jars full of bugs, dead and alive, and spread them all over the dining table.  My mom rocks.

Pikes Peak

Beyond this mountain lay countless outdoor adventures! Shot this photo shortly after I started using my first SLR camera in high school.

I think I am an entomologist today largely due to my family.  Nature was important to everyone (even my dad’s parents once they moved to Arizona) and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid.  I learned to appreciate the things around me.  More importantly, I was allowed to interact with the natural world.  Once I discovered insects, it was all over – there wasn’t a chance that I was ever going to become anything other than an entomologist.  I don’t have kids, but I find myself teaching my students the same way I was taught, letting them experiencing things on their own.  And I can tell my family had a profound influence on the direction I’m headed in life because my sister has ended up in a similar place, teaching kids and teens about ecology and natural sciences as an Environmental Education Park Ranger.  We still run around in the desert together catching lizards and marveling over how amazing the world really is once you get off the beaten path, just like we did as kids. I absolutely love it!

So, a great outdoorsy childhood, nature loving family, and the discovery of insects doomed me to a life as an entomologist.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.


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Friday 5: My Favorite Dragonfly Watching Areas

Sympetrum corruptum male

Variegated skimmer

I’ve been so wrapped up in family and work related things recently that I’ve barely had any time to get into nature and experience the world outside.  But I’ve been dreaming about going oding too.  Oding, or odonate watching, has become a popular pastime for a wide variety of people  over the last few years.  Similar to birding, people who participate in oding (calling them “oders” just doesn’t sound right…) visit wild or man-made water bodies, usually toting binoculars or cameras, and see how many different types of odonates they can find.  Many people are keeping life lists of dragonfly species they’ve seen, just like birders.  If the wealth of recently published odonate field guides is any indication, more and more people are joining in on the fun and I expect that the activity will become increasingly popular over the next several years.

Because I have not been able to go oding myself, I thought I would highlight the places I would go if I had the time.  The following are my 5 favorite oding spots in or around Tucson, AZ:


Sweetwater Wetlands

Sweetwater Wetlands

The Sweetwater Wetlands is a huge constructed wetland on the west side of Tucson.  Wetlands are phenomenally good at filtering nasty stuff out of water and many constructed wetlands are built with the intention of improving water quality.  The Sweetwater Wetlands are no exception and was designed to filter some of the wastewater from the nearby wastewater treatment plant.  While the water smells a little funky (as you might expect in a wetland designed to treat wastewater), the wetlands support a ton of wildlife!  As you can see in the photo, there is a lot of green stuff around the ponds.  There are also a ton of dragonflies and damselflies!  While the diversity of the odonates at Sweetwater is not as high as in some other locations in my area, the sheer number of them at this site is astounding.  I love going to Sweetwater to take photos of odonates because you are bound to get many good shots.  I rarely get to check anything off my life list when I visit, but who can resist seeing thousands upon thousands of dragonflies during a 20-30 minute visit?

Las Cienegas

Las Cienegas

Las Cienegas

Las Cienegas is one of my favorite places to visit in southern Arizona.  It’s always about 10-15 degrees cooler than it is in Tucson, it’s got a lovely spring-fed stream that has water year-round (it’s under the green stuff in the photo – that’s watercress on top!), it’s got the best ancient old cottonwood, and there is hardly ever anyone else there.  Plus, there are dragonflies!  There might not be tons of them and there might not be all that many different species on most visits, but you see some really spectacular ones there.  Besides, few things beat getting out of town and watching dragonflies in the shade of old cottonwoods while trodding on the mint growing along the banks of the creek.  Heaven!


Me in Sabino Canyon. Photo by Laura Goforth.

Sabino Canyon

I’ve been going to Sabino Canyon as long as I can remember.  Even when my family lived in Colorado and we only visited Tucson once a year, we always made a trip to Sabino.  It’s a gorgeous place to visit on the northeast side of Tucson and has a cool, clear creek that tumbles down off the Santa Catalina Mountains.  It’s chock full of fabulous aquatic insects (and a whole lot of invasive, awful crayfish) and there are always a lot of dragonflies flying around.  Sabino is where I saw my first giant darner (Anax walsinghami) and my first filigree skimmer (Psuedoleon superbus).  I was blown away by the beauty of each.  It’s also home to the Sabino dancer (Argia sabino), a damselfly listed on the IUCN Red list as a vulnerable species.  Sabino is nearly always crowded, but it’s such a nostalgic place for me and so pretty that I love it anyway.


Madera Canyon

Madera Canyon

Like Sabino, I’ve been visiting Madera Canyon for as long as I can remember.  It too has a lovely, clear creek flowing down the middle of it.  It too is full of aquatic insects and attracts many odonates.  Madera is a little less crowded though and has some different odonates that you don’t see in Sabino, so it’s still really exciting to go there.  It’s nice to take a camera, a soup strainer, and a lunch.  That way, you can have a picnic by the creek, snap a few photos of any odonates you see, and collect some aquatic insects.  And, you can do this all on one perfect 3 hour trip!  What a great place!

Agua Caliente

Agua Caliente

Agua Caliente

Agua Caliente is another nostalgic place I’ve visited since I was a kid, but it is different from every other place I’ve mentioned so far.  Like Las Cienegas, it is a spring-fed system, but here it fuels a natural oasis in the desert valley east of the city.  The property used to be a cattle ranch and has been significantly modified to create more cattle ponds with a little stream that runs between them, but the whole system still depends on the spring for its water.  Now it’s a county park and is known as a great place to bird (it’s got wood ducks!), but I keep going back for the odonates.  The diversity of habitats within Aqua Caliente Park results in a high diversity of species within a small area, which makes this a great place to go with a pair of binoculars and a camera and knock off several species on your life list in only an hour or two.  It’s really gorgeous too!  I love Agua Caliente!

Man, now I’m itching to get out and do some oding!  Maybe I can cram in a quick trip to Madera this weekend…


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