Friday 5 (With Bonus Material!): Swarm Stories

I’ve spent a lot of time with my dragonfly swarm data lately because reports have poured in all week.  The best part is looking through the stories that people have shared about their experiences with swarms.  Thought I’d share some of my recent favorites with you today!  Because they’re fairly short, I’m going to give you a few stories in each of 5 different categories, exactly as submitted to me. Bonus material! And just so you know, the photos today are from people who have sent me swarm photos, so they’re used with permission of the photographers indicated.

Category 1: The Scientists

Some people make excellent scientific observations of their swarms. These observations are great examples:

“Each of the two captured insects, when released, left the swarm and ascended directly away until they were no longer visible.”

“The timeline was interesting. When first observed (just at sunset or slightly after), the swarm (about 12-15 individuals) appeared to be all Aeshna umbrosa. I captured 4 specimens (2 of each gender) and every one I observed at relatively close range (obviously the light was low) matched the pattern of A. umbrosa. Swarm appeared to be an even mix of male and female, but it seemed like the females were the ones flying low while the males were a bit higher on average.  After about 15 minutes, I started seeing Anax junius and the A. umbrosa abruptly disappeared. For about 10 minutes the A. junius continued to swarm in somewhat lower numbers (8-10). I caught 3 for confirmation (1 female). At this point they disappeared about as abruptly as the A. umbrosa. I saw 1 or 2 scattered individuals as I walked back to my car, but couldn’t see them well enough for identification.”

“When I happen to notice them around in a swam it’s always been a pretty good predictor of an impending storm…”

Swarm photo

Photo by Freda Van den Broek – click to enlarge

Category 2: The Frightened

Stories of people who are scared of the swarms are rarer than I would have expected.  Honestly, I can’t blame people for being scared if they don’t understand what they’re seeing or know enough about dragonflies to know they’re harmless.  Some recent examples of people who have been scared of their swarms include these:

“I have lived in this small town my whole life and its a rare site to see dragonflies. then today I went out on my back porch and seen them flying in groups, HUNDREDS OF THEM! I was kinda freaked out to be honest lol.”

“Pretty worried, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

dragonfly swarm photo

Photo by James Ashworth – Click to enlarge! This one is AMAZING!

Category 3: The Amazed

A lot of people think the swarms they encounter are amazing!  These reporters often describe their experiences with a lot of exclamation points! And detail!  I love them! These examples don’t have the normal number of exclamation points, but convey the magic of the experience well:

“This was a total surprise. We’ve never seen anything like it.  It was mesmerizing and delightful, particularly since they were going their merry way and totally ignoring us. They never stopped moving, and made no sound whatever that I could hear.  They must have great radar because not one bumped into us or our chairs or umbrellas.”

“My 20 year old daughter and I have always loved dragonflies. When she was little she used to call them faeries. When I walked out and saw the swarm in my yard I had to call her out to see. We sat and watched them for an hour or so…she even went and stood in the middle of them while they fly in circles around her.”

dragonfly swarm photo

Photo by Jessica Lang – click to englarge

Category 4: People Who See Signs

Many people get take their swarms as signs of something, good or bad.  Some people are comforted by the dragonflies, derive spiritual fulfillment from them, or see them of omens of some sort.  Many of these will bring a tear to your eye.  Some recent ones include:

“My comment to my aunt who I called to come see it was. I think God just sent a plague of dragon flies!”

“Leaving to get back to home & work on Monday, this was a real treat and a true ‘sign’. Reading Penny Pierce’s ‘Intuitive Way’ I was curios to know more about dragonfly symbolism (just realized I had my dragonfly earrings on yesterday that a friend from Sedona gave me ;-).”

swarm photo

Photo by Tom Whiteside – click to enlarge

Category 5: Getting the Kids Involved

I think these are the stories that give me the biggest warm fuzzies, the ones that describe how kids responded to and/or loved the dragonflies they saw.  Some examples:

“It was my anniversary … I went to take out the trash …. They were everywhere in my face I stopped and called for my kids & husband to look! It was amazing, mesmerizing , I have never seen anything like that! I felt lucky and like there was something special about this! We just stood in the middle of it and we stayed until they were gone! I’m sure we will all remember that day forever! It was spectacular!”

“We looked out our kitchen window and saw a number of dragonflies hovering about. I immediately ran outside, along with all my family, and we stood for several minutes in amazement watching the creatures fly, hover, zip, and zoom overhead. We kept commenting on what they might be doing and why, thinking it all very interesting.”

“This is the first time I observed a swarm like this. My children who are 14 and 10 thought it was the coolest thing.”

“Very neat! Kids from next door came over to say ‘Come out and see this!'”

dragonfly from a swarm

Dragonfly from a swarm! Photo by Julie Olds.

And finally, just because it made me laugh, I present this perfectly short and sweet little response:

“yay swarm!”

Thanks to everyone who has submitted stories and/or photos to the project so far!  You all are awesome, and regardless of how you respond to your swarms, I absolutely love reading your stories and appreciate your sharing them.  It makes my research project so fun!


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

Friday 5: Scary Myths About Dragonflies

It’s Friday once again, so it’s time for another Friday 5!  Today I bring you five myths about dragonflies.  Because Halloween just passed, I’m going to focus on the negative myths about dragonflies.  As a dragonfly lover and researcher, I find these myths fascinating because they don’t jive with my impression of dragonflies at all.  I can’t get enough of them, so I hope you all enjoy the five evil dragonfly myths I selected for you!

dragonfly graphic


Myth #1: Dragonflies sew your ears shut while you sleep.

Ever wonder why so many dragonflies are called darners?  Their name comes from an old European myth, one of those stories that people would use to scare their children into behaving: that dragonflies sew your ears shut while sleep as a punishment for wrongdoings.  This myth has resulted in some colorful ideas about what dragonflies can and can’t do that have persisted into modern times.  In some parts of the US, people are still certain that dragonflies will sew your ears shut or sew your lips shut (as a punishment for using profanity for example) or sew your fingers together as you sleep.  Allow me to set the record straight: dragonflies are not seamstresses/tailors.  They don’t run around with little sewing needles and thread attempting to sew any of your body parts closed or together.  Your orifices are not in any sort of dragonfly induced danger.

dragonfly graphic

Myth #2: Dragonfly stings are HORRIFICALLY poisonous.

I am constantly surprised by how many people think that dragonflies are stingers.  If you are really worried, hopefully this will help: the ONLY insects that can sting are in the order Hymenoptera, the ants, bees, and wasps.  Dragonflies are in the order Odonata, which is vastly older than the Hymenoptera and quite different.  Dragonflies are thus INCAPABLE of stinging and have no venom.  It’s likewise impossible to get sick from a dragonfly “sting.”

dragonfly graphic

Myth #3: Dragonflies are in league with the devil

You’ll notice the trend toward evil dragonfly myths in American and European culture  and this is certainly one of the worst of the bunch.  An old Swedish myth suggested that dragonflies were used by the devil to weigh men’s souls.  A dragonfly flying around your head was considered a very bad omen because the insect was weighing your soul and placing you on a demonic “naughty or nice” list for Satan.  Europeans in general considered dragonflies evil creatures who colluded with the devil and those myths eventually arrived in the US.  The common name “snake doctor” is still in common use in the US, especially in the Midwest, and refers to the supposed pact between dragonflies and the devil (often depicted as a snake).  You’ve got to love a good European myth.  Those guys really knew how to scare people straight!

dragonfly graphic

Myth #4: If a Dragonfly Is Present, Fish Will Not Bite

This is another one of those dragonflies weighing your soul sorts of myths.  According to one legend, dragonflies will fly among children who are fishing and decide whether they are good or bad.  If they’re bad, the dragonflies will scare all the fish away, but the dragonflies leave the fish for the good children to catch.  In another legend, dragonflies scare all fish away for all fishermen because they are, once again, in league with the devil and are out to cause mischief in the world.  I was a terrible fisherwoman as a kid, but I never remember seeing any dragonflies in the area at all.  Clearly my ill fishing luck wasn’t caused by any large, flying insects.  Personally, I blame myself and not the pretty little bugs, but that’s just me.

dragonfly graphic

Myth #5: Dragonflies are represent supernatural beings and should be left alone at all costs

This myth is common in the Pueblo Native American tribes of the southwestern US.  In many of their myths, dragonflies represent gods or supernatural beings capable of causing great harm to anyone who disturbs them.  In one of the Kachina celebrations of the Hopi, the dragonfly Kachina runs after people and whips them with a yucca whip.  It is also considered bad luck for a pregnant woman to gaze into the eyes of a dragonfly Kachina because her child will be born with eye problems.  I shared the Zuni dragonfly myth with you all in the past and dragonflies are not considered evil according to their beliefs.  However, killing or harming a dragonfly is akin to killing or harming a god and supposedly brings bad things onto whoever is unlucky enough to do so.

Ah, you have to love a good evil dragonfly myth!  Dragonflies get a bad rap because of these sorts of myths and here in US it seems that a lot of this misinformation is still passed down through families.  Dragonflies really aren’t evil creatures.  If anything, I think dragonflies are a good sign.  They’re eating the little biting insects you don’t like (such as mosquitoes), are often a good indications that there is clean water nearby, and are fascinatingly beautiful creatures to watch.  Someday I’ll do a post about the happy dragonfly myths from Asia to counterbalance this one.  They’re so much less doom and gloomy than the European ones – and a lot closer to real life too.


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

On Catching Dragonflies and Softballs

I never had a job when I was in high school, but I didn’t fritter away my summers in a sea of laziness either.  One summer I worked as a volunteer for the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and I think that experience started me down the road toward a life of working with children and teaching about the natural world.  After that I spent three summers volunteering 30 hours a week for the Red Cross.  I also played softball each summer and prepped my 4-H projects for the fair.  A typical day for me involved 6 hours of volunteering, a couple of hours of softball practice or a game, and then a whole evening of pinning and identifying insects or making cakes or sewing something for 4-H.  I was so busy I barely ate and barely slept, but I absolutely loved it!  I was doing something good for the world, playing a sport I loved with teammates I adored, and spending hours playing with insects or frosting.  It was fantastic!

On weekends, my dad would drive me to insect collecting sites.  One of my favorite places to collect was Palmer Lake in Palmer Lake, Colorado and the two of us went often.  The lake was the perfect place for collecting dragonflies and I fell absolutely in love with them there.  The banks were lined with a thin layer of cattails, but little sections were left bare so that fishermen could cast their lines from shore.  I would stand in one of those gaps, my little homemade bug net propped up on my shoulder, and watch the dragonflies flying back and forth several times.  Once I had the flight pattern down, I would swing the net out at the precise moment that the dragonfly flew by.  With this technique I was able to capture about 95% of the dragonflies I sought, and I was often the only person in 4-H that had dragonflies in my collection.

There was one problem though.  I played softball at the same time I was collecting insects.  I spent several days a week at softball practice or playing games.  I was the catcher, so I developed some pretty hefty upper arm muscles.  I batted a lot.  Then I spent my weekends at the lake with a net in my hand that just happened to be about the same length as my softball bat…  Because I was developing my insect collecting skills at the same time that I was playing softball, I found myself holding nets like a softball bat, two-handed with my hands choked up on the handle for control.  When I swung my net, I swung it HARD, just like my softball bat.

My technique was great for getting fast flying insects into my net and I credit my capture success to the power behind that net.  However, that power wasn’t always a good thing.  If I accidentally hit the bug with the net’s wire frame…   Well, it wasn’t pretty.  Body parts would go flying off.  I ended up with several headless dragonflies and I felt absolutely terrible every time because I hate taking an insect’s life for nothing.  The worst part was I could feel it when I hit the bug with the frame.  I had a very high capture rate, but it came at a cost: not all of my specimens were worthy of adding to my collection by the time I got them into the jar and it always made me a little sad to have to throw a dragonfly away.

It’s been nearly 20 years since I started collecting insects, but I still swing my net hard.  I have to pay very close attention to my surroundings when I have a net in my hand because I’m pretty sure I could really injure someone if I hit them.  When I’m around other people I often switch to a one-handed netting technique.  It lacks the precise control of the two-handed method and my capture rate of flying insects is much lower, but the power behind the swing is strongly diminished and a lot less hazardous to my companions.  It’s worth it to come home with fewer bugs if it means I’m not giving my friends black eyes or deep bruises.  I hit many fewer insects with the net frame too.  I consider that a good thing.  Still, if I am going after something important, I revert right back to that softball swing.  I haven’t even played softball since college (my knees can’t take it anymore), but I trained myself to use my net that way and old habits are really hard to break.

These days I spend more time collecting insects with my camera than I do with my net, but I don’t think I’m ever going to rid myself of that net technique I developed as a kid.  Honestly, I’m not sure I want to.  Dragonflies are very hard to catch, especially the ones that don’t perch often, so a fast swing is really useful for collecting them.  I might have to be extra careful when other people are around when I collect and every now and then someone will tease me for how hard I swing, but it works.  Sometimes the people who give me a hard time for swinging my net so hard are the very same people who ask how I catch so many dragonflies.  It’s all because of that softball swing.  And now, every time I collect, I think back to those great summers in high school, all those days of spending doing nothing but the things I love, and enjoying every minute of it.  That was a great time in my life and I wouldn’t change it for anything.


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

Ode to My Bug Nets

me at Los Fresnos

Me at Los Fresnos in Sonora, Mexico, with my aquatic net.

Every entomologist, amateur or professional, should have a bug net.  Collecting insects is an important and informative part of the experience of being an entomologist and you need a net to do most of it.  Plus, if you’re going to be an entomologist, it seems only proper that you have that big symbolic icon of our science.  I mean, who’s heard of an entomologist without a bug net?  It’s just unnatural!

I bought my first bug net in 2005.  It’s one of those fancy compact jobbies that fold up for easy storage and travel.  I got the swanky red plastic handle to go onto the end of the pole for easy gripping.  I got an extension pole so my net is about 4 feet long, long enough to snag a dragonfly from the shore of a pond.  I love my net!  It makes me feel good to own it, happy to use it.  It’s a great day whenever I get to haul my net out of my closet and chase some unlucky insect down.  I’m always a little sad when I fold it back up and hide it back in that corner of the closet.  I swing my net HARD, like a softball bat, so I have to be careful to pay attention to where people are around me when I collect.  But that’s okay.  Unless I’m out collecting with other entomologists, people give me a WIDE berth when I use my net.  It’s obvious from the way they carefully avoid me that most people think no sane adult runs around public parks with a bug net.

Even though I didn’t BUY a net until 2005 I’ve had a net far longer than that.  My first net was a homemade one that I built myself in the 9th grade.  Remember how I mentioned that I did all the girlie 4-H projects in my post about insect cakes?  Well, sewing was one of them.  I made rather non-traditional clothes, but I also put my mad seamstress skills to use in other areas: bug net making!  If there’s anything that makes sewing decidedly ungirlie, I think it’s making nets for catching insects.

My first bug net was a simple contraption I designed that cost less than $2 to make.*  The materials were simple: a wooden dowel, a wire coat hanger, duct tape, a needle and thread, a rubber band, and 1 yard of cheap white nylon netting (tulle – the stuff they use in wedding dresses and other formal women’s attire) from the fabric shop.  Making the net was incredibly easy!  All I did was fold the netting in half the long way and stitched up the side.  I wrapped the rubber band tightly around one end to form a nylon net sack.  I straightened the hook part of the coat hanger and formed the rest into a circle, then duct taped the straightened hook to the dowel tightly so that the circle stuck off the end.  Then it was a simple matter of folding the open edge of the nylon netting sack I’d made over the wire coat hanger and stitching it into place.  Very easy!  My nets took less than 15 minutes to make.

I used these nets for a good 12 years before I finally broke down and bought a professional net.  Why spend $30 on a net when I could spend $2?   I did the entomology project in 4-H for 4 years in high school and used these nets to capture nearly every insect in my collection.  I started teaching other people how to make them.  When my mom moved away and started to look out for insects for me, she made herself a net using my design.  It’s simple, cheap, and it works.  In fact, it was so simple, that I was able to make nets for outreach events on several occasions.  I worked as an intern at my county’s extension office throughout college and we did a lot of day camps and outreach events in the summer.  Because I helped plan, they often had insect themes or activities.  I took huge groups of kids out into Colorado’s high prairie to collect insects using those cheap little nets.  Someone loses one?  Who cares?  One get broken or ripped? Nothing a little duct tape and some thread can’t cure!  I could make enough nets for a whole group of kids for less than $50, which worked perfectly with the small budgets we had for these events, and the kids had a great time collecting.  It made me so happy to put my skills to good use.

Want to know why I eventually bought a professional net rather than continue using my homemade ones?  When I first moved to Arizona for grad school, my car was stolen.  I got it back 5 weeks later, but the thieves had taken everything in my car – my bike, my radio’s faceplate (but not the radio – who DOES that?), and all my bug collecting gear, including my nets.  I didn’t really care that they had taken my bike.  Annoying, but I bought a better one the day my car went missing.  I had to buy a new radio faceplate.  Whatever!  But my bug nets?  That was a major loss!  I was more angry that they’d stolen my bug nets, those stupid little cheap things I made that were completely worthless to anyone but me, than my car.  Those nets and I had some good times and I was sorry to see them go.  I didn’t really have the heart to make more, so I borrowed nets for a while, then finally broke down and bought my own.

That first net purchase led to other net purchases.  I use a soup strainer for most of my aquatic insect collecting, but I bought a good aquatic net eventually.  That’s it up there in the photo.  I bought a few other pro nets that don’t collapse because they’re a little more sturdy.  I’ve made some really fancy nets for aquatic research.  But it doesn’t matter which net I use.  Taking any of them out means I’m going to have a great day, one spent outdoors doing something I love. My nets make me all nostalgic, reminding me of long summers spent working on my insect collection nearly every moment of every day and chasing a western tiger swallowtail for THREE HOURS because I was too stubborn to let it go.  Ah, those were the days!

So here’s to my bug nets!  $2 or $100, my nets have been among my most treasured possessions for years.  I can’t imagine that changing any time soon – and I honestly don’t want it to.  After all, what kind of entomologist would I be without my net?


* If anyone happens to be interested in my net design, I could be persuaded to post a tutorial.  It should be pretty easy to figure out from the description above, but it’s nice to have pictures sometimes.


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

The Origin of the Dragonfly: A Zuni Tale

So…  I had planned to start a pair of posts on one of my favorite subjects today.  Then I spent all of yesterday doing things with my husband, our first day off together in a month.  I didn’t even come close to finishing the other post – and I don’t feel the least bit bad about it either!  I’ll get to the science heavy topic I had planned next Monday.

Instead, today I’m going to recount a Zuni tale about the boy who created the dragonfly.  In case you aren’t familiar with the Zuni, they are a pueblo Native American tribe based in New Mexico.  This story was first recorded in 1883 by an ethnologist visiting the Zuni and has been repeated in several other forms.  Tony Hillerman even wrote a book based on the story, The Boy Who Made Dragonfly: A Zuni Myth.  Without further ado, I give you the Zuni dragonfly myth:

A village came on hard times and its people were hungry, so they abandoned their home in search of a more prosperous land.  Unbeknownst to them, they left behind a young boy and a young girl.  The girl was very upset at having been left behind and was inconsolable.  To please her, her brother made an insect doll from corn and other grasses and gave it to his sister.  This corn-being soon came to life, a messenger from the gods sent to teach the children how to please the gods and gain their favor.

But the girl became very sick.  The corn-being flew away to the south, seeking the corn maidens to help the girl recover and to comfort the children.  When the corn maidens arrived, they gave the children food and told them that they were beloved by the gods.  They were destined to become great leaders, the mother and father of their people.

The land grew fertile again and the people returned to their village, finding the boy and girl they had left behind.  Because they gods had visited the children and blessed them, they became great leaders of their people, just as the corn maidens had foretold.

But the corn-being was lonely and wished for a companion.  He went to the boy and asked him to make another corn-being so that he would not be alone.  He asked that the boy and his people call him, his companion, and all of their offspring, dragonfly.  Because the corn-being had helped him in his time of need, the boy agreed.  He made a new corn-being like the old and it too came to life.  The boy told the dragonfly:

“I will paint your form on sacred things to symbolize spring and the spring rains that bring health to my people.  Your companion I will paint as a symbol of summer and the summer rains.”

Even today, the black, white, and red dragonfly arrives in the summer with the blooming of the corn.  He is followed by his companion, the green dragonfly.  Together they arrive with the rains, harbingers of life and good health for the spring and summer.

(Adapated from the version of this story told by Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell in A Dazzle of Dragonflies.)

Pretty cool story, eh?  I really love it.  I have read several variations of this story and it makes me happy every time I come across a new version.  I haven’t read Tony Hillerman’s version yet though.  I’m sure it will be marvelous when I get around to it.  He writes some amazing traditional southwestern stories in addition to his detective novels set in the same area.

The images in today’s post are drawings based on traditional Native American representations of dragonflies.  The simple dragonfly with the stick with two crosses is supposed to be the representation of dragonflies found among ancient Zuni rock paintings.  The other three images are based on images represented on Mimbres pottery.

That’s it for today.  Next Monday: giant insects!


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

Friday 5: Swarm Stories

Since I started collecting dragonfly swarm reports for my citizen science project, I have been fascinated by the stories that people tell about their experiences with the dragonflies.  When I collected reports from the comments on my blog pages last summer, it took ages for me to process the data, but the stories really made the effort worth it.  This summer I’m collecting swarm reports with an automated system to save time, but it makes the experience much less interactive, less personal.  I didn’t want to lose those stories!  So, I added a field to my report form for them.  I wanted to give people the opportunity to share stories because I love reading them, but I figured that very few people would take the time to fill out an optional field.  Much to my surprise, nearly everyone who reports a swarm also shares a story!  Yea!  This week, I’m going to share 5 of my favorite stories that I’ve gathered so far this year.

Anax junius adult

A lot of people consider the dragonfly swarms they witness omens, for good or ill, of things to come.  This one, about a migratory swarm, made me laugh:

“They seemed to have a purpose that morning.  I thought maybe they knew something I didn’t and that it would not be a bad idea to follow them!  :-)”

Pantala flavescens male

I love it when people tell me all sorts of little details about things they’ve seen.  This reporter told me lots of little details, AND suggested that the swarm was an omen, which made for an amusing story:

“My cat sat underneath their swarm and chattered the entire time. Our backyard chicken flock of 3 hens and two chicks were also mesmerized. It was amazing! About a month ago we released 2,000 ladybugs into the yard. We love flying insects in our garden! Dragonflies are very special to me- symbolic of being able to take flight in life in any direction that’s needed and they were a common interest of my late father as well. A bonding point. This swarm happened the morning after my 40th birthday. I was prepping the yard to go away for the weekend on a whitewater rafting trip so it seemed like a magical, good omen for this trip considering the lifecycle of their larvae in fresh moving water!”

Spot-winged glider male (Pantala hymenaea)

I especially enjoy the stories seniors tell me in their reports.  They often include their ages and how many swarms they’ve seen over their lifetimes, which really highlights how unusual it is to see this behavior in many places.  This is a good example:

“I thought it was fun.  They flew all around me but had no intention of doing any harm, nor did they appear frightened in any way.  In my 70 + years on this earth, I have never seen this activity.”

I also like this little story because it highlights how safe people are, even in the presence of hundreds of large, flying insects.  These stories always make me smile.

Tramea lacerata

A lot of people aren’t quite sure what’s going on when they first see a swarm in their yards and they cause a lot of fear in some people.  I like these sorts of stories, where the reporter discusses how they were a little unnerved at first, for one reason or another, but came to enjoy the experience:

“Had trouble wrapping my mind around what I was seeing. Didn’t seem real. I was blaming global warming, insecticides, pollution, etc. But after five minutes or so, I was enjoying the show. They looked like dancing fairies. I’m glad I was at the right place at the right time.  HAVE NEVER HEARD OF A DRAGONFLY SWARM BEFORE!”

Red saddlebags male (Tramea onusta)

And finally, I give you my favorite part of my favorite of all the stories I have been sent.  I’m leaving part of it out because it seems too personal to publish online, even anonymously, but I love it because it is beautiful.  This is the best part:

“Looked up and saw that there are still beautiful and awesome things in this world, if we would only look.”

This is the kind of story that gives me enormous hope for mankind.  That we can see beauty even in the face of awful experiences, like the one this reporter was going through during the swarm, seems so very human.

The stories I get are very diverse.  A lot of them are like the examples I’ve highlighted above.  Others are from people who are absolutely terrified of the dragonflies and don’t want to let their dog or their children in their yards so long as they’re around.  One person’s magical experience is clearly a terrifying ordeal for others.  (As a reminder, dragonflies in swarms aren’t going to hurt you.  On the contrary: they are probably ridding your yard of insects that can actually do damage, such as mosquitoes and other biting flies.)  The stories I read occasionally give me information that’s valuable for my research too, but most of them are just people telling me what they thought or felt about the dragonfly swarm they saw.  They provide a human, emotional component to my biological study.  That’s a rare thing!  It’s also something that I absolutely love about this project.  I can’t wait to read more.


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

Field Stories: Scary Situations

(The post I planned to do today is taking longer than I expected, so it won’t get posted until next Monday.  In the meantime, I give you the following field stories!)

I believe that all entomologists have some sort of horror story from time spent in the field.  I’ve already shared my centipede story and my giant water bug attack story, but I have oh so many more!  Today I’m going to share a few scary stories from my deep treasure trove of memories.

field site

The desert around my field site

Drug Dealers

I live in Southern Arizona.  If you know anything about this area, you know that it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to wander around in the desert.  I don’t worry about the illegals crossing the desert.  Give them some water and they will be so grateful they’ll name children after you!  But the drug dealers…  That’s an entirely different matter.  One of my field sites is in a prime drug running area.  The area is absolutely crawling with Border Patrol agents, but it doesn’t make much of a difference.  Every time I go out to that field site, I hope I don’t see anyone.  I never go alone.  I carry a gun with me.  It’s scary being out there at the best of times, but one time there was this ominous black truck parked along the little dirt road you take to get to the pond.  A really nice truck.  The kind of truck you wouldn’t ever see on a tiny little overgrown ranch road for legitimate reasons.  There was a guy sitting in it.  My companion and I drove past and collected water bug eggs anyway (I would have turned around if it were up to me, but I wasn’t driving), and we were totally on edge the entire time.  We stopped and listened carefully every time we heard a car (extra stressful considering there is a busy dirt road obscured by a small hill just on the other side of the pond!) and prepared to shoot our way out if necessary.  It was incredibly stressful.  It’s hard to convey the fear I felt!  The experience made me so much more cautious than I’d ever been in the past though, so I suppose some good came out of it.


I don’t see many snakes for someone who spends time outdoors in Arizona.  I’ve only seen a total of 9 snakes over the 18 years I’ve lived in Tucson!  The most exciting snake was one I was lucky to see.  I was out sampling a creek in the Rincon Mountains for a project I was doing for one of my jobs.  At one of the sites, there were steep banks on either side of the creek and limited places where it was easy to climb out.  My coworkers and I were just about done sampling and realized we needed to ask our boss a question, so I headed toward the car to get my cell.  I walked up the bank the same way I always did, using this perfect little foothold in the bank to take the last step up to level ground.  I was I just about to slam my foot down on the foothold for that last step when I happened to look down and see this:



My foot was 3 or 4 inches from the snake when I saw it, so it was a huge challenge to change my momentum sufficiently that I didn’t come crashing down on top of it with my sandaled foot!  I jerked my entire body backwards as hard as I could and essentially launched myself back down the bank toward the creek.  I landed on my knees about 10 feet away and just sat there shaking for a few minutes.  I had nasty bruises.  I was in pain.  But I didn’t get bitten!  And then I used a different foothold, ran to the car, got the phone and a camera, and snapped some photos of the rattler.  What can I say?  I’m a biologist.  That’s what we do.  :)

Dead Bodies in the Lake

the lake

The Lake

Most of you probably know that I worked at an urban lake in Tucson once a week for most of three years.  The lake is in a crappy neighborhood, so we saw lots of crazy things.  Before we started working there, my coworker and I were told that someone once found a dead body in the lake.  We couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Every time we got the anchor stuck on something, we’d worry just a little that it might be a dead body.  Then one week they found a dead body in the lake 6 hours after we finished sampling.  The presence of an actual dead body in the lake made pulling one up with the anchor seem so much more possible!  What if we had been there?  What if we had found it?  Was it in the lake while we were sampling?  The idea disturbed our other coworker so badly that the next time he got the anchor stuck on something, he made me promise that we would quit sampling immediately if it was a dead body.  I have never seen anyone look so relieved to pull up a lawn chair covered in algae and mud!  Poor guy.  He probably still worries about finding a body in the lake…


At one point, my advisor decided that we should collect some special water scorpions that we have in Arizona in the genus Curicta.  We headed to Ramsey Canyon, a lovely little canyon run by the Nature Conservancy, to try to find some:

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon. Image source:

We talked to the people in the visitor’s center when we arrived and they warned us that there had been a bear in the area that day, hanging out around the ponds we were intending to collect.  We promised we’d keep an eye out for it and headed into the canyon with a volunteer as our guide.  As we walked up the hill, a couple came down saying, “There’s a bear!  There’s a bear!”  They pointed up the hill and practically ran toward the visitor’s center.  A minute later, a family told us that they’d just seen a bear and pointed up the hill as they rushed past us on their way out of the canyon.  When we get to the pond and prepared to collect, we fully expected the bear to wander in at any moment.  Guess who had to take her eyes off the surroundings and get into the pond to collect?  Me!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared collecting in my life!  I kept looking up to make sure the bear wasn’t coming, which made collecting very difficult.  And then I didn’t catch any of the bugs we wanted!  Nor did I ever see the bear!  Total bust.  The canyon was gorgeous though, and the threat of the bear made it so much more zesty.  As a result, I now remember that adventure rather fondly!

Ah, the joys of bug collecting in Arizona!  I’m sure some of you have some great stories like these.  I’d love to hear them if you want to share them in the comments!


I’m giving away another aquatic insect mug!  If you haven’t done so already, you can enter here.


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