My Buggy Week (Friday 5 – a Day Late)

Happy weekend everyone!  I for one am quite thrilled to have a day off tomorrow.  The last week was exhausting and oh so hot.  But, the week was full of great buggy adventures too, so it wasn’t all bad!  Last weekend, for example, I ended up staying after work a couple of hours to photograph things.  This little grasshopper nymph was one of the things I saw:

Grasshopper

Hopper on the Gator

Isn’t he (or she) cute?  For me, few things beat heading out with my camera and seeing what I can find.  It’s a great way to see nature, keeps you in tune with seasonal shifts and the timing of biological events, and sometimes you’re lucky to see something amazing.  Like a groundhog 8 feet up a tree.  That I didn’t get a photo of.  Because I had my camera zipped up inside it’s carrying bag rather than in my hands when I wandered over to the area where I keep seeing groundhogs.  However, struggling to get my camera out for the groundhog means that I got a shot of this little guy moments later when the groundhog scampered away.  It’s no groundhog in a tree, but I was still happy to see it.

Last week involved a lot of teaching.  On Wednesday, I met with the new cohort of middle school teachers that will spend the next several weeks in the research labs at the museum where I work doing some real science.  Those teachers will spend the next year developing curriculum to get middle schoolers involved in citizen science.  It’s an awesome project, and we kicked things off with a ladybug hunt:

Ladybug hunters

Ladybug hunters

It was ghastly hot and late in the day, so a few of the teachers wilted a bit in the heat, but it was still a ton of fun.  Plus, they were the first group that has ever found more native ladybugs than non-native ladybugs at our field station.  I hope their results will be repeated with other groups!  Their data are headed to the Lost Ladybug project next week so it can be used in a variety of studies looking at the distribution of ladybug species and the interactions between native and non-native ladybugs.  I’ll work with this group again next week, with dragonflies next time!

On Thursday, I got to travel toward the coast and work with a group of 5th grade teachers exploring biodiversity and phenology (the study of biological events that occur periodically, such as flowering in plants or rearing young in animals).  The park where I met the group has this amazing cypress-gum swamp:

Swamp

Cypress-gum swamp at River Park North in Greenville, NC

If you haven’t ever seen a swamp like this, I highly encourage you to make a trip to see one!  They are amazing, biologically rich wonderlands.  The number of dragonflies flying around at this location was spectacular!  A lot of the teachers got photos of many of the species we saw and I’m looking forward to uploading them to our biodiversity project.  I also finally got to see a swamp darner in nature.  I was in the middle of talking to a group of teachers about a tree they were interested in when I saw it so I didn’t get a photo, but I was still thrilled to check it off my list!

We had a new group of summer campers at the field station this week, and I did a biodiversity activity with them.  The most popular find was this little guy, by a wide margin:

mantid

Mantid, I suspect of the Chinese persuasion, posing for photos with one of the camp leaders

All the kids swooped in with their iPads when I picked it up, venturing out into the hot sun so they could see it.  At one point it jumped energetically off my hands onto the iPad of a kid who was photographing it.  Scared the frass out of the kid, but he held it together long enough that he neither dropped the iPad nor crushed the mantid before I had a chance to take it back.  I was rather impressed by the kid’s ability to manage his fear.  Many of the other campers would have screamed and dropped the iPad if the same had happened to them.

And finally, yesterday meant another afternoon in the blissfully cool stream with the summer camp!

Kid collecting aquatic insects

Aquatic insect collecting

This boy was far and away the best insect hunter of the campers this week.  While his campmates were splashing around in the deeper water to avoid doing what we were actually there to do (looking for insects to assess the water quality), this kid was flipping rocks and sampling riffles and stirring up the substrate to find as many types of insects and other invertebrates as possible.  The stream doesn’t have many species in it, but he ended up finding most of the ones we know are in there: three types of caddisflies, riffle bugs, water striders, and crayfish.  We did also find one new thing, a damselfly in the genus Argia.  I’ve never found a damselfly in that stream that wasn’t an ebony jewelwing, so it was very exciting to hang out with a really happy kid and make new insect discoveries together!

And with that, I begin my weekend!  Anyone want to share an insect encounter they had this week that made you especially happy?  The swamp darner was my highlight, so I’d love to hear about yours!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth
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Crayfish (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

This is the first week of summer camps at the field station where I work and I’ve been doing daily citizen science programs with the middle schoolers that make up this week’s campers. Today we got into the stream to assess water quality, my favorite thing to do with groups like this! We didn’t find many bugs, just some caddisflies and a crane fly larva, the normal sort of condition of our stream, but the kids found a whole lot of crayfish. This was the biggest one we found:

crayfish

Crayfish – rawr!

Sadly, the kids thought this little guy was WAY more exciting than the tiny net-building caddisflies we found, but I suppose we don’t all appreciate the gloriousness of caddisflies… :)

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

Fireflies on the Prairie (Friday 5)

Tonight was the night of my annual firefly evening program!  It’s been an awesome year for fireflies in my part of North Carolina, and the display over the prairie at work has been even more spectacular than usual.  There are literally thousands of fireflies of several different types and they make the most amazing pattern of flashing lights.  I showed them off last weekend to the 50 people to attended a family campout overnight at our field station, I went out earlier this week to try my hand photographing them again, and I went on the news yesterday with some live fireflies to promote tonight’s program, so I’ve had fireflies on the brain all week.  It seems only fitting that Friday 5 feature fireflies this week!  Let’s kick things off with some photos of some local fireflies I took in my whitebox last night, the ones that went on the news with me.  This one is, I believe, Photinus pyralis, the common eastern firefly:

 

Photinus pyralis

Photinus pyralis?

These are far and away the most common fireflies I see at my home and at work.  They are about 1 cm long and have a lovely pink and black patch on their thorax, plus they make an awesome yellow-green J shaped flash pattern that’s really easy to see.  They don’t feed at all as adults.  I am still ridiculously excited about running around in my yard catching these and do so at every opportunity.  My neighbors probably think I’m crazy, but I don’t mind.

This one was almost half the size of the individual above:

Smaller Photinus

Smaller Photinus

I found it under a leaf on a bigleaf magnolia tree.  It was actually a little hard to find, a tiny firefly on a HUGE leaf!  I never got to see it flash, but given the difference in size and the pattern on the thorax, I am fairly confident this is another species and not just a really runty P. pyralis individual.

This one is from the predatory genus Photuris:

Photurus sp

Photuris sp.

The Photinus-Photuris story is rather legendary among entomologists.  Female Photuris are known to mimic the flash pattern of their Photinus relatives, luring unsuspecting males who are eager to mate in close before they eat them.  I imagine it going down like this:

Photinus male: “Oooh!  Receptive female over there, gonna go check her out…  Hey baby, wanna get freak-…  oh nooooooo!”  :)

I know I shouldn’t make up insect conversations in my head, but really, how can you resist?

Now when I found this individual, I only had one collecting vial with me and it already had a Photinus inside.  I thought that surely I could put the two of them together for a few minutes during the day without them eating each other, right?  Next thing I knew, the Photuris was biting the Photinus!  I wanted to show both off when I went on the news, so I ran back to my office for another vial and pulled them apart.  The Photuris took a big glob of fluid with it when I got them separated and quickly ate it all.  The Photinus seemed just fine though, in spite of having a rather large amount of fluid removed from its body, and they both went on to become media darlings on the news.

This is my yearly attempt at getting a good firefly photo at night, taken a few days ago on a rainy, cool evening:

Fireflies over the prairie

Fireflies over the prairie

This is 14 somewhat long exposures stacked to create a single image.  The flash patterns in this photo are far and away the best I’ve gotten, so I’m encouraged to try again and see if I can improve upon this at my next opportunity.

And finally, I’m going to leave you with a video I took tonight during the program.  There are a lot of kids and their parents talking in it, but you can see the start of the evening’s firefly display.  It was dramatically better just 15 minutes later, but there wasn’t enough light for me to film it, so this is the best I could do:

Are any of the rest of you seeing fireflies?  A cousin of mine in the midwest mentioned last night on Facebook that he’d just seen his first firefly of the year, so I’m hoping there are lots out and about and many of you are getting a good show this year!

And with that, I go to sleep so tomorrow I can teach an unknown amount of people about ladybugs and citizen science at a big event we’re having at work.  Could be 5 people, could be 1000.  Should be fun regardless!

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

Great Teaching Moments of 2014 (Friday 5)

One of the best parts of my job is getting to lead a variety of educational programs for the public at the field station where I work.  Though I don’t get to form the bonds with my students that used to be a part of teaching at a university, it’s still great fun to watch people learn new things and see things clicking in their heads.  For today’s Friday 5, I’m going to share 5 great teaching moments I had last year.  All of these moments still make me smile when I think about them, and are great reminders of why I love my job on days when things just aren’t going my way or I feel overwhelmed.

Photography for Science

Photography for science

As much as I love doing insect programs, I think my very favorite program is one I call Photography for Science.  The program is aimed at photographers, amateur or professional, who love nature and want to use their photography to support conservation efforts and science.  We spend about 1/3 of the program going over citizen science projects that invite photographs and how to take photos that are useful to scientists.  We spend the other 2/3 of the class out in the field taking nature photos and practicing the things they learned.  What I like about this program are the people who attend it.  They are the happiest, most enthusiastic bunch of people and they absolutely love learning.  The women in the photo above were among those that attended the program last January on what ended up being one of the very coldest days all winter.  We have no heated indoor space for teaching at the field station and I warned everyone it was going to be cold, but every single person who registered for the program showed up!  They were all very cold the whole time, but not one complaint and they still all went away with a smile.  That group was hard-core and I loved every moment of that program.

Intro to Tracking

Millipede tracks

I met an awesome state park ranger last year.  In addition to being a park ranger, she and her husband lead science classes for kids at a science toy store they own in the area, so we met when she wanted to make a citizen science program and came to me for suggestions.  A few months later, we began offering a program together on tracking.  She is a great tracker and I really love doing the program with her.  The second time we offered the program, we came across the long, double lined tracks above.  The group spent quite a lot of time debating what it was and eventually someone suggested millipedes.  We looked it up on my phone and sure enough, it WAS a millipede!  Rather, a whole bunch of them, roaming about in this one sandy area on the trail.  I loved that we saw all sorts of great mammal prints – coyotes, deer, foxes, raccoons – but everyone was most excited about the millipede tracks that day.  Those are my kind of people!

Flow Dynamics and Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Communities

High school kids

The group of high schoolers in this photo…  I can’t say enough good things about them!  They come out to the field station after school every three weeks and sample aquatic insects in a couple of locations in the stream and we have a big ID session at the end of the semester.  They are all polite, personable, funny, wonderful people and I just love working with them.  They’re also all wicked smart and would give some of my very best former aquatic entomology students a run for their money with their insect ID skills.  Any day spent with this group of kids is a good day, AND we’re learning some interesting things about the stream and its aquatic insect community to boot.

Teaching Teachers Citizen Science

Teaching teachers

North Carolina State University has this awesome fellowship program for K-12 teachers called the Kenan Fellowship.  Teacher selected spend 5 weeks in an intensive internship program with researchers in a variety of fields and then develop curriculum for K-12 students based on their experiences.  Kenan Fellows tend to be amazing teachers who love what they’re doing and are always a joy to work with.  Last summer, I got to work them twice.  The museum where I work is part of a grant called Students Discover that aims to bring citizen science into schools that partners with the Kenan Fellows program to bring teachers into the Museum’s research labs.  The first day of their fellowship, I led them in a dragonfly citizen science program.  Let me tell you that few things beat watching a bunch of adults running around with bug nets catching dragonflies with huge grins on their faces!  I also teamed up with one of the teacher education staff at the Museum and led a full day workshop on citizen science for ALL of the Kenan Fellows for 2014.  It was such a great experience.  Hope I get to work with them again this year too!

Family Safari

Blacklighting

The museum where I work is free to visit, so those that are willing to pay for a membership get some pretty awesome perks.  Last year, we hosted our first ever member camp out at the field station and offered several evening programs as entertainment.  I set up the great blacklighting sculptures that Sigma Xi donated to us and talked to people about nighttime insects.  Most people spent just a few minutes at the sheets looking for insects before moving on, but the little boy in the photo above was absolutely riveted!  His mother kept telling me about how he had already decided he wanted to be an entomologist and how much he loved insects.  She practically had to drag him away when it was time for bed.  Funny how one person can make up for an otherwise lackluster crowd!  Loved that little guy.

Yep, teaching can be a really great thing when it’s something you enjoy and you have a great group of people.  I know a lot of you out there are also teachers of various types.  Want to share some of your best teaching experiences?  I always find it inspiring to hear other people tell me stories like that, so leave comments below if you’d like to share!

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

Girls and Dragonflies (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

In the summers, I tend to teach a lot.  I get requests to lead programs for our summer camps and other youth programs, so I’m out in the field with 4-8th graders a lot.  Each summer, I do a dragonfly program for the Girls in Science group at my museum and it’s a lot of fun to watch a group of middle school girls with bug nets trying desperately to catch dragonflies.  This past summer I was invited to another site to do the same program with their Girls in Science camp.  This particular group was from a much less affluent part of town than a lot of the kids I work with and were going to camp a few blocks down from a women’s prison.  You could tell that some of these girls had it a little rough at home, but they were the most amazing group of kids!  There were about 12 of them and we caught dragonflies along a greenway through the area.  And you know what?  Those girls caught more dragonflies in the hour we spent catching, photographing, and releasing dragonflies than the three other groups I’d led that month combined!  And they did it with style too.  Check out that nail polish:

Girls in Science dragonfly

That group of girls was awesome, and just thinking about them makes me smile.  So much fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_48763.  Be prepared for anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 5: Aquatic Insects as Depicted by College Students

I really like science exercises that involve drawing  and I’ve featured some of the fantastic drawings done by the second graders I worked with when I was involved with the Insect Discovery program at my university.  The current semester ends today and I taught two lab sections for the introductory ecology and evolution course this time around.  I really loved it!  On the last day of lab we focused on sexual selection and behavioral ecology, so I had my students do a quick behavioral study focused on the respiratory behaviors of a variety of live aquatic insects.  I’m not sure they found the topic as exciting to study as I do (it takes a special kind of patience to be able to do behavioral studies and the vast majority of my students don’t have it), but they all got through the exercise and seemed to understand the main points.  I took a comparative approach, asking each student to observe one insect for half an hour and then compare their findings to two other insects observed by other students in the class.  They had to draw all three insects, then compare the data and make some conclusions about habitats where their insects might live.  Overall, I was rather pleased with how well the exercise went (apart from the occasional loud sigh or exasperated whispers of “This is SO tedious!”), but I especially loved the drawings.  Since it’s Friday, I’m going to share my 5 favorites!

Some of the drawings were quite good.  This damselfly was probably the best of the bunch:

Damselfly nymph

Damselfly nymph

It actually had some proper mottling and details of the segmentation, so it really looks like a damselfly.  You can see the wingpads and the gills.  Honestly, this is one of the best drawings I’ve ever seen any of my students do, regardless of their age!  But few people attempted this level of detail and went with highly stylized drawings of the insects instead.  One example is this fabulous backswimmer drawing:

backswimmer

Backswimmer

This backswimmer, while not all that realistic, shows all the important parts – the keeled back, the proper body shape, the long, oar-like hind legs.  It’s very simple, yet includes everything it should.  This hellgrammite was similarly stylized:

hellgrammite

Hellgrammite

Again, not super realistic, but it shows the essential components of a hellgrammite.  It’s got the front legs, the gills along the abdomen, the highly segmented body, the prolegs at the back, and the enormous jaws coming off a rectangular head.    Anyone who’s seen a hellgrammite would be able to look at this simplified drawing and know what it is.

Some of the drawings were absolutely adorable!  I thought this dragonfly nymph drawing was fantastic:

Dragonfly nymph

Dragonfly nymph

Something about the shape of the body and the way the eyes bulge off the side made me think “Awwwww…” when I saw it.  This is pretty much how I imagine a second grader doing this drawing except it came from an 18 or 19-year-old.  Actually, I was rather shocked by how similar the drawings from my college freshmen and sophomores were to those from Insect  Discovery activities!  Apparently most people don’t develop their drawing skills past that rudimentary second grade level.  But that’s okay!  This drawing is VERY simple, yet it still looks like a dragonfly.  I knew what it was before I even looked at the label for the insect, and that is all I require in a drawing.  Some of my students…  Well, they didn’t get that far.  There were some pretty crazy drawings, including one that looked like a segmented and deformed goldfish cracker – and then the group copied the bad drawing rather than doing the drawings based on the specimens.  Sigh…

This was the simplest drawing of them all:

Whirligig

Whirligig beetle

Whirligig beetle!  And, oddly enough, this is about all you can see looking down from the top without getting into the details of the head and the elytra.  Whirligig beetles are gorgeous, complex beetles, but most of the complexity is on the underside of their bodies.  They are rather unremarkable beetles simply looking down from above, and this drawing depicts that quite well, even if it is only two lines and two dots.

I think I’m going to incorporate drawings into as many activities as I can in the future.  They make the students really look at the things I want them to observe, so I think they’re a great teaching tool.  There’s a long history of scientists doing drawings of specimens and things they observe in their studies.  Plus, drawings are a lot of fun to grade!  I’d much rather look at drawings than read long papers.  You can get to the point in a drawing so much more efficiently than you can in a paper, and I think all the drawings I’ve shared here are good examples of that. Hooray for grading efficiency!  And hooray for cute aquatic insect drawings!

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