Friday, October 15, 2021

How Baskettails Got Their Name

I cannot be everywhere at once, nor witness every amazing behavior that insects do, so I am exceptionally grateful to friends and followers who share their illustrated stories with me. Such was the case when I noticed a post to a Facebook group from Cindy Baranoski. She happened upon a female Prince Baskettail dragonfly, Epitheca princeps, preparing to oviposit.

All photos © Cindy Baranoski

Baskettails are rather generic, non-descript dragonflies in the family Corduliidae, which includes the "emeralds." Both kinds of dragonflies have brilliant green eyes as adults. Otherwise, they can be mistaken for the more abundant "skimmer" dragonflies in the family Libellulidae. Baskettails tend to fly in spring and early summer, with some exceptions like the Prince Baskettail that is at the center of our story here. At first glance, it might be dismissed as a Twelve-spotted Skimmer, but the abdomen is longer, and narrow.

Cindy describes her amazing encounter as follows:

"It was a beautiful day, so my husband and I decided to go for a hike at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois. They have a lovely array of forests, lakes, prairies, and wetlands. I had my camera in my backpack, as usual, waiting to get going into our walk before dragging it out. We had just started out around the first body of water, on a path about twenty feet from the water, and dense with plants. As we walked I saw a dragonfly whizz past us and land on a plant.

All photos © Cindy Baranoski

My first thought was of someone I knew who had shared a photo of a beautiful red dragonfly, and I wondered if this one was like that, or even just different from all the others I'd seen this summer. My husband remained on the path while I slowly and stealthily walked over to see. The dragonfly was in a vertical position on a plant, as usual, but what stuck out immediately was the movement of its tail: A slow and steady rhythmic back and forth movement I had not seen a dragonfly do before. I've seen them do a lot, this was new. I hoped that the dragonfly was ok, or maybe this was some new movement that helps them cool off, like the obelisk position. So I slowly backed away, and frantically pulled out my camera to be sure it was all on the right settings, mentally crossed my fingers, and snuck back over.

By that time I could see a bit of something now on the tail, as it gently waved back and forth. The dragonfly didn't fly away, didn't move, as I kept moving in closer to snap pictures with my camera, which was obnoxiously loud it seemed, and messing up my stealthiness. A bit of time passed and the small spot on the tail grew; and I was pretty sure this dragonfly was laying eggs. The dragonfly became a 'she' now, and she was extruding eggs.

All photos © Cindy Baranoski

I squealed mentally and out loud, and asked my husband to come peek to be sure this was happening. He looked, and said 'yep.' She continued to push out her eggs, and got quite still, and the slow waving of her tail ceased. I kept snapping pictures, praying at least one of them might be clear enough to share with others and document what was happening. Only a matter of minutes passed by, but it seemed forever, and not a thing around me was happening save for this moment. A breeze blew and she did not move. I was nearly on top of her snapping away and she didn't move, intent on what was happening in her own world.

All photos © Cindy Baranoski

Suddenly, in a moment, she took off and was gone. I want to believe that she quickly landed on the water to deposit her eggs. We walked away and I continued to squeal out loud how over absolutely amazing that was to see, and so grateful I was given that moment by her to trust this human observer. When we got home, of course I immediately opened up the pictures to see that many had come out in focus, and I pulled a few I felt were worthy of sharing on Facebook and Instagram. Not as many were as giddy about seeing this as I was, save for Eric and a few others. No worries, it was my special gift she shared with me."

All photos © Cindy Baranoski

Female baskettails quite literally put all their eggs in the one "basket" of her subgenital plate, just prior to laying them. In flight, the tip of the egg-laden abdomen is held aloft in a distinctive posture. They practice what is called exophytic oviposition, meaning that they do not land and insert their eggs singly into aquatic vegetation, bottom sediments, or mud in locations which flood. Instead, they drag the abdomen through the water as they fly, trailing a rope of eggs behind them. They favor tangles of floating and emergent plant stems as locations for their strings of eggs, which may be several feet long. The eggs are suspended in a gelatinous fluid that expands in the water.

All photos © Cindy Baranoski

I want to thank Cindy again for agreeing to let me publish her photos and story. Please consider contacting me if you have something to share that was exciting to you: bugeric247ATgmailDOTcom.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Arachtober, Part XV!

This year marks the fifteenth anniversary of “Arachtober,” an event initiated on the photosharing website Flickr by my good friends Ashley Bradford and Joseph Connors. Since then, it has extended its silky reach to social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, where searching on #Arachtober will bring up stunning images of spiders, scorpions, solifuges, ticks, and mites, oh my.

© Ashley Bradford & Joseph Connors

The banner shown above was hand drawn by Ashley, and digitized by Joseph. They both have acute powers of observation, and are supremely talented photographers who are constantly experimenting. They have inspired literally thousands of others to focus their lenses on our eight-legged friends, and come together as a global community for at least this one month each year.

You should join in the fun! It is a window on an overlooked, seriously maligned group of organisms, illuminated in a positive light by photographers and scientists. I learn something new almost daily thanks to the stories attached to the photos.

I will forever be indebted to Ashley and Joseph for their supportive friendship, and starting something truly unique, valuable, and enduring. More details about the origin of Arachtober can be found in this livescience.com article.

Friday, September 17, 2021

Talking About Writing, Entomology, and SciComm With Arthro-Pod

After recording an episode of Ologies with Alie Ward that focused on wasps, I was delighted to be invited to interview with the three hosts of the Arthro-Pod podcast more recently. Our discussion ran the gamut from my career trajectory in science communication to unresolved problems in the entomology profession, and conflicts between science and the corporate sector. This was a much more personal conversation.

Dr. Jody Green (@JodyBugsMeUNL on Twitter), Jonathan Larson (@bugmanjon), and Dr. Michael Skvarla (@mskvarla36) are the hosts of Arthro-Pod. All three currently work at separate universities, but have a common passion for public outreach. According to Jody, I was “SciComm before it was SciComm,” and until she said that it had never occurred to me that I was any sort of pioneer. It is true, though, that I have witnessed, and often participated in, the evolution of the public face of entomology in the digital age. She added that she frequently uses my blog to research a particular insect or topic and enjoys the jargon-free, conversational format. Wow, how cool is that?

The hosts of Arthro-Pod from a prior recording

In the course of talking about my personal experiences in academia, and my sentiments about them, ancient as they are, it was surprising to learn how much still resonates with students of today. That is a great thing in terms of empathy, but it also indicates there is much that still needs rectifying in the university environment. How do we make the sciences more friendly to a diversity of students? How is virtual learning online succeeding or failing its target students? We did not even discuss the problems with academic publishing, but maybe we can do another episode about that.

Jody is an outstanding example of the new generation of entomologists who are creative in how they reach the public

Entomology is a broad field with many niche careers that were not even in existence when I was a student. The profession is also now faced with the conflict that is the continued need for pest control versus the ever-increasing challenge of conserving biodiversity. Our global knowledge has been obtained largely through colonialism. There has been rampant sexism and, until recently, little effort at welcoming all races and ethnicities, and recognizing the full gender spectrum. Thankfully, the current generation of entomologists is prioritizing positive changes to those issues.

I hope you will join me in following Arthro-Pod here on the Blogger platform. My interview was the 96th episode, so I have a lot of catching up to do. You could not ask for a more friendly and inquisitive trio to take you on a tour of entomology and its influences on history, your daily life, and ecosystems at large.

Hahaha, I didn't know anyone would take a photo during our Zoom

Note: I have several events upcoming. They include a virtual presentation about wasps for Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) Region Nature on Monday evening, September 27. On October 4, I will be recording an episode of Talking Feral with Paul Boyce, topics to be determined. I will be recording a wasp-themed episode of In Conversation With with David Lindo, for BBC radio if I have the correct information. Lastly, on November 6, I will do another wasp-themed virtual talk for the Entomological Society of Pennsylvania (USA). Please join me for the talks, and/or book me for your own event by e-mailing bugeric247ATgmailDOTcom. Thank you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Book Review: In One Yard: Close to Nature Book 2

I was introduced to Warren A. Hatch several years ago by a mutual friend. He sent me a copy of the original In One Yard: Close to Nature, which I regretfully never got around to reviewing. I will not make the same mistake with Hatch’s sequel. This book has much to recommend it, no matter where you live.

Mr. Hatch resides in Portland, Oregon, USA, and every organism shown in the book was discovered on his property, the yard of which is only one-sixth of an acre. Clearly, exploring even this small an area can result in constant discovery and astonishment. A reader is going to be inspired to put the book down frequently so as to go looking for mosses, lichens, insects, arachnids, algae, and other living things right outside their door.

This “ignition switch” alone is what makes this book unique and critically important. One could consider it an exercise in vanity (the first book was self-published), but by documenting various species in depth, and showing the reader how he captured the detail and drama of each creature, it becomes a blueprint for how you can do the same. Why you should go to the trouble is self-evident in the countless, captivating images.

The text both explains the natural histories of the organism, and challenges the reader to make their own observations. The stories are an interesting and effective mix of the author’s personal experience, additional knowledge gleaned from literature and correspondence with world-renowned experts, and a periodic, friendly “Mr. Rogers” query to the reader. The author does not put himself above the reader. He defines scientific words with each use, and understands that occasional repetition is a good thing.

The first book was a large, magazine-like paperback. Book two is a smaller, hardback volume. Both are slightly “busy” in their design and layouts, and if there is any fault to the new book, it is in the literal fine print of “Extra Notes” that may be difficult for those with poor vision to easily read. The images are so overwhelming in their excellence and detail that almost anything else can be forgiven anyway.

The one thing that surprises and disappoints is that this book is flying under the public radar. Mr. Hatch’s prior works have rightly received critical acclaim from the scientific community. Hatch has produced posters and DVDs that have also garnered generous reviews; and he was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London in 2003. This is an exceptional honor, as the society was founded in 1788 and has only about 2,000 members. Admirably, Hatch lives a car-free lifestyle.

In One Yard is the perfect complement to Douglas Tallamy’s books Bringing Nature Home, and Nature’s Best Hope. Hatch’s books show you exactly what can result if you cultivate native plants and make even minimal effort to observe and record. Yes, he has invested heavily in the equipment needed to produce what you see on the pages of the book, but what a payoff.

Ideally, we need more Warren Hatchs. More people should do an ongoing bioblitz of their home and property, and share the results widely through blogs, vlogs, Youtube, Instagram, and other media, if not an actual hardcopy book. Be creative. Buy this book as an inspiration and model. In One Yard: Close to Nature Book 2 is available exclusively through Wild Blueberry Media, LLC for a very reasonable $35.00 (postage paid). Don’t take my word for it, just ask Sir David Attenborough who effuses that the book is “splendid” and “it spurs me on.” When a world class, globe-trotting naturalist asks “….whether I haven’t looked at my yard with the concentration and insight that you have,” that is high praise indeed.