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 (@JodyBugsMe 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?

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Home Bioblitz, Ongoing

Ever since we moved into our house in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA, in mid-May of this year, we have been keeping a tally of all the species of animal life we see on our property, or from it in the case of flying birds. As of August 12, we have surpassed seven hundred (700) taxa, and that is likely conservative.

Rove beetles, like this one I have yet to identify, have been a dominant taxon (family Staphylinidae) in our home landscape

A taxon is any level of taxonomic classification: Domain to Kingdom, Phylum, Order, Family, Genus, or species, and various divisions in between. It is often impossible to distinguish various species, or even genera or subfamilies, from images of the living creature in the “wild,” so many of the insects and arachnids we have observed may never be identified specifically.

Leafhoppers abound in diversity, too, including Idiodonus kennicotti....

....and Colladonus clitellarius, the Saddled Leafhopper

A bioblitz is typically a twenty-four-hour event at a specific location that is intended to inventory every kind of living organism within the boundaries of said property. More recently, bioblitzes have been conducted over two days, sometimes more, to enhance the experience of participants and get a more thorough survey accomplished. Sometimes, bioblitzes target one particular taxon of interest, like dragonflies and damselflies, for example.

No water feature in our yard, but still we get visits from odonates like Skimming Bluet, Enallagma geminatum

The website and smartphone app iNaturalist has become a handy platform for recording the results of bioblitzes, such as this one at Corral Bluffs Open Space, a new park near Colorado Springs, Colorado, internationally famous for the discovery of several new fossil species, especially early mammals. Making such data and observations widely accessible to the public, as well as to scholars, is an overriding priority for bioblitzes, and it inspires more bioblitzes.

Ants, like this Temnothorax sp., are always abundant, but more diverse than you think

I have been slowly uploading observations of wildlife at our home, and elsewhere we have traveled, to iNaturalist, but I am over one month behind.

Insects are always making more of themselves, like these Black-backed Grass Skimmer flower flies, Paragus haemorrhous

Our property is modest, with a front and back yard, a back porch and a side porch, and a detached garage. We have not yet planted anything new, save for a handful of daisies and coneflowers from a local nursery. We do mow what passes for the lawn, and intend to replace most of it eventually with native plants, and maybe add a small water feature and bird feeders. The front yard is dominated by an enormous red oak.

Daisy Fleabane, a "weed" that volunteered in the back yard, has a long bloom cycle, attracting insects like this Wavy Mucksucker flower fly, Orthonevra nitida

How have we amassed so many species in so little time? We are privileged to have the luxury of unlimited free time at present. Heidi spends most mornings looking and listening for birds in both yards, and beyond. The pigeons are usually flying over the federal penitentiary located two blocks behind us. A pair of Eastern Wood-pewees raised a family in a tree across the street from our front yard. I make a circuit around the yards at least once per day, usually.

We have lots of spiders, and Blue Mud Daubers like this one hunting them

We have not yet tried much in the way of trapping for insects. We did hang up a bee block under the eave by the living room window, but apparently weren’t watching it at the right time of day. About a week ago I noticed two of the holes had been plugged with mud, likely the work of a mason wasp. We occasionally set out overripe fruits, but those are quickly overrun with ants unless we take precautions like standing a section of log like a pedestal in a container of water that acts like a moat.

We have fireslies that flash, like this Big Dipper Firefly, Photinus pyralis!

We do blacklight fairly regularly, though at present my camera flash has ceased to work. My back-up cameras have repeated lens error issues whereby the extendable lens gets stuck. Finding another camera has been problematic as there are shortages of almost every item now due to the pandemic. That said, blacklighting has been the overwhelming source of our diversity. I frequently find “bonus” insects in images where the intended subject was something else entirely.

Blacklighting has brought us gems like this Black-dotted Glyph, Maliattha synochitis

Here is my challenge to you: although we are no longer confined to our homes by the novel coronavirus, consider staying put anyway and devoting time to bioblitz your own place. Even the most sterile apartment is likely to have a few dozen species. You might have to break out a magnifying lens, but they are there. Share your results on iNaturalist, Project Noah, or similar platforms. Ask for help if you are at a loss for ideas on how to get started. Happy hunting!

Saturday, July 31, 2021

National Moth Week 2021 Review

This year, National Moth Week ran from Saturday, July 17 to Sunday, July 25. It was our first moth week spent in eastern Kansas, at our own home, and my in-laws’ home, in Leavenworth.

Tiger moth, Apantesis sp.

A couple of things conspired against us, unfortunately. The moon was waxing, and full by July 23. Moths are most attracted to lights during a new moon (no moon). Secondly, the owner of the neighboring property had allowed his lot to become overgrown with many native and weedy plants. He chose the first day of moth week to mow and/or remove all of that vegetation, leaving only hedges of some exotic evergreen. Thanks! Both of these circumstances reduced our productivity. We blacklighted twice in the front yard, once in the back yard, and once two miles away at my spouse’s parents’ home.

A Brown-shaded Gray, Iridopsis defectaria

Despite the setbacks, we still managed a fair diversity of species. Most of them remain unidentified in the i-Naturalist website projects for National Moth Week because there are only so many moth specialists, and not every specimen can be determined to species, or even genus, from mere images alone. So far, I have approximately sixty-eight (68) taxa, including some moths I found in daylight hours.

Spotted Thyris Moth, Thyris maculata

The Orange Wing,Mellilla xanthometata, Lansing, Kansas

We started blacklighting in our yard on a fairly regular basis in late May. The results have been reasonably consistent in that the insects attracted are overwhelmingly caddisflies, rove beetles, and leafhoppers. Click beetles, ground beetles, water scavenger beetles, scarab beetles, ichneumon wasps, and longhorned beetles are also prominent.

Red-necked Peanutworm Moth,Stegasta bosqueella

When it comes to moths, there have been few large, spectacular moths. We do not run our lights all night long, though, and some of the giant moths apparently fly well after midnight. Most of our sessions are concluded by about 12:30 AM, if not earlier. We have had no giant silkmoths (family Saturniidae), and only one sphingid, a Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis), weeks before moth week.

This Catalpa Sphinx, Ceratomia catalpae, was....

....unfortunately murdered by a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus)

I have conditioned myself to closely examine the “little stuff,” five or six millimeters and under, to find the greatest diversity. Many tiny moths are also among the most beautiful. Sometimes I cannot tell if the insect is a microcaddisfly (family Hydroptilidae), a miniscule leafhopper (family Cicadellidae), or a tiny moth until I zoom in with my camera. Even then it can be a difficult exercise.

A concealer moth, Callima argenticinctella

In the process of editing photos, I frequently find additional species that I did not notice “live” at the sheet. Opening an image file can be like opening a Christmas present or a box of chocolates (“….you never know what you’re gonna get,” to quote Forrest Gump).

Pygmy leaf-mining moth, Stigmella sp, only 2 mm

We also made a feeble attempt at “sugaring,” mixing beer with overripe bananas and aging it a couple of days. That effort drew exactly zero moths. I think I saw a fly or two during the day. Maybe. We might try again at a later date, as underwing moths have only recently started flying.

Kermes Scale Moth, Euclemensia bassettella

The White-speck, Mythimna unipuncta

It will be interesting to track global observations for National Moth Week over the years, to see what changes and what remains constant. Is climate change pushing some species farther north as the planet warms? Are some species declining because they cannot adapt? Are some locations disappearing to the plow or urban sprawl? How do we mitigate these destructive impacts?

The Wretched Olethreutes,Olethreutes exoletum

It is also ironic, and perhaps hypocritical, that we preach an end to light pollution while deploying lights to attract moths. Entomologists and citizen scientists should probably settle on a message that reflects the need to gather data periodically, while dimming unnecessary lighting in general.

Yellow Nutsedge Moth, Diploschizia impigritella, 4 mm

If you have not yet participated in a National Moth Week, please consider doing so. That might mean attending a public event (or initiating one), or simply turning on your porch light and recording what comes to visit. Meanwhile, enjoy seeking moths, and their caterpillars, pupae and cocoons, all year long. Visit the National Moth Week website for more. Visit iNaturalist for all of my National Moth Week observations.

A male Chickweed Geometer, Haematopis grataria