Monday, July 19, 2021

The Bigger Picture

It occurs to me that my vision for this blog, and audience expectations, may be somewhat divergent, and neither as easy to meet and execute as I would like. The world is changing rapidly, and, if anything, I feel myself slowing down. Allow me to posit some ideas for how to solve all of this.

Entomology in context: a firefly on a farm in western Massachusetts

Most days, it is a struggle to do much of anything, least of all writing. I find a “what’s the use?” mentality creep in. There is no question, in my mind, that insect abundance and diversity has markedly declined in the last decade. In the field I have to work harder just to find species that were once common. Consequently, I do not have photos of many species I would like to write blog posts about. Even supposedly common household pests like spider beetles, Cigarette Beetle, and Drugstore Beetle, I have yet to see. I have encountered a grand total of one (1) Blacklegged (deer) Tick, and got horrible photos.

:My only respectable photo of a Blacklegged Tick

My first ask is whether those of you who are photographers would be willing to share your images with me to build stories around. Not only is it a matter of simply depicting a given species, but also illustrating its behavior. Looking at posts on social media, many of my friends and followers have captured some truly unique species and various aspects of their life histories. Do not be shy. Please contact me (see below) if you want to share your work through this blog.

Courtship of Cyrtopogon robber flies captured by my wife, Heidi

My e-mail often receives unsolicited offers to “guest post” on my blog, and I always turn those away. On occasion I have asked colleagues for permission to re-post something they have written in social media, a publication, or their own blog. My standards are pretty high, and this blog is a promotional device for no one. I am now re-thinking this a little.

Entomology has historically been inextricably entangled with colonialism, sexism, and racism. What we know of tropical species has been a product of white explorers, missionaries, and others who exploited indigenous peoples without giving fair credit and compensation. The specimens collected were deposited almost exclusively in museums in Europe, and later in the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, female entomologists, and non-Caucasian entomologists, have suffered for proper recognition, funding, and academic promotions.

This blog can be a vehicle for changing some of this. I hereby extend an invitation to women, indigenous persons, and all other non-white persons in entomology, to propose one or more guest posts for the Bug Eric blog. You need not be employed as an entomologist. You can be an enthusiastic amateur, a general naturalist, or someone who simply witnessed or recorded some arthropod-related experience that stuck with you. Maybe it is your child who is crazy about “bugs.” Let me hear about it. I still reserve the right of refusal, but I assure you I am serious about broadcasting voices previously muted by establishment authority figures. Op-ed pieces are also welcome.

Myself with one of my first mentors, Jim Anderson, circa 1971

Lastly, this blog is in dire need of solution-oriented content. How do we avert an “insect apocalypse?” How do we overcome the inertia of the lawnscape to craft a quilted landscape of native or near-native habitat on our own properties? What approaches are working already? Why are they working (in the political or economic sense)? Also, why does it seem that every positive suggestion eventually meets with stiff resistance or is undermined in some way? Bee condos, bee blocks, and insect hotels are suddenly a no-no, for example. How does this happen? How do we separate true experts from corporate hacks and trolls?

Bee condos are supplemental housing or disease-and-parasite-riddled death traps depending on who you ask

It is hard for me to believe that this blog began in over a decade ago. I simply and selfishly wanted to share my experiences and knowledge with no purpose other than entertainment and validation. Now it is a true community of “followers” who deserve something more, including a voice in the future direction of Bug Eric. Entomology encompasses so much, from science to art, that there is no shortage of material. Indeed, the greatest challenge may be that of focus, like seeing a single mayfly in the swarm.

Contact: bugeric247ATgmailDOTcom.

Friday, July 2, 2021

The Entomologist on the Internet

Interviewing with Alie Ward on her wildly popular Ologies podcast got me thinking about the internet from the perspective of entomologists, both professional and aspiring amateur. You simply cannot take anything too seriously. You must laugh at yourself when you do. Here are some broad categories of fun and frustration for your entertainment.

Memes

One enduring complaint of professional entomologists is memes. They are nearly always an oversimplification, if not outright misinformation, intended to be the last word on the subject. Memes are sometimes insulting, insinuating that anyone holding a different view is illiterate or worthy only of ridicule. Mostly, memes reveal more about their creator or re-tweeter than they do about the audience, let alone the subject. Those memes that are obviously humorous are the ones I like best. I have even created a few of my own.


(Object) for Scale

One of my favorite scenarios is when someone who wants a particularly large insect or arachnid identified places some object next to it “for scale.” The object is frequently monetary currency, a coin for smaller creatures, and some paper denomination for larger organisms. I cannot resist retorts like “This just in, spiders begging for money, film at eleven,” or “Please do not give them money, they will only use it to buy pheromones.”

Other objects include pocket knives, car keys or fobs, disposable cigarette lighters….Terrific. The insect isn’t scary enough, we have to give it a weapon, too? “That one looks like it is going to kill you with fire!” “What you have there is a nymph, it’s not old enough to drive!” I try to provide legitimate identifications for people making those requests, but I enjoy having a little fun, too.

Fishfly, © WhatsThatBug.com

At least this giant water bug got some lip balm out of the deal (© WhatsThatBug.com)
Wasted Appreciation?

A truly agonizing situation is when some random individual posts images of an insect or arachnid I have been dying to see myself and never found. Why? Why?! (grimaces skyward, shakes fists in air). In fairness, the person posting had to have some degree of curiosity to bother photographing the thing, but too often I still convince myself that true appreciation of the animal has been wasted on this dude at his barbecue.Someday I’ll see a living Rainbow Scarab beetle, or a California Horntail wasp. Right?

My only glimpse so far of a Cottonwood Borer, Plectrodera scalator, in Salina, Kansas

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Spheksology

© Alie Ward

Last Tuesday evening I had the privilege of recording an episode of the popular podcast Ologies with Alie Ward. All about the study of wasps (spheksology), it should drop this Tuesday, June 15.

I have no idea whether it is pronounced SVEEKS-ol-o-gee or SFEX-ol-o-gee, or whether it matters, but I thought we might be coining a new word. Spheksophobia is the fear of wasps, but I could find no reference to “spheksology.” Alie managed to, so there you go.

Me, pointing to the paper wasp nest I mention in the Ologies interview.

Alie received close to four hundred (400) questions from her ardent followers on Patreon, and I think we might have answered about six. If you listen to the episode, and still have a question, please feel free to drop it in the comments for this post. I will attempt to answer in a timely fashion, but I do have various engagements on the near horizon that demand I properly prepare for them.

Solitary wasp, Trypoxylon sp., Leavenworth, Kansas, USA

It is my hope that we will spark a movement away from spheksophobia, and towards spheksophilia (love of wasps) among the audience for this interview. At the least, please consider following Ologies from now on. It is highly entertaining and educational. Thank you, followers of this blog, for your continued support.

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Our (New) House

My wife, Heidi, and I moved into our new home in Leavenworth, Kansas on May 17. Our house is a very, very, very modest house, with a front yard and a back yard, and a detached garage. It will take some getting used to, as our former townhouse in Colorado Springs had little outdoor space we could truly call our own, and it was maintained by a homeowners’ association (HOA). We have not yet met our human neighbors, but have become acquainted with the wildlife.

While we are still cramped by unpacked boxes here and there, it has been the weather that has been most frustrating and depressing. Colorado Springs boasts over three hundred days of sunshine per year. Here, in a little more than two weeks, we have had two full days of sun. Otherwise, it has been overcast, dreary, often raining, and unseasonably cool. Yesterday it barely made it over 60° F. Heidi insists it is warm and humid, I say it is cool and damp. On the days when it has been dry, my allergies to grasses and spring trees have made my mood just as miserable as the cloudy and wet days.

Back yard, before mowing. The federal penitentiary is visible behind us, and brightly illuminated at night.

Despite the inclement weather, we have been exploring our property and keeping a list of the animals we find. While unloading the U-haul, Heidi tallied thirteen species of birds. I turn the porch light on at night, and on two occasions deployed a blacklight, and many insects have revealed themselves. Our accounting now numbers over 190 taxa (anything from phylum to species, depending on our familiarity with a given organism).

Tiny, adorable weevil, Lechriops oculatus, on the back fence.

So far, our home seems to be spider city and weevil central. We appear to have a resident Eastern Gray Squirrel inhabiting the huge oak tree in the front yard; and American Robin and Mourning Dove often bask on the wires over the garage and back yard. Reluctantly, we mowed what passes for our lawns, but kept the cutting level as high as we could, leaving the herbaceous vegetation along the fence line in the back as intact as possible. We have Ground Ivy, clover, dandelion, and even some violets growing among the grass and leaf litter.

A nomad cuckoo bee, Nomada sp., on a dandelion in the back yard.

Leavenworth is a rather quaint town, the residential neighborhoods being almost literally the All-American communities one thinks of in the “fly-over” states, but no one has been overly welcoming, let alone ringing the doorbell with pies and other foods in hand. I imagine that the continuing pandemic has something to do with the abortion of traditional greetings and offerings, but I also suspect a growing pall of suspicion and distrust that has always been there, but is now pervasive and….normal. Is everyone on the block talking about us on the Nextdoor app, speculating about why I am prowling around with a camera, and stretching a sheet and a UV light off the front porch?

Small, horned darkling beetle, Neomida bicornis, drawn to the front porch light at night.

Driving around in the course of picking up items for our household, and running errands to establish our residency in the civic sense, it is apparent that the cities of Leavenworth and Lansing, and the county of Leavenworth, have a good deal of untamed greenspace among the agricultural fields and commercial enterprise districts. It will be interesting to explore, provided the weather improves.

Bumble bee-mimicking robber fly, Laphria flavicollis, alond a paved trail in 10th Avenue Park, along Five Mile Creek.

I was telling a friend back in Colorado Springs, one of the few people we saw immediately before we left, that I feel cheated by the pandemic year. I had an entire twelve months where I saw almost no one outside of my spouse, and now I am being swept away without having much in the way of meaningful parting encounters.

A male White-jawed Jumping Spider, Hentzia mitrata, on our front porch railing.

Here I am now, knowing no one but my in-laws, and having met a couple of Heidi’s high school classmates briefly, two years ago. Being a sudden stranger is hard, folks. I am likely to retreat to the comfort and familiarity of the insect world where I actually recognize some old friends.

An ornate pomace fly, Chymomyza amoena, related to the "fruit flies" that hover over the bananas in your kitchen.

UPDATE: Concerning my health, my respiratory issues have almost completely resolved themselves. The cause was apparently a severe allergy I developed to our pet bird, a budgerigar (“budgie”). My wife’s parents visited us in Colorado about three weeks before we moved, and we sent the bird away with them. My symptoms of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath vanished almost immediately. I will sincerely miss the sweet tweeting of our “boy named Sue,” but am grateful to be sleeping soundly, in our bed instead of a chair, with no need of an inhaler.

Green Oak-slug Moth, Euclea incisa, at our porch light at night.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Moving, Again

Anoplius aethiops female speeding along with wolf spider cargo, Cape May, New Jersey

Almost ten years ago, back at the end of September, 2011, I relocated from Tucson, Arizona to my current city of residence, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Now, my wife and I are in the process of purging and packing to move to Leavenworth, Kansas. We are doing so voluntarily, as this has nothing to do with the federal penitentiary. Her parents live in Leavenworth.

I do love my in-laws, but I’m not sure I’m keen about a town that is all about prisons, the military (Fort Leavenworth), and churches. I’ve visited plenty of times, and it does have its charm (weekly farmers’ market, a couple nice coffee shops, and a handful of good restaurants), but at least we are not far from Kansas City (both of them).

What is truly exciting is that for the first time since my childhood, I’ll be back in an actual house, complete with front and back yards. The neighborhood is classic residential, so it remains to be seen how far we can go in rewilding our little lot without objections. There is a detached garage that I hope is full of spiders. We can see the “big house” from our house, the dome looming almost literally across the street behind us. There is a bison herd that grazes on the grounds there. No, seriously.

Meanwhile, I have developed chronic respiratory problems independent of Covid-19. Doctors are still trying to assess the cause, but it seems to be home grown, as I breathe fine everywhere but inside our townhouse. I have my theories, but I have plenty of speculative help on social media trying to solve the mystery. We do know my lungs are perfectly healthy. The problem appears to be getting a proper volume of air in and out of them without breaking into a coughing fit. I’ve been sleeping mostly upright in our recliner, and not all that well.

These bronchial issues have also halted my ability to publicize the Wasps book via interviews. I simply don’t have the endurance to talk very long. Hoping that improves drastically once we move, as I have interest from some stellar podcasts. Please see the sidebar on this blog for a promo code you can use for a discount when you buy the book from the publisher.

Leavenworth is on the Missouri River, and represents more or less an ecotone of where the Great Plains meets the eastern deciduous forest, heavily compromised by agriculture. It is hilly rather than the flat fly-over stereotype. Looking at range maps in my field guides, this intersection of Kansas-Missouri-Nebraska-Iowa is a veritable “black hole” where geographic ranges for various species abruptly stop. Everything is farther south, farther north, farther east, or farther west. This can’t be for real, and I’m anxious to see what really does live there.

We do see road trips in our future, but probably parceled-out rather sparingly, and no doubt dictated by the locations and interests of extended family.

Yes, my wife is more optimistic, and less of a sporadic nomad, than I am. I usually enter a new residence with enthusiasm that is eventually worn down by politics, sprawl, and other disappointments, so maybe the reverse will happen this time. Maybe we could start a nature center. Maybe I could find a partner and open a comedy club. Hey, the place could use a little….”levity.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Black in Entomology Week This Week!

This blogger apologizes for being late in promoting Black in Entomology Week, February 22-26. The event is most heavily publicized on Twitter under various hashtags, with the goals of fostering community for Black entomologists, creating funding opportunities, and simply sharing passion for the subject and inspiration for each other. This is a long overdue celebration, and I intend to continue highlighting Black entomologists throughout the year via guest posts, and spotlighting historical figures in the field.

Black in Entomology is not confined to the professional scientific community, by the way. According to the Black in Ento website, students of entomology, amateurs, and hobbyists are also invited to answer the #rollcall of #BlackInEnto.

Much of the focus this week is on changing institutional structure that has failed to adequately recruit, mentor, train, and retain Black students and researchers in entomology. This includes #intersectionality that recognizes additional identities such as non-binary individuals, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the disabled. There should be a place for all, and all should be equally welcomed and accommodated fully.

Panel discussions are being held, and archived in some cases, to address issues specific to the Black experience in entomology, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in general.

There is also a need to promote Black entomologists to positions of leadership. Universities, corporations, foundations, and other formal entities need to participate in this endeavor. Inclusiveness does not mean merely inviting traditionally disenfranchised demographic groups to “the table,” but to elect or appoint them to roles where they direct and guide the course of the organization.

Black in Entomology Week is sponsored in part by the Entomological Society of America, Societas Entomologica Canadensis, BASF, and Corteva. Various individuals and organizations have also stepped forward to offer prizes and scholarships, with donations accrued via GoFundMe.

It is highly encouraging to finally see a commitment to redeeming the colonial, discriminatory history of entomology and begin to embrace a future with equality, justice, and diversity as overriding priorities. This is going to take more than one week of recognition, of course. Please give generously of your time, experience, and finances to keep the momentum going. Thank you.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Mayfly Analogy

Metamorphosis is a wonderful thing. It is physiologically compulsory for insects, many other invertebrates, amphibians, and some fish. It is a conscious choice in humans from the perspective of emotional, social, and intellectual maturity. Some people choose to remain forever neotenous, never advancing their ability to empathize with others, or accept that diversity and equality enhance our species rather than impede our collective evolution.

Small minnow mayfly, Callibaetis sp., Mueller State Park, Colorado, USA

Mayflies, aquatic insects in the order Ephemeroptera, are best known for their ephemeral adult lifespans, often only a day or two, several days maximum, and as short as one hour. As underwater naiads, their youth may last three months to three years, depending on the species.

Mayflies are the only insects that molt after reaching adulthood. The naiad emerges from the water, splits its exoskeleton down the middle of the thorax, and a winged insect slowly draws itself out. This is the subimago, or “dun” in the parlance of anglers who model their imitation flies after certain mayflies.

The dun flies to another perch, such as foliage overhanging the water, or a bridge abutment, or similar platform. There, it repeats the molting process, becoming a fully-fledged, sexually mature imago that fly fishermen call a “spinner.” These adults lack functional mouthparts, as there is no time for feeding. There is only mating and, in the case of females, laying eggs. At least one species, Cloeon dipterum of the British Isles, births live naiads, having incubated the eggs within her body.

Common burrower mayfly, Hexagenia sp., along the Missouri River in Leavenworth, Kansas, USA

The evolutionary origin of mayflies dates back to the middle of the Carboniferous Period in the Paleozoic Era, about 325 million years ago. This places them near the most basal root of the phylogenetic tree of all winged insects.

The Ephemeroptera are the “E” in EPT, a biological index that informs water quality in environmental health assessments. Together with stoneflies (Plecoptera) and caddisflies (Trichoptera), mayfly naiads vary in their sensitivity to pollutants, overly turbid, and warmer-than-normal streams, rivers, and lakes. Generally, the more species diversity in these insect orders in a given watershed, the healthier the aquatic ecosystem is.

Our own children thrive best in environments devoid of toxic ideologies, and well-oxygenated with empathy, equality, justice, and peace instead of turbidity. The more diverse our neighborhoods, schools, and institutions are, the better.

True, the naiads of prongill mayflies, in the family Leptophlebiidae, ensconce themselves in crevices and shun the light, and burrowing mayflies in the family Ephemeridae tunnel into the silt or sand of streambeds and lake bottoms. That does not mean we should bury our own heads in the sand, stubbornly clinging to outdated social strategies that further divide us.

Small square-gilled mayfly, Caenis sp., Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA

Adult mayflies often emerge synchronously, in overwhelmingly abundant “hatches” that anglers attempt to time appropriately with their feather-and-thread imposters. Major rivers are often the site of these eruptions, and the Great Lakes are beginning to see a resurgence in numbers that have been at a historic ebb for decades thanks to pollution. Bulldozers are often necessary to sweep the dead insects from roadways lest they become a slick, greasy hazard.

Homo sapiens has been on this planet for barely the geological equivalent of one day, so perhaps we are all subimagos, having not yet graduated to full adulthood in appreciation of our own diversity. I like to think that I have entered that stage, aware, yet still awkward in my attempts to help others out of their own prejudicial entanglements, their ecdysis mired and twisted by privilege and entitlement.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I am a cicada, and thirteen or seventeen years hence I will realize I knew nothing. Still, the idea that just when you thought you were done, you are only a dun, resonates more. We may never arrive, never become spinners, but we are certainly farther away than we think we are.

A "slate drake" mayfly, Isonychia sp., from Leavenworth, Kansas, USA

Sources: Fauceglia, Ted. 2005. Mayflies: Major Eastern and Midwestern Hatches. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books. 196 pp.
Grimaldi, David, and Michael S. Engel. 2005. Evolution of the Insects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 755 pp.
McGavin, George C. 1998. The Pocket Guide to Insects of the Northern Hemisphere. London: Parkgate Books, Ltd. 208 pp.