Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

Letters to a Young Scientist

In Books on April 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I am a great admirer of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading biologists in the world.  He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (nonfiction), honorary curator in entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and one of the world’s leading authorities on ants.

Just glancing over at my bookshelf, I can see copies of his The Diversity of Life, Naturalist, In Search of Nature, Biophilia, and Journey to the Ants and the massive The Ants (both with Bert Hölldobler).  I’ve just finished reading his newest book, Letters to a Young Scientist (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), and I think it’s his best yet.

I suppose that “young” is a relative term.  To the octogenarian Dr. Wilson, my three-score-and-one years may qualify me.  As a new enthusiast to the world of entomology, particularly dragonflies, damselflies, and beetles, I quickly realized that I have too few years left in my life to learn much about such a wide variety of insects.  I recently wondered if I should try to “specialize” in some aspect of study, and Wilson’s book offers great advice and guidance to any “scientist”, of whatever age.

As I read, I highlighted passages that seemed to resonate with me, and quickly found that some pages contained more yellow markings than white background.  The following are short excerpts that I took to heart:

“…put passion ahead of training.  Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science…Obey that passion as long as it lasts [but] be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears.”

“Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake.”

“If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan on raising it, but meanwhile know that you can do outstanding work with what you have…For every scientist…of whatever competence in mathematics, there exists a discipline in science for which that level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.”

“Look for a chance to break away, to find a subject you can make your own…where established experts are not yet conspicuously competing with one another…There are thousands of subjects…where it is possible in a short time to attain the status of an authority.”

(I especially like the following):  “…in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment…the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree:  bright enough to see what can be done, but not so bright as to become bored doing it.”

“Go where the least action is occurring.”

“To make discoveries in science, both small and important, you must be an expert on the topics addressed.  To be an expert innovator requires commitment.”

I’ve just had my first scientific paper accepted for publication, and it’s a great thrill; however, as I mention in the report, it really contains nothing new, just previously-available data presented in a much more convenient and accessible format.  Wilson says:

“Original discoveries…are what count the most.  Let me put that more strongly:  they are all that counts.”

“You will make mistakes.  Try not to make big ones.  Whatever the case, admit them and move on.”

Excellent advice from a great man.  I’m seriously considering the “subject I can make my own.”  I recommend the book most highly.

References:

Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1994). Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1990). The Ants. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (2013). Letters to a Young Scientist. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Wilson, E. O. (1996). In Search of Nature. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1994). Naturalist. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1992). The Diversity of Life. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (and West)

In Books on April 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm

When I first became interested in dragonflies and damselflies in 2009, one of the very first books I bought was Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West.  As I was living in Missouri, the book BARELY covered the species I was accustomed to seeing, and I was delighted when his Eastern guide came out a couple of years later.  Now that we’re moving to Wyoming, I expect to be using the Western book more and more.

IF I COULD OWN ONLY ONE ODONATE BOOK, IT WOULD BE ONE OF THESE GUIDES.  Here’s the review I wrote for Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East,when I received it in 2012.  Go out and buy one of these volumes.  You will not be sorry.

I’ve been waiting for nearly a year for the release of Dr. Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, a companion volume to his 2009 edition on species of the western United States.  I’ve never met Dennis “in person”, but he has become a valued Internet Friend, always ready to lend assistance to my floundering efforts and to answer my often banal questions.  He’s retired from the University of Puget Sound, somewhere WAY up in the State of Washington, and is one of the top “Dragonfly Guys” in the country.

I got a notice from Amazon last week, letting me know that my copy had been shipped; however, delivery services are rather slow here in the Missouri Ozarks.  I kept myself busy “tracking” the package on their website, and was delighted to learn, early this afternoon, that the book had finally arrived at our local postoffice.

Since our rural mailcarrier loads up his truck early each morning, finally delivering my mail around 4 PM, I knew that it would be late tomorrow before I got to open my parcel.  Therefore, I leaped into the Jeep, the Best Dog in the World, my faithful Boston terrier, Dobby, at my side, and sped into Mansfield to the post office.  Cathy, the postmistress (is that politically correct?  Whatever.) saw me coming, and knew why I was there.  “Got your book right here”, she said, retrieving it from the Postal Bowels (might be a better simile, but I’m in a hurry).  Tina, the postal clerk, is usually the one who takes care of my Entomological Postal Business; however, she was nowhere in sight.

“Do you know what this is?”, I asked.  “I’ll bet Tina could guess”.  Cathy thought for a moment.  “It’s gotta be a book, and I know it’s something odd.  Frogs?”

“NO!!!!” I shouted gleefully, ripping off the packaging right there on the counter, “Bugs!!!”  She looked at the cover and smiled.  “Dragonflies and damselflies.  That’s cool.”  “If I may say so myself,” I replied, “I probably know MORE about dragonflies and damselflies that ANYONE ELSE in ALL of Douglas County, Missouri.”  “Does anybody else know anything about them?”  “Probably not.”

“So, are the female dragonflies called ‘damselflies’?”  I started to laugh, then realized, “That’s a pretty good question.”  I then gave her the brief speech on the difference, before racing home to loll in the tub with the book.

You really NEED this book!

I own a well-thumbed copy of Dennis’s western book, and was curious as to whether he’d just taken the information from the older book, updated it a bit with maps of the eastern U.S., then foisted it on an unsuspecting public.  I’ve used the western book a lot.  Although it technically doesn’t cover anything east of Kansas and Oklahoma, there’s a lot of overlap, and the information has been most useful.

After an hour’s perusal, I’ve decided this is NOT a rehash of the western book, but a completely reworked edition, with substantially more information, and much more (to my eyes) user-friendly. 

I’ve been chasing, collecting, TRYING to identify, and documenting odonates for about three years now.  In the case of damselflies, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I am semi-reliable in identifying the broadwings and pond damsels quickly down to genus (haven’t had much contact with spreadwings–the other category–yet), although my efforts to determine species are usually painful to watch.  This new book points out differences in a very helpful way, as typified by the following entry from the section on the Dusky dancer (Argia translata):

Western guide (2009):  “No other dancer, or pond damsel for that matter, has blue on abdomen tip exactly as male of this species.”  Helpful, I suppose, but how close is “exactly”?

Eastern guide (2011):  “No other dancer…has abdomen almost entirely dark in male.  Limited blue on abdomen tip not shared by any other species.”  This is what I need to know, and this edition covers ALL of Missouri, as well as Arkansas and Louisiana, two other states where I often find myself swinging a net!!!

The book, like its predecessor, is beautifully written and illustrated, and I’m already going through it, marking it up with a highlighter, so that the important field marks will jump out at me.

Dennis has done a splendid job with Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East.  Sort of a Robert E. Lee‘s Birthday present to myself.

It would be just great if I could talk him into coming down from Washington state and spending a week with us down here in the holler.  Bet I could learn some stuff.  I’d even drive him around and keep him fed and well-hydrated.

A Word of Explanation

In Uncategorized on April 2, 2013 at 4:12 pm

After six years in the Missouri Ozarks, our family will be moving to Lander, Wyoming, in the late spring or early summer of 2013.  In preparation for that move, this blog was started to chronicle my outdoor/entomology/natural history activities in Lander, near the Popo Agie River.

UNTIL we move, however, I’ve transferred quite a few blog posts from my FORMER blog, “The Bugs of Booger County”.  For that reason, you’ll see a lot of information on my Missouri activities.  Once we hit the ground in Wyoming, I’ll try to keep you up-to-date on the new and interesting things we discover there.

Thanks for visiting.

UPDATE, LATE JUNE, 2013:

Our home in Missouri remains unsold; however, my wife and daughter must be in Wyoming around the end of July.  For the foreseeable future, looks like I will remain in the Ozarks, safeguarding the house while we await a buyer, while they become established in the Rockies.  For awhile, at least, The Bugs of Popo Agie will consist of material from the Missouri Ozarks.  Stay tuned.

Wipe That Coprophagic Grin Off Your Face!

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm

One of the wonderful things about blogging is the opportunity I have to introduce you to some of the really cool folks I get to meet, and to share some of the neat stuff I come across. I met Kent Fothergill at the Missouri Master Naturalist conference in October, and have been corresponding with him ever since.

Despite my wife’s objections, and total disgust, Kent and I have been e-mailing frequently about dragonflies, beetles, and (especially) dung beetles. Although I’m a confirmed dragonfly freak, he’s opening my eyes to coleopterans, especially scarabs.  He’s recommended several books, which are on the way, and is even sending me a “dung beetle trap”.  After an off-hand comment about collecting them on Boston Terrier poop, today’s e-mails brought me an article on A Dung Beetle Assemblage in an Urban Park in Louisiana and a story about a kid who did a science fair project on frozen versus fresh animal feces for attracting dung beetles.

Kent steered me to the following article.  HOW did the Missouri Extension Service manage to hold this event without my knowledge????

I just love this stuff.

Dung Beetles do the Dirty Work

 Field day looks at nature’s cleanup crew

(From the MU Cooperative Media Group, September 8, 2010)

PhotoKent Fothergill examines traps at recent Dung Beetle Field Day

COOK STATION, Mo. – For people, cowpats are smelly obstacles, but some creatures call them home. “To dung beetles, a dung pat is an ephemeral island in a hostile sea of grass,” said University of Missouri research associate Kent Fothergill at a recent dung beetle field day at MU Wurdack Farm in the Ozarks.

About two dozen people spent the day learning about dung beetles and the helpful role they can play on cow pastures. Dung beetles do more than make short work of cowpats littering pastures. “They improve soil structure, help control flies and other livestock pests, and recycle nutrients that otherwise would be lost,” said Wayne Bailey, MU Extension state entomologist. There are about 5,000 species of dung beetle throughout the world. They all like to eat dung, but some live inside dung pats, others tunnel beneath them while still others, the “rollers,” grab bits of manure, form them into little balls and, as Fothergill puts it, “take their little piece of heaven and run away with it.”

Dung beetles once were far more plentiful on American pastures, but the widespread use of certain drugs to worm cattle turned the manure of treated livestock into a lethal environment for the beetles. In recent years, however, pastures have become more hospitable, with more producers using different wormers or timing treatments so they are less damaging to the beetles. Because modern pastures can support more livestock, native dung beetle species may not be able to keep up with the increased manure production.

In the 1980s, USDA scientists in Texas experimented with importing species from abroad to help pick up the slack. Among the imports was gazella, an African beetle so voracious that just a few hundred of them can dismantle 150 pounds of elephant poop in less than 24 hours. Some farmers pay hundreds of dollars—about a buck a beetle—to buy starter colonies of gazella and similar species for their pastures.

Ralph Voss, an Osage County farmer and self-described “dung beetle enthusiast” talked at the field day about his experience with dung beetles on his farm. Voss encourages producers to swap beetles with other farmers to establish a healthy mix of species. A diverse beetle population—with differing feeding habits based on factors such as time of day, weather and climate, freshness of dung and the livestock’s diet—can promote a more efficient division of labor, meaning quicker removal of manure. However, as yet there is no reliable formula for maintaining a thriving dung beetle population on your farm. Creating ideal conditions for one species may be disastrous for another. That’s why Bailey is working with farmers, extension specialists and researchers such as Fothergill to collect data about dung beetle populations across Missouri.

“The questions are huge,” said Fothergill, who has trapped dung beetles from pastures near MU’s Delta Research Center in Portageville. He sees the cowpat as a scientific frontier awaiting researchers with the funding and fortitude to explore it. “They’re neat little model ecosystems that can help us answer big ecological questions.”

Other speakers at the field day included Tanja McKay, a veterinarian and entomologist at Arkansas State University. Her research team, which collected and studied dung beetles from Arkansas pastures, was featured last year in an episode of the Discovery Channel television series “Dirty Jobs.” Kelly Tindall, research entomologist at the MU Delta Center, told how dung beetles help in grazing systems by improving plant growth, reducing nutrient runoff and making more forage available to livestock.

PhotoSpecies collected included: Dichotomius carolinus (left) Onthophagus sp. (right)

Veterinarian Jody Wade of St. Joseph-based Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc. talked about the livestock wormer moxidectin, a “dung beetle friendly” alternative to ivermectin. After the presentations, attendees got to examine the contents of dung beetle traps placed in Wurdack Farm pastures that morning. In just a few hours the traps had snagged a wide assortment of beetle species, from a tiny Labarrus pseudolividus to the walnut-sized Dichotomius carolinus.

Forty-five Cent Insect Collection Boxes

In Entomology-General on April 2, 2013 at 2:49 pm

I really feel a little guilty about passing this tip along.  Seems a little …er…sneaky, I guess.

I started my insect collections over the past couple of years.  The odonates (dragonflies and damselflies) are pretty easy to store.  You just slip them into a glassine envelope, wings folded, and slide an index card behind them, with all the collection data.  I use a series of little plastic index card boxes to keep everything neat.

Beetles and butterflies, however, are a different story.  They have to be pinned, and I have to make tiny little labels for each specimen, with the bug a certain distance from the top of the pin, and the two labels spaced just so.  Then, I pin them neatly into cardboard boxes that have a foam bottom.

When I started, I bought a couple of the boxes from a scientific supply house.  As I remember, these simple cardboard boxes, about 8×11 inches, with lids, cost me WELL over ten bucks each.

Well, the boxes are finally starting to get full.  Not having any extra money to toss away on cardboard, I came up with a terrific way to get a DOZEN great boxes, and have only shelled out a grand total of FIVE DOLLARS AND THIRTY-THREE CENTS (including tax)!!

First, let me say…

I LOVE the United States Postal Service.  They bring me all sorts of neat stuff every day, even way out in the Ozark wilderness where I live.  I keep in touch with great folks, all over the country, and only have to pay forty-four cents to send them a letter.  My local postal employees are friendly, courteous and efficient, and it is a joy to deal with them.

That being said…

Go down to your local post office and get two or three “Priority Mail Medium Flat Rate Boxes”.  Don’t get greedy.  Just get a few.  The post office will GIVE them to you.  You are supposed to take them home, cram them full of stuff, then go BACK to the post office and give them ten or eleven bucks, and they’ll send them anywhere in the country.  You don’t pay ANYTHING until you bring them back to mail them.

The boxes require simple assembly.  Basically, you should separate the box at the little flap where the long sides are joined.  Then, fold the box together as per USPS instructions.  You now have a super-nifty box, with folding lid, that is about 11×14.5 inches.  So far, you have paid NOTHING.

Then, go down to the Wal-Mart “arts and crafts section” and buy a package containing twelve sheets of thin foam.  My Wal-Mart sold this in a pack with an assortment of colors, each sheet quite thin and measuring 11.8″ x 17.7″.  Total cost: $5.33, including tax.

I then went home and cut about 4-1/4 inches off the long side of each sheet, and glued one sheet into the bottom of each box with some good old Elmer’s School Glue.  Fits perfectly.

VOILA!!  A DOZEN insect pinning boxes, costing me just a shade under 45 cents each.  I suppose, if you are extra cheap…er…thrifty, you could skip the foam altogether and just pin the bugs directly to the cardboard, and the whole thing would be completely free.

Of course, if you’re bothered about having your insect collection housed in red-white-and-blue United States Postal Service Priority Mail boxes, I suppose you could paint the outside, to disguise your crime.  I’m gonna leave mine just as they are, at least until the Postal Police come knocking on my door.

Down the Creek Without a Paddle

In Aquatic macroinvertebrates, Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring on April 2, 2013 at 2:46 pm

This past Sunday was the first day of spring (I think!), and a wonderful day to be paddling on Bryant Creek, here in the Missouri Ozarks.

John and Sue and I put our kayaks and canoe in at the “Monastery Bridge” in Douglas County, only a mile or so from Assumption Abbey, a Trappist monastery, and paddled over ten miles downstream to the Highway 95 bridge, just below the Ozark County line.

In addition to enjoying a great day of sun, fun, and good companionship, we were conducting chemical monitoring of the stream at one-mile intervals as part of the State of Missouri’s Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring (VWQM) program.  This endeavour provides free training to individuals, enabling them, in the Introductory training, to learn to identify “aquatic macroinvertebrates” (bug larva) as indicators of water quality.

Later, the volunteers may choose to proceed through three levels of advanced training, during which they become proficient in conducting tests of water/air temperature, turbidity, pH, conductivity, nitrate, phosphate, and dissolved oxygen levels.  The Missouri Stream Team organization then provides ALL the necessary equipment, free of charge, to the volunteer–sampling nets, chemical analysis equipment, thermometers, sample jars–pretty much EVERYTHING, except a canoe.

John is a Level 3 monitor, so he provided the “adult supervision” for Sue and me.  Our Master Naturalist chapter, based in West Plains, developed an ambitious project in 2010, whereby we would monitor every mile of the 42+ mile, floatable portion of Bryant Creek, from the Vera Cruz MDC (Missouri Conservation Department) access, down to the confluence of Bryant with the North Fork of the White River at Tecumseh.

We divided the stream into four sections, with a team leader responsible for each segment.  As my segment was substantially longer than the others, John and Sue graciously lent their help in covering almost 2/3 of the nearly 18-mile stretch.

Early on, we passed a crystalline spring, which issued from a cave on the left hillside, tumbling over mossy rocks down to the creek.

The temperatures rose to nearly 80 during the day, and I only managed to sink my kayak TWICE, an improvement of 33% over last year’s outing, although I DID manage to lose my paddle in the process.  Fortunately, John had brought an extra, so I was not left to live in the wilderness, eating lichens, and slowly starving and turning feral.
We sampled twelve sites, and managed to reach the take-out point just as darkness descended.  All the data was organized, and submitted electronically to the Missouri Stream Team program, a truly wonderful undertaking, which involves over 4,000 volunteer “stream teams” which clean, monitor, and enjoy Missouri’s beautiful waterways.
A truly great way to spend a day, with good friends, a beautiful stream, and a worthwhile reason to be there.
With apologies to Anne Murray:
Can you imagine a piece of the universe more fit for princes and kings?
I’ll trade you ten of your cities for my Bryant Creek, and the pleasures it brings.
 
Out on the Bryant, on soft summer nights,
Bonfires blaze, to the children’s delight.
They dance ’round the flames, singing songs with their friends,
I wish I was with them again.

Science Nerds

In Uncategorized on April 2, 2013 at 2:44 pm

Nerd is a term that refers to an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit.  (Wikipedia)

I don’t care very much for television.  Immediately after I retired, however, I outfitted a spare room in my Louisiana house into a Man Cave, and bought a little set, so I could watch a football or hockey game from time to time.  One afternoon, I came across a station that ran three or four of the older, original CSI programs, back-to-back every afternoon, and was soon hooked.

These were the first shows, with Gil Grissom, Sarah Sidle, Warrick Brown, Catherine Willows and Nick Stokes as the major characters, all of whom worked as Crime Scene Investigators in Las Vegas.  All of them seemed to have one or more character flaws or eccentricities, and these were My Kind of People.

I especially remember one scene when they were all sitting around the break room, talking about their high school days.  One asked the others, “What kind of kid were you in high school?”  Every one of them, including the muscular, handsome, All-American quarterback-looking Nick (George Eads), said, “Science Nerd”.

I am a Science Nerd.  I was not a Science Nerd in high school.  In high school, I was just a Regular Nerd.  I had absolutely no interest in biology, chemistry, nor “general science” (the only three science classes taught at my rural Louisiana high school).  In fact, I can’t recall ANY school subject that really GRABBED me, although I did pretty well in them all, by rural Louisiana standards, anyway.

It wasn’t until I was well into my fourth decade that I really began to appreciate, and wonder about, the natural world.  I remember that one of my first real “science interests” was dolphins.  That’s a pretty weird subject for a landlocked guy from the bayous of north Louisiana, but I read everything I could get my hands on about Tursiops truncatus, the Atlantic bottlenosed dolphin.  In my late 30s, I returned to school, majoring in zoology, taking all kinds of “odd” subjects–Herpetology, Entomology, Marine Field Biology, Vertebrate Zoology–and interacting with all kinds of really SHARP twenty-something kids, many (if not most) of whom (at least in the junior/senior level courses) were bona fide Science Nerds.  This was FUN.

I “adopted” a young guy from Iowa, who had no car.  We raced all over the country with bug nets, trying to assemble impressive insect collections to satisfy our demanding entomology professor.  We waded swamps and bayous, netting fish for the Vertebrate class.  We turned over logs and wallowed in swamps, finding salamanders and snakes for Herpetology.  The grade was important, but this was FUN!!

One of my best friends in Louisiana was a biology teacher, and a lifelong Science Nerd.  Two of my friends at church, a married couple, became Science Nerds later in life, and started conducting research on the behavior and reproduction of box turtles.  They returned to college, and have even reported the results of their experimentations and observations in professional, technical scientifical journals.

As an almost sixty-year-old Science nerd, my interests have evolved, and change pretty frequently.  Today, I enjoy capturing an identifying freshwater aquatic macroinvertebrates (insect larva), which are used as indicators of stream quality.  I also conduct chemical testing on several of “my” Ozark streams, submitting the data to the Missouri Department of Conservation so they can assess stream health.  I’m learning to identify wild mushrooms.  Bought my own microscope.

Within the past couple of years, I’ve become interested in the lives and habits of odonates (dragonflies and damselflies), and spend the warmer months racing about, capturing specimens, trying to identify them, and determining distributions of species (what bugs live where) in the Ozarks.  In doing so, I’ve come into contact, usually by e-mail, with some of the leading Dragonfly Guys and Gals in the country.  It’s really a hoot to correspond with the People Who Wrote The Books, and to have them answer my often stupid questions, and give me guidance and advice.

Recently, I met a fellow Science Nerd (who actually gets paid to find bugs), who got me started in collecting and (hopefully) identifying beetles.  He sent me a large box a couple of weeks ago.  Inside, was a homemade trap, made from a two-liter soda bottle, for the capture of dung beetles.

THIS IS FUN!!!!

I had trouble identifying a beetle this week.  I had a tentative identification, and managed to get in touch with an expert in that particular family of beetles.  This guy is at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian in Washington, and he took the time to correspond with me, and set me on the right track.

I’ve met so many good folks, Science Nerds all, and have a simply wonderful time piddling around with my silly interests.  My wife, No Nerd She, understands none of this.  “Why do you CARE what sort of dung beetles are found in the Ozarks?  NOBODY cares.  And PLEASE don’t tell me how you bait those traps while we’re sitting at the dinner table!!”

I guess I don’t REALLY care.  But it’s fun to find out.  And it’s fun to get out with these folks from time to time and float an Ozark stream, wade around with a seine and look at tiny little bugs.  Or stalk the edge of a pond, insect net in hand, and manage to outwit a new dragonfly species.  Or poke through a pile of …er…you know, and see if any beetles peek out. 

While working in the yard this afternoon, my WONDERFUL eight-year old daughter, Susan, looked under a ceramic pot in the garden, and found her very FIRST beetle.  She picked it up.  “It BIT me,” she yelled, but kept it in sight long enough to drop it into a vial of alcohol.  As soon as I finish this post, I’m gonna show her how to make an insect label, record her collection data, and pin it for our coleopteran collection, with HER name listed as the collector.

My wife says I spend too much money on gasoline, and books, and nets and such.  I tell her that I don’t spend ANY money on gambling, saloons, or whores, so what’s the problem?

Wonder where I can get one of those NIFTY pocket protectors?

 

Yes, Virginia, I CAN Teach You How to Make a Dung Beetle Trap!

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:43 pm

One of the greatest joys of life is having interesting friends, and I can truly say that I have been blessed.  My new friend, Kent Fothergill, knows everything, and generously shares his knowledge with me.  I met him in October, when he was giving a workshop on butterflies (Yawn!!) at the Missouri Master Naturalist state conference.  His name seemed vaguely familiar, and I soon realized that I’d seen some of his dragonfly collection records on the Odonata Central website.

Kent has a way of making anything interesting, (I even enjoyed the butterflies!) and I’m afraid he’s gotten me enthused about beetles, even though I’ve yet to collect my first one.  I’ve ordered several books, and am getting REALLY excited about capturing some dung beetles.

As a child of rural Louisiana, I remember often watching these wonderful little bugs rolling their balls of manure around, and realized that I probably haven’t seen one in decades.  Are they disappearing, or am I simply spending somewhat less time watching piles of cattle poop?

I got three babyfood jars, filled two of them about 2/3 full of Boston Terrier poop, and buried them in my yard, even with the surface.

Filled the other one 2/3 full of human feces (don’t ask!), and buried it, as well.  The idea was that the beetles would be attracted to the bait, fall into the jars, then be too stupid to fly out.

Well, they were either smarter than I’d expected, or the bait didn’t exactly pull them in.

Yesterday, a box arrived in the mail, containing what I like to call a “Fothergill Model A Dung Beetle Trap”.  This thing is simplicity itself, and I just spent a Sunday afternoon making ten more, which I plan to bury all over my place, as soon as the bad weather passes through.  Only one step in the trap construction gave me any problems, and I soon modified the design into the “Fothergill B”.  I fully expect that you will immediately drop everything you are doing, and start putting together a couple dozen of these puppies.  Your spouse, if mine is any indication, will think you are a complete idiot.

I first needed some large soda bottles, of which I had none.  After church, my wife drove me to the recycling center, which is closed on Sunday.  I stepped over the gate chain, and proudly marched up to the “Plastics” bin.  These bins seem to have been designed to discourage 59-year-old men in their church clothes, but “fortitude” is my middle name.  I had to sorta crawl over a railing, then lean WAY down into the bin, but managed to come up with ten bottles.

Take the bottle, and (using your wife’s best pair of scissors), cut off the bottom six-and-a-half inches of the bottle.  Save it.  Then take the remaining part of the bottle, and cut off the TOP four inches.  Save it, too.  You’ll end up throwing away about 2″ of the MIDDLE of the bottle.

Okay, we’re on a roll now.
Take the top portion (the spout), turn it upside down, and drop it into the bottom portion.
Once you’ve pressed the two parts together, you can use a couple of little pieces of duct tape to keep everything together.  I have neglected to illustrate this step.  Use your imagination.

If you’ve been able to follow along, you now have a plastic cylinder, with a funnel leading into the bottom of the cylinder.  NOW, comes the technical stuff.  Kent uses little plastic “condiment cups” to hold the “bait”.  On his prototype, he had fashioned a little spiderlike contraption with a circular area to hold the cup.  I spent quite a lot of time trying to fashion this little piece, and ended up swearing a lot.  You are probably much more adept than I, so you can make the piece out of thin wire, as shown below:

Here’s the point where I gave everybody a cussing, and developed the Fothergill “B”. Instead of fooling around, trying to make the spiderlike thing, I simply took one of the plastic cups and made four VERY small holes at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00.The Fothergill BI then sorta shoved two pieces of straight wire (I used wire cut from surveyor’s flags), one each through the pairs of opposite holes, forming an “X”. As you can see, I then just bent the ends down, to keep the whole mess from sliding off the bottle.

 The ONLY drawback I can see is that the …er…bait will probably get all over the wires, but this ain’t a project for the squeamish.
NOW, pour a bit of CHEAP antifreeze into the bottom of the bottle.  Then fill the bait cup with your choice of mammalian dung.  Take the whole affair and bury it, with the top lip of the bottle level with the ground surface.
The idea is that the beetles will be attracted to the bait, then stupidly fall into the funnel, and die in the antifreeze.  Kent says to check the trap at least weekly, but I’m sure I’ll have to look at least a dozen times daily.  By the way, I saved the tops of the surveyor’s flags (with about 3″ of wire left on) to mark the traps.
Should you anticipate rainy weather, an optional “rain hat” can be constructed, as per Kent’s instructions.  Simply take a disposable plastic or styrofoam dessert dish, invert it, and drive three 4″ nails at equal intervals around the perimeter.

Then use the nails as legs to erect a shelter over the trap, leaving an inch or so open at the bottom to allow entry to the beetles.

 Interesting friends make for an interesting life.  I am forever indebted to Kent for the idea, and for the prototype.
Should you decide to construct these traps (and why WOULDN’T you?) be sure to give due credit, and ALWAYS refer to the apparatus as a “Fothergill”.  I hope that someday Kent will be as famous as Mr. …er…Kleenex.
(Note:  In a subsequent message, Kent informs me that the Fothergill is actually based on the design by Mike Smart, and that the Rain Hat is the brainchild of Ted MacRae [see Ted’s “Beetles in the Bush” blog, linked below.].  Since, however, Kent is the Henry Ford of dung beetle traps, perfecting the assembly line, I STILL will refer to them as “Fothergills”.)

Basic Beetling

In Coleoptera on April 2, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Wouldn’t ANY woman love to receive a pair of dead dung beetles from an admirer?

Two years ago, my friend Kelby Ouchley, a retired area manager for the USF&W in Louisiana, posted a beautiful picture of a dragonfly of some sort on Facebook, complete with identification. I sent back a snide (and completely fictitious) comment–something to the effect that his identification was incorrect, since this particular bug was undoubtedly a species found only in an area 100 yards distant from the capture site.

One thing led to another, and soon Kelby had me racing about the Missouri Ozarks, short-handled net in hand, sweating and swearing, and doing my best to snag any and all odonates clumsy or stupid enough to allow a 58-year-old guy to run them down.

I spent HUGE sums on dragonfly guides and gasoline. I became (via the Internet) acquainted with some of the nation’s premier odonate specialists–guys like John Abbott at the University of Texas, Dennis Paulson at the University of Puget Sound, Ed Lam in New England, Steve Hummel in Iowa, Nick Donnelly in New York, George Harp in Arkansas.

I invested in a larger and better net, preservative chemicals and supplies, even a dissecting microscope, so that my ancient eyes could pick out some of the more obscure diagnostic characteristics.

I began posting information on my captures to John Abbott’s EXCELLENT website, Odonata Central (www.odonatacentral.org).

Then, last October, I attended the annual gathering of Missouri Master Naturalists, at a state park near Saint Louis. I was assigned to a workshop on butterflies!!! BUTTERFLIES, a subject in which I had absolutely NO interest.

The workshop leader, Kent Fothergill, however, was one of the most enthusiastic guys I’d ever met. As the workshop progressed, I realized that his name was familiar, and finally realized that he was one of the FEW fools (beside myself) who’d been collecting dragonflies in Missouri and posting the results to the Abbott site.

We became fast friends, and began corresponding regularly. As dragonflies and damselflies disappear during the winter months, he gradually eased me into looking for BEETLES, while I waited for the reappearance of my beloved odonates. Do you have ANY idea how many different types of beetles exist, just in the Missouri Ozarks? One bazillion. And you can’t find them all in just one reference source. You have to buy DOZENS.

In addition, I guess I’d figured that most beetles would be BIG guys, easily seen and identified. WRONG!!! The vast majority of the things I’m collecting are well under 10 millimeters (that’s about four-tenths of an inch!!)

After awhile, Kent sent me a homemade trap designed to trap DUNG beetles. (You might want to check out another post in this blog, “Yes, Virginia, I CAN teach you how to make a dung beetle trap!”)

Much to my wife’s disgust, I’d soon constructed twelve of the gizmos, with a slight modification, and began referring to them as “Fothergill Model B” traps. Set them out all over my twenty-acre “holler”, baited with…er…you know…DUNG. Had to do this while my wife was at work. Also had to sneak into my neighbor’s cattle pasture with a shovel and box, in order to procure bait. Had to be crisp on the outside, and fresh on the inside.  Thought it would be interesting to bait traps with a variety of baits–from cows, horses, Boston Terriers, and humans (don’t ask!!!), and see which attracted the most beetles.  (So far, cow poop is leading the pack!)

Before long, I was up to my armpits in beetles. Not just dung beetles. Ladybugs, a tiger beetle or two. Fat scarabs. Skinny ground beetles.

Before long, I was also being driven into penury by trying to buy appropriate reference books. Beetling is just as addictive as catching dragonflies, and substantially easier. There are so many more of them, and they are, for the most part, rather slower than am I.

A box arrived in the mail two weeks ago. Kent had sent me several specimens of a beautiful dung beetle, Phanaeus vindex. I don’t know if it has a common name or not. While sitting in the hospital waiting room, awaiting my wife, Amanda’s, recent minor surgery, I fell into conversation with her boss, a beautiful and charming woman.

Several days after the surgery, as Amanda prepared to return to work, I presented her with a small box, carefully wrapped, and asked her to take it to her boss, telling her that I’d promised her a small gift. When Amanda returned that afternoon, she was incredulous. “You are an IDIOT!!!  You mean to tell me that you spent two hours chitchatting with a lovely and sophisticated lady, and you were telling her about DUNG BEETLES?!?!?!?”

“Well, she seemed quite interested. We had a very nice talk.  She actually had several anecdotes about dung beetles, from her childhood.”

“THEN, you had the audacity to actually WRAP up a pair of dead dung beetles and send them to her!?!?!?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t do that for just anybody. Did she like them?”

“Well, yes, she actually thought they were beautiful, but I was mortified.”

It’s mid-May now. The dragonflies should be back by now, but this odd Ozark spring weather hasn’t cooperated. I’ve only seen two, and they were blazing past, far too fast and too high to catch. The beetles, however, are still in abundance. I ran my Fothergill B’s the other day, and have 78 beetles, in vials of alcohol, to identify, and probably many more floating around in the traps, just waiting for me to come and get them.

If you have ANY interest whatsoever in beetles, check out the links at the lower left of my blog page. I am NOT the only Weird Bug Nerd out there.  Wonder if the zoo would let me have a bit of rhinocerous and alligator poop?

Demoiselles

In Odonata on April 2, 2013 at 2:40 pm

One of the many hobbies that my wife finds stupid involves studying, identifying, and capturing “odonates”–dragonflies and damselflies.  In a nutshell, dragonflies tend to be somewhat larger, fly quickly and strongly, and they hold their wings horizontally when perching.  Damselflies, supposedly named for their petite bodies (beautifully captured by the French word ”demoiselle”), are slender, tend to flutter rather than streak, tend to hold their wings paralll to their bodies when at rest, and are MUCH easier for an almost-sixty-year-old geezer to catch.

That being said, my favorite among all the damselflies is a broad-winged lovely called Calopteryx maculata, the Ebony Jewelwing.  These gorgeous little bugs are found in profusion all over my beloved Ozarks, particularly near swift, clear streams, and often flutter about a shallow-water, grassy/bushy plant that I believe is called “water willow“.  (Thanks to Dennis Bell, my old buddy who teaches botany at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, for the plant identification.)  As a matter of fact, my current stupid project is to try to personally document the presence of these insects in every one of Missouri’s counties, with my progress thus far shown on this map: 

Even a neophyte such as I can catch them, and it’s simple to differentiate the sexes, even from a distance.  The males have solid black wings, and an irridescent body, while the wings of the females are a translucent brown, with a prominent white spot (or “pterostigma”) on the wings.

 
 So…a couple of days ago, I’m sitting on my front porch, swilling a cold, adult beverage and supporting the Missouri brewing industry.  Susan, my eight-year-old daughter (Yes, I am almost sixty!  Yes, I have an eight-year-old daughter!) and her friend Sadey were racing around the yard with nets, wreaking havoc among the butterflies in the yard.  They’d grab one, then bring it over to me for identification.
  

All their hard work was making me tired, so I yelled out, “You guys want to go to Hunter Creek?”  Eight-year-old girls (and sixty-year-old guys) LOVE to go swimming at Hunter Creek, where crystal water spills over bedrock into deep gravelled pools, with a hundred-foot cliff as a backdrop, and LOTS of water willow.
 
Within an hour, we were there.  I piddled around on the bank, catching a few species of Argia damselflies, a delicate little bluish bug, while they splashed about, leaping off an eight-foot rock into the pool, and swarming about with their bug nets.  I, meanwhile, was basking, lizardlike, on a large mid-stream rock, still helping to improve the stock price of Anheuser-Busch.
 
After awhile, the girls came over to rest.  Nearby, the jewelwings were going about their buggy business.  The males are quite territorial, defending small stretches of streambank from rivals.  When an intruder appears, they rush toward each other, ebony wings flashing, and one usually retreats.  The victor then sits on a leaf, preening and flexing, and acting VERY nonchalant about the whole affair.
 
I pointed out one of the males to the girls.  “Watch that guy,” I said.  “His name’s Liam (using the name of one of their third-grade classmates), and he’s just sitting around on the beach, keeping an eye out for girls.”
 
A few feet away, a female alit, pointedly ignoring Liam.  “That’s Sadey,” says I.  “She’s wearing her new bikini, and hoping the boys notice her.”  The girls giggled a bit.  Another female settled down in the general area.  “There’s Susan, in HER bikini.  Watch what happens now.  Each girl damselfly will start to stretch her wings, and stick out her chest, showing off for Liam, hoping he’ll like her better.”
 
When I turned around, Human Susan and Human Sadey were stretching and preening, and trying to show the damselfly girls what to do.  It must have worked, for Liam soon forsook his perch and zipped over to Bug Sadey, and the two disappeared into the underbrush.
 

 
Girl Susan was somewhat devastated.  In a moment, however, another male arrived on the scene.  Girl Sadey was still crowing over her victory over Liam.  “Who’s that new guy on the scene?” I asked.
 
Susan didn’t hesitate.  “It’s Justin Bieber!!, she squealed, resuming her posturing.  Young Mr. Bieber, for those uninformed souls, is a rather androgynous, seventeen-year-old singer, who is adored by eight-year-old girls, who are said to be consumed with “Bieber Fever”.
 
After but a moment, Bug Justin and Bug Susan lit out for the weedy area, as Susan boasted.  “Susan got Justin, and Sadey got stuck with Liam!!!”.
 
At any rate, we had a fine old time.  Two Ozarkian eight-year-olds learned a new bug, and they can tell the boys from the girls.  I really hope, however, that my two demoiselles don’t try out their fluttering and preening the next time THEY go to the beach.