What I do during the not-field season

dsc_0050 On the one hand, I want field season to start up again, like today.  On the other, I still have so many specimens to process, so much data to analyze, so many journal articles to read, I could actually skip spring and summer this year and be busy for the next 12 months.

In the field biology realm, as it takes place in the upper latitudes, you have a field season and a lab season.  Depending on what your organism is and where you are, it could be 3-months and 9-months, or 6-and-6, which is how it is where I am.  For 6 months I’m almost never indoors and I’m cut up, bitten, sunburned, sweaty, stung and weary.  For the other 6 months, I’m rarely outdoors and I’m tunnel visioned, analytic, pasty, caffeinated, restless and nocturnal.

While I’m inside these days, with the sun low and cold and the rain ever present, I’m longing for the bucolic field days of summer.  When I’m traipsing around the back forty with vials tucked into my underwear, chasing my subjects and alternately being chased by them, those winter months sound downright cozy.

Dung beetles and the scarcity of scat

This is a good review of an article in Neotropical Entomology (Jacobs, 2008 ) about phoresy and poo-diving strategies in dung beetles: How to Find a Turd in the Woods.

“Elsewhere, we hear of a research assistant who “reported that a fecal pellet from a bald-faced saki monkey, with dung beetles attached, fell directly into his shirt pocket as he was observing monkeys in the canopy overhead.” Fieldwork doesn’t get any better than that, y’all.”

True true.  I have a subset of specimens that I unknowingly sat on in the field and later peeled off my jeans – they’re still good specimens.  A bit flat.

Lazy Susan of Microbes

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I guess I thought the Lazy Susan was an American invention used in Asian restaurants to facilitate serving.  They’re utterly common in Taiwan as well; the whole business of eating is quite different there.

You start with a tiny bowl that you fill with rice and then you come to the table and sit down.  The Lazy Susan goes around and you take about three bites worth of whatever you’re wanting to eat.  You lay that on top of your rice and go to town, then spin the Lazy Susan and have something else.  At the table you see in the picture, 13 people sat on stools, shoulder to shoulder.

At first I was pretty horrified that we were all serving ourselves with the chopsticks that had just been in our mouths.  That was before I found out that the wash water for dishes was completely cold and we were to use hand soap for all the bowls and chopsticks.  And that was before someone came to the table one morning with a cold.  Then, I was truly horrified.  But I was hungry too, so I was over it soon enough.  I tried to serve myself from the least savaged portions of each dish, but since we were essentially sharing chopsticks, I knew that wasn’t really helping.

No one drinks anything with meals, but the entrees are followed with soup, usually musk melon which is a little like loofa in warm broth.  There’s a lot of lip smacking and slurping, and no one uses napkins either, so your companions at meals are quite greasy-faced.

Hunger moderates one’s reactions to any of these issues, and I really like the communal feeling of dining with a gang of people.

I wondered about portion control while I was there – you have no idea how much you’re eating after you portion yourself out some rice.  You kind of just stop when you’re full.  As it turns out, you eat quite a bit less than you would otherwise.  I lost weight in Taiwan, despite the 30 gallons of water I was evidently retaining, and I did it without the benefit of an intestinal parasite or microbial revolt.*

One night we had a long discussion about the possible value of “immune challenges” where you challenge your resilience with all manner of germy insults hoping to strengthen it to future assaults.  I think the theory has some merit.  Maybe I can get a grant.

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* I’m sure that somewhere there are overweight Taiwanese people, but they are probably Americans because I didn’t see any of them on the island.  It gave me pause: not one overweight person was spotted in the entire time I was there.

Fang: a love story

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Now that’s what I call an Orb Weaver. This female was so enormous that when we released her later, she had trouble navigating and actually walking with that huge abdomen. We had found her in a large web built between two trees nearly 5 feet apart. She was as shy as a virgin bride and hunched every time we pet her through the bag. Petting spiders is a scientific procedure performed by trained arachnidologists and should definitely be tried at home. Pet the top part, not the fang part.

The site was also teeming with Argiope spiders with newly hatched young and they are some businesslike parents. We spent at least an hour watching one feed her wee spiderlings right over the top of our water cooler.

Confession: A couple weeks ago I talked to one of the other students I was traveling with in Taiwan and admitted I had sprayed the entire perimeter of my dorm room entrance with DEET on the day we arrived. For your information, spiders are unimpressed by DEET.

Massospora and You

I found this cicada in the Taiwan forest, hanging out on a branch, dead. Apparently infected with Massospora, he was eaten by the fungus from the outside in, leaving this empty exoskeleton, wings, and the dried fungal body oozing out from all of his cracks.

The cicadas in Taiwan were of two obvious phenotypes: the car alarm type – LOUD! ALARMING! 24/7! (but you get used to it rather quickly) – and the Rainbird type – cchh-cchh-cchh-cchh ccccccchhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! These were in the mountains and the city, respectively. I enjoyed them immensely.

Here’s a batch of the Car Alarm variety (as yet without a real species, but I’ll get them identified eventually) in my field pinning station – the desk in my dorm:

Collecting in the subtropics is not like what I’m used to. In the PNW, specimens are sometimes dry before I can get a pin in them, and I rarely use any type of preservative beyond periodic deep freezing of specimen boxes to kill dermestids. In Asia, however, the humidity is such that nothing dries. During pinning, the cicada’s legs would be flopping around, which is mildly unsettling. Then I’d get everyone pinned and placed and run them through the oven for a few days, take them out, and they’d all slack out on me again. Sadly, this cycle resulted in an interesting sweet, rot smell. Now that the collect is back in the states and everyone’s dry, they still stink. But I love them anyway.

Part of the stink may be the various Hemipterans and Coleoptera perfumes – some smelled like cucumbers, some like oily death. That could be such an interesting addition to the Linnaean games: identify the insect by smell. I’d know what bees smell like, and bumblebees and honeybees smell completely different, but that’s probably information most other people aren’t terribly interested in.

In anticipation of the collection being seized at security, immigration, or customs as I went through 3 airports to get home with my drying lovelies in my carry-on, I photographed them carefully.

Alas, I did make it home with the bugs feeling like I was drug running even though I had all my permissions in order. It only takes one officious asshole to destroy 4 days of collecting and careful preservation from an exotic locale. I was ingratiating and extremely cooperative every time I interacted with airport personnel.

Success.

(Click the collection image and then zoom-click to see everyone up close and personal. If you have ID information, I’d love it if you’d share it. Thanks!)

Report from the Field: IPM course has unexpected effect

All set to learn how to identify and murder insect pests this last spring, I took copious notes in class, printed out each slide presentation, downloaded articles and bookmarked ID sites. I made an insect collection, went scouting, set elaborate live catch traps. I memorized families and orders, made flash cards, practiced forecasting from biofix dates and weather data. I wrote a proposal for an undergraduate research project to study native bees.

Now it is summer and my own garden is buzzing with insect life. On a shelf in the shed sits my tiny arsenal of pest control products: neem oil, sulfur powder, and a bottle of Sevin – all untouched this year.

First, I gave myself permission to not interfere because I needed the insects for my collection. When the term ended, I waited a little longer because the ornamental plum, which was teeming with aphids and thrips, was also raining lady bird beetles, larvae, and pupae. A couple weeks ago I saw the first telltale signs of coming mantids in their cracking egg case under the kitchen window. Yesterday I saw my first young Osmia, electric blue in the mid-morning sun and satisfying confirmation since I’d been noticing the cut leaves on the lavatera. I stood in the rose garden last night pelted with impatient Bombus and Apis traveling back and forth to the lavender and the mallow. Trying to catch a glimpse of another Osmia and picking through the shrub rose with a hands lens, I saw cucumber beetles, minute pirate bugs, crab spiders, crane flies and wasps.

And I decided. For the time being, any insect pest control efforts are over in my garden. I am willing to part with perfection – or am I? This feels like perfection. This feels alive: ground beetles under my feet and cinnabar moths flying into my forehead. Jumping spiders on my pants leg and Swallowtails levitating above the dogwood. Dragonflies and Halictids hovering in my peripheral vision.

When it occurred to me, I smote my own forehead. What have I been thinking? Of course this is how it should be for me. I’ve never liked sanitized looking gardens, beds that dare a weed to grow or an ant to enter. I’ve never minded a 75 or 50% harvest because insects ate the rest. I plan for that reality when I plant crops I know are in high demand among the birds and the bugs. There’s no food shortage: I can share. And there’s no beauty shortage in my garden: I can spare some buds and leaves and flowers. The insects ensure there is no shortage of wonder.

I’ll feed and water and prune everyone as always to help the plants be robust and tolerant. I’ll ensure no standing water, because I draw the line at welcoming mosquitoes. But that’s it. This season and for the foreseeable future, I’m doing homegrown biodiversity research.