Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Identity Denial

Note: This is what you must know about me at this point in my life. I appreciate your respect of that.

There is no such thing as an identity crisis; or if there is, then it is precipitated by a long history of identity denial. Failure to embrace who one truly is inevitably results in resentment, and even hostility toward others. How to reinvent oneself is then the challenge.

I am a writer, a communicator. There was a time I thought I wanted to be a scientist because I felt that was the only path to achieving credibility. The non-fiction writers I admired were also scientists, so it seemed the logical course of action was to enroll in college with a scientific major. So, off to Oregon State University I went, where there was comfort in already knowing some of the faculty and staff who were my mentors earlier in life. Since I honestly do have an affinity for insects and related creatures, I declared entomology as my major.

There were immediate signs that this was not a good idea. I failed mathematics courses. I floundered in chemistry, and avoided physics and statistics. Academia does not reward you for simply having an interest in science. In fact, it punishes you. Higher education tries to break you of empathy and sentimentality for other organisms. Anthropomorphism, the assignment of human emotions to other animals, is banished from the lab, and even from field observations. Ecosystems are abstracted into "models," poor paper substitutes for flesh and blood. Entire landscapes are reduced to soil profiles.

I should have left the sciences for an English or communications major right then and there. Instead I moved over to the School of Forestry where I majored in Recreation Resource Management, where park naturalists earn their cred. I retained entomology as a minor. I excelled at natural history interpretation, but only tolerated, if not struggled with, other subjects. That fourth year was my last. I dropped out with a feeling of emptiness, and certainly an empty bank account.

Despite my lack of an academic degree, I have held professional positions as an entomologist. The Oregon Zoo and Cincinnati Zoo both employed me in their insect exhibits. I worked on a private contract at the Smithsonian Institution, helping catalog the national butterfly collection for a month in 1986. Subsequently, I have had other contracts with the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), and the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. These jobs paid adequately, if not handsomely, but were mostly unfulfilling in every other regard. Today, there are enough rules and roadblocks that it is impossible for me to be employed this way again anyway. The job application process in general, for almost any position, is so weighted toward exclusion that it is demoralizing and not worth the effort to apply for many of the best potential candidates.

Meanwhile, I persisted in my own efforts to cultivate credibility, and build a following as a trusted expert in the world of popular entomology. At this I have succeeded too well. Actors call it typecasting: Having performed one role so well that they can no longer find work for any other role. Convincing people that I can write about topics other than "bugs" is an excruciatingly slow process, and as I age the sense of urgency only magnifies, and the sense of resentment at my own previous denial of who I am intensifies. Naturally, this expresses itself inappropriately, and I now find myself sighing heavily whenever a stranger asks "Hey, aren't you that 'bug guy'?" At times I want to slap them upside the head.

I will always have an interest in insects, and always be willing to help people educate themselves about the "smaller majority," as entomologist Piotr Naskrecki calls them. However, that is not the sole aspect of my identity and I ask you kindly to respect that. Should you want to follow my Sense of Misplaced blog, even better; and if you can help me find paying markets for my personal essays and social commentary, then you have my eternal appreciation. Thank you.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Honey, I lost the Trox

I was a bit too cavalier the other day in allowing a hide beetle, Trox sp., to relax on the lid of the vial I had it in, on the table while I was taking images of a couple of wolf spiders in a casserole dish we have sacrificed for "studio shots" of various small creatures. Wow, that one sentence says a lot, doesn't it? Well, naturally, when I turned back for the beetle, it was nowhere to be found. It got me thinking about what kinds of things the spouse of an entomologist never wants to hear.

Have you seen me? Trox beetle

Hide beetles, members of the family Trogidae, are innocuous enough. They want nothing to do with us until we are dead. No, really dead. Dried-up dead. Mummified dead. Extra crispy with a few tufts of hair remaining. They come to carcasses after pretty much every other insect has left the scene convinced that nothing of any nutritional value remains. Still, having a normally outdoor insect crawling or flying around the house can be disconcerting. It is certainly not part of most people's "normal" experience.

There is going to be no finding it again unless it raises its profile significantly, which Trox beetles are not prone to do. No amount of "Have you seen me?" posters in every room is going to help, even though it is an adult insect. I understand you cannot even report one missing until it has been gone for a minimum of twenty-four hours. Juvenile insects are even worse. You have to do age progression drawings because metamorphosis changes them so drastically that they become unrecognizable after only a few weeks, sometimes a few days.

Age progression of mosquitoes, also known as "life cycle"

Luckily, the beetle is harmless. I suppose even the most tolerant of roommates and spouses would blow a gasket if their arachnologically-inclined cohabitant suddenly asked "Have you seen my black widow?" This kind of announcement is usually followed by something like "Hey, Where is everybody going (at such a high rate of speed)?" The kids losing a gerbil probably warrants an eye-roll, but just one little venomous organism on the loose and you'd think it was grounds for divorce.

I am fortunate. My wife hardly bats an eye whenever I confess to mishandling some bug that results in it suddenly roaming freely, usually in the vicinity of the kitchen. On more than one occasion she has yelled over to me "Hey, I found your (insert name of fugitive spider or insect here)!" There are also times when she assumes the critter on the counter is something that escaped captivity. If that is not the case then we are both surprised, and not usually in a good way.

Lynx spider on the stove: Nope, not mine

One word of advice to others like myself: It is w-a-a-a-y better to admit your negligence before she is suddenly confronted with the vagrant creature without prior knowledge of its escape. You know that skillet that is always on the stovetop? Yeah? Ok, then you understand that it can be used against both you and the spider.

The worst reception I ever received from my wife was when I enthusiastically related to her over the phone that "the lab guy we met the other day came over with a jar full of bed bugs....in all life stages!" Hello?....The life of an entomological blogger is fraught with exactly these kinds of dilemmas. You need to do that post on bed bugs, and you need images to go with it. I mean, they can't climb out of the porcelain casserole dish....Can they?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Big Bug Hunt and How You Can Help

Last year in early October, I was approached by Jeremy Dore, founder of the company Growing Interactive, based in the United Kingdom. He was interested in having me collaborate in one of the company's major citizen science projects, "The Big Bug Hunt." He made a convincing enough argument that I signed on last month as one of the U.S. liaisons. What follows is a description of this ingenious endeavor; and how you can help, and benefit from, participating.

The Big Bug Hunt wants your Japanese Beetle sightings!

The aim of The Big Bug Hunt is to build a database that will be used to create a computer application which predicts with great accuracy the emergence of various pest insects in very localized areas. For example, if you have a vegetable garden in Raleigh, North Carolina, you will be able to receive a "reverse 9-1-1" alerting you to the possibility that squash bugs may be descending on your plot within days or weeks. You can then take preventative action now, and avoid using chemical controls later.

The technology that synthesizes this data and turns it into a predictive model is a facet of the discipline called machine learning systems. It means that computers are able to find patterns that humans cannot see. From what I understand, this technology is already applied to large scale agriculture. The goal of Growing Interactive and its subordinate projects like Grow Veg, is to provide the same kind of software tools to individual citizens and community garden personnel to insure their own success in meeting the collective mission of local food security.

The Big Bug Hunt can already predict some aphid emergences with precision

Growing Interactive is a family enterprise for Jeremy, his wife, and their friends; and they take great pride in serving the greater good. Jeremy decided to apply his background in app programming to farming more than ten years ago after his job as a network manager for a group of schools ended. What he has created since then is astonishing in its success. Growing Interactive enjoys the respect and collaboration of academic institutions like the University of York (England), for example.

The Big Bug Hunt is global in scope, but it has gotten off to its best start in the U.S.A. and the U.K. More data is needed, however, to facilitate better accuracy in predicting when common pests like the Japanese Beetle are likely to appear at a given locality. This is where you come in. Simply going to the website, or even clicking on the "Report a Pest" button at the top of my sidebar, will allow you to quickly report any insect, other arthropod, or even a slug or snail that you see in your yard or garden. It is that simple, no registration necessary. Reputational analysis will eventually weigh data according to accuracy, so no observation goes to waste.

Squash bugs are on the "hit list," too

With our ever-changing climate and landscape, a dynamic reporting and recording system like this is vital to every level of agricultural productivity, be it corporate or your own backyard vegetable garden. It will not work, however, without your willingness to contribute. Please consider adding your "two bugs worth," and I promise to keep you abreast of the latest developments here on my blog. Thanks!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Another Odd Carrion Beetle

I do not know what it says about our field excursions this year, or the state of our local fauna, or the state of our country, that we are finding carrion beetles to be the most interesting creatures we have observed so far. Case in point is the Western Spinach Carrion Beetle, Aclypea bituberosa, spotted by Heidi on Monday, February 20. We were walking the Front Range Trail in Clear Spring Ranch park, an El Paso County, Colorado park when we crossed paths with this unique beetle.

I happen to like spinach, especially fresh spinach, so I was disappointed to learn that the Western Spinach Carrion Beetle is considered an occasional pest of that plant. The adult and larval stages both feed on a variety of plants, including pumpkin, squash, beets, wheat, radish, rhubarb, potato, lettuce, cabbage, turnip, and rapeseed. Beets and spinach suffer the most damage in May. Aside from these crops, they consume lamb's quarters, povertyweed, and other native and introduced members of the plant family Chenopodiacea; and also nightshade (family Solanaceae).

The adult beetles emerge early in the spring, so apparently finding one at this time of year is not too unusual. Females lay their eggs in soil shortly thereafter, and in about a week the larvae hatch. The larvae feed during the day on young leaves and shoots of their host plants, hiding in the soil at night. There are three instars, an instar being the interval between molts of the exoskeleton to allow the insect to grow larger. The first two instars each last about five days, the third instar taking an average of fifteen days before the molt into the pupa stage. Mature larvae, black in color, are about 11-15 millimeters long. The pupa is buried one to two inches deep in the soil. The adult beetle emerges from the pupa in about three weeks. Thus there is one generation each year, the beetles overwintering as adults.

Note the "cleft lip" just behind the jaws

These are small insects as carrion beetles go, only 12-17 millimeters in length. They resemble several other carrion beetles but for a couple of features. The diagnostic character for this genus is the cleft labrum, or "upper lip" if you will, just behind the mandibles. The deep notch leaves no doubt as to the identity of the beetle. There are two species in the genus, but Aclypea opaca, the "Beet Carrion Beetle," is restricted in North America to Alaska and the Northwest Territories. It appears to be native to northern and central Europe, being introduced accidentally to North America.

The other feature that helps identify A. bituberosa is the pair of raised tubercles, one each near the rear of each elytron (wing cover). There are three conspicuous longitudinal ridges on each wing cover as well.

The beetle cleaned up and photographed at home

The Western Spinach Carrion Beetle is just that: a species confined to the northwest quarter of the U.S. and adjacent southern Canada, from British Columbia and Washington state south to central California east of the Sierras, and eastward to northeast Nebraska and southeast Manitoba. It is more common east of the Continental Divide, less so in the Pacific Northwest. The adult beetles are active from March through November, and occur both on the plains and in mountain meadows.

While I find carrion beetles quite fascinating, I cannot help but hope to find less morbid insects in the coming months, creatures that reflect the true optimism of spring. Plus, I need to start eating a little healthier, and this particular beetle is competing for "my" veggies.

Sources: Anderson, Robert S. and Stewart B. Peck. 1984. "Bionomics of Nearctic Species of Aclypea Reitter Phytophagous "Carrion Beetles" (Coleoptera: Silphidae)," Pan Pac Ent 60(3): 248-255.
Essig, E.O. 1958. Insects and Mites of Western North America. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1050 pp.
Monk, Emily, et al. 2016. "Key to the carrion beetles (Silphidae) of Colorado & neighboring states," Colorado University Museum of Natural History.
Swan, Lester A. and Charles S. Papp. 1972. The Common Insects of North America. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers. 750 pp.