The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Student Life

This caterpillar is so ridiculous that it got me to pick up my camera (and a short tale about teaching)

O hai.

It’s been a while, no? Yes, yes it has.

I’ve had an interesting summer. I spent most of it at home, puttering and finding small projects to do in between bouts of “real” work. I discovered some new interests (Namely canning. As in putting food in glass jars. Don’t judge.) I did a lot of introspection. I started to feel better than I was feeling at the time of my last post.

I did not, however, partake in many of my usual pastimes: blogging, mucking around conversing with cool people on Twitter, or taking pictures.

That’s right, my camera sat unused for the entire summer. I was spending a lot of time outdoors but just wasn’t seeing my surroundings through the same “lens”, so to speak, that I used to. Walks were taken to accomplish the goal of exercising myself and the dogs. Yard work was done efficiently without my usual distractedness or frequent breaks to dash indoors to fetch my photography equipment upon sighting an interesting critter. I just didn’t seem to notice much of what was going on around me.

Then, this week, I found myself back on campus for the start of the new fall term. This meant, of course, a new batch of undergrads and a new session of the field-based ecology course for which I’m a TA.

During the first lab period, we took a walk in the woods. A simple thing. Something I’ve done frequently this summer.

Something happened on this walk, though. Two things, actually.

Thing 1: This absolutely incredible caterpillar basically fell out of the sky and landed on the professor’s binoculars:

Spiny Oak Slug

A Spiny Oak Slug. I’d never seen one before. It is ridiculous. Its chemically-defended spines make your skin tingle in a burny kind of way when you touch it. (Yes, I touched it deliberately to find out how it felt.) It is basically transparent – you can see its guts right through the flesh of its underside, and the colourful markings ripple behind what looks like clear jelly. People on Twitter yesterday said it looks like a cake, or a parade float. Facebook friends declared it a “pea pod on acid” or a siege engine. I’m inclined to agree with all of them.

It is SUCH a ridiculous animal (seriously, look at that thing) that I felt, for the first time in months, compelled to take a picture of an insect. So I took it home and had a little portrait session. I was worried that maybe I’d forgotten how to use my equipment, but a little mucking around and I was back on track pretty quickly.

Spiny Oak Slug

(There are a few more images on Flickr, if you’re interested.)

Thing 2: The presence of students shifted something in my brain. Instead of just being in the woods, I started to see the woods and its inhabitants through the eyes of the students, for whom everything seemed wonderful and interesting and “oh,wow…cool”. I remembered, for the first time in months, that…well, that yeah: the woods and its inhabitants ARE really freaking cool. I started LOOKING, and SEEING, and FINDING things, and wanted to share them with other people. For the first time in months.

The next day I took my dogs for their usual walk down an old gravel road that’s lined on either side with woodlots, scrubby hedgerows and old fields. I noticed how intensely yellow the goldenrod looked in the warm light of the early morning sun. I stopped to watch a doe and her twin fawns saunter across the road. I saw a butterfly I’d been trying to find for the past couple of years and stopped to watch it lay an egg. I found more ridiculous caterpillars, and felt compelled to bring them home to take their photos.

As the dogs and I walked, I felt a familiar stirring in my chest for the first time in months. A little flutter. It was the warm, connected and awestruck feeling I usually get when I spend time outdoors, because nature is just so freaking cool and wonderful.

And here I am, for the first time in months, wanting to share these experiences with you. And I have more that I want to share later.

So…”hi”. I’m not going to make any huge commitments, but I think I might stick around here for a little while :)

The conversations we don’t have – but should

Well, hello there, friends. While I’m sure it seems like it, I haven’t forgotten about you.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post (my first in many months) and published it over at the Grad Life blog.  I decided that I wanted my friends to read it too, so, rather than try to recreate the wheel and craft something new for this blog, I’ve copy-pasted the post in its entirety here.
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A few people have noticed that I have been entirely silent on this blog for quite some time.  Others have noticed that I’ve been absent from my personal blog as well as Facebook, Twitter – pretty much all of my usual online haunts – since the fall.  Their somewhat apprehensive inquiries – “How are you doing?” – have been appreciated, even if they’ve been met with rather vague replies: “I’m ok”, or, “I’m hanging in there”.  Or sometimes they’ve received no reply at all, because I haven’t known what to say.

I read a blog post recently, forwarded to me by someone who I consider a good, considerate friend as well as a colleague and mentor. That blog post shook me a bit, I think because I recognized myself in its words so prominently.  It prompted me to write a post of my own, because I think it’s important and because I think it might help me, personally.  So … deep breath … here we go.

At the start of the fall term, I was feeling very busy but very good. My research program was on track; I had recently found out that my latest manuscript was accepted for publication; a cool collaboration on a fun project was well underway; my teaching assistantship was providing me with really excellent opportunities for personal and professional growth. In early November, I started to settle back into a normal routine after presenting a bunch of research and social media talks during a whirlwind tour of interesting conferences. Upon my return from the last conference, I felt like I needed a week or so of a “breather”, a little time-out to recharge my batteries.

That week stretched into ten ten days. Then two weeks. Then a month. And before I knew it, and really without understanding or even really noticing how quickly the time was passing, it was suddenly the end of the term and I hadn’t accomplished even a fraction of what I’d intended to.

The thought of tackling any of my badly neglected projects – research, blogging, responding to the growing stack of emails I’d been putting off – the mere thought of this could easily put me into a tailspin of stress, worry, and anxiety that would last the entire day, and keep my brain whirring uncontrollably at night. This led to even more avoidance.

Then, over the holiday break, I got a pretty bad cold. I stayed in bed. As much as my body was miserable, it felt good to just lie cocooned in my blankets, sipping tea and watching movies on my laptop and not thinking about much of anything. Only very grudgingly did I finally admit that I was technically well enough to get out of bed during the day and get some work done. I really didn’t want to. Not at all.

In January, I announced on my blog that I’d be taking a break from blogging. Around the same time, everything else that I did in my “free” time pretty much stopped. Truthfully, I had no interest in doing these things because I was no longer getting my usual sense of enjoyment out of it.  Worse, I felt like simply wasn’t capable of managing it all. So I stopped – all of it – except for the bare minimum of what I needed to do: my research, a bit of course work (a seminar every other week), and a bit of teaching (which I also scaled back to about a third of what I’d been doing previously).

Even with all these cutbacks, however, tasks that would normally take me a few hours to complete were taking days or weeks, and much of it felt excruciatingly difficult. My naturally lousy attention span was down to zero, I wasn’t able to stay focused on any task for more than a brief time, and again, the stuff I usually really got a kick out of doing just wasn’t turning my crank. I’d have brief moments or even multiple-day streaks lasting up to a week where I’d make to-do lists and feel like I was getting my groove back and being my usual productive self.  These never lasted. Then I’d feel worse.

As a person accustomed to successfully juggling a ton different projects and hobbies on top of her research and other professional responsibilities, this entire situation freaked me right the heck out and made me feel like a fraud and a failure.

As a commuting student, I work from home most days. In the safety of my private domain, I started taking comfort in my ability to complete small, inane, routine tasks that would normally be boring for me. Things like doing dishes, walking my dogs, preparing a grocery list, making meals. These felt manageable, and allowed me to enjoy small moments of success that let me escape from my feelings of ineptitude. I also kept up with my regular workouts, because they made me feel better, if only for a little while. Beyond these basic activities, I felt useless and rather out of control. I would escape in the internet for hours (mindless, aimless, farting-around-on-autopilot-type escape) to avoid these feelings. The day would eventually come to an end, and I’d escape again in disjointed sleep.

My inner dialogue during these months reflected my turmoil. I would alternately coddle myself (“You don’t need to worry, you’re doing the best you can. Just leave that task for tomorrow, no one will mind.”); bully myself (“What the hell is your problem, get your lazy ass in gear and get some freaking work done, you loser”); and lie to myself (“Everything’s fine. You’re not that behind. You’ll catch up next week. You’ll feel better in the spring when the sun is out more.”)

In the meantime, great things were happening all around me. I have a strong, compassionate and supportive partner whose academic and professional successes were mounting steadily (a testament to her hard work and talents); a beautiful home; a new baby niece; a fantastic research project, a lab full of intelligent and charismatic labmates, and an incredible advisor; a list of professional accomplishments from the past year that anyone could be proud of; kind and thoughtful friends both online and off.

But I wasn’t happy. There was absolutely no reason for it, and my scientists’ brain drove me mad trying to rationalize the situation.

Now, here’s the rub.

I have lived very intimately with various forms of depression and mental illness in my life, through the experiences and struggles of affected loved ones. I know the signs and cycles well.

Ironically, I failed to recognize them in myself.

A couple of weeks ago, I said aloud for the first time: “I’m depressed. I have depression. I’ve probably been depressed since the fall. I don’t understand why, but it’s there.” I made an appointment to see my family doctor, and I’m starting to take baby steps towards addressing the problem.

So that’s where I am, and where I’ve been.

Why am I telling you all this? It feels a tad TMI, to be honest, even for me (an extroverted over-sharer). Because I don’t think I can say it any better, I’m going to quote part of the blog post I mentioned earlier:

I’m not writing this so you’ll feel sorry for me. I’m writing this so people know that it can – and does – happen to anyone. […] The prevalence of mental health issues in academia – even if only publicized for grad school – are staggering. […] We can’t make it go away by ignoring it – instead we need to make mental health a normal part of everyday conversation, just like physical health, thereby reducing the stigma around it.

These conversations are important. They have the potential to change, even save, lives. So I’m joining the conversation.

I’m not sure what the next few months will look like for me. I’m going to keep plugging away at things as best I can. I’ll probably have to step well outside my comfort zone in the meantime. Again, a quote, that hit very close to home:

All the logic, graphs, or smarts in the world won’t fix it. For things to improve I have to delve into the murky world of feeling and emotion. Thing is, that world is super uncomfortable to me, and certainly didn’t get me where I am. Being smart and rational, tenacious and tough, did. But that won’t help me much now.

Being smart, rational, tenacious and tough certainly won’t hurt, I don’t think. But yeah – that murky stuff will probably have to be waded through before I can come out the other side.

To everyone who has kept tabs on me, sent friendly emails, tweets or thoughtful things in the mail – you know who you are, and I thank you for your support. To anyone who recognizes themselves in what I just wrote, please know that you’re certainly not alone; mental health issues are extremely common among academics, and graduate students are some of the hardest-hit. Know that there is help to be found if you reach out.

University Counselling Services:

Mac campus

Downtown campus

Winter Diapause

DiapauseFirst, Happy New Year! I appreciate you all so much and am thankful for the many friends and wonderful acquaintances that this blog has brought into my life. I wish you all the very best for the coming year!

Now, a bit of a downer: after much hemming and hawing and soul-searching, I’ve decided to put The Bug Geek into diapause* for the winter. My research activities this term are going to require a lot of time and energy, and lately I’ve been feeling like I’m stretched a little thin.

I haven’t taken on anything new, my teaching workload is actually dropping a fair bit, and my other responsibilities are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. So what gives? I seem to be in the midst of what is known as the “Third Year Slump” (or, more colourfully, “The Valley of Sh-t“), an affliction that affects many PhD candidates. The symptoms of this mysterious ailment include apathy, stress, depression, self-doubt and a drop in productivity.

I am still in love with my research, that’s not the issue at all. Nevertheless, for the past 6-8 weeks or so, the mere thought of having to get some work done sends me into a bit of a tailspin of anxiety. As I work to overcome this (really quite obnoxious) personal hurdle, I’m giving myself permission to do a little less than usual. When I wrote out a list of my responsibilities in order of their importance, blogging, unfortunately, fell to the bottom. I need to focus my positive energy on my research, which, other than my home life, is my main priority.

And so here we are. I may still post occasionally if I’m feeling inspired, and suspect that my normally upbeat mood (and my outdoorsy blog fodder) will return as the weather warms up.

In the meantime thanks for you readership and, more importantly, your friendship. Know that I’ll be back soon. If you think you’re really going to miss me, you’ll probably still find me chatting on Twitter and reblogging pretty insect photos on Tumblr.

*(Yes, I stole borrowed the term and title from Bug Girl. I think she’ll forgive me.)

Poop, not parasites

So a very cool bug photo has been circulating on the web: I’ve seen it on Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter. It’s a pretty darn great photo:

Photo of a Cereal Leaf Beetle Larva, by Giles San Martin, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of a Cereal Leaf Beetle Larva, by Giles San Martin, used under a Creative Commons License.

Let’s zoom in on that a little, shall we?

Closeup

Well, my goodness. That’s really something, isn’t it? Here’s the accompanying story circulating on the web:

This is a juvenile form of the Cereal leaf beetle (Oulema melanopus) after being parasitized by Tetrastichus julis, a parasitoid wasp which lays its eggs inside the larva of the beetle. They eggs hatch within the larvae and begin to feed while it is still alive, before they burst out and kill it.These parasites are often used as a biological control, as the Cereal leaf beetle is considered a pest and regularly feeds on crops.

Well, now, that is REALLY something isn’t it? Parasites are so freaking cool.

The problem is, the pairing of this particular image with this particular caption has lead to some confusion. 

While the species identities are correct, and the stated relationship between the two is correct, the caption seems to imply that the skin of the poor beetle larva is stretched shiny-tight and close to bursting from a insanely huge parasite load (indeed, this is how the interwebz has been interpreting it).

This interpretation is only a little bit correct.

The beetle IS parasitized – by one parasite. Just one. 

The rest of that squirmy-looking mass on the back of the beetle is a perfectly normal thing (well, if you’re a leaf beetle anyways): it’s a fecal shield. Yes, fecal shield. As in, “poop”.

Many, many Chrysomelids (leaf beetles) create fecal shields, depositing their feces on their backs. It’s so prevalent, in fact, that the study of fecal shields warrants its own term, apparently. From the section in Caroline Chaboo’s book chapter on Chrysomelid defences entitled, “Fececology” (ha!):

The [Chrysomelid] subfamily Cassidinae has ~3,000 species whose larvae carry a mobile shield made of dried feces, attached to paired processes at their hind end, and held over the body like an umbrella. This shield may be held flat on the dorsum or elevated to hit an attacker. In two other leaf beetle subgroups, the subfamily Criocerinae (~1,400 species) and in some members of the subfamily Galerucinae (~14,000 species) the fecal material is simply piled directly onto the back of the animals, with some falling off as the animal moves around but regularly replenished to maintain coverage of the exposed dorsal surface (Fig. 2b, c). In Chrysomelinae leaf beetles (~4,000 species), the mothers take time to build a fecal case entirely around every single egg.

Compare the photo above with this one showing the fecal shield of a Criocerine Chrysomelid, Lilioceris lilii:

Photo by Luis Sanchez, used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo by Luis Sanchez, used under a Creative Commons License.

Also goey, revolting, and arguably very unsanitary – but normal.

Here’s a different spin on the same theme, this time in a tortoise beetle larva (Cassidinae):

_MG_9225

Photo by Kurt Komoda, on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/komoda/ Used under a Creative Commons License.

Less slimy, and mobile – but normal. (And still poop).

Fecal shields provide camouflage, prevent desiccation (drying out), and, ironically, can deter predators and parasitoids. Some parasitoids, however, can exploit the fecal sheild and may actually be attracted to the plant volatiles (smelly plant chemicals) in the feces. This could be what happens in the relationship shown in the photo, since the T. julis is a well-established predator of the cereal leaf beetle and, obviously, that goey shield is not much of a deterrent.

So, just to clarify what you’re seeing in the original ZOMGPARASITES photo: in addition to piles of poop, the one visible parasitoid larva is the pale, segmented critter in the front near the beetle larva’s head. Now, its placement is a little odd, because T. julis is normally an endoparasitoid, meaning that the mother wasp lays her egg(s) directly inside the body of the host (the beetle larva). In this case, though, it looks like the parasitoid larva is floating in the fecal shield, so I’m not sure what that’s all about. Lousy aim, perhaps? Even if it was a motherly misfire, I have it on good authority (hat tip to Richard Comont) that the photographer reared out the parasitoid and it did indeed grow up to be T. julis.

So. Long story short:

This is a normal fecal shield, people. Not an imminent explosion.

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ResearchBlogging.org

Chaboo, Caroline (2011). Defensive Behaviors in Leaf Beetles: From the Unusual to the Weird in Chemical Biology of the Tropics, J.M. Vivanco and T. Weir (eds.), 59-69 DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-19080-3_4

Evans, E., Karren, J., & Israelsen, C. (2006). Interactions Over Time Between Cereal Leaf Beetle (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae) and Larval Parasitoid Tetrastichus julis (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) in Utah Journal of Economic Entomology, 99 (6), 1967-1973 DOI: 10.1603/0022-0493-99.6.1967

Schaffner, U., & Müller, C. (2001). Exploitation of the Fecal Shield of the Lily Leaf Beetle, Lilioceris lilii (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), by the Specialist Parasitoid Lemophagus pulcher (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) Journal of Insect Behavior, 14 (6), 739-757 DOI: 10.1023/A:1013085316606

Life in the fast lane (subarctic beetles, part 1)

Sometime in the next few months my first research paper is going to be published (True story! I saw the proofs a few days ago!) The paper is based on 2 months of field work I did during my first summer as a PhD student, waaaay back in 2010. Some of you might remember that I packed up my gear (I traveled light, as you can see), hopped on a few planes and landed in a remote, barren landscape. The “remote” part ended up being pretty much bang-on, but the barren bit…not so much.

The incomparably stunning subarctic tundra is sprinkled with beautiful flowers and is home to incredible wildlife, some charismatic (grizzly bears! wolverines! snow geese!) and others more cryptic but no less important – arguably more important, in fact.

Kug flowers

Flowers from Kug (from top L, clockwise): prickly saxifrage, arctic rhododendron, arctic poppy, yellow saxifrage.

It was these these smaller creatures that I travelled all the way to Kugluktuk, Nunavut, to seek and collect: the insects. As you all know, insects are very important animals: they make up the majority of the world’s biodiversity (even in the Arctic: there are over 2000 species spiders, insects and mites living above the tree line, but only a few dozen species of mammals).  These insects all have very important jobs (or “ecological functions”) that affect the way the ecosystem works: they pollinate plants, they decompose things, they feed on plants and other insects, they bite other animals. When they do their jobs is equally important – if the timing is off, it can affect how other parts of the ecosystem work (think, for example, what might happen if pollinating insects like flies and bees were flying around and visiting plants after the peak blooming period).

Members of my research team have been travelling all over northern Canada, collecting insects and spiders, for the past few years. Most of the time, we collect in a single location for only two weeks. This doesn’t sound like much, but the summers are short and some our latest data (like for spiders, for example) tell us that two weeks is plenty of time to catch most of what’s out there to be caught at high latitudes. Also, we collect like possessed people. Over a hundred traps get set within 24 hours of arrival, and then we’re out all day every day, filling specimen bags and vials with six- and eight-legged critters.

So my time in Kug was pretty unique. Two months represents nearly the entire summer season – the time during which you would expect insects and spiders to be running and flying around. In fact, when I arrived on June 21, there were still piles of snow on the ground and the ice on the inland ponds was just starting to break up.  I left in mid-August, and friends reported that snow was flying two weeks later.

Subarctic summers are short, cold, and yet they’re an utter whirlwind of insect activity. When I was out emptying traps with frozen, wet fingers, sporting my long underwear and a toque, I was still hauling in dozens, even hundreds, of insects and spiders. Those bugs have a very tiny window of time during which they can wake up, move around, feed, mate/grow/lay eggs (for most, this can’t even happen in a single season – their life cycle has to be stretched out over several years) before having to go back to sleep for the winter again. Life for a bug in the north is life in the fast lane.

Me with samples

Whirl paks full of bugs make me very happy (even if I’m very cold)

Having a season’s worth of samples is a rare thing for studies of Arctic entomology - field work in the north, especially in remote locations, is logistically difficult and really, really, freaking expensive, so it doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s usually for a brief period of time.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

When you travel on the tundra, you travel in style.

The day after I arrived in Kug, my field assistant and I set traps at three different sites on the tundra. At each site, we put 18 traps in a wet, soggy, sedge meadow and 18 traps in nearby dry tundra.

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

Dry tundra (left) and wet sedge meadow (right)

We used both “yellow pan” traps and “pitfall” traps. Both are dug into the ground so that insects walking around can fall into them. The yellow ones also attract flying insects (those critters were passed on to other people on my research team). We emptied all 108 traps about once a week, for eight weeks, putting the contents of each trap in its own sample bag every week. That’s a lotta samples.

A "yellow pan" trap, about to be collected.

A “yellow pan” trap, about to be collected.

These great samples allowed me to ask some basic questions about the insect community and how it changes over time (i.e., over the course of the active season). I wanted to find out four things: (1) what insects live in Kug, and what habitats do they live in?; (2) what insects are active at different points in the summer – does the species assemblage change over time? (3) what buggy jobs are being performed at different points in the summer – does the functional assemblage change over time?, and (4) can anything in the environment, like weather, explain any patterns in the way the assemblages change (if they even change at all?)

Over the next few weeks I’m going to touch on each of these points and tell you what I found, hopefully cumulating in a link to the actual research paper :)

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