The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Learning

Look, always look

During my camping trip, I spent hours and hours poking around in the mixed forest surrounding my campsite, scouring the area for insects I could photograph. I was mostly looking for moths (I figured, since I don’t know the group well at all, I should practice for National Moth Week, which is coming up soon – so go register – hint hint), but I was also keeping my eyes peeled for other interesting beasts.

The moth-hunting quickly taught me two things: 1) even very tiny things (i.e., micro-moths) are worth pausing for, and 2) don’t discount something at first glance because it seems “boring”. Walking through the woods would flush a fluttering of pale, inconspicuous and seemingly uniform beige wings, but a closer look, some photographs, and some time with my new field guide (which is just great, by the way) revealed remarkable diversity.

So, it was with these principles in mind that I paused to give a boring-looking dot of meandering brown on the trunk of a white birch a second glance.

I was so glad I did, because it turned out to be a species of jewel beetle (Buprestidae) I’d been wanting to see: the bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius*).

Small, with subtle but beautiful colours, this little gem would walk, stop, walk, stop, walk, stop – all apparently quite purposefully. As I watched, I realized that every time it stopped, it would extend something long and beige into a crevice or under a scale of bark. I had a female, who was in the process of laying eggs!

The green arrow is pointing to the female’s ovipositor, which she is using to place an egg under a small scale of bark.

A cropped photo showing the ovipositor

In the minute or two that I watched she must have deposited at least a few dozen eggs. It was an incredible thing to observe, and her preoccupation with her important task probably helped her ignore my antics as I struggled and sprawled on the forest floor to find an accessible angle from which to take her picture.

Had I 1) not bothered to check out the boring brown speck on the tree, or 2) simply taken a few quick shots and not stuck around to watch, I would have missed out on seeing a new-to-me species AND missed out on witnessing some really interesting behaviour.

The moths, and this beetle, were excellent reminders that we must sometimes pause, and really LOOK, in order to capture some of nature’s most interesting moments.


*It is almost certainly A. anxius, but there is a chance it could also be A. pensus, which is also associated with birch (hat tip to Ted for this info).


Pesty caterpillars remind me: know your system

Tiny masses of webs appeared seemingly overnight in our  young Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) shrub.

Although the tent caterpillars are my go-to suspects whenever web-spinners appear on our plants, this time the caterpillars (attractive ones – creamy yellow with black heads and two neat rows of black spots) weren’t a species I recognized. I snipped off the branches bearing the offending critters and took a few shots before removing them from the garden.

A quick Google search didn’t turn up any good matches, so I posted the offenders on Bug Guide. A response came back in minutes, bearing with it a humbling reminder that I could have probably ID’d them very quickly on my own had I bothered to remember the host plant: this species is commonly called the Euonymus Caterpillar (Yponomeuta cagnagella), because its host is, of course, the burning bush. Both the plant and the critter are introduced (the former intentionally, as a horticultural plant; the latter, not so much – it’s been in North America only since 1967). An excellent synopsis of the natural history of the caterpillar has been produced by the University of Wisconsin Extension division: Euonymus caterpillar.

Others (Ted comes to mind the most) have written about the value of learning/knowing the hosts of the insects you come across, especially when it come time to IDing the insect of interest. Indeed, there are some species that are so remarkably similar that their host associations are the only way they can be reliably distinguished. I can think of at least one genus (which I first encountered in Missouri at BugShot last year ) that fits the bill: these lovely Membracids, which James Trager informed me were called Enchenopa-on-ptelea (Ptelea sp. being the genus of the host plant). Later that summer, I encountered another Enchenopa here in Ontario, but, being botanically disinclined, I wasn’t able to ID the host in the field, and therefore missed out on an opportunity to get a better ID on my insect.

On my “to-do” list for the next few years is to better acquaint myself with the flora of this region. While I can rattle off the names of a few common temperate trees and flowering plants, I am probably more familiar with the plants growing on the Arctic tundra than I am in with those in my own backyard (I spent considerable time during my first field season in the north learning to ID the common plant species there).

While that imbalance of expertise is very useful for my Ph.D research, it’s  a bit of a personal sore spot on the home front.  One of the most valuable tools a field ecologist can have in her toolkit is a solid knowledge of her study system, not just the particular organism of interest (i.e., the bug). The plants, animals, and non-living components (soil, water, etc.) of an ecosystem with which an insect interacts can tell you almost as much about your subject as the insect itself. I would be a much more effective ecologist/entomologist if I did a better job of dealing with my botanical knowledge gap (I’m open to field guide suggestions for northeastern North America!).

As much as it can be daunting, this is one thing I just adore about being a scientist: there is ALWAYS something new to learn!

A challenge: can you talk to 10-year-olds about science?

(No, I’m not talking about my manuscript this week. I am busy drinking beer and forgetting about it for a few days. So there.)

Meanwhile, I’m working on an application. If this thing pans out I’ll be doing science outreach with kids a few times a year. In addition to the usual “describe your research” and “describe your publications”-type sections one typically finds in applications,  it also included this: “Describe your research as you would to a group of 8- to 12-year-olds during an outreach program in half a page or less“.

I have to be honest: this was one of the most challenging exercises I’ve ever been asked to do for any application.  Ever.

It meant providing enough background information, context, and content to be meaningful and descriptive, while avoiding the usual trappings of unintelligible jargon we scientists so adore.  Concise and jargon-free writing should be old hat for anyone who’s ever applied for any kind of science funding… but c’mon, admit it: you STILL use all kinds of acronyms, technical terminology (and, yes, jargon) when you apply for those things, DON’T you?  You also type single space, tweak your margins, write ridiculously long paragraphs (or don’t break the text into paragraphs at all, choosing instead to use bold and italic and underlined font to designate the start of new sections), and use the smallest font you can get away with. Amirite?

Don’t lie. You know you do.

Bottom line: you just can’t get away with that stuff when you’re talking to kids. Their eyes will glaze over and you’ll lose them in five seconds flat. (Note: this will also happen at conferences, committee meetings and grad seminars. With grownups.)

Anyways, I made multiple versions of this little half-pager, and sought the opinions of several primary school  teachers to see if it was clear, kid-friendly, and interesting. I think I have something useable, but I’m going to let it rattle around in my brain for a while (i.e., drink beer and forget about it) before making a commitment and submitting a final version.

So, here’s my challenge to you: describe your research in  250 words or less with an audience of ten-year-olds in mind.

It think this is actually a pretty useful exercise, as it has broader implications for anyone doing any kind of science outreach or public speaking. Whether you’re taking to kids or to non-specialist adults, jargon and lengthy, complex explanations simply won’t cut it. Instead, clear, plain language are required, and years of work have to be drilled down to a few critical points.  Adding youthful attention spans to the mix means you also need to find a way to grab the audience’s attention and help them make relevant links to their own experiences. (Actually, you should try to do this for grownup audiences too. Most ten-year-olds probably have a longer attention span than I do.)

Can you manage it? Feel free to submit your attempt if you want. Even if you don’t, I do encourage you to give this a shot – you might be surprised at how difficult it can be!


An unrelated aside: I am apologizing in advance for being lame and not posting as regularly as usual for the next few weeks. I will do my best to stay on schedule  (especially since I’m finally getting some field photo ops!), but I’m working on a very Exciting New Online Initiative, and it’s taking up a very large chunk of my “internet” time.  This ENOI will be live and fully operational by the end of May at the absolute latest – hopefully sooner. When my partner in crime and I are finished working out the kinks, you’ll be hearing all about it (probably won’t hear the end of it, actually) – it will likely be of interest to many of you!


Alright, alright. Since so many of you are playing along (YAY!) I should probably share mine. This is a slightly abbreviated version of my draft text (I get a whole half page, which is a little more than 250 words) – but now that I’ve written this shorter version, I think I actually like it better…

If I told you that I have an amazing science job working way up north in the Arctic, I bet you’d think I was studying huge polar bears. Actually, I’m there to study smaller animals that can survive the terrible cold and love the warmer summers: insects! In June, I pack my equipment and fly to different places in the Arctic. At the end of an exciting summer of exploring and trapping insects, I bring my bugs back south to my lab, and use books, microscopes and other tools to learn about them.

You might wonder why I study tiny bugs instead of big bears. For one thing, there are millions of insects, and they come in many wonderful colours, shapes, and sizes. Insects also have many jobs: they help plants grow, they are food for many birds and mammals, and some act as the Earth’s clean-up crew, eating things like dead leaves and even poop! Insects are very important.

You also might wonder why I go all the way to the chilly Arctic to trap insects, when there are so many right here in our own backyards. Well, insects can live almost anywhere, including important places that are very wet (like rivers), very hot (like deserts) or very cold (like in the Arctic). Did you know that insects can tell us if these places are healthy and happy? It’s true! When the environment changes too much, sometimes the insects move away or stop doing their jobs: this is a sign that the environment is not healthy, and that we need to watch it very closely. Some people are worried that the Arctic is not healthy because the planet is warming up. By learning about the insects there – who they are and what jobs they do – I will help figure out if this special part of Canada is healthy, and I will be better able to guess how the Arctic might look in the future.


Oh look, I found a new pit of despair

So you know that I handed my draft manuscript in to my advisor last week.  He sent back a document covered in red ink. Then my labmates pointed out all the dumb things I did, and showed me all the cool things I COULD have done but didn’t.

My advisor, a real funny guy, said, “You should make a new graph about the revision process,” and I was all, “Ha ha ha that’s so funny.”

And then I started working on the revisions.

It’s not funny.

Since the start of the long weekend I have been fully immersed in a new and and apparently much larger despair-pit, as I fumble around with R (a programming language that I’m still learning) and unfamiliar statistical methods. I think, if I can get my mathematically-challenged brain past this stats hurdle, I’ll get to the point where I feel ready to REVISE ALL THE THINGS with greater gusto.

The sad thing is, I suspect that I’m going to have to adjust the low-end of my y-axis to accommodate the deepest depths of despair that almost invariably follow after one actually submits the manuscript to the JOURNAL, whose editors then tell you that you have to, once again, REVISE ALL THE THINGS.


What makes a “good” student?

This is something I’ve thought about often, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I found myself thinking about it again recently.  It’s this: what exactly does it mean to be a “good student”?

As an undergrad, we are told that “good student” (GS) = student with high grades. Therefore, to be considered a GS by my instructors, my school, granting/funding agencies, and potential future grad school advisors, I must achieve a certain level of scholastic excellence (say, > 80%) based on grades.

Yes, I know, things like extracurricular activities and hands-on experience can help a bit in some instances, but grades are either exclusively (Dean’s lists) or mostly (some scholarships, possibly future advisors) considered to be the main indicator of GS-ness. As much as I wracked my brain to think of instances where this metric would not be the primary consideration in a practical/applied context at the undergrad level, I couldn’t think of one.

As a graduate student, many of us have little to no course work. There are, therefore, very often few or no grades. There are exams (comprehensives, defenses) and tasks (proposals, reports, oral presentations, publications) that are accomplished along the way which we either pass or  fail, often with no formal recognition of having done so. GS’s at the graduate level are usually judged by whether or not they complete these tasks, but also on accompanying qualitative characteristics including: time management, productivity, interest, communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving, multitasking, leadership/management, research abilities and contributions, etc.  These things are not graded, but are emphasized when the student’s success is being evaluated by advisors, funding agencies, and employers.

All of this makes me wonder a few things:

1. Why is there such a HUGE gap between how we judge – not just judge but TRAIN – students at the undergrad level, and those at the graduate level?

2. Why does it seem like the default assumption tends to be that one’s being a GS at the undergrad level is a reliable determinate of future GS-ness at the graduate level?

3.  How many intelligent, hard-working, keen students fall through the cracks because they are “bad” at school in the traditional, structured/formal sense; i.e., they are not so great at exams or memorization, but are able to demonstrate a good grasp of the material in less structured settings. Put another way, how many students are lost because their individual learning styles are not compatible with traditional institutional styles of instruction, when they might actually have the potential to be really, really great researchers?

4. On what criteria do people (I’m thinking grad student advisors) primarily base their decisions in terms of who to take on as students in their lab? If funding (which is obviously linked to grades, at least at the M.Sc. level) was not an issue, what kind of student would you choose to work with – the one with the 4.0 GPA or the one who was able to demonstrate more practical (i.e., grad-student-like) abilities, attributes and interests?

This is a fairly personal subject for me, since, as you know, I have been told that I was “not good” at science. Based on grades alone, this assessment could be considered correct. I was also not a very strong student during the first few years of my undergrad, which should have been an additional indicator that I was not a GS.

For some reason, I wouldn’t take the hint (yeah, I’m stubborn like that).

What I know about myself now is that the way I work and learn best is not very compatible with the traditional teaching methods used in post-secondary institutions (talking head at the front of the class, scores of memorization, big exam/paper that tests everything, the end). I am, however, (close your eyes, I’m about to toot my own horn) intelligent, hard-working, creative, persistent, and excited about learning – and I know that, someday, I’ll be a good scientist, even if I was not a GS.

As a teacher, I often see students who remind me of myself, and I worry that we’ll lose them.

So, what do you think makes a good student? Your thoughts?

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