The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Category Archives: Science Outreach

National Moth Week is here!

I’ve mentioned this event a few times in the last month or so, and it’s now finally here!

Little White Lichen Moth (Clemensia albata), #8098

National Moth Week is an event intended to highlight the biodiversity and ecological significance of moths, an important group that is often overlooked in favour of flashier or less nocturnal insects.

Hundreds of moth’ers from around the world will be moth-hunting this week (July 23-29), perhaps in their own gardens and at porch lights, or at large black-lighting events. Participants will photograph and record their findings – I can only imagine the giant data set that’s going to be amassed at the end of all this!

I have committed myself to recording my own moth discoveries while I’m away this week, and since I don’t have a computer at my disposal I’ll be sharing my finds next week – a moth a day! In the meantime, here is a collection of some of the moths I found during my last camping trip at the end of June; since I’m returning to the same location this week, I’m very curious to see how the species assemblage has changed in the last month!

You can click to embiggen any of the images below. I’ve ID’d them to the best of my ability (hover the mouse over the image to see what I came up with), but I welcome any corrections or help for those missing names!

I am giving myself the luxury of a blogging break for the remainder of the week, so enjoy this photo gallery in the meantime!

In other news…

In case you haven’t already heard the news, there’s a new bug blog in town, and it’s coming to you from the top tiers of  the Canadian entomology scene.

That’s right, the Entomological Society of Canada officially launched the ESC Blog earlier today!

For the past couple of months (because clearly we don’t already spend enough time on the internet *eye roll*), Morgan Jackson (of Biodiversity in Focus fame) and I have been working behind the scenes as blog administrators, reaching out to collaborators and recruiting authors. We’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response to this new venture and are really looking forward to helping give Canadian entomologists of all ilks – students, academics, researchers, amateurs, naturalists – a stronger online presence, and allowing them to showcase their interests and accomplishments. This is a great opportunity for entomophiles to get involved and share their passion with a broader audience.

You all know that blogs take some time to build momentum and readership – but you can help give us a head start by visiting the inaugural post, signing up to the RSS feed, and maybe sharing the news on Twitter, Facebook or Google+!

Also, if you think you’d like to contribute a story, a research summary, or even photographs to the blog, we want to hear from you! Drop us a line at

Get your mothing on with National Moth Week!

National Moth Week

First National Moth Week – July 23-29, 2012

Well hello! Have any of you noticed how freaking nice it’s been outside?

I’ve been outside.

A lot.

And therefore have pretty much been entirely ignoring the Internets. But I’m back!

Since my last post was about a pretty little moth I found in my garden back in April (bad blogger!) I thought it was quite appropriate to re-start my summer posting with some exciting news for all you moth-lovers out there (generalist bug geeks also!): July 23-29 is officially National Moth Week. Although this venture is originating in the U.S., we Canuks have been invited to play too.

NMW is a great opportunity to get outside (um, it’s really nice out there), play around in the dark (minds out of the gutter, plz), take photos, record data, and enjoy some fun, hands-on citizen science! From the official website of NMW:

National Moth Week brings together everyone interested in moths to celebrate these amazing insects. This summer, groups and individuals from all the across the country [and Canada! and other countries!] will spend some time during National Moth Week looking for moths and sharing what they’ve found. Getting involved during National Moth Week is easy: attend a National Moth Night event, start an event, join friends and neighbors to check porch lights from time to time, set up a light and see what is in your own backyard, or read literature about moths, etc.

I registered an “event” (i.e., I’m going camping and taking my camera) just this morning – you should too! You know you’re probably already going to be hanging around your porch light in the evenings, so why not make it an official (and scientifically useful!) event?

I probably hang around my porch lights almost every night. I actually deliberately buy the really bright pure white floodlights, rather than the recommended yellowy ones that are supposed to keep swarms of insects from harassing you on your patio and streaming into your home every time you open the screen door. Keep the insects away? Pshaw! What’s the fun of that?

Despite all the time I spend looking at moths, I realized today as I waded through my photograph collection that I only have maybe 2 or 3 decent photos of moths. That’s it. I’ve only blogged specifically about a moth three times. Pathetic.

To rectify this sad state of affairs, I plan to get myself a copy of Seabrooke Leckie’s new Peterson Moths of Northeastern North America field guide (one can never have too many field guides – by the way, you can WIN a field guide if you register!). Then, when I return from my camping trip (which will be internet-free), you can expect some post-hoc blogging highlighting a moth or ten from each day of NMW.

Consider yourselves duly notified, and get yourself registered!

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.


Science outreach may not be a useful currency for grad students – but we should do it anyway

About two weeks ago, an email from my advisor turned up in my inbox that said something to the effect of, “Canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni is coming to give a talk and hang out with our lab. This is a great opportunity, so please come.”  When I pulled out my Top-Secret Graduate Advisor Decoder Ring and reread the email, it clearly said, “BE THERE OR I WILL THROTTLE YOU”.

I immediately marked the dates on my calendar.

Now, canopies are not my area of expertise. In fact, I mostly work in climatic zones where there are NO trees (or else the trees are small enough that you can reach up and touch the so-called “canopy”), so I really had no idea what the big deal was. I just figured that my advisor’s excitement stemmed from the fact that canopy work is one of the tools he uses to address questions about arthropod ecology.  Nevertheless, a few days before Dr. Nadkarni’s talk, I thought it would be prudent to take some time to acquaint myself with our visitor. So I googled, found her web page at Evergreen State College, and read her CV.


Then I watched both of her TED talks.  Yes, that TED. You can watch them here and here. My brain-crush amplified exponentially. Not only was she an incredibly prolific and well-respected scientist, she was also an extraordinary advocate of science outreach. *swoon*  In the final days leading up to the talk, I was all ohboyohboyohboy.

My advisor asked me to live-tweet the event, something I’d never done before, and I gave it a try. From those tweets, I created my first Storify (an application that compiles social media soundbites). You can read my Storify summary of Dr. Nadkarni’s talk here: 

Some of the last few points she made were among the most poignant for me:

She was definitely preaching to the choir, in my case.  The Q & A period allowed me ask something that’s been on my mind. It was similar, actually, to a question I recently asked about teaching.

I stood at the microphone (a little nervously), and said something like: “I’m a grad student. One thing I’m passionate about is science outreach with both specialist and non-specialist audiences. However, we grad students repeatedly get told that the only important currency of academia is our publications, and that science outreach is not a good use of our time. Clearly, you’re someone who thinks it’s important. What do you say to this idea that it’s not valid or important work, and how do you find the time?”

Her answer, I thought, was both honest and encouraging. It also very much reflected a general philosophy that threaded through her discussions of her work and her outreach activities.  The philosophy seems to be: “There are systems that have been in place for a long time. These systems are not likely to be changed any time soon. There is little point in trying to change a system if you want to advance you own ideals or goals: you’d probably be wasting your time. Rather, find ways to work both with and outside the system, and create your own opportunities.”

Basically, she said this: If you’re interested in working in academia, then you need to work within that well-established (and unlikely-to-be-changed) system and generate the required currency. Do your research, and do your publications. As a grad student, your outreach contributions may not be recognized or valued.  You may not be able to do the kind of outreach you’d like, either because of the time or resources required. But go ahead and do the outreach stuff anyways, in whatever capacity you’re able.  Later on in your career, when you have access to the resources and as long as you’re working for an institution that accommodates it, you can expand the outreach component of your work in bigger and more meaningful ways.

What I heard was, “Play the game and pay your dues BUT don’t be afraid to also work outside the system in the meantime: in the long run it will pay off“.

I think an additional underlying message was: If doing outreach is a reflection of your values as a scientist – if it’s important to you and personally satisfying – then there’s no reason not to do it just because “the system” says it doesn’t matter.

March to the beat of your own drummer, in other words.

What do you all think?

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