The Bug Geek

Insects. Doing Science. Other awesome, geeky stuff.

Sometimes poop happens if you’re persistent.

In my last post (thanks, by the way, for welcoming me back into the fold so warmly), I mentioned that I’d spotted a particular butterfly. I was very, very, excited to see this butterfly. You see, I’d been trying to find one of these butterflies for over three years.

Back in March of 2010, I wrote about my encounter with a very evil plant adorned with sharp, woody spines: prickly-ash (Xanthoxylum americanum). It was mostly a complainy post because the plant shredded my dog and made me a little buttsore (literally).  However, Steve Wilson of Blue Jay Barrens mentioned in the comments that prickly-ash is a common host of North America’s largest butterfly, the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). I did some research and learned that I might just be within the butterfly’s typical geographic range.

I’ve been keeping an eye out for that butterfly ever since. (Seriously, I can’t pass a prickly-ash without looking for one).

Well, on that lovely day last week (when I was having all kinds of feels about nature while out with my dogs) my walk came to a screeching halt when I noticed a large black swallowtail butterfly lazily flapping around a patch of prickly-ash in the tree line just to the left of the road.

Now, I wish I’d been able to get a video of this thing, because it moved unlike any butterfly I’d ever seen. Its wingbeats seemed very slow; languid, really.* I wondered how on earth it was keeping its huge body afloat, and nearly in place, to boot. It held itself  vertically as it stopped to inspect various leaves and branches, much in the same posture as a hummingbird that has momentarily stopped drinking at a feeder to hover inches from the nectar before darting down to feed again.

I tiptoed in closer – it didn’t seem bothered in the slightest by my presence. I held my breath as I watched, wondering if…would it? It DID!  She finally found a suitable spot and delicately touched the tip of her curled-under abdomen on a leaf about a foot and a half off the ground, leaving behind a single, round, orange egg.


I came home and chattered to my wife excitedly about my long-desired observation. Then I did some Googling and learned that the caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail is an exceptional mimic. Like many other caterpillars, P. cresphontes is exceptionally good at looking like something highly unpalatable: poop.  Bird poop, to be precise. How wonderful!

The next day I went back to that little patch of thorniness to see if I could find the egg again: I was thinking it would be cool to keep an eye on its progress. I was able to find it rather quickly:

Egg of Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

Egg of Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). (Actual size ~1mm)

Satisfied, I stepped back onto the road and took in a broader view of the shrub.

And saw bird poop on a few leaves.

Wait, wut?

I darted in for a closer look and my three-years-of-searching-persistence was rewarded with some absolutely FABULOUS poop-mimicing Giant Swallowtail caterpillars. They are VERY convincing:

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes) on Prickly-ash Zanthoxylum americanum)

Not actually bird poop.

Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

Proof that there is actually a caterpillar under there.

I  removed one of the caterpillars from its leaf and took it home with me for a studio-style shoot (above), but was sure to bring it back to its proper home the next day.  I reached in the little vial holding the critter, picking it up between my thumb and forefinger, and was  immediately reminded that  swallowtail caterpillars often employ another defence mechanism if the “don’t-eat-me-I’m-poop” schtick fails:

Osmeteria of Giant Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio cresphontes)

“Behold my terrifying red head thingies! Flee if you value your life!”

These osmeteria are hidden away within the thoracic segment behind the head. When threatened, the caterpillar everts them rapidly, simultaneously releasing  a defensive chemical.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this comic  by the brilliant Rosemary Mosco. The caterpillar’s osmeteria were not very scary. A teensy bit startling perhaps, but honestly, they look like shiny, skinny candy canes.  I noticed the chemical secretion – it had an odour, and not an unpleasant one. I recall it being something a little sweet/spicy. Kind of nice, actually. Maybe it’s revolting if you’re a pecking bird?


*I looked around on YouTube for a good video of this species – there are several – but what struck me was how fast seemed to fly in each of the clips. This was not what I saw at all. I have two explanations: 1) it was  quite chilly that morning (like, I was wishing I had a toque and gloves kind of chilly), which slowed its motions, or 2) this was an example of one of those trippy moments where time seems to slow down.

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.

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.)

Photo Friday: Faves of 2012

Green Lynx Spider, Peucetia viridans [Explored]Bolitotherus cornutus (Forked fungus beetle) 1Phidippus sp. 2Baby corn snake!Phidippus regiusAnisomorpha buprestoides (Southern Two-Striped Walkingstick, Devil Rider, or Musk Mare)
Brown Anole, Anolis sagreiStriped Bark Scorpion, Centuroides hentziMole cricket, Scapteriscus borelliiSnipe fly, Rhagio hirtus (female)Spider sex - Eris militaris Wasp Mantidfly (Climaciella brunnea)
Stratiomys badia (soldier fly, Stratiomyidae)Variable Fan-Foot (Zanclognatha laevigata) # 8340Spring Peeper, Pseudacris crucifer

Faves of 2012, a set on Flickr.

Over at Compound Eye, Alex Wild is curating submissions of nature and science themed “best of 2012” photo sets. If you have some photos you’re proud of and would like to share, why not leave a link in the comments?

While I didn’t spend nearly as much time taking photos this year as I would have like, I still managed to get a bunch of shots I’m really happy with. Here’s my submission: some of my faves from 2012. 🙂

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