I’ve noticed that many, if not most, of my blog posts are about birds. Which is fine and dandy, because I like birds. Here’s the thing though, I’m not all about birds. Underneath this bird loving exterior is an interior that loves the insects. And also that interior is an exterior, because it’s not like I have a Helga Pataki-style shrine in my closet to worship insects that’s kept secret from everyone else. That’s weird and something I only do for people 😉
Moving on, insects! I haven’t been in love with insects as long as I’ve been in love with birds for, but the love it at the same intensity. When I was applying to grad school, I was looking for both insect or bird related positions, and by happenstance I went the bird route. I would be happy working with either in the future, because they are both equally cool and creatures I love for different reasons.
I was first introduced to the world of entomology during the summer of 2013. I had an internship at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science’s Nature Research Center (that’s a mouthful) working for Dr. Michelle Trautwein (@flylogeny on twitter), an evolutionary biologist and entomologist, who as her twitter handle implies, specializes in flies & their evolutionary relationships. She has done a lot of other cool research like arthropods in our homes and the secret life of our face mites. I was brought on to help identify bee flies (Diptera: Bombyliidae), starting off with the North American species with plans to eventually move onto other parts of the globe once I became familiar with the family and genus level traits.
Let me tell you, I really hated it at first (sorry Michelle!). I had no insect identification experience. I couldn’t tell a tarsomere from a tarsal claw. The R what wing vein was doing what to the cubital who now wing vein? How do I manipulate the forelegs to see if they’re more slender and dainty than the others without wrecking the fly? I definitely called my mom crying once or twice from reaching the breaking point of not being able to cope with the fact I was not picking fly ID up quickly and felt super hecking stupid and useless.
Nat Does Science Pro-tip: To emotionally wreck your parents move somewhere 8+ hours away and call them in hysterics over a problem they can’t help you with. To make it extra serious, make sure you’re the type of person that only cries under extreme stress or never cries in general, so they know it’s serious B)
Eventually though, weeks later after a lot of trial and error, practice, looking at keys, comparing what I had to specimens in the collection, considering marriage to bugguide.net, I finally understood fly anatomy and identification. And then life became awesome because as it turned out, I really really liked to identify bee flies. It was a challenge, a hunt to find the right identity, an enjoyably tedious process for me. I identified a whole lot of flies that summer, and the cool thing was I discovered a new bee fly from Madagascar! Even cooler, we got it published formally as a new species! I was also asked to come back the next summer to do more fly ID, which I did. Identifying bee flies was my gateway drug, so to speak. Taking introduction to insects and aquatic entomology in grad school is what kept me hooked.
I had a job interview recently, and as a semi-joke I was going to say my greatest weakness was that I wasn’t an insect. I even thought up a whole spiel to go along with my answer. It went a little something like this:
“My greatest weakness is that I’m not an insect. My skeleton is on the inside, not on the outside so I cannot withstand strong forces, like falls from high places. I’m not able to lift things 10-50 times my own body weight like an ant. I cannot tell you the health of a stream or an ecosystem simply by being present or absent. Nor can I pollinate the plants we need to live or can theoretically remove of or utilize all the carcasses and dung that get left behind. I have to deal knowing my demise is eminent while insects go until they die. I live my life with worries of the future- when will I get a job, do I have enough money, will I find love one day, while insects live in an almost ignorant bliss: eat, mate, die- no emotions attached. Yes, my greatness weakness is that I cannot be as useful as an insect, instead I can only try my best to be as good as one”.
I find insects to be kind of marvels of life. You find them all sizes, all places, all life styles. They persist even where most things cannot, like the grylloblattids that live in glaciers and the tok-tok beetles in the Namib desert that pull water out of the mist to survive. While most people tend not to think of or out right hate insects, without them we’d be completely effed. Who would recycle ALL the poop in nature? What would the freshwater fish eat? Who would pollinate all the non-wind pollinated plants? Who would take care of the bodies? Who would provide a food source for many of non-insect animals? Where would many host specific microbes live without an insect host? I’m sure you can make an argument for the importance of any vertebrate or invertebrate using this logic, but insects are special- they make up 40% of all known eukaryotic species, and it’s known that we still haven’t described all the insects out there. They’re major contributors to life on this planet so…
Another reason I love the insects is the variety. Insects come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and life styles. This one of the reasons I like birds; there’s big birds, little birds, yellow birds, blue birds, birds with crazy feathers, etc. etc. etc. Insects are the same way, but insects took the diversity dial and cranked it all the way to flavor town. They come in just as many colors and patterns as birds do, some even come with glitter. A bird is a bird is a bird but for insects- members of the same suborder can look entirely unrelated. Some insects even look like sticks, butts, and poop. I’m not even going to delve into aposematic coloration or camouflage because those topics warrant their own post. Insects are much more easy to get a hold of than birds in some regards, you don’t necessarily need a permit to touch them and the equipment to catch them is minimal, you could just use your hands for some. I also think the accessibility of insects (they’re everywhere, you don’t have to be awake at a certain time to observe them, minimal permissions/equipment required to catch+handle, ability to cultivate in the right setting) make them a more useful tool than birds to be used for public education, in some regards.
Insect identification also feeds into my love on insects. There’s a certain kind of rush I get following a dichotomous key to winnow the choices of what family/genus/species is in front of me. And then when you get to a point where you can start skipping steps and jumping ahead to start later in a key, man oh man, is that fun. My love of the ID/hunt isn’t a surprise to me, I’ve always loved learning what something is. I’ve spent 3 hours keying out one beetle. The part of insect ID I love the most is whenever I have to look at the wing venation. There’s something so elegant how the veins and cross veins are arranged in the wing to form different patterns and shapes.
Insect antennae are another one of my favorite parts of insect identification, for similar reasons to the wing venation. I like how the different forms look and the extremes they can go to.
This blog is definitely due for more insect posts in the future, especially if future plans end up panning out (cue dramatic music). Insect coloration would definitely be something interesting exploring, like how are insects colored and what those colors can do or mean. There’s also insect lifestyles and life histories; aquatic insects or the scavenger types are what I’d like to write about. Maybe if I can get a hold of a net I could do a post about collecting and curating insects for a collection. The possibilities are endless. So how do y’all feel about insects; love’em or hate’em? What would you like to know about insects? Let’s talk about that in the comments below.