Amateur naturalism, part one

In an earlier post, I mentioned encouraging kids to keep a journal about their insect observations, and at that point (the first draft of this is being typed immediately after I published that post) decided to create a series dedicated to this subject. So, welcome to the first of the Amateur Naturalist posts, this one dealing mostly with insects. Bear in mind this doesn’t have to apply to just kids – anyone interested in such subjects should feel comfortable chasing this if they want. Hell, I’m in my mid-forties. But if the writing seems aimed a little too low, I apologize; I’m trying to strike that balance.

Insects are one of the easiest subjects to pursue, from an observation standpoint, because they’re so abundant – chances are, no matter where you are in the world, you have thousands of species available. From a nature photography standpoint, however, they’re much harder, because decent photos of very small subjects are challenging on several levels, as well as often requiring something in the form of specialized equipment – usually a lot of somethings. Right now, I’m going to approach this from a non-photographic view, because photos aren’t necessary to generate an interest in this subject matter.

Basic materials to help with this pursuit are as follows. None of these are absolutely necessary, and none of these need to be specialized, but any of them can help considerably:

Observation Journal: Any method you want to use is fine for this, whether it be the “Doctor Jones” field manual to scribble in right on site, or a word processing file on your computer, or even an audio recorder (so help me, I still say “tape recorder.”) You might be amazed at how much can be forgotten, and being able to go back over what you’ve observed helps a lot, including reminding you of something to look up. Comparing what you knew or surmised then and what you know now is also encouraging and a good reminder of progress. For those in school, it can even be something that garners extra credit. Just try to make it a habit, and be sure to re-visit it periodically.

Magnifying lens: There are good and bad examples out there, and the more expensive ones tend to provide better images, but even the cheap ones work better than nothing. Simple “fresnel” magnifiers can be obtained in office supply stores and carried in a wallet, and cost so little that damaging or losing one is insignificant. Glass lenses tend to provide a better, less distorted view, however, and larger ones can provide more working distance and a wider field of view at the same time. Working distance helps a lot for insects that can be scared away or under cover with a close approach.

Collecting cans: Something small that closes tightly is ideal – I use film cans because I have tons of them. The idea is to hold onto something until it can be examined closer under better light, or even taken to someone who knows more for identification. Entomologists (those that study insects) very often kill and preserve specimens, because this allows close examinations and comparisons, but other may balk at this, and that’s fine. Bear in mind that identification of insects usually requires more than appearance, and a photo or sketch will be inadequate in a majority of the cases, so a live specimen will often be the barest minimum. Most insects use air in such sparing amounts that air holes aren’t as necessary as many people feel, and these should be short-term enclosures anyway, but if needed, a nylon screen top affixed with rubber bands works better than holes, which allow for almost no circulation.

Fine forceps, tweezers, or hemostats: These are used more for dissection, and for handling material in the habitat rather than the insect itself. Snagging an insect by a leg or a wing is likely to injure it, and I don’t recommend trying it unless the insect is either sturdy or dead. But you may want to remove stuck-on materials (like in the case of the camouflaged inchworm,) or parasites, or move vegetable matter for a better view. Locking hemostats also allow for securing something that moves in the wind or needs to remain in a useful position. Also, something very fine and sturdy, like a long pin or needle or dental pick, provides a very small probe that can move material, lift wings, or flush out a tiny spider from among leaves. I don’t carry one and frequently end up furnishing one from pine needles and sticks, so learn from my shortcomings ;-)

Something to measure with: Ideally, it should be pocketable and be in metric, since most insects fall into the fractions-of-inches realm (not to mention it’s about time we dumped English measurement anyway.) You might want to use a variety of things, depending on the circumstances, but a small ruler from the school supply section of a department store works fine. If you’re into photography, and especially if you want to submit photos for identification and scientific use, a proper photographic scale works better, such as those found here, or you can print your own courtesy of Jason Quinlan. A small tip, too: insects may not wait around for you to slide a ruler up next to them, so before you try, measure them by eye against their surroundings, so you can measure that when they get scared off by the approaching ruler. Estimating is usually a bad idea; people are typically terrible at guessing size.

Flashlight: I recommend the kind that can go in a headband at least, so both hands can be free, but this also works to help spot certain critters at night, since the reflection works only at very narrow angles, so you want the light as close to your eyes as possible. Even by day, a flashlight can help throw light into shady areas or see details that ambient light just isn’t producing – any photographer knows that light angle can highlight contours and textures, and can even lend a hand with camouflage. Spare batteries help too, especially if you’re hiking at night and need the light to get back (think ahead!)

Water: Not just to drink. Some insects exude a caustic substance to discourage predators, which you may want to wash off just from the stink, and poking around in the undergrowth may also expose you to fun things like poison ivy. So of course, add to this adequate clothing and, especially if you’re susceptible to insect bites, repellant and something that eases the pain of stings. Believe it or not, I’ve been stung only once by Hymenoptera while chasing photographic subjects, but I’ve encountered countless fire ants, mosquitoes, and the occasional poison ivy.

Ground cloth: Gosh, this makes things so much easier. Observation often takes patience, and the ground is usually uncomfortable, damp and messy. I use a carpet square near the house, but often carry a small vehicle floor mat on excursions, small enough to roll up and stuff in a large pocket. I also use kneepads frequently – found in construction stores, you can get these for as little as five bucks.

Okay, so you have some materials, and want to get started. What do you do? Well, first off, there isn’t anything you have to do – observation is simply about learning, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll be picking up on things. Even just finding the insects is a matter of patience and careful examination – what works best for me is spotting the break in the patterns that plants have, something that is too symmetrical or simply doesn’t do what leaves normally do. Did something move when there was no wind? Are these leaves curled over for a reason? But there are a couple of little things that can help your observations:

Use your ears, too: We have a bad tendency to tune out natural noises, but they can point to a lot of what’s going on. Insect sounds, by nature, can be hard to pinpoint, especially when they vary pitch over the course of a few seconds. You can narrow this down a bit by triangulating, changing position a little and drawing an imaginary line towards the source of the sound from different locations – where the lines cross is fairly likely to point to the noisemaker. Do this early on, because most insects cease making sounds when danger (like looming people) threatens, so once you’re close enough to make them stop you’re out of luck. Recording such sounds, by the way, can even help identify species, but be aware that many microphones have a much shorter dynamic range than we hear ourselves, and the recording you get might sound nothing like what you heard (I did this with a bat once – the squeaks had become ratcheting clicks on tape.)

Be meticulous: Note date, time, weather conditions, plant conditions, and so on. Has it been a long time since rain? Does certain behavior seem to occur only at certain times? Pay attention, and see if any patterns emerge. But…

Don’t jump to conclusions: It’s easy to invoke a pattern after only a couple of observations, but this can be very misleading. Countless factors may have influence on something that you see, and many might not be obvious (for instance, can you smell insect pheromones? How about seeing in ultraviolet?) The scientific method involves testing any hypotheses that are made – basically, trying to prove yourself wrong. Don’t feel bad if and when this happens – real advances don’t come easy, and if it’s easy to spot, chances are someone else already has. But just learning how nature works is pretty rewarding in itself, and the interactions can be fascinating.

Insects are not human: Seems obvious, but the subtle aspect is that we’re so used to human interactions, we take for granted certain kinds of behavior. It’s much worse with animals that have “faces,” but still occurs for insects too. Bees, for instance, sting only for protection, and there’s no animosity involved. There is no fundamental difference between “damaging” and “beneficial” garden insects – such values are placed by us alone, because we prefer certain plants, but insects only seek to survive, like everything else.

Do the research: The internet is a powerful, remarkable tool. In my youth, finding any kind of information involved poking through books at the library or attempting to call someone, so I can really appreciate typing things into a search engine. In a lot of cases, finding the information you’re after takes searching in different ways, and making sure you’re not assuming some trait. It may have looked like a moth, but maybe it’s not. Yet, the internet contains plenty of incorrect information as well, so learning how to distinguish is paramount. For instance, published papers and working entomologists tend to provide much more accurate information than brief descriptions on a site heavy with photos and light on detail.

Don’t grab: Many insects, even stinging and biting ones, can be handled safely with some care. I don’t recommend handling anything unnecessarily, but on occasion it’s useful, especially if you’re examining it or showing it to someone else, like your kids (and in such cases, handling can allay some of the unreasonable fears.) But our fingers are large, clumsy, and too hard to handle insects the same way we would a pencil, so coaxing an insect into your open hand works the best, and sometimes scooping or nudging can work. When collecting into a can, usually it’s more effective to place the can in front of the insect and then nudging or scaring it in. You can also simply pluck the leaf that the insect sits on and move the whole thing. But remember – almost everything has some means of defense, and insects often have surprises. If you’re not quite sure, leave it alone.

Move slowly: Most insects have rudimentary vision, and can be fooled by very slow movements – and of course, anything is going to flee if they perceive a threat from a rapid approach or hasty searches. I’ve demonstrated the usefulness of this by moving my finger directly towards a perched dragonfly, ever so slowly, until I could nudge it under the forelegs and actually have it transfer onto my finger – I just never triggered the danger response. And holding still for a while can allow insects to resume natural behavior that they halted when you came around, letting you see more of what they get up to.

Vary the times of observations: Many insects come out at night, or change behavior at those times. Others go into torpor when the temperature drops, and must warm themselves up in the morning. Some spiders are day hunters, but many more are nocturnal. Cicadas and mayflies hatch only at specific times and conditions. If you only go out at certain times of the day, you’re going to miss a lot.

Try not to interfere: Any kind of contact or interruption can change behavior, so it works much better if you only observe. Most especially, no matter how cool something might be, insects don’t really make pets – they don’t bond, they don’t learn, and captivity can deprive them of properly varied diet, sunlight, humidity, mating, migration, and on and on. A small terrarium might be helpful as temporary housing for photos, but for the most part, it’s far more interesting and informative to let them be and simply watch what they do. Also, don’t play favorites – even if a wasp is attempting to lay eggs in the caterpillar you’ve been desperate to watch make a chrysalis, that’s how it goes.

How do I identify certain insects? First off, I’ve found from long experience that asking “the locals” is just about pointless, since colloquial terms are used far more often than not. I can’t tell you how many species of arachnid I’ve seen identified as “garden spider.” Second, insect species are incredibly numerous, and distinctions sometimes very trivial. So don’t expect exact identification, even when resorting to experts, and by the same token, even large books aren’t necessarily going to help. I’ve found can supply a lot of info, provided you know how to search for key details, but even with numerous entomologists frequenting the site and contributing, there just isn’t much known about thousands of species in the US alone, much less in remoter areas. If you prefer a certain genera, you might get by with a few specific books, but expecting an encyclopedia of all species is asking way, way too much. Better to use books to help familiarize yourself with insect traits and anatomy (“true bugs” and all that.) Getting to know entomologists can help, such as at the local university, but be aware that most specialize and may well look at your butterfly and say they know nothing about Lepidotera, since they do Blattaria. Often, though, they can direct you to a colleague that is better suited. Just don’t abuse the privilege – remember that they have their own work to do.

What just happened? Insects can have the most astounding behavior, some of it very specialized. One species of mud wasp paralyzes spiders to lay their eggs within, where the young will hatch out inside the still-living spider and use them for food (the most disgusting variation of a gingerbread house imaginable – yes I enjoyed drawing that analogy.) These spider are stuffed into the mud tubes often seen under overhangs in barns, garages, and bridges (I have yet to obtain a photo of a wasp arriving with a spider, but now I know what I’m looking for.) Remember not to draw conclusions or even be fooled by what you think happened – describe exactly what you saw, and nothing more. The biggest mistake in observation, of any kind, is trying to fit what was seen into what was expected, which really does let one’s imagination start to interfere.

You could be the first. Sometimes it seems like science leaves very little yet to be discovered, but in reality, we can’t even provide an accurate count of how many species there are on this planet, because so many remain unrecorded. Insects are very high on that list. It’s important not to get too wrapped up in the idea that you might be finding a new species or witnessing unrecorded behavior, but this is far more likely for insects than it is for just about any other family – microorganisms lead the list. The key is, the only way you’d ever know is to treat it seriously and make good observations.

And there’s another aspect hiding in here, seemingly negative but actually quite useful: you may decide you really aren’t very interested in fieldwork, or in pursuing insects as a subject. It’s much better to find this out on your own with a minimal investment of time and money than six years into an advanced degree, where changing majors is hampered by thoughts of wasted effort. This goes for parents, too: Encourage your kids, but let it run as it may. If their interest isn’t holding, perhaps something else fits the bill more. Which lets me lead in to the next installment of Amateur Naturalist posts ;-)

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