Nov 092015

Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get out of the lab. After another busy summer (which, by the way, disappeared altogether too quickly), my wife and I decided to get away and visit a good friend in Northern California a few weeks ago. While we were in the area, I also made time to visit with friends and colleagues in a trio of museums along the way, and spend some time working through their collections looking for specimens to include in my research. It’s been awhile since I took my camera out of my bag and put it to use, and even longer since I shared a whole series of photos here on the blog, so I thought it might be a good opportunity to share some of what we saw and did!

Although we flew into Sacramento, we set out right away for the coast and spent some time exploring San Francisco. After exploring the Golden Gate area & Sausalito for lunch, we made our way back to the wharf in time for dinner. Pier 39 at sunset proved to be a good decision, and we managed to escape the Fog for our entire visit to the area, resulting in some pretty spectacular views.

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Aug 112014

After our adventure in Iceland, it was time to move on to Copenhagen, Denmark and kick off my European museum tour in earnest. Arriving after dark on Thursday, I couldn’t see much of the city as I rode public transit from the airport to Dave’s apartment, but the first thing that struck me as I left the subway terminal was the delicious smell of baking bread & pastries! For a moment I wondered whether perhaps Denmark actually smells like actual Danishes (the pastries), but then realized it was just the bakery across the street, much to my disappointment.

Coming from North America, it was striking how cramped city living is in Copenhagen. While the main living rooms of the apartment where I was staying were quite sizeable and charming in an historical kind of way, I soon learned the origins of the term “water closet”. Most places I know have a coat closet directly inside the entrance way, but in this apartment complex at least, that closet has been converted into a full 3-piece bathroom totalling at most 10 square feet of floor space, including that taken up by the toilet and sink! I’ve never seen a room so comically small (yet functional) in my life, and will certainly greet washrooms in Canada and the US with an all new appreciation. Needless to say showering the next morning was an experience, yet surprisingly manageable.

The first stop of my magical mystery type tour, the Copenhagen University Zoological Museum. #Museum #Entomology #NatHist #OMGGiantGeese

Friday morning I accompanied my hosts Dave & Adam to the University of Copenhagen Museum of Zoology. Walking through the basement hallways, we wandered past a taxidermied horse that was apparently a queen’s favourite, as well as a giant whale skeleton in a loading bay being prepared for the museum’s collection. “Little” details like these make travelling to natural history museums new experiences each and every time, because you never know what you’ll stumble across while you’re there!

No big deal, just a whale skeleton being prepared in the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum basement... #ActuallyABigDeal #NatHist #museum

The insect collection in Copenhagen is quite expansive, and includes the very important primary type collection of Johan Christian Fabricius (among others). Unfortunately, being more than 200 years old, many of Fabricius’ types are significantly damaged, with many having nothing but odd body parts stuck to a pin, or even an empty pin with naught but a label attached! This will make things a little more difficult in the future as we try and tease apart what these authors were thinking about when they described their species, but that’s the way things go with taxonomy. I’ll be spending another day at the end of my trip here, which is lucky because I didn’t end up getting all the work I wanted to get done, and instead had to do some last minute planning for the next stages of my trip and meeting with a revolving door of visiting scientists in town before the Diptera Congress.

Before I attend the 8th International Congress of Dipterology next week, I'm sorting specimens and exploring the Copenhagen Zoological Museum in Denmark, and this was one of the first specimens I picked up. This is Rainieria antennaepes, a common species of stilt-legged fly native to eastern North America. This specimen was collected in the University of Guelph Arboretum sometime between August 13th and 19th, 1994, by Danish entomologist Verner Michelsen, while he attended the 3rd International Congress of Dipterology (which was held in Guelph). I've travelled more than 6,000 km to attend the same conference exactly 20 years later, and have provided an identification for a specimen that was collected practically in my own backyard. It just goes to show you never know what you'll find in a Natural History museum!

We were up bright & early the next morning (Saturday) and riding the bus across Copenhagen with luggage in tow to pick up my rental car, which luckily turned out to be a massive upgrade from the uber-compact I had booked to a luxury SUV with all the bells and whistles! The unexpectedly nice car will make the road trip even more fun I think, and without the need to play Tetris with our luggage. Also, as it turns out, we were especially lucky to get the upgrade with built in GPS, because the pay-as-you-go cell phone card I picked up in Denmark and was planning on using for navigational purposes stopped working the moment we drove into Germany. I think I’d be somewhere between Rome & Budapest by now had I been relying on road signs, so we’ll chalk this up to luck and good karma.

My valiant steed for the next few weeks, which ended up being a sweet free upgrade from Avis! Let the roadtrip begin! #AdventuresWithManualTransmission

Driving through Denmark and Germany turned out to not be nearly as tricky as I had worried it might be. There were a few quirks, like Germany’s insistence on placing their traffic signal lights on the near-side of intersections, right above the first person in line’s head and practically impossible to see without a panoramic sunroof (did I mention we were lucky with the car upgrade?), and some exciting new experiences, like taking a mega ferry across the Baltic Sea, and driving on the set-your-own-speed Autobahn highway system in Germany, and we even stopped to look for some insects just outside of Berlin (primarily because we got stuck in a massive traffic jam and needed to stretch our legs for a bit).

I'm on a boat! #PlanesTrainsAndAutomobiles #AlsoBoats

We finally arrived in Potsdam at the Kongresshotel, a huge, sprawling resort complex on a river (it might be a lake, I’m not sure), and soon met up with a large group of Dipterist’s who had also come to town early, enjoying a few beverages and a late supper before retiring for the evening. Sunday was a relaxing day for the most part, giving me an opportunity to put the finishing touches on my presentation before we went out to find something to eat nearby. Turns out there isn’t anywhere nearby to eat, but we did manage to wander into what appeared to be an abandoned rowing club and then accidentally crashed a fancy birthday party at the local canoe club… Tourists, I tell ya! We eventually ended up eating back at the hotel, and then attended the opening mixer with nearly 400 Dipterists from around the world! It was a nice evening with plenty of good food, free wine, and great conversations with old friends and new colleagues alike.


Aug 082014

I’m in Keflavik International Airport waiting for my flight to Denmark. It’s only been 32 hours since I arrived in Iceland, but in that short time I’ve bared witness to more natural beauty than I ever expected, and been introduced to a country that is quirky, friendly, and so full of new experiences to be had that I need to come back.

Everything about this visit to Iceland has been exciting, from the moment I stepped foot on the Icelandair plane to the bus ride through the beautiful coastal scenery back to the airport. My 5-hour flight from Toronto to Reykjavik was fantastic, in large part because the flight was full of Icelandiana. The flight attendants handed passengers a bottle of glacier water when they stepped on the plane; the pillows came with an Icelandic lullaby translated on them (which was actually kind of creepy, including a line about sleeping with one eye open, but the sentiment was appreciated); the air sickness bag had a map and an explanation of the ocean currents that swirl around the island bringing mild yet unpredictable weather; the pre-flight safety video was shot not in a plane, but in the vast wilderness of Iceland, with each of the usual emergency procedures beautifully worked into the experiences of the main character as she explored the country. The inflight entertainment included local documentaries and cooking shows, giving you a head’s up about what to do and local food to watch for. Unfortunately, the only downside was that I couldn’t sleep, setting me up for a long day, but even a long, sleepless day couldn’t dampen my experiences here.

So excite! Next stop, Iceland!


After landing in Iceland, and finally securing my baggage (with special thanks to the jerk who pulled it off the baggage carousel and left it upside down after they realized it wasn’t their bag, leaving me to think it hadn’t enjoyed the same flight as I had), Dave and I caught a transfer bus (Gray Line Bus Tours) to Reykjavik, which is about 45 minutes from the international airport. At this point my body was still thinking it was 4am, and so we made a slight decimal place error when calculating the conversion of Icelandic Kronors to Canadian dollars for the bus, but at about $40 round-trip from airport to hotel, it was still well worth it.

The bus ride itself was great, and featured free wifi and a spectacular view of the coastal lava fields between Keflavik and Reykjavik. Mountains rose from every angle, while the ocean followed us all the way into the city. The mounds of moss-covered lava were incredible, and I wish we had been able to get out of the bus and explore these areas.



We had a little trouble finding an affordable hotel in Reykjavik (possibly because we booked it two days before we arrived), but ended up at the Capital-Inn Guesthouse, a nice place with clean, comfortable rooms, an eclectic breakfast selection, and friendly staff. The only downside was the $15 cab ride into the city centre, but apparently the city bus system is efficient and can get you there as well. They were also nice enough to let us check into our room early, which gave me a chance to snag an hour nap before heading back into Reykjavik’s downtown core to begin exploring the country.

Because we only had a short time in the country, we signed up for an afternoon bus tour (again with Gray Line Bus Tours) of the Golden Circle, a 6-hour loop through some of the geological treasures near the capital region. At only 9000. kr (less than $90cad), this trip was a phenomenal deal. Again we had free wifi on the bus, and more importantly, an incredibly well informed tour guide, who gave a nearly 6-hour lecture on Iceland, seamlessly transitioning from cultural history to natural history, and from geology to politics and ideology. I’ll admit that I didn’t catch everything she discussed, but that’s largely because I was pretty sleep deprived and much too enchanted by the passing scenery outside my window. I did appreciate her discussion of lake ecology and the role that “black lice” (which she said were midges, although I’m not sure whether she was referring to chironomids or biting ceratopogonids), and especially for giving flies a nod when discussing the pollination biology of Iceland (yes, she actually talked about pollination biology on a tour bus, which should be a requirement of all bus tours as far as I’m concerned). But really, the star of this show was Iceland itself.

So, yeah, #Iceland is unimaginably beautiful.

I walked through the land without a continent, the Rift Valley of Iceland in Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American tectonic plates are pulling their separate ways and ripping Iceland asunder. On the surface, fields of moss and wildflowers sprinkle the landscape, covering nearly every square inch of the surface not covered by clear, blue lakes, while huge cracks in the lava fields betrayed the violent geology going on beneath our feet. I could have explored this region for hours, poking around the rifts and taking in the crisp, fresh air, but all too soon we were back on the bus, and driving from North America to Europe in a matter of minutes. Volcanoes rose up around us, and we were treated to tales of giants and elves inhabiting the rockiest parts of the countryside, coming down at Christmas to bring gifts for the good and punishments for the not.




Soon we arrived at Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, and took in raging torrents and dancing rainbows of glacial melt water pouring down from the horizon and into the valley. The sun began peeking out from behind the clouds while we were here, highlighting the brilliant white glaciers off in the distance. A two-tiered waterfall with a 90o bend between tiers was something to behold, especially against the gray walls of the river valley. Again, mosses and small wildflowers filled every crack and crevice, providing a micro landscape to rival that of its surrounding geology.


Beauty at every scale

Beauty at every scale

Our final stop of the tour was the Geysir geothermal area. The largest erupting hot spring in this area was named Geysir in the 13th century, and lends it’s Anglicized name to similar erupting geysers around the world, while itself settling down to only spout steam and the occasional eruption in recent years. With the ever-present mountains as backdrop, the remaining erupting geyser thrilled crowds as it erupted 100 feet into the air as a plume of near-boiling water and steam at random intervals. Pools and streams formed from thermal springs sparkled blue, white and gold in the late afternoon sun, and the air was filled with steam wafting along on a gentle breeze.  I watched for hot spring associated insects, but only caught a glimpse of something before losing it amongst the mists.



With that, our Golden Circle tour came to a close, and we were shepherded back onto the bus for the journey back to Reykjavik.


Dinner in downtown Reykjavik followed by a walk in the late evening sun (sunset this time of year is after 10pm, which certainly didn’t help my inner clock), and then back to the hotel to finally crash for the night, in preparation for my final hours in Iceland.

Geothermal features in the Geysir area

Geothermal features in the Geysir area

Seeing as I’m on this trip to visit natural history collections, I figured it was only proper to visit The Icelandic Phallological Museum. With an admission of only 8 Euros, and a room chock full of mammal penises caringly preserved and presented for the world to see, this was something I had to see. Giant whale phalluses were mounted on the wall like trophy stag horns, while glass columns 6 to 8 feet tall guarded fleshy, coiled whale members preserved in formalin.

I mean, where else can you find taxidermied whale dicks mounted on the wall like trophies? This is from a beached Sei Whale.

The museum staff carefully erected signs and exhibits on every possible surface, and featured an impressive array of native and foreign wildlife, from blue whales to field mice, to be compared and contrasted against one another. It’s not often a natural history museum gives visitors the chance to play amateur anatomist, especially with organs as large and variable as these. And yes, there were even a few human specimens, donated post-mortem by elderly Icelanders, much to the dismay of the executors of their estates, I’m sure. While I and many other visitors couldn’t help but giggle the moment we stepped through the front door, it wasn’t long until each quelled their inner 12-year old and began gazing closely into the containers and pointing out the ways in which evolution has molded and shaped the male form.

They also had more classical preservation methods on display. This is a killer whale in the foreground, with various other whales, seals, and bears in the background.

All I had left was a walk through the streets of Reykjavik among the brightly painted row houses and bold street art plastered around the market area, and I was soon on my way here, the airport. I will certainly have many more stories to be made in the coming weeks of my travel, but I’m not sure how they will compare to these first 32 beautiful hours in Iceland.

Reykjavik street art is the best street art. #Diptera #Iceland

Aug 052014

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me since my qualifying exams. I’ve travelled up to Ottawa a few times to work with my co-advisor and gather a big, new DNA dataset, I’ve put my Google-fu and Google Translate skills to the test, and I’ve learned how spoiled I am by the ease of booking hotels in North America.

All of that hard work is about to payoff though, as I’m heading out for a grand European tour! Starting with a red-eye flight Tuesday evening, I’ll be attending the 8th International Congress of Dipterology (ICD8), and spending 2 weeks on the roads and in the natural history museums of Europe.

This is the second ICD I’ll have attended, and just like the last one in Costa Rica, I’ll be blogging all the way through about the things I learn, experiences I have, and whatever else comes up. I’ll also be tweeting, Instagramming & Vine-ing my way across the continent afterwards as I visit natural history museums and entomology collections looking for important type specimens of Micropezidae described by some of entomology’s biggest names over the past 250 years.

Starting with a quick stop in Iceland to explore, I’ll move on to Copenhagen to visit the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and then will be driving down to Potsdam, Germany to present my newly acquired data at ICD8 and fill my head with all kinds of new knowledge about flies & dipterology. After that I’ll be hitting the road with fellow PhD student & blogger Kai Burington to visit museums in Stuttgart, Munich, Vienna, Dresden, Berlin, and Muncheberg before heading back to Denmark to visit friends and fly home.

Before things kick off, I’d like to thank the Smithsonian Institute and the S.W. Williston Diptera Fund for making this trip possible for me with a Diptera Research Grant. If you’d like to help make future opportunities like this possible for graduate students like myself or others interested in dipterology, I’d encourage you to donate to the S.W. Williston Fund. You can find more information about S.W. Williston and the Smithsonian endowment fund program here.

It’s going to be a whirlwind trip, and I hope you’ll join me as I try and share my European adventure with you.


Aug 292012

Before I knew it, Sunday morning was upon us and we were down to our final morning of BugShot 2012, which started off great with a raffle for Wimberly gift certificates and plamps for 4 lucky participants (no luck for me unfortunately). The day’s events were cut short because of various travel plans and concerns involving tropical storm Isaac, but Alex, Thomas and John did a great job answering some questions submitted to the Big-Box-O-Questions (you can see them and the answers thanks to Crystal’s Storify of the morning) before moving onto a talk by John about Digital Asset Management.

John’s DAM talk detailed some best practices regarding photo management and workflow, from the moment you click the shutter button right through to sharing and archiving. John is a big fan of Lightroom (as am I) and went over some of the features available for importing and cataloging your photo collections. I’ve been keeping a redundant folder system to protect myself from database corruptions, but John placed all of his trust (and files) into the hands of Lightroom’s management. It made me think that perhaps it’s time I let down my guard and save myself some time by letting Lightroom do the file management on import, but with my luck I’ll end up with a massive system failure shortly after doing so!

There was a lot of audience participation as many people had questions about software or suggestions from their own workflow, so John wasn’t able to get through much of his talk. Apparently the instructors will be sending around their presentations for people to look over on their own time, so I’ll look forward to seeing more of John’s thoughts on keeping files safe and ready to go.

To finish the workshop off, Alex talked briefly about selling images and strategies for making a little money off your work. While he does belong to a photo stock agency, Alex currently sells more through his own gallery site and uses his blog to raise his profile. He also credits his early start in social media and online photo sharing for his success now. I’d certainly love to make a little money off of my work to cover new toys or trips, so I’m going to try and finally get around to setting up a gallery site of my own soon. If people can’t find my images, then they won’t know what their missing out on (or something equally confident…). I’ll file that in the “To Do relatively soon” list.

With that, BugShot 2012 officially came to a close, with participants grabbing a quick lunch before heading off for flights before Isaac hit (which it never really did). Because of my travel arrangements, I had originally hoped to stay an extra night at Archbold and visit the insect collection Monday morning, but the threat of a tropical storm/hurricane forced me to get back to Orlando for the night instead. Alex was kind enough to give myself and Guillaume Dury (a grad student at McGill University) a ride back to civilization, and I had a little extra time to pick his brain about insects, photography and academia, making the rainy trip go by in a flash.

We found an affordable hotel room near the airport, and met up with Crystal, who was stuck until the next day unexpectedly, and had a nice evening chatting about life, work and the grad student way. A relaxed wake up the following morning, an easy shuttle to the airport, and practically no lines at the airport, and it wasn’t long before I was back in the air and heading home. In Chicago I even managed to find a sweet hide-out with plenty of power outlets, which made my WiFi-less layover more bearable. Another smooth flight back to Kitchener and I was back home (although I still got pulled aside by customs, like usual). I have to give major props to American Airlines, because I don’t think I’ve had such uneventful and enjoyable flights like I did this time; I’ll certainly be flying with them again in the future!

So that brings my BugShot 2012 experience to a close. I had an absolutely awesome time, and picked up several tips and plenty of inspiration to work with over the coming year. I’m extremely grateful to the instructors for their hard work, openness and for providing me with a student fee waiver so I could be a part of a great workshop. If you’re interested in photographing insects, whether for work or for play, I can’t recommend BugShot highly enough. You’ll learn new things, meet interesting people, and gain valuable experience that will make you a better photographer. I’d certainly like to go back in the future, and I hope to see some of you there too!

I’ll be posting some my photos over the next several days, as well as discuss some of the photo gear that John demonstrated which I think could make an affordable lab set up. Stay tuned for more soon.


The fringe of Isaac


Hmmm, I’m not really believing this “Sunshine State” thing…


Headin’ home

Aug 272012

It may just be me, but I think mornings in Florida are earlier than they are anywhere else. What other reason would make me be so slow to get out of bed this morning? Clearly not the late night photography, or the editing into the darkness, or the midnight social hours, because there’s definitely no down side to those activities. That must mean there’s a temporal disturbance surrounding Archbold Biological Station that makes mornings come sooner than anticipated!

After finally crawling from bed just in time for a bowl of cereal, the group was back out into the field to find and photograph whatever insects they could find, and put some of the newly learned techniques into practice. I spent the morning hanging out with Thomas Shahan and wandering through the Florida Scrub. This is such a unique habitat, and while the insects require a little more searching to find, there are some absolutely fantastic organisms roaming around. I spent some time with a patient bee fly (family Bombyliidae, photos to come later this week) as well as some of the stations Florida Scrub Jays, which weren’t afraid to pose for a photo. I’ve heard they really enjoy peanuts, so maybe they were looking for a handout for their time, but sadly I had nothing but thanks to give.

Soon we were back together at the station posing for a group photo (or 3, or 5…) and then learning about white box photography from Alex Wild. A white box is literally just that, a simple box lined with white paper on the inside to bounce light around, where you can place an insect to get super soft, diffuse lighting. What I found most interesting was Alex has begun leaving the back of his box open, allowing there to be a shadow produced along the back defining line of his subjects. We normally use styrofoam coolers from fish markets in our lab for this sort of photography, but I’m curious about trying Alex’s open back door technique (my only worry being that it leaves a pretty big opening for flies and other skitterish flying insects to vacate the area).

After lunch we had a few hours to spend off by ourselves, so I took MOAR photos, and then started getting them onto the computer to have a look. I’ve been pushing myself to get out of my shell and try new things, and by the first look at the photos, I’m going to have to keep trying! I really haven’t had a chance to edit anything yet, but I’ll be sure to share some photos throughout the week as I get them touched up.

We finished off the afternoon learning about focus-stacking from Thomas Shahan, and high speed photography from John Abbott. Both techniques are specialized for specific circumstances; focus-stacking to provide more depth of field in a composite of several frames focused on different planes, and high speed photography to stop insects in flight. Although I’ve done a lot of focus-stacking with my work in the lab on pinned specimens, I’ve never really tried it with live organisms in the field or studio before. The results can be quite stunning, but I’m not sure it’s something I’ll get into.

High speed flash photography however, is something that I’d love to try after I win the lottery! By using super-fast shutter speeds, big banks of high-output flashes and laser triggers (yes, LASERS), John is able to photograph insects in flight, completely stopping their motion. The photos that John showed were absolutely incredible (you can see a selection of his work in his gallery here), but it requires a ton of equipment (and considerable knowledge & experience with electrical engineering it would seem), most of which isn’t cheap. Like most things with digital photography now-a-days though, there is a potential more affordable alternative that may allow more people to get into the game, with a new product called StopShot. Maybe one day I’ll try my hand at high speed photography, but it will be awhile I expect.

After dinner we had another short photo critique session, and then plenty of free time to socialize and work on making or editing images well into the evening again!




Aug 262012

So I’m a day behind already with my recaps… Hopefully I’ll get caught up eventually!

After waking up to an amazing foggy sunrise over the Florida scrub Friday, classes started in earnest and we were Go! Go! Go! for the rest of the day. With a morning filled with demonstrations of a wide variety of photography toys tools from John Abbott (I’m going to cover some of these things in more detail in a later post) as well as an intro to Archbold and a basic entomology lesson (which was a good refresher, and nice to see how another entomologist goes about teaching it).

Friday afternoon was a series of lectures where the instructors shared the secrets between the techniques they’re best known for. Thomas Shahan revealed how he uses $50 worth of reverse-mounted garage sale lenses to get up close and personal with aesthetically pleasing arthropods. He made an interesting point that making your own equipment forces you to really understand what you’re trying to accomplish and understand the mechanics behind your photography (plus you’ll appreciate new gear more when you get it).

Alex discussed techniques to move and mold light around your insect subjects, demonstrating how the position of a flash can dramatically influence a photo; backlighting provides a nice rim accent that can accentuate fine hairs and setae while diffused overhead lighting brings out textures and colours in the insect. Alex also recommended using your flash off camera, and in manual mode rather than TTL or E-TTL. This is something I’ve been battling with, the inconsistency of TTL, so I made an effort to spend the rest of the weekend working in Manual (with promising results, but more on that later). I then spent the afternoon field session learning more about Alex’s lighting techniques. Tip number one was get the flash off the camera, start with the light coming directly down on top of the insect, and getting it as close as possible to the insect. Tip number two was giving your flash enough space to spread out before hitting your diffusion material (Alex prefers velum — a plasticized paper product that can bend and fold while he crawls through the undergrowth chasing ants while providing a nice soft glow).

Friday evening’s session started off with Alex, Thomas and John discussing the finer points of composition. I thought this part was excellent, because although they covered simple things like the Rule of Thirds, they also discussed the idea of simple backgrounds and contrasting tonal qualities between your subject and backgrounds. While I try to take composition into consideration, I generally feel like I’m more worried about getting any shot (and then the specimen depending on what it is and where I am) that I don’t always take the time to set the photo up to the max impact. This is one of the other aspects of my work that I’m going to try and improve on from here on out.

To finish the evening’s events off, students shared some of their photos for the attendants to critique. There wasn’t a whole lot to critique on many of the photos however, as it seems this is a very talented group of individuals! It was cool to see some other work, and see a variety of different styles. A little time spent in the field afterwards before bed topped off a fantastic day 2 for BugShot 2012!

Aug 242012

Excuse this rather abrupt recollection of Day 1; for a day that started at 4:40am I’m running on pure adrenalin right now! (I’ll add some photos in later, I promise).

I had great flights and really excellent luck at both airports (Chicago in particular, where I walked off the plane, got to the baggage claim just as my bag rounded the carousel, and was through security again all within 15 minutes!) and other than a pretty boring layover in Chicago (note to airports: not offering free wifi is lame. Don’t be lame) travel today was some of the easiest I’ve experienced (knock on wood the same goes for the return trip).

After arriving in Orlando I met up with a few fellow BugShotters and met with my carpool pals for the drive to Archbold Biological Station. After a brief orientation we had some free time to start exploring around the station. The scrub habitat surrounding Archbold is fascinating, with lots of sand, palmetto and even some cacti, all of which I’m sure I’ll become more closely acquainted with by the time the weekend is over. The enthusiasm of the participants was off the charts, with everyone sharing a smile as they scoured the area for anything with 6 or 8 legs.

Dinner was great (steak, brisket and fixin’s) and afterwards Alex, Thomas and John each shared their 5 Top Tips for insect photography. So as not to spoil any future attendee’s experience, I’ll only share the top tip from each that resonated the most with me:

John – Support, Support, Support! He apparently changed this from last year’s Tripod, Tripod, Tripod! to better encompass other forms of stabilization, but it’s a very good point and certainly one of the more difficult aspects of macrophotography.

Thomas (who must be the most modest person ever) – Be persistent and keep taking photos (good things come with volume). Yep, pretty well sums it up.

Alex – Know your subject. Knowing how an insect is going to react, or where it can be found in the first place is one of the most important aspects of insect photography. If you can anticipate an insects behaviour, you stand a better chance of making a good image.

After this first session we all grabbed our gear and explored in the dark. Other than getting munched by a huge number of mosquitoes (who apparently have an ankle affinity) there was a nice diversity of insects out and about for everyone to get started photographing!

Sorry, some sketchy wifi confounded my attempt to post this late last night. Hopefully today’s post will be up later today, with photos!




Dec 022011
My apologies for delaying this final post. Better late than never I suppose!

The final 2 days of ESA 2011 were a flurry of activity, with dozens of interesting talks, multiple social events, and plenty more to keep me completely tied up both days.

I started Tuesday off learning about the massive Beetle Tree of Life (similar in nature to the Fly Tree of Life I talked about last spring) presented by Ainsley Seago (@americanbeetles). Unlike the fly tree, this presentation was about the morphological work undertaken, and featured one of the largest phylogenies I’ve ever seen. Ainsley did a great job of showing a tree that was about 5 times too large for the screen by having it scroll, which really showed off the immense number of taxa the team included. The paper can be found here, although it isn’t open access. Ainsley was handing out PDFs after her talk, so perhaps if you ask really nice she’ll help you out and email you a PDF.

From there I went and sat in on the Web-Based Digital Insect Identification: Our Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities symposium, and got a preview of a lot of cool insect identification aids being prepared. From the utility of AntWeb and the construction of a matrix key to the invasive ants of North America to the development of wood-boring beetle identification tools full of gorgeous images, this symposium had a lot of interesting content. It wasn’t all about new tools however, with Clifford Keil making an impassioned plea for greater web publishing of Neotropical identification tools, and relating some of the problems he has identifying the insects of Ecuador. There are a lot of factors working against the inventorying of insects in Latin American countries like Ecuador, from habitat destruction to limited access to the resources and publications needed, but perhaps the most damaging is the paranoia and protectionism of “biological assets” by government bureaucracies. Cliff told tales of valuable specimens he was shipping to collaborators in Europe being destroyed by Ecuadorian border agents, even with the correct paperwork filled out. As an entomologist who studies insect diversity specifically in these biodiverse regions, I am all too aware of the headache-inducing paperwork associated with collecting and export permits, and to hear that even researchers “on the inside” are hitting major roadblocks is troubling.

This symposium had one major dark spot however; a close-minded, elitist presentation by a “traditional” taxonomist on the future of digital insect identification tools. While I’ll leave the presenter unnamed, I will say his presentation left me quite upset. I should have known it was coming when he started his talk by saying he wasn’t aware of some of the good work that’s been done (red flag #1) and then had someone else advancing his PowerPoint presentation because he apparently didn’t know how (red flag #2), but going in I was expecting an excitement about the potential for reaching new audiences, sharing new tools and identification aids, and inspiring new ideas. I couldn’t have been more wrong. For the next 20 minutes he lectured on how digital insect identification won’t help in the near future, and probably won’t work in the long term, going so far as to state that taxonomy and the creation of digital identification aids shouldn’t be undertaken by anyone other than professional taxonomists with decades of experience, because anyone else will just mess it up! I’m not sure when he managed to get any work done while he was building his ivory tower, but from his lofty vantage point all projects relating to taxonomy were best left to him and his equally aged colleagues (and I suppose he was born with the gift of perfect taxonomy and didn’t start out at the bottom). Can we all just agree that this is a messed up, bullshit stance to be clinging to in this day and age? While developing identification aids takes time, it’s not that hard, and no person should EVER be told they can’t do so! “Experts” shouldn’t be discouraging interested individuals, but rather partnering with them to transfer their acquired knowledge! Why on earth this man was invited to speak in this symposium is beyond me, but I assume the organizers weren’t expecting the antiquated tirade he unleashed!

After calming down, I explored the regular member poster session and vendors, grabbed some lunch, and then headed into an afternoon of entomologists utilizing social media, starting with Holly Menninger (@DrHolly) discussing her non-standard career path. It was a nice eye-opener that there are other ways to make a living working with insects in academia, and as expected, she did a great job sharing her experiences! You can also catch a brief interview with Holly on the ESA YouTube channel.

The rest of my day was spent in the Interaction and Education in a Brave New World of Social Media and Online Resources symposium. To be perfectly honest, I was pretty disappointed with the majority of presentations here, in large part because the projects weren’t really social. Sure they were online or on cell phones, but they didn’t really inspire discussion with their users, and were largely digital data collection projects. There were some providing resources, such as the database of images, video and teaching tools, but even then there is no real network for corresponding with users. There were a few exceptions which I greatly enjoyed, such as Blake Bextine explaining how he engages his students through Facebook discussions as an extension of the classroom. While many people may see Facebook as a potential disaster where students and professors/researchers shouldn’t mix, I think that with some intelligent guidelines and privacy settings, there is no reason why it can’t be used professionally, and Bextine’s use of private, administrated groups seems like a good idea to me. The symposium was finalized by a great talk from the often-imitated-but-never-duplicated, blue-haired-blog-queen Bug Girl, who did a great job raising the profile of insect blogging! You should go watch her presentation right now, and also be sure to check out her interview by Guelph grad student Laura Burns for more reasons to blog!

Tuesday is generally the pub/social gathering night at ESA, and this year I tried to make appearances at 3 different events (“appearances”, ha! Like I’m some sort of celebrity). I say tried, as I missed out on the Dipterists Pub while hanging out with the Citizen Scientist group and a bunch of very friendly Lepidopterists & parasitic Hymenopterists at a house party on the western outskirts of Reno (a story that I won’t go into, but suffice to say I had my share of awkward I-don’t-know-anybody small talk). After getting back to the hotel, I met up with a small group of bug bloggers/bug blog readers and enjoyed a beer or two while talking about a wide range of entomological and social issues (also, Bug Girl is just as funny in real life as she is online). It was a great finish to a very full day!

Wednesday was the final day of the conference, and I unfortunately missed most of the morning sessions while checking out of the hotel and picking up a rental car in preparation for a quick post-conference road trip (more on that to come). Wednesday afternoon was spent in the Biosurveillance symposium, where a group of extremely passionate entomologists discussed their successes and challenges with using Cerceris fumipennis (a wasp in the family Crabronidae) to scout for Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis). This is a project that got it’s start here in the University of Guelph Insect Collection and which has been adopted and expanded by a great group of people throughout the eastern US in a relatively short period of time. Talks ranged from the development of mobile wasp colonies to selectively search areas to the study of Cerceris biology/chemistry/behaviour and even to the citizen scientist initiative being implented. I suggest you visit for much more information on the project, and to learn how you can volunteer to become a Wasp Watcher! My final talk of the conference was right near the end of the symposium, and everyone seemed quite excited about the field guide to jewel beetles we’re developing.

With that, ESA 2011 came to a close for another year. While I always enjoy entomological conferences, this one will certainly stand out as one my favourites, featuring a great diversity of high-quality talks, dozens of new friends and contacts, and more than enough information and inspiration to keep me going through the long, Canadian winter! I’d like to thank everyone who followed along here and on Twitter, and especially the symposia organizers who invited me to speak in their programs. I had a great time, and I can hardly wait for ESA 2012 in Knoxville, TN! Hope to see you there!

Nov 152011

Today was a bit of an oddity for a large meeting; the morning was chalk full of talks and poster presentations, but absolutely no scientific content all afternoon, but rather full of societal business meetings. This means I ran around like mad all morning and then sat on my hands all afternoon, so it’ll be a bit of a light review today.

As I mentioned, all of the student talks were this morning in order for the President’s Prizes to be awarded this evening. I ended up sitting in on 9 or 10 talks as well as exploring the poster session, so I was able to get a pretty good feel for the level of proficiency displayed, and was it ever high! I don’t think I went to a single talk or saw a single poster which I wasn’t inspired or awed by! Everyone seems to be doing fantastic research, whether revising Neotropical cicada taxonomy, studying the evolution of eusociality in carpenter bees, or exploring the relationships of Australian horse flies, every talk I sat in on had me entertained and curious about the hypotheses they were working on! Not only were the talks well presented, but the slides were well designed, and the research given in an understandable medium, immersing the audience in the project at hand. There was even a student describing the puparium of a North American Neriid fly (a group of flies very closely related to the Micropezidae I study)! I couldn’t have asked for a better morning of talks!

I just wanted to mention how great the new ESA Ento-2011 iPhone App is! It has allowed me to easily keep track of when and where I want to be, who’s speaking and what their talk number is, which I found to be a good way to keep track of citations on Twitter. Normally I’d need to fumble around with my big book of titles, switching pages and losing my spot while wasting valuable talk time, but the app has done an amazing job of keeping me on track and in the right room. Kudos to the ESA for developing and sharing a great tool!

Over lunch I took in the vendor displays again now that there weren’t as many people hanging around, and then looked into the ESA Career Center to see what sort of positions were available. Turns out that it’s not a good time to be looking for an entomological job or graduate position, as there were very few advertisements this year! The last time I was at ESA the binders were stuffed full of job, faculty and graduate postings, but this year there may have been 2 dozen total, with very few looking for ecologists and none interested in taxonomy. Whether this is a normal pattern and we’re in a lull, or whether this is a delayed effect of the economic downturn, I’m not sure, but it was a little disheartening. I suppose it can only get better from here, right?

After finishing up the slides for my last talk, I met with Ignasi Bartomeus (@ibartomeus), a pollination ecology post-doc at Rutgers who I’ve been corresponding with on Twitter since Sunday, to have a beer and talk insects. We had a great discussion about the value of social media for public outreach and the value of natural history collections to ecologists. It was enlightening conversation for me, and one that wouldn’t have happened had I not traveled to Reno, or hadn’t been using Twitter! Social Media for the Win again!

Finally, I met with the rest of the Cerceris fumipennis research crew for a brainstorming session on how to continue the work and discuss Wednesday’s symposium. We ended up crashing the Arkansas/Auburn/Clemson/Tennessee Alumni Reception (shh, don’t tell) and sat in the corner discussing new ideas for the next field season. If you want to see some passionate, dedicated entomologists committed to a research project they fully believe in, then you should come out Wednesday afternoon in room A12 for the Biosurveillance symposium!

Tomorrow is an extremely full day, with talks in almost every slot that I am looking forward to seeing! I’ll be taking plenty of notes, that’s for sure!