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!

Mar 302012

You may have noticed that this blog has been rather quiet lately. Too quiet… My apologies for that, as there’s been a lot of cool science going on in my absence! I hope to get caught up on some of the delightful Diptera discoveries that have been published lately, not to mention all sorts of other fun stories, but for now they’ll have to wait for another day.

Why have I been neglecting the blog as of late? In January I was offered the opportunity to build and teach a Horticultural Integrative Pest Management and Plant Health course for Mohawk College in Hamilton, and I saw it as an excellent chance to expand my CV and gain valuable teaching experience (also make some money, ’cause that’s pretty important). I knew from the outset that I was in for a challenge; I was hired less than 2 weeks before the course began; my combined knowledge of IPM, botany and horticulture amounted to 1 university IPM course and some extremely black thumbs; and oh yeah, I’ve never constructed and taught a course before! Nevertheless, I took the rough curriculum the college provided and set out to make my mark on the horticulture class of 2012.

I expected this course to be as much a learning exercise for myself as it would be for my students, and it certainly lived up to expectations. Here are a few things I learned while teaching.

1) Lesson preparation will take longer than you anticipate

Before accepting the position I tried to guess how much time I would need to devote to the different projects/duties I have on the go:

Time Management Guess

An example of poorly estimated time commitments (and poor penmanship)

You probably guessed that those 6 hours/week of blogging didn’t happen, with much of that time being spent on lecture preparation. The amount of time needed to prepare lectures from scratch really blew me away, and I usually ended up spending at least one day on the weekend plus all day Monday & Tuesday getting ready for my 5 hour lecture on Wednesday. Because IPM isn’t my area of expertise, a lot of my time was spent on background research, getting up to speed on topics before trying to teach it back to my students. Theoretically that prep time would go down if I was teaching something I was more familiar with (i.e. taxonomy or general insect diversity), but the decrease probably wouldn’t be that dramatic. I must admit that I learned and retained more having to teach these topics than I did as a student sitting through class…


2) Five hour lectures require creativity (and a good night’s sleep)

A 5 hour class is not an ideal learning environment, especially for a group of students who would much prefer to be outside! In order to try and retain their attention, I broke my class into 4 segments with short breaks in between: 1 hour of review & quiz covering the previous week’s work, 45 minute lecture on Topic A, 1 hour lecture on Topic B, and 1.5 hour pest identification lab. I found this worked pretty well, with the students still paying attention through most of the classes, and only occasionally head bobbing (which is pretty hilarious to see from the front of the room, albeit a little disheartening).

Trying to keep the students engaged for each of these lessons required a little more work. I found YouTube to be invaluable, providing a lot of great resources to help illustrate my points (and give me a chance to grab a sip of water). If you’re interested, I’ve created a playlist of all the videos I included (or promoted) in my lectures; 72 clips in all. Some of them might seem a little odd out of context, but they made sense (mostly). Of all the videos I showed, I think I got the largest reaction out of the early DDT propaganda videos; seems the students didn’t like the idea of eating their cereal with a helping of insecticide…

I tried to draw on my natural history & pop culture knowledge to draw the students into the topics. Whether it was using Jacob from the Twilight series to introduce the concept of the “silver bullet” (heh) or using movie plots to explain the differences between invasive species control tactics (Containment = Outbreak; Control = Night of the Living Dead; Eradication = Independence Day), by bringing pop culture references into the lecture I could usually get the students to show signs of life. My students also seemed to enjoy parasititism, so anytime I could find a way to work a parasite into a topic I did.

Also, it seems giving a 5 hour lecture is physically exhausting! I’m not sure whether it was the standing/pacing or the mental marathon to stay ahead of the students, but I was pretty wiped each afternoon following my class. Make sure to eat your Wheaties prior to teaching, and have something to drink nearby!


3) Blog posts are a great way to keep students engaged outside of the classroom

Every week I assigned my students a blog post to read, and rewarded those that read it with a bonus question on the next week’s quiz. It was a great way to expose the students to topics and stories that tied back to our lectures but which weren’t necessarily about IPM. Judging by how many students got the bonus question correct each week I think they enjoyed the posts as well. Here are the posts I assigned over the semester (they’re all worth a read, believe me):

The Home Bug Garden – Clivia Foodweb: Part II

Not Exactly Rocket Science – The world’s biggest market (and it’s underground)

This Scientific Life – Berry Butts: Parasitized Black Ants Resemble Red Berries

The Beacon News – Hunting for the super-bug

Not Exactly Rocket Science – Since pythons invaded, Florida’s mammal populations have crashed

BioBlog – blood-sucking vampire moths!

Not Exactly Rocket Science – Scientists and tourists bring thousands of alien seeds into Antarctica Insects – Before You Mulch, Read This


Look Ma, no wings! (female Fall Cankerworm - Alsophila pometaria)

4) Seeing a student make a breakthrough makes all the hard work worthwhile!

It’s amazingly rewarding when a student asks a question that shows they’re engaged and curious about a topic. Case in point, while discussing gypsy moths (Lymantria dispar) I noted that adult females don’t fly, instead waiting for males to come to them. Having discussed the Fall Cankerworm1 a few minutes earlier, one of my students eagerly asked why female gypsy moths invest energy in developing wings which they never use2? Suffice to say I could hardly answer because I was geeking out over the question! Not only was she clearly connecting the dots between ideas, but she was applying advanced ecological & evolutionary concepts to something she’d only just been introduced to! SO AWESOME. It was these sort of moments that made every second I spent on lecture preparation worthwhile!

Of all the things I learned over the course of the semester, the most important was that I really enjoy teaching! I’ve had some experience with teaching before3, but never to this degree. There are certainly some areas of my teaching that I’d like to improve on moving forward, but overall the semester was a success, and my students walked away happy (or so they tell me at least). This course was a nice confirmation that I’m heading down the correct career path, and I’m already excited to give it another shot in the future.

IPM Class Photo 2012

My class on our grower field trip. Thanks for a great semester everyone!



1 – Female Fall Cankerworms are also flightless, but have wings that are reduced to tiny little stubs.

2 – This is almost an exact quote, she actually said “invest energy”. It blew my mind in a good way!

3 – I’ve given several guest lectures at the University of Guelph and was a teacher’s assistant on an entomology field course.

Jun 092011

It’s been a hot and humid week here in southern Ontario, reminiscent of the jungles of Central and South America! Ok, I might be dreaming a bit there (sigh), but all this hot’n’humid weather has resulted in some wicked storms in the evenings. Tuesday night featured one of the best displays of lightning I’ve ever seen; more than 80,000 lightning flashes were recorded by Environment Canada! After watching the storm passing over for almost an hour, it dawned on me that I should grab my camera and see what I could get out the window. After a bit of trial and error, here’s some of my favourites. Excuse the water droplets, I chickened out and shot through the windows rather than braving the storm outside!

Purple Rain Thunder & Lightning over Guelph

Purple Rain


Reach for the Sky Thunder and lightning Storm

Reach for the Sky


Here Comes Thor Lightning and Thunder Storm

Here Comes Thor!


Lightning Tree of Life Thunder Lightning Storm

Powering the Tree of Life


Is it just me or does that last image look like a phylogenetic tree snaking through the sky? Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in the lab lately…


All of these photos were shot with my 18-70 mm lens (at 18mm) on a Nikon D7000 body. I shot wide open (f3.5) and increased my ISO to 500 in order to record as much lightning as possible. As for the shutter speed, I played around with manageable speeds around 1/10 – 1.o seconds long, which wasn’t enough to get a proper exposure. I ended up settling on a 4 second exposure, which gave me plenty of opportunity to capture the random lightning strikes. The downside to such a long exposure? The smallest hand shake can introduce image-ruining blur, so I put both my elbows on the window ledge, controlled my breathing and concentrated on being very still. Of course, I should have used a tripod, but shooting through a window over the kitchen table at 1 am in the dark isn’t a perfect situation, so I made do and got lucky this time. Next time a high powered storm is forecast, I’ll be sure to be better prepared to take advantage!