If you open the door to my freezer, you may be shocked to find it mostly filled with containers and jars full of insects of all sizes. My husband, Casey, is an entomologist. His career path is the reason we live in Louisiana, where the bugs grow big and congregate in large numbers.
I have never been too crazy about the little, 6-legged critters that would sometimes find their way into my house or car. However, I have begun to find them almost as fascinating as my husband does the more I learn about their life cycles and ecology.
Some insects sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, like the Jewel Wasp, that turns its’ prey into zombies. Other insects, like bees and ants, have such amazing social structures that stir the feminist in me – Every ant or bee you have ever seen has most likely been female! (HOW COOL!)
My husband has been into insects his whole life, where I only started becoming interested because my husband would entice me with fun facts as he read different books and scientific articles. Before I knew it, I was recognizing ants on the sidewalk by their genus!
Becoming ever more intrigued with insects myself, and wondering what my husband was doing in his lab and out in the field, I started requesting to tag along with him. I never knew how much tedious work goes into scientific research (think hours preparing materials just so you can start your experiment).
After proving my worth in the lab, I was invited to assist my husband with his field research project for his masters degree. For this project, Casey was trying to determine the biodiversity in coarse woody debris. His research plot was in Starkville, Mississippi, and we were going to take a long weekend to review the plot and use various collection methods to take samples (sounds easy enough, right?).
I was sure I was going to love field research! I get to hike through the woods with my husband, setting up traps and collecting insects – what a magical weekend this was going to be! (Well, maybe not for normal people, but who wants to be that?!)
Although, my husband was insistent that these were no ordinary woods, this was dense Mississippi forest. He recounted previous trips where he picked off dozens of ticks from his body, and the thorns had grown so high and thick you couldn’t walk but a couple steps without being pricked.
I packed for the worst – long sleeve shirts and pants, thick socks and gloves, lot’s of tick and mosquito repellent. I was ready for it all!
Thursday night, we loaded up the car with the research equipment and drove 5 hours to Starkville.
Once we arrived at the hotel we had to unload all our research gear and began prepping the materials needed for the next day. The process of setting up the collection tubes and samples took several hours. Casey was going to use several different types of methods for collecting insect from each section of the plot (which was several acres in size).
As we prepared our materials, Casey went over the process for each type of collection method. What kind of notes I needed to take, and how to properly write my notes. I was so excited!
The next day I “suited up” with my protective clothing, research gear, and sampling materials.
Casey and I each had a backpack full of our research and sample materials, as well as plenty of water.
We would be taking hand samples after we had placed the collection tubes in the each section of the plot. So I had to have all my hand sampling containers for each section and tools necessary for collecting the samples.
The plot was divided into different zones, and the sections were pre-marked on our GPS devices, but Casey also had a printed map of the plot.
We arrived at the plot early in the morning, driving down a dirt road to a secluded section of forest. We wanted to start early to make sure we were capturing data when the insects were most active.
Casey and I looked over the map and GPS locations of each section and set our hiking route. He was right, this was no ordinary forest – the undergrowth was extremely dense with thorny shrubbery in areas, but I persisted!
It was a great relief when we would come to section of the forest were we could walk in a straight line for a bit without getting caught on a thorn branch.
Using the map and GPS we would get close to the start point for each section, then we would search for an orange ribbon to indicate the center. We would set up pitfall traps and collection tubes and then begin hand sampling for our designated amount of time.
Casey’s research focused on the biodiversity of ants, so our goal was to try and collect as many different ant species as possible.
This was my first time helping with field research, so hand sampling was a new concept to me. You basically have to dig up the leaf litter, rip open fallen branches or logs, to find insects.
It’s a little harder to find them then you would think, but my eyes soon were able to notice the little ladies running about. I also want to mention they can be much faster than you would imagine. I became frustrated on several occasions when an ant would escape my tweezers into the leaf litter.
It was a long first day, we had packed our lunch and took a brief break around noon, but worked late into the afternoon. We had finished setting out all the pitfall traps and sampled half of the plot before heading back to the hotel. After unloading our gear and showering, we enjoyed pizza and beer at a place called Dave’s Dark Horse Tavern. Casey and I totally pigged out on their Second City Pizza (which is kind of like a Chicago stuffed pizza) – it takes a while to cook, but it’s worth it!
Back at the hotel, we had to care for the samples and begin prepping materials for the next day – this took us almost to midnight. There were some things that had worked well, and others that had not. We had to discuss what to do to increase the success of the samples taken and increase our time and productivity. We came up with some ideas to altered our methods from the previous day to attempt to gain better results.
Saturday, we finished the second half of the plot with our methods. It was nearly as grueling as the first day, but I had found better ways to step around thorny brush to avoid getting stuck as much.
I also made a fun game out of hand sampling. I was sure I could collect more hand samples that contained different ant species than my husband. Being equally as competitive as I am, Casey accepted the challenge. Of course we wouldn’t have the results until Casey had gone through every single sample and identified every specimen (I pestered Casey for months about the results).
We were able to finish the second half of the plot earlier than the previous day. We took our samples back to the hotel and got cleaned up. Even with my thick layers of clothes and tick repellent, I still found that some ticks had made it through my barrier.
Not having to prep any materials for the next morning, we enjoyed a nice meal that evening at a local Indian restaurant before getting to bed at a near decent time.
Our last day for field research was Sunday. We would be collecting our pitfall traps that we had placed on Friday. We would also be collecting leaf litter samples at the plots where we collected the pitfall traps.
This day was a little frustrating. The pitfall traps are placed in the earth and setup to attract any insects on the forest floor. I guess we did a good job at blending them in with the leaf litter, because we spent 30 minutes to an hour at times looking for them!
We had hoped to have finished by noon, but it was a little later in the afternoon before we had finished collecting all our samples. I am proud to say that we found every pitfall trap that we placed, though we almost gave up hope on one that had lost the ribbon marker.
Packing up all the samples and gear we headed back to our home in Louisiana. Casey was going to have a lot of work do back in his lab. I enjoyed doing field research, the days were long, and I learned a lot!
I have always had respect for scientists, but taking the time to assist with field research and to understand all the effort Casey put in before and after, makes me even more appreciative of the work that scientist do!
Casey has completed his research project and will be graduating with his Master’s Degree on Thursday, August 16th. I am very proud of him!
I almost forgot, the results of the data from our trip to Mississippi was interesting to compare. Casey was reluctant to tell me. He was surprised at how well I did; it was almost a tie between the number of species that we collected, with his being slightly higher!
Want to know more about Entomology and Casey’s work? Check out his blog: The Entomologuy
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