Pantyhose ingenuity

How would you catch this dragonfly?
How would you catch this dragonfly?

In the fall of 2012, I was to teach entomology at Sewanee: University of the South, whose campus is 13,000 acres of largely undeveloped forested land on the Cumberland Plateau. All about Lake Cheston dragonflies maneuvered like jet fighters. I didn’t know how to catch these lightning-fast aerialists. Field guides offered no suggestions, but the scientific literature did: shotguns.
From a 1972 paper by T.M. Neal and W.H. Whitcomb in the Florida Entomologist, “High flying…dragonflies were shot down with a 20 gauge shotgun; the shot in the shell replaced with fine sand.”

I immediately asked my colleagues what they thought about letting my students use shotguns on Sewanee’s 13,000 acre campus to collect dragonflies. My colleagues were, I’ll say, intrigued by the idea, but said I’d have to get approval from the administration for my ‘shotgun pedagogy.’

Could I really get the University to not only buy shotguns as an entomological supply, but also let the students blast bugs out of the air?

I don’t know what the answer because I never asked the administration. I thought twice about arming my students with shotguns and instead armed them with nets and traps and cameras. The dragonflies, and likely the faculty, are probably better for it.

But I really liked the ‘shotgun ingenuity’ of Neal and Whitcomb’s approach. I imagine them sitting around beers saying, “How are we going to catch these things?” And then Whitcomb suggests, half as a joke and half serious, “What if we blasted them with a shotgun?” They both laugh and sip their beers. Then they both get quiet for a moment. Then Neal says, “You know, if we pepper them with a smaller shot, it might just work.”

Field biology and ecology requires a large number of tools, but the most important one is ingenuity. Often there is not a ready-made, manufactured piece of equipment for your particular needs. A field scientist must be able to think on his feet or engage in what I call, ‘shoot-from-the-hip-ecology.’

One of my own moments of ‘shotgun ingenuity’ came in 2007 when I was conducting an experiment where I needed to keep grasshoppers in cages in a salt marsh to determine how many grasshoppers it took to severely damage plants. But first I had to catch hundreds of grasshoppers. The problem is, how do you put 100 grasshoppers into a bucket without some escaping every time you open the lid to put one in?

Let’s go to that moment:

Prarie grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) in the saltmarsh. Plum Island Estuary, Massachusetts
The quarry: a prairie grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) in the saltmarsh. Rowley, Massachusetts

July 2007
The Great Marsh
Rowley, Massachusetts

The grasshoppers thumped like popcorn in the five-gallon bucket. I had 10 but needed hundreds more. Every time I opened the lid to put one in, two jumped out. I needed to be able to add grasshoppers to the bucket without opening the top.

I wandered around the local Kmart and found the answer in hosiery. Pantyhose.

I stared at the pantyhose size chart which was some sort of cryptogram that correlated letters to weight. I tried to figure out how much I would weigh if my legs were the size of five-gallon buckets. Would I be a B or a Queen Petite or a Queen 2? It depended on how tall I was.

Not able to crack the code I asked a sales associate.

“Excuse me. I’m trying to put pantyhose on a five-gallon bucket. Can you help me figure out what size I need?”
She asked immediately, “On a bucket?”
“It’s for grasshoppers,” I said as if that explained it all.
“Grasshoppers?” she asked.
“I’m a scientist,” I added.

Possibly not wanting to hear anymore cryptic answers she consulted with me about sizes. She also taught me about control tops and the different colors (nude, taupe, black!). She told me the difference between pantyhose (which go to the waist), stockings (which go to the thigh like long socks), and leggings (long socks with no feet). So many grasshopper options!

After some experimentation, I found that the best fit for a five-gallon bucket was a queen size control top. Stretching the waist over the bucket top and cutting off one of the legs let me plunge my closed fist holding a grasshopper into the bucket, release it and pull my hand out without the grasshoppers escaping. It also allowed for sufficient airflow and temperature regulation, which minimized mortality during collection.

The scientific term is:  orthopteran retention vessel. Or a bucket with pantyhose on its head.
The scientific term is: orthopteran retention vessel. Or a bucket with pantyhose on its head.

The significance of the result of my ‘pantyhose ingenuity’ can be found here. The data on the difference between ‘taupe’ and ‘nude’, however, remain inconclusive.

Have you used ‘pantyhose ingenuity’ in your own work?


Underwater walking

I wade into a marsh pond and see a funny speck of dirt crawling on the surface of the water. But on the underside of the water’s surface . And it’s not dirt, but a minute snail from the family Hydrobiidae. This particular snail is not content enough to walk with its stomach foot on the ground or the plants, but to fancy itself on the underside of the water’s surface.

If you are small of mass, gravity pulls on you very weakly. If you are small enough and a snail, you can spread your stomach-foot out wide and can take advantage of the water’s surface tension to walk on the ceiling.

But first you must get to the ceiling. This minute snail can simply crawl up the side of the pond bank or a plant stem. Or create a tiny bubble of air to carry it up to the water’s surface. Often they will do this when it gets to crowded on the bottom. How nice it would be to simply create an escape bubble anytime you were uncomfortable.

I cannot walk on water, on the surface or underneath, and my legs create tsunami sized waves relative to the tiny water-walker as I walk. The snail’s grip on the surface relinquished and it sinks awkwardly to the bottom, like a coin dropped in a bucket of water. Now it must decide how comfortable it is and whether to stay on the bottom, or rise to the top.



Soldiering on


Newbury, Massachusetts

The goldenrod trumpets with its bursting bright yellow flowers. To these golden trumpets of color, the soldier beetles are called. They busy themselves collecting the nectar-bribe given by the goldenrod in exchange for carrying pollen to other flowers. For me, these trumpets of color and the arrival of the solider beetles herald the arrival of another: Fall.

I can remember in Arkansas the arrival of the soldier beetle just about September; a month into the start of school. I used to catch them and try to get them to crawl on my hand like they do on the flowers, but not offering any sort of bribe, they flew off. I collected them in jars, like their lightning bug cousins, and kept them on a shelf. Like their lightning bug cousins, too, this is where they met their fate. Kids are unfit zookeepers.

The soldier beetles seemed to arrive suddenly. And leave just as suddenly, along with the goldenrod. And then the trees blushed and my sleeves grew longer.

A day at the shore

Gloucester, Massachusetts

I am still that little kid with the bucket at low tide looking for ocean treasures.

I spent part of yesterday on the rocky shores of Gloucester (made famous by the movie The Perfect Storm). I knelt down on the slippery rockweed that carpeted the granite stones and boulders, over-turning rocks for new finds. Yellow, blue and purple plastic pails surrounded me as little kids did the same and yelled out excitedly to their parents about their finds. But the parents were mostly laying on the beach, taking a break from the kids and letting low tide babysit them. I didn’t yell out to anyone. But I did get excited to find the little tiny baby smooth periwinkles, even though I’ve seen this snail a hundred times before.

So I share my low tide excitement with you with a few pictures.

Smooth perwinkles!

Sea squirts! Believe it or not, this is in the same phylum as humans – Chordata, because it has what is essentially spinal cord. So say hi to your long lost cousin!

Shore crab! A beautiful, yet invasive, crab. Introduced to Delaware Bay in the 1980’s, it is now found as far north as Maine and as far south as North Carolina.

A fouling community (those things that colonize hard surfaces – to us humans, they are ‘fouling’ our stuff. To the inverts, they’re just trying to make a home).


Rachel Carson and me

The statue of Rachel Carson over looking Woods Hole.
The statue of Rachel Carson over looking Woods Hole.

Woods Hole, Massachusetts

I never met her, but I think she’d be disappointed in me.

I had just finished a sandwich and I was sitting on a bench near the water. I wasn’t looking at the water. I had pulled out my cell phone to check my email – email I had checked 20 minutes ago. There were emails that needed responses and I started to respond.

Then I thought, what the heck am I doing? There’s a whole ocean out there? I looked up and saw that all the other people – all sitting near the water, were looking at their cell phones. A little boy yelled “Look at what I found! It’s over here!” His mother didn’t look up from her phone. The only adult person sitting near the water and not looking at a cell phone was Rachel Carson. Well, a statue of Rachel Carson.

Carson is a hero of mine not because of she helped start the environmental movement with her book Silent Spring about the effect of DDT pesticides on bird populations –  but because she writes with the soul of a poet about the ocean in her lesser known, but just as impressive, books about the sea. If you haven’t read the essay about eels in Under a Sea Wind, you need to stop right now and go read it! Go!

Taking a cue from Rachel (we’re on a first-name basis now) I went snorkeling and completely abandoned work.

Treasures found while snorkeling. Slipper shell, oyster drills, an ark, and a dove shell
Treasures found while snorkeling. Slipper shell, oyster drills, an ark, and a dove shell


The water was cold water and I saw the comb jellies bob in front of me and fish dart into the rockweed. Oyster drills dotted the rocks and crabs ate their suppers while wedged in the rocks.

The most amazing thing I saw was (that’s an palindrome!) a polychaete worm with his bristly body swimming through the water. I followed him for ten minutes thinking, “Worm! Don’t you know that this ocean has fish in it!?” But he didn’t mind. He did not crawl like the other worms. He swam until he tired and then dipped back into the rocks.

Refreshed by the cool Buzzards Bay I returned to Rachel to look out over the ‘hole’ of Woods Hole and write.

As she might have done decades ago.

David and Rachel, different eras, but both writers and both scientists.
Trying to draw inspiration from a fellow scientist and writer.

David and Rachel, different eras, but both writers and both scientists.

The greenheads are coming, the greenheads are coming!

I wanted to take her picture so I let her bite me.

I’ve had stranger dates.

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She finds a suitable spot near my elbow. She cuts with her mouthparts that look like ragged handsaws. I resist the urge to slap her. Once she has cut and shredded my capillaries she pulls herself as close to my skin as possible. Blood pools outside of her mouth and runs down my elbow. I’m a healthy bleeder and she can’t drink me fast enough.

Click, click, click. I can’t quite get the shot. Click, click, click. This is to her advantage as she drinks savagely. I move the camera with millimeters of her big green eyes. She won’t move until she’s had her fill. In fact, she can’t pull out quickly because her jagged saw is deep into my flesh.

I finally get the shots I want. Either she senses the photo-shoot is over or she has had her fill and she pulls out of my arm without so much as a thank you and flies off. I was too busy replacing my lens cap to smash her.

My subject was the greenhead fly, a horse-fly that terrorizes New Englanders each July. They are marsh residents but will fly to the forests and the beaches and the lobster shacks for a meal. Like many biting flies, it is only the female that bites. She wants protein-rich blood for egg production. Eggs she will lay in the marsh mud that will hatch into maggot larvae that are predators of small crustaceans and other insects on the marsh. I have been walking at high tide on the marsh surface and floating greenhead larvae bit me. Even as larvae they are mean little buggers.

When the first greenhead is seen in July in New England, newspapers and neighbors act like Paul Revere’s screaming, “The greenheads are coming! The greenheads are coming!”

And when they arrive it’s mayhem.

“Did you hear the greenheads are here, Ethel?”
“Oh goodness, I heard they carried the Reynold’s boy into the woods and roughed him up pretty good.”
“I heard they robbed the local Market Basket grocery store and set fire to the Burn’s place.”
“I hear they never use re-useable shopping bags.”
“Those greenheads are no good.”

Being one to work in the marsh, I do agree that the greenheads are annoying, but they are only here a month (basically from one full moon to another). I grew up in Arkansas where we had big, black horseflies the size of silver dollars and they were liable to bite your arm off if you let them. And they hung around all summer.

We are currently half-way through the greenhead season and my hardy New England friends who mocked my Southern softness in the winter, now shudder at the thought of those big green eyes (‘greenhead’ is a misnomer, should be ‘greeneyes’).

For now, remember it may be your blood that feeds that greenhead, but it is the greenhead that feeds the swallows and the dragonflies.