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?

 

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6 thoughts on “Pantyhose ingenuity

    1. Thanks Robley. After you took us out to Lake Cheston that day, I thought better of using shotguns. I also let the students collect the naiads instead of adults.

      Thanks for the continued reading! I hope all is grand in Sewanee.

  1. Laugh out loud.

    Dragonflys were a mandatory component of our insect collections in highschool biology. We were provided butterfly nets. I got one eventually but it took a really long time and a whole lot of agility.

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