June 5th, 2014 – Lalo Loor Dry Forest Reserve
General Ecology Lab 3: Insect Collection and Identification. This lab has a long history of research safety, resulting in no deaths up to this point in time. Actually CORRECTION. This lab has never resulted in a “human” death up to this point in time. The idea behind this activity is to “Put On a Happy Face” and frolic (word of the program) through dense forest or open pasture with butterfly & sweep nets, respirator tubes, and forceps to collect as many arthropod specimens as possible. You then proceed to stuff them in cyanide gas chamber jars in order to preserve them for pinning. That certainly does make me want to smile.
So that last sentence may sound a little sadistic, gruesome, and, quite possibly, inhumane, but there is such an abundance of insects on this planet that I do not find myself stuck in a moral dilemma or heart-struck with guilt when I transfer a beautiful butterfly into a chamber of death – most likely already filled with its fallen brothers to emphasize its inevitable fate as a would-be-specimen pinned on display for research purposes.
If you’re lucky like me, you’ll be able to run through the open pastures with butterfly nets in tow, capturing the winged Lepidoptera (butterflies/moths) and Odanata (dragonflies/damselflies) insect orders with ease while your partners observe you from afar. They will be viewing a figure off in the distance, now only identifiable by the characteristic bobbing up and down of the up-in-the-air butterfly net that is ready to strike at a moment’s notice and the crashing swoops in the dry grass and shrubbery of the pasture. For those more experienced, rookies mistakes like unintentional catch-and-release of a caught specimen is less likely to occur. (We all remember that rookie trainer catch-and-release. A bittersweet moment for Ash and us all…) Even for those new to the field, opportunities for capture are endless. If the flying-insect profession does not suit you, perhaps the hack and slash swing-through-the-vegetation style will better cater to your needs. Or for the technical and precision based techniques, the respirator suction and direct forceps handpicking will prove to be the most fool-proof practice for the bagging and tagging of these creatures. Whatever method works for you, the intricacies of insect collection allows for a diversity of population retrieval options and any will result in an ample supply of insects to pin for either general entertainment or public display.
Before you can mount the treasures you have collected, you must first properly identify the correct order that each insect belongs to in the sample. There is no point if you don’t learn anything. So if you did not properly listen to directions (like some people neglected to do… *cough me…) or have a terrible sense of hearing, you may spend a great deal of time sorting through the unimportant excess leaf litter most likely collected by the sweep net swings.
During this time, any specimens you have out in the open are subject to predation/theft by other scavengers – namely ants. No matter how many times you threaten the pests with cyanide gas chambers, their raids will not cease. Your only option is to track the interference and then subsequently eliminate it. Normally I would suggest a more non-violent method of removal, such as blowing away, but a good sneeze could propel your work in every cardinal direction, putting you and your partners out of commission. Therefore I recommend my former method of pest removal. Or for those with a more twisted sense of humor and willing to forego scientific data in the name of torture and all that is evil, you can permit the ant scout to take the cyanide infested food source back to its base for colony consumption. Again, I wouldn’t actually recommend that though.
When all is said and done, you should have a record of insect diversity in your area of collection, a greater understanding of insect classification and identification, a neatly organized array of insect specimens properly pinned in place, and a desire to showcase entomologist fashion in your day-to-day activities. I think I’ve learned everything I should have today.
But unlike the bugs depicted in this story, I’ve still got “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” in Ecuador.
And what better way to end this. You can only say you’re living once you have put a spider on your face. You’re welcome Samie.