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“Thrips” should die

By Dr. Tom Chapman, Memorial University

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I used scissor to cut my pant into short. A jarring opening sentence, I know. It is how I use to feel when someone dropped the “s” in “thrips”; it is a plural noun, don’t you know? If you see a solitary individual of these animals it is still referred to as a “thrips”.  I have been quick to correct people that have made this mistake. But lately on this issue, I have become tired of being the grammar pedant.

Art work done by Michael McLeish and Andrew Chaulk.

Art work done by Michael McLeish and Andrew Chaulk.

I don’t mean to be insulting to the readers of this blog, I am assuming you are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about insects, but just maybe you haven’t heard much of thrips. They are members of the insect Order Thysanoptera, and world wide there are at least 5000 species. They are small; in fact, they are typically the size and colour of the commas in this very sentence. These slithering punctuation marks do not commonly attract the attention of insect enthusiasts. However, for a small number of economically important species there is a large and vibrant community of researchers. These scientists routinely gather together to describe and discuss their research outcomes, with their next big event to be held in California (2015, Xth International Symposium on Thysanoptera & Tospoviruses).  Among the dominant applied work that will be presented at this meeting, and those of the past nine meetings, will also be more curiosity driven research.  This group of non-applied thrips-focused researchers could book a table at most restaurants. No more or less important, just a more private club. A club I joined as a PhD student.

Professor Bernard Crespi, in his early career, did a stint in Australia as a Research Associate. His motivation to travel to the antipodes was to answer the challenge, are there social thrips? The evolution of altruism (sub-fertility in part of a population) in the insects was and remains an outstanding conundrum for evolutionary theory. Theoretical attempts made in the sixties and seventies to explain these incidences of self-sacrificing castes appeared to also predict that somewhere within the diversity of thrips species we should also find sociality. There were no ready examples. Crespi had a hunch that social thrips would be found among the gall-inducing thrips on Australian Acacia.  In brief, he was right! Subsequently (Again, drastically shortening the story. Hey, I am not trying to write Crespi’s biography here.), Crespi took a position at Simon Fraser University where his research began with a focus on Australian social thrips. I was the first graduate student he recruited.

I will admit that the thrips played no part in attracting me to the program. Instead, it was Crespi’s strong scientific reputation and the chance to do field work in Australia that was the lure. However, it was several years of working in Canada with preserved and frozen specimens of thrips before I saw their full charm in their native habitat. I was hosted in Australia by Crespi’s major collaborator with the thrips work, Dr. Michael Schwarz, at Flinders University. In this prominent social insect lab I met three students with the same taxonomic focus as me.  Like Tigger in The Tigger Movie, I had started to fear that I was the only one. We connected quickly, and one of the pivotal bonding events happened during a trip to a Nursery outside the city of Adelaide. We needed native Australian plants for an experiment and the Nursery that could provide them was located inside a national park. On the way in we saw a sign warning visitors that they were not permitted to bring in plants or soil for fear of introducing pests. The list of pests included “thrip”. On our way out of the park, we stopped our truck; one of us jumped out with a permanent marker and added an “s”. Having scored one for thrips, we cheered and drove away.

It has been almost twenty years since we vandalized that sign (I hope that is longer then the crime’s statute of limitation). Since then I have continued research on social thrips, and I have given lectures in undergraduate and graduate classes, job interviews, conferences, public lectures and even dinner parties. Many people have engaged me after these events to express further interest in the work. If they said “thrip”, I corrected them. I thought educating people outweighed the potential risk of embarrassing them. My behaviour has certainly lost me a few acquaintances, some people have skin that is thin, but is there any evidence that I have been successful in educating people? I think the answer is no. A student of mine was interviewed a little while ago on the national radio science show, Quirks and Quarks. She corrected the host when he dropped the “s”. Two students and I submitted a paper to an entomological journal, and one reviewer pointed out to the editor the poor grammar of our presentation. The example they used to illustrate our incompetence was our failure to drop the “s”. I am co-writing a book chapter with a longtime friend and colleague, he edited my part by dropping a few of the “s”s. I give up. Not research or a fascination with thrips, just the “s” thing. It is now my opinion that the thrips research community is better off without this plural noun. To the uninitiated it sounds weird to use “thrips” in the singular, and to insist on its proper use is alienating. I don’t know how to change this. Who is in charge? How do you start a revolution? In the mean time, to those that naturally say “thrip” I am sorry I have offended you, let’s be friends.

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Backyard moth’er

By Ian Maton,  Member of the The Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild and the Altaleps discussion list, BugGuide editor and contributor to the Moths Photographers Group (MPG)
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Great Tiger (Arctia caja)

My two light traps

My journey into live moth trapping started a relatively short time ago towards the end of 2007.  My brother, who lives in the UK and has been live moth trapping since 1999, frequently encouraged me to buy a light trap and in August of 2007 I finally gave in and purchased a small 12V portable, 6W Heath trap at the British Birdfair while on vacation in the UK.  As this point I should explain that live moth trapping has become quite popular amongst bird watchers in the UK (my other hobby), to the extent that you can now purchase quite a lot of entomological paraphernalia at the annual Birdfair.

My backyard photographic setup

So it was, with some trepidation, that I put my light trap out for the first time in Lethbridge, Alberta, at the end of August 2007.  My camera equipment was fairly basic but I did manage a few photographs and I think it is safe to say that I was completely hooked from that point on.  I was able to identify a few of the moths but, although the situation has improved in recent years, identification guides were hard to find.  In the UK there were already a good number of handbooks to help with moth identification but this did not appear to be the case in North America.  I did buy some of the “Moths of North America North of Mexico” series and the Peterson guide “Moths of Eastern North America” but initially, my main aid to identification was BugGuide.net.  Not being able to separate the moths into their respective families meant that identifying any moth could take me several hours and sometimes involved my scanning through 300 plus pages of Noctuids on BugGuide!  This was not all bad as it forced me to become somewhat familiar with the family names and gave me a great sense of achievement when I did identify a moth.  However, in April of 2010, something happened which dramatically changed all this.

Delphinium Leaftier (Polychrysia esmeralda)

I had started to submit one or two photographs to BugGuide and one of these was Delphinium Leaftier (Polychrysia esmeralda).  While there were pinned images of this moth, there were very few live images in North America and I was contacted by Bob Patterson who asked for permission to display my photographs on the Moth Photographers Group (MPG) website.  Shortly after this it became apparent that I was photographing some moths that were not yet in BugGuide.  Bob created a couple of guide pages for me so that I could upload my photographs to the correct taxonomic spot but quickly suggested that I be given editor privileges on BugGuide.  All this was extremely exciting to me and added an entirely new dimension to my hobby.  In addition to this, Bob put me in contact with Gary Anweiler who, based in Alberta, is one of the premier experts on Noctuids in North America.  Since then Gary has been instrumental in helping me to identify moths.  Always patient and quick to respond I can’t thank Gary enough for his help and advice over the last few years.

Bilobed Looper (Megalographa biloba)

2010 was a very big year for me with regards to moth trapping.  A major highlight occurred in October of 2010 when my wife (I was then working long hours and had convinced her to help out with the moths) picked a Bilobed Looper (Megalographa biloba) out of the trap.  It was immediately identifiable and seemed to be an unusual sighting.   Indeed, Gary Anweiler confirmed that there had been only two previous records in Alberta and only two additional records for western Canada.  I can’t think of a better way to end the 2010 mothing year!

White-lined-Sphinx-(Hyles-lineata)

Since then I have continued to add photographs to BugGuide and I am pleased to say that a good number of them have been picked up and added to the MPG website.  I have also pieced together a database of the moths I’ve seen which now includes 245 species.  2011 was another landmark year when I attempted to record the number of each moth species that had been in my trap.  This had been practically impossible until I become familiar with the more common species I was getting.  Consequently, I can now say that my most common moth in 2011 was, by far, Thoughtful Apamea, followed by Glassy Cutworm, Olive Arches, Bronzed Cutworm and Bristly Cutworm.  This was a very nice personal achievement.  Most recently I have started a blog “Moths of Calgary”.  I have to admit that I got the idea from my brother who created a blog “Moths of Boughton-under-Blean”.  Apart from the enjoyment I get from posting my latest sightings, I’m hoping that it may help to advertise live moth trapping as an interesting hobby in Canada.

So far, the highlight of 2012 was my first Silkmoth seen in the Twin Butte area of Southern Alberta while on a short vacation.  Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora gloveri) is a species that I’ve been trying to see for a number of years and there they were, in daylight, perched on the side of our cabin when we arrived!  Other colourful and unexpected species that I’ve seen include my first backyard Sphinx moth, a White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata) and a Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja).

Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora gloveri)

For me there are two things which make live moth trapping a really great hobby.  Firstly, you never know what you are going to get!  It may be a while before you see some of the more eye-catching moth species but that’s all part of the appeal.  Secondly, it’s something that you can do without venturing further than your own backyard!

While, at first, identification was a bit of a struggle, the sense of achievement gained when I did identify a new moth, for me, more than compensated for the time spent getting there.  Live moth trapping is a fascinating hobby and it is my hope that, over time, it will become a more popular, eventually contributing to the knowledge of moth movements and distribution throughout Canada.