By Crystal Ernst, PhD Candidate (McGill University)

Since I finally submitted my manuscript to a journal (YAY!), I’ve been tying up the little loose ends remaining at the end of the project. You know: organizing the useful data and image files, tossing the files marked “MESSING_AROUND_WITH_DATA_v.29), tidying up my R code, and, perhaps most importantly, curating my specimens.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the project here (I’m saving that for another post). I will say, though, that the work I just completed includes just over 2,600 beetles from a single location in Nunavut (Kugluktuk, where I spent my entire first field season).

Two major aspects of the physical work (as opposed to the thinking, reading and writing) involved in an ecological/entomological project such as this one are the pinning and the identifications. Some of the tasks are a bit tedious (cutting labels; entering data; gluing over 800 specimens of the same tiny, plain black ground beetle to paper points), and some of them are thrilling (finally getting over the “hump” of the morphological learning curve and feeling good and confident when working with your keys; having experts tell you “Yep, you got those all right”; discovering rare species or new regional species records). In the end, in addition to the published (*knocks on wood*) paper, you have boxes or drawers full of specimens.

The specimens are gold. (Read this post by Dr. Terry Wheeler to understand why.)

Unfortunately, they don’t always get treated as such.

In the two-ish years that I’ve been working in my lab, we’ve had two major “lab clean-up days”. The first managed to get rid of a lot of clutter (old papers, broken apparatus, random crap). The second involved going through the “stuff” that was eating up all the most valuable storage space: specimens. Years and years worth of graduate and undergraduate projects’ specimens, stashed in freezers, boxes, bags and vials of all shapes and sizes.

Some things were in good shape (pinned well, or in clear ethanol). Other things were, well, downright nasty: gooey beetles in sludgy brown ethanol, dried up bits of moth wings in plastic containers, and a little bit of “what in the name of pearl is growing on that agar plate???” in the fridge.

None of these items were kept – their value as useful specimens was nil. So, the physical representation of some student’s work – probably months or years worth of work – was tossed in the trash.

Others, happily, were tucked back into drawers and cupboards, because someone had taken the time to ensure the specimens were well-preserved.

However, even many of these were suffering from a serious issue: bad labels.

Allow me to illustrate the point. This is a bad label:

This is also a bad label:

The first, you’ll note, is written in ballpoint pen (which fades) on a torn piece of notebook paper and contains almost no information. The second, although it looks fancier and perhaps more sciencey, is just as bad: it contains a cryptic code that is useful only to the bearer of the lab notebook in which said code has been written down. Or, perhaps the code is completely intelligible to the researcher who developed it, but the key to it exists only in his or her head.

To everyone else, it is meaningless. Neither of these labels indicate who collected the specimen, where, when, or how. And we all know what happens in labs: upon completion of their degrees, students move on, email addresses change, notebooks are misplaced, data files are not backed up. The labels’ codes can never be broken, and the scientific value of the specimens – *poof*.

While there’s nothing wrong, in theory, with using labels like these temporarily (although there is always a risk that they will be misinterpreted or misunderstood after a little while, even by the person who wrote them), they are absolutely useless as permanent records.

These are good labels:

These labels, properly affixed to a specimen, provide clear and universally understood information. One provides the location, including GPS coordinates, a method of collection, a date, the name of the collector(s). The information that goes on this label can vary a bit (it may include information about the habitat or host plant, for example), but those are the basic requirements. The smaller label is typically affixed on the pin below the first, and contains the specimen’s scientific name and the name of the person who identified it (it is the “det. label”, i.e., “determined by”). These labels, and therefore the specimen with which they are associated, will remain useful for decades, even centuries.

I am totally guilty of both of the offenses I just explained (the gooky vials of nastiness and the bad labels). For my undergraduate honors project, I identified close to 8000 spiders, mites and insects to the Family level – it was hundreds of hours of microscope work. Then I stuffed all those specimens back into vials with cryptic little codes, like V-1-F(!), hand-written on STICKERS(!), which I placed on the LIDS(!) and not even in the vials themselves(!). Oh, and I’ve long since lost the notebook that contained my decoder key(!). THIS IS ALL SO BAD. I have no doubt that those boxes of vials, which I once prized so highly and felt such pride for, have been unceremoniously tossed in the trash by my former advisor.

Well, I’ve learned from my mistakes, and from working with museum and other collection specimens. I now understand that each specimen is deserving of respect – it’s the original data after all – and that means it should be properly preserved, and labelled.


Last week I spent a great deal of time, as I said, tying up my loose ends. The last thing I needed to do was remove my cryptic labels (the second in the series up there is an actual example of one of my own “secret code” labels) and replace them with proper ones, sorting and tidying up the collection in the process. The end result?


Frankly, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s also enormously scientifically valuable. These specimens will be deposited in various nationally-important collections and museums, like the CNC.

As a matter of fact, just last week I was at the CNC, and I saw specimens bearing the name of the last person to do a comprehensive survey of the insects in Kugluktuk, back in 1955. That tiny but so-important label suddenly made me feel connected to the man who, almost 60 years earlier, had stood on the same stretch of tundra as me, holding and perhaps delighting in the very specimen that I held in my own hand.

Giving my specimens the respect they deserve is worth it, not only for the scientific value, but also because perhaps, 60 years from now, another grad student will discover my name on a specimen’s det. label. Perhaps she, too, will feel that same wondrous sense of connection to the the greater scheme of scientific discovery…

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By Laura Timms, Postdoctoral Researcher (McGill University), Chair of ESC Common Names Committee

I’ve just come back from a weekend at my parents’ house, celebrating my Dad’s birthday and enjoying the beautiful early summer weather.  My parents live on the Oak Ridges Moraine in Ontario – they have a gorgeous piece of property they’ve named Hawksview because of the panoramic vistas you get from on top of a large pile of old glacier scrapings.

View from my parents’ house – on clear days you can see all the way to Lake Ontario. Photo: Kathleen Timms

Coming from my shamefully barren urban yard, I am always amazed at the diversity of insect life on my parents’ property.  Saturday morning I went outside with a cup of coffee to sit and enjoy the gardens, and within minutes was amazed at the amount of flower visiting taking place in front of me.  I did a quick and unscientific count and came up with at least four species of big bees, six species of butterfly and who knows how many smaller flies and sundries buzzing in and out of the Weigela, Salvia, and Allium flowers.

My husband has done research on Bayesian learning in bumblebee foraging, and so the two of us often get caught up in watching bees drink nectar and thinking about their decision-making.  As we were doing so this time, he noticed that one of the bee species was acting as a nectar robber – in other words, it was cutting a hole in the bottom of the flower and drinking the nectar through this hole instead of entering the flower in the usual way.

A carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica, sitting on a Weigela flower and taking nectar through a hole it has cut in the base of the corolla. Photo: Laura Timms

This kind of interaction is referred to as nectar robbing because the bee is getting what it is after – the nectar – without paying the price of taking pollen along with it to the next bloom.  Nectar robbing is often used as an example of how a mutualism like pollination, where both parties are supposed to benefit, can be subject to cheating.  Charles Darwin speculated on the harm that nectar robbing must cause to plant fitness in his book The effects of cross and self-fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom (1877).  I have to admit I didn’t know much about nectar robbing beyond the basics, and I also didn’t know what the species of bee was doing the robbing.  A quick online search gave me answers on both counts.

The bee had a big, shiny black abdomen and a black spot on a fuzzy yellow thorax – had to be the eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica.  It turns out carpenter bees are among the most common nectar robbers out there – they have short tongues, and can’t reach the nectar in flowers with long corollas, like my mother’s Weigela.  But, it also turns out that nectar robbing isn’t necessarily always cheating, and may not be bad for the plant. Maloof and Inouye (2000) reviewed the literature on nectar robbing and found that there was more evidence for positive or neutral effects of nectar robbing on plant fitness than for negative effects.  This is because other pollinators may still visit robbed flowers, some nectar robbers do actually pollinate, and nectar robbing can actually result in greater amounts of pollen flow between different plants and thus increase outcrossing.  Fascinating!

I passed on this information to my parents, and resumed my garden sitting and coffee drinking.  My attention was soon diverted again, this time by a bright red beetle on my Mom’s lilies.  I didn’t need the internet to identify this beetle – it is an old friend of mine from when I worked in Switzerland at the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International.  The lily leaf beetle, Lilioceris lilii, is an invasive species in North America and a voracious consumer of lilies.  While the adult beetles are quite attractive the larvae have the gross habit of carrying around their frass on their backs, using it as a shield to deter predators and parasitoids (which is not always effective – see Schaffner and Müller 2001 for example).

A lily leaf beetle, Lilioceris lilii, surveys the garden. Photo: C. Ernst

I started scanning the lilies for beetles and larvae and removing them by hand – by far the best control method for a home gardener. I started squishing beetles and tossing them aside, when I remembered a recent email from a graduate student at the Université de Montréal.  Alessandro Dieni is a student in Jacques Brodeur’s lab, and his research involves reconstructing the path of invasion of the lily leaf beetle using population genetics.  Alessandro is looking for samples of the beetle from all over North America for his analysis, and so I stopped throwing the beetles away and started putting them in a jar of rubbing alcohol – the best collecting supplies I had on hand.  I included the larvae too, after removing their fecal shields (for which my Mom made me wash my hands outside before coming in the house).  It turns out that Alessandro can only use adults for his analysis, so the larvae aren’t much help.  If you have lilies and have noticed these beetles in your garden, Alessandro would appreciate samples of adult beetles. You can contact him at, and he will send you all the information you need, including a kit for collecting and preserving them.

One of the side effects of being an entomologist is being frequently asked the question: “What is this on my plant?”  My dad asked me a few weeks ago about some galls he had noticed an oak tree, but I told him I couldn’t help him much without seeing them. So, one of my final tasks of the weekend was to check out the tree.  This is what I saw:

Galls on a red oak, Quercus rubra, tree. Most are at the base of a branch. Some of the galls have had lots of adults emerge (note the emergence holes), and some have not. Photo: Laura Timms

My basic knowledge of oak galls told me that these galls were probably caused by cynipid wasps, but I wasn’t sure. We cut one open, and sure enough there was an almost fully developed wasp inside a chamber.  Gall wasps lay their eggs in plant tissue, and the presence of the eggs induces the plant to produce the special types of highly nutritious cells that make up the gall.  Larvae feed in chambers inside the gall, pupate, and then emerge out of small holes like the ones in the picture.  I haven’t gotten very far with the identification of exactly which species of wasp is affecting my parents’ tree, although I’ve promised to look into it further and let them know if their tree is in serious trouble.  I’m also curious to know if there are any other species inside the gall – oak galls are a fascinating system for work in community ecology, with a cast of cynipid wasps, parasitoids, predators and inquilines (e.g. Stone et al. 2002).

I’ve always said that my parents’ place would be a great field station.  I’ve only mentioned three of the ecological tidbits that caught my eye this weekend, but I could go on about the way that dog-strangling vine is taking over the meadow and forest floor, our observations of caterpillars brought to the nest by purple martins, or the cool moths that show up at night by the outside lights.  For the sake of brevity, I think those will all have to wait.  In the mean time, now that my weekend entomology is over, I’m going to return to my regularly scheduled entomology and hit the microscope!

Literature cited

Darwin, C. 1877. The effects of cross and self fertilisation in the vegetable kingdom. D. Appleton and Co., New York.

Maloof, J.E., & Inouye, D.W. (2000). Are nectar robbers cheaters or mutualists? Ecology, 81, 2651-2661 DOI: 10.2307/177331

Schaffner, U., & Müller. C. (2001). Exploitation of the Fecal Shield of the Lily Leaf Beetle, Lilioceris lilii (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), by the Specialist Parasitoid Lemophagus pulcher (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) Journal of Insect Behavior, 14 (6), 739-757 DOI: 10.1023/A:1013085316606

Stone GN, Schonrogge K, Atkinson RJ, Bellido D, & Pujade-Villar J (2002). The population biology of oak gall wasps (Hymenoptera: Cynipidae). Annual review of entomology, 47, 633-68 PMID: 11729087

Scientists are taught to remain objective about their study organisms and not anthropomorphize behaviours or biology. Sure, this might be useful for preventing bias in results, but it can suck the fun right out of day to day work!

Here’s your chance to act less like a scientist and have some fun with the insect world. Every 2 weeks we’ll post a new photo of an insect (or other arthropod), and your mission, should you choose to accept it, will be to come up with a witty/funny/clever caption.

Although being given the chance to showcase your witticism and comedic chops for everyone on the internet to see should be award enough, we know people really like prizes, so here’s how it’s going to work:

  • Take a look at the photo and submit your best caption ideas in the comments (Please keep your captions PG-13. If this is your first time leaving a comment on this blog it will need to be approved by an ESC Admin before showing up. Once we’ve recognized you’re not spam and approved your comment, all your subsequent comments will be visible immediately after posting. Any captions or comments judged by the ESC admins to be derogatory, denigrating, or discriminatory will result in you being banned from commenting further effective immediately)
  • Crystal & I will select up to 5 of our favourite captions for each week’s photo
  • You’ll then get the chance to vote for your favourite nominated caption
  • The authors of the Top 3 voted captions will score points (5 points for first, 3 points for second, 1 point for third)
  • After 8 photos (4 months) we’ll tally the points and award some yet-to-be-determined prizes (don’t worry, we’ll make sure they’re awesome and entomological) to the caption-creators with the highest accumulated scores!

Think of it as American Idol meets The New Yorker, but with more insects and less Simon Cowell.

Also, if you took an insect photo which you think is just begging to be captioned, send it in to us and we’ll be happy to use it in the contest.

Without further ado, here’s photo #1! Good luck & have fun!

ESC Caption Contest C1 P1 – Photo by Morgan Jackson

The ESC Blog is off to a fantastic start, and we admins couldn’t be more proud of our amazing bloggers.  The response from the Canadian entomology community has been tremendous – which is really no surprise, but still wonderful! Readers have been joining us from all over the world (59 countries!) and we’re so pleased that some of you are engaging with us by leaving comments.

We thought that it would be a good time to introduce ourselves, so you know who’s working away behind the scenes: today you’ll meet Crystal.

Hi!  I’m a PhD candidate in Chris Buddle’s Arthropod Ecology lab at McGill University.  My current research interests include beetle assemblages in Arctic Canada and functional ecology. My earlier research at Carleton University (I did a BSc and MSc under the supervision of Naomi Cappucinno) involved plant-insect relationships  in the context of biological invasions.

In addition to my academic pursuits, I love to teach, take pictures of insects, and spend time outdoors exploring the natural world.

I’m also very interested in science education and outreach, which is why you’re finding me here at ESC Blog.

Online science communication is a big part of who I am and what I do, in addition to my normal grad student research activities. I have been blogging as “TGIQ”  at since 2009.  There, I write posts about insect natural history, insect photography, my own entomological research, and more broadly about my experiences as a graduate student interested in a career in academia. I am also an administrator at the research blog of The Northern Biodiversity Program (NBP), of which I am a student member, and I am a contributing authour at the Grad Life blog, where I write about the graduate student experience at McGill University.

In addition to blogging, I can usually be found posting tidbits of entomo-goodness on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Networked Blogs, Nature Blog Network, and Research Blogging.  I also have a YouTube channel that I use for teaching an undergraduate zoology lab.

Some people have tried to tell me that these activities are a waste of time, professionally. My personal experiences have shown this to be anything but true: I’ve established incredible networks of students, academics and other professionals; I’ve been exposed to fascinating cutting-edge science; and I’ve gained tangible professional benefits (think “publications” and “funding” and “collaborations”).  None of these would have been possible without my online activities.

I also think that science outreach is an activity that all academics should make time for – after all, we are doing science for the general public, not just for our fellow researchers! Our knowledge of and passion for entomology is something that deserves to be shared with others. Blogs are wonderfully accessible outlets; they represent an unparalleled opportunity for folks from different sectors and backgrounds to participate and exchange their knowledge and experiences – something that is not often achieved through traditional venues such as conferences and journals.

I’ll leave you with some quotes from a talk that I attended in March, by researcher and science outreach proponent Nalini Nadkarni. I invite – and strongly encourage – you to join the incredible online science community and consider participating here as an ESC blogger.


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