Yo! I’m an Anthropology student but I&rs…

Yo! I’m an Anthropology student but I’m super fascinated with entomology n’ the like. Any tips for how to self study entomology/get started? How did you become the bug lover you are today?

Sup! I am a HUGE animal lover. Like, I don’t think you understand how much I love animals. Back when google image search was this crazy new thing, I would google things like “puffer fish” and literally start crying from how cute and precious they were. I don’t remember ever not liking bugs. I was bringing in caterpillars when my age was single digits, which I named and kept in shoe boxes, and who would invariably wander out and make a random cocoon somewhere.

STORY TIME! (what? you wanted a short answer? Sorry!)

… (actually check out this post from a while back [link] about tips for getting started, it was written for a high school student but most of the things I mention are good for all ages)…

Thing is, this was the point in history when you needed to use a card catalog to look a book up in the library. No idea what I’m talking about? That’s how long ago this was. If there was a book about bugs in the school book order form, I would ask for it (and sometimes I’d get one), but that was the full extent of my knowledge pool for things that we weren’t directly taught about in school. In 4th grade, we had a unit on marine animals (with the most amazing field trip on a research boat ever, omg the scuba divers brought up things for us to touch, and we got to look at plankton in the microscope eeeeeee!), and it was like I was reborn. I memorized everything we learned, including the taxonomy of cnidaria (jellies, anemones, corals) and strange eating habits of echinoderms (starfish, urchins). I got REAL into this stuff, to the point where 4 years later, I told anybody who asked me that when I grew up, I was going to get a PhD in Marine Biology.

There was just one problem. You can’t get a degree in any kind of animal biology without doing dissections or killing things. Remember, I’m an animal Lover with a capital L. I wanted to be a vegetarian starting at age 4 (parents said no, but I picked meat out of everything until I made it official at 12). So I gave up on biology real quick. Flash forward about ten years to 2006. I had graduated from college (with a psychology degree that cost me $70,000), was working soul-sucking jobs, and needed a hobby. But wait, DIGITAL CAMERAS ARE A THING! WOW! So I picked up “crappy nature photography” as a hobby. And what did I take pictures of with my First Ever Digital Camera when I bought one that summer?

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I found this longhorn beetle on the hood of my car at a rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere, Missouri. But back in 2006… What are you going to do with pictures of bugs when you have no background in biology? I posted some on LiveJournal, and that was that. What kind of bug was it? I couldn’t even tell you that it was a beetle at that point. And when I was going through my old photos more recently, I couldn’t even remember seeing it.

I still took photos of basically everything I saw, but nothing ever really happened with them.

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Who are these? At the time (photos are from 2006 to 2009), the most I could have told you was “dragonfly, wasp, spider, caddisfly larva.” Which is pretty good, I guess, but I didn’t even realize how much diversity I was missing out on by not going any deeper. 

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Me + Slugs: Left – Banana Slug in Redwood National Forest, CA (2008); Center and Right – Chocolate Arion Slug at my apartment in Redmond, WA (2006)

Time passes, nature photos are taken. I will take photos of any bug I see, but I don’t intentionally seek them out and I never know what any of them are. Now flash forward to 2013, when I moved from Seattle, WA to Austin, TX. 

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My mind was blown. The bugs were huge, strange, and EVERYWHERE. I NEEDED TO KNOW WHAT THEY WERE! But… It was still hard. At this point, looking things up on the internet was just what you did, but … what was I supposed to look up? “Giant screaming thing in my potted plant that looks like a leaf?” “Pile of handsnails?” I took pictures, shared them on Facebook (nobody used Livejournal anymore!), and went about my day. 

At this point, I had gone back to college to study engineering (I moved to Austin for grad school), and somehow ended up watching a lot of youtube. SciShow got me onto VlogBrothers, which got me onto The Brain Scoop (@thebrainscoop), which got me onto tumblr *waves*. And I was thinking some hard thoughts about what I actually wanted to do when I grew up because I was tired of soul-sucking jobs. Hey, I love museums (that’s actually where most of my science knowledge came from), so I started thinking about careers in science museums, and I followed UT’s collection page on Facebook. One day in 2015, they shared an event for a Bioblitz, sponsored by several groups associated with UT and Texas Parks and Wildlfie. What’s a Bioblitz? I had no idea. So I clicked. 

Basically, you take as many pictures of living things as you can. There were subject matter experts who would lead you on hikes and tell you what things were and how you can tell them apart (WAIT, WHAT?!?). The event required that you download this new nature app called iNaturalist (@inaturalist), which is where you would post the photos you took. With the data you posted from the app, other users of the website would identify your photos, and the state park we were at would use that data to create species checklists to track what occurred there. Your iNat account kept a permanent log of all of your observations. I tend to be extremely skeptical/resistant to new technologies and being told to do things, so at first I wanted to know what was wrong with the way I took photos NOW, I didn’t need some stupid website telling me what to do.

But then I started testing it out before the event.

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Two of my first iNat observations (both butterflies). Left: Henry’s Elfin caterpillar; Right: American Lady butterfly. Links to iNat observations.

I had no idea where to start with identifying either of these, and the Henry’s Elfin caterpillar took me a few years to ID myself. But the American Lady? People told me what it was within hours of me posting it. Within hours.

About a week later, the Bioblitz happened. It was perfect. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who were just like me. They wanted to go on long slow walks through nature, turning over logs and walking directly into ponds and poking at insects, all while taking photos of things and identifying them. I was spending the weekend with real life biologists and I was learning everything I could. And the things I saw?

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HOLY CARP. Texas has dung beetles?! (top left) Parasitic wasps REALLY DO THAT? (braconid wasp cocoons on inchworm caterpillar, top right) Diving beetles?! (diving scavenger beetle, bottom left) Giant fishing spiders?! (bottom right)

This event was the moment I “got started” with entomology. I regularly used iNaturalist, and in the process of trying to identify my observations with BugGuide.net [link], I quickly began to learn some of the “basics.” For example, stink bugs are a thing. So are green lacewings. And there are a LOT more kinds of spiders than orbweavers and wolf spiders (who knew?). I was so smitten with iNaturalist that I professed my love for all to read on tumblr [link] (all being… 3 people?). I used iNaturalist regularly, but still, unless I was on a bioblitz, I didn’t seek things out. I mentioned I was a grad student, right?

Then 2016 rolls around. I’ve had enough of school and drop master out of my program. I get a Real Engineering Job and Buy a House with a Yard. I started my new job when I was finishing up my thesis (probably not the best idea…) and so my back yard took on a life of its own. By the time I had finished my thesis, the grass was hip height, and the HOA had no rules about what my back yard had to look like, so I just never mowed it. And the bugs… oh man, the bugs. The bugs were good. By January 2017, I was getting more confident in my Bug Knowledge, and I was using iNaturalist every week. I had joined clubs centered around nature (Texas Master Naturalists and Travis Audubon). I signed up for a birding trip in Malawi. Then in April, I found a pile of butterfly eggs and a chrysalis. And the guy leading the Malawi trip (one of the directors at Travis Audubon) asked me to do an insect table at their outreach event. Then City Nature Challenge 2017 happened (and I am *very* competitive). And… uh… I guess I just never looked back?

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The thing to remember here is: the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. What I love about iNaturalist is that I can create a time capsule showing what I did and didn’t know at the time. And what I didn’t know is… really amazing. I taught the entomology class for my Master Naturalist chapter’s training course this year, and I told the people in the class that one year ago, I didn’t know any of the things I was going to talk to them about. I know it sounds like I’m putting on a commercial for iNaturalist (which is actually exactly what I’m doing, I love that website), but besides the curiosity about nature that I had to begin with, iNaturalist is the single most important thing that has enabled me to nurture and grow my love for our invertebrate friends.

Through my use of iNaturalist, I have met real people and made real friendships. Many of the people I meet are professionally biologists, but there are just as many randos like me who crawled out of the internet to hang out with nature freaks. One of the great things about this community is there is no elitism, and even professional entomologists are just as willing to admit they have no idea what something is and will listen to me explain what I know, as they are to explain something I don’t know and answer my questions. The people I have met are absolutely awesome, and the general attitude people on iNat (online and in person) tend to have has really rubbed off on me. If someone I’m talking to doesn’t know something that tends to be commonly known (example: my coworker is a gardener, but hadn’t heard about the ant/aphid relationship), oh boy, it’s awesome, let me TELL YOU about ANTS fighting off PREDATORS so they can DRINK APHID PEE!!!

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Above: Crematogaster ants farming keeled treehopper nymphs on sunflower SO THEY CAN DRINK THEIR PEE

One of the best things you can do to get more into entomology is to just be observant. Look. Notice patterns. Pay attention to relationships between “higher” and “lower” organisms. When you travel, look there too. What is different from home? What’s similar?

The other best thing: meet people. Find groups/clubs for people into nature. Go on hikes with entomologists. Go to “nature days” events (these are always geared towards kids, but ADULTS ARE WELCOME!). A lot of nature clubs and organizations are heavy on the retiree demographic, which means the meetings may not be easy to learn about online. I actually joined the Austin Butterfly Forum after hearing about it from the people I was sitting next to at a Travis Audubon event (Victor Emanuel’s autobiography had just published and he kicked off his book tour with a live interview in Austin), and I’ve met several new friends through ABF. 

I don’t even know how to explain it, but naturalists are a totally different flavor than any other person I’ve known. It’s like, there are other people who would rather be crawling through the swamp in 105°F weather for 8 hours straight than sit and watch TV? There are other people who will skip two meals and stay up until 2 am to get really good bug pictures? I mean, I can’t describe what it feels like to be slowly picking through the deserts of west Texas with 15 other people, when one of them yells, “SNAKE!” and suddenly EVERYBODY RUNS TOWARDS THE SNAKE AND IMPATIENTLY WAITS THEIR TURN TO HOLD HIM. 

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I know this is long and maybe not entirely what you were expecting, @marichuu, but want to make sure that anybody reading this knows that if you like nature, even if you don’t know very much about it now, there are a ton of people like me and those weirdos up there who are so excited to share the world with you that you can’t even imagine it now. Want to stay online because you’re nervous about meeting new people? That’s great! Tons of us are online! But if you’re ready to put yourself out there and meet people in person, chances are, they’re awesome and will love answering your questions (and if they’re not awesome tell me and I’ll YELL AT THEM FOR YOU YOU DESERVE BETTER). 

Anyway. Bugs are awesome and I hope they think you are just as awesome. Also anthropology is super neat and there’s a lot of intersections with entomology [link] that you can look at from an interesting angle.

Posted June 4, 2018