Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Monday, July 30, 2012

Moths, Memory, and Motivation

It’s this moth’s fault. I’m blogging.  About bugs.

Also about biology.  About science and what it can tell us about our lives and our world.  And, I guess, I’m blogging about me and about why I think this stuff is cool.

To be honest, I have been looking for an excuse to start a blog for quite some time. I write about science for a living. I also work with university scientists and spend a lot of time convincing them  to share what they know with the public – particularly through blogging and other social media. It’s a little bit phony for me to lecture others about this when I don’t do it myself.

The problem I have in doing a blog is that most of the things I know a lot about (and want to write posts on) are subjects that very few other people would want to read about. I set up this blog a couple of years ago to write about epizootic diseases – epidemics that affect wild plants and animals and that are, in some ways as big a threat to the stability of the natural world around us as climate change and human development. It’s an important topic, but the problem is that it’s also astoundingly complicated and something very few people outside of some  landscape ecologists care about. More people should care, but, well, they just don’t. What’s the point in writing something that no one else out there is going to want to read?

In a big way, the problem is public education in science. Science, as most of us know it, seems to be dry, difficult and (I’ll say it) boring. However, it has never seemed boring to me, even though I am not a scientist myself.  I wish I could say this is because I was lucky enough to have had a great science education when I was younger, but, honestly, I didn’t. Though my primary and secondary education wasn’t bad for the time (in the 1960’s and early 70’s), I had virtually no science classes until high school, and science classes there were very weak. I went to an Ivy League school for college, and there science was extremely demanding and technical and… pretty unimaginative. I took the classes I had to and then majored in English. I became a writer. Science, I decided, was disappointing.

Yet I kept a wistful eye on science, waiting to see something that would change my mind.  (Eventually it did, but more on that some other time. )

My science education – a personal history

Despite my education, I have been naturally drawn to science.  I grew up with the practice of scientific thinking, though I certainly didn’t know it at the time.  I lived in a beautiful place during my childhood – Ithaca, NY – in a landscape full of well-kept woods and beautiful streams, with impressive waterfalls, gorges and a big lake, and my friends and I spent most of our childhood rambling through it all,  hiking, swimming and fishing… and marveling at the oddities and complexities of the nature around us. We saw things when we played: crayfish, waterbugs, salamanders, wasps, bees, spiders, frogs, toads, fossils, trees, wildflowers, wild berries, hawks, song birds,  snakes, lizards, mushrooms, caterpillars, butterflies… and we were curious about them all. We collected anything that crawled, flew and swam (looking back on it, our mothers were saints) and wanted to know more about them, to understand them because they were alive and strange. We asked our parents for information.They. knew a bit, but not much. We read books, which told us more – the Golden Nature Guides, the Peterson Field Guides – but still not enough. In the end, we taught ourselves.

Like all scientists, we began to specialize. Because our parents had bought us butterfly nets (catching butterflies was an acceptable childhood “hobby” in the 1960’s, like stamp collecting), we started making our own butterfly collections.  We loved this hobby because it was easy and fun to go on “missions” to collecting spots, and because it was both physically and technically challenging (the really cool butterflies were both hard to find and hard to catch – you had to know where to look and you had to be fast).  There was biology to learn – butterflies were tied to their foodplants: black swallowtails hung out near queen anne’s lace, monarchs near milkweed; these flowers grew in different places. There were technical skills to learn – how to catch butterflies without damaging them, how to kill them quickly and effectively, how to mount them and dry them (we found biology supply catalogues, we bought spreading boards and insect pins),  how to preserve the important data concerning where and when we caught them.  It was complicated and seemed grown-up. We became “experts” in something, which was cool. Our parents were (I guess) amused and…  a little impressed.

We quickly found out that something that seemed simple – catching a bunch of pretty colored insects and putting them in boxes – was actually demanding and nearly endlessly complex and mysterious.  A lot of the butterflies that were the coolest, the rarest, the most beautiful, lived in strange places – treetops, the edges of swamps and streams, sunlit clearings in deep woods – and only flew in certain seasons and specific times of the day – early spring, late afternoon.  We learned why – mating rituals, foodplant availability, lifecycle requirements. We didn’t just read, we observed. We learned that the books were not always right – insects are really variable and behave differently in different locales.  We developed hypotheses, collected information that supported or contradicted them. We learned, at least concerning a couple dozen species of butterflies in the part of upstate New York where we lived, how nature worked. Nature taught us the science we needed to use, and science taught us what there was to know. (Not that we knew enough to call it “science, “ of course.) It was like the world had opened up.

And the world kept opening wider: butterflies are a fairly limited group of insects, but their cousins, the moths, are much, much more numerous and diverse.  Some of them – the giant silk moths, the sphinx moths – are even bigger and more spectacular than the biggest butterflies,  yet few people notice them. Moths fly at night and hide during the day, so they live in an unseen world. One of my friends took a vacation at a cabin at one of the local state parks and came back with giant purple-eyed polyphemus moths and ethereal green luna moths that he had caught at the cabin light… we had read about them in books, but they seemed mythological and perhaps part of a forgotten past. Who knew that they had been around us all along?  There was a whole new world out there that we knew nothing about…

And so, as we approached adolescence, we began taking journeys into the countryside where lights were scarce (and woods and fields were broad) and staying out very late on summer nights, having found our own lost world.  There were hundreds and hundreds of species, some drab, some strange and exotic, almost all of them totally new to us, though we thought we knew nature so well. We learned light collecting techniques, baiting techniques to attract different species. We learned a lot more about caterpillars and their biology than we ever had before.  The caterpillars had always been there too, all around us in the trees and plants and bushes, but ingeniously hidden.   We learned how to find them, and marveled at their weird shapes and colors. We learned how to get moths to lay eggs, and how to raise the young. We learned about the predators and parasites that keep the moth populations from exploding (and that really upset a boy trying to raise a cool caterpillar). We began to learn ecology. Again, there was layer after layer of mystery in the world, hidden, but waiting to be explored.

I think the memory of my natural “awakening,” and the wonder of it all has been a driving force in my life. I began to understand that the world around me, despite technology, our comfortable homes, our cars and planes, is still deeply mysterious, and even the smallest things around us hold great mysteries that are still waiting to be explored, to be experienced and grappled with, to be finally (or at least somewhat) understood.  I guess my adventures with nature made me feel  curious and that curiosity has driven me ever since, whether I was collecting butterflies, or reading great works of literature, or studying the intricacies of human behavior.  As a science writer, it gives me an almost immediate sense of fascination concerning every subject I write about, whether it’s quantum physics, biochemistry, genomics, plate tectonics or patch dynamics, bioinformatics or demographics. There are things there that are unknown but that can be discovered and known. These things are amazing, if you give them your mind.

This is how I am and how most of the people I work with are, but how to get others to share this experience – to understand that science is really the great adventure of our time… well, that’s the problem.

Hence, this blog…

And so,  I looked out the window the other day and saw this moth … and had an idea.

It was not just any moth – it was an extravagant, large, orange and yellow moth – Citheronia regalis, aka the regal moth (for a better photo on the web, see: http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/bfly/regal_moth01.htm ) and, despite my aforementioned experience in collecting, it was the first time I had ever seen one alive in the wild.  In the world of American moths, it’s a famous moth. I make no exaggeration when I say that as a child I probably would have been willing give you one of my finger in order to get one. It’s not terribly uncommon here in the south (it's not common either – no giant silk moths are), but where I grew up was on the edge of its range, and the only examples I knew of from my town were in a university collection. 

The moth is one of the most beautiful insects in North America, but what the insect is really famous for is its huge, bizarre caterpillar. The caterpillar has its own name – it is popularly known as the “Hickory Horned Devil” -- and I think I can safely claim that it is one of the most unusual-looking insects (beautiful or terrifying or disgusting, depending on your perspective -- see this web video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61thTKLcYhE) anywhere. From my own, admittedly child-like, perspective, it’s just plain cool.

Though I was looking out a window, about a dozen feet away,  I could tell immediately that it was a female (some training never leaves you). I also immediately knew that she had to have in her at least 100 fertilized eggs. I have learned that a newly hatched female giant silk moth will not fly anywhere until she has been successfully fertilized by a male (more about this in a later post). I was not tempted to collect her --her wingtips were damaged (this probably happened when she emerged from her pupa), but her color looked very fresh otherwise, which meant that she still had most of her eggs… I’ve never raised one of these particular bugs, but I know pretty exactly how to do it from rearing other giant silk moths, and I have some good source guides to help me (see brief bibliography at the end of this post).

 I have the technology… So I entertained the idea that I might try rearing the eggs (she’s now laid most of them) from egg to pupa, blogging as I go. Then, yesterday I found another female giant silk moth (a female luna moth, pictured above) while out walking my dog. The universe was clearly telling me to do this project.

Raising large caterpillars is an “interesting” experience where there are regular visuals to share (caterpillars change a lot as they grow), useful instructions to be passed along (for anyone who is interested in doing this too – believe it or not, you can actually sell live pupae to collectors on the internet) and a fair amount of science can come into play. I’m even going to try a simple experiment: as  I mentioned before, while C. regalis has been well-studied, there are still issues involving the biology of local vs. species-wide biology that are poorly understood.

For me, this is the point – I want to try doing and writing about “citizen” or “backyard” science that is accessible to broad audiences (I’m as interested in talking to younger people as I am to adults), on a topic that might-perhaps-maybe be appealing to the kid in all of us. (Or, if you hate gross bugs, you might read for the horror factor.)

And, yes, it’s a project, kids, that you can try doing at home. If I am successful at raising a number of regal moths/lunas to pupa/cocoon, I’d be willing to share them with some of you (for free), so you can try breeding and raising yourself. My only caveat to that offer is that I won’t send these outside the continental United States (where, at least theoretically, these moths can naturally range and not be invasive species). I will send out  at least two of one species per request, first-come-first served. If you’re an adult making the request, that’s fine, but I’d prefer that these be used for some educational purpose, rather than hatching them for perfect specimens for a collection.  Anyway, I’ll post more about that later when I’m closer to having some successfully reared insects.

My regal moth eggs were first laid July 27, 2012 and the luna laid her first egg last night (7/29) and they  are expected to hatch 6-10 days from laying. My next post will be when they do.


For an excellent book about giant silk moths and their biology, see:
Tuskes, Paul M., Tuttle, James P. and Collins, Michael M. 1996. The Wild Silk Moths of North America. Cornell University Press, Ithaca,NY.