Category Archives: insects

Insects are incredibly cool (or, a whirlwind tour of my Entomology course)

When I’m not writing Scientist Sees Squirrel (or writing books about the lovers, heroes, and bums commemorated in the Latin names of organisms), I have a day job.  I’m a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick, in Fredericton, Canada.  Over my years at UNB I’ve taught first-year biology, introductory ecology, population biology, biostatistics, scientific writing, non-majors biology, field ecology, and more.  But I’ve just finished teaching the course I might love most of all: entomology.

I don’t really know what I am, scientifically, but I’m often mistaken for an entomologist. And it’s true, I know some stuff about insects.  The most important thing I know about them is probably that they’re just about endlessly diverse, endlessly beautiful, and endlessly fascinating. Continue reading

Never mind the pedantry, they’re all “bugs”

I’m teaching Entomology this semester, and having a blast as usual.  Our 80 minute lecture slots are way too long, though, so one thing I do is interrupt the flow about half-way through for “Bug Of The Day”.  That’s just a slide or sometimes two about some cool bug, often with a real specimen to pass around (and with a stretch-and-water break for everyone right after).  It’s my favourite part of each class, because it’s pretty easy to come up bugs that make me (and I hope make my students) say “Wow!”.  I’ve featured bugs that are big, bugs that bite, bugs that are beautiful, bugs that have historic significance, bugs with interesting Latin names*, bugs that are just plain weird… I can’t possibly exaggerate how much fun this is. Continue reading

Love, and its complexity, in a butterfly’s name

Images: The red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta; © Kristian Peters, CC BY-SA 3.0. Portrait, “Vanessa”, 1868, by John Everett Millais, collection of Sudley House, Liverpool; public domain.

Last week I shipped off the final revision of my forthcoming book, The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.*  You know how you just finish a piece of writing, and immediately stumble across something you wish you’d put in?  Well, the very next day, I happened to be skimming an old set of short book reviews, looking for – well, I’m not going to tell you what, because I’m keeping the idea for my next book under wraps for now.  But serendipity struck, as it does; my eye slid by, then arrested on, a one-paragraph review of Maitland Emmet’s book The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera: Their History and Meaning (1991).**  And from that one paragraph I learned how the butterfly genus Vanessa got its name.  It’s a fascinating story – and it explains not just the butterfly Vanessa, but every other Vanessa in the world. Continue reading

Plants in ecological webs

Images: spider web © Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0; ants tending aphids © Judy Gallagher CC BY 2.0

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

A visit to any Botanic Garden surely means attention paid to plants – that’s what “Botanic” means, after all.  When you visit our Fredericton Botanic Garden, for example, your attention will probably first be drawn to our flowerbeds and forests; to the primulas in the Hal Hinds Garden and the daylilies in our newly expanded Daylily Bed; to the reeds by our ponds and the ferns along our Woodland Fern Trail.  All these beautiful plants are worth your time – but we hope you’ll look beyond them, too.  That’s because each of our plants is also part of a larger ecological web. Continue reading

Monarch butterflies, and weird failures of observation

Photos: Wildlife-Friendly Garden and signage, © S Heard CC BY 4.0.  Monarch caterpillars on milkweed (in Minnesota), Courtney Celley/USFWS, CC BY 2.0.

My university, like many, is concerned with appearing green, and among its projects is a series of small plantings that offer (mostly) native plants with educational signage.  I pass by one of these every day on my walk to work: the “Wildlife-Friendly Garden”.  It has Joe Pye weed, roses, goldenrod, and a few other things, and it has some signs introducing passers-by to its “frequent visitors”.

One of the “frequent visitors”, we’re told, is the monarch butterfly: it has a lovely and informative sign.  This seems unremarkable: everyone loves monarch butterflies, everyone knows they’re common visitors to late-summer flowers like goldenrod and Joe Pye, and everyone knows they’re a species at risk* worth cherishing.  So how could I possibly have a beef with this sign?  Continue reading

On being nerdsniped by Dynamic Ecology

Photos: Artificial moths from @mothgenerator; thanks to Katie Rose Pipkin for permission to reproduce them here.

Warning: 100% silly.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Jeremy Fox over at Dynamic Ecology nerdsniped me with this link to the Moth Generator twitter account.

If you haven’t seen it, Moth Generator is a clever bot that constructs fictional moths by (somehow) recombining a library of graphic generation rules. For an entomologist and a nerd, like me, this is completely fascinating.  If you’re either or both, I recommend that you check it out. Continue reading

The garden of insects

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.


I went for a walk in the Garden last week, and it was lovely to see the colours on display – nature in all shapes and sizes, with another species offering a different look everywhere I turned.  I’m not talking about the flowers – although those were nice too.  I’m talking about our Garden of Insects.

The Garden of Insects isn’t a signed attraction.  Continue reading