Category Archives: insects

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

Sea monsters, waterbugs, and the fear of what lies beyond

Photos: Map of Iceland, circa 1590, Abraham Ortelius (public domain). Museum sign and merman, S. Heard. Giant waterbug, Lethocerus americanus, © Tom Murray CC BY-ND-NC 1.0 via bugguide.net.

sea monster museum

I’ve just come from the Skrímslasetrið Bíldudal, the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, in the town of Bíldudalur in the Western Fjords of Iceland. It’s a wonderful little museum commemorating centuries of monster sightings in the Arnarfjörður, the fjord that cuts like reaching fingers into the land here. The tour of the museum starts at a copy of Abraham Ortelius’s early-modern (1590) map of Iceland (above), which is copiously decorated with sea monsters. Some are obviously the product of observers grappling with strange new creatures, and getting them half-right and half-wrong (like the spouting boar-whale at bottom left of centre, or the monkfish behind it). Others seem like pure fancy, like the mer-horse above and left of the whale. All, however, look fierce and threatening. Continue reading