Most entomologists in this part of the world do their collecting in summer. There are a few reasons for this: insect diversity and activity peak in the summer months up here in the northern temperate; a lot of economically and medically important species are most active in summer; and with the demands of the academic year for those of us in University World, it’s a whole lot easier to get out into the field during the summer teaching lull. Of course, there are all sorts of great (and rarely collected!) insects active throughout the year — there’s lots of action all winter in the litter layer under the snow, and if you are willing to brave the frigid water, stream insects stay active year-round. There are some species of rarely collected and unusual little flies that only seem to be active when there’s still snow on the ground here in the northeastern spring; and one of my current grad students works on the fly family Platypezidae, a group that seems to be most active well into fall.
But now that September is here, I’ll be spending a lot more time in the lab and classroom and my few trips this fall will be devoted to museum visits, conferences, and seminars at other institutions. So I’ll have to find other ways to keep my connection with the joys of fieldwork and the thrill of discovery. Fortunately, that’s easy. The solution is sitting on my desk, or in some little boxes over on the bench, or in bags in the freezer. It’s the samples of autumn.
One of the ways that summer samples keep generating excitement well into fall and winter has to do with the fact that we work on very small flies. This means that when we collect in the field we tend to take the specimens, especially in large scale projects where we are running many traps and collecting in multiple sites, and get them into vials or sample bags as quickly as we can. It’s hard to get a really good look at these bulk samples and we don’t take microscopes in the field anyway, so we often don’t have a good sense of what we have until we get the samples back to the lab and start cleaning and sorting the under the scope. That’s when we usually make the little discoveries.
The other source of after-the-fact excitement has to do not with the specimens themselves, but with the data labels associated with the specimens. In talking to a lot of insect collectors over the years, it’s become pretty obvious that our memories work in weird ways. The little labels that we stick in our vials of specimens, or on the pins of insects in our field boxes are little triggers of memories, just as vacation photos bring back memories in “regular” people. And those “field memories” can come flooding back even after many years.
“CAN:YT:Alaska Hwy, 13.1 km W Takhini R crossing, 60.81º -135.97º” — that’s a little hillside just past the Takhini River bridge on the Alaska Highway west of Whitehorse, Yukon. Whenever I read that label I smell the pasture sage that’s so characteristic of dry, south-facing slopes in the Yukon, remnants of the Pleistocene “mammoth steppe”. It reminds me of sweeping up huge numbers of little acalyptrate flies (especially of a half-dozen really dominant species!) and smelling the sage on my sweep net as my thrashing around crushes the leaves. It reminds me of sitting on the slope eating lunch while looking out across towards the ever-higher mountains to the west.
“CAN:NT: Banks Island, Aulavik Nat Pk, 73.22412º -119.55255º” — 17 days delightfully isolated from the rest of the world, living in tents on the high arctic tundra under midnight sun, eating some of the finest field meals I’ve ever experienced, thanks to our excellent outfitter. Watching the groups of muskox graze their way ever closer to to our trap grids, wondering if today is the day they’ll stomp through all our pan traps and we’ll have to go over there and reset everything.
“AUSTRALIA: QLD: Lamington Nat Pk, Canungra Creek Track (28º13.8’S, 153º08.1’E)” — One of my most memorable days in the Australian rainforest. Gigantic trees and bizarre beetles. Watching a male lyrebird displaying in a sun-dappled clearing just off the trail. Stopping by a tiny stream to collect little Australian flies in weird families I’d never seen before. And a long walk back to the campsite in the hot afternoon to drink some excellent wine and watch wallabies and bowerbirds wander past the tent as the day wound down.
“USA:CA:Humboldt Co., Redwood NP, Schoolhouse Peak, 936m, 41.15ºN, 123.88ºW” — One day on a fantastic collecting trip to California. Wandering across a grass-covered slope above the Pacific with some great flycatching colleagues, eating lunch sitting in the grass and looking down on the low coastal clouds across a meadow completely carpeted in blooming lupines and larkspurs. We collected specimens of a few new species that day, but when I read those labels I still see the undercast clouds across a sea of green teeming with life.
Yes, fieldwork is hard work. But it’s also a way to connect to the natural history of a place. And that connection helps me link these rows of little flies to the bigger context of climate and rock and soil and plants and animals that make a place special. And that’s something that follows me back to the lab and into the museum when the fieldwork is finished. And it’s a connection that stays pretty strong across the years. It’s a nice feeling.
But in the meantime, these samples of autumn aren’t going to sort themselves . . .