The world with a whole new level of detail

This week was not exactly your average week up at Schoodic, not that any week up here can be defined as average. Even though this isn’t a typical week to start out by blog, it is just too good of a story not to tell. So let’s just dive right to the craziness that is Schoodic and we’ll circle back to introductions later on.

This weekend we had the Lepidoptera Bio Blitz, also known as 24 hours of insect awesomeness. The basic idea behind the Bio Blitz is to connect the public with science and better inform park managers. The Blitzes are a great way to get regular people out into what is normally behind-the-scenes park activities. Also, most parks don’t have regular invertebrate surveys, so we really don’t know exactly what is going on in the park insect-wise. This kind of information is invaluable as resource managers.

Now that we have a why, we need to know how do you go about a Bio Blitz? First step, you pick an insect group that you want to know more about. This year we were looking for Lepidoptera, also known as moths and butterflies for us non-Linnaean lingual folks. Step Two, you bring in a bunch of experts in the field- taxonomists, entomologists, amateur bug enthusiasts (yeah I didn’t know there even was such a thing either) and anyone else who has a free weekend and wants to learn something. Next you give everyone some quick and dirty training so you can recognize what you are collecting and understand where to go and what to do. Finally you start a 24-hour straight collecting binge where you grab everything you can from that order and have the taxonomists furiously try to keep up identifying things.So that’s the game plan for your standard Bio Blitz. They have been doing these for about a decade now at Schoodic on everything from ants to bees to butterflies.

If you are just doing the Bio Blitz that was just a pretty good description of what happens. Of course, we never do only one thing at a time up at Schoodic. Wrapped up in, under and around this weekend we were also running a class for teachers on integrating science research in the classrooms. So here is how our whirlwind weekend of bugs went for our education staff. On Friday we got our little group of teachers at about noon and did phenology and birding activities with them until the Bio Blitz welcome started that evening.

That night, we did a couple more hours of talks on insects, genetics and taxonomy. At an hour that is too early to even mention (7:00 AM) we started back up the next morning. We had a couple more hours of prep that laid out where we were going to be collecting our insects, then went through the process on how we document all of the data on where we collected our bugs. Finally we were off to the races. We took a collection location and our group of teachers and went off to do some science.

Beating the trees and chasing after butterflies can quickly turn a group of grown ladies right back into little kids again. One of our teachers quickly developed a knack for catching the butterflies, and I had to quickly develop the knack for getting them into the kill jar because part of our group was a little too freaked out by it. After a couple of hours of collecting, we broke off from the Blitz again to do a phenology walk with one of the heads of the National Phenology Network who happened to be there. This is a fantastic subject I’ll get into on a later blog but I assure you, it’s pretty awesome. After that we had a quick dinner and were back at collecting for a little while longer. Once it got dark the really fun stuff happened.

If you’ve ever had a light on at night you realize that it pulls in moths like… well like a moth to a flame. It turns out when you put a giant security light on top of a mountain in the middle of a pitch black forest it works a touch better than your average flashlight. There were literally thousands of moths landing on the white tarp stretched under the light. Moving forward to collect one was like wading through a buzzing hailstorm. They would bounce back and forth between your glasses and your eyeballs. Fly in your ears and down your shirt. It was an amazing display that not only awed us Bio Blitzers but also attracted dozens of bats above. The bats were constantly snatching moths out of the air above our heads like little dive bombers. We also set up small black lights at several sites around the campus to attract moths that liked a different spectrum of light. These lights inspired the same level of swarm craziness but on a smaller scale. Most of our group left off at about 11:00 PM to get a few hours of sleep but in the foolishness of youth I kept it up until a little before 2:00 AM.

Back up again at 7:00 the next morning to find that several of the taxonomists had pulled a pretty intense all nighter identifying everything we collected over night. We didn’t realize it then but one of our teachers actually split off with the taxonomists and made it until about 4:00 AM sorting and helping label the moths. Suffice to say she didn’t make it to our morning activity. Now that they had gone through everything collected thus far we realized a few bits of the park got missed. Our little group of teachers took one last trip out to the eastern coastline to fill in one of the places that hadn’t been hit yet. One last group picture and we were off to the public program.

One of the last and most important steps of the Bio Blitz is the public information session at the end. A huge problem with science is that it often isn’t communicated very well. If people aren’t aware of what you are doing you can’t get funding to continue your research, and you can’t help people make better, more informed decisions in their lives. We had a fantastic speaker come in and give a great summary of the great diversity that is in the order we were studying this weekend. It turns out there are some incredible caterpillars out there. We also showed the general public the collecting techniques and toured them through the lab area where we did the identification. Hopefully we also gained a few more participants for next year.

We are still waiting for the official results from the survey but it looks like we had over a hundred and twenty participants, and identified somewhere in the range of 250 species. We got a bunch of new species that have never been seen in the park, or even in the state of Maine.We somehow ended up with a little guy who is supposed to be in the Carolinas.

As awesome as all this new information is, there is something that I found way more interesting. The really cool part of the weekend was finding out how much more is going on in the world once you know what to look for. Before this weekend a moth was pretty well just a moth to me. But once you know what to look for it’s like a light switch gets flipped on and you can see the world with a whole new level of detail. Even if you have some irrational hatred of the Lepidoptera order you would still be in awe of the passion that some of these people have. It is just an amazing opportunity to be around someone when they are doing what they love. Whether you are watching a chef cook, an artist paint, or a group of entomologist chase around butterflies, seeing that spark passion in someone’s eye is an inspiring sight.

So that was a slightly more unusual weekend up at Schoodic point in Acadia National Park then we normally enjoy. Later in the week, we’ll have a more normal introduction to what is going on up at the park but this was just too good to pass up. I hope you all have a good week…and try look a little harder at the world around you. You never know what you’re going to see.