Down-Home Research

One of the things I enjoy most about video production is that it gets me out of the office. Don’t get me wrong, working in the luxury of air conditioning can be really nice in the summer, but anyone can go a little stir-crazy if they spend every single day at a desk. But every now and then, my job takes me places, and during production of our most recent Labors of Lab segment, it took me back home.

Laura Schwab, a senior biology major at Texas A&M who studies aquatic insects, is the star of our latest installment. As I was beginning the storyboarding process for her episode, Laura’s faculty advisor, Dr. David Baumgardner, invited me to film her and a few other students as they trapped insects at the Navasota River. Well, it just so happens I’m originally from Navasota, so this would be a homecoming of sorts for me. Sign me up!

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Now, let’s be clear: The Navasota River isn’t what you would call a “pretty” river. It’s muddy, and there’s usually no shortage of algae. But it is buzzing with wildlife, especially the aquatic insects the students were so hoping to capture. And even though I grew up in that area, I’d never actually been near, or in, the Navasota River. This was a shoot I was truly looking forward to, even on a Saturday.


Laura turned out to be an excellent choice for a Labors of Lab spot, and it was quickly apparent that she was Dr. Baumgardner’s right-hand person. Upon our arrival, they immediately divided up the students and waded into the river, where they embarked on separate excursions. While Dr. Baumgardner led two of the students off to catch insects in the river’s current, Laura and two other students went searching for snag, the random sticks and natural debris that protrude from calm parts of the river that often serve as nesting grounds for many water bugs.

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It was here that Laura’s natural leadership shined. She carefully chose which area of the river they would scour for snag, all while explaining to her team the reasons for her selection and demonstrating the proper way to collect a specimen. Whenever they found a particularly mossy stick that looked like it might be serve as a decent home for insects, they carefully doused the end of it in an alcohol solution and secured it in a Ziploc bag.

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It was fascinating to watch. In the videos I produce, I often only film people talking about their research and, usually, I’ll stage scenes of people pretending to work on their research so it appears as if they’re actually doing something fascinating in the final video. Never have I actually had the chance to film genuine research in progress — until now. The scenes I filmed at the river that day were some of my best, in my opinion. Undergraduate students doing real research, having real fun. You can’t fake that.

Plus, there’s no place like home.

Oh, and speaking of that spot, watch Laura in action and hear her thoughts on doing field work for Dr. Baumgardner’s lab in our latest Labors of Lab episode below:

The Graceful Monarch

What a difference a year makes. Consider the following essay, sent to me one year ago to the day by Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher and Monarch butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson:

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“We are under attack!”

This is not Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941, but rather College Station, Texas, on the morning of October 15, 2014. The incoming waves are not Japanese warplanes but Monarch butterflies. The colors are not those of the Rising Sun — red and white — but the unmistakable orange, black and white markings that set the Monarch apart as our most recognizable and beloved butterfly and the Texas state insect.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

Looking east, they appear as if by magic out of the risen sun. ‘Poof’ — one appears. ‘Poof’ — another — and ‘poof’ — another! As you scan the horizon one moment, the sky is empty until, seemingly out of nowhere in the next magical moment, ‘poof’ — the next wave announces its arrival. It is more of a ripple than a wave, as they appear in ones or twos. But the tide is building, and one has hopes for a butterfly tsunami.

Am I being too optimistic? The sad stories of the precipitous decline in the number of Monarchs has seen pessimism take hold, and it is hard to shake. Yet here, borne upon morning’s first rays, is a glimmer of hope. The sun shimmers off the diaphanous wings, their colors enhanced by the combination of sunlight passing through them and the reflective, refractive capacity of wing scales that serve to protect them like the roof shingles they resemble.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

They float up and over the USDA People’s Garden as if drawn by some Svengali. However, one should not associate the Monarchs with evil. The indigenous peoples of the Monarchs’ homeland in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, have, since time immemorial, considered the returning butterflies to be the souls of their deceased relatives returning to Earth. The butterflies’ arrival coincides with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). They are honored with feasts, celebrations and elaborate ofrendas (offerings). It is a time of celebration, and it feels like that today at the USDA office, where even many of those working diligently inside are drawn outside to be a part of this spectacle.

Scientists know that the Monarchs are following a time-honored path. But what are the triggers for one of the world’s greatest and longest insect migrations? To help contribute to that research, I net six Monarchs and donate them to a research lab on the Texas A&M campus, where they will be used to improve the genetic diversity of the live lab colony of Monarchs. I have fellow observers tag and release several more as part of a citizen scientist project to learn more of the migration routes and timetable.

A nest of Monarchs.

A nest of Monarchs.

I lose count of the number flying by. I am up to 150, but there were many more that I missed. I only saw a total of 12 last spring when the grandparents of these butterflies had passed through Texas en route to their breeding grounds in the Midwest and Canada, where conditions this year appear to have favored good reproduction rates despite loss of habitat and reduced acreage of milkweed plants that nourish their caterpillar progeny.

Anecdotal reports of these increases had reached me and then, in a rare coincidence, a giant swarm of migrating Monarchs resembling a giant butterfly showed up on radar for a short time on the afternoon of Friday, September 19, 2014. The suspicion was that these were hundreds of Monarchs flying at between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, heading south over Southern Illinois and Central Missouri, the radar signals suggesting that the ‘targets’ were flapping, flat and biological. It is entirely plausible that the Monarchs we see today were part of that swarm.

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

I watch as some of my transient friends settle on a false willow to rest, feed and recharge with nectar alongside a myriad of honey bees. All seems right with the world. The Monarchs have uplifted our souls.

I feel liberated and not under attack in the least.

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When I emailed Craig yesterday in present time in the hope that another inundation was underway across Aggieland, he informed me that sadly wasn’t the case. “The Monarchs have been pushed west by easterlies, so more are in Colorado than usual,” he said. “The southerly winds have prevented them moving south. But this Northern cold front should help push them south now. I saw three yesterday at my Holleman Drive garden.”

All is not locally lost, however. Craig reports that students from Texas A&M biologist Dr. Christine Merlin’s research group helped plant milkweed at three Bryan elementary schools — Johnson (3rd grade), Henderson (5th grade) and Mary Branch (5th grade) — in their school gardens as part of a National Science Foundation grant she has for which he contributes the outreach component. In addition, Craig says he has 80 Mary Branch 5th graders coming to study in his USDA People’s Garden on October 27 — a day on which he has high hopes for catching and tagging at least one Monarch.

Much like Monarchs, I hear hope floats. Sure is pretty in slow motion, as seen in this video produced by fellow land-grant institution University of Minnesota: