Fall Foliage

All of a sudden, here in Portland, the trees are on fire! Autumn is in full swing and I realized that if I didn’t act fast I was going to miss my opportunity to get red and yellow leaves under the microscope. So I went outside and grabbed some. On my way back in, I snagged one of the last vibrant green leaves on our cherry tomato plant and one of the last dark green kale leaves. I wanted a little color diversity.

The maple leaves that had turned red were lovely–

Red Maple

The scope revealed some interesting color anomalies–red to purple

I found mold that had started to eat through the cuticle and epidermis–Red leaf mold

I picked up a yellow leaf and found the edges tinged with red–Red to Yellow Leaf

And looked closely at the one perfect butter yellow leaf–Yellow maple

I discovered that the “vibrant green” tomato leaf was actually covered with mold–mold on tomato leaf

The underside rib of the kale was almost luminous–Underside Kale

But as I moved the scope around I made a discovery! Whitefly nymphs feeding! I haven’t seen these insects since grad school. Man, even when I try to do a post on something other than bugs, I find them–whitefly nymphs

I was about to pack up the scope and found a tiny white insect around the light rim. Adult whitefly–whitefly 2 better


I’ve been stressing a bit about planning these blog posts. Making them cohesive and well thought-out. But I’m realizing that I have the most fun and the biggest discoveries when I just go with an idea and let it take me on a journey of discovery. It’s inquiry based learning. If you give your students or children some colored leaves and a handheld digital microscope (like the type I use from Celestron) the learning and questions will come naturally. The lesson writes itself.

A Tiny Universe

I’ve been thinking about microscopes a lot lately, due to my recent partnership with Celestron.

Celestron is well-known for their incredible astronomy equipment. Their social media feeds are filled with stunning images of the night sky. Nebulae. Galaxies. Planets. Moons. Looking to the universe is the inspirational stuff dreams are made of. My nephew is so captivated with space that at age 12 he has his whole life mapped out to maximize his chances of getting into the Air Force so that he can become an astronaut. He lives and breathes space and the endless possibilities there in.

Sphinx moth eye

This white-lined sphinx moth’s eye looks a bit like a planet. Image created with Celestron’s Micro Fi Digital Microscope.

Change Your View

I dream of the universe as well. But my dreams are a little different. I am captivated by the tiny universe under our feet. I dream about the world that is bustling, active and alive under my nose. In my teaching I call it “putting your small eyes on.”   I discovered this phenomenon during my first entomology course. I was three weeks in to the semester and all of a sudden, I saw bugs everywhere. I would drift in and out of conversations because something flew by. I was walking down the sidewalk to the grocery store with the ants. Those girls were on an errand and so was I. It sounds strange, but insects started to land on me more often (I think I just noticed it more, like when you’re car shopping and all of a sudden you see the car you want everywhere.) Now my students tell me the same thing. They are late to class because they stopped to watch a yellow jacket grab a caterpillar and fly away with it. At parties they find themselves talking about bugs and listening to wings buzzing by as though they are the intended other-half of the conversation.

Celestron has a monthly contest where you post a photo that fits a certain theme (November’s is The Night Sky) and you use the hashtag #changeyourview2015. Studying arthropods has changed my view of the world. It has fractured The Big World I inhabit into thousands of smaller worlds, and the more I learn about the interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the more I see how those worlds depend on each other. The closer the look, the more intricate and beguiling it becomes. And when you start using a microscope- oh, boy. It’s like Ms. Frizzle has given you a ticket to The Magic School Bus and nothing will ever be the same. A microscope gives us the ultimate ‘small eyes.’  Note: If you are too young to know about TMSB, get thee to YouTube NOW. 

Microscopes and Meditation

I tell myself I’m not great at meditating or being still or practicing mindfulness, but when I look through a scope something similar to meditation happens.  This is what I cherish about entomology. The study of small things has taught me to slow down. I can’t be the only person who sits at a microscope and experiences a spiritual disassociation with time. I’m most experienced with dissecting and compound scopes because of my research on solifuges and other lab work. Consumer digital scopes came on to the scene in the last fifteen years, but as they’ve gotten better and better they have replaced the larger scopes for me. But I get that same zen feeling. I’m focused on focusing.  The world and its stresses fall away. I can focus on my passion and my mind creates space for questions and creativity. Space for inquiry and discovery- which is the stuff of dreams as well as of science.

This has been my love song to the Tiny Universe that lives in parallel to our big, busy, important lives. A love song to the tools that help me see it, engage with it and ask questions of it. Thank you for listening and humming along.

Do you love a certain piece of equipment that helps you do your job?

Monday Millipedes!

When we teach about arthropods, it can be difficult to illustrate that ALL of these animals have segmented bodies. When you’ve never seen an arthropod up close, it is a tricky idea to wrap your mind around. We often use use millipedes in our teaching as a great example of a fully segmented body on an animal. But now I have cool microscopes from Celestron, so I can show you what I’m talking about! I took all of the pictures shown in this post with the FlipView Portable digital microscope. It’s great for handheld shots where you need to be flexible with the angle of the scope. I deal with a lot of live bugs, so I need to shoot fast and not be held back by a big bulky set-up. The FlipView worked great!

Millipede Coil

In the picture above, you can clearly see the segments on this millipede. As these animals grow, they add segments and legs! When a millipede dies, the ring-like segments of exoskeleton are left behind.

This millipede was not happy about being photographed. She coiled up in a defensive stance and started to leak a noxious fluid from her repugnatorial glands located on the sides of her body. Millipedes leak this fluid to deter predators from eating them. In some species of millipede, the fluid contains cyanide compounds!  Can you see the yellowish tinge on the exoskeleton in the above photo? That fluid tastes REALLY BAD. I have tasted it. I am a scientist. I am dedicated to my craft. Plus, I got sick of kids asking me what it tastes like, so I gathered some data. It is very bitter- a little like dirt juice or aspirin juice and the taste can linger on your tongue for many hours, even if you brush your teeth, drink mouthwash, eat Sriracha or suck on a Tootsie Pop. I do the hard work of you.

Millipede Legs Claws

Almost every segment on a millipede has two pairs of legs. This is one of the ways you can tell them apart from centipedes, which have only one pair of legs per segment. However, when you’re poking around outside and you’ve rolled over a rock and want to know if that long thing is a venomous centipede (NOT Bug Chicks Approved for holding) vs. a poisonous millipede (TOTALLY Bug Chicks Approved for holding) (but not for licking- see above paragraph) you can’t really count the legs. So here’s the trick- centipedes move really fast in an S-shape. They are predators and run down their prey. Millipedes move kinda slow in a straight line after they come out of their defensive coil. They are decomposers that eat fungi and rotting stuff. They don’t need to move fast because mushrooms don’t run away.

Side Note: I’m really happy with the above shot. I just want to paint all of her little tarsal claws (millipede toenails)!

Millipede Legs

This shot perfectly illustrates the characteristic that all arthropods have jointed and segmented appendages. It can be almost impossible to distinguish features on millipede legs as they are moving, and I’ve never actually gotten to see all of the segments as clearly defined as in this shot! Millepede legs have seven segments each.

Millipede Negative

I was playing around with the menu settings on the FlipView and somehow managed to take this super cool shot.  I have no idea what I did, but I’m thinking I will eventually do a whole series of shots in this style. This is one of the joys of giving myself time to really explore a new piece of equipment. The user’s manuals are great, but sometimes I like to just give myself some time and allow learning to take place while I’m making mistakes and testing the boundaries of a new toy!


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