Guess who just turned 7?

Prionus heroicus | Harding Co., New Mexico

Prionus heroicus | Harding Co., New Mexico

No, not this very alarmed male Prionus heroicus (among North America’s largest longhorned beetles) seen this past June at Mills Rim Campground in northeastern New Mexico—although he could very well have spent several years underground as a ever-fatter grub feeding on tree roots (probably oaks) before emerging as an adult.

No, today is the 7th birthday of this blog, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d almost completely forgotten about it. To a human, seven years of age is still immaturity, but in blog years that’s getting close to old age—perhaps like it’s author! I guess old age (on both counts) qualifies me to reminisce a little bit. I’ve seen the blogging thing come—there was a time when it seemed everybody was blogging, and I’ve seen it mature into something a little different. People still blog, but not as many and not for the same reasons. In the early days, blogs were how people with common interests connected and interacted. Nowadays other social media (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) have usurped that role. I don’t think that has made blogs irrelevant, but rather they now seem to serve more for outreach and as searchable repositories for information (at least among natural history blogs). In the past I’ve vacillated greatly in my feelings about this (and I still do sort of miss the “good ol’ days” of lively conversations in the comments). But actually I’m okay with it. When I want my social fix I jump onto Facebook (or Twitter in certain circumstances). When I want to write a little more substantively—to recount memorable field trips, document interesting things I’ve learned, reflect on my experiences as an entomologist, etc.—I blog. I used to watch hit counts; now I hardly ever give them a thought. I care less about who is reading and how many of them there are than I do about the content of the writing and quality of the images I share with those who do choose to read. I am enjoying the fruits of having blogged consistently for seven years—able to write well (and fast), vastly more versed in natural history, and connected broadly to the larger entomological community—and that alone makes it worth continuing. I’ve learned to blog for me and not for what I think others want to see. How liberating! After 7 years, I am more comfortable with and motivated to write than ever.

To all those people who have followed me, either now or in the past, thank you for your part in helping me in this journey. To those who are still to come, I look forward to meeting you!

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

First-ever BitB “Reader’s Poll”

For seven years now I’ve been conducting this experiment called Beetles in the Bush. In that time I’ve written nearly 1,000 posts (with the help of a few guest authors), posted nearly 3,000 images, contributed or entertained over 10,000 comments, and watched the site creep ever closer to its millionth hit! This might leave you wondering why I should, now, be asking readers to provide feedback on why they visit BitB and what they like most (or least) about it. The reason is simple—blogging is less popular now than it was a few years ago. Comments and readership are both in decline (not just here, but across the platform), and the trend has left few clues about who the remaining readership is and what they are interested in. If I know clearly what readers want, it will be easier for me to provide it. That is not to say I expect (or even could) drastically change my content or its focus. However, if I know a certain topic is more popular than others I can give that topic priority, or if nobody really reads the “long-reads” I can skip them altogether. I hope you’ll indulge my curiosity by participating in the five short polls below that need only a few anonymous clicks of the mouse—no written responses required. Of course, if you wish to provide written feedback in the comments section it will be most appreciated. And, as always, thank you for your readership.

© Ted C. MacRae 2014

A belated Happy Birthday

It seems that November 24th came and went without me even realizing that BitB turned six years old that day! Six years—wow, has it really been that long? I guess forgetting birthdays officially puts me in the old-timer camp (both as a person and as a blogger). No fanfare or celebration. Instead, I blithely wrote my 778th post (Q: How do you photograph cactus beetles?) and carried on as usual.

I guess it’s too late now to make a big deal of it, but I will make the observation that November 2013, with its 15 posts, was one of my heaviest blogging months ever (the most since 18 posts in December 2012 and the overall high of 21 in April 2010). This may come as a surprise to those who have heard me grouse periodically about the decline of blogging, both of my blog in particular and as a platform in general. It’s a different world than it was when I started BitB—Twitter and Facebook have taken over much of the social interaction that used to take place on blogs, relegating the latter primarily to satisfying a small but persistent niche demand for long-content. Throughout the course of these changes, however, motivation to blog still comes to me consistently and often. Mostly it seems to be an internal need to express myself, but the occasional and very much appreciated feedback in the form of comments and emails also helps. So, with that, thank you for the past six years, and here’s looking at the next six!

Enough blather—here are a few colorful net-winged beetles in the genus Calopteron (family Lycidae) to help with the celebration. They were photographed in northern Argentina (Chaco Province) in April 2012 while visiting flowers of Chilean goldenrod (Solidago chilensis). I’m not sure if they represent more than one species, as the taxonomy of the genus in the Neotropics appears to be very poorly known at this time—if so it would seem there exists in this area a mimicry complex that is ripe for study.

Calopteron sp. on flowers of Solidago chilensis| Chaco Province, Argentina

Calopteron sp. on flowers of Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Calopteron sp. on flowers of Solidago chilensis| Chaco Province, Argentina

Calopteron sp. on flowers of Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Calopteron sp. on flowers of Solidago chilensis| Chaco Province, Argentina

Calopteron sp. on flowers of Solidago chilensis | Chaco Province, Argentina

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Where do BitB readers come from (and why I like Facebook better than Twitter and Google+)?

I’m not obsessed with blog stats, but every now and then it’s interesting to take a look and see what information I can glean from them. One of the stats provided by WordPress is “Referrers”—which sites readers came from. This is good information to know, as it can help guide decisions on which sites to put effort into as a referral site. It was precisely this stat that caused me to leave Google+ some months ago. I tried G+ for a time as an alternative to Facebook, cross-posting links to new posts and occasionally posting separate photos to maintain a consistent level of activity. But after several months I decided the interactions I was having on G+ weren’t very satisfying—no conversations about the subjects like what happens on Facebook, just brief comments of the “Nice shot” variety. Moreover, my WordPress Referrer stats showed virtually no traffic coming from G+. This was puzzling, as I found myself continually being added to G+ circles (thousands eventually, which in itself seemed very “spammish” to me), but since there was no automatic mechanism for linking new posts on G+ (like there is for Facebook and Twitter), I decided the tiny amount of traffic it drove was not worth the effort. I stopped posting to G+ (yet continued to be added to circles, which made me even more suspicious and eventually led me to deleting my G+ account altogether).

As my involvement with G+ waned, I became more involved with Twitter. I get Twitter—really, I do, although I had trouble getting it at first. It’s quick, it’s fun… it’s a great way to keep tabs on a lot of people who like to post links to things I am interested in. Nevertheless, I still find myself having trouble staying consistently involved with Twitter. My problem is the 140-character limit—again, I’m more interested in conversation than quips, and in this regard Facebook is a much less limiting—and thus more enjoyable—venue for interacting with like-minded individuals. I also find Twitter to be rather clumsy when it comes to sharing photos compared to Facebook’s more elegant (Google+ inspired?) model. If I can’t converse on Twitter the way I’d like to, then all I really have left to use Twitter for is to provide links to new posts on BitB. A few hundred followers may be modest, but one would still think it enough to drive a fairly good amount of traffic to the blog. Curiously, recent review of Referrer stats show this not to be the case. Over the past 30 days, only 43 visitors have come to BitB from Twitter—less than 1.5 per day! WordPress enables automatic linking of new posts on Twitter, so it doesn’t really take any effort on my part to maintain the account, but I still have to wonder if such little return warrants even this amount of effort.

Of course, search engines—primarily Google—reign supreme in driving traffic to BitB, with the past 30 days yielding 6,180 visits. But among non-search engine sites, where do most of my readers come from? Facebook! In the past 30 days, 232 visitors have clicked on a link to BitB through Facebook—either on my own page or that of somebody else who liked a post on BitB and provided a link to it. Considering how much fun I have on Facebook aside from providing links to posts on BitB—whether it be quick photos of experiences as they happen, enjoying photographs of other expert insect macrophotographers, or involvement in multi-party conversations about the finer points of insect taxonomy—the fact that it also drives a large amount of traffic to BitB almost seems like a bonus. People like to make fun of Facebook, and the recent exodus of many bug bloggers to Twitter and G+ cannot be ignored, but for me Facebook continues to be the supreme medium for online interaction.

I realize this a one-case study and don’t intend to generalize my experience to others. It does, however, raise some interesting questions. Why are Facebook users so much more likely to click on my links that Twitter or G+ users? What prompted thousands of G+ users to add me to their circles but almost none of them to actually click through to my content? Is my experience typical? Any insight on these questions would be appreciated.

I should also mention another significant referrer for BitB—Alex Wild. Combined stats from his Myrmecos and Compound Eye blogs over the past 30 days resulted in a cool 99 BitB referrals. While this is not quite at the same level as Facebook, it is remarkable for an individual blogger to be the source of so much traffic for my blog. I doubt Alex himself is responsible for all of these visits (although I’m sure he checks in from time to time), rather it is likely that a portion of the enormous reader base he has uses his sites as jumping off points for other bug blogs they like. No other bug blogger, and not even WordPress Reader or Blogger themselves, comes close to sending as much traffic to BitB as does Alex Wild. So, Alex… thank you!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

A Tale of Two Blogs

In April 2012, I wrote a post called “Is blogging dead?” – Another view in response to Alex‘s previous day’s post (Is Blogging Dead?). While Alex acknowledged that blogging provided an early social network structure now better served by Facebook and Google+, he also maintained that there still remained a dedicated contingent for whom blogging best served their needs. As a committed blogger myself, I really wanted to share Alex’s optimism—but I just couldn’t. Something told me that blogging was at a crossroads, and the future wasn’t rosy. Why did I feel this way? My site stats didn’t suggest trouble ahead—from February 2009 (shortly after I moved Beetles in the Bush to WordPress) until April 2012, site visits—and presumably readership—had increased steadily (see chart below based on weekly stats, with the periodic surges due to posts I wrote that got picked up by Freshly Pressed). Not like one of the big blogs, of course, but still not bad for a natural history blog aimed at a specialty audience. Rather, it was the decline of comments and coincident increase in the use of Twitter, Facebook, G+, etc. as the platforms of choice for social interaction among those for whom blogs previously fulfilled that need. To me it seemed inevitable—why invest in clicking through to individual blogs and reading a 500- to 1,500-word post when one could read several hundred 140-character headlines, quipping an equally short reply to as many of them as desired, all on one site. Maximum interaction, maximum information (depending on your definition of “information”), minimum fuss.

Site stats - February 2009 to April 2012. Site stats – February 2009 to April 2012.

Ironically, almost immediately after I wrote that post the decline that I predicted began with my own blog. The chart below shows BitB site stats (again, on a weekly basis), picking up where the above chart left off until the end of March 2013. As precipitously as site visits rose during the previous three years, they declined during the following one year. There are those who contend that “People who say blogging is dead either already have a blog that died, or they have no blog at all.” That may be true now, at least based on site stats and the now rather low frequency of comments, but it most certainly was not the case when I first voiced this opinion last year. In fact, that a Google search of “Is blogging dead” can turn up nearly 100,000 search results (with quotation marks!) shows that a whole lot of people are still asking the question.

Site stats – April 2012 to March 2013.

This is not to say that blogs cannot still be successful. I suggest that the platform has matured, undergone consolidation and weeded out the weakest contributors. By weak, I don’t mean poor quality of content, but rather lack of ability or resources to frequently and consistently provide that content and target it to a relatively large audience. Early adopters who carved out a niche and built a strong brand had the best chance of surviving this maturation, and among the specialty blogs dealing with natural history and entomology it seems those who act as clearing houses for information from across the discipline, serve as an interface for commercial/educational ventures, or focus on the “bizarre” or contentious are most likely to attract and retain followers. Of course, an alternate hypothesis is that my writing suddenly got boring and my photos suck—take your pick.

As for what this means for Beetles in the Bush, I’m not really sure yet. During the past month (and for the first time since I started writing this blog in earnest), I’ve backed off on what until then had been a very consistent 2–3 posts per week schedule. Quite clearly, this will not help if my goal is to find some way to reverse the downward trend, as frequency of posts ranks almost as high as quality of content in keeping a blog successful. I used to tell myself that I would write regardless of who was reading, because it was something I needed to do (and enjoyed doing) for myself, and I truly believe that was the case when I said it. But perhaps I’ve now gotten what I needed out of the blog—my writing skills are far superior to when I started; I can sit down and pound out not only a blog post, but research reports, status updates, manuscripts, etc. in record time. I used to agonize over every word; now it seems my fingers can hardly keep up with the words as they pour out of my mind. If one of my goals when I started blogging was to make myself a better writer (and it was), then in that regard I have succeeded. I’m also now a vastly more knowledgeable entomologist, having taken the time to learn a lot more not just about beetles, but insects across many taxa, the habitats in which they live, the ecological communities they are a part of, and the landscapes that harbour them. For the first time, I consider myself not just an entomologist, but a natural historian in the truest sense of the word. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine not writing for BitB, but I think now the impulse to write a post will be based much more on inspiration and less so on the calendar. I truly hope that the reduced posting frequency doesn’t further accelerate the decline, but if it does then that is the only possible outcome.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

Fathers Day at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Yesterday my girls (wife Lynne and daughters Mollie and Madison) took me and my father to the Missouri Botanical Garden for Fathers Day. Although I’m an entomologist, I also have a strong botanical bent, and although my wife and father are not scientists like me, they nevertheless find a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden as enjoyable as I do. The girls, on the other hand, will never admit that they like it the way the rest of us do, but I think deep inside they enjoy it very much and, in later years, will look upon these visits as some of their fondest Mothers and Fathers Day memories.

Me and daughters Mollie and Madison.

My father and I have been back together for 20 years now. With my wife and daughters, he has become one of the most important persons in my life. I wrote an essay about my father four years ago that explains how he made me whole—it still rings true today.

Me and Pop.

I have been to the Missouri Botanical Garden many, many times over the years, but one sight have have still never seen is a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). I learned earlier this week that one of their plants is about ready to bloom, so I eagerly looked for this plant as we wound our way through the Climatron. As we came near the end and I still hadn’t seen it, I wondered if somehow I had missed it along the path. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the giant 3′ tall flower bud near the end of the footpath, and I knew instantly that I had found what I was looking for.

Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) getting ready to bloom.

I will be keeping track of the progress of this flower over the next couple of weeks on the Missouri Botanical Garden Facebook page in hopes that I can see it again when the flower opens fully—a rare botanical treat that few people ever get the chance to experience!

Corpse flower explained.

In my younger years when I had a bit more free time on my hands I was a hobbyist orchid grower. I didn’t have a greenhouse but nevertheless managed to keep a steady supply of plants in bloom by growing them outdoors under shade cloth with heavy watering and fertilizing during the summer and moving them indoors under fluorescent lights and in bright windows during the winter. I don’t have nearly the time for such pursuits these days, but I still enjoy looking at their exquisite and infinitely diverse blooms whenever I have the chance, and the Climatron never fails to disappoint.

One of many epiphytic orchids blooming in the Climatron.

While walking through the Climatron, I noticed a very exotic looking lizard on the trunk of one of the trees. I watched it licking exudate from the trunk and thought such behavior seemed rather odd. I later learned that this was the Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi), and that it might have an important role in pollinating the double coconut palm (Loidiocea maldivica). Both are endemic to the Seychelles Islands north of Madagascar, with the latter bearing the largest seed of any plant in the world (up to 45 lbs. in weight). The photo below was taken of another individual through the glass of its terrarium and, thus, lacks some clarity, but it shows the vivid colors and markings that distinguish these diurnal geckos from the other more typically nocturnal members of the gecko infraorder.

Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi).

While not gracing this post in a photo, many thanks to my loving wife, Lynne, who is the best mother my daughters could ask for and who helped make yesterday the special day for me and my father that it was!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

The Ups and Downs of Bug Collecting

Recently The Geek In Question  posted an awesome graph to help visualize the stages of euphoria and despair she experiences while going through the manuscript process. Fellow grad students David Winter (The Atavism) and Morgan Jackson (Biodiversity in Focus) each took the bait and ran with their own version of the process. It has been far too many years since I was a grad student (moment of whimsy overtakes me), and I’ve gone through the manuscript process so many times now that I actually find the whole thing rather enjoyable. Presumably this results from my love of writing, combined with the sageness of having experienced most of the potential pitfalls and feeling confident in how to prevent or deal with them.

For my version of the Geek-Graph™, I thought I would take a broader look at the whole process of what it is to be a publishing Bug Collector. Here is my version:

I’ve been at this long enough to know what I like and what I don’t like, and it strikes me that I love the up front and the final product, but there are elements in between that I simply detest. I love time in the field—a bad day in the field is better than a good day of just about anything else. Some of my best field memories involved getting skunked on the collecting, just because the field experience itself was so weird, new, eventful, etc. I’ve spent days in the desert, it’s dry environs parched by drought, with nary a beetle to be had despite beating hundreds of tree branches. I hated it at the time, but I get euphoric recall of those days when I see something that reminds me of those trips. Even driving between localities, while not time “in the field,” is enjoyable for me as it’s a chance to see the landscapes. It’s only when I have to take time out to buy supplies mid-trip and, especially, hunt for hotels late in the day, that I stop enjoying my time completely.

After I’ve collected the specimens is where I hit the snag—pinning and labeling, ugh!!! It wasn’t always that way; in my younger days I rather enjoyed it. But in those days I was practicing my art and gaining skills. Now I’m as good at pinning/labeling as it gets, and my perfectionist tendencies don’t allow me to do anything less than perfect when I do do it. But it takes time—lots of time to do it perfectly, and especially when you collect the large numbers of specimens that I do. This is the point where I consistently question my decision not to pursue taxonomy as a career. I could have been enjoying the assistance of professional specimen preparators to take care of this for me, but nooo… I had to do it avocationally so I could “do my own thing”! Okay, a quick slap to the face and I’m back.

Once those specimens are pinned and labeled, it’s all fun from here on out.¹ Identifying specimens and adding my “Det. label” is enormously satisfying, even for routine, common species. Excitement mounts if the specimen turns out to be something rare, more so if it represents something I’ve not collected before. This is normal for all collectors, but for me there are additional chances for excitement if the specimens represent new information—e.g., a new state or host plant record, or (gulp!) a new species! Identified specimens also form the basis for manuscripts, and once I’m at that stage it’s pure happiness. I love writing the manuscripts. I even love revising them based on reviewers feedback (even when not very positive—hey, it makes for an improved paper). About the only negative is a little bit of post-publication depression when you realize that your paper is actually read by only a small number of specialists, and you haven’t really offered anything ground-breaking, but rather just an incremental increase in the vast, collective knowledge. But I usually don’t have time to let that get me down—by then I’m already out in the field collecting more bugs!

¹ I probably should make a confession here—sometimes I go ahead and include data in manuscripts from specimens that I haven’t even pinned and labeled yet. The siren call of the unwritten manuscript is far more irresistible than the grating nagging of the unprepared specimen!

Copyright Ted C. MacRae 2012

“Is blogging dead?” – Another view

Yesterday Alex asked the question that has been on my mind for some time: Is Blogging Dead? He had some nice charts and graphs to illustrate the point, but in the end he thought not. Rather, he speculated, blogging provided an early social network structure that is now better served by Facebook and Google+. While some in blogging have left for these other platforms, there remains a dedicated contingent for whom blogging is the best platform to serve their needs.

There must have been a reason, however, that Alex asked the question in the first place, and in fact he is just the latest of many who have asked this same question with increasing frequency. The rise to pervasive dominance by Facebook (even better than sex) is an obvious factor, and although Google+ struggles to gain share, its better graphics-friendliness has cultivated a small but loyal following (hmm, sounds a little like another IBM vs. Mac). I don’t share Alex’s optimism about the future of blogging. I think social networks have not only pulled share from blogging platforms, but also made blogging irrelevant. The World Wide Web is now chock full of choices for information and entertainment, so much so that it is impossible to look at every site that might be of interest. Blogging takes too much time—why spend time reading long, prattling accounts of one person’s exploits when the short quips of 50 people can be read in the same amount of time? Limiting blogs to being primarily photo showcases doesn’t solve the problem—why spend time clicking through numerous individual sites to see photos that maybe you will like when all can be seen collated on a single page like Google+? Even the capability for interaction between the blogger and reader are better served by social networks—no logging in or word verification gauntlets; instead just a quick click of the “Like” button or, if the photo really struck a chord, a quick comment (“Cool photo!”). Gone are the long, interactive discussions following a post, having been replaced by greater reliance on use of the “Like” button for readers to indicate their approval. The sharp decline in appearance of new blogs and increasing dormancy of formerly active blogs (at least in the natural history realm) further illustrate the decline of blogging in the face of other online choices.

Where am I going with this? Obviously, as writer of ‘Beetles in the Bush’ I have a vested interest in the relevance of blogging. I’m beginning to feel, however, a little old school—like the Mom and Pop hardware store, offering an intimate, interactive experience to an increasingly hurried public that simply doesn’t have time for it. I’d like to know what your thoughts are? Is blogging really on the way out? Is Facebook-level quality for photos really just good enough, and if not is the showing of photos and exchange of ideas really better and more efficiently accomplished on Google+? Is all the extra information about natural history, learnings, etc. just an exercise in self-indulgence? I realize, of course, that any commentary received here will be skewed towards those still inclined to do such, and the thoughts of those who have already abandoned blogging for Facebook and Google+ will remain unknown—perhaps to the point that even this post was another exercise in self-indulgence. At any rate, I’ve been increasingly contemplating the future of individual blogs (and specifically natural history blogs, especially those by enthusiastic specialists) and what purpose they do/can/will/should serve. If everything I’ve said above is true, I personally don’t see how blogging per se can readily adapt to such realities—they essentially become a Facebook or Google+ stream of one!

p.s. These are expressions of an evolving thought process. Don’t expect any drastic changes here at BitB, at least in the near future!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012