Field sample processing

This fall I have been processing the insects and pollen samples that I collected this spring from my fieldwork in the Mojave Desert. The insects were primarily caught using pantraps, and were transferred into 90% isopropyl alcohol for preservation. With the help of our lab’s two undergraduate practicum students, Shobika and Shima, we are gradually getting them nicely organized into collection boxes.

I pinned many, many bees and wasps when I worked on a pollinator census during my undergrad in West Hamilton. These are the steps I use for processing insect samples:

  • Remove insects from alcohol.
  • Give the bees a rinse in water to fluff out their body hairs (this step works variably well, we may need to give some of the larger specimens a spa day in the future)
  • Gently dry with a paper towel, this causes the wings to uncurl. Wing venation is very important for identification.
  • Under a dissecting microscope, pin from top to bottom through the upper right-hand side of the insect’s thorax into a stryofoam block. You want the insect to be completely horizontal.
  • Gently uncurl the legs from the body and unfurl 1 antenna.
  • Affix an insect identification label underneath the insect with the text readable from the left side of the insect. These labels should have date and location of collection, unique identifier and the name of the collector.
  • Place into foam lined box.
  • Repeat!
  • Very small insects get pointed rather than pinned. The right side of the thorax is glued to a triangle cut out of cardstock, and the triangle based is pinned instead.

I have also been mounting pollen samples whenever I can squeeze the time in. I collected stigmas from the field and have been storing them in ethanol-filled small tubes.


  • Let slide warmer heat up
  • Using a transfer pipette, remove the pollen-ethanol suspension and transfer drop by drop onto warm slide, letting the alcohol evaporate and ensuring it does not run over the edges.
  • Place stigma onto slide.
  • Rub the inside of the centrifuge tube that was storing the sample with a bit of fushcin jelly, place  onto slide as well. Cut out 2 more small cubes of jelly, place over drop locations. Cover with slide cover and leave on warmer to melt jelly. Label slide.

For a different experiment that I have not yet processed, I will put the tubes into a centrifuge, spin down and pipette out the pellet to save time and labour. Quite a few tubes from the current experiment are extremely small and I am concerned about their ability to hold up under the force of a centrifuge. I need a less labour intensive process to make slides for my upcoming field season. I can think of two main options right now – use sturdy tubes that I can centrifuge, or collect into small tubes without adding ethanol, and mount each evening while at the research station. This will cut down the need to let the alcohol evaporate.

A brief comment on writing frequently & well for #scicomm & #openscience

I have been thinking on my workflow (Chris Lortie) as of late. This is in response to the recent post by Alex reviewing a book on dissertation writing he received as a gift from a collaborator.



Image from humor post on topic.

I love to write. However, it is so tempting to rabbit hole and keep reading more stuff, exploring tangents and connections, and developing alternative visualizations for a paper. As of late, I have come to recognize that this is one part positive (think through a topic well and provides gestation time) and one part negative (procrastination). It is continuum of opportunity that requires balancing the benefits and costs. However, it is crystal clear to me that writing regularly, if not for large projects but for smaller communications, is beneficial and a key form of practice.  If an audience is included in the writing process, even better, as it encourages more careful wording and promoted open-science insights into the process vs. product of scientific inquiry. Tweets, blog posts, detailed notes at meetings (that you then subsequently share), and sometimes even emails are also excellent opportunities to ensure that you are precise and clear.

I have also purchased this book to check out the workflows of productive individuals.



Finally, I wanted to add that my fav book all time on this subject was by Italo Calvino. Science and literature converge.


The peeking around the corner is a bit cheesy, but it is a really awesome primer on writing.