Entomophagous Outreach

This month has seen two outreach events on consecutive weekends (Richmond Nature Park’s Bugs and More! and Spiders Unraveled at Iona Beach in Richmond) where I’ve been lucky enough to be able to introduce families to the fun of Entomophagy!

These two girls had the BEST jokes.

Iona Beach is a beautiful setting to talk about (and eat) insects and arachnids! Photo by Mike Boers.

At the first event, Bugs and More!, Grant Olson and I presented attendees with a number of tasty options. We weren’t sure what flavours to expect from the cricket flour, mealworm flour, roasted crickets, and other snacks we ordered from Next Millennium Farms. Erring on the side of caution, we decided to go with recipes that had been pre-approved “delicious” by the company/their collaborators rather than trying something new. We chose the cricket flour blueberry muffins (a mini-cupcake sized version), caramel roasted cricket popcorn, mealworm flour smoothies, and their pre-made cricket and mealworm snacks.

Fearless parents and fearless kids.

Caramel and Cricket Popcorn!

We wanted there to be a selection of options ranging from ‘daring’ to ‘easy’. ‘Daring’ options would clearly be insects like the pre-made snacks, and ‘easy’ would be the smoothie or muffins; if we didn’t tell you what’s in them, you’d never know. The caramel corn with visible crickets fell in-between because the crickets were obvious, but somewhat hidden by the distracting popcorn.

Lots of people were nervous at first but then came back for more!

Explaining the options. Photo by Sean McCann.

I got a head cold just before the event, so we decided I should keep me well away from the cooking process until I was healthy. I have to put all cooking/baking credit on Grant’s well-deserving shoulders: all the treats we tried that day turned out great. If you decide to make the blueberry muffins, I recommend using sturdier cupcake liners than the paper ones we used though, because the sticky muffins made them difficult to remove.

Our initial concern about how the flour might flavour the muffins and smoothies were unfounded. The muffins didn’t have any unexpected flavours to make them obviously different from any other muffin. The smoothies were delicious, though they did have a whole-wheat sort of flavour and texture about them. If you’re used to adding protein powder to smoothies, then the texture won’t phase you at all. I think the texture was so noticeable in these smoothies because the recipe was much more juice-like than others. I tested this theory for my next entomophagy outreach event.

That's a LOT of protein.

Grant finished the last of the smoothies.

The following weekend was Spider’s Unraveled at Iona Beach in Richmond. My collaborators from Iona Beach provided mealworm snax from HotLix and I brought some more caramel popcorn that I had frozen in a tupperware container to keep it fresh. Freezing worked really well! They were delicious.

This was a spider-themed outreach event, so the idea was to “eat like a spider” at my table. Spiders, of course, eat insects. I think most people knew that before coming to talk to me. What a lot of people don’t realize is that they don’t eat like other carnivores. They inject their prey with venom to paralyze them, then use digestive enzymes (like in our saliva) to make their prey into a nutritious goop to slurp up (read more!).

2 tablespoons is 10g of cricket flour. 6g/10g is protein.

Pouring Cricket and Fruit Smoothies. Photo by Mike Boers.

To work with this theme, the main event of my table was smoothies! At Bugs and More! we made the pre-approved smoothie recipe, but this time I wanted to be able to have more variation with less effort and lower access to regular kitchen infrastructure. I bought bags of frozen fruit (blueberries, blueberries+strawberries, strawberries, mango+peaches, blueberry+blackberry+strawberry+raspberry), several bunches of bananas, plain yogurt, apple juice, and orange juice. The recipe is roughly 1 banana with an approximately equal mass of frozen fruit (any kind), 1 large tablespoon scoop of yogurt, and enough juice (or milk) to cover about half the fruit in the blender. Get a keen kid to scoop two tablespoons of cricket flour in (properly measured – the only ingredient I was precise about), and blend blend blend. This strategy made it easy to make many different flavours by swapping out different frozen fruits without needing to completely wash out the blender (a difficult task without a kitchen).

No venom was used in the making of this metaphor.

I started getting keen attendees to help bend up our nutritious slurry. Photo by Sean McCann.

The results were much thicker than the mealworm flour smoothies from the previous week, with much stronger fruit flavours. Whatever flavours and textures the flour might have added were not noticeable at all. Presenting the smoothies to the many cyclists who happened by as a health drink with a kick of adventure and environmental sustainability was a huge hit.

To round both these events out, we made up “Entomophagy Achievement Awards” to give to the daring kids who were willing to give it a try. They turned out to be immensely motivating! We also had a colouring activity with either a cricket or mealworm line drawing to colour in and a fill-in activity that read: “I thought the mealworm/cricket would taste like _______________ but it actually tasted like _______________! Sometimes hesitant children would want to colour and do the written activity, then decide to try some treats so they could complete the activity. Completed sheets were then displayed for everyone to see. For adults, we also made up a 1/2 page information sheet including comparisons of protein content and sustainability of entomophagy vs chicken, beef, etc..

Rainbow bugs are popular.

A lot of kids thought the insects would taste “crunchy”. See if you can guess who tasted which treats by their description of what it actually tasted like!

If I do another entomophagy-themed outreach event, I’m going to add a comparison activity; can you tell the difference between this baked good with and without the added cricket/mealworm flour?!

Big thanks to Catherine Scott and Sean McCann for inviting me to participate in Spiders Unraveled!

The Pseudo Lab and Interesting Times

Today Catherine Scott, Sean McCann, Mike Boers, and I met for our first “Pseudo-Lab” meeting. This will be our inclusive, weekly-ish, semi-official, unofficial time/place to seek help, learn new things, keep each other on track, and generally have a sense of community. You know… like a lab. The Pseudo Lab website is coming soon! It’s just the four of us today, but maybe in the future we will have more people who predominantly work from home who are seeking this sort of safe-space will join us.

We’re already off to a great start. At our first meeting we shared our recent activities and struggles, discussed opportunities and solutions to explore, made a list of goals to do our best to accomplish in the coming days, made plans for our website, and generally had a motivating-ly-good time.

Mike is taking the photo

(L-R:) Sean, Catherine, and Tanya discussing and writing plans.

For anyone who has wondered about the large gap between entries here, it has been a long time since I’ve had time to think about this much neglected blog. This summer has been interesting in the (apparently not particularly Chinese) Chinese Curse sort of way. I’ve spent as much time out of town as I have at home, and haven’t spent more than 14 days consecutively in one place since May. Hopefully it will be less neglected when I stop spending so much time recovering from jetlag (at the end of the summer). Here’s for hoping!

The Distance Traveled: An Anecdote

I’m putting together a guest lecture for the Evolution course I’m TAing about the winding paths that research can take. Mostly it’s just to get the students thinking about the diversity of research in evolutionary biology, data, data-interpretation, and most importantly, to get them thinking about going out to get their hands dirty with some research of their own to learn what they love or couldn’t care less for.

In the process, I’ve been running through some of the projects I’ve done over the years as well as the projects that sputtered out and went nowhere. I remembered one summer early in my undergrad when I tried to do a Tetragnathid spider project…

The project started with a big set of photos and a suggestion that I look at <a word that I had never heard before>. I measured all the photos but then had no idea what to do or how to build a plan. I went to the Royal Ontario Museum for several days to go through their samples and record stuff, but still didn’t know what to do with what I had. Instead I went out to the field to check out their behaviours at dusk. And it still didn’t go anywhere.

Looking back on it, I was so lost and incompetent. Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come until you stop to look back. Realizing this only makes me empathize more with my students at all levels. No questions are stupid questions… you have to ask the questions you think are stupid before you’ll be capable of tackling the questions you think have value. Everyone starts at the beginning. There are no shortcuts, only paths with variable amounts of winding. And there are people along the way who help smooth the road in a thousand tiny or gigantic ways.

“Just-So” Stories

This evening one of my Evolution students asked me to explain “just-so” stories. Since it’s such a fun topic, I thought I would blog a bit about it.

The term comes from narrative myths and legends that explain things about nature – they are also sometimes called “just-so” stories. Here is an illustrated example.

In biology, it refers specifically to an explanation of a trait using an adaptionist framework that may be difficult to test of falsify. I.e. it explains a trait with a story/idea about why it must be an adaptation to serve some purpose that it serves now, or that it served in the environment in which it evolved (which is inaccessible for testing).

One classic example is that noses are an adaptation for humans to wear glasses. It seems pretty far-fetched, but it would be difficult to test… observationally – do humans wear glasses on their noses? Yes. Do they wear glasses anywhere else? Generally… no.

A trait may be an adaptation that evolved as a response to selection. However, this is not the only possible explanation: Drift, indirect selection or preadaptation all could have led to traits in the way they are. Some traits may be the way they are now because of their evolutionary history, but are no longer adaptive in the current environment.

For the record, we probably did not evolve noses to hold glasses; we probably designed glasses to fit on noses. ^.~ In fact, glasses went through a number of different renditions before they developed into the wide range of modern styles and fits we have now.

Read the spandrels debate:

(1) S.J. Gould and R. Lewontin, 1979. The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. Biological Sciences 205:581-598.

(2) Pigliucci, M., and J. Kaplan. 2000. The fall and rise of Dr. Pangloss: adaptationism and the Spandrels paper 20 years later. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 15:66-70.

Big Kitty Kisses

It’s Saturday. This morning after shuffling passed the pile of work on my desk to take groggy refuge on the couch, I decided to do something mildly frivolous. I dropped the search terms “Felis catus” (domestic cat) and “behaviour” into Web Of Science.


My cat, Jasmine, has a sometimes endearing, sometimes frustrating propensity to kitty kisses. It’s endearing when you come home from a long day and she’s so pleased to see you. It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sleep and her sandpaper tongue finds your nose while your eyes are closed and you’ve just started to drift your way into that elusive but beautiful paradise of sleep.

When I say “your” here… I really mean “my”. “My” poor, sleepy, pillow-squished nose or cheek or forehead. Or exposed arm. Or sometimes my duvet if it has the gall to get in the way of her ministrations.

The first relevant article I came across was “Head Rubbing and Licking Reinforce Social Bonds in a Group of Captive African Lions, Panthera leo” by Matoba, Kutsukake, and Hasegawa (2013). While the species isn’t right, this certainly sounds like the right suite of behaviours. I’m willing to cast my net pretty wide to understand Jasmine anyway because she’s a Bengal; a breed of domestic cat that comes from back-crossing hybrids of Asian Leopard Cats with domestic cats. Maybe some of her quirkiness comes from her non F. catus Felidae roots.

Screen Shot 2014-02-01 at 2.42.26 PM

Matoba et al. conveniently start by reviewing literature on other felids. Apparently domestic cats use grooming in a lot of ways. Some seem to use it to maintain relationships with their feline housemates (Curtis et al. 2003). However, some seem to use it to establish or maintain dominance structures (van den Bos 1998)! Later they go on to talk about lion behaviours, such as head-butting or rubbing, and licking/grooming, which is typically considered to be both hygienic and social (Schaller 1972, Rudnai 1973), just as it is in other mammalian taxa including primates (Kutsukake and Clutton-Brock 2006, Wilkinson 1986, Schino 2007, 2008).

Matoba et al. had three non-exclusive hypotheses for the social function of grooming and head-butting in lions.

(1) Tension Reduction: like kissing to make up. The idea here is that some of these behaviours strengthen stressed or uncertain relationships, for example, after conflict or separation. If this was the case, they would predict higher frequencies of these behaviours after periods of separation. Since cub-rearing is communal for lions, individuals of similar ages have probably been closely associated for a long time; if tension reduction is at play, they predicted that lions with bigger age differences would share more head-butts and kitty kisses.

(2) Social Bond: The behaviours may be to strengthen or maintain pre-existing social bonds. Female lions spend their whole lives together in one pride, while male lions form groups and leave their parent prides to become nomadic. These nomadic groups of males fight with other prides, and if successful, take over residency (Bertrum 1975). If the social bond hypothesis is correct, the authors predicted that grooming etc would be more common in same-sex pairs, closely related pairs, and similarly aged pairs because these pairs would have spent more time together. This would be in contrast to the predictions of the Tension Reduction Hypothesis. They also predicted that the behaviours should be reciprocal.

(3) Expression of Social Status: The behaviours could be to express dominance to subordinate pride-mates, or vise versa. Lions do not maintain a social structure within each sex (Packer et al. 2001, Schaller 1972), however, because males are larger than females and thus able to win physical contests, Matoba et al. suggested that there may be a dominance hierarchy with males higher than females. If these behaviours are an assertion of dominance, they predicted that they should be more frequent from males to females, or the opposite if it is an expression of submission. This is opposed to the Social Bond Hypothesis that suggested the behaviours would be reciprocal.

To test their hypotheses, the authors collected 101 hours of observational data across 27 days for a captive pride that included 6 adult males, 12 adult females, 1 subadult male, and 2 subadult females (total 21).

Grooming and head butting was not seen more after separation, and was more common if the lions were closer in age – so they found no evidence to support the Tension Reduction Hypothesis.

Female-female grooming was highly correlated with relatedness, and was reciprocal. Head-butting behaviour was also found to be reciprocal, especially between pairs that were closely related. Thus, they found support the Social Bond Hypothesis.

Lastly, their results show mixed support for the Expression of Social Status Hypothesis. They found that males rubbed heads with males significantly more frequently than they did with females, and that females rubbed heads with males more frequently than with other females. This suggests that head-rubbing might be used to express submission, but there was nothing to suggest they used it to express dominance. Grooming was observed almost exclusively between females, so there was no evidence that this behaviour is related to dominance at all.

This is all fascinating stuff, but from reading this paper alone, I don’t feel like I’m any closer to understanding my kitty’s kitty kisses. After all, I’m not a cat, she doesn’t restrict her kisses to other cats or other female cats. Anyone who dares to scoop her up is in serious danger of getting their nose sandpapered.

I suppose if she sees us all as cats, then she could be trying to strengthen our social bonds. It’s not reciprocal (I don’t make a habit of licking her back; I don’t fancy the thought of a hairball), and it does frequently happen when we’ve been separated (me being asleep is a separation, right?), so there could be some evidence for either the Tension Reduction or Expression of Social Status Hypothesis!

… My intuition tells me that she’s using it to demand attention though. “Wake up and cuddle me!”, “You’re home, play with me!”, “Stop blogging and get the itch on my back!”… Actually, this sounds like an expression of dominance. Yes, kitty master, right away, kitty master.

Luckily, Matoba et al. 2013 contained lots of references to other papers to follow as leads. I have plenty to keep me busy during those groggy mornings when I quest to understand the inner workings of Jasmine’s brain; if I discover anything worth sharing, maybe I will!

On my reading list:

  1. Cameron-Beaumont C, Lowe SE, Bradshaw JW (2002) Evidence suggesting preadaptation to domestication throughout the small Felidae. Biol J Linn Soc 75:361–366.
  2. Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka (2013) Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Anim Cogn 16:685-690.

Two Minute Tutorial: Learn to be a Graph Whisperer

I recently heard that undergraduates frequently do poorly on exam questions involving graphs. I spent some time strolling about the internet trying to understand why graphs might be a particularly tricky topic.

One site told me that a common mistake was conceptually jumping the gun. Ie people look at the shape and try to interpret it before looking at the other critical information that provides context. This potential problem stuck in my head because I could easily imagine how this could become very confusing, very quickly. Once an idea takes root, it’s hard to go back and start from scratch. During an exam when time, sleep, and sanity are all in short supply, students may not even think to go back and check – after all, they thought they understood and answered correctly! If this is what’s happening, it’s no wonder confused and distraught students come knocking at TA and instructor doors.

If you think this describes the trouble that YOU are having, then at least take heart that it’s a problem with a solution, even if it’s easier said than done. I made this two minute tutorial video to try to address this common mistake in a fun way.


Learning to Craft with Sparkols

I spent some time this afternoon playing with Sparkol’s VideoScribe at the recommendation of GeneGeek. VideoScribe is a semi-automated tool that animates videos using images/drawings, text, music, and voice-over. Conveniently, they supply many images, fonts, and music to use in your videos; this was a relief for me because I’m (perhaps a little irrationally) always nervous about royalties on music.

I grabbed a couple of images I drew for a scientific poster and made a very short, simple story about a Spotted Winged Drosophila (SWD, my research species) larvae that wants to grow up to be an engineer.

Spotted Winged Drosophila Engineer from Tanya Stemberger on Vimeo.

The story isn’t exactly self-contained. It’s richer if you know that adult females cut through the skin of fresh fruit and lay their eggs inside; the fruit then rots prematurely. Once the fruit has begun to rot, other species that like rotting fruit (e.g. other Drosophila spp) can get in there too, while the species that would have used the ripe, fresh fruit (like us humans) are out of luck. So, SWD is a little like a micro-ecosystem engineer. I didn’t put any of these details into the video because I was just using this story as an excuse to play with the tool.

I found using Sparkols VideoScribe to be lots of fun with a very low barrier to entry. It was easy to pick it up and make fun little things quickly. This is good, because I jumped right in the deep end instead of watching a tutorial first. They made this even easier by adding little tips to the icons when I first opened the program.

Before I make anything else with it, I’m going to check out a tutorial or two. I’d like to figure out how to do some of the things that I know VideoScribe is capable of (because they are in the example videos) but that weren’t immediately obvious while playing around with it. For example, I couldn’t speed up the morph between larvae and adult fly; I could speed up the “transition time”, but that turned out to be the time between clips/effects. I also couldn’t figure out how to remove material from the frame – e.g. I couldn’t remove the words in the thought bubble, which is why I had to cover them up with an opaque object to add “An Engineer!!”.

Once I have it all sorted out, I think this will be a neat tool for making very short videos, and/or for making short clips to save out and edit into larger videos using a different video editing tool.

Grigs Make Poor Pets

Last week I visited UBC-O in Kelowna for CSEE 2013. It was a fantastic conference; the symposia I attended were informative, the talks were great, I met lots of interesting people, and had some amazing discussions about science, life, the universe & everything.

C. buckelli female

C. buckelli female exploring some linoleum.

The evening after the banquet a friend and I followed Hump-winged Grig collector extraordinaire (and all ’round great fellow & scientist) Kevin Judge up a hill behind the UBC-O campus to capture some of these tremendously charismatic creatures. The evening air was abuzz with the songs of lovesick males.

Grigs are closely related crickets, but their songs are quite different. While crickets make a sort of ‘criiiiiiiiiiick criiiiiiiiiiick criiiiiiiiiiick criiiiiiiiiiick’ sound, grigs’ stridulations  sound more like ‘TRIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII~IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL’. The song is astonishingly long and shrill. Luckily for us, this makes the males relatively easy to find.

Triumphant and thrilled, I tromped back to the residences with a male Cyphoderris buckelli enclosed in one hand and a female in the other, determined to keep my new insect-friends as pets.

When I returned to Vancouver I cleaned out Hypatia‘s old terrarium and filled the bottom with soil from the pet store.



I buried a modified egg carton, hoping the female might use it as the base of a burrow and perhaps even raise more little grigs. Kevin told me that parental care had been predicted in this species, so I was keen to see if I could observe anything. I cut the carton to have a hole in the side and buried it against the side of the terrarium so I could try to peer in.

Then I released my new friends to their new home.

I awoke that night to my partner desperately trying to figure out which of his electronics sounded like it was about to explode and/or take flight. “TRIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLL”. Oops. I forgot to mention to him that grigs sing.

I moved the terrarium onto my balcony, but even through the sliding glass door, my noisy little friend made his presence felt across 3 consecutive restless nights.

My pair of grig friends are now enjoying their new home in the laboratory where they will only be communicating with each other.

Nancy Baron Captivates the SFU Biology Department

On Thursday March 28th the Biology Departmental seminar featured the yearly Grad Hosted Speaker. This year the graduate students (with some help from the Department) got Nancy Baron, a naturalist, science writer and communications coach from COMPASS and Leopold Leadership to teach a thing or two about communicating our science more effectively outside academia.

"The Insect People"

Graduate students in “The Insect People” group sit down to chat with Nancy Baron about their research.

Nancy spent the morning meeting with graduate students that had been roughly broken up into three groups: “The Fish People”, “The Bird People”, and “The Insect People”. After hearing about the exciting, innovating, and surprising research being done here at SFU, Nancy stood before an audience that packed C9000 to give her official address. She started with some take-away messages from her discussions earlier in the day. (1) People are hungry for science stories like ours: we need to start sharing them (maybe we should start some kind of departmental blog!). (2) We all need to get on twitter to hear and participate in the ongoing global conversation.

Grad Student Lunch with Nancy Baron

Some graduate students sit down to enjoy lunch and more Sci-Comm discussion with Nancy Baron (who is sitting on the left).

Before cutting into the meat of her afternoon talk, Nancy reminded her captive audience of keen academics of the importance of not just doing good science – but communicating it too. I’m sure every scientist has heard the old adage “publish or perish”. I believe the truth behind this is two-fold; first, if you don’t have pubs under your belt, you wont win grants or jobs. Second, if no one knows about your results but you or your lab-group, then that research might as well not have happened at all. Nancy’s talk took this a step further. Many of us hope our research will make a difference, have some impact on the way people think or how policy is made. The sad truth is that it can’t have an impact if no one knows about it, and people wont know about it unless we can tell it to them in a way they’ll understand.

Prep for the seminar

Preparing for her seminar: Does Nancy look nervous at all? I don’t think so.

The talk was titled “One Minute to Impress: And Deliver a Clear Message”; it focused on how we can get our point across by shaping our science stories to be quick and understandable. Attendees completed a rough draft of a “message box” prior to the presentation and workshopping them became the highlight of the seminar. Our thesis-length stories became elevator pitches that we practiced on our peers. Along the way we collected some important take-aways. For example, know your audience – frame the material so they will care, or you’ll lose them before you start. The secret to being a bore is trying to tell everything (~Voltaire). And “the three Ps”: Preparation, Practice, and Passion – the audience cares if you care.

Workshopping our Message Boxes

Workshopping our Message Boxes and practicing our elevator pitches.

All-round, this year’s Grad Hosted Speaker turned out to be a great success. Typically this event is followed by a second day (the Olympiad) where graduate students present their work. This year the Olympiad will be replaced with a poster session style symposium to showcase the message boxes we learned to make with Nancy. This event will be held in the downstairs section of the Highland Pub on Friday April 12th, 2:30-5:30. Between 2:30 and 3:30 there will be materials available to make a poster with your lab mates (please sign up with Lindsey Button to participate: lindsey_button@sfu.ca). Posters will be displayed starting at 3:30, so even if you aren’t participating, come by for free food, beer, mingling, and science! At 5:00 best poster and door prizes will be awarded, followed by an evening of socializing in the Highland pub.
See you there!

Be Fearless!

Nancy ended her talk by encouraging us to be fearless!

Darwin Haikus

Eight months ago Mike Boers made a very cute GitHub project called “Haikuize“. You pour in text, it blends away punctuation, simmers up 5-7-5 syllables, and BLAM, delicious, senseless haikus.

Some of them are less senseless than others though.

This evening we popped the 6th edition of The Origin of Species into the oven. We pulled out many half-baked, poorly formed thoughts. All of them are out of context. Some of them are worth sharing.

The Hypothesis
Of The Development And


A Woodpecker Has
Become Adapted To Its
Peculiar Habits


The Fact Is Given
As Something Remarkable
And Exceptional


No One Ought To Feel
Surprise At Much Remaining
As Yet Unexplained


In Many Cases
We Are Far Too Ignorant
To Be Enabled

I didn’t read through all of it. The book itself is 1.2MB in plain text; after it has been Haikuized it bloats out to 2.2MB. It’s a lot of fun to read through them one after another, even (or perhaps especially) when they make no sense.

Of Habit To This
Latter Agency He Seems
To Attribute All

All The Beautiful
Adaptations In Nature
Such As The Long Neck

As The Long Neck Of
The Giraffe For Browsing On
The Branches Of Trees

Can you tell he’s talking about Lamark? I even own a commemorative Tee (though I’m not sure if the reference to Lamark was intentional).

If you want to read through the monstrously large version for more gems, download it here or bake it up yourself by cloning Haikuize from the GitHub repository and pouring in your own batter. Alternatively, here is a reduced version of Origin Haikus that only includes those that started or ended in a period before the punctuation was stripped out. Complete thoughts will probably be easier to find in that version.