Invertebrate operation

This week’s guest blogger is Dr. Ann McKellar, whose post details one of her more…interesting… experiences while doing fieldwork at the Queen’s University Biological Station.  For more about Ann, see her bio at the end of the post.

This is the story of how I almost lost my mind after getting an insect stuck in my ear during field work at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). It was one of those life events that was horrible at the time, but makes a decent enough story that maybe it was worth it in the end. Although I might think differently if it hadn’t been for a particularly dexterous field assistant who saved the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here is how it all started…

For three summers during my PhD I did field work at QUBS, which I’m sure you are quite familiar with if you read this blog. So I won’t bore you with the details, just mention that it’s a reasonably civilized (some might say “cushy”) field station, certainly not some kind of hardcore, sleeping-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-no-running-water type of place. At QUBS I studied a breeding population of a small songbird, the American redstart.

Face off: staring down an American redstart in the field

Face off: staring down an American redstart in the field

Each year I had a team of undergraduates working with me, and we would spend our days hiking through the woods, trapping birds in mist nets, tracking colour-banded birds, and searching for their nests. Except when trapping, we typically worked alone but within two-way radio contact of each other, at least on our main study plot where most areas had good reception. On this particular day, I had dropped off two field assistants on the main plot and driven to a somewhat further patch of forest (out of radio contact) where I was searching for the nest of a pair of birds that had been part of an experiment.

So there I was, minding my own (and I guess the birds’) business – when out of nowhere, something flew straight into my right ear. Of course I didn’t see it coming, but I have an image of some kind of extra-large nasty insect making a beeline (no pun intended) for the side of my head and ramming itself straight into my ear. In reality, I suppose it might have been crawling on the side of my head and slowly scuttled its way into my ear canal – but that’s certainly not how it felt. In any case, it was definitely a flying insect because as soon as it was in there, I could feel/hear its fluttering wings as it moved about, presumably realising that my ear was not a place it wanted to be and trying to get out.

Now, if any of you have experienced something unfamiliar and mobile inside your ear, you’ll know that this is not a pleasant feeling at all.  It’s a weird combination of pain caused by the loud noise and extreme discomfort caused by having something so large bouncing around in such a sensitive area. I’m normally a very calm and reserved person, but in this case I remember dropping to my knees and having a bit of a panic attack as I shook my head and screamed at it to get out.

(When I told this story to some colleagues a few days later, someone countered with a story they had heard about a man getting an insect stuck in his ear while traveling alone in the desert.  After a few weeks it drove him so mad that he shot himself. After my own experience, I must admit this does not seem like an unreasonable course of action.)

Luckily for me, my insect encounter did not take place in the middle of the desert – at QUBS I was at least reasonably close to civilization and other people who could help preserve my sanity. So after a few minutes of panic, I realized I was getting nowhere: the insect either had no intention of leaving my ear, or was incapable of doing so of its own accord. I decided it was time for action. Unfortunately since I was out of radio range from the others, I needed to drive back to the drop-off location in order to contact my field assistants. I took a few deep breaths and tried to maintain my calm and focus on the road as I headed for help.

Upon arrival, the person I chose to call was my lead field assistant Jess*, because I knew I could trust her to stay calm during a crisis and come up with a sensible plan. Jess is very level-headed, which was exactly what I needed. So I called her over the radio (using my best impression of a calm voice, “I-need-you-to-come-to-the-parking-lot-right-now-please”) and within a few minutes she was there to assess the situation. She got out her headlamp (we started work early enough in the morning that for the first hour or so it was dark out, but by this time it was light) and used it to examine the inside of my ear. Eventually, she came to a conclusion: “Yep, something’s flying around in there all right.”

At this point we had two options. We could either drive the 10 or so minutes back to QUBS and seek help, or we could drive 45 min back to the hospital in Kingston. The thought of anything longer than 2 minutes with this foreign object rattling around in my head was unbearable, and I probably would have opted to jump out of the speeding car on the way to Kingston just to numb the pain (much like our poor friend in the desert). So we decided QUBS was probably the better option. By this time, my other field assistant Sara had also arrived at the scene, having heard the barely-concealed panic in my radio request to Jess. Together we drove back to QUBS, Jess taking the wheel and Sara offering soothing words.

Upon arrival, we found the place virtually empty, it being mid-morning during peak field season. The station’s dinky first-aid kit was also no help, offering no miracle insect-in-the-ear extraction instruments. But it didn’t matter, because Jess had already formulated a plan for the next logical course of action. She would remove the insect herself, she decided, with the help of a pair of tiny forceps we kept in the lab for the purpose of dissecting specimens. (Thinking back on it, I can only hope that she disinfected the forceps thoroughly before performing the procedure, because at the time I was in no state to notice or care either way – I just wanted that thing out of there!)

Operation: invertebrate

Operation: invertebrate

So there I was, sitting at a picnic table with the left side of my head flat against the table, Sara holding my head down and shining a headlamp in my right ear, and Jess poised with her forceps, ready to get started. As she lowered the forceps into my ear canal I had a sudden image of the board game “Operation”, where any contact between the instrument and the patient triggers a harsh buzzer and a flashing red light – presumably indicating extreme pain being felt by the patient.


But to her credit, Jess managed to get the forceps in and the intruder out without any direct contact with my sensitive ear-parts. “Wow. WOW!” Sara said, “I thought it would be like a mosquito or something, but this thing’s BIG!” It had long wings and even longer antennae, and our resident naturalist later identified it as a caddisfly.


Looks are deceiving: an innocent-looking caddisfly minds its own business…

In the end I recovered reasonably well from the trauma, and I think we even went back out to work that afternoon. I must admit I was tempted to wear earplugs for a few days – at least until I regained confidence that the caddisflies of eastern Ontario weren’t out to take over my head. But unfortunately when working with birds that are mostly detected by song, I wouldn’t have been very effective at my job with reduced hearing. I also found out later from a nurse that the recommended method for removing foreign objects from one’s ear is to flush with water using a syringe. So next time I’m planning to camp alone in the desert, I will definitely be packing a syringe!


* Field assistant names have been changed – although maybe unnecessarily because I only say good things!

Ann's Bio picAnn completed her PhD at Queen’s University in 2012, and has since studied woodpeckers in the southeastern US and shorebirds in Canada’s subarctic. She is currently a wildlife biologist with Environment Canada, and lives in Saskatoon with her partner Fallon and their two cats and dog. She loves taking her dog Sparky for long walks in Saskatoon’s many off-leash nature areas.  Sometimes she even brings her binoculars to catch glimpses of birds…until Sparky chases them away.

4 thoughts on “Invertebrate operation

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 13/02/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  2. I have had blackflies crawling in my ear, which is annoying enough, but I can’t imagine something the size of a caddisfly. You have my complete sympathy.

  3. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

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