We are excited to welcome Hanna Bensch, a PhD candidate at Linnaeus University Kalmar, Sweden, to the blog today. For more about Hanna, see the end of this post.
The summer of 2012 was the first of six summers I spent with a butterfly net and boots, catching damselflies. I had just finished my first year of bachelor studies in biology and had limited experience with field work. To be honest, I think the main reason I got the job was that I had a driver’s license: when I spoke to professor Erik Svensson about whether he needed field assistants for the summer, his first and only question for me was about the license.
The field work involved studying a species of damselfly common in Europe, Ischnura elegans. One of the interesting things about it is that females exhibit three color morphs, and Erik is conducting a long-term population study on phenotypic polymorphism and evolution in this species. The field sites I visited were located around Lund, in southern Sweden, and my work involved population sampling, running mesocosm experiments in large outdoor cages, conducting behavioral observations, and spending hours in the lab sorting the collected animals and entering their information into a huge database. (To give you an idea of its size: last year individual number 50 000 was entered in this database!)
Some of the sites I went to during this field work were not exactly what one pictures when thinking about good damselfly habitats. For example, we caught damselflies in a small dirty pond squeezed between an IKEA and a major road, which for some reason had surprisingly large numbers of some of the rarer color morphs. It definitely must have looked weird when we parked next to all the IKEA shoppers’ cars and, instead of grabbing our wallets and taking the elevator up to the store, started putting on boots and preparing nets and cages. The best thing about this site was the 5 krona coffee and cinnamon bun from IKEA’s bistro after a successful catching session. I highly recommend anyone doing field work in Sweden (close to an IKEA) not miss this iconic experience.
People who study damselflies often comment that one of the biggest advantages is that going out before 9 AM is not worth the trouble, because the insects are hiding deep down in the grass at that hour. Because I am a morning person, I never felt that was a big advantage of the job. But I have heard a lot of, “Lucky you! I have to get up at 3 AM for my field work!” from friends working with birds. On top of that, damselfly field work usually occurs in perfect weather conditions: lots of sun, little wind, and no rain. Working with damselflies is a great way to enjoy the very best of Scandinavian summers, and it’s hard to find a field biologist who doesn’t enjoy spending a sunny day outside at a small stream, flowering meadow or pond, with a butterfly net in hand.
Unfortunately, one of the things I’ve learned from field work is that the sun does not shine when you want it to. In the summer of 2014, I was in the field with Beatriz Willink and Katie Duryea to catch damselflies for experiments. However, that summer was exceptionally cold and wet: not ideal for catching flying insects. At the beginning of the season, we decided not to go out when it was below 16 degrees or raining. As our frustration increased, we pushed it and decided that 15 degrees and cloudy was probably okay. Then as the days dragged on and the sun never came, we said 13 degrees and slight rain was okay. Finally, we created a scale from 1 to 5 to rate how good the weather was for catching. Below 3 meant it wasn’t worth leaving the car. When we looked back on it, we realized our initial scale (set at the beginning of the season) went from 1 to 10. But even our best day that summer never made it past a 5. It was a miserable summer (at least, in terms of weather), and in the end we resorted to going out in heavy rain dressed in hats and long johns to pick the wet damselflies from the grass with our hands. However, thanks to lots of jokes and friendship, we kept our good moods intact and the field season was not a failure.
My last year working for the project, 2017, I helped to start the field season. I introduced new assistants to the work and taught them all my tips and tricks. Now, even though I have moved to other projects, I am still updated on how things go each season. I am so happy that I stumbled on the opportunity to join the work with the damselflies. It certainly got me hooked on field work and was a fantastic start to my academic career. I learned early on that when looking for field work, it never hurts to ask researchers if they need help with their field season. Most of them do, but are probably too busy to advertise and will be happy that you are showing interest in their work!
Hanna worked as a research assistant for six seasons while completing her undergraduate degree in Biology at Lund University in Sweden. Over that time, she helped carry out fieldwork for a number of different damselfly projects. As of January 2019, Hanna is a PhD candidate at Linnaeus University Kalmar, Sweden, where her work will be on African mole-rats. Follow her on Twitter (@HannaBensch) or check out her webpage for more info: www.bensch.se