Storytelling in Science: How do Stories Work?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Throughout my SciComm career, I’ve told a lot of stories about science. I’ve been active in online science outreach for 10 years, and I’ve written hundreds of blog posts across about a dozen different websites.

However, I’ve never considered myself an expert in the topic. In school I had a lot of writing classes, but they always focused on the type of writing that was perceived to be beneficial to a career in science. Things like grant writing, and scientific paper writing were on the top of the list…but I never got any training in creative writing.

I feel like this is really important. I’m going to be writing a post about invasive species soon, and in this post, I’ll be telling the story of how this species spread across the world and what it means to people. These sorts of stories are really important to writing about science, and I’ve always wanted to improve my storytelling. I’ve been doing my own research, but I wanted to ask someone who knows a lot more about this then I do.

This desire to become a better writer convinced me to reach out to a professional filmmaker, Michael Tucker. Tucker runs a YouTube Channel called Lessons From the Screenplay. We had a short conversation about how scientists tell stories, and I wanted to take this as an opportunity to review what I learned.

You can watch the video above, or read my reflection, and I’ll also post some of the videos we mentioned specifically.

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White eyes, black body. Why do insect eyes turn white after they die?

Written by Joe Ballenger
Wasp Picture

Wasp picture, via AaE FB inbox

Some of the more interesting questions we get aren’t even about living insects. People have lots of questions about dead bugs, too.

Hey there, I just had a quick question, I was in my backyard when I came across this little guy in the dirt. I’m not sure if the coloration is because of it being dead, or it was like that to begin with. I was hoping you could shed some light for me!

This question is neat, because it combines two of our previous posts. Nancy has written before on how insect eyes work, as well as structural coloration.

So why did the eyes of this bug turn white after it died?

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How long will it take a dead bug to decay?

Written by Joe Ballenger

We got this question in our Facebook inbox, and it was one of those questions which kind of nerd-sniped me.

Hello, so I have a rather odd question. I understand bugs have exoskeletons. So the decaying process can take a long time. I have a gnat fly who is now dead and stuck inside me television. The TV gets hot so, you think it would help the process. So what will happen to this gnat. Will it decay or will he be inside my TV forever. Thanks!

Paracotalpa_puncticollis_variation_sjh

Pinned beetles. Image Credit: Nancy Miorelli

Even though this is a fly stuck in a TV, this brings up a really important question that I had never considered before today.

We currently live in a world where much of our data has a finite lifespan. Information stored on digital media will decay after awhile, and will eventually disappear after a few decades. Eventually the raw data I generated last week will no longer be around, no matter how important it ends up being.

Taxonomists, the scientists who catalog new species, store their data in a physical manner. Everything we know about insects are contained in collections, like the pinned beetles above. To document insects, we need physical specimens, and these are preserved by sticking pins through them and keeping them in the optimal environment which prevents decay…kind of like the example of the fly in the TV.

So how long will an insect last, if kept in the optimal conditions?

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Announcment – New Writer – Joanie Mars

Written by Nancy Miorelli

I am so excited and honored to introduce Joanie Mars as our new writer. When Joe and I started this little project about three years ago, we had no idea that it was going to grow into what it has. We now have over 8,800 followers on Facebook, we receive between 50-100 of your emails a week, and over 10,000 views a week on the blog. We just can’t keep up anymore! So we’re incredibly excited to introduce Joanie.

Joanie will be full time with us in August after she defends her thesis and moves to Texas.

Watch our live video below!

 

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Wait…predatory bees?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Since it’s summer, and bug season is in full swing, we get a lot of neat observations in our inbox. I wanted to highlight one such observation in this week’s post, because it involves one of my favorite bugs:

Hello,

My name is Curt and I live in southeast Wisconsin. I saw these bees and thought it looked kinda odd. What exactly am I looking at?

Curt bee

So let’s unmask this mystery!

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Why Do Bugs Circle Lights and Fibonacci, and Other Mathematical Patterns Found in Insects

Written by Nancy Miorelli

what mathematical patterns are found in insects? Ask an Entomologist

I recently received this question when talking to one of the tourists at the Maquipucuna Ecolodge, where I work. I thought it was so interesting because we always hear about mathematical patterns – especially Fibonacci sequences found in leaves and shells – but what about the animal kingdom? So can you find any mathematical patterns in insects? Yes  –  but it’s not as apparent.

Sleeping Cuckoo Bee. Note the eyes.
PC: Giles Gonthier (CC by 2.0)

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How do stored product pests get water?

Written by Joe Ballenger

Here’s a question I *really* like:

Indian meal moths and grain weevils get into stored grain products and manage to complete entire life cycles without any access to moisture. How do they manage that?

I really like agricultural pests, stored product pests in particular. They have super cool biology, and they’re really important. Between the farm and the table, 10-15% of the harvest can be lost to bugs which live inside stored products. If that wasn’t bad enough, these bugs can break grains and mess with the humidity inside storage facilities. This damage introduces fungus, which can reduce the value of the product by as much as half its worth. This fungus can also make people very sick, so they’re important to both agriculture and medicine.

If you think about the environment these bugs live in, it’s very extreme. They live their entire lives without seeing a drop of water, all while evading hyper-intelligent animals which are constantly looking for new ways to kill them. There’s life in the driest deserts in the world, but these animals live in an indifferent environment. While harsh, these desert animals do not live in a place which is actively trying to kill them. You could argue that these bugs are the ultimate extremophiles.

So how do these guys get water in such a harsh place?
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