Finding insects

Megan Asche holds a vial containing paper wasps.
Entomology doctoral student Megan Asche poses with some of her paper wasps in the lab at WSU Pullman.

It was a gray June afternoon when graphic designer Megan Asche stumbled upon the tiny insect that would change the course of her career.

The bronze beetle, no bigger than a sunflower seed, was sitting on a scraggly rose bush in the suburbs of Olympia, Washington.

Asche snapped a photo of it with her new Canon Rebel T4i during a lunch break, before returning to her desk at the Employment Security Department.

Later that night, she posted the photo to an online forum called Bug Guide. The word spread and a few days later she got a message notifying her the insect wasn’t supposed to be in Washington.

The message came from Chris Looney, Washington state’s exotic pest manager, who asked if she might be able to collect a few more of the beetles.

As a graphic designer, Asche wasn’t exactly familiar with insect collection, but she offered to give it a try. She headed back to the rosebush with some empty Tic-Tac containers.

After she corralled the beetles into the small containers, she mailed them to an insect specialist in Oregon who confirmed they were Rose Stem Girdlers. The beetles can threaten roses and berries in the Northwest.

Asche had seen even more of the beetles crawling around the blackberry bushes at Capitol Lake near her office. She and Looney agreed to meet up at the lake to see what they could find.

Besides Looney, the only scientist Asche had ever met was her high school science teacher. Looney wasn’t stuffy, or old, and he had a knit hat and sleeve tattoos, she recalls.

Megan Asche holding an I love bugs sign.
Megan Asche

Asche, 35, is a self-proclaimed goth who loves horror movies, listens to metal, plays classical violin, bluegrass banjo, and collects old toys. She’d been considering a career change after six years working as a graphic designer and Looney mentioned if she ever wanted to explore entomology to reach out.

A few months later, after Looney and Asche published their Rose Stem Girdler findings in a scientific journal, Asche left the Employment Security Department to work in Looney’s lab. The going away present from her colleagues was a fitting lab coat emblazoned with the words “Dr. Bugs.”

While working in Looney’s lab, Asche dissected moth genitalia to help identify different pest species and studied snow scorpion flies. She took a short course on honey bees at Washington State University before deciding to pursue a Master’s and Doctoral degree in Entomology.

In her lab at WSU, there is an orange stuffed animal crab louse that sits on her table along with an Oscar Mayer Weiner mobile she picked up at a thrift shop.

On the shelves are antique entomology textbooks and an upgraded camera—a Canon E0s 5D—that is covered in a thin layer of dust. Then there are the two big containers of a hundred or so wasps. One for the males (with a sign that says, “we don’t sting!”) and one for the females (that says, “we do sting!”).

She pulls out one of the males and addresses him as “sweetie.” In the fall, Asche goes out to collect paper wasps. She puts on a bee jacket, scrapes them off walls, and puts them in Tupperware. Back at the lab, she wants to find out if they can learn to associate a unique smell with a food reward.

“I’ve been telling people that it’s kind of like Pavlov’s Wasps,” she says, referencing the behavioral scientist and his work on classical conditioning—think dogs, drool, and a dinner bell.

A day before Asche runs her experiments, she exposes half the paper wasps to an odor while they sip on sugar water. The next day, she takes the wasps to a small room and releases them into a rectangular glass container, a wind tunnel where the wasps zip around.

Finally, Asche adds the odor. She wants to see if they will be able to remember the smell and thereby find their food. The work will ultimately help inform pest managers who use scents in traps to control nuisance wasp populations in agricultural and urban environments. The paper wasps she works with are especially bothersome at air force bases. At the end of the summer season, large populations of wasps are attracted to air control towers were the wasps get together to mate.

While conducting experiments, Asche avoids wearing bright colors so the wasps won’t mistake her for a flower. But that’s not usually a problem, she adds, since she’s usually wearing black anyway.

With a newfound path in science, Asche still hasn’t left art and photography behind. She continues to take photographs which she uses in research presentations and to help the undergraduate students she teaches connect with the world of insects.

One of her favorite days to teach is grasshopper dissection day. She projects a giant image of a grasshopper on the wall, which gazes out over a classroom of college freshman and sophomores. In front of the Entomology 101 students are juicy, preserved grasshoppers that resemble oversized dates.

Asche has chopped the photo of the grasshopper up into parts in Photoshop and clearly labeled all its parts so students can more easily navigate the real insects with their tweezers. Some students are hesitant, grossed out, and others dive right in. But by the end of the class almost everyone is interested and asking questions.

“This might be the only science class they take ever again,” Asche says. “I want it to be a positive experience because they are going to take that positive experience and vote with it. That’s what I want. I want them to think of scientists as nice people who do good work.”

Meanwhile, Asche continues to build up a photography collection—a sort of digital insect collection— of her own. She also serves as the editor of American Entomologist’s “Through the Loupe,” photography section—the loupe referring to a small magnifying glass.

She shares some of her work on Twitter under the username of Megan “Wasp Lady” Asche. Along with a picture of a big black beetle she writes: “I think that entomology outreach would be easier if we studies animals that were primarily large and charismatic (like mammals or this darkling beetle). But there is this part of me that knows I love them because they are small. They have secret lives in tiny places, it’s wonderful.”

From May through October, she takes more than a thousand photos a week, but she keeps only about fifty a week. As summer gets underway, Asche heads outdoors with the hope to reveal some of these secret lives. The first places she goes is the Snake River, which cuts and winds through the tall granite canyons in eastern Washington State.

She looks for the early-blooming flowers like yellow composite or parsley near the grasses where cows graze. She wants to capture certain behaviors: eating, mating, defending a home, and caring for young.

They are scenes she hopes will resonate with humans who share similar life experiences. One of her favorite places to go is perhaps the perfect place for a blue-collar, nature-loving goth, artist-entomologist to spend an afternoon. She parks on a back-country road and walks into the quiet rolling hills of the Palouse—just her, that dusty Canon, and some unsuspecting insects.

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