Written by Drew Seiler
There it was, Phidippus audax, the Bold Jumper, zig-zagging its way across the handrail of our backyard deck. Its movements were jittery, mesmerising, and any movement on my own behalf caused the little male to spin and look up at me with his two large eyes beset three other pairs. His aqua-green chelicerae tapped in curiosity as we stared at one another, and his white-marked opisthosoma wiggled back and forth.
Then, a colony of Pavement Ants, Tetramorium caespitum, marched across a sidewalk. They ran to and from the nest, preparing their sisters for the arrival of their newest quarry, a common bush cricket. It was dispatched not because the ants had a size or chemical advantage over the prey. Nothing like that. But they had the numbers. Under my feet marched hundreds of soldiers, thousands of workers – all abiding by the whim of one single organism: the queen.
Later, sitting on the staircase of my parents’ home, a friend sent me an image of a spider asking for its identification. It was an Eastern Parson Spider, Herpyllus ecclesiasticus, and a male. The contrast between its jet-black body and the white of its dorsal side, resembling that of an 18th century cravat from which the spider receives “parson” in its common name. After two hours of research seemingly wrapped up in a time span of 20 minutes, I looked up from my phone and came to a realisation:
I wanted to study arthropods.
Their diversity, their adaptations, their colours and rituals – it all appealed to me in a wave of enlightenment that I had never experienced. But what is someone who studies insects or arachnids? Do they teach this in universities? What tertiary education could I even receive on this subject? These questions and more immediately flooded my mind, and they all came without answers. I had no real information on this matter, no mentor or teacher that could shed any light on the topic, and no plan how to even begin looking for a degree of this sort online.
Yet, here I am, a 22-year-old soon-to-be-graduate of a small, liberal arts university who has recently accepted into a PhD program to study the ecology of ants under an expert research adviser. The journey certainly was not without its road bumps. My undergraduate institution saw its single entomologist leave for a new position closer to home before I hardly introduced myself to him. Rejection letters from internships, projects, and grants topple over the few letters of acceptance received. Money, always an issue, was not fully situated until my third year of undergraduate studies after three annual attempts at the same scholarship.
But, I persisted. I talked to faculty who had contacts with certain bug-minded persons. I cooperated with conservation organisations to create summer research projects. I volunteered, without pay, at a government stream research facility performing the grunt work of sorting out aquatic macroinvertebrates from algae samples. Why? Because that is what it takes.
Conservation is not a path marked by hand-outs. It takes incredibly hard work to make it in this field, but it has its benefits. The sense of achievement, the individuals you meet along the way, and the confidence in your ability to trudge through the rejection and dig your own trail makes it all worthwhile. You believe in yourself a little more after each project, you succeed bit by bit in helping the natural environment around you, and you form relationships with incredible people every step of the way. This is the payoff for following the passions for what you value and cherish.
Conservation is critically important in the world today. Nature needs our help more than ever and will continue to do so. Conservationists are in ever short demand in a world where we can scream and shout but relatively few listen. Yet, those who do listen can make all the difference when we collaborate and come together. But, let’s be honest, if you’ve read this far then you already know this.
Good luck to you in your future endeavours, form those relationships with others passionate about the same interests as you, and take moral solace in the fact that what you are doing to save the environment is good.
A guy who just wants to see the bugs return.
For more of Drew, check out @dsei_the_bug_guy on Instagram