Take your watch to the field

I am sure it makes perfect sense to bring your watch into the field to keep track of the time. That is not why I am advocating this practice, however. A watch once helped us make an important new observation on bee parasitizing flies in the tropics.

One unavoidable fact of tropical fieldwork is that you will stink. You sweat your clothes out within the first 10 minutes after breakfast, and remain damp and moldy all day until you hit the showers. It is impossible to wear clothes for more than one day without them getting rank and disgusting. You can either bring enough clothes to change all of them every day, do lots of laundry during the trip, or resign yourself to having some of your clothes remain not suitable for indoors and fine dining.

Things that you wear or sweat on day after day buildup in particular fragrance. For instance, my collecting bag is always covered with butterflies in the field, probably because they mistake it for a piece of carrion. Other items can be the same way.

My collecting bag swarming with bees, flies, and butterflies. It stank.

In 2001, Giar-Ann Kung and I were in Colombia with some colleagues, and it was incredibly hot and humid. We were after bee killing flies of the genus Melaloncha, which we were trying to attract with honey. Placing honey on the undergrowth attracts large numbers of bees, and once we had large numbers of bees, we hoped that the parasites would arrive as well. Problem was, it wasn’t working. The bees were much more attracted to Giar-Ann’s watch, which really stank. She took it off and put it on sheet that we had placed in the field and the bees visited it avidly. Suddenly, against the black background of the watch, Giar-Ann noticed a tiny yellow shape curling its abdomen and running towards tiny bees. She collected the fly and showed it to me – it was a female Styletta crocea, a rarely collected species whose lifestyle was completely unknown. I doubt if we would ever have seen the fly without the black watch in the background. Later, we collected Melaloncha specimens, but that Styletta was our first big break of the bee parasite project.

female Styletta crocea

It never ceases to amaze me how events unfold during a research program or field trip. No matter how much you prepare, invariably which you thought would work doesn’t, but something completely different appears or is found. It’s part of the reason why fieldwork and research remain compelling and exciting for those of us who aspire to make new discoveries.