ENTOM 3340 Tropical Field Entomology

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Tropical Field Entomology in Costa Rica (Winter Session) 


"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us... There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

Charles Darwin's tangled bank is one of the iconic images in all of evolutionary biology. The tangled bank that Darwin describes evokes an image of a complex web of interacting species. For insect biologists, the tropics is where insect biodiversity and ecological interactions are at their most complex, elaborate, and astounding.   

1. Overview/Academics
2. Research station, housing and meals
3. Travel
​4. Enrollment, application, and fees
​5. Financial Aid
​6. Preliminary departure meetings
​7. Contact Information
​8. Instructors



1. Overview/Academics

This course will introduce students with a background in basic entomology (Entom 2120, or equivalent), ecology (BioEE 1610), or evolutionary biology (BioEE 1780) to insect biodiversity, ecology and behavior in a neotropical rainforest environment. The course usually takes place during the winter inter‑session at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. The course will include insect survey and collecting methods, observation and experimentation on insect ecology and behavior, large and small‑group research projects, scientific writing, and discussion of a set of research papers on the biology of neotropical insects (see below).

La Selva provides an ideal location for the course because the research station provides housing and meals, laboratory space, microscopes, transportation to and from the airport in San Jose, and a well‑marked trail system for students to carry out their collecting and experiments. There is long tradition of entomological research at La Selva and amazing resources (libraries, plant and insect collections, local expertise) to carry out a class. The current director (Carlos de la Rosa) is an entomologist.

We will have two orientation meetings in the Fall semester in order to prepare students for the class and the La Selva Biological Station.

Course goals and objectives:

1. Introduce students to insect field survey methods and insect biodiversity in a Neotropical rainforest environment.
2. Develop skills in insect natural history observation
3. Formulate project questions and hypotheses; collect ecological and behavioral field data to analyze a particular question/hypothesis
4. Apply basic statistical methods as applied to field ecological and behavioral studies.
5. Explain/present scientific results orally and in writing.
6. Interpret, analyze, and discuss scientific literature on tropical insect biology and ecology

Overall structure of the class: The class will be broken down into three, somewhat overlapping, subject areas:

A. Insect biodiversity/systematics  Students will be introduced to a variety of collecting methods, including malaise trapping, black‑lighting, and aerial netting, as well as tropical insect diversity through lectures and slide shows on insect field identification to the family level. We will expect students to make a small insect collection based on their exploration of the areas around La Selva.

Note: Student specimens will remain at the La Selva Biological Station because export permits are difficult to obtain for students in the class.

B. Insect behavior and natural history  Students will be provided with a field notebook for the class and will be encouraged to carry a small, pocket digital camera to capture insect images. We request that students observe and document photographically 10 insects in the field. Things to consider when making these observations: what is the insect feeding on, what kinds of behaviors is the insect engaged in, are there multiple individuals of the same species interacting with each other and what is the nature of these interactions, what sort of interspecific interactions do you observe (e.g., predation, herbivory, parasitism, symbiosis, etc.). What order/family do you think the insect is in (we will double check this based on your photos).

Note:  students are encouraged to photograph interesting insect specimens in the field and to share these images with the group during evening identification sessions.

C. Experimental approaches to analyzing insect ecology and behavior in the field  Based on behavioral and natural history observations made above, we will develop both a large group as well as small group projects on field ecology and behavior. Use your field notebook to keep track of potentially interesting field projects that we could conduct as a group (the entire class) or in smaller groups of 2‑3 students. What predictions might you make about the ecology, behavior, or natural history of insects based on your observations? What sort of hypotheses might you develop based on your observations? How would you test this hypothesis? What data might you collect and how would you analyze these data? What statistical tests would you conduct to analyze your data? Write down specific null and alternative hypotheses that you would use to frame your question. Will you have a sufficient sample size to analyze your question? Students would be expected to design projects with clear hypotheses and to collect and analyze their data using basic statistical methods.

We will conduct two research projects. One project will be done as a group with everyone working on the same research question and data set. The second project will be done in groups of 2-3 students on subjects they choose.

Note: Students will prepare written reports on both the group project as well as the small‑group projects, so please bring a laptop with you on the trip. If you have access to basic statistical and/or graphics packages that would be useful as well.

Text book and course reading packet

Readings for the course include a textbook (Forsyth & Miyata, 1984) as well as a reading packet including papers from the primary literature on insect biology and ecology in the tropics. The course packet will be prepared for the class and available from the Campus Store.

Textbook: Forsyth, A., and K. Miyata. 1984. Tropical Nature. Touchstone, New York, New York.

Both textbook and readings need to be completed BEFORE the class starts in January. The textbook and papers will provide key background material for the course. The papers in the course reading packet will also serve as models for your own research reports conducted in the field. Nearly every paper involves insects that we will see at La Selva. Each student will moderate the discussion of one topic/paper and we will assign these topics well before the class departs in January. This exercise helps build your skills in interpreting the primary scientific literature. We track participation in these discussion sections, as it is one metric we use to calculate your final letter grade


The course is meant to be an academically stimulating and intellectually rigorous experience, as well as fun. We expect participants to approach the class with the same level of seriousness and dedication that they would bring to a 3‑credit lab course on campus. Letter grades will be determined by a combination of engagement in the field aspects of the course, two written reports (one based on the large group project and the second based on the small group project), paper presentations, and participation in group discussions. As fieldwork is always unpredictable and projects can fail for unanticipated reasons, projects will be evaluated on the thoughtfulness of the project design, effort and perseverance of data collection, and the quality of the report rather than on the significance of the results. A proposed grading rubric is provided below.

20% insect collection (quality of preparation, identification, and organization)

20% natural history notebook and observations

10% large group project write-up

10% small group project write-up

20% participation in evening paper discussions

20% general interest, participation, engagement and cooperation

2. Research station, housing and meals

The course will take place at La Selva Biological Station, one of several field stations managed by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica.

La Selva website: http://www.ots.ac.cr/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=162&Itemid=348

La Selva is a lowland tropical forest located approximately 3 hours north of the capital, San Jose. La Selva comprises 1,600 hectares (3,900 acres) of tropical wet forests and disturbed lands. It averages 4 m (over 13 feet!) of rainfall that is spread rather evenly throughout the year. La Selva is situated within tropical and premontane wet forest, with about 73% of its area as primary tropical rain forest.

The research station was originally established in 1954 by Dr. Leslie Holdridge, as a farm dedicated to experimentation on mixed plantations for the improvement of natural resources management. It was purchased in 1968 by the Organization for Tropical Studies and declared a private biological reserve and station. Since then, it has become one of the most important sites in the world for research on tropical rain forest. Over 240 scientific papers are published yearly from research conducted at the site.

La Selva is an ideal location for the class. We will be housed in dormitory-style bunk rooms with electricity and running water and three meals per day served in an indoor/outdoor dining hall. Coffee and tea are available in the dining hall between meals.

Speaking Spanish is not necessary as most of the research staff at the station speak English. However, Spanish fluency will certainly come in handy for communicating at the airport and with local people.

Detailed information on the La Selva Biological Station can be found in the La Selva users guide:

We have excerpted key sections below:

Dining room: Meals are served according to the following schedule: Breakfast 6:00 ‑ 7:30 am, Lunch 11:30 am ‑ 1:00 pm, and Dinner 6:00 ‑ 7:00 pm.  To request a box lunch for the field, please fill out one of the forms available at the entrance of the kitchen the day before. If you have food allergies or are vegetarian, please indicate this in your reservation and/or in Reception. 

Gift shop: The store is located inside the Reception building. You can buy souvenirs, sodas, snacks, candies, ice‑cream, soap for laundry, over‑the‑counter medicine, phone cards, etc. Working hours are from Monday to Saturday: 7:00 am ‑ 5:00 pm, and Sundays: 7:00 am ‑ 4:00 pm.

Laundry: There are washing machines located in on the station grounds. They are free of charge and available from Monday to Saturday after 2:00 pm and Sundays all day. Please only use biodegradable soap to avoid damaging the sewage treatment system. You can buy it at the gift shop.

Internet: Internet access (3 Mbps) is free and available 24/7. The main buildings have both wire and wireless connections. The network addresses are assigned automatically. The dining room and outside terrace are good places to connect to the Internet. Please do not use your computers in these areas during meal times when the station is crowded.

Electronics: Costa Rica uses the same kind of electrical outlets that we have in the US. You will not need an adaptor for your electronic devices.

Phone: Almost all the offices have a telephone and we also have several public phones. For external calls, you must ask for a code in Reception or buy an international  phone card in the gift shop (U.S. phone cards will not work). Although 800 numbers do not work inside the station, you can receive calls on the closest phone to your office. The phone number of La Selva is +(506)2766‑6565.

Mail: Reception staff can help you buy stamps, and they will also send and receive snail mail. Once a week, a car from La Selva goes to the OTS central offices in San José to collect the mail. If you need to send an important letter or package, please coordinate with Reception staff.

Trails: La Selva includes 61 km of trails (16 km are paved) that are clearly marked and easily accessible. All are signed each 50 m indicating the acronym of the trail and the distance. The distance increases as you move away from the labs, so it is very difficult to get lost.

Security: Even though we have security cameras, guards, and safety boxes, theft occurs inside the station. Please remember to DOUBLE LOCK your office and room. This means inserting the key in the lock and turning it two full turns to engage the bolt. Merely closing the door does not engage the bolt and the door will be relatively easy to open by a determined thief. Also DO NOT LEAVE ANY OBJECTS OF VALUE IN PUBLIC PLACES, since the majority of thefts occur by the owner's negligence. Inside and outside the station, you must take special care of your passport. If you need a safety box for valuable in your office, talk to the Lab Manager. If you prefer, you could keep your possessions at Reception in a safe lock box, but you will only have access during working hours.

Medical emergencies: If you do not feel well or you have any medical emergency, please dial ext 110 or 111 from 7:00 am to 4:00 pm; after these hours, dial ext. 119 or contact any member of the staff. They will make the necessary arrangement to help you as soon as possible. There are emergency first aid supplies in the dining room, and in the analytical laboratory. La Selva has a Committee of First Aid, with trained people to respond to most eventualities.

Allergies: If you are hyper‑sensitive to insect bites and stings, always carry your medicine. Avoid sitting, lying down, or putting your hands anywhere without checking first for insects or dangerous animals.

Snake bites: Venomous snakes are relatively abundant at La Selva and can appear anywhere, especially in leaves along the trails. Be careful when you walk off the trails and always check where you are putting your feet. We strongly advise that everybody wears rubber boots when walking in the forest. Around the station we also recommend shoes (not sandals) and a light, especially at night. Do not walk in sandals on the trails. We will discuss some recommended boots at our orientation meetings in the Fall semester.

Alcohol and drugs: Alcohol and drugs are prohibited during the course and students found with alcohol or non-prescription drugs will be immediately sent home.


3. Travel

a. Air Travel

The course is scheduled for January 5 (Wednesday) to January 19 (Wednesday), 2019.

Students and faculty should arrive in San Jose (SJO) airport on Sunday afternoon. US Airways has flights that pass through Charlotte, NC and arrive in mid-afternoon (2:30pm) and Delta Airways has flights that pass though Atlanta, GA and arrive in mid-afternoon (2:09pm).

We will spend the night in a hotel in San Jose and leave early Thursday morning for La Selva. We will provide you with the name, address and phone number of the hotel as soon as the reservations have been booked. Students will be met at the airport by course instructors and escorted to the hotel.

Students and faculty will depart from La Selva on Tuesday, January 18th in the afternoon. We will be taken to San Jose by bus and we will spend the night in a hotel in the capital. Departures should be booked for Wednesday, Jan. 19th back to the US.

Please send your travel information with airline and flight numbers to Bryan Danforth (bnd1@cornell.edu) well in advance. You can also book an itinerary and send me the link so that I can approve the arrival and departure times.

b. Passports    

Students should ensure that their passports are good through July 2017. Your passport needs to be valid for the six months following your visit to Costa Rica (i.e., do not travel to Costa Rica with a passport that is about to expire). Make sure your passport has at least six months remaining (from date of arrival) before expiration.

Students should renew their passports or apply for new passports as soon as possible. Cornell students who are American citizens may apply for passports at the Tompkins County Courthouse on South Tioga Street in Ithaca. For more information, visit the U.S. government passport website.

Note that if you are applying for financial aid, you may include the cost of your passport in your itemized expenses when making application for aid.

c. Visas

American students do not need visas for travel to Costa Rica, but international students may. Please identify your citizenship when you contact the professor so that you may receive up‑to‑date visa information.

If you are an international student applying for a visa, and you also are a financial aid student, you may include the cost of acquiring a visa in your aid application.

Information on Visa, entry and exit requirements may be found a the following website:

Additional information on traveling to Costa Rica can be found here:

d. Cornell University International Travel Registry

Students who are accepted into the course will need to register their international travel plans with the Cornell University International Travel Registry. Click on the following link: http://travelregistry.cornell.edu/

At the bottom of the page, under Tools, click Travel Registry. You will log in with your NetID. Follow the guidelines for registering your travel plans to Costa Rica.

e. Leaving Costa Rica exit requirements

When you leave Costa Rica by air, you will have to pay an exit fee. You pay this at the airport when you leave.  In the San Jose airport, there is an area just to the right as you enter the departures area.  There are a large number of desks where the fee is collected. As of this writing, the tax is $28.00 and can be paid in colones, US dollars or with a VISA credit card. Please plan to bring enough money to cover this departure tax requirement.

f. Travel health

According to the CDC website (see below), most travelers are recommended to have Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations before travel to Costa Rica. Some travelers may also consider vaccinations for Hepatitis B and Rabies. Although the risk of malaria is low in Costa Rica, you should avoid mosquito bites to prevent malaria. Some travelers to certain areas who are at higher risk for complications from malaria (such as pregnant women) may need to take extra precautions, like antimalarial medicine. Talk to your doctor or the Gannett Travel Nurse about recommendations regarding antimalarial medications while traveling in Costa Rica.

Health information for travelers to Costa Rica can be found at the CDC website, along with a map of the current distribution of malaria in Costa Rica:  http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/costa‑rica

All students MUST arrange a mandatory meeting with the Travel Nurse at Gannett Health Services (607‑255‑5155). Please make your appointment with Gannett at least 6-weeks prior to travel.

Each enrolled course participant‑‑regardless of whether Cornell is your primary university or not - is automatically covered by Cornell's Frontier MEDEX International 24‑hour Worldwide Assistance & Emergency Evacuation Services. To find out more information about this service, visit their website (and log in with your NetID):  https://members.uhcglobal.com/Default.aspx

4. Enrollment, application, and fees

An application for the course can be downloaded [here]. Please fill out the application, name the file as follows: “last name_first name” and return the file as a PDF to Bryan Danforth (bnd1@cornell.edu).

This course is organized through Cornell University's School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions. The tuition and fees for ENTOM 3340 are comprised of 3 credits of tuition ($1,260 per credit) and $1190 to cover lodging, meals, in-country travel, and station fees. This payment covers nearly all in‑country expenses, including ground transportation, room and board, permits and visitor fees, etc. Please note that the $1190 fee is nonrefundable.

Please note that Cornell's School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions office handles all financial and academic registration arrangements. If you have any questions, please visit their general information website: http://www.sce.cornell.edu/index.php. Registration for this course requires pre‑approval by the instructor. Please follow instructions above to submit your application.

Additional costs:

In addition to tuition and fees, students participating in ENTOM 3340 pay separately for their airfare. Students pay cash ($20-40 total) for meals on the two travel days, for any other snacks or souvenirs they wish to purchase. In total these in‑country costs are likely to be less than $100.

Breakdown of total expenses: The following is an ESTIMATE of the total cost of this experience.

Cornell Tuition: $3780 ($1,260 per credit)
Station fees: $1190 (non‑refundable)
Airfare: Varies, but $700 is a good ball-park number
Exit fee from Costa Rica: $28.00
Suggested Extra Spending Money: $150 (meals on travel days, snacks, souvenirs, tips etc.)


Sep. 28 ‑‑ applications due to Bryan Danforth
Oct. 26 ‑‑ deposits due for station fees ($1,190)
Dec. 1 ‑‑ full tuition payment due ($3,780)

5. Financial Aid

Winter Session financial aid is available in the form of loans for eligible matriculated Cornell University undergraduate students for up to 3 credits of enrollment. Winter Session aid is processed as a spring budget increase within the academic year. A separate parental contribution is not calculated. Fall and past due Bursar and Cornell Card balances MUST be paid in full in order to register for winter courses.

A Winter Session Financial Aid Application is required. The application for the upcoming Winter Session will be posted on the Financial Aid website toward the end of October. Students enrolling in an off‑campus winter course may email finaid@cornell.edu to request an application prior to the application being posted online.

Complete information on financial aid for winter session classes can be obtained at the following website:

6. Preliminary departure meetings

Once we have a final list of students signed up for the class, we will organize two pre-departure meetings to discuss course organization, logistics, and finalize travel arrangements.

7. Contact Information

The application for the course will be coming soon.  For more information about the program, announcements of meetings, and details regarding housing, travel, costs, and financial aid, please contact Bryan Danforth (instructor; bnd1@cornell.edu) or Mary Centrella (teaching assistant; mlc344@cornell.edu).

Bryan N. Danforth, Professor
Department of Entomology
3124 Comstock Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY  14853‑2601
phone: 607‑255‑3563
email: bnd1@cornell.edu

Or contact:

Special Programs, Cornell University School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions, B20 Day Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853‑2801, telephone: 607.255.7259.

8. Instructors

Bryan Danforth:  I have been a professor of Entomology at Cornell since 1996. I teach courses in insect biology (Entom 2010/2011 Alien Empire: Bizarre Biology of Bugs) and insect systematics (Entom 3310/3311 Insect Diversity and Evolution). My research focuses on the biology, diversity, and evolution of bees. I have conducted field research on bees and wasps in Africa, Madagascar, Australia, Europe, and the western US. I am fascinated by bee and wasp biology and am excited to share my enthusiasm for all things entomological with students in this highly interactive, hands-on exploration of tropical insect biology. Please feel free to contact me with questions related to the class. More information on my laboratory can be found at my lab website (http://www.danforthlab.entomology.cornell.edu/).


Jason Dombroskie:  I am Collections Manager for the Cornell University Insect Collection (http://cuic.entomology.cornell.edu/) and coordinator of the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell (http://idl.entomology.cornell.edu/). My personal interests are in the systematics and ecology of microlepidoptera (especially the family Tortricidae), as well as other insects. I have a great deal of field experience with insects (especially Lepidoptera, Odonata, and Diptera), amphibians, reptiles, birds, plants, fungi, and lichens, and I enjoy collecting and photographing insects in nature. Prior to my graduate studies I worked for ten years as a naturalist in Algonquin Provincial Park and have conducted many bio‑inventories of insects and other organisms throughout Canada. I received my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Guelph in 2004 and my PhD in Entomology from the University of Alberta in 2012.

Mary Centrella:  I am Ph.D. student at Cornell University researching the biology and ecology of solitary mason bees in an agricultural setting. I graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2013 with bachelor's degrees in both Zoology and Spanish. I am fluent in Spanish and have spent semesters abroad in Mexico and Puerto Rico. I traveled to the Ecuadorian cloud forest three summers in a row to research parasitoid wasps and their caterpillar hosts. I am an avid explorer and have led caving and backpacking trips through the Outdoor Program at the University of Wyoming. I have a strong background in taxonomy and species description and field biology. I love teaching in the field and cannot wait to explore the incredibly biodiversity of the rainforest with you at La Selva! Feel free to email me any time for questions.

Kristen Brochu:  I am a 3rd‑year Ph.D. student in the Danforth Lab and I've never met a bug I didn't like. I'm interested in insect diversity, evolution, and sensory biology. At Cornell, I study the chemical ecology of pollen and how it affects the health and fitness of bees. I've spent a lot of quality time with a collecting net in North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean. When I'm not traveling, I can usually be found tending to my pet insect zoo or enjoying some time outside. I'm looking forward to sharing my love of insects and catching some tropical species I haven't seen before!