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Tropical Field Entomology in Costa Rica 


"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 will take place during the second half of the Fall semester (ENTOM 3340; 1 credit), the winter inter‑session (ENTOM 3341, 2 credits), and the first half of the following Spring semester (ENTOM 3342; 1 credit), for a total of 4 credits. Work during the Fall semester will focus on lectures and preparation for a winter intersession field trip to the Las Cruces and La Selva Biological Stations in Costa Rica. Work during the Spring semester will focus on guided data analysis and student presentations of research findings from the Costa Rica trip.  The course will include treatments of insect 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).


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


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.


Note: Any specimens collected by students 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 large group and small group projects on field ecology and behavior. Students will use their field notebooks to keep track of potentially interesting field projects that could be conducted as a group (the entire class) or in smaller groups of 2‑3 students. What predictions might be made about the ecology, behavior, or natural history of insects based on your observations? What sort of hypotheses might be developed based on your observations? How would these hypotheses be tested? What data might be collected and how would the data be analyzed? What statistical tests would one conduct to analyze the data?  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, and they will be encouraged to bring laptop computers on the trip.


Text book and course reading packet


Readings for the course include two textbooks 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.



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

Kircher, J. 2017. The New Neotropical Companion. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.


Recommended field guide:

Hanson, P.E., and K. Nishida (2016). Insects and Other Arthropods of Tropical America Paul E. Hanson, Kenji Nishida. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, NY

Both textbooks and readings will be covered in the Fall semester lecture before the class departs for Costa Rica. The textbooks and papers will provide key background material for the course. The papers in the course reading packet will also serve as models for students’ own research projects and reports. Nearly every paper involves insects that we will see in Costa Rica. Each student will moderate the discussion of one topic/paper and before the class departs in January. This exercise helps build 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


Letter grades will be determined by a combination of engagement in both the seminar and field components of the course. There will be two written reports (one based on the large group project and the second based on the small group project), an oral presentation 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.


10% participation in Fall lecture meetings


10% natural history notebook and observations


20% large group project write-up and presentation


30% small group project write-up and presentation


10% participation in paper discussions


20% general interest, participation, engagement, and cooperation

2. Research station, housing and meals

The winter intersession will take place at at the Las Cruces and La Selva Biological Stations managed by the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) in Costa Rica.

Las Cruces website:

Las Cruces is a 300 hectare mid-elevation wet forest preserve about 6 hours from San Jose. It averages 4m of rainfall per year, but differs from La Selva in that it has a marked dry season January-March. Las Cruces also hosts one of the most important botanical gardens in Central America.

La Selva website:

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 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.

Both stations are excellent locations for offering classes. Students will be housed in dormitory-style bunk rooms with electricity and running water and three meals per day served in a dining hall.

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


3. Travel

a. Air Travel

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


Students and faculty should arrive in San Jose (SJO) airport on Sunday afternoon. United has flights that pass through Newark, New Jersey (EWR) and arrive in the evening (9:25pm).


We will spend the night of Jan. 5 in a hotel in San Jose and leave early the next morning for Las Cruces. Students will be met at the airport by course instructors and escorted to the hotel.


Students and faculty will take a bus from Las Cruces to La Selva on Saturday, January 12th in the morning. Students and faculty will depart La Selva on Jan. 18 by bus and we spend the night in a hotel in San Jose. Departures fo the US should be booked for Saturday, Jan. 19th.


Students must send travel information with airline and flight numbers to Bryan Danforth ( well in advance. Students can also book itinerary and send Danforth the link so that he can approve the arrival and departure times.


b. Passports    

Students should ensure that their passports are good through July 2019. Their passports must be valid for the six months following their visit to Costa Rica (i.e., do not travel to Costa Rica with a passport that is within six months of 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 students are applying for financial aid, they 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 at 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:


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:‑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):

4. Enrollment and course fee

Enrollment in ENTOM 3340/3341/3342 involves course fee of $2000/student. This course fee should be paid in the Fall semester via the Burser’s office. This payment covers expenses related to the winter intersession field trip to Costa Rica. The course fee covers nearly all in‑country expenses, including ground transportation, room and board, permits and visitor fees, etc. Please note that the $2000 fee is nonrefundable.


Additional costs:


In addition to tuition and fees, students participating in ENTOM 3340/3341/3342 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.


Course fee: $2000 (paid via your Burser account)
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.)


5. Class Schedule

Entom 3340 (Fall semester)








All Instructors


Tropical Habitats



Insect Diversity in the Tropics



Orchid bees



Heliconius and mimicry



Neotropical Diptera



Preparing for Costa Rica

All Instructors



Entom 3341 (Winter intersession)






Jan. 5 (Sat)

Arrive in San Jose


Jan. 6 (Sun)

Travel to Las Cruces


Jan. 12 (Sat)

Travel to La Selva


Jan. 18 (Fri)

Travel to San Jose


Jan. 19 (Sat)

Depart San Jose





Entom 3342 (Spring semester)




Topic / Activity



Trip Recap, Data Management



Data Analysis / Selected Readings



Data Analysis / Selected Readings



Data Analysis / Selected Readings



Student Presentations



Student Presentations



Student Presentations


Spring semester classes begin Tuesday, Jan. 22.

6. Contact Information

For more information about the program, announcements of meetings, and details regarding housing, travel, costs, and financial aid, please contact Bryan Danforth (instructor; or Robert Reed (instructor;

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 (


Jason Dombroskie:   I am Collections Manager for the Cornell University Insect Collection ( and coordinator of the Insect Diagnostic Laboratory at Cornell ( 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.

Patrick O’Grady: I came to Cornell in July 2017 as a Professor in the Department of Entomology. My previous teaching experience (UC Berkeley) includes courses in General Entomology, Biology and Geomorphology of Tropical Islands, Phylogenetic Data Analysis, and Insects and Human Society. I will teach Entom 2120 in fall 2018. I am a molecular systematist and my research focuses on the family Drosophilidae, particularly the large radiation endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, to understand the processes that generate and maintain biodiversity. I have conduced field research around the world, with a focus on the western US, Central and South America, Australia, and the Pacific. I am also the Director of the National Drosophila Species Stock Center, a collection of ~300 living species available to researchers. Information about my research is available at:


Robert Reed:  I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. My research interests concern the evolution, genetics, and development of butterfly wing patterns. Much of my research over the last 15 years has focused on neotropical passionvine butterflies (Heliconius), and I have conducted related field work in Costa Rica, Panama, and Peru. More information can be found at reedlab.or