Ted C. MacRae blogs at Beetles in the Bush, our featured blog this week. He also founded An Inordinate Fondness, a new blog carnival focusing on beetles, and is a contributing editor at BugGuide.net. Ted is one of those lucky people who get to combine work and play in daily life: beetle taxonomy is his passion and he works in agricultural biotechnology R&D, concentrating on development of sustainable and low-impact solutions for pest control in agriculture. In addition, Ted has collected insects throughout the U.S. and abroad and has one of the largest private insect collections in Missouri.
To learn more about Ted, you can visit his about page, his profile on BugGuide.net, or his list of publications. He can be contacted via the form on his website as well as found on Facebook and Twitter.
Ted, why do you blog?
I started Beetles in the Bush just for “something to do” with photographs that I had begun taking during my field trips. I’ve been a field entomologist for many years, but I had long considered cameras to be too much of a distraction from the business of collecting insects and had avoided carrying one. However, two years ago my father gave me a small (though very good) point-and-shoot camera as a birthday gift. That little camera changed everything, and I began taking photographs during my field outings. I quickly realized that I loved being able to photograph the places I was visiting and the things I was seeing.
When I decided to start posting the photos on a blog, I quickly learned that I wasn’t very good at posting just them, and began telling the “stories” behind the photos. This was an opportunity to write informal accounts of my field trips and publish them instantly – a new experience after years of writing technical papers, distilled down to the barest of essentials, for publication (eventually) in scientific journals. I had already started writing more informal articles for natural history-oriented magazines and newsletters just a few years earlier, and I found blogging to be an even more flexible and fun version of this style of writing.
It took a year or so for me to find my style and zone in on what I wanted Beetles in the Bush to be – which is a glimpse of “a day in the life” of a serious student of beetle taxonomy, written for an educated but sometimes lay audience. I really enjoy telling the “stories behind the stories” such as how a new species was discovered, the circumstances leading to a particularly good find, the sights and sounds and smells of a day in the field, or insight into the ecological connections between the insects I study and the landscapes that harbor them. Sometimes my posts stray into more technical realms, but I try to keep them accessible for those without specialized knowledge. For me, Beetles in the Bush is an opportunity to write on a whim about natural history subjects that excite me. This past year I took the next step and purchased a digital SLR so that I could supplement my writings with “real” insect macro-photography.
What’s the best thing about blogging?
I think blogging has made me not only a better entomologist, but also a better natural historian. I’ve become more aware of subjects outside my immediate research interests as I encounter them in the field, and writing about these more diverse subjects has given me a broader knowledge base. I’ve grown more interested in understanding not only the identity of the flora and fauna I encounter, but also their ecological connections to each other and to the landscape.
I also think blogging has made me a better writer. Good writing takes practice, and maintaining a blog provides ample opportunity do so. Although I’ve always enjoyed writing, I have (a few) obsessive tendencies that have made writing a laborious process, pondering and overthinking each and every sentence until I finally was happy. I still have these obsessive tendencies, but I’ve learned to write more off-the-cuff and not agonize over every single word.
The main challenge I face as a blogger is time management. I usually spend a fair amount of time researching and preparing each of my posts, and it can be difficult to balance this with the demands of work, family, and other interests, not to mention actually doing the entomology research that I blog about. Two to three posts per week is about all I can manage, and I have to use my limited time efficiently (and keep my obsessive tendencies in check) if I want to maintain even that modest frequency. I get frustrated at times, because I have more post ideas than I can follow through on. On the other hand, the good thing about this is that when I sit down to write, I rarely struggle for material or feel like I’m approaching burnout (well, maybe I did recently when I hosted House of Herps and Circus of the Spineless and launched the inaugural edition of An Inordinate Fondness all in a period of just over 4 weeks!).
How has blogging changed how you think about nature? or how you write?
I don’t know that blogging has made me more interested in nature – I’ve been an entomologist for nearly three decades now, and even as a child I was always inquisitive about nature. What it has done is made me more interested in finding answers to questions about the things I observe that are outside the scope of my research. For example, during my searches for a rare tiger beetle in the Loess Hills of Missouri, I observed a large, black robber fly that I didn’t recognize as having seen before. I don’t study robber flies, so I didn’t know if the find was significant or not. Before becoming a blogger, I would have collected a few examples and placed them in my collection, thinking someday I would send them to a specialist for ID. Instead, as soon as I returned home I set about identifying the species myself. (As it turned out, it represented a new record for Missouri and an extension of the fly’s known range of distribution, and I even found a second new state record robber fly last year as well.) My botany skills have likewise improved, as I’m spending more time now identifying plants myself – just to satisfy my curiosity – rather than waiting to give vouchers to specialists at some later date. And yes, blogging has certainly changed the way I write, as I’ve noted above.
How do you promote your blog and attract readers?
When it comes to attracting readers, I do things the old fashioned way – by providing (hopefully) interesting, unique, well-written content, and maintaining a consistent schedule so that visitors aren’t left wondering when the next update will be. I am on Facebook and Twitter and have registered with most of the typical blog directories, but I think only a small portion of my readership comes from these sources. Most of my visitors seem to come from email subscriptions and Google Reader, or as a result of Google searches using terms common in my blog (like beetles!).
Personally, I think the strongest social networking tool available is the lowly comment. It takes more time than most other tools, but I engaging readers and other bloggers through comments builds the most interesting readership. This includes comments on other blogs (of course, the comments should be genuine and germane to the subject of the post and not contain repeated references or links back to one’s own blog, which can be off-putting), as well as responding to comments left by readers on my own blog. I figure if someone has taken the time to express their feelings about something I have written, the least I can do is acknowledge their input, and I think readers are more likely to return and comment on a regular if they know their comments will be acknowledged.
Is there a story behind the name of your blog?
Well, I started out using Blogger, and my first idea for a name was “Beating Around the Bush” (“beating” being an important method for collecting beetles), but that name was already taken (by a long-inactive, quasi-political blog). I thought of several variations on that theme before finally coming up with Beetles in the Bush. In hindsight, I’m glad that first name wasn’t available, as Beetles in the Bush seems to better describe what my blog is about. I could’ve gone for a different name when I made the move to WordPress (at that time BitB still hadn’t gained a lot of traction), but by then I really liked the name and decided that it had a catchy, “brandable” quality to it.
Do you feel you’re part of a community with other nature bloggers?
A sense of ‘community’ is overwhelmingly the most pleasant surprise I experienced as a result of being a nature blogger, especially since joining NBN. There are a number of bloggers whom I’ve grown to regard as good friends, even though we’ve never met. If we should ever have the chance to meet, I surely will greet them with a warm hug or a hearty handshake. I have had the chance to meet one blogger in person (Doug Taron of Gossamer Tapestry), whose warm and infectious personality I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve even received a couple of speaking engagements as a direct result of my blog.
The one thing that strikes me about the Nature Blogging community is its overall warmth and positive vibe. Nature enthusiasts in general seem to be a passionate and optimistic crowd, even in the face of constant environmental challenges. I think this shared passion automatically promotes a feeling of friendship in our online interactions.
Any words of wisdom for new nature bloggers?
I’ll simply echo the thoughts that many have expressed before – you have to write about what you’re passionate about. Passion for the subject shows in one’s writings and goes a long way towards making your subject interesting – it’s a hard thing to fake. Beyond that, I think it’s important to find a niche that will distinguish you from others. There are lots of nature bloggers out there, and NBN has three times as many blogs registered now than it did when I joined 2 years ago. Try to offer something unique in the scope of your blog, the quality/distinctiveness of your writing, or (preferably) both. Write about what you know, and tell the reader something they can’t learn by reading the first few hits of a Google search.
If your blog is photography based, make an effort to become a really good photographer. If writing is your focus, work on becoming a really good writer. With so many high-quality nature blogs on the scene now, it’s difficult to get noticed and retain readers with mediocre photographs and shoot-from-the-hip writing.
Try not to get caught up in the numbers regarding traffic and rankings. Find a subject, style, and frequency that works for you and that you enjoy, and let whatever traffic results from that be what it is. You’ll be happier in the long run and less likely to suffer burnout.
Anything else you’d like me to ask you, or that you’d like to volunteer without being asked?
I just want to thank NBN for its leadership in bringing together more than 1,000 bloggers, with interests as diverse as nature itself, into a coherent community. I’ve been impressed with the passion and dedication shown by the NBN team and congratulate them on the substantial achievement that NBN has become. I truly appreciate the chance to have my blog highlighted in this feature.
Thank you, Ted! I think I can speak for my colleagues as well as myself in saying that it’s very rewarding being part of the NBN team. One of the best parts of my role is getting to talk to a wide range of bloggers with different interests and approaches, who still share an underlying passion for the natural world. Thank you for joining us this week.