Category Archives: Brackenridge Field Lab

Commander Ben Receives 2013 Outstanding Invasive Species Volunteer Award

Commander Ben displays his 2013 Outstanding Terrestrial Invasive Species Volunteer of the Year Award in front of admiring Giant Reed invasive plants.

Commander Ben displays his 2013 Outstanding Terrestrial Invasive Species Volunteer of the Year Award in front of admiring Giant Reeds

I have some wonderful news to share with you!  I recently received the 2013 Outstanding Terrestrial Invasive Species Volunteer of the Year Award from the National Invasive Species Council (NISC).

The NISC was created in 1999 and is co-chaired by the U.S. Secretaries of Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce.  NISC provides coordination of federal invasive species actions and works with other federal and non-federal groups to address invasive species issues at the national level.

I am so honored to receive this award but it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of so many fantastic people:

  • First, I want to thank my Mom and Dad who always support me in everything I do.  They’re the best!
  • I would also like to thank the National Invasive Species Council; Ms. Lori Williams, NISC Executive Director; and the entire National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW) team.  They were just great for inviting me to be a presenter at NISAW in 2012.
  • Next, I want to thank the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; Dr. Damon Waitt, Wildflower Center’s senior director; and Ms. Jessica Strickland, Wildflower Center’s invasive species program manager.

    They taught me a lot about invasive species and have always been such a great support to me in my efforts to help educate others about invasives.  They have also been very kind to invite me to be a presenter at numerous events at the Wildflower Center, including to the 2011 Texas Invasive Plant and Pest Conference.

    And congratulations to the Wildflower Center, Dr. Waitt, and Ms. Strickland too for receiving the 2013 Outstanding Achievement in Terrestrial Invasive Species Outreach and Education Award from the NISC.
  • Also, I would like to thank the Environmental Science Institute at the University of Texas; Dr. Jay Banner, Director; and Mr. Geoffrey Hensgen, Outreach Coordinator.

    I started attending their Hot Science – Cool Talks lectures when I was only about six years old!  They have been instrumental in developing my love of science, and they have been so supportive of giving me the amazing honor of being able to be part of the Hot Science – Cool Talks community by giving me the opportunity to interview many of the speakers and to also be a presenter at the pre-lecture activities, including bringing my Invasive Hunter Academy to Hot Science – Cool Talks
  • Additionally, I want to give many thanks to Science Under the Stars; Brackenridge Field Laboratory at the University of Texas; and Ms. Laura Dugan, doctoral researcher, who gave me a chance to help out with their research on the invasive Jewel Cichlid.

    My very first Commander Ben video, “Who will fell this titan?, won first prize at the Science Under the Stars 2011 Film Festival. In a way, that’s where my Commander Ben adventures first started!
  • And I could never forget to thank Master Chris Abramson, my Taekwondo instructor, who is such an amazing teacher and mentor.  Everything that I have learned from him has not only helped me battle invasives ;-), but has helped me in life.  He has taught me the five most important tenants of what it means to be a man: Courtesy, Integrity, Self-Control, Perseverance, and Indomitable Spirit!

Many thanks to everyone!

2013 National Invasive Species Awareness Week


Unfortunately, the budget problems in Washington DC and the government sequester, cancelled the formal awards banquet that was part of the 2013 National Invasive Species Awareness Week (NISAW) activities, but here’s what Ms. Lori Faeth, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs at the Department of the Interior, was going to say about my 2013 Outstanding Terrestrial Invasive Species Volunteer Award:

“The winner of the 2013 NISAW Award for Outstanding Terrestrial Invasive Species Volunteer is Ben Shrader, founder of the Invasive Hunter Academy in Texas. Ben has given invasive species presentations at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Texas and at National Invasive Species Awareness Week in Washington, DC. ‘Commander Ben’ has led efforts to engage students in invasive species issues through his Invasive Hunter Academy, using interactive methods to teach about invasive species and their effect on native ecosystems. He has used a wide variety of media to create a public discussion on invasive species and has produced a series of video interviews with scientists to publicize invasive species issues and research. Ben has also focused his efforts on conducting invasive species research, helping in the studying of the effect of the Jeweled Cichlid on native ecosystems at the University of Texas at Austin.”

Thanks Ms. Faeth for your kind words!

What’s next in the fight against invasives?

As always, I will continue my battle against invasive species! If you would like to be part of the fight against invasives, join me and my Invasive Hunter Academy and learn how to become an Invasive Hunter at the following upcoming events:

Hope to see you there!

Your friend,


Filed under 2011 Texas Invasive Plant Conference, 2013 Outstanding Terrestrial Invasive Species Volunteer of the Year Award, Brackenridge Field Lab, Damon Waitt, Department of the Interior, Environmental Science Institute, Geoff Hensgen, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Invasive Hunter, Invasive Hunter Academy, Invasive Species, Invasive Species Award, Jay Banner, Jessica Strickland, Jewel Cichlid, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Laura Dugan, Lori Faeth, Lori Williams, National Invasive Species Awareness Week, National Invasive Species Council, NISAW, NISC, Science Under the Stars, Taekwondo, University of Texas, UT Austin, Wildflower Center

Vine and Twitter in Action at UT Austin

Using Vine and Twitter at UT Austin during Explore UT

Using Vine and Twitter at UT Austin during Explore UT

I didn’t think I’d get a chance to attend Explore UT this year, but I was able to visit UT Austin yesterday to listen to a few talks, enjoy a few exhibits, and be part of the event that they call the “biggest open house in Texas!”

I wanted to try out the new Vine iPhone app for creating short six-second videos for posting on my Twitter account, @InvasiveHunter.

Here’s how I used Vine to make short, looping videos with my tweets:

  1. Opened the Vine app on my iPhone.
  2. Aimed my iPhone camera at what I wanted to film.
  3. Held my finger on the touchscreen to create the video.
  4. When done, created a tweet with the video.
  5. Uploaded the video to both Vine and Twitter. (There’s also an option to upload it to Facebook.)

Tips on using Vine

  • Unless someone is filming talking about something, try to film different video segments on the same topic instead of just one continuous video. The different shots are more interesting and will keep people entertained.
  • Make sure to remember to take your finger off your phone when you’re done shooting the video, both off the touchscreen and definitely off your camera lens. (Not that it happened to me. 🙂 )
  • Remember that you can’t edit your video. Make sure that you get what you want when you film. If not, you can always start over.
  • One downside is that if you get a really great shot and a not so good one, and you need to start over, you lose your entire video, but that’s a minor thing.

This app is definitely very easy to use. With all the complicated mobile apps these days, it’s wonderful to have something so simple to use with Twitter.

I liked adding video to my tweets. You can use videos to convey more information than just a tweet or picture. It’s fun to create videos and watch videos from others too!

Here are a few of my tweets and Vine videos from yesterday:

Using Vine and Twitter at the UT Austin Jackson School of Geosciences

Using Vine and Twitter at the UT Austin Jackson School of Geosciences

Using Vine and Twitter at the UT Austin Texas Memorial Museum

Using Vine and Twitter at the UT Austin Texas Memorial Museum

Thanks @UTAustin for replying to one of my tweets during the Explore UT event:

UTAustin replies to InvasiveHunter tweet during Explore UT

UTAustin replies to InvasiveHunter Tweet during Explore UT

Videos from last year’s Explore UT event

Here are the blog posts and YouTube videos that I created from the 2012 Explore UT event:

Special Edition: Hot Science – Cool Talk this week

Don’t miss another fun event at UT Austin on Wednesday, March 6, at the next Hot Science – Cool Talks with Astrophysicist Dr. Jason Kalirai: Telescopes as Time Machines: The Legacy of Hubble & the Future through the James Webb Space Telescope.

It’s a special edition of the fun and educational presentations from the UT Austin Environmental Science Institute. Hope to see you there!

Tweet me your Vine videos

I also hope you have fun using Vine on your iPhone or iPod touch. Tweet me with your Vine videos @InvasiveHunter!

Your friend,

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Filed under Brackenridge Field Lab, Environmental Science Institute, Explore UT, Hot Science - Cool Talks, Hubble Space Telescope, Insecta Fiesta, iPhone, iPhone, Jackson School of Geosciences, James Webb Space Telescope, Jason Kalirai, Texas Memorial Museum, Tweet, Twitter, University of Texas, UT Austin, Vine

West Nile Virus Swatted at Science Under the Stars

Photo credit: User Salvadorjo on Wikipedia

Don’t miss the Science Under the Stars lecture series on Thursday evenings once a month this Fall 2012:

  • September 13 – Stavana Strutz, West Nile Virus
  • October 11 – Patrick Stinson, Frog Calls and Response to Noise
  • November 8 – Chintan Modi, Vaccine Development and Fluorescence
  • December 13 – Michael Gully-Santiago, Astronomy

Science Under the Stars lectures are held at the Brackenridge Field Laboratory at 7:30 p.m. They serve great refreshments and have fun activities for kids.

West Nile Virus

This Thursday’s lecture on West Nile Virus is very timely. Travis County and all of Texas has been hit hard by this virus carried by mosquitoes.

Ms. Stavana Strutz will talk about why this year has been so terrible with hundreds of infections across the state. In addition to West Nile virus, she will also talk about Chagas disease, another illness transmitted by insect carriers.

Here are some ways to combat mosquitoes and the virus:

  • Drain standing water.
  • Put fish that eat mosquitoes in your ponds.
  • Wear insect repellent.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants.
  • Avoid going outside at dusk or dawn when mosquitoes are active.

Brackenridge Field Laboratory

Science Under the Stars is held at the Brackenridge Field Lab, where they also hold the fun Insecta Fiesta in the Spring.

In the Austin American Statesman, I saw that Mr. John Crutchfield retired as resident manager of the Brackenridge Field Lab. I only met Mr. Crutchfield a few times but each time he was very kind and I knew he had a love of nature. I hope that I will see him again.

I had a great time over the summer at the lab volunteering for Ms. Laura Dugan’s graduate research on the Jeweled Cichlid, an invasive species invading the waterways of Northern Mexico. Learn more about this invasive fish:

Science Under the Stars will always be special to me, because I won my first video contest with them for my first video, “Who will fell this titan?”, in May 2011.

Your friend,

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Filed under Brackenridge Field Lab, Jewel Cichlid, John Crutchfield, Laura Dugan, Mosquitoes, Ms. Stavana Strutz, Science Under the Stars, West Nile Virus

Research Brings Invasive Jewel Cichlid to the End of the Line at the Brackenridge Field Lab

Ms. Laura Dugan and Commander Ben with captured invasive species

Earlier this year, I met Ms. Laura Dugan during a Science Under the Stars event at the University of Texas at Austin Brackenridge Field Laboratory, and she talked with me about how the invasive Jewel Cichlid shatters native ecosystems.

Ms. Dugan is pursing a doctoral degree in biology, and she is studying the effects that the invasive species, Jewel Cichlid (Hemichromis guttatus), is having on the native species, Minckley’s Cichlid (Herichthys minckleyi), found in Northern Mexico.

She invited me to help her with her research.  I was a little nervous, since I had not worked on a university science project before, but I was looking forward to it because I thought that I could learn a lot and it could help in the fight against invasive species.  Plus it sounded like fun too!

Rounding up the usual suspects

Commander Ben hunting Jewel Cichlid at the Brackenridge Field Lab to help with invasive species research

For two days last week, I worked with Ms. Dugan to collect both the invasive Jewel Cichlid and the native Cichlid from the field lab’s outdoor circular water tanks.  These tanks were so big that I couldn’t put my arms around them even if I tried.  Some tanks just had invasives, just natives, or a mixture of both.  The tanks were covered with a net to keep fish from jumping out.

First, we put down the pipes for all the tanks so they could drain, and we turned off the inflow of water.  We gave the tanks a few minutes to drain about 3/4 of the way down.

With the water drained, it was easier to catch the fish.  We used larger nets for the adults and smaller ones for the babies, the “fry”.  Both types of fish liked to hide in the algae, but they were no match for us. We caught a lot!

We put the fish in pickle buckets with water, and we wrote the tank number on blue tape that we stuck to the side of the buckets so we knew where the fish came from.

After we collected all the samples, we took the buckets back up to the lab building where Ms. Dugan started using them as part of her doctoral studies.

Ms. Laura Dugan, Ms. Jeanine Abrams McLean, and Commander Ben examining the Jewel Cichlid, an invasive species

Ms. Jeanine Abrams McLean also volunteered to help Ms. Dugan.  I met Ms. McLean earlier this year during her presentation at the Brackenridge Field Lab entitled, “Contagion: How Emerging Infectious Diseases Impact Amphibian Population Declines”.

Thanks, Ms. Dugan, for the wonderful opportunity to work with you and learn more about invasive species.  I can’t wait to see the results of your research and to see you again at the next Science Under the Stars!

Your friend,

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Filed under Brackenridge Field Lab, Invasive Species, Jewel Cichlid, Laura Dugan, Minckley’s Cichlid, Ms. Jeanine Abrams McLean, Science Under the Stars, University of Texas, UT Austin

Entomology adventures with Insecta Fiesta at the UT Austin Brackenridge Field Lab

I had a great time learning about insects last weekend at the Insecta Fiesta. It was held on Saturday, April 21, 2012, at the UT Austin Brackenridge Field Lab.

You can see from the picture above that this place had a big bug problem, but that’s a good thing. (Although you can’t see it in this picture, I kept my swatter close by in case this gigantic cockroach got out of hand.)

This hissing cockroach was down to size. It was cool holding him because it felt like many dull thumbtacks poking me.

Strangely, it did not hiss for me. I think it was tired of hissing at all the people that came before me. When I put him (it?) back down, it skittered away.

Here I sit next to a homemade bug city in their butterfly garden. It’s really a refuge that everyone can make because there are many places for bugs to hide and burrow in with no fear of being squished.

Magnificent UT Austin insect collection

Dr. Tom Atkinson, research scientist with College of Natural Sciences, took us on a tour of the UT Austin Insect Collection. He was really nice and showed us their extensive collection. Although it’s not as big as Texas A&Ms, he said they’re not trying to have the biggest collection (although they have a lot!), but they are trying to specialize in the insects of this area.

They have wonderful tools for preserving and pinning insects at their field lab.

Commander Ben’s insect collection

I love collecting insects, although I have not formally pinned many of the insects in my collection. After they’ve dried out, I keep my specimens in a plastic box with dividers.

Some of my favorites, I put in small, clear card boxes, and I keep my specimens safe by putting cotton balls around them.

Here’s my “pièce de résistance“, an Ironclad Beetle that I found hanging on a screen door a few years ago. It has an extremely hard exoskeleton, and I learned that you have to use a small drill to pierce the exoskeleton, if you want to pin it. I like keeping it on a wall in my room.

I have many more insects in my collection, but four more that I really like are my:

* Click beetle
* Large walking stick
* Huge assassin beetle
* Unusual tree cricket.

Click beetles and butterflies at UT Austin

Here’s a picture of UT Austin’s click beetle collection. They are really cool because when you try to hold or catch them, they try to get away by clicking and hopping their bodies, almost like a seesaw. They feed on organic material and roots, and you’ll find them in central Texas, so be sure to look for them the next time you’re hunting insects.

Dr. Atkinson showed us a beautiful display of butterflies, but sadly, he said it was not very scientifically useful because the insects were not labeled or identified. Be sure to label the insects in your collection!

He said that everyone can catch the larger bugs, and they have tons in their collection. (Note to graduate students, collect more smaller insects!)

Update: Learn more about North and Central American bark and ambrosia beetles at Dr. Atkinson’s Bark Beetles website.

Beware of food with insects!

They had tons of different insect food to taste, and a lot were made with crickets. I think that people are more open to eating crickets and not mealworms, especially live ones, as that can make you squeamish. (Take a look at me eating a mealworm at Explore UT.)

They were sold out of the following when I stopped by:

  • Cajun crickets, which were dried, baked, and flavored with cajun spices
  • Salt and pepper crickets, which were also dried and baked, but with salt and pepper

The graduate student who I talked with (and who I met at Explore UT too!) said that the least favorite snacks were the ones where people could see the insects. She said that the critter popcorn crunch, which was caramel popcorn with caramelized beetle larva, was not selling well, probably because it was too easy to see the larva. (I didn’t want it either.)

I didn’t want to eat any because I was still recovering from having all four of my wisdom teeth out earlier in the week…

Cricket spitting contest

But that didn’t stop me from taking part in the cricket spitting contest. At the front of the line, where people were waiting to spit crickets, someone held a container full of crickets that had been frozen, but were thawed out.

I grabbed one of the crickets with my hand, and I was initially wary of putting one in my mouth, but I finally stuffed it in (and went back for a second time too.) I think I made it up to 13 or 14 feet both times without anyone getting hit.

They started out with 1000 crickets, but the activity was so popular that they soon began to run out.

On spider safari

Here I stand with a very nice man, Spider Joe (Joe Lapp). He didn’t like spiders, but preferred insects when he was younger. But he grew to like them and became very knowledgeable about them.

He talked about spiders to our group and asked what’s the difference between insects and spiders? The other kids had a lot of answers, like six or eight legs, but the key answer is that an insect has three body segments: head, thorax, and abdomen. Spiders only have a head and abdomen.

As part of his activity, he walked around through the tall grass with his spider collecting net. He dumped the insects and spiders that he caught on his inspecting canvas. He identified the arachnids that he caught and passed them around in small containers for everyone to see. He mostly caught orb weavers, like Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web. He also found a wolf spider that I liked because it has a cool way of hunting prey. (They don’t wait for the prey to come to them.)

He also showed us a brown recluse in a clear container. It was small and difficult to see, but I was able to make out a fiddle on its back.

Our group walked along a wilderness trail around Brackenridge Field Lab, and Spider Joe stopped along the way to have us look for spiders. In such a wonderfully wooded area, there were a good many spiders. That was a very fun activity. No tarantulas sadly, as I really like tarantulas.

Spider Joe was a really nice man, and if you ever get a chance to get a guided tour from him, jump at the chance.

A secret find!

Here I stand by their experimental gardens. Who knows what secret and mysterious creatures are inside! (I took a peek, but it looks like a bunch of plants…hey…wait a minute, was that an invasive?)

I really enjoyed the Insecta Fiesta. The professors and graduate students at the Brackenridge Field Lab did a great job. It was wonderful to be around so many bugs and so many people who loved nature so much.

Your friend,
Commander Ben

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Filed under Brackenridge Field Lab, Click beetle, College of Natural Sciences, Crickets, Dr. Tom Atkinson, Entomology, Hissing cockroach, Insecta Fiesta, Insects, Ironclad beetle, Orb spiders, Spider Joe, Spider safari, Spiders, UT Austin Insect Collection