An interview with... an Insect Technician

Adam is an Insect Technician at the Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University. His care of tiny locusts and praying mantises is key to innovative research into 3D vision. 

“Praying mantids are the only invertebrates known to have “3D vision” – the ability to judge distances based on the different views seen by each eye. How do these tiny insects achieve this complex visual ability, which scientists used to think of as unique to large mammals? To find out, we show praying mantids 3D movies in their very own insect 3D cinema and record their behaviour and the electrical activity in their brains.

As you can imagine, having a regular supply of healthy, active insects is vital to the success of our experiments. As our insect technician, Adam has been essential in this regard. “  

Professor Jenny Read and team, Instutute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University

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Read on to discover more about his unique job and what a typical day looks like!

Career choice

I’ve worked in various positions within Newcastle University since graduating from Leeds University back in 2009. I like the working environment and have always enjoyed the opportunities I’ve been given to work with small creatures. Becoming an Insect Technician was a natural progression for me and allowed me to continue with my passion.

Best thing about my job

Breeding praying mantises, seeing their young hatch and raising them until they themselves are adults. This whole process takes over a year. These adult mantises are vital to some of the experiments carried out by students and researchers in the university – seeing them being put to good use in the name of science is very rewarding.

What are your hobbies?

My life outside work is very different. I don’t have a house full of exotic pets, not even a single pet mantis. I run a technology website, reviewing monitors for companies like Philips, Dell and LG. For 3 years I also volunteered as a Special Constable with the police. I wouldn’t say there are many similarities between these things and work as an insect technician, but you could say that makes the technician role even more unique and enjoyable.

 

Adam's Daily Routine

 

08:00am

Arrive at the lab, put on the all-important safety gear (lab coat, face mask and lab gloves) and turn up the room ventilation. One of the biggest risks in my line of work is building up an allergy to the insects I work with, so I take every care to avoid this. I first attend to the smallest and most vulnerable insects. The small mantis hatchlings, which are kept together in a cage inside a mini-greenhouse. They are super-sensitive to humidity, so I make sure their humidifier is topped up and they have a good supply of water in their cage. They’re fed a diet of fruit flies and if they don’t have a rich supply of them they’ll turn on each other instead.

08:20am

I turn my attention to the larger mantises. For all ages above 4th instar (mantises the size of a 5p coin) they are kept in their own cage. They’re very cannibalistic and will turn on each other, so separation is important. Their cages are rinsed and if heavily soiled scrubbed with a mild detergent. They’re fed a single cricket 3 times per week, with the size of the cricket corresponding to the size of the mantis. They’re surprisingly happy to wrestle with prey much larger than themselves, but I like the prey to be manageable. If they put up too much of a fight, the mantises eyes can be damaged – and that’s not good when they’re used for experiments involving their vision!

10:00am

The locusts now get their pampering. They’re a lot more “sociable” than mantises, so they’re kept together in cages of 100-200 or so individuals. They’re arranged chronologically, starting from young hatchlings and ending with young and then mature adults (12 weeks old). Their cages are cleaned by hand, usually via a small hatch at the front of the cage. The trick is to clean up around the locusts without exciting them too much, minimising the number that escape. I’ll still spend some time chasing around after escaped locusts – it’s all part of the job.

10:30am

I put on a fresh pair of lab gloves and provide the locusts with their feast. This includes a range of organic food (they’re very sensitive to pesticides), including dried bran, carrots and cabbage. The main constituent of their diet is fresh wheatgrass, which I grow from seed myself. They’ll happily demolish a sizeable pile of this every day, so they’ll need a fresh supply whenever I attend the lab.

11:00am

At the end of the week I tend to the locust egg pots. These are filled with layers of sand and water and placed in cages of breeding adults for them to lay their eggs in. Used pots are placed in an incubator in small containers and fresh egg pots are given to the locusts. It takes around 2 weeks for young to emerge. Every few weeks the oldest adult locusts are transferred into the “young adult” cage, the cage is placed in the cage washer (an industrial dishwasher) and a new cage is set up.

 

11:30am

The lab is cleaned up. Most days this will involve a quick go around with a vacuum fitted with special filters. Towards the end of the week I like to be a bit more thorough. Surfaces in the lab (especially near the locusts) are cleaned with a mild detergent and a steam mop is used to clean the floor. Insects are anything but neat!

12:00pm

Typically, I will have finished my duties in the lab by this time. I have a shower and change my clothes to get rid of any allergens on my skin. I’ll then update spreadsheets on the computer which track the status of mantises – any moulting into adults, any deaths and any little ones separated into their own cages. I’ll also spend some time answering emails and ordering supplies for the lab. I try to be as self-sufficient as possible with the insects - breeding locusts and mantises is always more economical and more rewarding than buying them in.

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