By now everyone has heard of the tradition in birding called a “Big Year,” in which you see how many species of birds you can find in a calendar year. There have been books written and movies made about this practice, and the competition can be fierce in some circles. This afternoon a friend told me she’s going to do a big birding year in 2020, and I got an idea: I’m going to do a Big Bug Year!
I’ll include all arthropods, so that means spiders will be fair game as well as any type of insect (including my favorites — odonata!). This is purely a personal project; I’m not competing with anyone because that’s what sucked the joy out of birding for me. I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. I’ll probably actively search out places to find new species, but I still want to enjoy each encounter, and hopefully take the time to learn more about each new critter I come across. This Big Bug Year will cover the calendar year 2020, so it has officially begun even though I haven’t found any insects so far. I started the year off sick and even if I hadn’t been bedridden, it’s still winter in Ohio, after all. I might get a jump start if I head down to Texas in March as I’m hoping to, but otherwise I wouldn’t expect to make much headway up here in Ohio until probably April.
I’m excited about this! As I started thinking about it, I checked my observations from iNaturalist and was stunned to discover that I’d photographed and identified 293 species of arthropods in 2019. (All but two of those were in Ohio.) And I’ve got around 100 photos that haven’t been positively identified yet, so that number might increase. And I haven’t checked, but I’m sure a large percentage of my observations in 2019 were moths I saw at Mothapalooza, and since there isn’t a Mothapalooza in 2020, I would expect my species count to be lower this year. But again, not competing, so the numbers are just interesting, that’s all.
I think that my interest in studying insects marks an important step forward in my evolution as a naturalist because insects are at a lower trophic level in the food web, and therefore more foundational to the ecosystem. Learning about insects has given me a deeper understanding of how all of life truly is interconnected. (And, by the way, a few years ago I’d never heard the term “trophic level,” so that’s progress too.) Put simply, trophic levels are a way of looking at the food web by describing who eats whom in the process of passing the sun’s energy through various life forms.
As you can see in this graphic, the first trophic level is composed of plants and algae. The next level contains insects and other herbivores, i.e., those who eat the plants in the first level. And so it goes up the pyramid. The higher levels consume those in the lower levels. When you see it illustrated like this, it becomes very clear that everyone needs to eat plants, whether directly or indirectly.
When I first started learning about native plants through my membership in Wild Ones, I found that one of the keys to their importance is that they are hosts to many more species of insects than non-native plants are. A “host plant” is one that a specific insect species can use to raise its young. Insects have complex chemical relationships with plants, and there are some plants that just cannot serve as food for certain insects or groups of insects.
The most widely-known example of this is the monarch butterfly. The monarch absolutely must lay its eggs on milkweed plants, because when the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs, they can only eat milkweed. That’s it. If there’s no milkweed, then the monarch butterfly will quickly go extinct. Some people suggest that the caterpillars would evolve to be able to eat something else, but research has shown that type of evolution to take a very long time. There’s simply not enough time for a species to evolve in that way before it dies out. And so it is with many insects, including the pollinators that are crucial to the human food supply. Therefore we need to increase the proportion of native plants throughout the world in order to increase the chances that we can save a diverse enough range of insect species that our own survival won’t eventually be threatened.
Starting to get the idea now? I’ve been amazed to discover some of this stuff, and rather incredulous that it wasn’t taught to me in school. This basic understanding of how ecosystems work should be presented to all of us in high school, if not sooner.
So, let’s get back on track. (Bear with me…I’m trying to wrap this up!) Why do we care how many species of insects can live off of any particular plant? Don’t we hate all insects and kill every one we find? Well, it’s true, many people do live that way, unfortunately. But I’m hoping to get people to see insects differently, and learn to tolerate them rather than killing them indiscriminately. (Before all the vegetable gardeners write me angry emails, I’m not suggesting you allow the insects to devour all of your crops. But maybe, just maybe, you can allow them to have some of them?)
I’ll end with one more mind-blowing fact that you may not have heard: Birds have to feed their babies with insect protein. Lots of it. You may feel good about helping birds when you hang seed feeders in your yard. But that only feeds birds after they’re fledged from the nest. Even as adults, birds still get the majority of their nutrition from insects rather than seeds, but baby birds need insects. And ONE brood of baby birds can eat 6,000-9,000 caterpillars before they leave the nest. Here’s an article from the National Audubon Society that explains more about the research on that.
So if you’re a bird-lover, it makes sense that you will want to start growing native plants to support the entire life cycle of the birds that could potentially nest in your yard if they know there’s going to be a good enough supply of caterpillars there. It’s sure worth trying, isn’t it?
I hope you’ll check back in here occasionally to read about progress with my Big Bug Year. I’ll bet we all learn something from it.
(In the meantime, if you want to learn more about using native plants in your yard, hop over to the “Learn” page on my chapter’s Wild Ones website.)