Words Matter

Two bumblebees sleeping on New England asters in my garden — not icky at all!

Gross. Icky. Scary. Disgusting. Creepy crawlies. Those are the kinds of words often used to describe bugs. If you do an internet search on an insect name, many of the first results you’ll get are for websites that tell you how to kill that insect (or arachnid). If you don’t believe me, do a search for “spider in my house,” and see if you don’t get lots of results telling you how to kill it.

It’s a shame that humans have decided that our homes (and even our lawns!) should be sterile havens from those creepy crawlies. In some cases it’s understandable because they can do damage that has a significant financial or health impact, as with termites or rodents. But most insects are harmless to us. When you know more about them, they become much less scary. And as I’m finding, the more you pay attention to them, the deeper your connection to nature becomes. And having a closer relationship to nature is a way to make your life richer.

With that in mind, I’ve been trying to study and photograph various kinds of insects. As you know, 2020 has been my first Big Bug Year. But even before this year, I’d begun tracking insects in my own yard — and in my home. This last part was inspired by the book “Never Home Alone,” by Rob Dunn. Don’t freak out, but there are nearly 200,000 species of insects and other organisms potentially living in your house. Although I’ve only recorded 15 species in my house so far…mostly spiders and ants. (I feel like I need to keep pointing out that spiders aren’t insects, but it’s just easier to keep saying “insects” as an all-inclusive word for the arthropods I included in my project.)

Sometimes I’m amazed at how my attitude toward insects has changed in recent years. I grew up with the feelings toward them that I described in the first paragraph above. I did things as a child that horrify me now, like pulling the lights off of lightning bugs to wear on my finger, or using a magnifying glass to pop ants in the sunlight. I had no concept of them as individual life forms just trying to survive. I feel like I’m trying to make amends now by sharing interesting info about these misunderstood tiny organisms that make up the intricate web of life that supports our own lives.

Common eastern firefly, aka lightning bug — a beneficial insect for your garden ecosystem

Some insects are naturally interesting to us because they’re pretty and we see them on flowers. They’re not threatening at all. For most people, butterflies would be in this category. In my case, dragonflies caught my interest first, and then I began learning butterflies as well. But aside from those more obvious and charismatic insects, it’s a tough sell to get most people to open their minds to being more tolerant of insects, let alone to study them. But I persevere with my mission….

My yard list has 145 insect species at this point, a number that really surprised me. Eventually I’m going to track the changes in insect diversity in my yard as my native plants mature, to see if I can discern any changes. But that’s a separate project for another time.

Everybody loves butterflies like this eastern tiger swallowtail, right?

Because of the pandemic, I didn’t travel far from home this year. All of my insect observations were in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. My Big Bug Year project on iNaturalist shows 351 species at the time of this writing, but there are some caveats to interpreting that number:

  1. Many of my observations are still unidentified at the species level, and some not even at the genus level. I’m nowhere near an expert, and have to rely on people with more knowledge than me for some identifications. And I’ve found that in many cases, insect identification can’t be done from a photograph alone. It requires having the insect in hand to put it under a microscope. And honestly, that level of study is beyond my interest.
  2. Some of the identifications may change as other people review my uploaded photos. The community on iNaturalist is full of dedicated identifiers of various types of life forms, and sometimes they disagree with each other over an identification. I learn so much from the discussions that ensue from some of these (always friendly) disagreements.
Grapevine Beetle - Pelidnota punctata
This grapevine beetle is an inch long — very big for a bug!

Having said that, and after downloading all of my data for the year and starting to sort through it, I’ve already realized that I have tons of questions. And that makes me a happy girl. I could easily spend the next year researching the answers to all of those questions. I’m especially interested in all kinds of beetles right now, as they make up the largest portion of the insect world and are so varied in their ecosystem roles as well as their appearances.

We all know that words have enormous power to influence how people think and respond to ideas. In my own life, I’ve discovered that by consciously changing the words I use in my self-talk, I can drastically alter my feelings and behaviors. If I tell myself that I’m a loser, I’m going to feel and act like one. But if I consistently tell myself I’m strong and can do anything I set my mind to, then I’m going to end up believing that and behaving in ways that make it true.

So I’d like to propose some new words for our conversations about insects and other arthropods (yes, including spiders!). How about cute, amazing, incredible, fascinating, or even funny? If you look at each insect and think about why it’s there and what part of its life it’s showing you, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to want to know more about it. You may still decide you don’t like it, but I think you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll decide you’re glad you discovered it and are sharing this world with such a cool critter. Try it out and let me know!

Black-legged meadow katydid — Adorable! Fascinating!

Yes, We Have Tigers in Ohio

Tiger beetles, that is. (Yes, I used “click bait” to get you excited, and I’m not sorry.)

I know you’re all waiting with bated breath for news of my Big Bug Year, but I’m having some difficulties downloading the data I need from iNaturalist. That will come soon enough, but for today I want to introduce you to one special kind of beetle that’s starting to attract a wider fanbase of human admirers lately.

Six-spotted tiger beetle staring me down (Cicindela sexguttata)

Tiger beetles (Cicindelidae) are a subfamily of the ground beetle family of insects (Carabidae). They’re fast-running beetles with massive, scary jaws. They can run so fast that their vision gets distorted, and they have to stop periodically to reorient themselves as they chase down their prey. This behavior results in their movements being compared to those of shorebirds who run/stop/run/stop. Imagine being an ant and seeing those jaws coming toward you.

The last thing the ant saw was those massive jaws….

Part of the reason there’s more attention on them lately is that my friend Judy Semroc is working on a new book about the tiger beetles of Ohio. I invited Judy to be the speaker at our annual meeting of the Toledo Naturalists’ Association this past week, and our members were enthralled by her talk. She’s one of three co-authors compiling data from around our state for the book, to be published by the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. You’ll remember that Ohio recently finished a three-year survey of our dragonflies, right? (If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you definitely read about it multiple times, as I participated quite enthusiastically.)

LeConte’s tiger beetle (Cicindela scutellaris ssp. lecontei), a subspecies found in the Great Lakes region

The Ohio dragonfly survey was lead by a fantastic team of coordinators in each region of the state, and it’s starting to sound like many of those dragon hunters are going to be on the tiger hunting team next summer too. Bug geeks unite! It’s so nice to have something to look forward to these days; this has really lifted my spirits quite a bit.

Anyway, let’s talk tiger beetles now. Like dragonflies, these insects are quite charismatic, and easily observed with very little training once you know where to look. Ohio has 21 recorded species of tiger beetles, with 18 species recorded on iNaturalist. (I’m not sure about the missing three species, but I’m guessing they’re just too rare to be on iNat yet. I know I’ll get the answer to that question and many more when the new book is published.) By the way, there’s a project set up on iNat where you can contribute your own photographs of tiger beetles to help Judy and her fellow researchers make the new book as complete as possible.

I braved scorching hot sand dunes to find this ghost tiger beetle last summer. (Ellipsoptera lepida)

As you can see from the photos, they’re quite distinctive insects, with their big eyes, long legs, and often metallic backs. The shell-like coverings on their backs are called elytra, and they protect the membranous wings. Tiger beetles hunt primarily on the ground, but when they fly, those elytra lift up so the flight wings can extend. Many of their elytra are brown or black with cream-colored markings that have their own sort of beauty, but the ones that seem to be crowd-pleasers are those that are bright metallic green or blue or purple. This six-spotted tiger beetle is the most common one in Ohio as well as nationwide.

Those long legs help them run fast, as well as to lift them off the hot sand to regulate their body temperature.

Tiger beetles live in a variety of habitats including power line cuts, clay banks, and sunny forest patches. Here in the globally-rare Oak Openings region of northwest Ohio, we’re lucky to have an abundance of sandy places, one of the best places to find these pretty beetles. I’ve found them on the beaches of Lake Erie and on sandy paths in many of our metroparks. But even with all the sand in this area, I’ve only photographed six species of tiger beetles so far. That might be because my attention has been laser focused on dragonflies though. Next summer, while I’ll continue my dragonfly chasing and monitoring activities, I’ll also be making a point of trying to find some more species so I can help fill in our statewide distribution map.

I hope you’ll follow me next summer on my quest to find more of these fascinating beetles and learn more about their lives.

Bronzed tiger beetle (C. repanda), with some lovely cream markings.

Stop the Presses!

Calico pennant with background blurred - w sig
Calico pennant male on equisetum (aka scouring rush)

This isn’t what I’d intended to write today, but something awesome has happened.

Last week I was expecting a long-awaited book, but it was lost in the mail and didn’t arrive on Wednesday as it should have. Aargh! A couple days later, Amazon re-ordered it for me and told me it would arrive on Sunday. Sunday came and went and no package. Double aargh! Why was I so frustrated, you ask?

Well, the book is Chasing Dragonflies, the newest work by my dragonfly kindred spirit, Cindy Crosby. She has authored or collaborated on about 20 books, and her book The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction, was a big help to me in learning more about native plants. So I was thrilled last year when I had the opportunity to contribute some information for her new dragonfly book, and was anxious to find out if any of my stories had made it to print.

But let’s go back to last week for a moment. As I was doing my regular dragonfly survey last Thursday afternoon, I was approached by a smiling man who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him. He reminded me that we’d met briefly once last year and that he’d subscribed to my blog. (Oops, sorry Ron!) He then told me that he’d read Cindy Crosby’s new book and that she had mentioned me several times and even quoted me. This little tidbit of information served to stoke my excitement further, and I conducted the rest of my dragonfly survey with a huge smile on my face.

Chasing Dragonflies book
Finally, in my hands!!

Cut back to today, when I had impatiently resigned myself to just waiting for the book to show up…eventually….  And then, suddenly, it was here!!

I’ve ignored phone calls, chores, and emails today so I could dive into it, and I’m loving it.  Cindy writes about the lives of Odonata, as well as the community of people who study them. I think it would even be engaging to someone who doesn’t particularly have an interest in dragonflies, but just likes to read about the natural world. And who knows, it might motivate more people to join us in monitoring these under-studied insects and their habitats.

Over the past year as Cindy and I have commented on each other’s blogs, I’ve grown to think of her as my dragonfly-sister-from-another-mother. (Ha, this will be the first time she’s heard that one.) I feel a kinship with her through our shared concern for both native plants and Odonata. It’s so nice to know there are women being recognized for their expertise in the male-dominated world of dragonflies. She’s an inspiration to me in many ways.

If you haven’t seen her blog yet, I highly recommend that you check it out. You can subscribe so you’ll get an email each Tuesday with a link to her weekly posts. It’s called Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. She walks her Chicago-area prairies regularly and photographs plants and insects, writing about them in ways that I can only dream of doing.

I’ve already found the places in the book where she used my material (pages 67, 108, and 117), and I have to sheepishly admit that I’m delighted to see myself quoted in print. That’s only happened a couple other times in my entire life.  Maybe I’m silly, but it’s something that has lifted my spirits a great deal today. In this time of isolation and social distancing, it makes me feel that I’m a valued member of a special community, and that my opinions matter. (Hmmm, I should write sometime about the strength of the human desire to be acknowledged and feel valued….)

What the heck, I’ll confess that when I saw that package in my mailbox today, I felt a little bit like Navin Johnson in this clip from the 1979 movie, The Jerk:

So thank you, Cindy, for a wonderfully captivating book and for allowing me to be a tiny part of it. And congratulations on such a successful book project!

Boo-yah! Stop the Presses!

Kim depressed Bitmoji
I don’t have blue hair yet, but I’m considering trying it out.

I know I promised to write about a special native wildflower this time, but there’s BIG news today, so that will have to wait. Yes, thanks to all that’s good and holy, I have FINALLY found my first dragonfly of the season!!! This is what I’ve been waiting for, the thing that I knew would help pull me out of this wretched depressed state.

I had to force myself to go for a walk today, as I’d been moping around at home for days, simply unwilling to be among people. I logged out of the time-sucking social media site a week ago, and have been wallowing in my isolation loneliness. But that’s a self-defeating behavior, I know. In a time when I most need to be around people, I avoid them because it reminds me of how much I miss my friends and how I can’t hug anyone. But I digress.

Just look at this Common Green Darner (Anax junius)!!!!

Common Green Darner FOY - blog

I hadn’t expected to find any odes flying today with the cold north wind, but suddenly there she was, flying low and slow on the edge of a small pond. The cold wind helped bring her to the ground where I was able to get very close to her from a few different angles.

Dragonflies have virtually 360º vision, with their only “blind spot” directly behind the head. So my first approach was from the rear, verrry slowly. I couldn’t believe I was able to get within about four feet of her, shooting from almost directly above. That angle allowed a great view of the distinctive bulls-eye mark on the top of the head of this species.

Common Green Darner female - view from above v1 - blog

Here’s a closer crop of the head:

Common Green Darner FOY top of head crop - blog

Green darners are usually the first species I see each year because they’re migratory, and arrive here before other non-migratory species emerge from the water.

Common Green Darner profile head crop - blog

Whenever I get a chance to get close photos of a dragonfly, I get lost in the wonder of their fascinating bodies and lives. Today during the few minutes I spent with this individual, I was transported out of a world of suffering and fear and into a place where nothing mattered except this insect and me, sharing a moment.

I don’t think she could have possibly enjoyed our special time nearly as much as I did, but I’m grateful that she allowed me to watch her resting and then feeding on tiny insects I couldn’t even see as she grabbed them out of the air. I constantly tell people that nature is healing, but sometimes I forget just how intensely important that healing can be. Like right now.

Kim Bitmoji yayNotice the difference in this second Bitmoji compared to the first one above? That’s what nature can do for you. It’s an exaggeration of how I felt today, but it expresses my relief at finding affirmation that the natural world continues despite our human problems. Our current troubles will end at some point, and I will be able to walk side-by-side with my odeing buddies again. I’m holding on to that for dear life.

Be well everyone, and look for that special wildflower post next. 🙂

My Big Bug Year is Finally Taking Off!

So what is it now, something like week five of the “new normal”? Or is it 500? It’s hard to keep track of time these days. And if you’re like me, you’ve perhaps been surprised at how many different emotions you can feel in a single day on this roller coaster. But I think I’m starting to get adjusted to the routine-that’s-not-a-routine of my new daily life. There’s some peace in accepting that, I suppose. There’s no point in fighting it, in any case.

Brown thrasher - blog
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

I’ve been helped enormously by the emergence of insects, so I can really dig into Kim’s Big Bug Year — finally!!! Every year I watch with envy as my friends to the south start posting their photos of insects many weeks before we have any up here along the shore of Lake Erie. But it’s finally our turn to play, and I’m so grateful that I started this project a couple months ago. And as I’ve been out looking for insects lately, I’ve been surprised to find that I’m rediscovering the joy of birding. Today, for instance, I was walking around a small lake surrounded with woods, when I heard the distinctly beautiful song of a Brown Thrasher. And the encounter was made more special because I was there alone with the bird for a couple minutes, so I could enjoy him without distraction. (You can hear their song here.)

Greater bee fly on bloodroot
Greater Bee Fly probing Bloodroot with his long, stiff proboscis

Our native wildflowers are just starting to bloom, and that’s why the insects are suddenly here in larger numbers and easier to find. I spent a half hour observing various pollinators visiting the alabaster blossoms in a bloodroot patch.  One of the insects I see most often on bloodroot is the Greater Bee Fly. Even before I focus my camera on it, I can see the  long, stiff proboscis probing the center of the flower. I always thought a proboscis was used to gather nectar, but I’ve just discovered that bloodroot doesn’t have any nectar; it only offers pollen to its insect visitors. I think I need to investigate this further, because it doesn’t seem possible that pollen could be sucked up by the proboscis, so why is this particular insect so fond of this plant? In times like this I wish I could have a quick conference call with a botanist and an entomologist!

The lovely leaves of bloodroot persist long after the flower is gone, sometimes until mid-summer.

Bloodroot leaf texture - blog
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Also among the insects cruising among the bloodroot were hover flies, mostly a single species in the Helophilus genus. I believe they’re H. fasciatus, the Narrow-headed Marsh Fly. Hover flies (aka flower flies) are some of my favorite insects because of their intricate patterns of brown and yellow. This one was enjoying a lovely pink patch of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Helophilus fasciatus on Spring Beauty - blog

I’ve also discovered a few new-to-me species, like this Unequal Cellophane Bee. I was intrigued by the name, and found that this family of bees are so named because of  a clear substance they use to line their underground nests. I saw lots of them crawling out of their burrows in the sandy soil and flying around low to the ground. Occasionally a pair would “tussle” on the ground, which I assume was mating behavior.

Unequal cellophane bee - Colletes inaequalis - blog
Unequal Cellophane Bee (Colletes inaequalis)

And this Ridged Carrion Beetle was obviously well named, as you can clearly see the ridges on his elytra.

Ridged carrion beetle - blog

Spiders are out in full force now too, but I know lots of people are squeamish about them, so I’ll only post the one I know can’t possibly be scary to anybody. Meet the most adorable Orbus Paradise Spider, one of the jumping spiders. Jumping spiders have a way of looking at you like they’re as curious about you as you are about them. This was the first time I’d ever heard of this particular group of jumping spiders, and I was so excited I was in my own little paradise as I watched him hopping around in the dead oak leaves for about five minutes. He’s so tiny that each leaf must have been like a mountain to him, but he never faltered, never hesitated, just took a flying leap and kept going. Over and over again.

Orbus paradise spider - jumping spider - Habronattus orbus (1)

Come to think of it, that’s probably a good attitude for all of us as we navigate the coming weeks. We have so little control over what’s happening right now, and that can be scary. But maybe the thing to do is just take a leap of faith that everything will work out. And until things get back to normal, maybe we should also make sure to take a cue from this other little guy, and make some time to nap under the wildflowers.

Gnome napping under bloodroot - blog

Two Things Are Bugging Me

When I wrote my post on January 13 about starting Kim’s Big Bug Year (KBBY), I had completely forgotten that I’d already photographed an insect in 2020. Back on January 5, this little moth was hanging out in my house. He was here for a couple days and then I couldn’t find him again; I wouldn’t be surprised if the last thing he saw was a cat paw.

Grass tubeworm moth
Possible grass tubeworm moth (Acrolophus sp.)

At this point, my best guess is that he was one of the grass tubeworm moths in the genus Acrolophus. I’ve posted this photo in my KBBY project on iNaturalist, and am hoping someone more knowledgeable than me can help narrow down the identification. One of the frustrating things about insect identification is the fact that sometimes you can’t determine the species without examining the bug under very high magnification or seeing various photographic angles. And sometimes you just can’t get the shots you need before the critter disappears. I’ve learned to accept that reality and I’m just happy to learn whatever I can and move on.

This past weekend I participated one of our many Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trips. Our objective was to find urban birds in a metropark along the Maumee River, and we certainly had a gorgeous day for it. The temperature was in the mid-50s…in February…in northwest Ohio! And just look at that sky. That’s a cell phone photo without any editing. So pretty.

Anthony Wayne Bridge over Maumee River

But on this birding trip, I had a side mission: to find a winter stonefly.

As we searched for birds, my friend Mark helped in the quest for stoneflies. He’d told me before that I should be able to find them as my first insects of the year. And sure enough, I found this one basking in the warmth of the sun on the back of a bench beside the river.

Winter stonefly at Middlegrounds
Small winter stonefly (Capniidae family)

These are some of the earliest insects to emerge from the water each year, and they have the ability to withstand much colder temperatures than most other insects. I found an article on the blog of Scientific American that goes into great detail about how they’re able to survive the winter cold, so jump over and read that if you’re interested. (Winter Stoneflies Sure Are Supercool.)

Eastern Comma butterfly - blog
Eastern Comma

So I’ve tallied my first two insects for the year, with many more to come after winter ends. Over in the right sidebar you’ll see my KBBY logo; it’s linked to my observations on iNaturalist so you can check my progress whenever you want. Feel free to place bets on which insect will be my next sighting. I’m thinking it might be one of the butterflies that overwinter here, like a Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, or Question Mark…stay tuned!

My Big Bug Year Begins…Soon

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!

Great spreadwings ovipositing w sig
Great spreadwings ovipositing (inserting eggs into the branch)

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.

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A cute little jumping spider!

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.

Trophic pyramid from Ck12 dot org - creative commons license
(c) CK-12 Foundation; Licensed under Creative Commons

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.

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Last instar of monarch caterpillar, after eating lots of milkweed

Bringing Nature Home cover image Tallamy
Doug Tallamy’s book explains all the basics of insect-plant relationships

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?)

Song Sparrow with food - blog
Song Sparrow with a beak full of protein for nestlings

Kim's Big Bug Year logo 2020.jpgI’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.)

Fall Nectar Bonanza

I just came across a website that claims a native plant garden will starve pollinators of nectar because none of the natives bloom into fall. To that I say, “Poppycock!” We’re well into October now, and every day I watch incredible numbers of pollinators on the native goldenrods and asters blooming everywhere around me. I stand in my garden amidst a buzzing cloud of bumblebees feeding on the New England asters. I go to a park and see the goldenrods vibrating with butterflies and bees.  I took a very short walk today and photographed a dozen species of butterflies, many of whom were feeding on asters. I present the beautiful proof here for your enjoyment. #PlantNativesForCryingOutLoud

Common buckeye on asters w sig
Common Buckeye, feeding on asters

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Wild Indigo Duskywing, looking a bit tattered, feeding on asters

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Bronze Copper, feeding on asters

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Meadow Fritillary, feeding on asters

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And Common Checkered Skipper, also feeding on asters

 

Creatures of the Night, Again

I promised you some really cool pics recently, and then I got distracted and wrote about my dragonfly monitoring. But now I’m refocused and I think you’re going to enjoy this!

In July I wrote about how much fun I had staying out at night to look at moths in southern Ohio. Recently I’ve become hooked on another nighttime activity here in the opposite corner of the state. Along with a small group of friends, I’ve been going out to hunt caterpillars and other insects by flashlight. These night hikes have been hugely entertaining, and I think you’ll be amazed at the creatures I have to show you. Keep in mind as you look at these photos that these are not exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.

Using a UV flashlight to light up a caterpillar
A few of my friends on the hunt for caterpillars

Many caterpillars are more active at night, so that’s a great time to go out with a UV flashlight to observe them.  Believe it or not, some of them glow when you shine the black light on them. This makes it much easier to find them in the dark than when they’re camouflaged in vegetation during the day. So we start our outings as soon as it gets dark, and stay out until we’re too tired to keep going. There’s always so much to see that I hate to stop, even when I’m exhausted.

Notice the white circle in the photo above. The caterpillar (“cat” for short) in that shot is this one, which I think is a Waved Sphinx Moth cat. Here it is:

Waved sphinx moth w sig - blog
Waved sphinx moth larva (Ceratomia undulosa)

I’ve had some challenges trying to photograph these cats in the dark. On the first outing, I tried using an old ring flash unit on my 100mm macro lens, but didn’t get good results with that and was frustrated. Then I removed the ring flash and just used the built-in flash on my camera. The problem with that is that the camera can’t focus unless you also light the subject with additional light. So I was holding a flashlight in one hand and camera in the other. That was better, but awkward. My friend Jackie tried holding a small flashlight in her mouth! That worked but wasn’t optimal.  So some of us took turns holding flashlights for each other, and that was much better, especially once I got my other camera settings adjusted properly.

Several of my friends have nice twin light flash units, and those seem to be the way to go for this type of photography. Those units have a flash on top, but also extra lights on each side that light the subject so you can focus before the flash goes off. I think I’m going to try to get one of those before our next outing so I can be more self-sufficient and not need someone else to hold a flashlight for me every time I want to take a photo.

Okay, that’s enough of the technical stuff. You wanna see some of the awesome things we found? Let’s start with one of the best ones, the Io moth caterpillar. Isn’t he gorgeous?!

Io Moth caterpillar
Io moth (Automeris io)

During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:

Io moth on Angie's pant leg - blog

I find it fascinating that the caterpillar forms and the adult moth forms seem to have nothing in common in terms of color or pattern.  In this case, the caterpillar is white with green spines and red stripes, and it turns into a yellow moth with black and orange markings.

This next one was the highlight of my night when we found it. I’d seen it online many times and hoped to see one for myself for a long time. This is the Saddleback caterpillar, and it has venomous spines that can cause severe burning and blistering if you touch it. So we didn’t. (In fact, there are many caterpillars with spines or long hairs, and most of them can can cause you varying levels of pain if you touch them.)

Saddleback caterpillar
Saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea)

The first Saddleback we saw that night was on a leaf above our heads, and we had to contort ourselves to get photos of it. But I was amazed at how tiny it was. When you see pictures of caterpillars online or in a book, it’s hard to get perspective on their true sizes. From what I’d seen online, I guess I thought this thing would be four inches long, but it was less than an inch from end to end. Such a crazy-looking insect! And when it metamorphoses into its adult moth form, it will be so much less striking, just a dull brown with a couple of white spots.

This next one was much beefier, and we found a lot of them feeding on sassafras trees, one of their favorite host plants. This is the larval form of the Promethea moth:

Promethea moth caterpillar close head crop - blog
Promethea moth caterpillar (Callosamia promethea)

I’ve never seen the adult form of this moth (yet), but it’s one of the large silk moths, with pretty patterning in shades of brown and white. I hope to see it at Mothapalooza next time.

Most of the cats we found were the larvae of moths, but here’s one of the butterfly larvae. This is the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, with fake eyes that are supposed to scare predators away.

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Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar (Papilio glaucus)

Next up…hmm. Nothing to see here, just us sticks! Don’t be fooled by this stick mimic caterpillar, with his ingenious camouflage technique. There are lots of this type and I haven’t figured out which one this is, but I find these so fascinating.

Stick mimic moth caterpillar - blog

As I write this, I’m having a hard time choosing which ones to show you…I have a hundred photos of caterpillars and other insects from these hikes.  I should probably write a book called, “Creatures of the Night” so I can share all of them in one place. And I’m getting immense pleasure out of looking at these photos again, because it brings back the joy of discovery and being out in nature at night with nothing but a few flashlights to illuminate our surroundings.  On the first outing I was surprised at how giddy I felt, like a kid being allowed to stay out after the streetlights come on. Think about it though, when is the last time you were outside after dark in the woods? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just not something most of us do anymore, and that’s a shame because there’s so much out there to enjoy.

Pawpaw sphinx moth caterpillar - blog
Pawpaw Sphinx Moth caterpillar (Dolba hyloeus)

The sphinx moth caterpillars are distinctive, with their diagonal slashes and horns (some of them are also called hornworms). I just found out the reason they’re called sphinx moths; it’s because when they’re disturbed they often lift their heads up in a sphinx-like defensive posture.

And here’s another cool one, the White Furcula moth. (He’ll be white in his moth form.) Check out that long forked “tail” appendage!

White furcula moth caterpillar - blog

That forked appendage is one of his primary defenses, as he can pump fluid into it to lengthen it enough that it can slap down in front of his head to (hopefully) deter a predator.  Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!

Did you know that birds need extremely high numbers of caterpillars to raise their babies? We think we’re helping the birds by providing seed in feeders, but that only helps the adult birds. Baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food with a high protein content. And that usually means caterpillars. In fact, one pair of chickadees will need to deliver up to 9,000 caterpillars to their chicks before they can leave the nest.  That’s just one pair! So if you really want to help the birds raise their families in your yard, you’ll want to grow as many native plants as possible. (That’s because native plants support many more caterpillars than non-native plants do; I need to write more about that soon too.)

Most caterpillars don’t survive to become adult moths or butterflies, in fact. That probably explains their many ingenious defensive adaptations, from poisonous spines to fake eyes to pretending to be a stick — anything to try and avoid becoming a bird’s next meal.

Spring peeper - blogOkay, that’s probably enough to give you an idea of how much fun it can be to look for stuff in the woods at night. Oh, and as I mentioned above, it’s not just about caterpillars. We found lots of cool crickets, spiders, and frogs, like this adorable spring peeper!

And this last photo shows how excited I was to be out there in the dark, hunting tiny insects with my friends. What a dork! But I can’t wait for our next foray into the night.

Kim on night hike
Kim the Bugdork (don’t judge me, LOL)

What I Learned from a Summer of Ode Monitoring

Earlier this year I was asked by Metroparks Toledo to start a program to monitor the dragonflies and damselflies at one of our local parks. I wrote a little bit about it in this post at the beginning of the summer, but now I’m finishing up the first monitoring season and have some thoughts about the experience.

Lake view at Wiregrass
View of Wiregrass Lake from the south end

Just to quickly recap for those who don’t want to click back and read the earlier post, the park system has some concerns about what might be causing a perceived decline in odonata at Wiregrass Metropark. This property is basically a small lake with a half-mile walking trail circling the water, and it’s known as one of the best parks in Toledo for watching odes. (This is where I led the dragonfly walk for Toledo Naturalists Association in June.) But Metroparks wants to gather data to see if there really is a significant decline happening here, and if so, to take action to remediate any negative environmental factors that might be contributing to it.

Path around Wiregrass Lake with goldenrod
Trail around the lake

So we divided the lake into quadrants and I was to visit once in every ten-day period through the summer to do a survey.  I counted the numbers of each species that I found in each quadrant, and made note of weather conditions on each count day.  I thought I was pretty familiar with this lake from my own visits there to photograph odes in the past couple years, but I have a different relationship with it after visiting so often and watching things change week by week.

As you know, I’m interested in all insects, not just odonata. And I pay attention to plants too, especially noting what’s native and what’s not. My plant knowledge is much more basic than my bug knowledge though. I’ve enjoyed watching not only the changes in insects through the season, but the changing landscape when different plants are in bloom.

Calico Pennant w sig
Calico Pennant

Dragonflies don’t have any connections to specific plants in the way that butterflies and moths do. For example, moth and butterfly larvae (caterpillars) are restricted to feeding on specific plants or plant families, so their populations fluctuate with the presence or absence of their host plants.  Odes don’t tend to perch on flower heads because they’re not pollinators, but I’m always hoping for those extra nice photo opportunities when they do.

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Dragonfly exoskeleton after emergence

Some things that could impact the populations of odes at this location could be water quality, or the quantity of emergent vegetation around the edges of the lake. Many species of dragonflies lay their eggs in plants that grow in the water, so that when the eggs hatch, the larvae will be able to drop down into the water. Dragonflies and damselflies live most of their lives as underwater insects before crawling out of the water and becoming adult winged insects.

The northern half of Wiregrass Lake’s shoreline is pretty heavily vegetated, with the only access being provided by several stone fishing platforms. The southern half is much more open, and Metroparks has placed signs prohibiting shore access on the southern end of the lake, in hopes of protecting the habitat there. This is where I see most of the odes on my surveys, but I can’t be sure if that’s due to the particulars of the habitat or just because it’s the most accessible portion. There could be just as many dragons flying on the north end, but I can’t see the lake up there, except for a few small openings.
Stay on Trail sign at Wiregrass

Prince Baskettail in flight
Prince Baskettail

Some species are most likely to be seen flying over the water, like the Common Green Darner, Black Saddlebags, and Prince Baskettail. Others are often found on the land, like many of the pennants and meadowhawks.  It’s always easier to get photos of them when they’re perched, but sometimes I manage to get in-flight shots of the ones that rarely land. This Prince Baskettail is a species that I’ve never found perched, but since it flies a shoreline patrol pattern that’s fairly predictable, I manage to get decent photos of this one usually.

My survey for the Metroparks doesn’t require that I take photos, but I try to photo-document at least one of each species so I can submit them to the three-year-long Ohio Dragonfly Survey. That statewide effort ends in 2019, so next year I won’t have to spend as much time taking photos and my ode surveys can be done in less time.

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Meadowhawk on ironweed, a native plant

That raises another point about what I’ve learned from doing these surveys so far. In the past couple of years, I’ve relied heavily on my photos to help me confirm identifications of many ode species. Sometimes that’s necessary for the species that require up-close viewing of reproductive appendages, so that’s okay. But I found that I’d relied so much on my camera that I wasn’t able to identify many of the small damselflies in the field. As soon as I started these surveys, I realized that was a problem. On my first survey day, I had to take dozens of photos of damselflies, and then come home and sort through them all to confirm my counts. I tagged them all with their quadrant number based on the time stamps on each photo, so I could put them in the correct column of the count sheet after I identified them.

It was tedious, and that was not going to work for an entire summer!

Here’s just a sample of three species of bluets so you can see how similar they are — keep in mind that they’re about the size of a sewing needle. (You should be able to see them larger if you click on the photos.)

So, I immediately went to my field guides and forced myself to learn them better so I could name them in the field and not have to take so many photos. Things went much faster after I did that.  You would think that someone doing insect surveys must be a very observant person, but I definitely have my weaknesses in that area. In fact, I wrote about an embarrassing episode of mistaken identify here.  I still have to use my camera sometimes to see the detailed marking on the damselflies, but I can usually name them right away now, and don’t have to spend much time at home studying photos.

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Blue Dasher

One other thing I learned is that it’s very difficult to count insects, especially the tiny ones. Sometimes as I move along the trail, I’ll count a Calico Pennant, for example. Then it flies off and I keep walking, and then I see another Calico Pennant land in front of me. Determining if it’s the same one or not is tough sometimes, but I do my best to decide if it could be the one I just saw earlier, or if it’s likely to be a different one. Believe it or not, sometimes I can tell individuals apart by the wear and tear on their wings, so that helps me to avoid double counting. And I’m sure I miss many more than I count, particularly the tiny damselflies that float around in the grass. But I’m hopeful that this survey method will still give us useful data going forward.

I’m so pleased that I’m able to do something worthwhile for Metroparks Toledo, and am also glad that this experience has improved my identification skills. I’m already looking forward to next year, to see how the numbers may be different and whether any new species will show up.

Eastern amberwing - blog sig
Eastern Amberwings are one of the most abundant species at Wiregrass Lake