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.

Bold jumper - spider - cute face view w sig
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.

Fifth instar monarch caterpillar on my hand w sig
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.)

The Ties That Bind

Prothonotary Warbler - seen at Magee Marsh in Ohio on April 23, 2014.
Prothonotary Warbler – seen at Magee Marsh in Ohio on April 23, 2014.
Photo by Jack Kennard via Flickr Creative Commons license
Photo by Jack Kennard via Flickr Creative Commons license

If your education was like mine, at some point in elementary school you were taught that birds migrate south in the winter.  “South” was usually assumed to mean Florida. In fact, a woman I met recently told me that she honestly thought ALL birds went to Florida for the winter. I was stunned, but then I realized that before I got into birding I had never thought about migration beyond the tiny bit of info I’d been fed in school. I know more about bird migration now though, and there’s one particular aspect of it that I want to share with you, one that might impact how you feel about your morning cup of coffee.

Red-winged Blackbird, another of our migratory species
Red-winged Blackbird, another of our migratory species

But first let’s get a few things straight. Yes, birds tend to live and breed farther north in summer and then go south for the winter. But “north” and “south” are relative. Some birds breed in the Arctic and then fly south only as far as southern Canada or the northern U.S. for the winter. Other birds breed in Canada or the northern U.S. and fly all the way to Central or South America for the winter. Most warblers rely on insects as their main food source, so when insects aren’t available up north, they have to go south. A few species can survive on berries and seeds though, and those birds are sometimes able to stay up north all year (like the Yellow-rumped Warbler, for one).

The Prothonotary Warbler shown at the top of this post will probably spend next winter in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or even Columbia. Then he’ll fly back north, arriving here in Michigan in late April or early May. If he flies from Bogota, Columbia, to Detroit, that’s a distance of 2,653 miles (4,270 km). Think about it: This bird is only 5.5″ long (14cm). If my math is correct, just flying ONE mile is 11,520 times the length of its body. That would be like me (five foot five inches tall) flying almost TWELVE miles with nothing but my own body strength.  When you multiply those numbers by more than 2,500 miles, your mind –and your calculator– will explode with the effort of comprehending it all. Amazing little creatures, aren’t they?

So what do our warblers need while they’re down south? Well, they need a habitat that supports lots of insects–someplace where all the insects haven’t been killed with pesticides. Up until a few decades ago they found a wonderful supply of insects on coffee farms, where coffee was primarily grown in the cover of shade trees. But when the big coffee companies found that they could grow more coffee cheaper if they cut down all the trees, they began to do exactly that. Millions of acres of trees were destroyed in the name of profit. Even then the warblers might have had a chance at living on coffee plants. But the high-yield coffee plants that grow in the sun require lots of pesticides and fertilizers. And those chemicals kill even more of the insects that the warblers depend on for their survival.

Photo by Dr_Relling via Flickr Creative Commons license
Photo by Dr_Relling via Flickr Creative Commons license

Think about it. Even if “our” birds are happy and healthy up here where they breed in the summer, what happens if they can’t survive on their wintering grounds? They won’t be coming back north in the spring, that’s for sure. Imagine what life up north would be like with zillions of mosquitoes and no birds to help you out with that little problem. See how our world is tied together? The health of our ecosystem in North America is directly tied to that of South America. To care for the birds that eat our insects, we also have to make sure they are cared for in their southern habitats too.

This is why there’s an effort to get farmers to go back to the traditional method of growing coffee on shaded plantations that support the birds. Many people say that shade-grown coffee tastes better too, imagine that? Smithsonian bird-friendly-logoRight now there’s only one brand of coffee that has the Bird-Friendly certification from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and that’s Birds & Beans. I don’t mean this to be a commercial for them, but I just wanted to let you know that there are lots of other companies marketing coffee as “bird safe” or “shade-grown,” even though some of those so-called certifications are questionable. If it matters to you, you can read about the certification process on the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center website.