Friday, February 7, 2020

Avoiding Despair in the Age of the “Insect Apocalypse”

My social media feed (well, Facebook is admittedly the only one I devote any time to) is full of dire warnings of disappearing bees, fireflies blinking to extinction, and how light pollution and pesticides are dooming everything, and all manner of other negativity. The most empathetic of humans are the ones most devastated by this media bias, and if there is one thing we cannot afford it is the extinction of hope. Here are some things to consider.

Fiery Skipper on mint in a Kansas garden

1. Do not underestimate the ability of natural systems to rebound from even catastrophic events. Nothing is permanent, our present civilization likely included, but as long as there are reservoirs of habitat, recolonization of even the most compromised of locations is possible, provided the refuges are of good size themselves, and reasonably close in proximity to the damaged areas.

This same principle of recovery exists at every level in nature. I like to remind homeowners and gardeners that trees can survive nearly complete defoliation by insects in a given year, provided the plant is healthy in most other respects. Native plants tend to be vastly better at taking a licking and bouncing back than some exotic cultivar.

2. Assert your rights. You have a right to a planet with its full complement of species. Claiming you speak for other species, or suggesting rights of nature, or espousing the need to preserve nature for future generations, are all weak arguments. You are not Dr. Doolittle, and other species don’t care whether we appreciate them or not. Rights of nature is a noble goal, but is a rarely successful strategy, and only when it is initiated and driven by indigenous peoples. Arguing for conservation and preservation for future generations is a loving sentiment, but it undermines the urgency of action we must have. It also ignores the work of previous generations. Things could already be worse were it not for the likes of John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Theodore Roosevelt….

It is much more difficult to argue against the idea that other human beings have a right to bird, fish, hunt, and otherwise recreate in a manner that stems from an appreciation of, if not reverence for, wildlife. Use that to your advantage when making your case at the next public hearing, or HOA meeting.

3. Don’t play favorites. We do not get to choose which species to share our property with. Milkweed beetles, bugs, aphids, and moth caterpillars have as much of a right to “your” milkweed plants as Monarch butterflies do. Indeed, you are doing something wrong if your insect diversity is low. Revel in the variety of species. Study them. Share what you learn with others.

4. Lead by example. Don’t wait for someone else to make the first move. Turn your lawn into a meadow or prairie, or at least let the clover, dandelions, and plantain grow. Practice “weed tolerance” for all but the state-listed noxious species. Install “bee condos” as supplemental housing for native, solitary bees and wasps. Leave a heaping brush pile as cover for birds and small mammals. Let things be a little messy. Tell the neighbors you are not a lazy homeowner, but that you are promoting biodiversity. Offer to explain what that means and why you derive joy from it.

Write that letter to the editor. Participate in a public process to draft new codes for property owners (residential, commercial, government) that reflect a commitment to enhance or restore native plant communities and their attendant animal residents. Initiate the process if necessary, through petitioning or pestering your government representatives at whatever level is appropriate.

5. Forge new alliances. Join astronomers in promoting dark sky initiatives to reduce the impact of light pollution on nocturnal animal species. Seek out Native American groups to begin rights of nature campaigns, or address other common environmental issues. Use your white privilege not to lead people of color, but to empower them to take leadership roles for themselves. Heck, start by recognizing you have white privilege and accepting that it may be necessary to solve environmental racism first, before going on to the next issue.

6. Remember the “history” part of “natural history.” Remind yourself and others that we need to pay the same respect to our natural heritage that we pay to our human history. We have “living history” at parks and monuments, yet we do not have a mandate to preserve a historical spectrum of ecosystems within local, state, provincial, regional, and national parks. Why not? Let us relax our notion of “wilderness” to extend beyond roadless areas to urban parks, restored brownfields, manmade wetlands, and other non-traditional definitions. Somewhere between bringing back mastodons and declaring a parking lot an ecosystem, there is room for an expanded definition of wilderness.

No one is going to do all of the above, let alone very well. Pick a place to start. Forgive yourself the failures, most of which will only be what you personally perceive as failures. Add to this list in your comments. Share your own experiences and hopes and how you plan to achieve them. Respond to every demoralizing story with the determination of a rose bush under an aphid attack.

Firefly, Pyractomena sp., Wisconsin

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bug Eric 2020 Outlook

This blog has slowed down considerably as I turn my attention to Sense of Misplaced blog to address larger social, environmental, and justice issues. However, I am still actively engaging in entomology activities. That will be more evident this calendar year.

Black Swallowtail butterfly from the 2019 City Nature Challenge in Colorado Springs
Speaking Engagements

I may be coming to a location near you this spring, summer, or fall. I have been invited to give a keynote address for The Biggest Week in American Birding the evening of Tuesday, May 12, 2020 at Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center in Oregon, Ohio (near Toledo), courtesy of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory. The topic will be “Birding and Bugwatching in the Age of Animal Decline.”

I will be participating in a panel discussion on the “insect apocalypse” at the North American Prairie Conference in Des Moines, Iowa the evening of Monday, July 20, 2020. More details will be forthcoming.

Last but not least, I will be a keynote speaker for the autumn Roan Mountain Naturalists’ Rally at Roan Mountain State Park, Tennessee, the evening of Saturday, September 12, 2020. I will also be leading a field trip in the park that afternoon before the presentation.

Colorado Springs Bioblitz Events

Colorado Springs will be participating in the City Nature Challenge for the second consecutive year, April 24-27, recording image and/or audio observations in iNaturalist. April 28-May 3, experts will be identifying the images and recordings submitted.

This summer the City of Colorado Springs has seen fit to schedule two more bioblitzes. The first is a public event at Stratton Open Space, June 19-22. Many organizations will have informational tables at the “base camp,” and science teams ranging from entomology to mycology to botany will be on hand recording observations that will be entered into iNaturalist.

The second bioblitz will be for science teams only, at Jimmy Camp Creek Park, July 18-19.

Book Projects

The most exciting news is that I am now under contract to complete two books this year, for publishers who must remain anonymous and on subjects that I cannot reveal. Watch this space for updates as I am permitted to share them.

New Blog Feature

Soon I will be adding another tab at the top of this blog’s home page that will link to more of my insect-related writings online. Please comment if you find any of the links anywhere on my blog are broken. I continue to moderate comments on my posts at least once per week.

Thank you again for your support and encouragement. Have a great 2020 and make sure you get outdoors as often as you can.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

One Night, One House, Seventeen Spider Species

In honor of "Arachtober" over on Flickr, I thought I would share what I discovered when I walked around the exterior of a house, garage, and woodshed at night in the northern reaches of Door County, Wisconsin, USA, on June 24, 2019. We rented the house for a few days for a family gathering. It sits in a forested area right on the shore of Lake Michigan on the Green Bay side, with Plum Island and Washington Island on the horizon. This particular evening was cool and wet, with intermittent rain showers. Imagine what a dry, warm night would be like.

Orb Weavers: Araneidae

Orb weavers often construct their webs under the eaves of structures, and are usually more conspicuous after dark. They seem to understand that outdoor lights attract more prey than they would catch out in the darkness. I spied at least three species this night:

Trashline Orbweaver, Cyclosa sp.

Furrow Orbweaver, Larinioides cornutus

Bridge Orbweaver, Larinioides sclopetarius

Long-jawed Orb Weavers: Tetragnathidae

Interestingly, the one long-jawed orb weaver I found was sitting snugly against the side of the woodshed with no web in sight. It may be that they take the day shift. These spiders are recognized by their long bodies and long legs, and having their webs oriented in the horizontal plane (usually), often over water.

Long-jawed orbweaver, Tetragnatha sp.

Cobweb Weavers: Theridiidae

Cobweb weavers are the spiders most associated with human habitations and buildings. There are plenty of crevices in which to hide, and the style of their snares requires little in the way of points of attachment. The space beneath an overhanging piece of siding offers enough dimension to spin a web.

Immature Common House Spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum

Male (left) and female cobweb weavers, Steatoda sp.

Funnel Weavers: Agelenidae

Among the most abundant spiders I encountered this night were funnel weavers. Crevices in stonework around the house and garage and shed allowed for a dense population, but some of the younger spiders were simply wandering, perhaps looking for new and better places to spin webs.

Funnel weaver, Coras sp.

Sac Spiders: Clubionidae

Many spiders don't bother spinning webs, but simply prowl around seeking prey. Chief among them are sac spiders. I saw at least three different individuals. They can appear and disappear rather quickly, so there were probably many more that I missed simply due to poor timing. The cool weather did slow them down a bit, though.

Sac spider female
Female sac spider, Clubiona sp.

Sac spider male
Male sac spider, Clubiona sp.

Wolf Spiders: Lycosidae

Wolf spiders are also common nighttime hunters. They are seen mostly on the ground and on objects in the horizontal plane, but some species are surprisingly agile climbers. Wolf spiders are easily recognized by their eye arrangement. A row of four small eyes near the base of their jaws, with two very large eyes right above that row, and the final two eyes set far back on the carapace.

Wolf spider at night
Female wolf spider, Trochosa sp.

Nursery Web and Fishing Spiders: Pisauridae

The largest spiders you are likely to see in the eastern United States and adjacent Canada are the fishing spiders. Despite their name, many species are found far from water, hiding in treeholes and other shelters during the day. They can be startling if encountered suddenly and unexpectedly on tree trunks or the sides of buildings at night. I was prepared to see them and was not disappointed.

Immature Dark Fishing Spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus

Mature male Striped Fishing Spider, Dolomedes scriptus

Jumping Spiders: Salticidae

Most jumping spiders are active by day, but you can still see them at night, especially if they have taken to sheltering in place on the sides of homes and buildings. They hunt by sight, without webs, and are the smallest of the common prowling spiders.

Jumping spider, Naphrys pulex

Adult male jumping spider, Evarcha sp.

Gray form male of the Dimorphic Jumper, Maevia inclemens

Crab Spiders: Thomisidae

Crab spiders can turn up almost anywhere. They are classic ambush hunters, several species hiding in flowers to wait for pollinating insects to come within reach of their elongated first and second pairs of legs. The spiders are highly sensitive to motion, and if you don't approach slowly they are quick to sneak inside a crack or dodge behind foliage.

Female ground crab spider, Xysticus sp.

Sheetweb Weavers: Linyphiidae

Members of this family spin flat, convex, or concave webs, depending on the genus. Each style is tailored to capturing a different suite of insects. The spiders hang upside down on the web and will respond to entangled prey at any time of day. Mature males, like most male spiders, cease to spin webs and devote the remainder of their lives to seeking mates. They do not even feed during their quest.

Female hammock spider, Pityohyphantes sp.

Unidentified male sheetweb weaver

What's lurking around your house? I highly recommend taking the time to inspect the exterior of your home with a flashlight at night. You will be surprised and, hopefully, delighted by the many organisms you find. Besides spiders, I also saw a soil centipede, various woodlice (terrestrial crustaceans that include sowbugs and pillbugs), a harvestman (aka "daddy long-legs," arachnid order Opiliones), and of course many insects. Good luck, happy "Arachtober!"

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Shoot it with a camera or your phone, though. Yesterday I once again found myself grateful for having paid attention to something I could have easily dismissed. Nothing bad can ever come from taking a moment to take a second look, and recording that observation whenever possible.

© Gary Larson via Pinterest

As a volunteer expert on social media, I cannot count the times someone has begun their post in an insect identification group with "I don't have an image, but...." I am tempted to start replying "Well, I don't have an answer, but...." I would never do that. I enjoy a good mystery too much, and believe in rewarding curiosity and a desire to learn.

There is still no substitute for a clear image of the creature you would like identified, and increasingly there is no excuse. Smart phones can now take professional-grade images that only dedicated cameras could manage a few minutes ago. You are forgiven if you had other priorities at the time, like eating, being engaged in an important conversation, or in a business meeting, for example.

The situation I am referring to is when you are out observing wild things anyway, and you still decide not to bother recording something. This is a failure I am occasionally guilty of, too, but I am working to rectify it. It gets worse the more you think you know, the more you think you recognize a specimen without close inspection.

A male Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly

Yesterday I visited the Pueblo Reservoir Wildlife Area west and north of Lake Pueblo State Park in Colorado, thanks to my friend Tim Leppek who has been there many times and knows the area well. As is our custom, we made scant horizontal progress over several hours of walking along the mostly dry basin and channel. Dragonflies were still in abundance, mostly meadowhawks in the genus Sympetrum, as they persist late into autumn.

A male Striped Meadowhawk dragonfly

One dragonfly stood out, its wings shimmering more brightly than the others. I almost dismissed it as a teneral specimen, one that had just recently emerged as an adult, with mature adult pigments yet to manifest themselves. It flew relatively weakly as well, which is also typical of newly-minted adult odonates. I took a picture anyway, in the harsh afternoon sun, then reviewed the image on my camera screen and reacted "what the..??" I looked up from my camera and the crystal phantom was nowhere to be seen.

Fast forward to after I returned home, and began looking in my dragonfly books. There were no obvious photo matches in any of them. The closest approach was a female Bleached Skimmer, Libellula composita, the name alone being most appropriate considering how bright the thing was in the field. Looking online I finally managed to find a couple of images of that species, and that gender, that did match.

The female Bleached Skimmer

The Bleached Skimmer is well known from southeast Colorado, with records from Weld, Kiowa, Prowers, Bent, and Pueblo counties. The first specimen dates to July 11, 1991 in Lincoln County. The one from yesterday may represent the latest date for the species in Colorado, but I'll have to check with all the relevant authorities to know for sure.

Think about what you might be overlooking, and look again. Devote a few pixels to it. Share it. Maybe it is something common and well known in your area. There is no shame in redundancy if that is the case. Eventually, something you spot won't be common or well known, at least in your location, and your observation will be greeted with great appreciation by the scientific community.