Nature Watch: Bug Out
About the author: Steve Ellis is a naturalist and Land Trust member who enjoys sharing his love of the natural world. His blog series, “Nature Watch,” will appear each month in “Habitchat,” chronicling native plants and wildlife you can expect to see during that particular time of year. We thank Steve for sharing his passion, illustrating the importance of island conservation.
August’s hot weather spurs growth of insect populations. It’s the perfect time for a bug out.
True bugs are a specialized group of insects. Most people use the words bug and insect interchangeably and we’ll stick to that pattern in this blog entry.
Open areas such as fields and clearings host several insect species readily found in August. Search these open areas and weedy sites for woodland skippers, a small orange butterfly that nectars from the blooms of various weeds and wildflowers.
Carolina grasshoppers inhabit fields and ditches. The black wings with yellow bands are reminiscent of mourning cloak butterflies. At 2.25 inches, female Carolinas are this area’s largest grasshoppers.
Delicate-looking green lacewings have green bodies and clear wings with green veins. Lacewings prey on aphids and other small pests, and might turn up during a search of your yard.
Forests have their own suite of bugs. While strolling down a wooded path, you may encounter a small bee-like insect seemingly suspended in midair. This is a species of hover fly. Males stake out a sunny patch and hover in the hope that a potential mate will pass by. They will chase off rival males and return to their preferred patch. One may even fixate on a button of your shirt, and by moving slowly from side to side you can dictate the hover fly’s position.
Western thatch ants have dark bodies and red heads. Their colonies are known for building mounds of vegetation what can reach a height of 18 inches. If this isn’t sufficient room for the colony, multiple mounds are constructed.
The most productive habitat for insects is found in wetlands, where a conspicuous local denizen is the Eight-spotted skimmer. This dragonfly has two black and two white spots along each of its four wings. The abdomen – a dragonfly’s longest body portion – is bluish on the male, while the female’s is dark brown with yellow stripes on each side. Males patrol stretches of pond and lake shorelines. Females lay their eggs by dipping briefly into the water.
Whirligig beetles, tiny ovals no more than a quarter inch long, reach their peak populations in August. They’re found on ponds where they gyrate madly on the surface, feeding on the bodies of other insects. When disturbed, they dive for safety and take an air supply with them in the form of a bubble.
Many insects are nocturnal, making a nighttime bug out quite productive. Don a headlamp and look for the dozens of moth species abroad after dark. Most are small and belong either to the Geometrid or Noctuid families. The former spread both fore- and hindwings flat against the perching surface. Noctuids hold their wings over their bodies when at rest, and they’re the species most likely to be attracted to light.
Always keep an eye on the forest floor for insects such as the three species of snail-eating beetles. Their elytra – the shell-like folded wings over the back – are a dark maroon or have a purplish sheen. These ground beetles are fast-moving and prey on snails, slugs and other invertebrates. While not strictly nocturnal, they tend to scurry in the open more often after dark.
If you have difficulty spotting insects during a bug out, cues to their presence can be found quite easily. Holes in leaves that resemble those made by a hole punch were created by leaf-cutter bees. They use rounded pieces of leaves or petals to separate the cells containing the bee larvae.
Drifts of powdery sawdust around a snag or stump indicate the presence of carpenter ants. For those with acute hearing, the high-pitched “zit-zit, zit-zit-zit” chirps of striped crickets can be heard in grassy areas; these are small insects, measuring just a third of an inch.
Very little equipment is needed for a successful bug out. A hand lens can be useful to see insect details and a headlamp is a necessity for nocturnal activity. There are many field guides and some good apps that will help with identification. BugGuide.net is a highly recommended website that allows you to post photos of bugs and experts will respond with identification suggestions.
There are many more insects not covered by this blog. Snakeflies, stink bugs, predacious diving beetles and water boatmen are just some of the little fauna that can entice you to take a closer look at the small things helping to run the natural world.
Flora: Scouler’s willow (Salix scouleriana)
This is one of the most abundant willow species in our area. Reaching a height of 30 feet, Scouler’s willows can be multi-stemmed or have a single trunk. The bark is gray or brown with broad, flat ridges. Unlike most willows, the leaves are leathery with a waxy appearance on top and lighter green below. They grow two to five inches in length and turn yellow in the fall.
The tree blooms in March and April before the leaves emerge. Its blossoms are held in catkins that are pollinated by bumblebees. A tree will hold either male or female blossoms but not both. The seeds are contained in fluff and are scattered by the wind.
Scouler’s willows are used as hosts by Lorquin’s admiral, mourning cloak, and western tiger swallowtail butterflies. Careful examination of the leaves will reveal their caterpillars and many other insects.
Deer browse the foliage and older trees are often utilized by woodpeckers excavating nest cavities or roost holes. These holes are often occupied by chickadees, wrens and nuthatches in following years.
This willow often colonizes recent burns or clearcuts, helping stabilize the soil. It thrives in full sun but can tolerate partial shade. They use any soil type, including those that contain some gravel.
Scouler’s willows are fast-growing and can be added via cutting or through purchases at nurseries that offer native plants. Be sure not to plant them over septic systems or drain fields, as the roots can cause problems.
Adding this willow to your property offers many benefits, from attracting butterflies to providing a splash of color in autumn.
Fauna: Pacific Dampwood Termite (Zootermopsis anguisticollis)
August’s biggest insect spectacle is the swarming of Pacific dampwood termites. They form colonies in rotting conifer logs, stumps and snags. Most members of the colony spend their entire lives in one log, feeding on the surrounding wood.
Each colony is founded by a king and queen that may survive for many years. The colony continues to grow until it becomes overcrowded and a swarm of 50 or more individuals leave to find a new home.
Potential kings and queens fly out in late summer in attempts to start new colonies. They are about one inch in length and have reddish-brown bodies and brownish-gray wings.
Dampwood termites help speed up the return of nutrients to the soil through the decomposition of wood. Their role as prey would be difficult to overstate. Bats, deer mice and shrews prey on termites that have exited the colonies. Large numbers are also taken by bird species too numerous to mention. Two of the more unusual bird species snatching termites from the air are Short-billed (Mew) Gulls and Heermann’s Gulls. The former have arrived from their breeding grounds in Alaska or British Columbia; Heermann’s Gulls have drifted north following nesting on islands off Baja California.
Watch for swarming termites along roads bordered by conifer woods.