By Matt Stansberry
Illustrations by David Wilson
For as long as we’ve been here, they’ve been here too. Wherever we’ve traveled, they’ve been there too. And still, we don’t know them very well, not even the ones that eat our food and share our beds. Who are they, these beings so different from us and from each other? What do they do?
Most people don’t like bugs. They are so disconcertingly unlike us – we can’t find ourselves in all those legs, wings and alien faces. Also, our sense of scale prevents us from seeing the vibrant and complex world of insects.
And yet, a growing number of hobbyists are coming together to study insect populations and document their findings.
Ohio is at the forefront of this new wave of amateur entomology, with a host of authors and naturalists providing nonscientists a way to observe and interact with insects beyond anything occurring in other regions.
This close study of insects also provides incredibly granular and specific information about our region’s biggest environmental challenges.
Northeast Ohio wrote the book on dragonfly watching
On a sunny August morning, I meet Judy Semroc and Larry Rosche, Conservation Specialists with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, in a sunny field in Brecksville, where they were waiting for the dragonflies to warm up and take wing.
Semroc and Rosche wrote Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeast Ohio, Second Edition, published in 2008. It’s a staggering work – with big gorgeous photos, scientific illustrations, and species range maps for each county in Northeast Ohio.
I’ve never seen a more comprehensive book on any local nature study. As I flip through pages of huge macro portraits, it dawns on me: each of these 140 species is clearly different. They live in the places we live; the maps match up to our own home territories.
The hobby of bird watching started with the publication of the first field guides, books that allowed casual observers to identify species in the field.
Dragonfly-watching would likewise gain popularity with the introduction of first identification books. But before there were dragonfly field guides, somebody needed to name them.
Common names for the vast number of dragonfly species just didn’t exist until The Odonata Society started cooking them up in the late 1990s. Before that, the scientific Latin labels were all that existed.And the names they came up with are incredible: Sedge Sprite, Seepage Dancer, Vesper Bluet, Ruby Meadowhawk, Cyrano Darner, Dragonhunter, Unicorn Clubtail …
It’s as if they had asked a gang of brilliant kids to take a break from Dungeons and Dragons to come up with the names. There is playfulness and apt beauty to the language.
In our society, where everyone seems to maintain some psychic distance or ironic shield from the expression of wonder, it’s amazing to see it directly focused in these names. This childlike pursuit of discovery and enjoyment – this is what defines bug people.
Today there is a tremendous concentration of dragonfly hobbyists in Northeast Ohio, in large part thanks to Semroc, Rosche, and their co-conspirators Linda Gilbert, a naturalist with the Geauga Parks District, and illustrator Jen Brumfeld, local birding guru and naturalist with Cleveland Metroparks.
Bug nerds in other regions and states should be so lucky.
“The popularity of the hobby is stunning,” Rosche said. “We had a conference in Wooster, just to talk about dragonflies and 150 people showed up. The nationally-recognized keynote speaker had never seen so many people at an event like this. When the parks are selling socks with various dragonfly species on them, you know you’ve hit the big time.”
Most dragonfly hobbyists are converted birders. It’s an easy switch. Birders already know how to look at an animal’s details, to tell one species from another.
Ohio lands somewhere in the middle for dragonfly species diversity. There are over 160 species recorded in northeast Ohio. But southern locales like Texas or Arizona have more.
“We have a lot of species because of the variety of ecosystems in our state,” Semroc said. “But because we haven’t been the best managers ecologically, we are losing and have lost habitats that contain rare dragonflies.”
Semroc’s ultimate goal is to create an army of dragonfly hobbyists to stem the loss of habitat and species diversity.
[blocktext align=”right”]”…one of the best ways to learn biology is through these insects.”[/blocktext] “The total picture of what’s happening in our environment is so hard to see,” Semroc said. “But one of the best ways to learn biology is through these insects. I’m particularly interested in the whole connection of natural history, how everything is interdependent on everything else.”
The more hobbyists there are watching dragonflies, the more conversant people become with their local populations. Ultimately, these folks put in bigger gardens to attract insects; they stop trying to poison the clover and dandelions popping up in their lawns.
If you live near a pond and treat your grass and dump your clippings in the water, the phosphates and nitrogen will promote huge mats of algal growth and dragonflies won’t be able to get out of the water.
“As we lose these large blocks of land, we want to have people band together to help our insects,” Semroc said. “We want people to understand everything that we do impacts natural populations. If people realize something they’re doing is detrimental to an animal that they like, they can try to do things to help them.”
Singing insects of Northeast Ohio
Lisa Rainsong looks like a Ghostbuster, dressed all in khaki and waving around a wand connected to the proton pack she wears on her back.
The wand is actually a shotgun microphone, connected to recording equipment. “I have to explain to my neighbors why I’m creeping around at one in the morning with a headlamp, waving around something that looks like a gun,” Rainsong said. “And ask them not to call the Cleveland Heights Police.”
Rainsong is a member of the Music Theory faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and when she’s not performing, composing or teaching music – she works as a naturalist mainly focusing on the singing insects.
Singing insects – the crickets, katydids, and cicadas – are the soundtrack of late summer. The sound is pervasive, like a tide coming in. You don’t notice it until it’s too late, and it has swallowed you up.
The edges of the Geauga Park District’s Frohring Meadows are alive with jumping bugs. They flip up into the tall flowers for cover. Mostly they’re grasshoppers – a plague of locusts – easily distinguished by their short antennae from more accomplished musicians like the tree crickets and meadow katydids.
Rainsong picks a Slender Meadow Katydid out of the hordes, and pops it into a recycled Parmesan cheese canister. It looks almost exactly like a grasshopper, mint green and all legs. But the antennae are nearly as long as its body.
A field guide, describes the Slender Meadow Katydid’s song as:
An evenly spaced series of clicks or tsips followed by a faint, clicking purr or trill, at a frequency of 10–20 kHz. Song is pleasing to the ear, but difficult to hear because it is exceedingly high and soft.”
Playing the recording back through headphones, to me it sounds like my brain short circuiting, like being electrocuted and having a stroke at the same time. But to each their own. Apparently the females love it.
Singing insects are primarily males making noise to attract females. This seems to be the pattern in the animal kingdom – frogs croaking in the spring, birds calling in the early summer and bugs whirring in autumn – these are all males trying to attract a mate by being the loudest musician.
For a guy who played in middling rock bands through college, this strategy seems familiar.
The singing may also serve to keep males spread out at an optimal distance.
[blocktext align=”right”]”Think of a bar brawl in slow motion.”[/blocktext]Males of some species will fight if they encounter each other. “They’ll pull legs off, and if it gets ugly, they’ll chew each other’s wings off. Think of a bar brawl in slow motion,” Rainsong said. “But mostly they just keep their distance.”
Rainsong hands me the shotgun mic and the headphones, and I wade into the tall grass. There’s something singing on each level in the meadow. I hold her directional microphone to a bee on a flower, I move it up slightly and hear something else, and something else. I can’t identify any of it. Ground crickets, flies, who knows. They’re everywhere.
“The little ztt ztts we’re hearing right now, singing in little bursts – that’s courtship,” she said.
I hand her back the apparatus, and she quickly hones in on a Four-spotted Tree Cricket. In fact, it’s a pair and the male is putting on the moves.
Rainsong shouts, “We have tree cricket foreplay!”
The tree crickets are small and green, not quite grasshopper shaped. I realize I’ve probably heard these insects all of my life, but had never seen one. The female clings to a stem, and the male circles around her. As it sings, it raises wings that would normally be folded over its back and vibrates them to create a high-pitched whir.
Rainsong is particularly adept at focusing on specific insects in the field. “I teach music theory. In ear training, students have to be able to identify and sing back things I play. Musicians need to understand what they’re hearing and how they fit into the overall picture.”
But even with a trained musician’s ear, Rainsong didn’t have a way to match up the songs with the singers until 2007, when Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger wrote the field guide, The Songs of Insects.
“I’ve been listening to these insects forever, and wanted to know who is singing and what they’re saying,” Rainsong said. “When that book came out and the photos and CD matched them all up, it was the answer key. As soon as it was published, word spread like wildfire among the Ohio naturalists.”
While Rainsong says she’s just getting started, she is our region’s foremost authority. She posts recordings and photos to her blog on a regular basis, and presents on singing insects for various parks and nature groups.
“Here locally I’m blazing trail, but people are starting to get interested in this. People want to know what they are hearing, they’re enchanted with it,” Rainsong said. “I bring my field recordings and photos to these programs so people can see the insect, hear the song, and then tell stories about them. Where would you find them? What’s special about their behaviors?”
A lot of beginners might have trouble identifying insects by sound. The songs don’t have a lot of melody, it’s mostly rhythm. And a lot of the songs will be at pitches above the threshold for human hearing. But Rainsong says it’s easy to start out with just a few insects and work your way out from there.
“Pick a handful of common species and learn them first. If you try to learn all of the species in the field guide, you’re doomed. Learn a couple at a time,” she said. “Try to see what you hear. Getting to see an insect links the image and the behavior with the sound, and suddenly it makes a lot more sense.”The height of singing insect activity is from mid-July through September, with different species singing on a somewhat predictable schedule. But with this year’s weather pattern, the orchestra’s arrangement is out of whack.
“Species that should have been done three weeks ago still singing,” Rainsong said. “How do I have Gladiator Meadow Katydids and Texas Bush Katydids singing at the same time? Some are so late in arriving — they might run out of time to mature before Fall comes. It could especially be true of the Round Cone Heads.”
Rainsong studies the impact of climate change on singing insects, and has found several species moving north, into the Snow Belt, where they hadn’t been before.
The Handsome Trig, a colorful little cricket-looking insect about a quarter of an inch long, hadn’t been in the Geauga Park District. Now Rainsong is documenting them at Frohring Meadows and Burton Wetlands.
“Round-tipped Cone Heads – you didn’t see them in our part of the state at all,” Rainsong said. “I’ve gotten them in Cuyahoga, Summit, and Lake County. We hadn’t heard them until the last three years.”
The Jumping Bush Cricket is another invader. Rainsong gets out the field guide and points to the range map showing the population at the edge of Northeast Ohio. “See how the Snow Belt is where the records drop off? I’m tracking Jumping Bush Crickets as they move. There are some at Holden Arboretum. I grew up in Cleveland, and they were not in my neighborhood, and now they’re all over. In University Circle on a September evening, the predominant song is Jumping Bush Crickets. They are making their way northeast.”
A seven-year-old field guide is already out of date, due to runaway climate change. And the person tracking it is an amateur entomologist and professional musician in Cleveland.
Go into the light: Mothing Ohio
Jim McCormac is author of Wild Ohio: The Best of Our Natural Heritage and a naturalist with the Ohio Division of Wildlife. In his profile photo, he looks more like a football coach than a bug nerd, giving a look to the camera that suggests he’s going to make you drop and give him twenty pushups.
He is one of the organizers of Mothapalooza, a festival in Southern Ohio where attendees get to mingle with leading Lepidopterists and run around in the middle of the night witnessing thousands of moths.
Check out these photos. There’s a little girl holding a moth bigger than her hand that looks like it could be a stand-in for Mothra. Dozens of species photographed look like things that shouldn’t exist on this planet.There are only about 130 species of butterflies found in Ohio, versus 3,000 species of moths. Some of the Sphinx Moths, Silk Moths, and Giant Leopard Moths are so visually stunning that you wouldn’t believe my descriptions. And they live right here, but almost nobody sees them because they come out at night.
When I saw McCormac’s photos, I immediately set to work creating light traps, buying full spectrum and black light bulbs, and putting them out in my backyard, shining against white sheets. Moths are attracted to the light, and flock in from the surrounding woods and fields. Mothing takes its toll on my sleep.
The hobby of mothing is in its infancy. “You’ve always had the hardcore entomologists out there chasing moths on an academic level, and a small group of people casually interested in moths, especially the big showy moths,” McCormac said. “But the audience was small until the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Northeastern North America was published in 2012. Now everybody has a user-friendly book, a way to put a name to these things. The first step in the pursuit of natural history is to put a name on something.”
According to McCormac, Ohio is probably the number-one state when it comes to promoting recreational mothing. The Mothing Ohio Facebook Group boasts 650 members, versus similar pages for Michigan (139 members) and Massachusetts (62 members).
In 2012 the Ohio Division of Wildlife published a free booklet on moths, presenting 80 common moth species in a glossy format, and sponsored Mothapalooza.
“Mothapalooza has garnered nationwide fame. There is a waiting list every year. I don’t know of any state supporting moth identification with a large glossy publication, and bringing in world class mothing experts.”
[blocktext align=”left”] The heart of moth country is southern Ohio… [/blocktext]The heart of moth country is southern Ohio, where the Mothapalooza events have been held in the past, near the Shawnee State Forest. “That area is amongst the richest in biodiversity in North America,” McCormac said. “It’s absolutely crazy for moths. Ohio’s unglaciated hill country stacks up against anywhere.”
McCormac said the landscape around Lake Erie is “younger” – up until geologically recently, it was under a mile of ice. “The Lake Erie Plain and the Glaciated Allegheny Plateau haven’t filled up with the biodiversity that occurs in the southern part of the state. And there are also pollution issues that seem to have an impact on moths.”
That said, the moths are everywhere and even in the urban wildlands of Cleveland there is an incredible diversity.
“All you need is a porch light. Chances are, you’ll attract some interesting animals anywhere you look for them,” McCormac said.
Moths are active from April to October, with June through August being the peak months. Clear nights with a full moon are least productive. The ideal conditions are humid and overcast.
Plant diversity drives moth abundance. Caterpillars (i.e. juvenile moths) are finicky eaters, often specializing in a single plant. There are 1,800 species of native plants in Ohio, and nearly every species has a moth associated with it. Some tasty plants have more. White Oak feeds 540 species of caterpillars.
While showy moths are fun, it’s the caterpillars that make our entire woodland ecosystem go round.
[blocktext align=”right”] Caterpillars are the biggest group of herbivores in Ohio. [/blocktext] “Only 1% of caterpillars ever make it to the moth stage,” McCormac says. “For every adult moth, 99% of the caterpillars perished. The caterpillar phase is food for all sorts of predators. If you don’t have all these caterpillars, the woods would fall silent. That’s how important they are to songbirds. Caterpillars are the biggest group of herbivores in Ohio. If you could put them in a pile, it would dwarf the pile of whitetail deer.”
The fates of caterpillars and everything else are intertwined. Plants battle back the marauding caterpillar hordes by producing chemical compounds that bugs will find unappetizing.
“Plants didn’t evolve to produce chemicals on whims,” McCormac said. “They produce chemical compounds to keep herbivores from eating them. Rubber, spices, medicines, tannins in grapes, caffeine in coffee – all of these things were developed largely to battle off caterpillar predation.
“If somehow you could turn a magical switch and kill all moths today, we would perish. The connection is so tight, even to people.”
While I’d hate to attach too practical an application to a hobby that should perpetuate for fascination’s sake, these bug watchers may be our best line of defense against a pending ecological catastrophe.
There are too few experts out studying insects and their activity with the world.
As we run roughshod over the open space that supports unfathomable biodiversity, it’s important to consider how poorly we understand the huge cast of insects supporting the food-web, of which we are the beneficiaries.
Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Preorder copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here.
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