Wading For Bugs

Wading for Bugs coverLast week I was reading through the quarterly newsletter for the Society for Freshwater Science when I came across a book review for a book I hadn’t even heard of.  It was called Wading For Bugs and the review described the book as a series of stories told by aquatic biologists about their interactions with aquatic insects.  I of course had to have this book immediately (the book had been in print for three whole months by the time I discovered it after all!), so I clicked over to Amazon.  $13.16 and two days later I held a copy of the book in my hands.  And oh, it is marvelous!

The book has two main goals as I see it.  First, it introduces the reader to the benefits of aquatic insects and succinctly explains why everyone should appreciate them.  My only (minor) complaint is that the book focuses almost entirely on their usefulness as biological indicators of water quality to the near complete exclusion of other benefits they provide, but it’s understandable.  Aquatic insects do play a very important role in monitoring water quality around the world and that importance is rarely advertised to the public.  The book also provides basic information about aquatic insects.  Each section begins with information about an order (their structures, life histories, and role as bioindicators) to teach the reader a little about each group.  There’s a fair amount of knowledge contained in this 160 page book!

The second goal of the book is to help readers see aquatic insects through the eyes of the scientists who study them.  After a brief introduction to a group at the start of a chapter, you read through a series of stories (mostly non-fiction) that allow you to follow along with an aquatic entomologist as he/she works.  These stories are what attracted me to the book.  A lot of big name aquatic entomologists talk about their work and fascinations with aquatic insects while simultaneously teaching the reader a bit about a specific insect.

The stories are, I think, beautiful.  Many are love stories from scientists to the organisms that both enthrall them and provide their bread and butter, but there is a lot of variation in story styles and topics.  Ever been curious about how scientists discovered that the giant water bug Abedus herberti leaves streams before flash floods?  You’ll find out in the story by Dave Lytle.  Or maybe you’ve wondered if aquatic insects are useful in murder cases.  John Wallace can answer that.  The book contains stories about mayflies, stoneflies, caddisflies, true flies, dragonflies/damselflies, bugs, and beetles written by researchers studying a huge variety of topics.  In essence, it provides an overview of what aquatic entomologists actually do while giving you a unique insight into their psyches.

If you have an interest in aquatic entomology, this is a great little book to add to your collection.  The approach is rather unique and the book presents a viewpoint you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.  It’s a short book, but it’s full of inspiration and information.  I highly recommend it!

Wet Beaver Creek

Wet Beaver Creek

In the spirit of the book, I would like to share a very brief story about an encounter with an aquatic insect I’ve had.  About 5 years ago, I helped out a Park Service friend who was part of a team developing an aquatic monitoring plan for Arizona’s national monuments.  They wanted an outside opinion about the effectiveness of their plan and invited me to evaluate it.  We met up at the tragically named Wet Beaver Creek near Montezuma’s Well in central Arizona and got to work, spending the rest of that day and the following day sampling the insects in the stream.  It was great!  And the monitoring plan was sound too.  Fun, fun, fun!

Most of the team went back to Tucson at the end of the second day, but my friend and I stayed another night.  Lacking anything better to do, we wandered up to the Well in the dark, leaned against the railing overlooking the big water-filled crater, and talked about the monitoring plan and aquatic insects for about an hour.  I was really enjoying the whole experience!  Two days of collecting bugs in a beautiful river was making me very content with the world.

Right about as that feeling started to sink in, however, I felt something bite my calf just below my shorts.  Just a tiny pinch, so I swatted my hand at it and didn’t think more about it until I felt another one.  And another.  Then another.  The moon was very bright, so I eventually looked down to see what was nipping at my legs.  They were no see ums (aka, biting midges), tiny flies in the family Ceratopogonidae that are aquatic as larvae and terrestrial as adults!  Their common name stems from the fact that they’re so small they’re hard to see, but they are bloodsuckers.  I hadn’t ever encountered no see ums, so I thought, “What damage can such tiny flies possibly cause?” I started jiggling my legs a bit to discourage their landing on me and winced slightly whenever one bit me, but didn’t worry about it that much.  I fell asleep that night thinking, “That wasn’t so bad…”

Fast forward to the next morning.  Remember that photo I shared in my post about the downsides of entomology, this one showing all the bites on my legs?:

bug bites

No see um bites!

That was what I woke up with!  SO many bites, SO itchy, all over my legs and arms.  The 3.5 hour drive home was excruciating because I couldn’t stop scratching.  I essentially doused myself in hydrocortisone when I got home.  Then I counted my bites.  I had over 300!  THREE HUNDRED!  No wonder I was clawing my skin off.  No wonder I was miserable!  300 little bloodsucking flies had feasted on my legs!

That was my only bad encounter with no see ums though.  Now I wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts, even when it’s hot.  I would rather get my pant legs wet than live through that misery again.  That night I was almost taken down by a 1mm long fly!  Never again.  Never again…

So that’s one quick little story, but I’d love to hear your stories too!  Does anyone want to share an encounter you’ve had with an aquatic insect?  If so, leave a comment below!  Let’s make our own little Wading for Bugs!  But read the book too!  Maybe, just maybe, you’ll understand aquatic entomologists like me a little better.

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