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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25 thoughts on “Wading For Bugs

  1. I am a kayaking enthusiast and talked my husband into going to my boss’ house to go out with me – this was before we were married. It was a narrow waterfront areas, no docking and very still. At the last moment, we decided to bring fishing gear on the tiny kayak. It wasn’t the best idea and I fell into the water – but managed to save all the gear and my husband, too! He was impressed I took the fall but my legs looked like yours. It was a summer day and tiny flies swarmed me. At first I thought they were mosquitoes but they were much smaller. What an itchy experience. Now I wear boots and long pants, too.

  2. I worked my way through my undergraduate degree collecting plethodontid salamanders, mostly in the Appalachians and Smokey Mountains. No-see-ums (Culicoides spp.) were a chronic problem, even crawling under your clothes to bite. But the worst experience I had with them was when I decided to go backpacking in the Everglades – a trail to Alligator Creek if I remember correctly.
    he mosquitoes were the main problem and I remember running through each patch of buttonwood to get into clear areas where the breeze gave some relief. After a couple of hours I was exhausted and exanguinated, gave up, and pitched my tent right in the middle of the trail. That was when the real horror began – hordes of no-see-ums began to descend and work their way through the screens of the tent. It was so hot the repellent sweated off in a few minutes and I ended up spreading the DEET on the tent screens to try and drown the gnats as they crawled through. What a horrible night!
    The worst thing is that I am now allergic to no-se-um bites – each one swells to the diameter of a dime with an oozy, itchy centre. Fortunately, here in Alberta I’ve only come across species of Atrichopogon and Forcipomyia that don’t seem to be interested in biting people. Atrichopogon larvae are even cute.

    • Yikes! That makes me feel like my experience with the no see ums was so insignificant! At least I was able to go indoors and get away from the bugs for the rest of the night… That sounds awful!

  3. I saw the mention of that same book and was wondering if it was worth buying…now I have my answer! It’s great to have the opportunity to read about scientists’ own experiences and stories from the field, it really makes science more accessible to a wide audience.

      • Chris,
        I’m now halfway through with the book–in the section on flies–and reading VERY slowly, ’cause I don’t want it to end.

        The book inspired me to go onto Amazon and look for An Introduction to the Aquatic Insects of North America. I couldn’t justify the cost of the newer edition, but DID send off for a used copy of the 1980 one, for about thirty-five bucks. Did I waste my money?

        • The 1980 edition still has a lot of good info in it, but it’s a bit outdated at this point and it also only has keys to families, not genera. If you’re not planning to key things to genus with the book you’ll be happy with it. It you wanted those genera keys though, you’re going to be disappointed. The 3rd ed from the 90’s might have been a better choice as it’s got (slightly outdated) genera keys, but wouldn’t cost as much as the 4th ed, but the 2nd ed you ordered will still have some value. It all really comes down to what you want to get out of the book.

            • Yeah… They ask for a lot of money for the current edition. I think it’s worth it though if you’re seriously interested in IDing your bugs to genus. There are a lot of improvements in the 4th edition that make it a superior book. However, the 2nd ed. has great information too! It’s still an excellent introduction to North American aquatic insects, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

              • Actually, our Missouri Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring protocols are only interested down to the order/family level (“stoneflies”, “mayflies”, “midges”, “black flies”, etc.); the additional information is strictly for “enrichment”. I do have McCafferty’s Aquatic Entomology, which is a big help. Gotta have SOMETHING to read while I wait for springtime. Thanks.

                • Oh, I love the McCafferty book! Those illustrations are marvelous, and visual keys are a great resource. And if you only need to get things to family for your stuff, then the 2nd ed. will more than meet your needs. One thing to note: the Tricorythidae (mayfly family) is now called Leptohyphidae. Otherwise, the families have stayed the same for the most part.

                  • Insofar as getting things down to the generic/specific level, I WILL be attempting that with any odonate larva I find this year. I surprised myself my recognizing Calopterygidae and Hagenius brevistylus at a Saturday workshop, WITHOUT a key!!

                    I’ve mapped out lots of new sampling sites for 2012, as I’ve been concentrating almost exclusively on Ozark streams for the past two years. I’ve got several neat ponds, a lake, a couple of Way Cool springs/seeps, and I intend to keep most of my collecting within this HUGE 820 square-mile county (probably not so huge by western standards). Just added another kayak to the “fleet” this weekend, so, if you get back to Missouri, plan to spend a couple of days with us. We’ll keep you sheltered, well-fed, and well-hydrated.

                    • Thanks for the offer! I might take you up on that. I also like the idea of your huge county being 800+ square miles. Most western counties are small, but AZ has only 15 counties in the whole state. My county is bigger than some New England states, almost 9200 sq miles!

                      Good luck with your new sampling sites! I’ll be interested to hear what you find in your lakes and how your odonate surveys go.

  4. Oh that is SO going on my wishlist! By the way, even after scrutinizing the cover image on amazon, I’m going to admit that I’m stumped as to what the nymph on the cover is.. Is it in fact a nymph? Stonefly, perhaps? It looks mighty handsome, though, with its festively tufted legs!

    • Yep, it’s a stonefly! And it’s not surprising to me that you aren’t familiar with the nymph. Even though they are one of the most important groups for water quality analyses, I think stoneflies are largely overlooked by non-aquatic entomologists.

  5. Another book to add to my growing list of “must haves.” About two years ago, a friend and I were wading along the edge of a pond looking for dragonflies. Under the water, I found solid rock to step on to keep from sinking into the pond muck. However, the “rock” started to glide out to the side mysteriously. I glanced down just in time to see that the snapping turtle (much larger than a dinner plate) I had inadvertently stepped on was trying to swim away. Needless to say, I let him/her go one way and I quickly stepped back onto dry land.

    • Ha ha! Love the story! I have little experience with snapping turtles as I’ve lived in the southwest my whole life, but I know enough about them to know that stepping back on land was probably a good plan in that situation. Those things can be huge, powerful, and nasty! Still kinda cute though…

  6. Just came across this post, I was recently at J.N. Ding Darling and got absolutely eaten alive by no-see-ums. To boot I had an allergic reaction and my hands/arms swelled to twice their normal size. This was just along the road just past the entrance. Like you I kind of ignored them when they were happening, I even had a deet insect repellent on and they found the gaps where I had missed. Over two weeks later and the bites are just starting to fade.

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