A Stream Story

The weekends are technically off for the Photography 101 course I’m taking, but they make suggestions for ways to practice for those who are feeling gung-ho.  This weekend they suggested creating a series of photos that captured an entire scene.  It had been a while since I had been to the stream at work to look for insects, so I decided my series would include the stream…



… and the things I was able to find in it.  I’ve wanted to get photos of the insects in the stream for a while now anyway for a little field guide I’m working on for an educational program I do with high schoolers.  I did catch one fish and one crayfish that I put back, so this isn’t a complete series.  However, I was really worried either might try to eat this:



A stonefly!  In the oft-flooding, strange stream I wrote about for my “Mystery” post.  I was so excited to find this that I was jumping up and down and shouting.  Happily it was rainy and cool and there was no one anywhere near me to see me make a fool of myself, but I was excited.  I believe my level of enthusiasm for stoneflies is a holdover from the stream insect work I did in Arizona.  Stoneflies require really clean, flowing, cold water, and you only got two out of the three at best in a lot of the streams I worked on in the desert.  Stoneflies were always this amazing thing to find, something absolutely worth getting excited about, because you just didn’t see them often. They’re far more common in North Carolina, but I rarely find them in this stream, so I still feel my reaction was justified.  :)

Because it had just rained a fair bit and the water was muddy, suggesting at least some minor flooding had occurred, I wasn’t sure I was going to find anything in the stream. I was thrilled to find what I went to look for in the first place on my first dip:

Broad-winged damselfly nymph

Broad-winged damselfly nymph

That’s a broad-winged damselfly, an ebony jewelwing.  They like to lurk in the exposed root masses at the base of trees in the deeper areas of this stream.  I tend to overtop my boots a lot going after them, but they are totally worth it every time.  As you can see in the photo, broad-winged damselfly nymphs have a very long first antennal segment, about as long as all the other segments of the antennae combined, which makes them sort of alien looking.  They also have this sort of jerky movement.  I love them!

These little rock clumps I found on the underside of a larger rock contain insects:

Caddisfly pupal cases

Caddisfly pupal cases

There are pupae of caddisflies developing inside those.  Caddisflies are far and away the most common insects I find in this stretch of the stream, so I was not surprised to find these.  I did not, however, find any larvae, just the pupae.  Guess I’ll have to make another trip down there sometime later in the year for those.  Oh darn…

And last, just because I couldn’t resist, a vertebrate:



North Carolina is a hotspot for salamanders, so it’s always fun to find these.  (This is another holdover from Arizona – I saw one total salamander there in 20 years, despite working in many salamander-friendly habitats!)  I managed to get a good 20 of these little guys in my net today, and all of them were juveniles that still had their gills.  You can see the gills just above the leg.  These salamanders are awfully cute little buggers! I’ll take a few more photos of this little guy in the morning and then back into the stream he’ll go, along with his temporary stonefly and damselfly roommates.

If I had to work on a Sunday, today was a great day to do it!  It was cool and rainy, not to mention Easter, so I had the entire field station to myself all day.  And even though it had rained and the stream was a little higher and a little muddier than usual, I still managed to get a few things I need photos of for my guide.  Mucking about in a stream on a cloudy day – not a bad way to spend a day!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Pond Dwellers (Friday Five)

I’ve been spending a lot of time photographing aquatic insects recently.  I’ve been very busy at work, so I find it relaxing to sit and watch my little tank full of insects in the evenings, observing their behaviors and photographing them.  Next week I’ll share another developmental series like the snail series I posted last week, but in the interest of time as the day is almost over, today I’m going to simply share some photos that I’ve been taking.  Here are some of my favorites this week:



Backswimmer, Notonecta sp. (likely indica)

I’ve had these guys in the tank for a couple of weeks now and they are really fun to watch!  They have all sorts of cool behaviors and they’re absolutely stunning.  I’ve been trying to track down exactly which species these are and I think they’re Notonecta indica, but I really need to get a species key and run them through to be sure. In the meantime, I just enjoy watching them and admiring their gorgeous eyes and the pearlescent blue-white patch on their foreheads.

Creeping Water Bug Nymph


Creeping water bug, Pelocoris sp.

This particular creeping water bug lives up to its common name in more ways than one.  Not only does it creep along the rocks and the pieces of wood in the tank, but it also peers out at you from hidden nooks and crannies in the tank.  It’s watching you, even if you don’t see it – it’s a creeper!  They’re quite beautiful creatures though, and he crawled out of his hiding spot just long enough for me to get this shot before he dove back under the log.

Damselfly Nymph


Damselfly nymph

This isn’t the best photo ever as I had accidentally dialed my aperture WAY down without noticing and the depth of field isn’t that great.  However, you can see a lot of cool structures inside this damselfly, and that’s why I like the shot.  Judging from their prominent connection to the tracheae (= air tubes that transport oxygen throughout an insect’s body) in the gills, I suspect those brown squiggly lines are large respiratory organs that bring oxygen from the gills to the head.  Pretty darned cool!  (At least it is if you’re me!)



Mayfly nymph, family Baetidae

I have very few photos of mayflies in my collection and it’s due in large part to their fragility.  They get eaten by everything (indeed, this particular individual was snagged by a backswimmer just a few minutes after I got this shot) and they do not transport well at all.  Sloshing around in a container of water is really hard on them and they rarely make the trip.  I was thrilled that this one was still alive when I got it home so I could get some photos of it, though it was missing a couple of legs on this side.  I still really want a good, closeup shot of a mayfly’s gills.  They’re really interesting!  That’s going on my photographic bucket list.

Water Strider


Water strider, Gerris sp.

This is technically not a true aquatic insect as it lives on the surface of the water and not in the water, but who can resist a good water strider?  These suckers are hard to catch thanks to their amazing vision, and I managed to catch TWO of them at once!  Granted, they were mating, so they may have been otherwise occupied and perhaps paying a little less attention to their surroundings than usual?  I think these are gorgeous animals, well worth the effort of chasing them down in the pond and then again with the camera as they skip frantically around the tank…  It’s always a treat when they slow down long enough for you to get a shot!

And with that, I’m off to sleep.  Lots to do at work tomorrow!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Walks on Water (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Hey everyone!  I’ve been missing for a while again, I know.  I had twelve 10-12 hour works days in a row last week thanks to a whole lot of things going on at once, so I’ve been basically drowning in work. However, yesterday I had an opportunity to go down to the pond to look for dragonflies for a little while for the first time in ages.  I saw my first dragonfly of the year – a common green darner (Anax junius) – and was very pleased to see it.  Also saw this little guy out of the corner of my eye skittering over the surface of the water:

water strider

There are insects out and about again here, including water striders!  Not very many yet, but some.  Spring is coming and the bugs are coming with it.  I can’t wait!!

Hope you all have a great week!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Sampling Sabino Canyon Post-Fire

You probably all know that there have been several very large fires in Arizona this summer.  Ever wonder what a mountain stream looks like after a forest fire?  Here’s an example from Sabino Canyon in Tucson, AZ after the Aspen Fire a few years back:

Sabino storm

Sabino Canyon after the Aspen Fire. Photo by Dave Walker.

Notice how the water is black?  It was full of ash from the fire that had been washed downstream during the monsoons.  The water even smelled like a campfire!  And what I’m doing in this photo, sampling in the stream downstream of a major burn area as a monsoon storm rolls in – that’s dangerous and you shouldn’t do it.  Made for an awfully pretty photo though!

(Just so there’s no confusion, I’m collecting bugs in that photo, NOT spearing fish.  Everyone seems to think I’m spearing fish when they see this…)


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © TheDragonflyWoman.com

Friday 5: Aquatic Insects, In Print!

You all know how much I love aquatic insects.  If you’ve been following my Friday 5 posts then you also know how much I love books.  It thus seems only proper that I do a Friday 5 about non-dragonfly aquatic insect books!  If you want to learn about and/or identify the aquatic insects in your area, I recommend one of my 5 favorite aquatic insect books.  In no particular order, they are:

Voshell bookA Guide to Common Freshwater Invertebrates of North America by J. Reese Voshell Jr.

This is a nice little field guide type book that covers a broad range of aquatic insects and their relatives throughout the U.S.  The book is VERY general, so you’ll only be able to identify any invertebrates you see in the water down to family at best.  The book is also more expensive than I feel it should be.  Still, it provides a great overview of aquatic insects.  If you’re a beginner, or just want to look at some really nice aquatic insect drawings, this is a great book to have in your collection!  Personally, I most often use it to show people generalized pictures of aquatic insects when I teach or do outreach events.  You know, when someone asks something like, “This one time I saw this little brown bug looking thing swimming in the water.  What was it?”  Invaluable for that sort of thing!

Speaking of great aquatic insect drawings:

Aquatic Entomology by W. Patrick McCafferty

This book has the best aquatic insects drawings I’ve ever seen.  It’s a little old at this point (the version currently available is a reprint of the original 1981 version), but the drawings – oh, the drawings!  They make having this rather out-of-date book entirely worth owning!  The book also contains something very special: visual keys.  They’re in standard dichotomous key format (you start at the top with two choices, choose the one that best fits your specimen, rinse and repeat until you’re delivered to a name for your bug), but there are pictures imbedded within the couplets so you have a lovely picture to go along with nearly every option.  They are unbelievably easy to use! A few of the families included in the keys have undergone name changes since the book was released, but it’s still an incredible resource.  If you’ve never identified insects with a key, these are a fantastic way to get started!  And did I mention the drawings?  :)

Now, if you REALLY want to identify an aquatic insect in North America, this is THE book to use:

An Introduction to the Aquatic Insects of North America by R. W. Merritt, K. W. Cummins, and M. O. Berg

Ah, Merritt and Cummins (and now Berg).  What would aquatic entomologists do without you?  This is a monster of a reference book and contains well-illustrated dichotomous keys for the orders, families, AND genera of nearly every aquatic insect in North America.  1200+ spiral bound pages of aquatic insect goodness!  It’s not perfect and there are things that I would like to see improved, but every aquatic entomologist should have a copy.  I’ve got 3!  I use it at least once a week too.  If you’re not an aquatic entomologist but are serious about identifying aquatic insects, this is the book to get.  The keys are good, the reference section is amazing, and there are several chapters of general information at the beginning that are really excellent.  Plus, it comes with a great CD-based visual key to the orders to get you started.  This is probably the book I’ve spent the most time with of any book I own – and I’ve read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Good Omens more times than I can count!

Biological Atlas of Aquatic Insects by W. Wichard, W. Arens, and G. Eisenbeis

This book is essentially a catalog of scanning electron microscope images of the biologically important structures of many aquatic insects.  Ever wonder what a mayfly gill looks like up close?  Or what the area between the two halves of the whirligig beetle eye looks like?  This is the ultimate book for answering any burning questions of this sort you might have!  It’s not cheap (about $90 on Amazon), but it’s an amazing resource and well worth considering if you have the means to do so.  I’ve looked through it a hundred times and I  discover something new every time!  Love it.

And finally…

Caddisflies: The Underwater Architects by Glen B. Wiggins

I considered putting 5 general aquatic insects on this list, but I just can’t pass this one up!  Caddisflies are amazing, and this book WILL make you appreciate their beauty and amazing diversity.  Like Merritt, Cummins, and Berg, this probably isn’t the sort of book you buy unless you’re an aquatic entomologist, but that’s a shame.  It’s amazing!  It includes keys (admittedly, a little outdated) to family and genus, detailed distribution information, and fantastic illustrations.  Each genus get a page of text and a page of images, including the whole larva, their case/net (where applicable), and several structures of importance in identification.  But the book is so darned pretty that it’s fun to just flip through the pages and marvel at how wonderful nature really is.  Caddisflies are so cool!  And this book will make you fall in love with them.

There are so many books in the world that these are just a handful of the total books available about aquatic insects.  I’ve got lots more, but I really love these!  Most of the books I’ve featured today are more academic than my usual Friday 5 book lists, but I think they all have something to offer to non-entomologists too: pretty pictures, information that non-entomologists might actually care about, and assistance identifying the aquatic insects in your area.  Might want to try before you buy these books as they tend to be a little spendy, but they’re all excellent books and worth a look.  Check ’em out!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright ©TheDragonflyWoman.com

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Aquatic Insect Sorting

I spent hundreds of hours in this work area while I was employed at my second job:

my workspace

Aquatic insect ID station!

This is what it looks like when someone identifies aquatic insects (little vials of alcohol, identification keys, microscopes, forceps, and data sheets are all essential) and it was quite possible for me to spend 6 hours at a time sitting at that microscope.  Still, this was one of my top two favorite things to do at that job.  A little music, some delicious hot tea, and a quiet room to shuffle through my bugs and I’m set for days!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com

Insect Investigations: Aquatic Insects as Indicators of Water Quality

aquatic insects

My mini aquatic insect tank for carrying to classrooms

I promised to post some lesson plans during the semester, but I never had a chance to actually do it.  Today I’m making good on that promise.  As it’s also related to my recent water quality series, I’ll use this post to finish up the series at the same time!

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to teach at a top middle school in Tucson, a school that consistently ranks in the top 10 or 20 schools in the nation.  The kids at this school are very smart.  I taught 3 lessons, but the kids were in groups of 5th through 7th graders, all mixed together.  Odd!  These kids were also older than any other kids I’ve worked with over the past semester, so my usual “What is an Insect” presentation just wasn’t going to cut it.  Instead, I planned a presentation on aquatic insects.

One part of my presentation involved the kids doing an activity I developed that focused on using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality.  For the blog here, I’m going to describe how I ran the lesson in the classroom during the hour I had allotted.  However, if anyone wants to use this activity, you can find a more official, printable lesson plan on my Educational Materials page (it will be posted later today – having problems getting it uploaded).  Feel free to use and share it at will!


The roaches I share with the kids travel in this

I start all of my insect lessons by figuring out how much the kids already know about the characteristics of insects – number of legs, body segments, antennae, and wings and where their skeleton is located.  With the more advanced kids at this school, I also asked about spiders, crustaceans, and other arthropods as well.  Once we covered the basics, I got a hissing cockroach out and let them hold and interact with it.  The group of kids were mature enough to be able to pass the roach around without totally freaking out and dropping one of my little guys on the floor – one benefit of working with older, gifted kids!  We discussed what the roaches eat (they’re decomposers of plants) and how they eat (chewing mouthparts).  Then I got a giant water bug out.  I don’t let kids hold them so they won’t get bitten, but I showed them all the piercing-sucking mouthpart up close.  We compared the mouthparts of the water bug to those of the roach and I had them guess some of the amazing things that giant water bugs are capable of eating.

At that point, they’d seen an aquatic insect up close and several water bugs and water scorpions in the clear container at the front of the room, so they were aware that there are insects that live in water.  I spent a couple of minutes talking about aquatic insects and where they live before introducing the idea of using insects as indicators of water quality.  I briefly told them how aquatic entomologists use tolerance values of insects to determine the water quality of a stream or lake, explained the tolerance value scale, and let them ask questions.  Then we did the activity.


The insect "samples" from their "streams"

I had the kids get into four groups and set the tone by telling them that each group was a survey team sampling a different stream in southern Arizona.  They’d collected, sorted, and identified the insects in their samples, but they still needed to calculate the biotic index value to determine how polluted the water was in their stream.  I gave each sampling team an envelope containing 10 cards, the “insects” in their samples.  Each card had a picture, the genus, a common name, and the Arizona tolerance value (see below).  Their job was to calculate the biotic index value by taking the average of the tolerance values for all the insects in their sample.  I also asked them to count the number of species found in their sample and discuss what the number they calculated said about the water quality in their stream.  Then I let them loose!

I let the kids do the math and discuss the results with their groups for about 8 minutes and then got everyone back together.  I had one person from each group share the biotic index value for their stream and what they thought that meant.  After every group shared their results, I told them which specific streams their “insects” were from (I based my cards on actual samples, so they were accurate!) and a few facts about that stream that might impact the water quality.  We discussed their results in light of this new information.  For example, everyone decided that it was natural that the most polluted stream would be the one that only had water in it because a waste water treatment plant dumped its effluent into the streambed.  It was also natural that the stream that had the fewest human visitors was the least polluted.  They also discovered that the number of species was generally higher in less polluted streams than in highly polluted streams and that some insects with very high pollution tolerance values still lived in the cleanest water.  Essentially, they came up with all the ideas I had intended to point out, entirely on their own!

insect cards

The "insects" in the "sample"

The kids were enthralled by the insects that have tolerance values of 11 out of 10, so I ended my presentation by pulling out a water scorpion.  They were an example of and 11, and I let everyone get a close look at it.  I told them a few facts about the insects and we finished the lesson by briefly discussing why that particular insect might be more tolerant to pollution than other insects.  They came up with some great ideas!

All in all, I was happy with the presentation!  I think there was a good mix of live insects and fake insects.  I did some talking, but the kids spent most of the time making observations and doing the activity.  Even though the students at this school might not be the best from which to judge the success of my new activity, the kids seemed to get really into it the activity and asked questions that made it clear that they’d understood the greater implications.  I couldn’t have been happier!  Although my presentation was rather informal, I have some ideas for how to expand the activity to make it a full-blown science lesson that fits into the national science standards for 5-8 graders.  If you’re interested in teaching the activity, check out the lesson plan I’ve posted for more information!

This concludes my series on using aquatic insects as indicators of water quality… for now!  I have a few more topics I’d like to cover, but I think I’ll move on to other subjects for a while and revisit this topic again in the future.


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © 2011 DragonflyWoman.wordpress.com