Aquatic Insects and Bioblitzes (Friday 5)

A few weeks ago, I was given a really fun opportunity to be a part of a bioblitz workshop.  Bioblitzes, for those unfamiliar with them, are biodiversity documentation events, often done over a short time period and at a specific facility, to document and/or monitor the species present on the grounds.  Bioblitzes often invite the public to take part as a way to get help collecting and identifying species while also teaching everyone about local natural history.  The workshop was geared toward park and environmental education center staff that are interested in using bioblitzes to make sound management decisions and/or educate the public.  A variety of scientists demonstrated how to collect or otherwise document a range of species, including reptiles and amphibians, small mammals, large mammals, birds, plants, and insects.

Guess which part I taught?  Aquatic insects!  I manged to get about half of the 40 participants actually IN the water to look around for aquatic insects in the urban stream that flows through the park hosting the workshop and we found… not a lot.  The neighborhood adjacent to the stream has an awful drainage system that dumps all the runoff right into the stream without any sort of filtration, so the stream floods often.  Still, we found some interesting things!  They included this:

Net spinning caddisfly larva

Net spinning caddisfly larva (Hydropsychidae)

That’s a type of net-spinning caddisfly!  They build little silken nets across rocks in swiftly flowing areas of streams to catch food, then hook themselves into the nets.  While caddisflies in general are considered good indicators of water quality, this particular group is capable of reaching HUGE population sizes in some quite heavily disturbed areas.  Still, always fun to find caddisflies.  We also found some adults:

Net spinning caddisfly

Net-spinning caddisfly adult

This little guy was hanging out on a blacklighting sheet, presumably in the same spot it had sat the night before.  Caddisfly adults look a lot like moths, but instead of having scales on their wings they have hairs.  Their order name, Trichoptera, means hairy wing, so it’s easy to remember this distinguishing characteristic if you know your roots.

We also found these lovely larvae in the stream:

Crane fly larva

Crane fly larva

Crane flies!!  They’re huge and squishy and ooze all over when you catch them, so they’re really quite gross.  Many have gnarly looking fleshy bits on the back end that they use to breathe (which naturally makes them exciting to me!) and some have a sort of ribbed appearance like this one.  Unlike a lot of fly larvae, they actually have a complete, hardened head, but they keep it retracted inside their bodies.  I enjoy finding these larvae and they’re really fun to show off to people when you find them in a stream.  That huge monster ends up turning into something like this:

Crane fly

Crane fly

I know I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crane flies are harmless to people!  A lot of people are scared of them and many think they bite, but they do not.  They’re also not giant mosquitoes – completely different groups!  I think they are really beautiful.

I’m going to wrap up with this

Common baskettail

Common baskettail

There weren’t a lot of dragonflies out during the workshop as the dragonflies were really just starting to come out, but one of the reptile and amphibian guys found this dragonfly on the ground.  It was still alive, but clearly had some issues when it emerged as an adult and I doubt its wings worked.  Granted, I have seen some butterflies flying with as little as a wing and a half, so who knows?  Maybe this little dragonfly is still zipping around the pond, hunting insects and having a great adult life!

Even though I’ve participated in enough bioblitzes and done field work with enough scientists that I didn’t learn many new things about how to sample for a variety of organisms, I still had a great time at the workshop!  The people who attended were really excited about it all, so it was a lovely, energetic group.  I also got to see a white-footed mouse, a great horned owl, several turtles and frogs (including a new-to-the-park’s-species-list river cooter), a new-to-me dragonfly species, and a variety of insects.  Plus, I got to spend an afternoon in a stream teaching people about aquatics!  It’s hard to beat a day spent with other nature geeks.  Hope I get to do it again soon!


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

Five Bad Photos of California’s Winter Invertebrates (Friday 5 – on Saturday)

Whew! It’s been a really busy few weeks! I recently received a grant to start up a citizen science after school program (which you’ll hear all about at some point – it involves bugs!!) and have poured almost every moment of my work time into that since the beginning of February. Then, right in the middle of that chaos, I attended the first ever conference for the Citizen Science Association. That took me to San Jose, CA last week! One conference activity that I really wanted to do and couldn’t was a bioblitz of downtown San Jose. If you don’t know what a bioblitz is, it’s a comprehensive biodiversity survey of an area, typically done over a short (or at least limited) time frame. People participating in the San Jose bioblitz were encouraged to photograph any species they saw and upload their sightings to iNaturalist, my favorite wildlife sighting website/app, throughout the meeting. I lead biodiversity survey programs that use iNaturalist all the time and I very much wanted to see what the people who oversee iNaturalist do when they lead programs, but I unfortunately needed to be somewhere else during the organized part of the event. However, the moment I had a few minutes free, I dashed outside with my superzoom camera to add some of my own sightings to the survey! Because it was California, it was lovely and warm and there were actually insects out in the middle of winter. I still haven’t worked out how to use my superzoom to take decent macro shots (I remain unconvinced this is even possible with my particular model…), but here are my five favorite invertebrates I saw in downtown San Jose!

Hover Fly

Hoverfly 1

I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get anything close to a focused shot of the many hover flies buzzing around the area, but this one’s not too bad, if a little far away… I honestly have no idea what type of hover flies these were (Toxomerus perhaps?), but I was thrilled to see them. Dozens of hover flies flying around in mid-February! Don’t think I’d realized how much I missed that sort of thing until I found myself standing on sidewalk in downtown San Jose grinning like a fool and pointing excitedly at hover flies. I would bet several passersby thought I was totally nuts, but whatever. I was just so happy to see insects in winter again!

Another Hover Fly

Hoverfly 1

Found this beauty sucking on a rosemary flower! I mistook it for a bee from a distance (how embarrassing!), but was very pleased to see it was really a hover fly when I got close. The spectacularly speckled eyes make me think this might be something in the hover fly genus Eristalinus (which would probably also make it non-native), but if you couldn’t tell from the previous insect, these are well out of my identification skill wheelhouse. Whatever it is, it’s crazy pretty if you get a good look at it! Makes me feel a little sorry for all those people out there in the world who don’t even know something like this exists.

Garden Snail

Garden Snail

I found dozens of these huge snails in a planter outside an office building and was instantly struck by their beautiful form. One of the nice things about iNaturalist is that you can ask other iNat users for identification help. It’s no BugGuide for insects and other invertebrates, but a lot of people came up with the same ID for this one and I think they’re probably right: garden snail, Helix aspersa. Though we do have a lot of snails in North Carolina, these snails were quite large and were a surprise in the dry environment.  They are non-native and considered a pest in California, though these are also one of the snails that end up in escargot in Europe, so apparently edible!

Aquatic Worm

Aquatic worm

Confession time: I have embarrassed many companions by squealing happily when I come across standing water and crouching down beside puddles to poke around for invertebrates. I found this little worm and about a dozen more just like it in a tiny puddle, just 1/4 inch deep, that had formed in a depression at the top of a light fixture in a park. Seriously, people must think I’m nuts… I was wearing a nice skirt, nice shoes, and a nice shirt with my hair pulled back in a tight bun – all business-like – when I yelled “Oooh! Water!!!” to no one in particular and plunged my hands into a random puddle. If you’re ever out in public with me, be warned that I might do the same thing to you. I have zero shame!


Hoverfly 1

Who doesn’t love a good roly poly? This one didn’t roll up when I picked it up (sad!), but I thought its brown pattern was especially lovely for an isopod. These little guys are land-dwelling crustaceans, the lobster of the land! I love that there are little land crustaceans running around all over the place. If I can trust the iNaturalist users, this lovely brown one is the same species as the horde of more standard grey ones I found with it. Was hoping I had two species, but apparently I just found a weird one instead.

I absolutely loved getting out and looking for bugs in San Jose! I didn’t find all that many species, about 15 invertebrates in all, but that’s certainly more than I’ve seen in Raleigh for a while. I was also thrilled to discover that I was hot in the February sun! That happiness was short-lived however. After 11.5 hours and three flights back home, I stepped off the plane in flip-flops and shorts into 25 degree weather. It started snowing/sleeting a few days later and some schools have been closed ALL WEEK because of it! Nothing like being snapped back into reality the moment you get home…

For those of you that live in places that aren’t buried in snow or covered in a massive sheet of ice, what’s the best invertebrate you’ve seen recently? I want to live vicariously through you – I miss warm winters!!


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



Morning in the Sonoran Desert

It was an exciting weekend for Tucson and its natural wonders.  Each year, National Geographic and the U.S. Park Service choose a park in which to hold a BioBlitz, a 24-hour frenzy of biological documentation, collection, and mayhem.  The event has several goals, but it gets a giant hoard of non-scientists involved in performing a massive biological survey (it’s a citizen science project!), brings positive attention to the national parks and the services they provide, and creates a list of species that are found in the parks where the BioBlitzes take place.    This year, Tucson’s own Saguaro National Park was chosen for this event!  Over the past 12 months or so, scientists have been volunteering to lead non-scientists out into Saguaro to collect and/or document the life forms that they are most familiar with.  More recently, citizen scientists could look through a very long list of surveying activities and sign up to participate in as many as they wished.  Last Friday and Saturday, the two groups came together and several thousand people went out into the desert to work!

My sister is a park ranger, currently at the Grand Canyon, so the BioBlitz in Arizona was a really big deal to the people she works with.  Some of her friends and co-workers came down to Tucson to work at the event this weekend, but she was not one of them.  She decided to come down anyway, however, and participate as a citizen scientist.  I let her choose an event for us and, much to my pleasure, she settled on a bee survey.  So, Saturday morning found us getting up way too early in the morning, picking up some breakfast at a local deli, and driving out to Saguaro West to survey bees.


The survey team, walking between traps

The BioBlitz headquarters, and many of the events, were located at Saguaro West on the west side of the Tucson Mountains.  Due to the lack of parking there, participants had to park at Old Tucson Studios and ride a shuttle to the park.  My sister and I parked at 7:30 AM, leaving what we thought would be plenty of time to get to our bee survey before 8 AM.  Not so much!  By the time we signed in (and there was a whopping one person in front of us – and 3 volunteers behind the table), signed our liability waivers, and climbed onto a big yellow school bus for the ride over to the park, it was 7:50.  It was 8 AM by the time we got to the park.  We asked where we needed to go and were directed to the wrong place.  By the time we finally figured out where we were really supposed to go, it was already 8:15 and we were sure we had missed it.  It was crazy how long everything took!  Thankfully, our group was just heading out when we arrived, so we joined in and marched out into the desert to collect bees from traps that had been laid out overnight.

sample cups

The plastic cups that were used as bee traps

The traps ended up being very simple, though our group leader, a pollination biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Flagstaff AZ, has used them for many years for his work with great success.  Each stop had two 2 ounce disposable plastic condiment cups, one blue and one yellow.  The colors apparently mimic the colors of flowers and lure the bees in from the surrounding area.  The cups were filled with a mixture of soapy water and propylene glycol.  The soap in the water decreases the surface tension so that, when the bees try to sip the “nectar” from the “flowers,”  they tend to slip into the cups.  The propylene glycol acts as a killing agent and preservative so that the bees can’t get back out once they fall in.

our route

The desert along the route we took, from the science building to the base of the mountains and back, about 2 miles altogether.

Our job was to check each trap at about 30 stops ranging over a mile of desert.  At each stop, we would pour the contents through a strainer to separate the insects, transfer the insects from the strainer to a sample bag, and then refill the cups for the afternoon group that would be doing the whole thing all over again.  As we went, our very amiable scientist told all sorts of amusing stories about sampling and citizen science projects he’s run/participated in, and the crazy people he sometimes encounters in the process.  The morning was a reasonable temperature, the people in the group were very excited about getting involved, and the walk was lovely, so it was a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the morning.


Processing samples. The bees were removed from the sample container before being washed and dried for pinning.

Once we got back to the base camp, we watched as our guide washed and dried the bees we had collected before he showed us an example of bees he’d pinned from the samples other surveyors had collected the day before.  And then, just like that, our 2 hour bee survey was over and we left our guide with the much more difficult task of pinning, identifying, and labeling all the specimens we’d collected – all before the end of the event later that day.

Apart from the obvious organizational difficulties that resulted in our being late to our event (one of my sister’s ranger friends who worked at the event – a woman who is a very soft-spoken and proper lady – described the event as “one huge clusterf***), I was really impressed by the BioBlitz!  There were a ton of activities to choose from, ranging from quick and easy projects like the one I participated in to much more rigorous projects that involved miles of hard-core hiking in mountainous terrain.  The day was beautiful.  We got swag – good swag!  And I got to spend a morning with my fabulous little sister, an entomologist (granted, I do that all the time), and 3 very nice strangers doing science in one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It was a wonderful experience, and one I highly recommend if you happen to be lucky enough to live near a national park that is home to a BioBlitz in the future.


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