If the insects go, we all go

An illustrated review of Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects

Also published at Resilience.org

Buzz, Sting, Bite is a breezy read with a sobering message: insects are so deeply woven into the web of life that the worldwide drop in insect populations threatens every other species. (Buzz, Sting, Bite is published by Simon & Schuster, July 2019)

Author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is a Norwegian ecologist who specializes in the interactions of the thousands of species that live in dead wood in Scandinavia. But here she writes for non-specialists, with the goal of inspiring more people with fascination, respect, awe and concern for insects.

So she’s happy to sprinkle the text with anthropomorphic metaphors, to showcase strange tales of insect sexual practices, and to regale us with ghoulish examples of insects who devour other insects in bizarre and inventive fashion. She explains why, in scientific terms, insects, spiders and centipedes belong to different phyla, while bugs are a specific order of insects – but she doesn’t let those formal distinctions get in the way of a good story.


Damselflies in Summer Meadow. Sverdrup-Thygeson writes: “Have you ever seen damselflies … perching or flying around in pairs? … The sole purpose of this tandem position is that it allows the male to keep watch over the female and make sure she doesn’t mate with any rivals until she has laid (what he hopes are) their jointly fertilized eggs on a suitable aquatic plant.” (page 34)


Though the book is illustrated only with a few eloquent black-and-white illustrations, Sverdrup-Thygeson’s story-telling is vivid. In just over two hundred pages the reader will absorb much fundamental biological understanding, along with compelling anecdotes about species from all over the world.

She concedes that a small number of insect species cause us harm, from annoying but temporarily itchy bites, to sudden crop failures, to epidemics of deadly diseases. Her focus, however, is on the other side of the ledger – the far more numerous species whose activities are indispensable to the biosphere that supports us.


Red Wasp on Hydrangea Paniculata. “Insects’ visits to flowers contribute to seed production in more than 80 percent of the world’s wild plants, and insect pollination improves fruit or seed quality in a large proportion of our global food crops …. A study of forty different crops across the planet showed that visits from wild insects increased crop yields in all systems.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 85)

Green Metallic Sweat Bee on Echinacea.


At the end of the book she quotes Harvard professor E.O. Wilson: “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us. If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change …. But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.” And by the end of the book, Sverdrup-Thygeson has helped us to understand why Wilson was so right.

Insects evolved hundreds of millions of years earlier than larger species did, and as a result our ecosystem is built on a foundation of insect biodiversity. More than half of all bird species, for example, eat insects, as do most freshwater fish. For about 80 per cent of wild plants, as well as most of the plants that we eat, visits from a variety of insects are either essential or measurably beneficial.


Red Admiral Butterfly on Coriander. “Most insect species on the planet undergo complete metamorphosis. This includes the dominant insect groups, such as beetles, wasps, butterflies, flies, and mosquitoes. The ingenious part of it is that they can exploit two totally different diets and habitats as child and adult ….” (page 5)

Green-Eyed Dragon. “The dragonfly excels as a lethal hunter, succeeding in more than 95 percent of its attempts. … Their vision makes a significant contribution to their success …. Almost their entire head consists of eyes. In fact, each eye is made up of 30,000 small eyes, which can see both ultraviolet and polarized light as well as colors. And since the eyes are like balls, the dragonfly can see most of what is happening on all sides of its body.” (page 16-17)

Disappearing Damselflies. “Freshwater fish live largely off insects because some insects take infant swimming so seriously that they keep their young permanently submerged until they reach the age of reason: mosquitos, mayflies, and dragonflies, to name but a few.” (page 101)


And then there’s decomposition, AKA composting and recycling. All over the globe there are sophisticated teams of bugs, bacteria and fungi which transform rotting animal flesh, fruit, leaves, trees, and dung into nutrients that then feed other species.


Ants in Tree-House. “Once fungi and insects, mosses and lichens, and bacteria have moved in, there are more living cells in the dead tree than there were when it was alive. So ironically enough, dead trees are actually among the most living things you can find in the forest.” (page 113)


There are many reasons for a rapid decline in insect numbers in many countries, including habitat loss, widespread pesticide use, and climate change. Typically, the rare and most specialized species are the first to go, Sverdrup-Thygeson says. And though extinction is a frightening (and increasingly frequent) outcome, she warns that:

“It’s too late to worry when a species is on the brink of extinction. Species cease to function in the ecosystem long before the last individual dies out. That is why it is so vital not to focus exclusively on species extinction but to turn the spotlight on the decline in the number of individuals.” (Buzz, Sting, Bite, page 178)

Buzz, Bite, Sting is an easy read for a summer day – but the book is meant to spur important action and change:

“We have everything to gain by caring a bit more about insects. I believe in knowledge, positive talk, and enthusiasm. Be curious about bugs, take the time to look and learn. Teach children about all the strange and useful things insects do. Talk nicely about bugs. Make your garden a better place for flower visitors. Let’s get insects onto the agenda in land-use plans and official reports, agriculture regulations and state budgets. … My hope is that this book will open more people’s eyes to the weird and wonderful world of insects and the extraordinary lives they live alongside us on this planet we share.”


Photographs taken by Bart Hawkins Kreps in Port Darlington, Ontario. Photo at top of post: Meadow Sunset Dragonfly (click here for full-size version)

 

the view from up here

PHOTO POST

A chorus of squeaks and squawks comes from on high as birds scout out good feeding territories, warn of possible predators, or call out “bring me another worm!”

 

Bright Shade (click images for larger views)

A Purple Finch is interested in tasty seeds – and likes to wait between snacks in the cool shade of lower branches.

On The Fence

A Chipmunk often watches from near the top of a wood fence until it seems safe to grab seeds on the ground.

Eastern Comma

Bright butterflies are now flashing around the yard as well. Above, the Eastern Comma Butterfly, and below, a Monarch on a favourite flower which has dibs on the grand title “Butterfly Weed”.

Butterfly Weed

For more than two weeks, Bergamot blooms have attracted the Hummingbirds.

Hummingbird & Bergamot

Hummingbird & Bergamot II

A strange creature landed in the garden recently and I tried to find its name. I learned that the Crane Fly, with its astonishingly long and delicate legs, often breaks at least one – which is probably why the insect below has only five legs. That apparently doesn’t matter a lot – once this fly graduates from maggot stage, I read, it is not known to eat anything and needs to survive just long enough to reproduce.

Crane Fly & Hydrangea Paniculata

Damselflies are typically active predators but on a calm cloudy evening they were busy pairing up, landing on a marsh surface where couples were reproduced in reflection.

Damselflies & Dusk, Bowmanville Marsh

The water was soon rippled with raindrops and a rainbow rose over the lake at sunset.

It’s Mostly Sky

Photo at top: Flicker & Birch (full-size version here)

green fusion

PHOTO POST

Is there an entomologist in the house? Alas, there is not – but this time of year, you only need to sit down beside a garden or in a meadow for a few minutes each day to spot a profusion of insects who are no less splendid even if you don’t know their names.

Purple Bronze One

There are dragonflies and damselflies, of course, plus wasps, bees, beetles and butterflies.

Points of Light II

 

Purple Bronze Two

 

Three’s a Crowd

And in the shallow water at the very edge of the marsh you may spot a school of newly hatched mud-cats, looking quite insect-like and hardly bigger than bumblebees.

Swamp Shadows

Blessed with abundant heat, abundant rain and abundant sunshine, this month’s flowers look wonderful through every stage of their blooms.

Pink Rain

 

Bluewater Star

 

First Light of Day

 

Tiger-Lilly Sunset

Photo at top: Green Fusion: Heart of Hollyhock (click here for full-size image)

 

sincerely, july

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As June gave way to July there was a whole lotta catchin’ up goin’ on along the north shore of Lake Ontario. Finally, summer at its finest – the weather hot, but not too hot; gentle breezes, but no storms; lots of moisture, but a break from big rains every-other-day. And creatures of all sorts have hurried to get back on pace after the long, wet, chilly spring.

 

Occupy a niche

Selecting nest sites, laying eggs, a whole lot of sitting, and if all goes well, feeding a hungry brood – everywhere you look there are busy birds.

The Song Sparrow, above, can be seen and heard in the woods and around backyard feeders. The Yellow Warbler, for all its colour, is usually harder to spot and even more difficult to photograph, given its habit of flitting rapidly about in deciduous bushes and trees. So when a Yellow Warbler male settled on a bare branch over Bowmanville Creek it made for an unexpected photo opportunity.

Hiding in plain sight

Fortunately a pair of Yellow Warblers also made a nest in a nearby shrub and soon four hatchlings were sharing that tiny bowl.

Placing an order, 1

You could almost see them grow every hour. Only 48 hours elapsed between the photo above and the photo below – and in another 36 hours, the four youngsters each glided out of the nest to the ground, took their first steps, flapped their wings, and quickly flew to safety while both parents hovered nearby.

Placing an order, 2

In the marshes some birds have had to start over after their first nests and eggs were lost to record-high waters. So some goslings and cygnets are far more advanced then others.

Sunset paddle

Big stands of reeds have floated around, driven by the wind, and areas that would typically be mud flats are fully submerged. But this Spotted Sandpiper has found a small outpost in Westside Marsh.

Spotted Sandpiper

Insect populations certainly seemed to be lower through the cold spring but now it’s not hard to spot a new variety every day.

Blade Runner

With a profusion of flowers everywhere, pollinators can get busy – and the Vipers Bugloss flower attracts lots of different bees.

Bumblebeeblur

 

Honeybee’s turn

A few Yellow Salsify plants have bloomed in our lawn. I’ve been hoping they’d spread enough so that I could harvest a few of their tasty roots one of these years – but alas, the rabbits seem very fond of the flowers too. Only one has matured enough to produce a beautifully patterned seed head, below.

Semisalsifysunset

Fishing, it would appear, has been good for those who know where to go. In one evening on Westside Marsh recently, the resident Osprey pair was joined by a Green Heron, a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at least two Great Blue Herons, and a pair of Belted Kingfishers.

West marsh lookout

This Great Blue Heron waited up in a tree, then suddenly pirouetted and flapped away toward the sunset.

Time’s up

The Kingfishers darted back and forth across the marsh but stopped occasionally to rest on a perch beneath an Osprey platform.

Sharing a perch

Though Kingfishers almost always fly away, with their typical cackle, just before I can get into photo range, finally this female Kingfisher touched down at the edge of the marsh and waited while I drifted close enough to get a good angle and a good shot. It only took a few short years of trying, and every one of those hours in a kayak was time well spent.

Evening rays

 

Photo at top: Wetlands Broadcast System, in Westside Marsh (click here for full-size image)

 

reading the fine print

PHOTO POST

Who knew there was a Green Heron in our neighbourhood?

I’m sure many birders knew, but until this spring I didn’t know there is such a thing as a Green Heron, or that the Green Heron is hardly green at all, or that I had in fact seen and photographed a Green Heron a year ago.

More on herons later, but let’s agree that one can study and admire the fine features of many creatures while being quite unaware of their names.

Wingspan

The dragonflies that buzz around the reeds and lilypads at the edge of the marsh, for example, come in many colours, and might change their looks depending on the angle of the sun – but whatever their species, they are among the most beautiful sights on a steamy summer evening.

Stained Glass

The same can be said of Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), whose delicate orange blossom would be as beautiful by any other name.

Jewelweed

But of course the details matter greatly in many ways. While the native Jewelweed is no more or less beautiful than the somewhat similar Himalayan Balsam (see previous post, Before and After Flowers), the latter, recently introduced species is unfortunately far too successful in this environment, with the result that it can quickly crowd out most other plants.

Frogbit One

The same is true of European Frog-bit, whose tiny and delicate white flowers are now popping up around the edges of Bowmanville Marsh. Brought in to an Ottawa area experimental farm in 1932 as a possible decorative plant, it began to colonize many other bodies of water and is now widely established in southern Ontario and some northeast US states. Unfortunately, its miniature “lily pads” soon multiply to great numbers that snuff out many other plants, and which also spread easily when moved by contact with boats or moving water including the wake from boats. (See Ontario government fact sheet on European Frog-bit)

Frogbit Two

 

Shore Lunch

On the other hand, the Turkey Vulture is one of our more majestic indigenous birds, though it has the unglamorous job of cleaning up carrion. (They do not eat fresh meat.) When Turkey Vultures glide on thermals over the beach they are a welcome sight, as that usually means there is a dead fish or waterbird sending a pungent odour heavenward, and the Turkey Vultures have arrived to deal with it.

Sharp Look

One of the inescapable facts of living on the lakeshore is that there are lots of spiders – thousands, millions, gazillions? They make a mess of windows and outdoor walls, and ensure that the first person to walk through a doorway in the morning can expect a spider web across the face. Most of them are too small to successfully photograph with the equipment I have, but this beauty, stationed on the gatepost to our vegetable garden, is an exception.

Garden Guardian

 

Night Heron by Day

A fine heron by any name

And now about those herons. The Great Blue Heron is unmistakable and can be sighted on most paddling excursions in Bowmanville and Westside marshes, but the small herons are more elusive.

Adult Black-Crowned Night Herons are fairly easy to spot, as their white body and black-cap head stand out clearly against the green reeds. The youngsters, though, wear a better camouflage. Though the adult Black-Crown Night Herons and Green Herons don’t look at all alike, their youngsters bear many similarities.

I first became aware of the Green Heron a few months ago, when I spotted one in the still-short fresh green reeds along Soper Creek. Following that sighting I tried many times to spot the bird again, with little luck. But by late July I started to see young small herons, and learned it is easy to confuse the Black-Crowned Night Heron with the Green Heron – they both have predominately brown and white mottled feathers.

The juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron does not have a black cap, I learned, while a Green Heron wears a dark cap as both a juvenile and adult.

Looking at old pictures, I realized that in a post a year ago I had misidentified the bird at right as a Black-Crowned Night Heron, at a time when I wasn’t aware that Green Herons exist or that they might be found in this area.

At Roost

In the past two weeks I believe I have spotted juveniles of both species, though they are far more cautious and skittish than the Great Blue Herons. The youngster above, for example, retreated to a hiding place high in the trees beside Bowmanville Creek. It was only by drifting by very slowly that I found one angle with an almost unobstructed view.

And after many excursions at dawn and at sunset, I think I’ve finally captured a clear view of a Green Heron, below.

I Was Here All Along

Top photo: On An Arc (click here for larger view)

Disclaimer: the foregoing is not to be construed as advice from a certified authority, including but not limited to, ornithologist, entomologist, arachnologist, angelologist, ichthyologist, neuropsychopharmacologist, lepidopterologist, numismatologist, phytologist, dendrologist or other ologist, and is accompanied by no guarantee, either express or implied.

before and after flowers

PHOTO POST

With most summer flowers now fallen away or drying, it is up to butterflies and damselflies, grasses and fruits, to provide flashes of colour. While monarchs are drawn to the late-blooming Silphium, their caterpillars chew through Milkweed leaves.

Perspectives in pink (click images for larger views)

A wide variety of dragonflies and damselflies drift across from the marsh to our gardens – and clearly, for them this is a busy time of year.

Freefloat

 

Stars Came Out

 

Orange arrangement

Some of this season’s lilies are strikingly colourful even as they dry in the sun, and a few are still attracting pollinators.

Firedust

 

Listening Post

But sometimes you want to escape the heat. This rabbit relaxes on the beach in a cool morning breeze, having earned a break after a long night of pillaging gardens throughout the neighbourhood.

Coming-of-Age Story

On Westside Marsh, a trio of Mute Swan cygnets now look almost grown up, though their grey bills and mottled grey feathers still set them apart from their parents.

Under the Canopy

The flowers that are just now coming into bloom tend to be very tall. At two metres or more, the Himalayan Balsam is a good bit taller than its native cousin the orange-blossomed Jewelweed, which blooms a bit earlier. (The crushed stems of both species yield a clear juice that sooths the burn from Poison Ivy.)

Himalayan Balsam’s hollow but sturdy stalks are beautiful in their own right, though they are usually hidden deep in the understory. A tenacious competitor, it can quickly take over an area and produce a thick stand that leaves no room for other plants. Those who have had the experience of struggling to control a well-established stand realize this plant’s magnificence comes at great expense.

Jewelweed One

Its pink flowers are succeeded by an equally elaborate exploding seed pod that can distribute hundreds of seeds several metres in every direction. If you see a few of these flowers you might want to enjoy their beauty now – and then pull up the plants before they can seed next summer’s forest.

Jewelweed Sundown

 

Top photo: Monarchs’ Realm

 

house of orange

PHOTO POST

The star that burns most brightly in our garden recently is the Butterfly Weed (aka Pleurisy Root, Butterfly Milkweed). This not-so-common member of the milkweed family is said to attract Monarch butterflies.

Panorama in Orange (click images for larger view)

So far this year the Monarchs haven’t paid much attention, but other insects have certainly noticed these blooms. The Musca domestica (housefly) looks its resplendent best against a backdrop of Butterfly weed.

Transparency

Even where the flowers have little colour, it’s not hard to spot some flashes of orange. This dragonfly has flown across the road from the marsh to check out the arugula flowers, while bronze and brassy damselflies also flit around the garden.

Transparency II

 

Sunshadow

Intense summer sun plus a small but very welcome shower sped this sunflower toward maturity. Just two days separates these photos, as yellow-green quickly turns to orange.

Count To Three

The dry heat of recent weeks had many things switching to the hues of fall. With lawns drying up and many flowers withered, some days it looked more like September than July. The burnt ochre of the garden ornaments below – fragmented memories of someone else’s long-ago Mexican vacation – fit right in.

Repose

Some flowers, of course, still ring out in defiantly different tones.

Coiled Blue

Borage (above) and white water lily (below) look cool even when the sun is directly overhead in a cloudless sky.

Deep Light

Yet the palette in our corner of the world is trending toward yellow, gold, and orange, as rudbeckia, sylphium, and a flaming lily, below, come into their glory.

Orange Flows

Top photo: Buzz buzz (click here for larger view)

season finale

On a chilly late August morning you may feel that your best-before date has come and gone, your colours have faded and your once-splendid wings are tattered. But by the warmth of the noon-day sun, when you’re sipping nectar from a silphium flower eight feet in the air, you can still make the most of the summer’s glories.

Ragged Red Admiral (click images for larger view)

Once-bright petals are curling and falling to the ground, but a new round of flowers is taking over in meadows and gardens.

Light-Emitting Dandelion

 

Aster

 

Meanwhile the marsh is alive with a profusion of dragonflies and damselflies.

Dark Dragon

 

Dragonfly Sky

 

Whether in the marsh, harbour or along the breakwater, the ducks are no longer skittish – they continue feeding while a kayaker drifts within a few feet.

Duck Diner 1

Duck Diner 2

An adult Black Crowned Night Heron is not a flashy bird, but this nearly full-grown juvenile shows real sartorial flare. (Correction, Aug 13 2018: after further study I’m convinced this is not a young Black Crowned Night Heron, but rather a Green Heron. See “Reading the Fine Print”, Aug 14, 2018)

One Fine Heron

Several Great Blue Herons can often be seen in one small part of Bowmanville Marsh.

Wingspan

Along this coast there is another distinct sign of summer’s end: salmon are approaching the mouths of creeks, and that means fishing charters linger near shore while hopeful anglers line the breakwater.

Observation

 

Illustration at top of page: Red Dragon and Blue Dragon

Festival of Wings

The gardens are filled with beating wings this month – wings of butterflies, bees, moths, damselflies, beetles and wasps. Many of them don’t like to sit still long, so trying to photograph them can be a great way to while away the hours.

Red admiral on white coneflower (click images for larger views)

There have been an encouraging number of monarchs along the north shore of Lake Ontario recently, and they are particularly attracted to the flowers of the Silphium perfoliatum, aka cup plant, carpenter’s weed, squareweed, compass plant. One of the monarchs I photographed had been tagged by Monarch Watch, and I hope to hear how far it has travelled so far and whether it makes it all the way to Mexico before winter.

Monarch on silphium perfoliatum

 

Earlier in the summer the bumblebees proved very difficult to photograph, but recently they’ve been slowing down to linger on the flowers of catnip.

Bumblebee on catnip flowers

 

Bumblebee on catnip 2

One bumblebee was carrying so much pollen that its pollen baskets swayed from side to side as it crawled over the flowers.

Bumblebee on catnip 3

How much of this pollen came from catnip? That’s hard to say, since the bees were also working over the silphium flowers the same afternoon.

Bumblebee on silphium flower

 

The beautiful swallowtail butterflies also tend to flash around the garden without settling long. But I learned that when a pair of them land in the same flower patch they are far more interested in each other, and it’s possible to get close enough for a good photograph.

Swallowtail coming in for a landing

 

Swallowtail on white coneflower

Not to be outdone, the northern flickers have also been feeding in the yard recently, and this one seems to say “Never mind about those little wings – have a look at this tail!”

Northern flash

gems of the garden

When you coax a wide variety of flowers and herbs into your garden you also attract a wide variety of insects. Although not all these inhabitants are a welcome sight, most are not only beneficial but also remarkably beautiful.

For instance, there’s this cute little caterpillar with the unwieldy name Eupithecia miserulata. Not only does it stand out sharply against the burgundy and gold of a rudbeckia blossom, but it grows up to be a striking gray-brown moth.

Eupithecia. (click photos for larger images)

 

Then there are the mud dauber wasps. Two different types have been visiting our fennel flowers recently.

Black mud dauber wasp

Black and yellow mud dauber wasp

Though they look fierce they seldom sting people. But the mud dauber wasps do prey on spiders, which are more than abundant in our lakeshore location, so we are very happy to have them.

 

A more common but no less striking visitor has also been attracted to the herb garden – musca domestica, aka housefly.

Musca domestica on fennel flower

Musca domestica on coriander flower

The red soldier beetle was introduced from Europe and is relatively new to Ontario. Its British common name, Hogweed Bonking Beetle, sounds simultaneously ominous and comical, and in fact it is a pollinator of the toxic plants cow parsnip and giant hogweed. However it also preys on aphids, slugs and snails.

Red soldier beetle on grass

Red soldier beetles on Hydrangea paniculata

Damselflies are a wetland insect, but our garden is just across the road from a marsh and so these glittery creatures have been alighting on the leaves of beans, tomatoes and dogwood.

Eastern forktail damselfly, female

Eastern forktail damselfly, male

Finally, we are fortunate to see many honey bees locally, including this one visiting a purple/blue borage flower.

Honey bee on borage