The Mystery of the Orange Bug

As a lover of nature and all its small, crawly things, I often drop everything to observe and identify even the smallest bug. Much to the annoyance of my coworkers and volunteers, I just can’t give it up!

Learning to correctly identify the creatures around me brings a lot of fun and joy, but also:

  • Increases my scientific understanding of the world
  • Adds to my taxonomic and ecological knowledge
  • Builds empathy and compassion for the lives of smaller beings
  • Gives me a greater sense of place and familiarity in my Kansas homeland
This is the face of our little mystery. There were over ten of these orange bugs on a single plant!

Identifying the creatures around you is not always intuitive. Recently I found some small, orange, wiggly friends in the landscaping at my house. And so begins the mystery! Here are the steps and resources I always use to identify new-to-me bugs. Hopefully they can be useful to you as well!

Step One: Photograph

Make sure to quickly capture some detailed images of your friend. Life for a bug is fast paced — they are moving, flying, fleeing, eating or being eaten! You will need to have a good photo to refer to, as your search for answers may last longer than your memory.

I like to snap a quick photo with my iphone, but for tiny details I add a clip on macrolens. This one was very inexpensive and does a great job.

Insect or other?

Start by discerning whether you are a looking at an insect or something else. The word ‘bug’ is used to generalize all small, crawly things, but there are important distinctions. Spiders, for example, are not insects. Roly-polys are not insects. Earth worms are not insects. Counting legs and body segments of your specimen can help you determine if it is an insect; true insects will have 6 legs and 3 distinct body segments.

This diagram shows the 3 main body parts of an insect, and the characteristic 3 pairs of legs. Diagram from Wiki Commons

If you are a beginner and don’t know much terminology, use the easy picture-based and shape-based search tool BugFinder. My mystery friend could not be found on this form. They had 6 well-defined legs but no obvious body segments. I thought perhaps I was looking at a caterpillar (still an insect!), so I visited DiscoverLife and answered their beginner-friendly caterpillar search form. In the past it has been tremendously helpful, but not this time.

Step Two: Where is it?

Where is this individual living? If you can identify its preferred habitat, you have a huge clue to discovering its identity. My mystery bug was living and feeding on Scutellaria resinosa, (also known as skullcap), but nothing else around it. Many insects have a host plant (a specific food plant that the babies must eat) or host plant family. By knowing the plant, I can work backwards and find out what insects are likely to feed on or interact with it. Sometimes these interactions are called faunal associations.

When searching the web to identify a new insect, remember to include the plant it was found on and the region of the world you are in. This will narrow your search. I love to use the maps at butterfliesandmoths.org to see what species have been spotted in my area.

The blooms of Smoky Hills skullcap. Photo by Craig Freeman

Step Three: Ask and Post

If you have scoured the internet and all your favorite insect guidebooks, but still are stumped, it is time to visit BugGuide.net. They are “an online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing our observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.” There you will find a wealth of information on insects and their common whereabouts, but you can also post photos and ask questions of that expert group. They love to share their passion, and “to instill in others the fascination and appreciation…for the intricate lives of these oft-maligned creatures.” You may also find answers by posting a photo to your local naturalist Facebook groups.

And the bug is…

A shining flea beetle larvae, Asphaera lustrans! I finally found my answer by searching through the records at BugGuide.net and coming upon this page. While I can’t be sure, it was the closest match I could find. I also discovered that particular flea beetle hosts on Scutellaria, so I became even more convinced of its identity. I plan to post my photos and ask the experts on BugGuide to be sure.

Identifying wildlife and plants in your region is a lifelong pursuit; a never-ending puzzle. It can provide hours of stimulating entertainment for adults and children alike, and it will introduce you to like-minded folks who are also curious and engaged with world around us.

Next time you see a bug crawling across your porch or on your kitchen sink, don’t squish! Capture it, take a photo, release it outside, and begin the fun of unraveling its mystery!

Help Us Count Butterflies

Put Saturday, June 27, 2020 on your calendar and plan to help us count butterflies. The 21st Annual Harvey County Butterfly Count will consist of groups of butterfly enthusiasts dispersing to butterfly hot spots around the county to observe and count as many butterfly species as possible. Participant age or experience does not matter.

Whether you can immediately tell the difference between a pearl crescent and a gorgone checkerspot or you are unable to differentiate between a monarch and a moth, we encourage you to attend. The only requirement is a curious interest in finding and counting butterflies.

E. tiger swallowtail butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Harvey County Butterfly Count

The Harvey County Butterfly Count typically takes place on a single day in late June throughout a 16-mile diameter circle that includes Newton, Halstead, and Hesston. Emeritus biology professor, Dwight Platt, organized the first Harvey County Butterfly Count in 2000. Dwight has long been a champion of citizen science in South Central Kansas. As a Bethel College freshman in 1948, he helped organize the first Harvey County area Halstead-Newton Christmas Bird Count. As my major professor in the early 1990s at Bethel, Dwight inspired me to get active in citizen science, and many years later (in 2016) passed along to me oversight of the Harvey County Butterfly Count. Dwight plans to participate all day in this 21st Harvey County count at the age of 89.

Dwight Platt, conducting a butterfly survey at Sand Prairie in W. Harvey County in 2008.

Citizen Science

Guidance for the Harvey County Butterfly Count protocol is provided by North American Butterfly Association (NABA). Their efforts to build and organize a robust data set is important to monitor trends in butterfly populations. Comparisons of the results across years can be used to monitor changes in populations and study the effects of weather and habitat change on North American butterflies.

By participating in such counts, you are contributing to research through citizen science. In the process, you are also increasing your scientific understanding, learning about environmental issues, gaining an appreciation for the natural world, and becoming a more engaged citizen. Thanks to Dwight, family members, and friends who encouraged me to do such things at a young age, citizen science shaped my choice of vocation and was personally transformative. I am hooked now and consider citizen science a fun hobby.

Delaware skipper butterfly nectaring on tall thistle.

Common Butterflies Observed

In addition to sending all the data to NABA from each year’s one-day count, I have 20 years of Harvey County Butterfly Count data in a spreadsheet that can be organized in a variety of ways. Here are a few summary numbers:

  • Over the last 20 years, 85 butterfly species have been observed during the one-day Harvey County counts.
  • The average number of butterfly species seen over the last 20 counts is 50.8.
  • 25 butterfly species have been observed nearly every year of the count (19 out of 20 counts).

Those 25 commonly observed Harvey County butterfly species are featured here for easy visual reference (photo credits). I lumped some of the similar-looking species together to help you more easily discern some of the subtle differences. Review them a few times and you will already start to develop a familiarity with the majority of butterflies seen on a typical count!

While the above 25 species are mostly what you will see and be counting, the real fun comes in finding the other 25 or so more rare species throughout the day. Searching for different types of habitat and flowers usually helps expand the diversity of species observed. Looking for certain host plants to find rare species is also part of the strategy.

What to Bring

The most important mode of preparation for a summer butterfly count is adjusting to the elements. Once you protect yourself from the sun with a hat and light cotton clothing and apply insect repellent around your ankles to repel ticks and chiggers, you can more easily turn your focus to the fun of looking for flowers and the butterflies they attract. If you simply plan to sweat and stay well-hydrated (bring plenty of water), you will find yourself enjoying a breezy summer day in Kansas.

Additionally, consider bringing binoculars (I also have close-range butterfly binoculars to lend you) and/or a camera with a zoom lens, but neither are mandatory. Each group will have a leader with an expertise in identification and a plan for sites to visit.

Let me know at brad.guhr@hesston.edu if you would like to attend for a half (3-4 hours) or full day (6-8 hours) and I will send you an email with more details.

Plan to enjoy part or all of a summer day counting butterflies and help make an important contribution to citizen science.

Rare regal fritillary butterflies nectaring on butterfly milkweed.

Gardeners make EVERY DAY Earth Day

One week ago today was the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day demonstration in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts are lasting results of that first Earth Day! Yet much more remains to be done, and it can’t happen on just one day of the year. Earth Day reminds us that every day is Earth Day.

As gardeners and stewards and of our immediate environment, we are already making a difference in our own backyards and communities. As we explore and connect with nature each day, we are establishing a care ethic to make positive decisions for the environment, present and future.

Support biodiversity at home

This year, Earth Day recognized the enormous challenges – and vast opportunities – of climate action. So, what better place to start climate actions than in our native prairie gardens? Native prairie gardens are – by their very nature – pollinator gardens. They attract an abundance of pollinators (and other small creatures as well) throughout the growing season. In so doing, they help conserve biodiversity, protect species threatened by climate change, and restore ecosystem balance.

But native gardens do so much more to mitigate climate change. They hold and conserve water, store carbon in extensive root systems, build fertile soils, and help maintain cleaner air. In tending native gardens, we benefit as well by experiencing beauty, joy, and a sense of well-being.  

Pollinator Garden Resources

You can celebrate Earth Day every day by joining Earth Day 2020’s campaign to Protect Our Species. Because the Monarch butterfly is currently vulnerable and declining, it is one of ten species directing the Earth Day Network’s conservation efforts in 2020. Earth Day 2020 provides an informative Pollinator Garden Toolkit, and Pollinator Garden Worksheet to help you plan or add to your pollinator garden. 

Then, attend the online FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, with its large selection of hearty, native flowers, grasses, trees and shrubs suitable for a diversity of habitats. If you have questions, FloraKansas has experts available too!

Connect to the broader community

Last, but not least, invite your neighbors, friends and family to join you in your efforts to create pollinator-friendly spaces. Garden by garden, we can create a mosaic of native habitats that benefit a broader community of both pollinators AND people!

Photo: A native metallic green sweat bee Agapostemon sp gathering pollen from wavy-leaf false dandelion Microseris cuspidata. (Lorna Harder photo taken 20 Apr 2020)

References:

Plug(in) for Citizen Science

Opportunities to conduct citizen science are all around us and doing so can add great value to our lives. You can refer to an earlier blog post (Get Rich and Happy with Phenology) to see how much I enjoy scientific pursuits in my spare time. These activities include various elements of plant conservation, and looking for/identifying butterflies and birds.

My data collection tools for the Harvey Count Butterfly Count

I discussed in this past post that phenology is the observance of cyclical and seasonal natural events. Citizen science is a method of observing and documenting phenology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines citizen science as “scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists and scientific institutions.”

Field data sheet from a past Harvey County Christmas Bird Count

Kansas is flush with great people and resources when it comes to conducting skillful citizen science. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in the Kansas birding community. I know a number of committed folks who will spend entire weekends and even vacations focused on the pursuit of observing and identifying as many birds as possible. The especially skilled and driven birders identify more species in a day than most people will recognize in a lifetime. Some may consider these folks a bit wack-a-doodle-doo, but I consider them inspiring contributors to citizen science. I will strive to be more like them in my empty nest years (yes, pun intended), which are coming soon.

The drive for many birders to scientifically document nature around them then extends to the follow-up data sharing. This is where personal enjoyment in bird watching becomes important citizen science. And this is also where I get to the reference in my title for this blog about “plugging in”.

Electronic Reporting

With mobile devices making the Internet available almost anywhere and with ever more nature-based reporting platforms coming available, sharing findings about animals and plants has never been easier. Here are some online reporting options for you to check out:

A popular reporting platform is eBird, created by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. Through this platform, birders can report their findings and track data according to their life lists, county/state/country lists, etc. Ornithologists world-wide are using eBird data to better understand population ranges, changes in this data related to climate change, and so much more.

Birds are probably the most abundantly reported subject when it comes to citizen science of the natural world. Other Cornell Lab popular platforms and outlets for collecting bird data close to home include Project FeederWatch, NestWatch, and Great Backyard Bird Count. Breeding Bird Surveys, and Christmas Bird Counts (see a previous blog on this topic HERE) offer birding outlets for more adventurous birding in the region where you live.

Butterfly Tracking

Butterfly tracking is also gaining popularity. A good platform for reporting findings about monarch butterflies is through Monarch Watch. With their trending decline over the last couple of decades, monarchs are a popular focus for butterfly monitoring. Through Monarch Watch, citizen science data inputs for the public can include host plant emergence in the spring, and larvae and adult monarch sightings. They even detail how to tag monarchs for further tracking. Developing habitat for monarchs and improving available native nectar sources is also good for all butterfly species.

Check out a recent edition of On T.R.A.C.K.S. (V25:1), a publication produced by the good folks at Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism for more ideas about citizen science reporting. This information-packed issue provided the topic idea for this post. Tt goes into much greater depth on many of the resources I refer to. This issue also highlights and further describes additional electronic platforms related to documenting biodiversity in general, plant flowering and seeding, climate change, precipitation, frogs, ladybugs, and even litter.

Our first lecture of our 2020 Winter Lecture Series with Chuck Otte will focus on Kansas Bird Populations and Distributions. Chuck is a fantastic resource, a great advocate for citizen science, and an interesting speaker. Put it in your calendar Tuesday, February 11 at 6:30 and come join us.

Happy Kansas Day! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than to spend more time studying and reporting on the natural world of Kansas. Now, get out there, plug-in for citizen science, and have fun in the process!

Observing Natural Cycles Around Us

We observed the winter solstice yesterday on December 21st. I shared my thoughts on this beloved time in a winter solstice blog post last year. Whether it is the rotation of distant planets, stars and moons around one another or the episodes of weather, plants and animals closer to home, observable natural cycles are abundant around us.

Phenology wheel – a collaborative nature journal

We will be focusing on the closer to home cycles for the coming calendar year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. Earlier this year I introduced the importance of “phenology” in a blog post. Now we are now ready to practice and enjoy this ritual in earnest over the coming year here on our grounds. We will be observing and documenting events related to weather, plants, and animals at Dyck Arboretum. With the help of visitors, we will record precipitation amounts, presence/absence of migrating bird species, notable events with other forms of wildlife, flowering and seeding of plants, and more.

We invite you to help us document these phenological events by recording your observations on a sheet in our Visitor Center entryway. At regular intervals, we will compile these observations and record them onto a large wall-mounted “phenology wheel”. The phenology wheel concept was created by Partners in Place, LLC. The idea has been promoted to teachers and students through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program here at Dyck Arboretum, and through the Earth Partnership Program founders at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. An example of what we have in mind was recently exhibited at the nature center for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Phenology wheel observations recorded at Miller Woods, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Become a citizen scientist

So, help us fill up our very own phenology wheel in 2017 by activating your observational skills and recording your findings at Dyck Arboretum. Be observant, take photographs and share them with us, write descriptive notes, make drawings, bring in a leaf or flower if you’d like help with identification, note dates and weather conditions, and educate yourself by engaging with the natural world around you. Through your citizen science observations in 2017 and the display of this Dyck Arboretum phenology wheel, we will all benefit from your findings.

Burr oak through the seasons phenology wheel.