Those Beautiful Bugs

Saskatchewan’s six-legged superstars pollinate flowers, replenish soil and feed birds and animals. They’re also gorgeous.

Science | by Gregory Beatty

Butterfly
Photo by Fran Kerbs

As far as signs of spring go, the arrival of migrating songbirds and flowers blooming probably rank high on the welcome meter. Trees coming into leaf and hibernating wildlife emerging from winter burrows likely have their fans too.

Not so welcome, I suspect, is the return of insects.

Whether it’s bitey (and occasionally disease-carrying) mosquitoes, ticks, black flies and wasps, or pests such as grasshoppers, wheat stem sawflys, diamond-backed moths and elm bark beetles that wreak havoc on crops, gardens and forests, insects, for most people, fall into the “something to endure rather than enjoy” category.

Not for Fran Kerbs and Kim Mann, though. The Regina women find insects downright fascinating — to the point they’ve even teamed up to give illustrated talks on the province’s insect population.

Not surprisingly, both took indirect routes in developing their interest.

“Mine started with landscape photography,” says Kerbs. “When my dad passed away, my mom asked what we should do with his bird books because he was a birder. I decided to use them to ID all the birds in my landscape photos.

“When you ID birds, you learn things about them, like what kind of insects they eat — so in they came. Well, I can’t take photos of insects without knowing what they are, so I started checking on BugGuide.net.

“It’s an amazing website for all of North America,” Kerbs says. “If you don’t know a bug, and you submit a picture, there are experts who will help identify it. I’m at about 570 bugs now just from incidental contact through photography.”

When Kim Mann was young, she recalls, she was terrified of dragonflies.

“My brother used to say ‘Don’t touch them, they’ll bite.’ So I never went near them,” she says. “But I got a digital camera in 2004. With that, you can take as many pictures as you want. I just happened to be living in northwestern Ontario, which is really good for dragonflies. It was hard to ID insects back then because there weren’t a lot of resources other than print, so I got some books and went from there.”

Spreading The Gospel

Through their talks, Kerbs and Mann hope to inspire people to think differently about insects.

“When you photograph an insect up close for the details you need to ID them, they become more than just a ‘bug’,” says Kerbs. “That whole creepy-crawly thing, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a bug! Smash it!’, disappears. You realize it has a face. It has eyes. It’s looking at you. It’s got beautiful designs on its body.”

Putting a “face” to different insect species, Mann and Kerbs hope, will encourage more people to become amateur entomologists.

“I would say 10 to 15 people make entries on BugGuide for Saskatchewan,” says Kerbs. “Considering the size of the province, that’s nothing. So we not only want to encourage people to take an interest in what’s out there, but also make entries on BugGuide. It’s easy to do, and that way we can get more information on the website.”

Professional entomologists often consult BugGuide, which makes the citizen science that goes on there a valuable research tool.

“My sister and I like to go out and get lost on the back roads and pitch a tent for a couple of nights,” says Kerbs. “We take pictures of every bug we see. Doing that, I probably got 10 entries in BugGuide where someone’s said, ‘Oh, we knew they went as far as eastern Alberta, or whatever. But we had no idea they were in Saskatchewan.’

“Then maybe you find the same bug at another location. So is it so much that the bug is rare in Saskatchewan, or we just don’t have enough people out looking?”

Bugs 101

A working knowledge of anatomy is important to identify insects, says Mann. Biologically, they’re defined as having segmented bodies (head, thorax, abdomen), three pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes and one set of antennae. Shape of antennae, location of reproductive organs and distinct body markings are some of the characteristics that distinguish species.

If you’re going to head out in search of bugs, early morning typically isn’t the best time, says Mann.

“[It] isn’t like bird-watching,” she says. “You don’t get up at the crack of dawn, you have a second cup of coffee, wait for it to warm up, then go out.”

Don’t limit yourself to a single time of the year, either, she says.

“A lot of insects have ‘flight periods’,” says Mann. “You might see a specific type of dragonfly or bee in June but come July, they’re gone. Their lifecycle is such that they’re flying or crawling around during certain months.”

Habitat Help

Like other plants and animals, insects aren’t immune to human activity in their traditional habitats.

Monocrops, drained wetlands, pesticides, urban sprawl and climate change are only some of the ways we’re threatening their viability. But on their own, Mann says, insects have remarkable capacity to survive.

“When sloughs dry up, for instance, insects have what’s called a diapause so they’ll stop their development. They can do that because they’ve evolved for those conditions. With climate change, it changes how that happens. Then you lose species because they can’t adapt fast enough.”

Warm snaps in winter can bring bees and other insects out of hibernation, which is a death sentence because there’s no food for them to eat.

Lack of insulating snow cover also poses challenges for hibernating insects.

And while it’s true that some insects are true “pests”, many others perform valuable ecological services such as pollination, breaking down organic material to replenish soils, pest control and being a handy source of protein for birds, fish and other animals higher up on the food chain.

Even Humans eat insects now, and we’re projected to eat a lot more in the future as a sustainable protein source.

Insects are a voracious lot, too. Recently, scientists estimated that spiders (technically not insects, but still bugs) eat between 400 and 800 million tonnes of “creepy crawlies” annually. To put that in perspective, all of humanity consumes roughly 400 million tonnes of meat and fish each year.

So yeah, insects are worth having around.

Even something as simple as farmers seeding strips of native plants on the edges of their fields can help nurture local populations, says Mann.

Lawns in cities need a rethink too, as they offer little in the way of viable habitat.

“I live in northwest Regina, and I’ve been collecting seeds and then growing native plants in my backyard,” says Mann. “There are perennials and annuals, and the level of pollinator activity has exploded. The native plants are just as pretty as normal garden plants, and they’re hardier too. You don’t have to water them as much. You don’t have to fertilize them or use pesticides either.”

There you go. Insects. They’re neat little creatures that make your yard nicer. This spring and summer, keep an eye open for the six-legged little guys. Your attention will be rewarded with knowledge and a deeper and richer appreciation of nature’s subtle beauty.

Besides: looking for real, live organisms is a more wholesome way to spend a summer than, say, chasing imaginary creatures on your phone. Don’t you think? ❧

Learn more about Saskatchewan insects at Nature Saskatchewan (naturesask.ca) or Nature Regina (natureregina.ca).

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