Insects, Pacific Northwest
Entomology, or the study of insects, is a fascinating science – one most often ignored by amateur naturalists.
People love to watch feathered birds and hear their wonderful songs, or observe soft, cute & furry little mammals. They marvel at our majestic, large land mammals, and those at sea, which inspire whale watching tours by the thousands.
Then you have the insects, with their hard bodies and bulging eyes, wavering antennae, and 6 legs – looking very much like little aliens! It’s no wonder that they’re not on most peoples’ favorite lists. If you stop to watch them, though, you can learn just how fascinating they really are. Some insects transmit deadly diseases or can sting with powerful poisons, most are of great benefit to us. From bees, who give us honey, pollinate plants, & help provide us with food. From silk worms that give us silk, to garden insects that create soils to grow our foods. There are many, many ways that insects help us.
Ants are perhaps the most successful of all insects. There are approximately 8,800 species worldwide. With about 580 species in North America, of these, 83 are found in B.C.
In most areas of the world, they are among the most dominant of Insects. But it is not in terms of diversity where they dominate, but rather in numbers, in many areas they make up a large portion of the overall insect population.
Most people have encountered them in a negative context, such as discovering them in your home. They can be serious pests in some areas. However, they are a key factor in ecosystem function and their removal would seriously alter its ability to function and many other organisms would be impacted negatively.
They are also a staple food for many birds such as woodpeckers and they are an important dietary component for bears. For example, ants and their larvae are the main food source eaten by bears during the early spring. Bears will search for them quite actively during this period. On Vancouver Island, black bears depend on them throughout late summer and fall when the berry crop is poor.
Carpenter ants are among the dominant in sub boreal forests, where they are perhaps the most important organisms in physically breaking down wood.
Many species are fierce predators and as such can be beneficial. Some species like thatching ants can have huge nests, containing many thousands of workers, so they could have a significant impact on forest health by preying on the caterpillars of defoliator moths, at least in B.C.
They can affect their environment in many ways. Some species have been shown to surpass earthworms in the amount of soil they transport to the surface.
Many plants have evolved to have their seeds dispersed by ants. Many species farm aphids and their relatives for their honeydew. In return, the aphids are protected by them from predators and parasites. Ants sometimes actively move aphids from plant to plant like a farmer moving his herds around.
Many utilize dead wood for nest construction. The most well known of these are the carpenter ants. These large, but often shy and non aggressive ants construct their nests in decayed logs or standing trees. In a preliminary survey of ants it is found that dead wood is a preferred nest substrate for most ant species in B.C. on Vancouver Island.
The western thatching ant is a relatively widespread species on Vancouver Island. It is often locally dominant in forest stands with sandy soils. This species can construct impressive thatch mound nests. I have seen these nests get as big as 2 meters across and contain hundreds of thousands of ants.
The odorous house ant, is very widespread in North America. In spite of its diminutive size, this one can be rather aggressive. Because of its small size, it is easily overlooked. Nests are often found in association with wood, but the majority of their nests are under moss or in soil. They will also nest in any place they can hide in your home and I have even found temporary nests in electronics like radios and televisions.
The ones most commonly seen are those that occur in and around human dwellings and in cities. Carpenter ants get their name as a result of the habit of many common species to nest in wood, including human dwellings. Most commonly, people notice carpenter ants when they swarm in spring, but since nests can be quite large, workers are also noticeable around well established nests.
Many species of them invade homes, but some do this more commonly than others, the small odorous house ant, a species more or less ubiquitous throughout North America is the most common ant found in our homes on the Island. They are small black ants which scurry around and get their common name from a characteristic odor they give off.
Red ants tend to be less noticeable. The are often reddish in color, have a stinger like bees and can inflict painful stings in spite of their small size. They are usually slower moving and somewhat more cryptic with small nests, but many are commonly seen in cities where their nest entrances are located in sidewalk cracks and between paving stones.
There are some insects that are just so beautiful that they can take your breath away, butterflies can have that effect on you. Butterflies undergo a series of physical transformations known as metamorphosis from the time it is an egg right up to adulthood and mating. After mating, the female will lay her eggs on a host plant. The eggs may hatch within a few days or sometimes will not hatch until conditions are just right.
Right after hating into a caterpillar, it begins to eat the host plant. The caterpillar molts several times during this stage. It then seeks a safe spot, suspends itself by silken threads and molts one last time and turns into a chrysalis or pupa. Within days, months or even longer, depending on the kind of Butterfly, a fully developed winged adult emerges from the chrysalis and the cycle begins again.
Most prefer flowers that are pink, red, purple, or yellow and that are open all day, so plant these colors in your garden to attract them. Butterflies fly during the day and at night they sleep in the on the underside of a leaf or some other safe spot. Butterflies can’t hear but they can feel vibrations of the slightest kinds.
They do make the world a prettier place, l love, just everyone else, seeing them fly by, you always stop and look with wonder in your eyes when one is spotted. Female butterflies are bigger and live longer than males.
Butterflies are cold blooded and they cannot regulate their own body temperature. This means their body temperature changes with the temperature of their surroundings. If they get too cold, they are unable to fly and must warm up to enable their mussels to work right. Butterflies prefer to fly in temperatures between 18 to 30 c. If the temperature drops too low, they may seek a warm, sunny spot and bask. Butterflies bask with their wings spread out in order to soak up the sun’s heat. Its easiest to photograph them early in the day as they sit still for longer periods of time, basking in a warm spot.
Insects have an exoskeleton that protects their internal organs, reinforcing them in much the same way, as our skeleton supports us. Their body is divided into 3 parts: abdomen, thorax, and head. They have 3 sets of legs that are attached to the thorax. Most insects have 2 pairs of wings also attached to this midsection. The exception to this are flies, whose 2nd pair of wings have been reduced, and are now used simply as flight stabilizers.
Entomology is something that I’ve always been interested in. There is something very thrilling about watching insects go about their daily activities. The next time you are outdoors, take a moment and look down – you’ll see them, and if you watch them for a few moments, you’ll be amazed!