Monitoring and Management—a sensible pairing

This article was written by Beth Goeppinger, WI DNR Naturalist at Richard Bong State Recreation Area. It demonstrates how important monitoring is to our management practices.

Richard Bong State Recreation Area is a heavily used 4,515 acre property in the Wisconsin State Park system.  It is located in western Kenosha County.  The area is oak woodland, savanna, wetland, sedge meadow, old field and restored and remnant prairie.   Surveys of many kinds and for many species are done on the property—frog and toad, drift fence, phenology, plants, ephemeral ponds,upland sandpiper, black tern, grassland and marsh birds, butterfly, small mammal, waterfowl, muskrat and wood ducks to name a few.  Moths, except for the showy and easy-to-identify species, have been ignored.

That is until volunteer moth surveyor, Steve Bransky, came onto the scene.  Steve had done a few moth and butterfly surveys here and there on the property. But that changed in 2013. Armed with mercury vapor lights, bait and a Wisconsin scientific collector’s permit, along with our permission, he began surveying in earnest.

He chose five sites in woodland, prairie and savanna habitats.  He came out many nights in the months moths might be flying.  After finding that moth populations seemed to cycle every 3-5 days, he came out more frequently.  His enthusiasm, dedication and never-ending energy have wielded some surprising results.  Those results have in turn, guided us in our habitat management practices.

Of the 2,000 moth species found in the state, Steve confirmed close to 700 on the property, and he isn’t done yet!  He found one of the biggest populations of the endangered Papaipema silphii moths (Silphium borer) in the state as well as 36 species of Catocola moths (underwings), one of the densest and most diverse populations in the state.  Six confirmed state records, over one hundred range extensions and over sixty county records make the monitoring even more impressive.

So what does all that have to do with management?   Obviously the way we have managed in the past has created appropriate habitat for these species.  Mowing and prescribed burning and invasive species removal is our management regime.  We try to burn each habitat unit on a three-year cycle but due to budgets and weather that often turned into 5-7 years which as it turns out, was beneficial to the insects.

There has long been a balance in prescribed burning, native habitat must be maintained and burning is the most efficient way to do that but you also don’t want to burn too much and negatively affect the insect life.  What the monitoring has helped us do is change and fine-tune our management strategies to better benefit the insects as well as the habitat.

We now make sure we have unburned habitat around the edges for recruitment.  We mow some of the higher quality remnants more frequently than we burn them.  We will also purposely try to leave unburned spots around host plants in places these populations are or could be.  The monitoring data has also affected our brushing decisions for instance, Catocala crataegii (Hawthorn Underwing) needs hawthorn, which is present but not in large numbers.  To that end, we are focusing on planting and keeping larger blocks of hawthorn.

They say that knowledge is power and I think that is true.  We were lucky before in our management but now that we know the amazing diversity of moths on the property, we can consciously and effectively manage for all the resources.  You have to know your site, whether it’s birds, plants, mammals or insects before you manage it, not just burn it all.  Now, I realize not everyone is lucky enough to have access to a moth expert but perhaps you could contact a local university or museum or resource expert to do some monitoring, or you could bait and take photographs for identification.    Just get out there and collect data to help guide your decision making, it makes good sense.

Note: Steve Branskey is a member of Wisconsin Entomological Society


Bio Blitz-ing

I attended my first insect bio blitz last Saturday (26 Jul 2014) at the Erickson Wetlands in Argyle, WI. The Driftless Area Land Conservancy (DALC) is responsible for this fabulous new land legacy which encompasses 220-acres of diverse habitat which contains multiple sloughs and oxbow lakes and over a mile of Pecatonica River frontage.

Earlier in the year, we joined the folks from Applied Ecological Services (AES) on several bio blitzes that identified plants, aquatic life, birds, and “herptiles.” DALC has hired AES to create a mangement plan for the property. In order to do that effectively and responsibly, it’ important to understand the biota in the area. Here’s some photos from an earlier bio blitz.

We did some seining in the river first. Here's a tadpole.
We did some seining in the river first. Here’s a tadpole.

Mike McGraw with a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).
Mike McGraw with a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

Mike checking for eggs from Blanding's Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii).
Mike checking for eggs from Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii).

Susan Lehnhardt photo'g the biggest ant mound we've ever seen!
Susan Lehnhardt photo’g the biggest ant mound we’ve ever seen!

The purpose of this particular blitz is to learn about what insects use this property. These events are never a “one and done” occasion; they are merely one of countless that will occur over many years into the future. They do provide an initial assessment of the life that is present, which in turn, provides data that will be used for ascertaining land management plans.

We had a great turnout with a number of members from the Wisconsin Entomological Society (WES). We had beetles experts, tree cricket experts, moth experts, and generalists. We met at 4pm and did some collecting and surveying of the area to figure out the best place to set up for the night event. Then off to Good Fellas, a local pub, for some tasty dinner and great conversation.

A few of the WES folks getting oriented before we begin. L-R: PJ Liesch, Steve Bransky, Kyle Johnson, Susan Lehnhardt

We started by checking out some insects on a beating sheet.

Trekking down one of the paths.

There was a black light set up and two mercury vapor set ups, each with white sheets hanging vertically near them. A black light is an ultraviolet (UV) light which broadcasts light spectrums that are highly visible to insects. The mercury vapor light emits a higher spectrum of UV light and a much more intense light than black lights; they attract more insects and possibly a larger diversity of insects. Since night-flying insects navigate by the stars and the moon, the lights create an artificial moon, attracting them to the white sheets; this makes it easy for humans to observe, collect, and photograph these insects.

Once the lights were set up, it didn’t take long for the insects to arrive! The lights coupled with the fog arising from the water and moist ground created an eerie green glow across the land.

Photo by Nancy-1{websized}
Nancy Collins took a great photo of the essence of this nighttime blitz!

Once the lights were up, it was great fun checking out all the interesting insects! In the foreground is Jordan Marche checking out the beetles.

Within minutes, two uncommon/rare moths were found. One was an Underwing (Catocala sp) and the other was called a Silphium moth. Many county records were established on this night but it will be sometime in the winter before the insects are vouchered and the photo IDs made. When that list is created and shared, it will be the same level of excitement all over again!

Here’s a few more random shots from the evening.

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Day of Insects 2014

Day of Insects is held at Reiman Gardens on the Iowa State University campus in Ames, IA. In the beginning it was an informal group gathering to discuss their current projects. This blossomed into an event that is open to the general public. Attendees include hobbyists, professionals, and academics. The mix of folks is impressive and makes it welcoming to everyone! The event doesn’t have a set date each year but occurs after the “worst” of the winter and before spring. This year it was the last weekend of March. The day started with coffee and social time before the presentations began at 9am. There is plenty of time to see the exhibits and catch up with old friends and meet a few new ones. Each year there are 15 presentations, each lasting 15 minutes long. This format allows for a little bit of info about each topic and the opportunity to learn about many various aspects of insects from a range of individuals.

I would be hard pressed to pick my favorite presentation but I would like to highlight a couple of topics. One of the coolest new apps for insect people has been developed by computer engineering students at the ISU. It’s the Unified Butterfly Recorder but don’t let the name fool you. This app will allow for lists of any insect to be uploaded and tracked. It’s perfect for those of us working on bio inventories of our property! It’s being beta tested right now and you can check it out if you have an Android or tablet. It is not available for the Nook or Kindle.

Several presentations dealt with insects in a local area. Leland Searles transformed his urban backyard into a prairie and inventoried the insects. He showed a number of slides and talked about each one. A bit closer to home, Ilona Loser, talked about photographing insects in the Cross Plains area. You can see her presentation on Flickr.

It is truly an amazing time. Lots of wonderful folks who willingly share their experiences and knowledge.

Nymph or Larvae?

What’s the difference between a nymph and a larva? For years, I’ve heard both terms but hadn’t given it much thought. This year, I started photographing insects earlier than I have in the past years and as I was trying to identify some of the grasshoppers, I noticed they didn’t have wings. Call it either an AHA! moment or a DUH! moment, or both – either way, I realized these were nymphs! I was hooked and I wanted to know more.

Nymphs and larvae are both immature insects; the difference is their life cycles.  Insects undergo one of 3 types of changes as they mature: 1) ametabolous metamorphosis, 2) hemimetabolous metamorphosis, or 3) holometablous metamorphosis. Depending on which type of maturing process the insects go through depends on what the immature insects are called.

A nymph is the immature stage of insects that mature via a process call hemimetabolous metamorphosis or incomplete metamorphosis. It means the babies generally look like the adults, only in a smaller version. They grow by molting and each molt is called an instar. The one exception is for dragonflies and damselflies; their nymphs are called naiads. Some of the insects that age using this process are grasshoppers, mayflies, and plant bugs.

Grasshopper - Green legged  (5)
Green-legged Grasshopper Nymph
Photo by Marci Hess

Remaining exoskeleton from a recent molt.
Photo by Marci Hess

A larva is the immature stage of insects that mature via holometablous metamorphosis or complete metamorphosis. Larva are usually wormlike in appearance and have no resemblance to the adult they will become; we mostly refer to them as caterpillars. The grow by molting, eventually becoming a pupa, then the last molt is when the insect changes to the adult form. Some of the insects that age using this process are butterflies, beetles, and moths.

Salt Marsh Caterpillar (2)
Larva of a Salt Marsh Moth
Photo by Marci Hess

Salt March Moth
Photo by Marci Hess

Lastly, is ametabolous metamorphosis. This is where the insect grows to adulthood with little change in body form. If you’ve ever wondered how aphids can accumulate so quickly, this is why – they give birth to live young who can reproduce in a matter of days.

Aphids – notice the various sizes
Photo by Marci Hess

I’m grateful that my curiosity kicked in! I was much more familiar with the larva term than I was the nymph term…at least until I met Jim. We now both do “nymphing” — his is with a fly rod and mine is with a camera!