June Fireflies

Click for a larger view of a firefly, Courtesy Wikimedia, Bruce Marlin, Photographer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
Firefly
Courtesy Wikimedia,
Bruce Marlin, Photographer
Licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 2.5 Generic license


Most people are fascinated by unusual displays of light. Meteor showers, solar eclipses, and the stunning Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are grandiose in scale and mesmerize onlookers. But people are also enchanted with the small life-forms that create their own light.

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living creatures, is an incredible phenomenon produced by certain mushrooms, scorpions, millipedes, bacteria, snails, worms, beetles, and nearly half of marine life including single-celled plankton, jellyfish, octopi, and fish. Some are also fluorescent by absorbing light rays and then emitting them as a different color.

But today we will focus on fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, which are actually beetles.

How, and why, do these creatures produce their own light? Scientists are still learning how the process works, but basically it is a chemical reaction involving luciferin, a light-emitting compound, being catalyzed by an enzyme and reacting with oxygen to release cool, light photons.

The “why” part is primarily for locating mates. But other species could also use it to lure prey, as a method of escape, and to warn predators.

The nighttime hours of late Spring and early Summer months are prime time for firefly activity. They live around wetland areas where the soil is moist and will start flashing when the sky is dark. Females remain fairly stationary atop tall grass and watch for males who fly around flashing various light signals. When a female approves of a suitor’s signal, she will respond with her own glow pattern which allows the male to find her. After mating, the female will lay eggs in the moist soil or leaf litter where they won’t dry out. The eggs usually hatch in 3-4 weeks.

The larvae live in the soil hunting worms, snails or slugs. At this stage they may actually begin glowing. They live in the soil for one or two winters before pupating and undergoing metamorphosis into the adult stage. And the purpose of the adult stage is primarily breeding.

While we enjoy seeing these insect “shooting stars” it is critical to avoid trying to capture them since the Utah populations are small and fragile. (Photos are available online on many websites if one needs to see them closeup.) Walking on the soil can kill the eggs or larvae, and light from automobiles, street lights and flashlights can disrupt their ability to see the flashing of their prospective mates. While the “Firefly Citizen-Science Project” from the Natural History Museum of Utah indicates sightings at more than 50 locations, careless actions, as well as loss of critical habitat, are actually causing a decrease in populations across the country.

Let’s do our best to be good stewards of the earth and only “observe” the amazing firefly.

This is Ron Helstern with Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia, Bruce Marlin, Photographer, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
Text: Ron Hellstern

Additional Reading

Holly Strand, Firefly Light, Wild About Utah, 20 June 2013, http://wildaboututah.org/firefly-light/

Clayton Gefre, Sparks Fly: Researchers track firefly populations across Utah, The Herald Journal, http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/sparks-fly-researchers-track-firefly-populations-across-utah/article_270ac8b9-3d3f-5a01-9b5b-ac22e89a54bb.html

Natalie Crofts, New Website Tracks Utah Firefly Sightings, KSL, https://www.ksl.com/?sid=34439516

Utah Museum of Natural History, Firefly Citizen Science Project, https://nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies

The End of Royalty?

Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74. As found on Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana, Annette Scherber Posted on February 14, 2017
Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74. As found on Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana, Annette Scherber
Posted on February 14, 2017

It was a spectacular scene that no living person has ever witnessed. John James Audubon said the sun would literally be blocked out for hours as the river of living creatures flew by from sunrise to sunset. Estimates place their population up to five billion. That’s FIVE BILLION. They represented 40% of all the living Class of Aves in North America and may have been the most abundant bird species in the entire world. They reached speeds over 60 miles per hour, and when flocks came to rest in forests their collective landings could topple large trees. They seemed invincible.

But in the 1870’s, European-Americans used shotguns which dropped dozens of Passenger Pigeons with each shot. They commercialized them as cheap food, sold their feathers to adorn hats, and cut down nesting-area forests.

As the birds began to disappear, measures were made to prevent their total loss. Several groups were captured and put in captivity, but breeding was unsuccessful. In 1901 the last wild “invincible” pigeon was shot. In 1914, the very last Passenger Pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. They are gone. Five Billion then, zero now.

Monarch Butterflies, 250x353, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterflies, 250×353, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

We may be currently experiencing something of that depressing magnitude as we continue to record a consistent decline in the populations of once plentiful Monarch Butterflies. Adults may recall capturing the yellow-black-white striped larva from milkweeds in fields and along roadsides throughout Cache Valley. They would keep them in jars until the larva had its miraculous morphing, then release the dazzling orange and black flying flowers that everyone seemed to love. Unless humans take positive actions now, many newborn children may never have that butterfly-in-a-jar experience.

Tagged Monarch Butterfly, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Tagged Monarch Butterfly, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

I started tagging and releasing Western Monarchs at South Cache back in 1995. A harmless tag was placed on the front wing in hopes of tracking it to its overwintering site. We did hundreds at first, but each year larva was more difficult to find. Nibley’s Becky Yeager reigns as the Monarch tagging Queen, and she works tirelessly to preserve the species.

In December, six of us decided to investigate the Monarch sites in California listed by the Xerces Society. We went to each site from Santa Barbara along the coast up to Santa Cruz. We should have seen a quarter million Monarchs, but barely observed two thousand total.

Monarch Butterfly, Tagged and Ready-to-go, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly, Tagged and Ready-to-go,
Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

In 1997, California had 100 counting sites and observed well over one million Monarchs.
In 2016 they increased counting sites to 250, but the population has dropped to less than 300,000. If five billion pigeons can disappear, what are the odds of success for Monarchs?

Milkweed Host for Monarch Butterflies Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Milkweed Host for Monarch Butterflies
Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

We can do something about this. Plant milkweed, the only plant where they lay eggs. Use fertile, native plants in your flower gardens. Stop spraying pesticides. Let the Cache Valley Wildlife Association tag whatever Monarchs you might collect this summer. And join us at the Logan Gardeners’ Market for a Mariposa Festival on May 20.

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

Credits:

Images: Courtesy &
Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Text:     Ron Hellstern

For Information On Tagging:
The Monarch Program: http://www.monarchprogram.org
To tag butterflies found in Cache Valley, please contact Monarch Program volunteer Ron Hellstern at 435-245-9186. Please note that captive caterpillars or chrysalises are easiest to tag, as capturing adults can harm their wings.

Growing milkweed:

Monarch Watch, Propagation (Growing Milkweeds). http://www.monarchwatch.org/milkweed/prop.htm
Additional Reading:

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Butterflies, North America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.
Monarch Watch: Monarch Life Cycle. http://monarchwatch.org/biology/cycle1.htm

National Geographic: Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/monarch-butterfly/

NRCS Partners with Farmers, Ranchers to Aid Monarch Butterflies, Posted by Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, on November 12, 2015, USDA Blog, http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/11/12/nrcs-partners-with-farmers-ranchers-to-aid-monarch-butterflies/

The Logan River June Bug

“Darling, I’m having a struggle with the trout. They are too much for me in the swift, rushing river. I lose ‘em. Went out yesterday… and lost two—one a large fish. The ‘June Bugs’ – a red bodied insect, as big as the biggest grasshopper you ever saw, fall from the leaves on to the river and are such large juicy mouthfuls that the trout have abundant food, and don’t care much for a fly.”1

Frederick Jackson Turner c 1890 Public Domain Courtesy Wikipedia
Frederick Jackson Turner
c 1890
Public Domain
Courtesy Wikipedia
That is an excerpt from a letter from U.S. historian and novice fly angler Frederick Jackson Turner. He was writing to his wife Caroline Mae on June 20, 1924, while visiting Utah Agricultural College in Logan. Turner didn’t know it at the time, but the large red-bodied “June Bugs” were actually salmonflies, a prehistoric-looking stonefly from the genus Pteronarcys. Turner was also unaware that his letter would become the earliest written record showing that salmonflies were once abundant in the Logan River.

Salmonflies are a type of large stonefly that live in many western rivers and are often called “rock rollers” or “shredders” because they hide under boulders and gorge themselves on leaf litter until early summer when they crawl out from under the rocks, shed their exoskeleton, and clumsily fly around hoping to bump into a mate. These bugs love cold, clean, oxygenated water, all of which are hallmarks of the Logan River. Existing records show that salmonflies were well established on the Logan River until at least 1951, after which time something wiped them out. The last time anyone saw a Pteronarcys on the Logan River was September 7, 1966, near Mendon Bridge.2

Salmon fly; Photographer unknown; 1967 Yellowstone Photo Collection Courtesy NPS and Yellowstone Association
Salmon fly;
Photographer unknown;
1967
Yellowstone Photo Collection
Courtesy NPS and Yellowstone Association
In 2001, the “Disappearance of the Salmonflies,” as it’s now known among bug enthusiasts, sparked the curiosity of Mark Vinson, former director of the Utah State University National Aquatic Monitoring Center, aka the “USU Bug Lab.” Vinson decided to compare the Logan River to nearby Blacksmith Fork River, which continues to support a healthy population of salmonflies. Vinson observed that the absence of salmonflies in the Logan River was one of the few differences between the invertebrate faunas in the two streams. He studied discharge and water temperature regimes between the two and found they were also similar and had not changed since the 1960s. He wrote, “Overall, the Logan River within Logan Canyon remains a beautiful stream and habitat, and water quality conditions have not changed much since 1960, at least not enough to prevent salmonflies from living in the river.”3 To test his observations Vinson decided to try and recolonize the Logan River with salmonflies from the Blacksmith Fork River. Between 2004 and 2007 volunteers relocated thousands of salmonflies in the hope they would once again call the Logan River home. Out of the thousands of immigrant stoneflies, Vinson only found two that survived longer than one year. The massive relocation effort was a bust, and proved that there was still something about the Logan River that these critters didn’t like.

Each semester, watershed science students at Utah State University don leaky waders and wander up Logan Canyon to conduct aquatic invertebrate sampling. I was once one of those bright-eyed students, standing in the Logan River with a kick-net and dreams of finding the long-lost Pteronarcys. I never found one. Over the years, researchers have ruled out obvious factors like water quality, stream temperature, or habitat, that might limit salmonfly reproduction on the Logan River. Chemical spills and sagebrush abatement in Logan Canyon during the 1950s may have originally contributed to the bugs’ demise, but doesn’t explain why they can’t survive for long in the river today. Of course, anglers have their own ideas about what going on, including tales of a giant Sasquatch urinating in the river somewhere near Rick’s Spring.

Even today the plot thickens. Continued aquatic invertebrate sampling by the Bug Lab has shown that salmonflies are also absent from Left Hand Fork of Blacksmith Fork River as well as upper Rock Creek.4 Incredibly, both of these streams are tributaries to the main stem Blacksmith Fork River, which is full of salmonflies. This anomaly has everyone scratching their heads. All anyone can say for certain is that some variable, biotic or abiotic, or possibly even “Sasquatch-iotic” is keeping salmonflies from populating these two tributaries. Could it be the same variable that’s keeping Frederick Jackson Turner’s “June Bugs” from reclaiming the Logan River? The answer to this question, along with whether Turner ever did land a trout, has yet to be answered.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Brad Hansen.

Footnotes:
1. Ray A. Billington, “Frederick Jackson Turner and ‘Logan’s National Summer School,’ 1924,” Utah Historical Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1969): 327.
2. Nancy A. Erman, “Occurrence and Distribution of Invertebrates in Lower Logan River” (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1968), 17. Available online at http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1333&context=etd
3. Mark Vinson, “A short history of Pteronarcys californica and Pteronarcella badia in the Logan River, Cache County, Utah.” January 14, 2008. Available online at https://www.usu.edu/buglab/Content/Files/salmonfly%20history.pdf
4. Phone conversation with Joe Kotynek, USU Bug Lab Taxonomist, January 24, 2017.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia (Public Domain) and
Photo: Courtesy NPS and Yellowstone Association
Text: Brad Hansen

Additional Reading

Logan River Salmonfly Disappearance, USU Buglab Archived Projects, http://www.usu.edu/buglab/Projects/ArchivedProjects/

Butterflies

Click to view a closer view of Andrea Liberatore's photograph of a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Courtesy and Copyright 2009 Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly
Danaus plexippus
Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer


Click to view a closer view of a Monarch butterfly caterpillar, (Danaus plexippus), Courtesy US FWS, images.fws.govMonarch Butterfly Caterpillar
Danaus plexippus
Courtesy US FWS, images.fws.gov

Click to view a closer view of a Monarch butterfly chrysalis (Danaus plexippus).  Courtesy NASA JPL, climate.nasa.gov, Plant a butterfly garden!, Climate Kids: Earth NowMonarch Butterfly Chrysalis
(Enlarged)
Danaus plexippus
Courtesy NASA JPL, climate.nasa.gov
Plant a butterfly garden!
Climate Kids: Earth Now


Click to view a closer view of Andrea Liberatore's photograph of Gene Nieminen's photograph of Monarch butterflies resting during migration.  Courtesy US FWS, Gene Nieminen, PhotographerA Rest Stop During the
Monarch Butterfly Migration
Courtesy US FWS, images.fws.gov
Gene Nieminen, Photographer

Painted Lady Butterfly, Click to view of a Painted Lady Butterfly, Courtesy US FWSPainted Lady Butterfly
Click to view of a Painted Lady Butterfly, Courtesy US FWS

Viceroy Butterfly, Click to view the butterflies page from Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, MontanaViceroy Butterfly
Click to view the butterflies page from Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, Montana

Rivaling flowers and tropical fish in their beauty, butterflies or lepidopterans, have been icons of peace and reverence for millennia. There are eight different families to which butterflies belong- at least 250 species of which are found in Utah.

Fortunately, these beauties have been inherently resilient. This resiliency comes from a host of survival strategies. Loss of habitat, misuse of Insecticides, and climate change are the primary threats to their future.

It was from early elementary school that I learned of their amazingly complex metamorphosis, commonly used as a metaphor for a transformative experience by many- merging from a destructive plant eating caterpillar to an adult plant propagating pollinator.

Two of the most celebrated butterflies are the migrating Monarchs and Painted Ladies. Their extraordinary journey involves many generations that fly unerringly to distant destinations.​
On to some remarkable survival strategies.

Called Batesian Mimicry, Viceroy’s are protected because their avian predators’ mistaken identity with the yucky tasting Monarch’s.

In order to protect themselves, many butterfly species have wing coloration and patterns for camouflage and mimicry- large eye spots which frighten predators away or mimic their host plants. Often, their caterpillars do so as well.

In Utah, there are several species of butterflies from the Gossamer-wings family whose caterpillars have a unique relationship with ants. These caterpillars secrete a liquid containing sugars and amino acids which help sustain the ants. In turn, the ants tend the caterpillars protecting them from any would-be predators similar to their relationship with aphids. A study found that “Ant-tended larvae were 4 to 12 times more likely to survive to pupation than an otherwise similar group of untended larvae.”)

Most butterfly females lay around 300 eggs in their brief existence. The few that survive inclimate weather, predation, parasitism, genetic defect, crop spraying, etc., will provide enough offspring to support adults for the next generation. If butterflies didn’t have natural enemies such as spiders, birds, earwigs, wasps, etc. to keep their population numbers in check, natural systems would soon be overwhelmed.

Most butterflies have a season–usually in the winter–where they hibernate or diapause until spring. They are tightly associated with their larval hostplants. One of the remarkable butterflies of Utah’s Mojave Desert is the Pima orange tip. Their pupae are both photoperiod sensitive and moisture sensitive. If the Mojave Desert does not get sufficient moisture somewhere in the window of time between ~January 1 and ~February 15, none of the three known hostplants of this butterfly will not germinate in sufficient numbers.

If their chrysalis doesn’t sense sufficient humidity, it will extend its diapause another year and repeat its cycle of critically analyzing humidity during the same time frame as it did a year before. In the lab, pupae of the Pima orange-tip have been known to survive up to 11 years before emerging because these critical parameters were not met.

The next time you go birding, include these wined beauties in you binocular’s view!

This is Jack Greene reading for “Wild About Utah”

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy
      Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
      US FWS,
      NASA JPL
      US FWS, Gene Nieminen, Photographer
      US FWS, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge
Text: Jack Greene, USU Sustainability & Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

North American Butterfly Association, http://www.naba.org/

Butterfly Conservation, The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, http://www.xerces.org/butterfly-conservation/

Butterfly Activity Guide, for prairie butterflies in South Dakota, US FWS and SD Game, Fish and Parks; Wildlife Diversity Small Grants Program
Prairie Butterfly Garden created in cooperation with the US Fish and Wildlife), https://www.fws.gov/southdakotafieldoffice/Butterfly%20Activity%20Guide%20Final%20Document.pdf