The Quiet Importance of Brine Flies

The Quiet Importance of Brine Flies: Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, Courtesy Pixabay, wnk1029, contributor and photographer
Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake,
Courtesy Pixabay, wnk1029, contributor and photographer
It was early afternoon in mid-July 2019 and my first time setting foot on Antelope Island. As a newcomer to Utah, I was itching to explore the local sights and had come to learn about the impressive annual shorebird migration from my friend, a bird enthusiast and fellow graduate student. Brimming with excitement, and a little put off by the smell of Great Salt Lake mud wafting through the open windows, we parked the car in the Antelope Island Marina parking lot and jumped out onto the shore of the famed isle. Thousands of birds dotted the water around the harbor, and the ubiquitous Antelope Island spiders blanketed the bushes with innumerable webs. But it wasn’t the birds stretching as far as the eye could see out on the waters of Great Salt Lake, or the impressive number of spiders skittering past our car tires that left a lasting impression on me.

As we stepped out onto the beach to get a closer look at the birds bobbing on the salt water and to set up the birder’s favorite tool, a spotting scope, the dark grey sand under our feet sprang to life with a gentle buzz. The sand, or what I thought was sand, was actually a shoal of brine flies, easily numbering in the millions. Surprised by our discovery and shorebirds completely forgotten for the moment, we walked slowly along the shore, and with each step, a cloud of flies jumped up to avoid our footfalls, gently settling back down behind us as we walked on.

Brine flies, which are small flies in the genus Ephydra, are a common occurrence around the lake. These gentle flies do not bite, and as adults, they don’t even have mouth parts to feed with. Much like mayflies, they only live a few days as adults, with the goal of reproducing and laying their eggs back in the waters of Great Salt Lake to start a new generation of flies.

Similar to an aquatic caterpillar, their larval stage lives in the briny waters of Great Salt Lake, feeding mostly on algae and other organic matter. At their peak population around Great Salt Lake each year, brine flies are estimated to number in the billions, and the skins they shed as they emerge from the water as adults pile up on the shore in incomprehensible numbers.

As such an abundant insect around the lake, they provide critical food for all manner of creatures. Our momentarily forgotten shorebirds are avid predators of brine flies, and, hungry from migration, these birds snap up brine flies by the thousands. Phalaropes, stilts and sandpipers are just a few of the bird species that feast on brine flies. Gulls love to feast on brine flies, and in silly gull fashion, go about chasing them up and down the beaches with open beaks and loud wails. Remarkably, for eared grebes, brine flies can make up 40 percent of their diet, while the remainder usually consists of another Great Salt Lake denizen, the brine shrimp.

Birds aren’t the only ones that rely on brine flies for food. Spiders, like the ones keeping us company in the Antelope Island bushes, as well as beetles and other invertebrates, feast on brine flies too. In fact, as scientists say, brine flies are an important part of our Great Salt Lake ecosystem. Walking slowly along the shore with my eyes pointed down toward the great clouds of brine flies at my feet, it was easy to see how their sheer numbers could feed an army of critters.

As someone who spends most of my time thinking about birds that eat fish and how to study them, I’m not one to trouble myself with thoughts about insects often, but thinking back on that remarkable July afternoon and the struggling health of our Great Salt Lake, I can’t help worry a little for the future of our gentle brine flies.

I’m Aimee Van Tatenhove, and I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy Pixabay, Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, wnk1029, contributor and photographer, https://pixabay.com/photos/antelope-island-great-salt-lake-lake-2659982/
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Aimee Van Tatenhove
Text: Aimee Van Tatenhove, USU Department of Biology, Utah State University
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Pieces by Aimee Van Tatenhove on Wild About Utah

Brine Flies, Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, State of Utah, September 01 2021, https://wildlife.utah.gov/gslep/wildlife/brine-flies.html

McPherson, Mia, Great Salt Lake Brine Flies – Important Food Source For California Gulls, OnTheWingPhotography.com, July 14th, 2018, https://www.onthewingphotography.com/wings/2018/07/14/great-salt-lake-brine-flies-important-food-source-for-california-gulls/

Van Elegem, Bernard, Great Salt Lake, Lord of the Flies – Part I, brine flies and bird abundance, June 16, 2015, http://www.bernardvanelegem.com/news/great-salt-lake-lord-flies-part-i-brine-flies-and-bird-abundance

Van Elegem, Bernard, Great Salt Lake, Lord of the Flies – Part II, Cicindela hemorrhagica, June 17, 2015, http://www.bernardvanelegem.com/news/great-salt-lake-lord-flies-part-ii-cicindela-hemorrhagica

Brine Flies scatter as you walk through, Great Salt Lake State Park & Marina, State Parks, Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, June 11, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=3137388862978108

Great Salt Lake Brine Flies, Antelope Island State Park, State Parks, Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, https://youtu.be/pktAdULIdZk
Brine flies abound around Great Salt Lake in the summer. As far as insects go, these are some of the “good guys”

Mormon Crickets

Mormon Cricket female Anabrus-simplex Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Mormon Cricket female
Anabrus-simplex
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Children’s author George Selden described the impact of a cricket’s chirping in the bustle of a subway station in his book “The Cricket in Times Square” like this: “Like ripples around a stone dropped into still water, the circles of silence spread out. …Eyes that looked worried grew soft and peaceful; tongues left off chattering; and ears full of the city’s rustling were rested by the cricket’s melody.” Combine this musical talent with Jiminy Cricket’s gentle reminder to always listen to my conscience, and it is no wonder that I would drift to sleep on summer evenings enamored with cricket songs. How, I thought, could such a beautifully-sounding insect be the villain in Utah’s legend we know as the Miracle of the Gulls, memorialized in Minerva Teichert paintings and Temple Square monuments?

Decades later, near Fremont Indian State Park, I met a Mormon cricket for the first time. I cringed as I watched thousands of these creatures hopping across the mountain path that afternoon, and I understood how merciful those California gulls must have seemed, swooping in to gobble up the insects, as the Mormon pioneers struggled to develop a defensive, crop-saving plan as newcomers to this land.

Mormon Cricket female Anabrus-simplex Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Mormon Cricket female
Anabrus-simplex
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Utah settler Mrs. Lorenzo Dow Young captures a bit of the incident in her 1848 journal entry: “May 27: …today to our utter astonishment, the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans…, and in twenty minutes there was not a vestige to be seen. They next swept over peas…; took everything clean.” These hordes of insects were not new to the area, however, as we know that explorer Peter Skene Ogden noted “crickets by millions” in his 1825 journal account over 20 years earlier.

Did you know that Mormon crickets are not crickets, grasshoppers, or cicadas, but large shield-backed katydids that walk or hop rather than fly? Their smooth, shiny exoskeleton can be a variety of colors and patterns, like the reddish-brown female I chased and studied this summer in Fishlake National Forest. They have long antennae, and each female has what looks like a long curving stinger extending from her abdomen. This ovipositor allows her to deposit 100 eggs or more that look like gray or purple rice grains just below the soil surface. The males, on the other hand, lack this structure, but they “sing” as a way to attract females, and reward their mates with protein-packed spermatophore prizes.

Katydid or bush cricket Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Katydid or bush cricket
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
These insects can be solitary mountain-dwellers but make headlines when they swarm in huge bands, marching in one direction as omnivores, in search of anything to eat: cultivated crops, succulent forbs, sagebrush and other shrubs, other insects, and even their own kind. Researchers tracking migrations determined they can travel more than 50 miles in a summer, perhaps a mile a day, and for many, including those early Utah settlers and others hoping to shield crops from Mormon cricket devastation, it is a sign of relief to see the last one for the season. They do make for a great story, though.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Anderson, Rebecca. Miracle of the Crickets. Utah Humanities. 2011.
https://www.utahhumanities.org/stories/items/show/223

Capinera, John and Charles MacVean. Ecology and Management of Mormon Cricket. Department of Entomology Colorado State University. 1987.
http://www.nativefishlab.net/library/textpdf/17378.pdf

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Crickets and Seagulls. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/crickets-and-seagulls?lang=eng

Cowan, Frank. Life History, Habits, and Control of the Mormon Cricket. United States Department of Agriculture. 1929. https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/CAT86200155/PDF

Hartley, William. Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: A New Look at an Old Story. 1970. https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume38_1970_number3/s/107089

Kent State University. Study Reveals Mass Migration Of Mormon Crickets Driven By Hunger, Fear. ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily.com, 2 March 2006. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/03/060302174524.htm

National Geographic. Giant Swarm of Mormon Crickets. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy3dQJYquoY

Palmer, Matt. Get a Jump on Mormon Cricket and Grasshopper Management. https://extension.usu.edu/pests/slideshows/ppt/03sh-insects-mc.pdf

Selden, George, and Garth Williams. The Cricket in Times Square. New York: Ariel Books, 1960. https://www.amazon.com/Cricket-Times-Square-Chester-Friends/dp/0312380038

University of Wyoming. Mormon Cricket Biology and Management poster. https://owyheecounty.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/MormonCricketbiologymgmtposteruofWYB1191.pdf

The Wild Episode. Mormon Cricket: The Cannibal Swarm.
​​https://thewildepisode.com/2020/12/11/mormon-cricket-the-cannibal-swarm/

Wild About Utah Posts by Shannon Rhodes https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

Malacomosa Dance

Malacomosa Dance: Caterpillar Distraction Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Caterpillar Distraction
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
My father’s first caterpillar encounter has always been a bedtime favorite. The story goes that a plump fuzzy one was crawling on his picnic blanket one afternoon. I would imagine him watching its five pairs of prolegs innocently undulating along. Then, Dad ate it, hairy bristles and all. My first encounter was almost as tasty but longer-lasting because it came from the pages of Eric Carle’s picture book classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. A recent New York Times article reporting the author’s passing reveals that Carle’s interest in crickets, fireflies, and other insects was sparked as a child by peeking under bark or stones walking in the wild with his father.

Western Tent Caterpillars Malacosoma californicum, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Western Tent Caterpillars
Malacosoma californicum
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
There’s nothing like a caterpillar, green or woolly, slinking along in the dirt or hanging by a thread from overhead branches, to distract a group of young outdoor learners. I resist the urge to caution them that there are poisonous caterpillars in the world, and we play. Yet, how many times have I encountered a silky mass in the limbs of a chokecherry, stopped and watched the caterpillars wiggle and twitch, and wished that I knew more about them? The magic for me of being out in the forest meadows this time of year is coming home with more questions than answers. So, becoming a novice lepidopterist, I focused this week on learning about caterpillars, butterflies, and moths. The frenzied dance of this caterpillar, what I think is known by the lyrical name Malacomosa, is not to draw me in for a closer look; the tent caterpillar senses a predator is near and gets the whole gang going. Soon these gorging wigglers will be settling into silky cocoons and emerging as moths. According to Eric Carle’s website, he intentionally had his butterfly come from a cocoon rather than a scientifically-accurate chyrsalis because it sounds more poetic, and my budding readers appreciate being able to more easily stretch and blend cocoon sounds anyway. We do use the word caterpillar, though, for both moth and butterfly larvae, but that is where many of the similarities end.

Drab Moth, Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
(Not so) Drab Moth
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Butterflies get noticed because they flutter during the day, while moths are typically more active by night. In fact, when I am outside I turn to my Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies because I never thought to purchase a book on identifying moths. The first thing it says to do is look at the antenna. A butterfly antenna has a club tip, and often a moth has thick and feathery antennae to help it pick up scents flying around at night. Butterflies have names like swallowtail, fritillary, metalmark, and checkerspot, and moths just rhyme with sloths. Compared to butterflies, moths are generally smaller and drab in color. Drab? I met a moth resting on a twig once that was anything but drab. Its chunky abdomen was striped black and the most vibrant tangerine orange imaginable, and I was mesmerized. Moths should get more love, especially when you know that there are so many more kinds of moths than butterflies to enjoy. Consider getting out to notice the wonder of moths with other citizen scientists for National Moth Week 2021 this July 17-25.

Writing from the Central Utah Writing Project, I am Shannon Rhodes and I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Additional Audio: Courtesy & ©
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Brock, Jim. Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America. http://www.kaufmanfieldguides.com/butterflies.html

Carmel, Julia. Eric Carle, Author of ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar,’ Dies at 91., The New York Times, May 26, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/26/books/eric-carle-dead.html

Eric Carle Official Website. https://eric-carle.com/

Florida Museum of Natural History. Butterflies and Moths. https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2017/02/Butterfly-Educators-Guide.pdf

Forest Health Protection. Western Tent Caterpillars. 2011. https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5303047.pdf

National Moth Week. https://nationalmothweek.org/

Wild About Utah Posts by Shannon Rhodes https://wildaboututah.org/author/shannon-rhodes/

Monarch Waystations

Monarch Waystations: Monarch Caterpillar, Under Watch By Young Eyes Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Monarch Caterpillar, Under Watch By Young Eyes
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
In the northeast region of Utah nestled between the Wellsville Mountains and the Bear River Range, Cache Valley and the surrounding landscapes begin to show the first signs of spring. Wildflowers emerge on the hillsides, birds return to the valley floor and various native plants produce and deliver the timely first round of regional food sources to host our diverse pollinator populations. I am eager this year to see if we will get to experience the return of the beloved monarch butterfly, an iconic long-distance migrator that has made a noticeable presence in our valley for generations. Unfortunately, with numbers critically low for the third consecutive year, their return to Utah’s summer breeding grounds remains uncertain.

Monarch on Sunflower Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Monarch on Sunflower
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Scientists have been tracking the population of western monarchs by conducting overwinter counts of individuals clustered in the California coastal regions. During the annual 2020 Thanksgiving Count, experts reported a dismal low of only 1,914 individuals. Counts from the two previous years hovered around 30,000 individuals, the threshold that was predicted to result in a crash of the western migration. With less than 1% of the historical population remaining (which use to report in the hundreds of thousands to over a million), this has become a troubling trend. The primary reasons for the decline in the population have been attributed to loss of historical habitat, increase in pesticide use and both direct/indirect impacts of climate change.

Monarch with Habitat In Progress Sign Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Monarch with Habitat In Progress Sign
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Now more than ever sanctuary habitats containing milkweed and native nectar sources play a vital role in the ultimate success of the monarch migration. Many people have chosen to contribute to this conservation movement through the establishment of Waystations. Monarch Waystations offer the promise of protected habitats with the establishment of adequate seasonal resources dispersed between overwintering sites and summer breeding grounds. The idea is the more Waystations created, the better connectivity between habitats, the more robust the migratory pathway. The added benefit of additional resource sanctuaries for critical pollinator populations which ultimately determine the success of our agricultural industry is noteworthy.

Monarch Waystation Sign Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Monarch Waystation Sign
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Waystations can be integrated into a variety of existing landscapes, including home gardens, business establishments, government buildings, local parks and schools. In the state of Utah, there are 59 registered Monarch Waystations. I host Waystation 26876 through Monarch Watch, #44 in the state. 5 specific criteria are needed to certify a Waystation (through monarchwatch.org): 1) A designated space, minimum of 100 square feet; 2) Native milkweeds (to serve as host plants); 3) A variety of seasonal nectar sources (natives preferred); 4) A water source and: 5) Shelter. The commitment to avoid the use of pesticides is also critical for success.

Milkweed Seed Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Milkweed Seed
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Local movements and backyard organizations have become monumental in the collection and distribution of regional milkweeds and native nectar plants. If you are looking to start a Waystation of your own, that would be a good place to start. With the monarch’s recent designation as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act, and their listing put on hold (as “warranted but precluded” due to lack of funding), we are in a race against time to save the migration. My backyard will continue to provide a reliable source of habitat plants for as much of Utah and it can support. As I package up another round of Showy milkweed seeds (Asclepias speciosa) destined for a Utah classroom, I remain hopeful. Our next generation of environmental stewards, under the careful guidance of passionate enthusiasts, is paving the way as they witness the plight of the monarch unfold before their very eyes.

This is Jenny Dowd with Western Monarch Pollinator Pathways, and I’m wild about Utah

The Wild About Utah archives are managed by the Bridgerland Audubon Society: https://wildaboututah.org

Milkweed in Bloom Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Milkweed in Bloom
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
Courtesy RAE Environmental Inc., raeenvironmentalinc.org,
Beginning Audio: Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text: Jennifer Burghardt Dowd https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Waystation #26876 in River Heights, UT.

For Information On Registering a Monarch Waystation:
To meet the criteria required for certifying a garden as an official Monarch Waystation, please visit Monarch Watch: https://monarchwatch.org/waystations.

Monarch Caterpillar Feeding on Milkweed Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Monarch Caterpillar Feeding on Milkweed
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Schools can contact RAE Environmental Inc. to find out how to participate in their Utah School Monarch Waystation Program (https://raeenvironmentalinc.org)

October Milkweed Giveaway:
Locally sourced native milkweed varieties can be obtained through the month of October by visiting https://raeenvironmentalinc.org/need-seeds

Additional Resources:
Western Monarch Advocates, Utah News: https://www.westernmonarchadvocates.com/utah

Monarch Joint Venture, Monarch Migration: https://monarchjointventure.org/monarch-biology/monarch-migration

Western Monarchs Call to Action: https://xerces.org/western-monarch-call-to-action

Monarch Caterpillars Feeding on Milkweed Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Monarch Caterpillars Feeding on Milkweed
Courtesy & Copyright 2020, Jennifer Burghardt Dowd, Photographer
https://raeenvironmentalinc.org
Western Monarch Conservation Plan: https://www.wafwa.org/Documents%20and%20Settings/37/Site%20Documents/Committees/Monarch/Western%20Monarch%20Butterfly%20Conservation%20Plan%202019-2069.pdf

Liberatore, Andrea, Wild About Utah, Monarch Butterflies, Wild About Utah, September 13, 2012 https://wildaboututah.org/monarch-butterflies/

Barth, Amanda, Wild About Utah, Monarchs, Wild About Utah, December 14, 2020 https://wildaboututah.org/monarchs/

Hellstern, Ron, The End of Royalty?, Wild About Utah, April 24, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-end-of-royalty/

Hellstern, Ron, Journey North, Wild About Utah, March 19, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/journey-north/