July Bug Love: Meredith Hart’s introduction to insects on the Preserve

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Hello all! My name is Meredith Hart and I am the Natural Science Fellow currently working on the Bull Run Mountains Natural Area Preserve studying insect distribution! So far, this fellowship has been AMAZING and I’m excited to share some insect love and updates with how the project is going!

Did you know that there are over 20,000 different species of bugs that call Virginia home? That’s quite a lot of critters- and even thought I am using 5 different trapping methods, I still might not get all of them, but here are a few of my favorites!

No. 1: Common meadow Katydid

Common meadow Katydid as seen through my microscope

I collect these beautiful boys with my sweep net: sweep netting is a trapping method where you take a large net and sweep it through tall grass or other foliage to collect the insects hiding inside. I do a lot of sweep netting in the meadow outside the Stone House on the North Section of the Preserve and I always find a ton of these little guys (and a ton of spiders…). Katydids are nocturnal, and there are over 200 north American species! This guy in the picture is actually still a nymph, which you can tell from the black stripe down his back

No 2: Jewelwings

Calopteryx maculata found in Jackson Hollow

Jewelwings are a genus found in the order Odonata (which also contains Dragonflies!). You have definitely seen them around, the more noticeable species have brightly colored bodies that are typically an iridescent green or blue, and jet black wings- one of the preserve volunteers called them the “goths” of the insect world, and if you ask me he is absolutely right! This jewelwing picture is of a beautiful Calopteryx maculata found in Jackson Hollow.

No. 3: Carpenter Ant

Unassuming but (relatively) STRONG Carpenter ant

I have no aesthetic reason for liking these BUT I want to study myrmecology (the study of ants) and every time I find one of these girls it makes me so happy! There are 24 species in the US, and they are a common pest species- a very noticeable one at that because nests can reach up to 50,000 individuals! That’s a lot of ants. They are one of the most common and plentiful species of insect- myrmecologist E.O Wilson hypothesized that all of the ants in the world put together weighs as much as all the humans! Since a human weighs about as much as one million ants, that’s one million times 7.8 billion which is (calculation pending…) VERY many ants! Carpenter ants are my favorite because they are the first insect I ever worked with for research at the collections room at George Mason University! 

So, now that Insect Introductions have happened…project update!

Trapping is going really well, for me and the wildlife! Bears in the preserve have really been appreciating my pitfall cups lately- I have one site that is consistently mauled….guess those soapy insects are pretty yummy (FYI, pitfall traps are cups- I use red solo cups- placed in the ground and filled with soapy water- the insects that fall in help to provide a terrestrial analysis of species present!). I have yet to see Mr. Bear in person, I don’t know if I’m tough enough to give him a talking to in person though!

Sweep traps are my favorite, though, it’s so much fun to sweep a big net through the grass and look inside to see the Crazy Bug Party happening inside! This week I forgot my tweezers and needed to pull them out by hand…and then it was Crazy Bug Party all over my arm- for those of you who do not habitually roam the outdoors in search of bugs to hold, allow me to describe how it feels. Imagine that a group of 6 toothpicks becomes sentient. Sentient and attached to a wiggly grape which is ALSO sentient- and make it 10 times smaller. Now imagine that someone has dusted the sentient Toothpick-Grape (Grapicus Toothpicidae) with itching powder, causing it to frantically run around in delirious circles. At 100 mph. That’s pretty much what it feels like when a scared bug is running around on your arm.

We received GREAT news this week that Copper Fox, a local distillery, is providing us with the ethanol needed to finish this project! Ethanol is used in entomology to preserve specimens (which is what I am using it for), but also to bait several different types of trap- I initially used isopropyl alcohol instead of soapy water for my pitfall traps, and Mr. Bear seemed to enjoy that a LOT more. I am so grateful to Copper Fox for their generous donation! The ethanol will be useful for decades, as I am establishing a collection (both wet and dry preserved) for the Preserve that can be used in the future for comparison and use by different scientists on different projects!

Insect preservation and identification using Copper Fox alcohol donations
Copper Fox's donation of alcohol for preservation, Entomological dictionary, and microscope combined make identification of specimens easier to tackle!

One of the hardest parts of this project is definitely identifying all the species- one of the specimens I was working with recently had an identifying characteristic marker that the key wrote out as “a setigerous scrobe on the mandible”. I wish I could say I am not often confused (I am in fact, confused all the time), but I am not often THIS confused. Turns out that setigerous means bearing setae (a stiff structure resembling hair or bristle), and a scrobe is a small groove! The beetle did not have a “setigerous scrobe” on its mandible, and so I moved on, and learned the importance of keeping an entomology dictionary next to me at all times..!

But for every bear and setigerous scrobe annoyance there is something really good. Last week I saw about a THOUSAND little baby American toads during my trapping route! Fortunately none of them fell into my pitfall traps, and they were such great company on the hike. Last week I was also lucky enough to see a termite mating swarm! You may have already seen this on our social media, but for about 3 square yards, the ground around me was covered with tiny winged termites- this is because the number of alates increased so much that they were forced out of the nest and into the world to reproduce. It was so incredible that I got to witness this.

That’s all for now folks! Happy July 🙂

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2 Comments

  1. You’re bug joy is infectious! Wonderful insight into a world most of us never realize is surrounding us!

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