We’re here for a good time, not a long time…

If you’d told me 20 years ago that I would be writing a piece extolling the virtues of the fishfly, I would’ve told you that you were crazy. As a child, I tried to get out of going to the cottage during the first few weeks of July, simply to avoid having to deal with these large, awkward insects that appeared in the thousands and stuck to everything. I would go to great lengths to avoid coming in contact with them and I couldn’t stand the smell that hung over the beach during those weeks that their bodies washed ashore, creating a putrid line in the sand.

However, here I am, much older and hopefully wiser, and an unapologetic fishfly fan. It was when I returned a few years ago to live alongside our great lake, that I discovered just how remarkable these insects truly are.

Whether you call them fishflies, mayflies or shadflies, these large-winged, long-tailed insects belong to the order Ephemeroptera, which literally means: ‘things with wings that don’t live very long’. It’s a fairly apt description if you only consider the adult form. With vestigial mouth parts and a digestive tract full of air, they’re lucky to last for more than a day. However, if you take into account the insect’s entire life cycle, they are actually relatively long-lived.

Here on Lake Winnipeg, our fishflies (mostly Hexagenia limbata) spend about two years as nyads (larvae), living in the sandy bottom of this immense, but shallow body of water. They’re detritivores, feeding on algae, diatoms and other bits and pieces that find their way to the bottom. They, in turn, form a large part of the food base for the numerous fish species that fill the lake.

Then, somewhere around the first week of July, an instinctual switch is flipped, sending the two-year-old nyads to the surface. Floating in the meniscus of the lake, their backs split open like a seam, letting the newly-formed winged morph  emerge. This stage is call the subimago and unlike any other order of insects, they’ll moult one more time into fully-fledged adults, all in the space of about a day.

It’s not so much the process that makes them remarkable, but the numbers. Lake Winnipeg, like many other shallow, fertile lakes and river systems, is home to millions of fishflies and they tend to show up all at once, carpeting everything: walls, roads, mailboxes, trees, lampposts, anything that’s standing still long enough for them to stick to. This mass emergence is their way of shuffling the genetic deck. It’s a nocturnal orgy of mating and egg-laying before everyone literally drops dead, their tiny bodies piling up under lights and along the beaches to be cleaned up by hoards of hungry gulls if the towns along the lake don’t get to them first with the front-end loaders.

Most people anticipate this yearly irruption with fear and distaste. I, on the other hand, look forward to it, because as long as there’s fishflies, Lake Winnipeg has hope.

Our lake is in trouble. Like way too many watersheds around the world, it is suffering from too much of a good thing: nutrients. An overabundance of phosphate and nitrogen are finding their way into the water, fuelling giant blooms of algae that, among other things, reduce the oxygen content of the lake both by using it themselves and by keeping it from reaching the bottom, where the fishflies live.

I fear for a fishfly-free summer. Thankfully, we’re not there yet and I’m optimistic that we can still turn the tide. Algae levels have been increasing for years, but public awareness has also risen and steps are being made to improve waste water treatment and watershed management. We have a very long road ahead, but as long as I keep finding fishflies stuck to my windows every summer, I’ll believe we can make it.

The Trouble with Being Beautiful ….

Although I’m always advocating the value of finding the beauty in the everyday, I’m still swayed by those things that are unarguably beautiful. Lady Slippers are one of those things and Showy Lady Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) top the list.

Showy’s come by their latin name honestly. They truly are the queen of the lady slippers. First-off, they’re huge, reaching up from their mossy bed by almost 2 feet. Each plant is crowned with up to three enormous white and pink blossoms that look alternately like a woman’s shoe or a blushing little dutch girl in her winged bonnet, depending on the angle you’re looking at them.

Regardless of the angle, they are truly impressive plants. They’re also usually pretty rare, being restricted to relatively boggy areas, pushing up amongst the sphagnum moss and horsetails in their quest for pollination.

Because that’s really what all the fuss is about, attracting insects to spread their genetic calling card around. This blushing beauty, however, seems to be bit of a tease, offering little or no nectar as a reward to the flies, beetles and bees that crawl into its modified petals.  One could argue that it’s mostly for insurance anyway. Although they do produce a lot of seeds, thanks to their winged dupes, showys reproduce mainly vegetatively, through runners (also known as rhizomes) sent out through the ground. This is why you usually find them in clumps.

Like most other things that civilization has come to regard as precious, their beauty and rarity have made lady slippers an object of fascination, something to be coveted and collected. Up here in the north woods, we’re lucky to have quite a variety of orchids. These past few weeks, the dryer forest has been dotted with yellow lady slippers, large and small and I’ve been able to find dozens of these stunning pink behemoths of the orchid family up in the boreal wetlands, away from human development.

Still, not all have been left in the wild. In my trips around the cottage subdivision where I live, I’ve spotted a few clumps of showys in people’s yards, caged in with chicken wire to save them from browsing deer, looking like a brilliant bird in a zoo. As nice as it is to have the opportunity to see these guys without having to get ankle deep in water, I can’t help but wonder how many were lost in people’s quest to tame this wild beauty.

You see, lady slippers don’t transplant well and they really don’t like having their flowers picked.  They’re bound to their habitat by a mutualistic relationship with a fungus that twines itself around the plant’s roots and branches out into the ground. It’s this fungus that helps the plant survive, taking up nitrogen from the surroundings and making it into a form that the orchid can use.  Moving the plant damages or even severs this relationship, making it unlikely to survive alone in its new home. For every successful transplant you see, there are usually many more that didn’t make it.

While habitat loss is also a concern, the plant’s stunning beauty could actually be the Showy Lady Slipper’s greatest threat, especially in areas where people can get to the wild plants relatively easily. Like the ibises and other plumed birds that were nearly brought to extinction for their beautiful feathers, misguided gardeners drawn by its colour and fascinating shape could decimate wild orchid populations. Already, this and many other orchid species are listed as threatened all over North America.

Still, I have hope. More and more people are beginning to realize that wild things are better off remaining wild and that the best way to capture and hold beauty in your hand is with a  camera.