Flight of Dragons

Dragonfly portrait by Heather HinamAlthough growing up, I was very much a tomboy, climbing trees and mucking around in the bush and ditches near my house, my relationship with insects was more typical of most city girls. I didn’t like them.  I thought nothing of swatting a house fly and I’m sad to say that I’ve run, screaming, away from a pursuing horsefly or the longhorn beetles that show up around August at the cottage.

However, as I’ve aged, my impression of insects has evolved quite a bit.  As I’ve grown to appreciate the amazing beauty and complexity of our natural world, I find myself drawn more often to those things that used to frighten or disgust me to re-examine them with my new perspective on life. I’m pleased to report that I’ve developed a new appreciation for longhorn beetles.

However, the one group of insects has always fascinated me, even as a child, is the dragonflies. I have a vivid memory of canoeing with my father down the La Salle River, south of Winnipeg, when a dragonfly landed on my knee.  I was rapt as I carefully held my lower half as still as I could while paddling to ensure my visitor a smooth ride, wanting to keep it with me as long as possible.

I’m not the only one with this fascination. There’s just something about these bejewelled predators that captures the imagination. I see representations of dragonflies everywhere, on t-shirts, in wind chimes and other household decorations, on jewellery and even fridge magnets. I think most people simply find them attractive, with their iridescent colours and delicate wings. They’re also ‘benevolent bugs’ from the human standpoint, voraciously devouring our ‘undesirables’ like mosquitoes and black flies.

Even with all of this goodwill, I don’t think the average person really knows all that much about them.  Dragonflies, and damselflies belong to the order Odonata (toothed ones), which contains some of the most ancient and largest insects ever known. There are over 5,900 living species, with nearly 100 of them found in Manitoba.

They’ve been around a long time, with the earliest fossil Protodonata (pre-dragonflies) dating to around 325 million years ago.  They were also a lot larger then, with wingspans reaching nearly a metre. I’m not sure we would’ve been so fond of them if they were still that size. When these insects first took to the air, they were the monarchs of the skies, feeding on whatever flew into their path. Vertebrates were only just crawling out of the water and so dragonflies had little competition and few predators. The benefits of being big, however, only lasted until dinosaurs started coming into their own.

Although they’ve become much smaller over time, the overall structure of a dragonfly hasn’t really changed all that much in 250 million years. These bugs are built to hunt on the wing. Their compound eyes are enormous relative to the size of their body and over 80% of their brain function is devoted to analyzing the visual input from the up to 30,000 ommatidia (facets) that make up each eye.  Having eyes made up of independent facets results in an incredible ability to detect movement because they can see in just about all directions at once.

This hyped-up visual centre can also detect parts of the colour spectrum that we can’t. Human eyes have three types of opsins, light-sensitive proteins that detect red, green and blue light. Diurnal dragonflies have four or five types of opsins arranged very specifically throughout each compound eye, with blue and UV receptors pointed up and longer wavelength receptors pointed down, likely to maximize their efficiency.

With amazing visual acuity, the ability to focus on one prey item at the expense of all else, almost all of their limbs facing towards the head and prehensile labia (mouthparts), they can snatch their prey out of the air with about a 95% success rate.

The last part of this deadly equation is their stunning aerial ability. We’ve all seen them dive and weave, hover and back-up, all while reaching speeds of nearly 50 km/h.  Dragonfly flight is actually very complicated, probably the most complex process of all flying organisms.  With four wings that can move independently of each other and dynamic airfoils that can flex around several angles, things can get complicated and scientists are still trying to sort it all out with the help of high-speed film.

They can make use of the classical lift that keeps planes in the air and a back and forth figure-eight stroke much like hummingbirds as well as take advantage of the vortices they create.  Some can turn 360 degrees around the axis of their bodies with the wings on one side stroking forward and the other side stroking back in one coordinated movement.  All of it is driven by a circuit of 16 neurons hard-wiring the brain to the highly developed motor muscles in the thorax.

So, the next time you catch the flash of a dragonfly as it zips along, take a moment to marvel at these truly ancient wonders of the natural world.

Moonlight Becomes You

Luna Moth by Heather HinamSome childhood memories just seem to stick with you, lodging in your grey matter and coming back to haunt you at random intervals.

One that has been showing up quite frequently on the mental playlist lately harkens all the way back to a stint at Girl Guide Camp at Bird’s Hill Park, just northeast of Winnipeg over 20 years ago. It was a dark and muggy mid-June night as we trucked off as a group of giggling girls to the public washrooms. In the orange haze of the sodium lights, we heard a shriek of fright and immediately thought a bear had found its way into the campsite. Nervous, we crept around the corner toward the source of the sound and found girls from another troupe cowering under the lights over the door, pointing to the wall.

The source of their terror? Luna moths.

Looking back, I can see how these fluttering, green giants could scare the bejeepers out of a bunch of city girls. However, I was more fascinated than frightened by these enormous moths; still am.

I went a couple decades without seeing them again until one June day a few years ago. A friend came into work at the resort on Hecla Island and announced that they had a giant green moth on their door screen. Needless to say, I was over there with the camera in short order. The image above was the result.

There’s just something compelling about these ghostly green insects that float, like the moonbeams their named for, through the early summer nights.  With a wingspan of about 4 inches, they’re one of the largest moths in Canada and arguably one of the most beautiful; but few people get the chance to see them. They’re nocturnal and only exist in their adult form for about a week, so to catch a glimpse of these beauties, timing is truly everything.

They actually have a lot in common with a much more abundant and much less revered insect that emerges a few weeks later here in the north woods, namely the fishfly. Like its very distant cousin, adult luna moths have one purpose: to mate and deposit eggs to ensure the next generation. Like fishflies, these Saturnid moths have no mouths and do not feed. Their large, fuzzy bodies and consequently larger energy reserves from their larval stage allow them to live longer than the fragile fishfly.

In the dark labyrinth of the nighttime forest, finding a suitable mate is hard work, so male lunas can travel kilometres, tasting the air with their antennae for the pheromones drifting from a ‘wick’ extending from the abdomen of a waiting female.  Because they’re needed for this function, the antennae of male luna moths are much larger and fluffier than those of females, making the sexes fairly easy to tell apart. The moth pictured above is a female. Once the sexes find each other, they lock together in copulation for up to 20 hours before she sets off to lay her eggs. A female can produce up to 300 eggs, scattering them around the forest, a half dozen or so at a time, on the underside of birch leaves to incubate for almost two weeks.

The larvae are just as impressive as the adults, a bright, almost fluorescent green caterpillar that you can find trundling along the trunks and branches of its host plant, munching away on the leaves and growing up to 4 inches long by the time it sheds its exoskeleton for the fifth time (a process known as ecdysis).

Up here in Manitoba, where the summers are not long enough to allow for two generations, lunas overwinter as pupae in their cocoons. It isn’t until the following June that they will emerge from this stasis, all crumpled and fragile. Slowly, over at least half an hour, the new moth will pump hemolymph (insect blood) into their wings, ‘blowing them up’ until they harden into their characteristic green sails. It’s an event you can witness first-hand if you’re lucky enough to find a caterpillar before it pupates and keep it at home over winter. I’m actually planning to try and do just that later this summer so that I won’t miss the emergence of one of my favourite denizens of the dark.

Time for a Cool Change

I’ve been getting regular updates lately about a ‘butterfly raising project’ and it reminded me of the one time I was lucky enough to witness this amazing event in nature.

I happened upon this White Admiral (Limenitis arthemis) last summer. I nearly tripped over it, at first unaware of what I had stumbled across. When I looked closely at this newly ‘hatched’ butterfly, drying its brand new wings, the whole thing took my breath away.

It’s a process we learn about as children, one of those uncontested facts that just lives in our brains: caterpillars become butterflies. However, that simple statement doesn’t even begin to do justice to what is truly an amazing process.

Insect life cycles encompass multiple stages that may involve fairly dramatic transformations from larvae to adult (like the previously celebrated fishfly). However, only a few groups of insects other than lepidopterans (butterflies and moths), such as bees, flies and beetles, undergo complete metamorphosis.

It’s a quite remarkable when you really think about it. These lumpy, worm-like creatures that lumber along, munching at leaves transform completely into delicate, colourful jewels that sip daintily at their food, the Victorian lady of the insect world. It happens at the pupal stage, when the larvae (caterpillars) form a chrysalis that then sits suspended for a few weeks up to a few years, depending on the species. From our point of view, it looks like nothing is happening, but on the inside, it’s a different story.

Like most things in animal physiology, the whole process boils down to hormones, the transformation being dictated by the relative amounts of two chemicals coursing through the critter’s hemolymph (insect blood). Just like every other insect, caterpillars moult, shedding their exoskeleton to make room from their growing bodies. Each moult is governed by a hormone called ecdysone (stemming from the word ecdysis, a fancy word for moult). Each new shed produces a larger caterpillar as long as a second hormone called juvenile hormone (thankfully, self-explanatory) is also circulating. It’s basically a chemical that tells the caterpillar to stay a caterpillar.

Then one day, often as a result of changing day lengths or temperature, the caterpillar’s body stops making  juvenile hormone, so when the next moult comes around, things change, the chrysalis is formed and ultimately a butterfly emerges. But how does it go from a wiggling lump to something as complex as a butterfly? Well, that lump was carrying around little spheres of tissue called imaginal discs. These discs truly make the imagined possible, the cells differentiating into eyes, antennae, wings and legs. Each disc has it’s own part to build and if you were to move it to another place on the caterpillar you’d end up with a Picasso painting of a butterfly.

Once the process is complete, the chrysalis splits open and the new adult rests for a bit, drying its wings until it can safely take flight.  The transformation doesn’t only affect what the insect looks like; it’s a complete life change. The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly is a transition from the feeding stage to the reproductive stage and in many cases, that transition is absolute. Luna moths, for example, are like fishflies; once they reach the adult stage, they can no longer feed and their sole purpose is to mate in the day or so they have left before their metabolisms burn out. Of course, not all lepidopterans are as short-lived as adults. Some, like the Mourning Cloak actually hibernate at the adult stage, while Monarch adults travel thousands of kilometres.

So, why go through all that trouble? Why not stay a caterpillar? I’m not sure there is a definite answer to that and I’m sure it’s fuelled many debates among evolutionary biologists. Personally, the fanciful side of me likes the idea that a caterpillar decided one day that he wanted to fly. I think we all have days when we wish to break out of our shell and I think a little change, now and then, can be a good thing.

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.