Friday, September 2, 2016

Spring Ephemerals: River Bugs (Part 3 of 3)

When we speak of “spring ephemerals,” we are usually talking about those forest-dwelling plants that bloom during those few weeks when the temperatures have warmed the ground, but the leaves on the trees have not yet filled out enough to create a heavy shade. It’s a brief window of opportunity.

There’s another kind of ephemerals. In fact, in scientific nomenclature, their Order’s name is Ephemeroptera. These ephemerals are animals, of the six legged variety. Insects.

For most of us, even those of us who are hard-core, deeply-devoted animal lovers, insects are not held in high esteem. For the most part, we see them as disgusting, dirty little creatures who should be waved away and perhaps slaughtered en mass. And I must admit, I feel that way about quite a few of them. I’ve had some unfriendly encounters with mosquitos, roaches, yellow jackets, and ticks, and I tend to show no mercy on any of them. And, of course, the up-and-coming object of our scorn is the ubiquitous stink bug.

In the mountains, woolly adelgids have nearly wiped out all the beautiful hemlock trees. All those slick, shiny, silver, bare trees you see on the slopes are dead hemlocks, killed by an invasive bug.

Yes, there are lots of reasons to hate bugs. But, like snakes, we humans tend to over-react in our vilification of these creatures. After all, honey bees make honey, lady bugs seem cute and harmless (although, granted, there are about a trillion too many of them), and butterflies are actually pretty (although, they lose a little bit of their glamour when you see them huddled together on a pile a horse manure). Nevertheless, they all have a role to play in the grand, ecological circle of life.

Some insects are actually dainty and pretty. Here I’m thinking of a set of bugs that live briefly as adults in the spring, for just a day or two, then they copulate, lay their eggs, and die. These are the mayflies that live in and around rivers, and are eaten by birds and trout.

Stoneflies are easy to describe. They look like colorful roaches. Their wings lie flat on their backs. Likewise, Caddisflies are easy. They look like small moths. Their wings lie on their backs in the shape of a little pup tent. Mayflies, on the other hand, look like… what? They are sort of butterfly-shaped in that they hold their wings up and usually together, but their wings are smaller relative to their body length than butterflies. Mayflies have very delicate bodies, and they often hold their front pair of legs up, as if they were praying. When they float on the surface of a river or lake, or if you catch one in mid-flight and let it sit on your finger, they look like little sailboats. If it doesn’t hold its wings up like a sailboat, then you’ve caught something other than a mayfly.

Mayflies live for a year or two as “nymphs” – small, disgusting-looking creatures who live in sand and under rocks at the bottom of the rivers. After spending their entire lives on the river bottom, they will swim to the water’s surface and burst out of their nymphal body. The delicate, adult form of these mayflies will then float along the surface of the water for a few seconds as their wings unfold and dry out. Once that is accomplished, they fly into the nearby trees and bushes where they’ll rest for a day or two as their new bodies continue to mature. At this point, their only remaining task is to breed, lay their eggs in the water, and die. In this respect, they seem to serve no significant purpose other to provide food for fish and birds. They are merely a small link in the food chain. But they are a pretty, delicate link.

And if you are a fly fisherman, they serve as the backbone of your sport. These mayflies – Blue Wing Olives, Quill Gordons, March Browns, Dark Hendricksons, Sulfurs, Light Cahills – are the prototypical fly fishing insects.  The sport was born and raised on mayflies.

The Smokies are not the best place to observe these mayflies because Smokies streams are rather sterile when it comes to vegetation and insect life. Our mountain streams have a decent variety of mayflies, but not great quantities. Nevertheless, if you hang around Smoky Mountain streams in April and May, you’ll probably see them. They’re the cute ones. They fly slowly and clumsily, so they are easy to catch in the air. They don’t bite or sting. The tragic part is the ephemeral part – that is, they live as winged adults for just a day or two. Then they die on the water after laying their eggs so that next year, another crop will “hatch” to feed the birds and the fish, and to reproduce. It’s a nice, self-contained, intricate system – but it does feel like a tragedy, like a military mission in which accomplishing the mission is all that matters; the individuals are expendable. And in this case, every single individual will die, but the mission – copulating and laying the eggs which will become the next generation – will succeed.  It’s the insects’ version of D-Day at Normandy. Success will come, but not without massive death and carnage. It’s what we call the “circle of life,” but don’t blink or you’ll miss it because it’s ephemeral.