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Off the Trail: Dec. 20, 2018

December 20, 2018

Winter has been here for a few weeks now; and the warm days and nights have pushed south for a few months. I find myself going through insect withdrawal during this time.

This summer and fall, I took up a few new interests — jumping spiders, leaf hoppers and moths. Now, as I let my dogs out each night, I find myself with a headlamp in hand checking the areas around my house where such creatures once were abundant. I know this is temporary, and winter is a time for reflection, but I need to keep learning.

Part of my urgency to find insects comes from a New York Times article from late November called “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” which highlights significant declines in bug populations. Some changes, such as the 90 percent decline in monarchs, we notice because they are charismatic, and many people can identify and monitor them.

Most insects do not have that benefit but play very important roles in our ecosystem services that nature provides. Take moths for example. In Illinois, according to the Moth Photographers Group database, there are 2,175 different moth species compared to more than 160 different butterfly species (counting skippers).

Similar to butterflies, most moths have specific host plants and play huge pollinator roles. It just happens to be when we are sleeping (with some exceptions). The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network trains citizens to collect valuable butterfly data across the state, but, despite the diversity, there is no organized way of monitoring moths. Same with most other insect species.

There are so many unknown unknowns in this insect world. With so few people looking or even trained to do so, many species are declining or even going extinct before they can really be described or understood.

A German study referenced in the New York Times article showed declines of 75 percent in 27 years of flying insects occurring in the studied nature preserves. Those numbers are staggering.

Studies across the globe now are finding similar losses. The article also references the “windshield phenomenon.” I remember as a kid almost every time we filled up the family car at the gas station, one of my parents would clean the windshield because the bug splatter was so thick on summer nights. I maybe cleaned mine once this year?

In 2019, one of my goals is to start monitoring moths across the county in some organized way. Working with local park districts and landowners, it could be very productive. I had many different species just show up in my backyard this fall, and the habitat isn’t anything special.

All you really need is a porch light and a camera and you, too, can start keeping track. Many of you probably have mercury vapor bulbs mounted on your garage or machine shed. These produce a wider light spectrum that attract even more moth species and would be the ideal place to look.

Email me (trevoredmonson@gmail.com) if you would like to participate or have more questions.

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