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Alaska's insect inhabitants

Local experts share stories on finding, gathering and presenting information in new book

Posted: May 25, 2012 - 12:01am
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Rove Beetle adult  Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Rove Beetle adult

One thing is certain about the majority of Alaska’s aquatic insects: they won’t be winning any beauty contests.

These crawlers, swimmers and graspers boast characteristics such as sucking mouth parts, the ability to secrete noxious liquid from scent glands and unique adaptations perfected for Alaska’s tough climate.

Take the Giant Water Bug, for example. It has been found to live only in the southern portion of the state, near Ketchikan, and can reach up to 2.5 inches in length. That’s roughly the size of an average-size adult thumb. It could be the largest aquatic insect in the state, according to John Hudson, an entomologist with the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Service. He said they seize prey with “raptorial” hook-tipped front legs and they often feed on salmon fry.

It’s tidbits of information like this that can be found in a new book by local authors Hudson, Kathy Hocker and Bob Armstrong, that was released this spring. The book is titled “Aquatic Insects in Alaska” and it’s 140 pages of in-your-face aquatic insect information which Hudson said is geared toward readers of all ages. Hudson, an author and long-time lover of insects of all kinds, provided much of the information about the different species. Hocker, a naturalist, writer, illustrator and educator, wrote the text. And Armstrong, who is perhaps best known for his nature photography, took many of the photographs for the book.

But, as one would imagine, it’s not easy to capture these aquatic insects with a camera. Many are tiny, like the larvae of the Mountain Midge. In many cases, Armstrong said, he went so far as raising some specimens in aquariums in his home.

“I’d try to bring them home and raise them,” he said. “You know, aquariums with flowing water for the insects that lived in streams and ones with still water for the insects that lived in ponds.”

Because, he said, “what I really wanted were live insects.” And, it’s hard to photograph in the field.

“Part of the reason is because when you take stream water right how of the river and put it in an aquarium, often a lot of bubbles form which really makes photography difficult. But there’s tricks you can use at home that will eliminate the bubbles,” he said.

Armstrong said he remembers one particularly challenging subject: an emerging mosquito.

“The whole process only takes about five minutes,” he said. “Once the pupa rises to the surface, they emerge from their skin, then, they fly off. So, I had to raise them in the house. It took about three nights. They tended to emerge at night. So, I would get up periodically and look at things. Often I’d find an empty pupa skin.”

But one night he got lucky. He remembers it was around midnight and he saw one just getting ready to emerge. With the camera gear ready, he snapped the photo of the adult mosquito right before it flew from the surface of the water. In the book, it appears on page 66.

Often the trio of Hocker, Hudson and Armstrong would go collecting together.

Hocker remembers one outing, on a cold winter day, to Fish Creek, on Douglas Island, in search of the Mountain Midge larvae.

These midges, according to the text, live in extreme habitats. The larvae can be found in very steep, cold and swift-flowing mountain streams.

Hocker said they donned waders and found themselves scrubbing away at submerged rocks with toilet brushes.

“After a few hours we go lots of aquatic insects — stoneflies and mayflies — but no midges,” she said. “Later, we found out that Mountain Midges overwinter as eggs.”

When it came to the text, Hocker made sure to include what she called “stories from the field” in the book. And little bits and pieces of interesting information are scattered throughout the pages. In a way, these “interesting facts” and “how-to” sections help the book read like a magazine, but instead of features, it’s packed with the information one might find in a text book.

Hocker said the trio wanted to the book to be interesting for people of all ages.

“I was hoping to touch on the kid in everybody,” she said. “The kid who liked to go scoop nets through ponds and wasn’t afraid to look at a big crawly insect to look at its eyes, for example.”

“We tried to be thorough without being complete,” Hocker said. “There’s still so much that’s not known about aquatic insects in Alaska. It’s a huge state and we’re basing our knowledge on samples. But there are always new things being discovered.”

Armstrong said completing the book was a solid two-year project.

In the end, Hudson said the book isn’t just about common aquatic insects found in Alaska. He said it’s also about illustrating connections and he hopes people will “see” more when they wander to the edge of a stream.

“(I hope) that people, the next time they walk to the edge of a river to look at salmon, or a fish in a lake, that they understand there is this whole world under the water,” he said. “It’s so neat. These insects (even in their terrestrial form) sustain all kinds of life, whether it be a mouse, a vole or a migratory bird that has just flown up from South America to raise its young.”

Aquatic insects, he said, are also important as decomposers.

“Everybody knows about decomposers on the forest floor that break down leaves so that we’re not buried in tons and tons of leaves,” he said. “The same things happen in a river. When the leaves fall down into the river, those leaves are colonized by fungi and bacteria and that makes them really nutritious for aquatic insects like stoneflies. And so they’ll actually shred those leaves, get at those fungi and bacteria and convert it into biomass.”

The salmon eat the stoneflies, the bears eat the salmon and so, in a way, Hudson said, “alder leaves eventually become bears.”

“(Aquatic insects) are really important as decomposers of that organic material that falls into stream,” he said. “They turn it into living tissue.”

Hudson said he hopes the book gets youth, in particular, excited about aquatic insects. Hocker, he said, summed it up in the introduction of the book.

“To see a child discover aquatic insects for the first time ... you get them in a stream, they’re in their Xtra-tuffs and they’re holding a net and they’re kicking the bottom around and they pull that net up and discharge the contents into a pan and all the sudden, as everything settles, it’s just crawling with life ... and you can’t teach them anything at that moment because they are not listening to you. They are just so enthralled,” he said.

He said it’s that feeling of being enthralled that he hopes to cultivate in others.

Armstrong said the book is currently available at Hearthside Books.

• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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