Treebeard's Stumper Answer
Scarcity and Abundance
This has been an interesting year to be a naturalist in California. I've been noticing odd patterns of scarcity and abundance with flowers and mushrooms. Here's one more. We've had record El Niño rainfall of course, but the insects have not been bad. Where are the mosquitoes and flies? I fear the worst is yet to come, and this might be a particularly buggy summer. The puzzle then is that the spring wildflowers are nearly over. Most insects need plants, and most plants need insect pollinators. So how can the insects arrive after the flowers?
I fear and hope that the worst of the insects is yet to come. Bugs are a nuisance, but they are all-important in the food web. I worry that this winter's cool weather and high water has interfered with their natural cycles, just as it has interfered with mine. It doesn't seem possible that summer is nearly upon us! In general, summer insects are more noticeable, but they've been here all along as abundant larvae in many habitats. It's just the survivors that pester us in the summer. And there are summer flowers, especially along the river.
Note: Everything is late and out of kilter in this soggy year, and it's not over yet. We had another 3/4 inch of rain the last week of May, and cool weather persists. Hopefully the insects are just late, and this is not a matter of environmental degradation. I'll update this answer as summer developes
Here are some further thoughts and observations.
- Summer adults are more noticeable, but they've been here all along as immature forms. The caterpillars and other larvae use the abundant spring growth. The relatively few adult survivors get by.
- Many insects and amphibians lay huge numbers of eggs. But each adult only needs to produce one offspring during its lifetime to maintain a stable population.
- Certain summer insects are especially noticeable because they attack us or come to our lights at night. We notice their absence. Most insects mind their own business and may be as abundant as usual.
- Relatively few adult insects can do a lot of pollinating. Just watch them!
- High water in the creeks can wash away insect eggs and larvae. Graybear elaborates:
Mosquitos and flies depend more on animal life for survival, and mainly need plants for the same reason we do - oxygen. They are also not known for their pollinating abilities like bees are. They spend their larval stage floating in stagnant water, so when we get LOTS of rain, they get washed away... When I was at Boy Scout camp, we had 55 gallon drums (without lids) filled to the rim with water in case of fire. One of the daily chores on the duty roster was to dump in a few gallons of water to destroy any mosquito larva if present.
- Many local creeks are still muddy. How does high turbidity effect insect life?
- Julie points out that there are many birds and frogs around the house this year. Maybe they're doing their job?
- Many of the most noticeable summer insects like Yellow Jackets and Mud Dauber Wasps are carnivors that don't(?) depend directly on plants.
- Everyone notices the spring wildflowers, but there are abundant summer flowers that support huge swarms of interesting flies and wild bees, especially along the usually dry Santa Ynez River.
- The high water scoured the river bed and creeks this year, taking away many of the summer-flowering plants that wild bees and wasps depend on. Will this make a difference?
- Susan has noticed lots of rot and decomposition happening in the soil this year. Are increased fungi and disease a factor in the lack of insect life?
- I think we're still feeling the effects of 6 (or 8) years of extended drought over the last two decades. Population levels may still be low.
- Ongoing invasions of exotic species may be taking a toll. I'm especially worried about introduced Italian Thistle and Fennel spreading along roads into the wildlands. The thistle is doing especially well with all the rain. Argentine ants are displacing native ants. Honeybee mites are also a local problem, though honeybees themselves are introduced, so maybe this is a blessing in disguise?
- Ecosystems evolve together. Extreme years of rain and drought set limits on what we take as normal, and nothing is fixed. "Think of this as evolution in action." It will be interesting to see what happens this summer!
Update, 11 September 1998
This was my last stumper before summer, and a September update is in order. I bought an Olympus 320L digital camera at the start of summer, and I managed to get out into the woods nearly everyday taking pictures for a project at my new server at www.treebeard.org. (It's not quite open for business yet, but you can peek in the window to see what I'm up to.) Here are a few random notes about our summer in the Santa Barbara mountains after our very wet El Niño winter.
It's been a summer full of "odd patterns of scarcity and abundance". The forecast is for a cool and dry La Niña winter. It's an interesting time to be a naturalist. It always is!
- The insects finally appeared, but numbers were mixed. We never had many Mosquitos at our house, but Deer Flies were bad and No-see-ums were terrible for several weeks. We're being invaded by Snowy Tree Crickets right now. I saw several huge Dobson Flies and Prionus Beetles at our windows at night, but there were few moths. It's still easy to forget to close the screen doors at night without the moths to remind us. Overall, insects were below normal despite the spring rains.
Reports from other areas differ. A friend in the foothills was plagued by Mosquitos.
- Plant growth was fantastic, but many plants made no seeds or fruit at all. Invasive weeds are an exception. Invaders like Star Thistle, Fennel, and Spanish Broom are everywhere. This is making a bad problem worse. It's hard not to think about fire.
- I found summer mushrooms, including several delicious Boletus edulis. This is not surprising, but it is unusual for us.
- There were no Blue Jays at our house in the mountains this summer, but there are plenty in the Santa Ynez Valley. It has been a good year for Hummingbirds, Wrens, and many other birds.
- We're being overrun with Tree Squirrels, which is odd because there aren't many acorns. (Our squirrels have their own population cycles that I've never understood.)
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