A journey into the eyes and mind of a naturalist.

Mountain Insects (and an Arachnid)

My recent trip to Montana was an excellent opportunity to experience a different ecosystem than my home ecosystem in Minnesota.  Mountains offer not just one ecosystem but more like an ecosystem buffet. The changes in altitude as you move up or down a mountain create different microclimates.  Different climates means different organisms which means different ecosystems.  On one hike there were flowers that were in bloom at the top of a mountain that had already gone to seed at the bottom.  These subtle changes in climate have drastic effects on the biotic community.

Bumble Bees are very well adapted to life in the mountains.  Each night the temperature gets quite brisk.   This daily temperature change would be enough to kill most insects.   Most insects cannot regulate their own body temperature and their activity is dictated by the ambient air temperature.  Bumbles on the other had have a unique adaptation that allows them to heat themselves on cool mountain mornings.  The bees have strong flight muscles attached to their wings,  these muscles usually enable the bee to fly miles a day.  In the early morning the bee is too cool to fly so it must warm up.  It does this by putting those big flight muscles in ‘neutral’.  Just like putting a car in neutral and revving the engine will warm the car up, the bee flexes its muscles without engaging the wings.  This way it can sit motionless warming up for flight.  In spring this unique adaptation allows bumble bees to be among the first pollinators at early blooming flowers, sometimes when snow is still on the ground.

This male bee, a drone, could not get enough of my hand for some reason.  Male bees do not have stingers, so although this may look dangerous there is absolutely no threat of getting stung.

One of my favorite places to look for insects is around lights that have been on all night.  There will always been some late night visitors still hanging out.  On my first morning at our cabin I investigated a light near the shower house.  I found this large Sphinx Moth clutching to the side of the building.  Sphinx Moths are important nocturnal pollinators of many different plants.  There are also Sphinx Moths that are diurnal, are active during daylight hours.

I sometimes tell my wife that I have Nature Attention Deficit Disorder because when I’m outside every little thing is worth another look or a quick stop to investigate.  Our walks, hikes, runs or other outdoor activities often involves sudden stops by me to investigate a feather, insect or other curiosity that catches my eye.  I was stalking a family of marmot to get a bit closer when I saw this female spider in the crack of a rock.  On her abdomen she has hundreds of her juvenile offspring.  She carries them with her to protect them from predators.  Spiders are given a bad rap in our culture.  This mother spider is protecting her offspring just as any more snugglely animal might.  This is one of those curiosity that took precedence over my previous engagement of stalking the marmots.  I spend about 10 minutes watching and photographing this spider as she moved through the rocks.  It was amazing to think that each one of the dots on her abdomen was an individual spider looking back at me.

Life is often short in the high mountain altitudes.  Many individuals cannot compete with other or the elements and eventually die.  When the last flicker of life leaves a animal it is not long before other organism begin to recycle it back into the ecosystem.  This interesting looking insect is a Carrion Beetle.  These beetles like hot lunch, the smellier the better!  They are among the first ones on the scene of a dead animal.  Together with fly maggots, bacteria and other decomposers they will make quick work of even large carcasses.

Butterflies of all sorts take advantage of the short mountain summer.  When the mountain meadows bloom the bring with them a sudden boom in food resources for a myriad of different pollinators from bugs to birds.  The butterflies flit around using some of the most efficient flight patterns found in the animal kingdom.  Butterflies often look like they are just casually gliding through the air.  This casual flight is very specific and directed as a means of conserving energy.

There are some insects that I really hope to see whenever I’m outside.  They are my favorites.  This Pine Sawyer Beetle is one of those insects.  They are truly amazing beetles.  They just don’t seem natural, more like something developed for a Hollywood movie than a product of millions of years of evolution.  What is it about their long antennae that gives them advantage over others?  I don’t know, and that’s why I am constantly reminded just how amazing nature really is.  Simply claiming that this beetle was created to look like this takes away all of the amazement of this organism.  The world is so much more interesting when you realize that you don’t have all the answers, that everything can’t be explained with a simple answer.  It is even more amazing when you realize that you can figure it out!!

Up Next:  Mountain Blooms

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