Entomology collecting on Sugarloaf Mountain

An image of vegetation from low to the ground
A bug’s eye view? Montane meadow on Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado, USA. September 2, 2012.

This fall I’m taking an entomology class, partly for professional development and partly because YAY BUGS (my work provides me with some tuition remission and flexible working hours, which makes this possible; I’m very grateful for this).

As part of the lab, we all have to make our own insect collections, focusing on representing diversity in orders and families. Since I enrolled in the graduate student section, I need at least 60 specimens, representing 14 orders and 35 families. The catch is that as we head into fall in Colorado, the remaining collecting season could be quite short, depending on when the first freeze hits. So we’ve been encouraged to collect now, identify and pin later.

I have some mixed feelings about insect collecting. I have absolutely no problem with collecting for scientific research–I believe museum collections are an incredible and invaluable resource for present and future research, and with insects in particular, most are so common and short-lived that collecting is extremely unlikely to harm populations. I also don’t have a problem with collecting common species for education purposes, or with amateur collections for self-education purposes (especially since many amateur collectors keep extremely well-labeled and curated collections that they later donate to museums). I’m not such a fan of collecting for display or for sale, or of haphazard collecting.

I haven’t decided yet what to do with my collection from this class. I don’t foresee becoming a collector as a matter of course, without a scientific reason to do so. At present I’m leaning towards seeing what, if anything, the university museum wants to pick out to keep, and saving the rest as a small education collection to show some basic Colorado insect diversity, to potentially use down the line in public programs.

But I digress! Today was our first optional field trip of the semester, to help us get a head start on our collections. We began in the montane grasslands of Sugarloaf Mountain above Boulder. Alas, since I was hauling a net and other collecting equipment, I only took my macro lens, so scenics are going to be not so great, but to give you an idea of the habitat, here are some of my classmates, diligently sweep-netting:

Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado

Naturally there were quite a few grasshoppers, abundant bees (although I didn’t see any that weren’t European Honeybees), lots of hemipteran nymphs of some kind (I think), some tachinid flies, some skippers, and the occasional beetle or wasp.

Next we moved down to the foothills, near the burn area of the 1989 Black Tiger Fire. The vegetation was a bit different here: more scrubby low bushes, fewer flowers. I didn’t take any pictures of the main area we worked, but here’s our resident “lepper” (butterfly and moth enthusiast), either disappointed or with quarry in hand:

Sugarloaf Mountain, Boulder, Colorado

I was a bit surprised by how many caterpillars showed up in my sweep net, mostly inchworms (Family Geometridae). The main reason we visited this field was to look for praying mantises, which I completely failed to find, although I think everyone else got one.

Then we moved over into the nearby trees to dig up antlions, the ferocious (to an ant) larvae of some insects in the family Myrmeleontidae.

Further down the hill we found a patch of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) infested with cochineal, a scale insect in the family Dactylopiidae. Cochineal is historically incredibly important as a source of red dye, due to their high concentration of carminic acid. Until recently cochineal was fairly commonly found in food products and makeup (it’s labeled as “E120” or “carmine”), but it is somewhat less commonly used now due to the potential for (rare) allergies and the fact that it makes food non-vegan. Mostly, I suspect people in the West don’t like to think about insects in our food, even though our food already inevitably contains insect parts. Still, check your ingredient lists–you might be surprised!

The cochineal bug (it is a true bug, a hemipteran) protects itself from the sun with a waxy white gunk that’s pretty sticky, completely hiding the bugs from sight while they feed:

Cochineal (Family Dactylopiidae)

But under that gunk are the cochineal bugs, which once removed and dried make a dye gram for gram more expensive than gold. I’ve dabbled a little in natural dyeing, and cochineal makes absolutely incredibly colors, like the raspberry pink below (the others are, from left to right, rabbitbrush and alum, indigo, and rabbitbrush and iron):

Fiber Guild Dye Day 2008

But by far the most exciting find of the day for me, irrelevant as it is to our focus as a class, was an incredibly cooperative female Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus), who kindly hung out on her web for photographs:

Western Black Widow (Latrodectus hesperus)

Periodically she would be startled and scurry back under her rock, but overall I was surprised to see her out in the open so visibly. Despite living in Colorado for nine years now, I’ve never seen a black widow outside of captivity, so I was pretty excited.

Black widows are the only medically dangerous spider living in Colorado (if you would like to argue that brown recluses live in Colorado, I suggest taking it up with the Colorado Spider Survey and Colorado State University; I won’t debate it), but they’re not “aggressive,” and it’s fairly hard to get one to bite you. As long as I didn’t touch her web or stick my hand under her rock, I wasn’t too worried.

For our last stop of the day, we did a little netting for aquatic insects in a stream. Our TA and a classmate demonstrate what this process looks like:

Looking for aquatic insects

We found caddisfly (Order Trichoptera), stonefly (Order Plecoptera), mayfly (Order Ephemeroptera), and fly (Order Diptera) larvae this way. I haven’t had much cause to interact with aquatic insects in the past, but I’m pretty fond of caddisfly larvae, many species of which build “houses” from various materials. My favorite example is actually a fossil caddisfly species found in John Day, Oregon, which built its casing from Metasequoia needles.

And then, alas, it was time to head home and stick the bugs in the freezer. I’m not sure yet that I’m very good at insect collecting, but I definitely saw different things than I would have normally, and learned a lot–and of course being up in the beautiful mountains of Colorado in early fall is one of the best places to be!

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3 thoughts on “Entomology collecting on Sugarloaf Mountain”

  1. A comment about collecting – any insect collecting, whether it is intended to be for scientific research or not, eventually serves that purpose as long as the specimens are properly label and eventually made available to the public. It is hard to emphasize how much data has been gleaned from private collections that have eventually found their way into university museums. Even though there was no intention to advance science when the insects were collected, it happened anyway! :)

    1. Yeah, I know–I just feel like given my limited space and the necessity of being organized and keeping good data, I’d rather have some kind of focus to maximize the usefulness of the collection. I’m still thinking about it.

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