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Inside the Outdoors: Prepare to be bugged

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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If you haven’t been already, you soon will be; bugged, that is. This is the time of year when those myriad tiny creatures that make so much of life possible—and at times impossible—are becoming more abundant with each passing day. Minnesota is home to more than 1,000 different species of insects. Not all are popular, and some are a serious nuisance. But all have a role to play, as was so well put in the Disney movie The Lion King, and its “circle of life.” The spring, summer and fall proliferation of insects feeds young game birds, like ruffed grouse and pheasants, songbirds of every kind and description, waterfowl, and even fish. Insects are, indeed, an engine of life.

If there is one insect that is more awaited as a marker of spring than any other, it’s the one we sometimes jokingly refer to as the “Minnesota state bird.” It’s not the loon; it’s the mosquito. A couple of close friends make spring pilgrimages to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. They do this in early May, risking precipitation in the form of snow, and lakes that have barely lost their covering of winter ice. They do so then to avoid the hordes of mosquitoes and black flies that—by June or July—can visit pure misery on campers. This year the timing backfired for one of them, as the lake he had planned for his embarkation was still frozen. He had to choose an alternate route, but on the plus side, the mosquitoes were still very “chill.”

Closer to home, they are just beginning to be regular visitors to a person who is outdoors getting his yard in shape, or relaxing on the deck with a favorite beverage after the hard work is done. If the question has been asked once, it’s been asked a million times: “What purpose do they serve?” Mosquitoes cause discomfort to humans, to our canine companions, to wild birds and mammals. They can also transmit diseases. West Nile virus is one of them, and our state’s favorite game bird—the ruffed grouse—can be one of the victims.

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Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

But mosquitoes provide much needed nutrition to many creatures. Adults are eaten by swallows and martins, many migratory songbirds, and also bats. Mosquito larvae are eaten by fish—young bass and bluegills among them—as well as turtles, and such aquatic or marsh birds, terns and ducks. Not to mention the boon that mosquitoes are to chemical companies that produce insect repellents!

The first of the year’s mayfly species has appeared near the lake on whose shore the family cabin stands. There are more than 600 mayfly species in North America, and roughly 100 in Minnesota. Like mosquitoes, they spend most of their life before adulthood under water.

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As immature “nymphs,” with outsized legs and exaggerated jaws, they are anything but attractive, except perhaps to another mayfly. Decades ago, when low budget horror films used camera trickery to turn small insects or reptiles into giant creatures that threatened the human race, one of the mayfly nymphs would have been a good choice.

But as adults, slender of body, with long and delicate hair-like tails, and gauzy transparent wings that fold atop their back like a sailboat’s sail, they are among the most handsome of insects. When ready to transform from underwater creatures hiding under rocks, or burrowed in mud, to adults destined to live but a few more days, they swim to the surface. There, their nymphal skin splits down the back, and the handsome sailboat-like adult pulls itself out. It floats on the surface to dry its wings, before taking flight. Within one to several days it will molt again, mate—the females will drop to the water to deposit their fertilized eggs—and life will come to an end.

But over the course of their lives, mayflies will provide a rich source of protein to both forage fish and game fish. Fish feed on them mostly unseen while the mayflies are living underwater as nymphs. But when they rise to the surface to transform into adults, you may see the telltale surface rings made by bass or panfish as they take them off the surface, or intercept them just under the surface film. In addition to feeding fish during all stages of their life cycle, mayflies can send birds into an aerial feeding frenzy as they rise off the surface, and when they return and form mating swarms above the water.

Mayflies neither bite like mosquitoes nor sting like bees, but some find them a nuisance when the larger species hatch in great profusion. At such times they may blanket boat docks and lifts, the walls of cabins, and carpet lawns with their fragile bodies that crunch underfoot. Inevitably some find their way inside, or land on us when we’re outdoors. Those who have an insect aversion will likely be “creeped out,” until—within several days—they complete their mating mission and disappear, save for a remnant trapped in spiders’ webs, or briefly afloat in the shallows.

Mosquitoes may be a temporarily painful annoyance for most, and mayflies could be a brief annoyance at worst. But one of the insects we deal with every year is actually a threat. That is the deer tick, the noticeably smaller relative of the common dog tick, which we commonly call wood tick. Deer ticks can be more than a nuisance because many carry and can infect us with Lyme’s disease. If undetected and untreated, it can cause serious damage to joints, the nervous system, and even the heart. The first symptoms are a circular red rash surrounding the site of a bite that some describe as a “bullseye.” Other symptoms can include fever, chills, body aches, neck stiffness and headache.

I spend a considerable amount of time from April through September, in or near trout streams. In most places where I fish, these waters wind through woodlands or fields, which are prime places to encounter both wood ticks and deer ticks. Though I wear rubber wading boots that encase my body up to the waist, or even higher, it’s not a rarity to find one of the tiny ticks on my clothing or some part of my anatomy. It’s happened already this season. And always after finding one, your senses are so aroused that you imagine there are more, whether true or not!

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Mike Rahn, columnist

The deer tick—also called black-egged tick—is about half the size of a common wood tick, has black legs and a dark spot behind the head. There are repellents that are effective against ticks, notably permethrin that is used on clothing—not on the skin—and traditional repellents that contain DEET. But use of repellents is no excuse for failing to conduct a thorough inspection after you’ve been anywhere ticks might be found.

Insects are a boon to the life around us, and sometimes a bane as well. But the joys of the spring to fall time are one more example of life’s mixed blessings, and the truth in the saying that “there is no free lunch.”

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