Bugs and the Bay

Insect populations offer valuable clues to the quality of water entering the Chesapeake

Local students Gabrielle Rinard, Zora Edmondson, and Kevin Rinard (left) look for bugs in the Appalachian Laboratory.
Local students Gabrielle Rinard, Zora Edmondson, and Kevin Rinard look for bugs in the Appalachian Laboratory. Photograph, Rona Kobell

If girls aren’t supposed to play in the mud with bugs, no one told Zora Edmondson.

On a cold spring evening, the Grantsville, Md., fifth-grader was hunched over a metal tray filled with water, dirt, and a collection of tiny stream invertebrates — mayflies, caddisflies, and water pennies. (Known as aquatic macro-invertebrates, they are organisms with no backbone that are large enough to see without a microscope, though using one helps.) Her mission was scientific yet simple: Determine how clean the water was by the sorts of backbone-less bugs that lived in it.

“I thought it would be fun,” Zora said when asked why she and her parents drove 30 minutes to the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg. “Actually, it was my mom’s idea, but when I got to thinking about it, I started liking it.”

Zora joined about 50 curious participants at the lab’s spring Watershed Moments program called “Lab After Hours: What’s in Your Water?” It’s part of a quarterly series hosted by the Frostburg laboratory. Other UMCES facilities, including the Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore, the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, and the Institute for Marine and Environmental Technology in Baltimore, also host community events throughout the year. They include lectures, open houses, and hands-on science programs.

The difference in Western Maryland, though, is the distance from the Chesapeake — Frostburg is a good 200 miles from the estuary’s shoreline in Annapolis or Baltimore. But the program is really about the watershed — the creeks, gulleys, and streams that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. And it is about the land — 64,000 square miles of it — that affects the water. It is about farms, forests, housing developments, and urbanized, concrete culverts in places like Cumberland and Frostburg. And it is also about local industries, where many Western Maryland residents historically made their living, and some still do.

Longtime residents often viewed the natural surroundings as key to their livelihoods in paper mills and coal mines and rubber tire factories, industries known to have a history of environmental violations.

Regardless of those infractions, residents often see efforts to preserve their surroundings as something that could take away jobs and income. Scientists say that relations between the lab and nearby towns weren’t always the warmest because of that conflict.

“Until recently, here, the industry was mostly extraction. People often think that anything environmental takes away from the economy and they don’t want anything to do with it,” said Robert Hilderbrand, a stream ecologist at the lab who led the workshop. “People here are just beginning to see how valuable the environment can be. People take clean air and clean water for granted, until it’s gone.”

Hilderbrand believes two factors are bringing about a different attitude toward the natural environment here. First, Western Maryland is embracing its forests, streams, and relatively inexpensive housing to market itself as a vacation destination and second-home community. Deep Creek Lake has long been a popular vacation site, but now communities such as Friendsville and Frostburg are also becoming popular second-home destinations and vacation stops. Wineries, creameries, brew pubs, and bookstores are popping up in the shadow of ski resorts, trout streams, and outdoor-adventure emporiums. Those industries, Hilderbrand notes, were among the lead voices opposing fracking for natural gas, a practice Maryland’s governor decided to ban after six years of study. At the same time, new year-round housing is being built in areas within commuting distance of Washington, D.C.

The second factor is a realization that upstream waters are not just a means to the end goal of a clean Bay, but can be environmental draws or drawbacks in their own right. Clean water and clean air are important, whether one lives next to the Chesapeake or hundreds of miles from it. Talk about the Chesapeake may resonate in Annapolis, but talk about the Potomac or the Casselman is more likely to be meaningful in Frostburg. And if those rivers aren’t clean, the Bay won’t be, either. Visitors won’t come to appreciate the beauty of Western Maryland if the rivers don’t have healthy fish and clean water.

“As long as these rivers and streams are considered a point source rather than a part of the system, they’re historically an afterthought. They don’t produce oysters. They don’t produce crabs. But that water is critical for the health of the Bay,” Hilderbrand said. “The Bay really wouldn’t exist in its form without the freshwater sources.”

In a spacious room with lab tables and a few sinks working overtime, Hilderbrand explained Stream Health 101 to the group. A water sample can test for pollutants and acidity levels. But to determine whether a stream can support life, you just need your eyes and a decent macro-invertebrates chart.

The healthiest streams are the ones with the clearest water, the most abundant plant life, the most oxygen-rich environments to support the most sensitive organisms: Tiny mayflies (order: Ephemeroptera) and hook-legged stoneflies (order: Plecoptera). If any of these bugs are in your stream, Hilderbrand told the group, the water is of excellent quality and can support plant and animal life. Other animals that indicate good stream health include the water penny (order: Coleoptera), flat with legs on the bottom, and the spiky hellgrammite (order: Megaloptera), a rare, dark creature with pinching jaws and feathery gills.

“The Bay really wouldn’t exist in its form without the freshwater sources.”

— Robert Hilderbrand

Some caddisflies (order: Trichopetera) will only live in the most pristine streams; see one, and you know the habitat is good. But the net-spinning caddisfly is part of the Diptera order, a slightly different one, and it can survive with what one might call the lesser bugs in moderately healthy streams. The net-spinning caddisfly is one of the 20 or so organisms in that family that can withstand more stress. It is more worm than fly with a long, pliant body. Common bugs in the moderate stream-health category also include damselflies and dragonflies, in addition to crayfish and clams.

The pollution-tolerant organisms may be the least loved: the leech, the black fly, and the midge. One reason they’re so common is because they can withstand large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the water, even if those of us who enjoy wading in the streams would rather not withstand them.

Brent Chippendale drove 40 minutes to learn about bugs in streams in hopes of restoring the ones on his own land. Photograph, Rona Kobell

Brent Chippendale came to the workshop from his home about 40 minutes away in Centreville, Pa., hoping to learn the state of a stream that runs through his 52-acre property. Retired after a long career with social services, Chippendale said he’s looking at property improvements to enhance stream health. First, he said, he began removing invasive species on the banks. The next step, he said, is determining what he might be able to do on land — planting trees, increasing buffers — to enhance aquatic life. His visit to the lab was a step in that direction.

“I’m 67, and I’ve been interested in biology my whole life,” he said.

Zora and her friend, third-grader Gabrielle Rinard, and Gabrielle’s brother Kevin looked at different critters under a microscope while her parents looked on. Her mother is a nurse. Her father is a dentist. Zora is leaning toward the scientific fields as well. “I’m planning to be a zoologist, and an ob-gyn, and some other stuff on the side,” the fifth-grader said.

Her mother, Ginelle, homeschools Zora, so she doesn’t have access to a facility like the one in Frostburg, or to the insects. But a neighborhood stream is home to crayfish. Zora took one home and put it in her fish tank; it didn’t work out so well, she said. “That’s when I learned I shouldn’t pick up wild animals.”

After the stream lecture and the closer look at the insects, the crowd lingered, asking Hilderbrand about the bugs they were seeing in their own streams. Many said they planned to return for the next event. That excited Hilderbrand because the lab, set back in the woods a couple miles from Frostburg’s Main Street, isn’t widely known in the community, despite the important work done there. For example, lab director Eric Davidson is nationally known in part because he is president of the American Geophysical Union, which has more than 60,000 members worldwide. Some other researchers at the lab have become famous in their fields, among them John Hoogland, one of the nation’s foremost experts on prairie dogs.

“We’re still not that well-known, after we have been here 30 years, as an institution,” Hilderbrand said. “So, anything we can do to raise environmental awareness is important.”


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