Maryland Coastal Bays

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What Just Landed on My Head? Flying Insects in Maryland - August 3, 2014

 Step outside on any given day of summer here on the Eastern Shore, and you will find yourself amidst a wide array of buzzing, flying insects. Due to the multitude of different ecosystems here on the Delmarva Penninsula, many insect populations flourish year round, especially during the hot summer months. It can often be difficult to guess what species an insect is because there is such a wide variety, especially when they are small, fast flyers and can be gone in a blink of an eye. 

    Here on the Eastern Shore we have a wide array of flying insects, representing many different insect orders:

Dragon and Damsel Flies:

    These flying insects are some of the oldest in the world, having been around for at least 300 million years. Not much has changed with these flying insects over the years except for size; some prehistoric dragon and damselflies could have a wingspan of over 2 feet while most modern dragon and damselflies are around 1-3 inches long. While the damsel and dragonflies have shrunk over the millennia, they still remain voracious and efficient predators eating mostly other insects. Many species love to eat pests like mosquitoes or other flying insects, which helps to keep those pest populations under control. 

    Both Dragon and Damsel flies are classified as odonates. This means they have large heads with developed compound eyes, long abdomens, two sets of wings and 3 pairs of legs, which they often use to scoop up prey or to grab onto surfaces. Both Dragon and Damsel flies are semi or fully aquatic during their juvenile and larvae life stages. In these stages of life they are still effective predators and will eat other small insects, larvae, small fish and even tadpoles. Once they become adults though, they will become full fledged fliers and will move onto bigger and faster prey. 

    Dragon and Damsel flies may look very similar but there are a few pronounced differences to tell the two insects apart. In general, Damselflies tend to have a much slender body and abdomen while Dragonflies tend have a stouter body. Another distinguishing feature is the eyes; Dragonflies have eyes that are close together and often meet in the middle of the head, however Damselflies have their eyes set further apart on their head. Also, if the insect is at rest you can compare the way the wings are held; Dragonflies tend to keep their wings open and spread out while Damselflies will keep their wings together behind their body. 

Horse and Deer flies:

    Not every flying insect is pretty or peaceful. Here on the Eastern Shore there are often huge Horse and Deer Flies waiting outside to give the unsuspecting visitor or local a painful bite. Both of these fly species are much larger than their housefly cousins, with some deerfly growing to be 1/2 long and some horseflies growing up to 1 1/8 inch long. Most of these flies have dark coloration, either black, brown or dark green. 

    These flies have long mandibles which they use to “bite” their victim to enable blood sucking, however only female flies are blood suckers while most male flies feed primarily on pollen and nectar. Females will use the blood to help her with egg production and staying healthy during the reproductive process. Horse and Deer Fly larvae can be aquatic or live in moist soils where they feed on other invertebrates like insects, larvae or worms. Depending on the species, Horse and Deer Flies can live from 3 months to 2 years. 

Butterflies and Skippers:

     Unlike Horse and Deer Flies, Butterflies and Skippers are much more gentle, and aesthetically interesting. Butterflies and Skippers are well known for their pollinating abilities and are extremely important during the spring and summer time as pollinators for a huge variety of different plants. Not only are they great pollinators but they are also great bio-indicators for the health of a region; if butterflies and caterpillars are dying off or are not found in an area they usually would be, it might be because the local environment is not healthy or conducive to having healthy populations of these insects which could lead to major health problems for humans as well. 
    
    In Maryland we have over 150 species of Butterfly and Skippers, which can be found from the dunes of Assateague to the mountain tops in Garrett County. Skippers are a cousin of the butterfly, however they belong to their own family and have a few general differences compared to true butterflies. Skippers tend to look more like moths than butterflies; having stouter and stockier bodies with larger compound eyes and much smaller wings compared to body size than the average true butterfly. Although they look like moths, skippers are more similar to butterflies in habits and habitats and are excellent pollinators during the warmer months of the year. 


    This is merely a portion of the species of flying insects in Maryland, unfortunately it is impossible to sum up all of these species in one article or document. Next week, the flying insects highlighted will be Stinging insects, like bees and wasps, and other insects like ladybugs, cicadas and katydids. 

Harrison Jackson is the Coastal Stewards Coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 



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