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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Insect Indicators

What bugs can tell you about finding your way.

by: Ryan Pinkard

Butterfly (Photo by Ariel Colon Jr.)
Butterfly (Photo by Ariel Colon Jr.)

Like other wildlife, insects are specifically adapted to their surroundings, and observing them can teach us a lot about what’s going on in nature. In his book, The Natural Navigator, Wayfinding expert Tristan Gooley says, “Animals can help us in two distinctly different ways. We can observe their behavior and make deductions from what we see, but we can also study their methods and try to emulate them.” In the case of watching insects, while they may not eliminate the need for a map and compass, watching them can hint at changing conditions and help you becoming more conscientious and heighten your outdoor experience. Look to insects for subtle clues to:
Find nearby water.
Most insects are fussy about their environment and because they can’t travel long distances, they need to stay close to important resources. In general, more life means water, and in the desert, insect numbers are closely related to water and food levels. In arid areas, they are a good general sign to how remote you are. “When walking in the Libyan Sahara I found I could tell how close we were to an oasis by the number of flies on the back of the Tuareg nomad walking in front of me,” says Gooley. “This can also be used at sea, without the nomad.” Dragonflies, bees, and mosquitoes are also water-loving species that can signal the source is near.
Orient yourself.
North facing slopes receive less sunlight and are less dry than south-facing ones, which sometimes manifests as dark patches of seeping water or low-lying vegetation. Gooley writes, “Inspecting these dark patches close may reveal much smaller culprits, like a writhing army of ants enjoying the ground that has been kept shady, cool, and moist.” Spiders, although not technically insects, also provide clues. They often spin webs in sheltered spots. Seeing old or large webs can help you deduce the leeward side of trees, fences, buildings etc. If your prevailing wind is a southwesterly, you should expect to find more spider's webs on the northeast side than any other.
Determine your general location.
Once you get to know local insects, you’ll know their habits with regard toclimate, elevation, etc. As elevation increase for example, insect populations thin and become more specific. For example, many insect species develop smaller wings and darker colorations at higher altitudes, which may help you determine your elevation. If you see a butterfly species you’re familiar with, but individuals are smaller and darker than “normal,” it could be an indicator that you’re increased your elevation. Gooley gives an example from his neck-of-the-woods: “There is only one place in the south of England where the Field Cricket, Gryllus campestris, really thrives. I know I am walking through his territory when I start to hear his chirps.” The interested entomologist can use a field guide such as the National Auduban Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders to identify species and in turn learn about their specific regional ecosystems.

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