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Bugs, Biodiversity, and Big Ranches

Over the last few years, Chico Basin Ranch has partnered with the Mile High Bug Club (Pikes Peak Region chapter) to make a casual assessment of the diversity of insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates that live on the 87,000 acre property. The ongoing results point to a healthy, stable prairie ecosystem which is due in large part to the size of the ranch.

This long-horned beetle is a Red Milkweed Beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus). Adults feed on leaves and blossoms and the larvae bore into milkweed roots. Individual species specialize on one or two milkweed species, here a broad-leafed milkweed. Photo and caption by Bill Maynard.

Every annual cycle of seasons is different on the plains of eastern Colorado. Some years are disastrously dry, while in other times there may be water ponding on roads the entire summer. Storms are by nature sporadic in frequency and spotty in impact. Native plants and animals respond accordingly. Flora and fauna seldom appear in the same spots in consecutive years. This is why having an enormous, wisely-managed ranch is so important.

This year was in some ways disappointing. The ranch is usually rich in grasshopper diversity. One year we recorded forty species in a single day. In 2020, few grasshoppers were seen, and many species were lagging in their usual timetable of metamorphosis. By early- to mid-August, most grasshoppers are adults. This year, the few we saw were mostly nymphs. This does not mean they are gone forever. Grasshoppers, like most insects, have a variety of strategies for coping with less-than-optimal environmental conditions. Many grasshoppers are probably sitting this year out underground in egg pods deposited last summer by their mother. They don’t make a conscious decision, but their hormones and other bodily processes are finely tuned to evaluating whether they would survive given the current lack of moisture, food scarcity, and other factors. Grasshoppers are the most diverse and abundant grazing animals on the prairie, and therefore the most impactful, and we can learn lessons from their responses to circumstances beyond their control.

Treehopper by Rise Foster-Bruder.

Grasshoppers are also important as food for other organisms, from other insects, and spiders and scorpions, to Swainson’s Hawk, American Kestrel, shrikes, foxes, shrews, rodents, and even fungi and viruses. The food web is what keeps the prairie operating, for its native occupants, as well as humans and livestock. Imagine it as a living electrical grid through which flows the currency of energy, the only currency that matters to our planet. Destroy one circuit and you have an outage, but in the case of ecosystems that grid cannot be adequately repaired.

The ranch continues to offer positive surprises, too. This August 8, driving down the road to headquarters, one of our party noticed a large beetle scrambling in front of their vehicle. His son scooped the insect into a bottle and presented it to the rest of our group upon their arrival. It turned out to be a specimen of the Great Plains Giant Tiger Beetle, Amblycheila cylindriformis, a flightless, usually nocturnal predator of other insects. This may represent a county record, and according to one website, the first specimen taken anywhere in Colorado in eleven years.

This is a stink bug in the genus Conchuela. Stink bugs have glands on their thorax that produce a fowl odor that repels most predators. Many species of stink bugs are considered garden pests but this one was on a broad-leafed sunflower plant found during the bug walk. Photo and caption by Bill Maynard.

That is an example of how little we know about the fauna of the ranch. Here is another case. On August 5, 2017, a conspicuous wasp came into my view, darting swiftly between grass clumps. I managed to get a couple of images, almost in focus, of what I expected would be something familiar. Upon editing the photos at home, I was unable to make heads or tails of the insect. Fortunately, a friend and colleague who is a wasp expert identified it as a female Pterombrus rufiventris, a rarely seen member of the obscure family Thynnidae. Interestingly and coincidentally, this species is, as a larva, parasitic on the larvae of tiger beetles.

With the continued urban sprawl of Colorado Springs, and the politics of government and corporate intervention in natural resource management, places like Chico Basin Ranch are vital to preserving a respected rural lifestyle, and securing a healthy, sustainable natural heritage. Anyone who has had the privilege of visiting this place, and other ranches that have passed through the hands of The Nature Conservancy, Southern Plains Land Trust, and similar entities, understands the importance of forming a united front to ensure the continued prosperity of all parties, from ranchers to wildlife.

Oleander Aphids were introduced into the United States with the importation of Oleander plants. This aphid species is also frequently found on various species of milkweeds especially the large leaved variety like Broad-leafed Milkweed. Just like Monarch butterflies, some aphid species ingests a deadly cardiac glycoside from their host plants. They secrete these toxins from tubes in their rear ends. Like the bright orange coloration on insects, bright yellow is also a warning (aposematic coloration) to potential predators. As aphids feed they extract a large quantity of a sticky fluid, honeydew, which attracts ants. Aphids have a symbiotic relationship with ants, the ants gathering aphid eggs and transporting them to their colonies in late fall and bringing them back to their host plants in the spring. Photo and caption by Bill Maynard.
A Tule Bluet has captured a green lacewing and is in the process of consuming it. Photo by Tim Leppek.
Photo by John Bruder.
Photo by John Bruder.

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