Nature—the kind of nature to be conserved, restored, and marveled at—is often perceived as something far from one’s home, a place that requires a long drive with a carful of gear to get to. But a visit to that type of “nature” may only happen a few times in someone’s life, if it occurs at all, and the daily view of nature for most of us has a lot more buildings and fewer mountain vistas. US Census data from 2010 showed over 80% of Americans living in urban areas; according to the World Health Organization, the urban population in 2014 accounted for 54.5% of the total global population, and is expected to grow 1.84% annually between 2015 and 2020. One of the many environmental challenges created by this continuing urbanization is finding ways to give people from all walks of life direct and meaningful interactions with nature on a regular basis.
As an entomologist, I find this task a little easier, because there are insects in pretty much every habitat you can imagine. I am a great believer in the role that urban habitats can play in providing refuge and connectivity for wildlife, and in the power of the public to enhance urban habitats and learn about biodiversity in the process. I have seen my own tiny backyard in Portland go from a lifeless expanse of sod (the legacy of previous owners) to a bird-rich haven of native shrubs where chickadees and goldfinches pick over sunflower heads while ground-based varied thrushes and juncos hunt for tidbits in the mulch and red-shafted flickers and cedar waxwings gobble an annual bounty of blue elderberries overhead. But even I fall into the trap of thinking that urban nature can get a little ho-hum, compared to the glories of a peat bog or mountain meadow, and the occasional wake-up call is needed.
My most recent “ah-hah!’ moment in this arena came last summer, when I volunteered to help with a bioblitz done to celebrate the grand opening of a new park in northeast Portland, in a neighborhood the city determined was lacking in green space. Named Kʰunamokwst, from a word in the Chinook Wawa language meaning “together”, this pocket park was created on a forgotten patch in the middle of a historically underserved and minority neighborhood with dense residential and commercial development. The “critter cruise”, as it was dubbed, featured naturalist-led walks for residents, with a strong focus on young children and their families. When I arrived in the morning and saw the small size of the park and the large number of surrounding houses, I confess my spirits sank a bit at the thought of filling three hours with observations of insects and other invertebrates. How on earth would I find enough to keep these kids interested?
As it turned out, my worries were unfounded, and I discovered two very important things that day. The first is that nature walks with children are terrific, because I didn’t have to do any work—I just turned the kids loose and they spent the whole time questing like beagles and running up to me with their finds. The second is that even the common is wondrous if it’s something you’ve never seen before. Mysterious monsters on a leaf brought to me by a small girl led to the discovery of lady beetle larvae, and a challenge to the group to see if they could find more lady beetle life stages. Within minutes I had a neat line-up of larvae, pupae, and adults, and a great jumping-off point for an impromptu teaching moment about metamorphosis as well as biological control. A boy showed me a round and lovely Cross Orb Weaver (Araneus diadematus) cupped in his palm, and I was able to compare and contrast his spider with a harvestman running around in another small participant’s hands—and to reassure his mother, who approached me with a rather less enthusiastic demeanor asking anxiously “¿Son peligrosos?” that the vast majority of Oregon’s hundreds of spider species are harmless.
It pays to remember too that the wondrous may well be lurking unexpectedly amidst the common—especially where insects, so perennially understudied and unappreciated, are concerned. For example, a recent community-based bioblitz in Melbourne, Australia uncovered several rare moth species that hadn't been sighted in decades in the city’s most-visited park, and last spring 30 new species of scuttle fly (Phoridae: Megaselia) were discovered living in Los Angeles county, many in people’s backyards.
The American naturalist John Burroughs said "The place to study nature is at one's own home - on the farm, in the mountains, by the sea - wherever that may be.” In this spirit, my own quest for the coming year is to try to find and catalog every invertebrate that lives in my yard, from compost pile to mulched path to the underside of my lawn chair. Who knows what wonders may await?