Insect sleuths track miniature fugitives

Thursday July 28, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Visitors to the woods around Housatonic this weekend may think they've run across a group of later-day Sherlock Holmes -- but rest assured, it's most likely the insect-tracking workshop held at Project Native this Saturday.

National Book Award-winning naturalists Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney will teach their class of insect-stalkers how to analyze the clues insects leave behind and thereby determine what species are present, their stage of life and their habits.

Insect tracking works on a focused, detailed scale, Eiseman said. It relies on minute signs, such as egg casings, cocoons and burrows.

"When most people think of tracking, they picture following footprints and trails," he said. "While you can do that with insects, it's really much smaller, looking at isolated signs of them -- in some cases just looking at one leaf, figuring out what's been going on, who's been munching on it."

The slow and thorough look gives people a better "sense of the amazing and often beautiful things going on right under their noses," he said.

The same sense of wonder got the two naturalists hooked on insects themselves.

For Eiseman, the greatest draw in insects is their seemingly endless diversity.

"I'm amazed by the specificity of them," he said.

For example, some species feed on plants in a unique way.

Parasites often have just one particular thing they feed on," he explained.

"Literally every time I go for a walk with my macro lens," he said, "I find something I've never seen before."

His fascination with insects grew over time. Eiseman and Chareney first met during their college days at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and have often collaborated.

"We've been teaching winter animal tracking classes together for something like eight years," Eiseman said.

Their knowledge of insects grew out of their work as naturalists. While studying birds, plants and larger animals, they learned the signs left by the insects they met along the way. Eventually they complied their combined experience into a book on insect tracking, Tracks and Sign, which won the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award.

Though the majority of the guide's information was available through scattered texts before the book was published, data on so many species of insects hadn't been complied into a single resource.

"There really isn't anything else like this out there," Eiseman said.

The pair's studies have been a good fit with Project Native, a 54-acre farm dedicated to preserving native plants and the local landscape.

David Ellis, in charge of operations at Project Native, is glad to have Eiseman and Charney return.

"In February we had them come and give a talk and presentation that went over well, " he said, even though winter temperatures meant listeners had to stay indoors and view projection images of insect signs Eiseman and Charney had found outside at Project Native that day.

Now that the weather is plenty warm, Project Native is bringing them back to give a workshop in the field.

"They are very good speakers, very entertaining," Ellis said.

Eiseman and Charney's research fits well with Project Native's goal of native landscape stewardship, he said. In order to survive, native plants require their natural animal habitat: Insects, birds and mammals all go together to create a living ecosystem.

Eiseman shares the same view.

"Damaging or not, insects are a key part of the food web," he said. For example, insects are "the whole reason migratory birds come north every year. You have to protect the insects to protect the birds."

Insects are a crucial part of the greater whole.

Though insect habits and their environmental significance may fill up books, Saturday's seekers of borers and beetles don't need years of study to appreciate the lesson.

"You don't really have to be into insects to appreciate the presentation," Ellis said.

Even Eiseman might discover something new.

"In my eperience," he said, "You never run out of things to learn with insects."

If you go ...

What: Insect walk

Where: Project Native, Route 41, Great Barrington

When: Workshops 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

Admission: $30

Information: (413) 274-3433,


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