Aquatic bugs indicate health of Lancaster County Creek

PEQUEA, Pennsylvania (WHTM) – Pennsylvania creeks are popular for wading, inner tubing, kayaking, and fishing. But while you’re floating with the tide, have you ever thought about what could be living beneath you? Sure, you might see the occasional fish walking around, but there’s probably something else in there as well that you probably wouldn’t see without looking for it.

Clinging to rock bottoms in streams and streams are often benthic invertebrates (organisms that do not have a backbone large enough to see with the naked eye) including immature aquatic insects.

“A lot of people think bugs aren’t fun,” said Keith Williams, community engagement coordinator for the Lancaster Conservancy. “I think they are amazing.”

Aquatic insects are found in Climbers Run

Williams explained that aquatic insects are an essential component of aquatic ecosystems. They eat plant matter in streams and streams, which helps it decompose and also converts it into animal matter. Fish such as trout, Pennsylvania state fish, eat insects. Other terrestrial animals such as birds eat insects as well as fish.

Aquatic insects contribute to healthy aquatic ecosystems, and are also indicators of healthy waterways. In the creek at Climbers Run Nature Preserve in Lancaster County, Williams gently turned over boulders to reveal immature mayflies, flies, and rockflies.

Some of these benthic invertebrates can survive in very poor water quality conditions, with almost no dissolved oxygen. Others need some of the cleanest, highest oxygen water we can find, and in fact, the ones we found today here at Climbers Run fall into this category. “These are some of the most sensitive aquatic insects that we can find,” Williams said.

Stonefly and flies, in particular, indicate that the Climbers Run schedule is healthy. Williams says this creek is a restoration success story.

Williams said the tide was in sharp decline 10 years ago when the Conservancy took over the land. The Lancaster Conservancy, Donegal Trout Unlimited, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service worked together to restore the lower stretch of Climbers Run.

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“And now we have trout in this low reach. We haven’t had trout in the lowlands in ten years. We had them on the top hand, but we didn’t have them down here,” Williams said.

“There were predictions made a couple of years ago that rookery trout were going to be extinct in 100 years in their native habitat east of the Mississippi, which is pretty scary. And that fact that through partnerships…doing this restoration and adding a mile of habitat and trout is now in this mile of Habitat to a species that’s set to become extinct in the next 90 years, I think it’s a pretty impressive success story. It shows that we can reverse course when we put our minds to something.”

The Lancaster Conservancy says there are 1,400 miles of streams and rivers in Lancaster County, about half of which are damaged.

“It all depends on good, cold, clear, clean water,” Williams said. The ongoing Lancaster Water Week, which runs in 2022 from June 3-11, aims to educate Lancaster County residents about the area’s waterways and what they can do to keep them healthy (and keep insects and fish out).

Development, agriculture, and urban, suburban and rural lifestyles can all contribute to poor water quality, Williams said, but steps such as managing runoff in Lancaster or planting native plants with deeper roots in your backyard can help nurture waterways.

“It could be as simple as planting native plants in your back garden. It could be removing some of the paved surfaces on your property. It could be planting a tree in your local garden with your neighbors; walking around and picking up trash,” said Fritz Schroeder, senior vice president of community impact at Lancaster Conservancy Identifying which stream or river you live in is closest, go and explore it, and make a deeper connection with nature and this current.

If you want to explore a nearby stream to look for aquatic insects, Williams says all you need is a vase, a colander, and a field guide (or Google). Gently flip the rocks over and hold the strainer downstream, then check the strainer and rocks for any wobbly creatures.

If you notice any insects, you can put them in a vase with some water to take a closer look and identify them. Once you’ve finished examining the creatures, put them back on the table or table.

(And as a side note, Williams says to make sure any rocks are put back below where you found them and not used to build dams, which alters the flow of the watercourse and alters the rocky habitat that benthic invertebrates need to live.)

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The Conservancy sometimes organizes group trips to check Lancaster County streams for those looking for further guidance. Information about conservation events can be found here.

Aquatic insects play an important role in ecosystems, support other species that humans might eat or interact with, and signal the health of waterways, but Williams says they also have intrinsic value that becomes clear when you take the time to monitor them.

“They are amazing in their own right. I mean when you actually step into a stream, and gently tip over a rock, and you look at that life that lives on that rock, all those insects, and you just admire their form and function and beauty, suddenly they have value just because they are,” he said.

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