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Grand Teton National Park Insects

Insects are possibly the most important group of animals on the planet. They hold natural communities together by playing key roles in food webs. One of their greatest contributions is as pollinators of our dazzling wildflowers. The very bodies of insects are food for countless numbers of larger animal species. Along with being a fundamental food source, they also act as critical decomposers and nutrient-recyclers. Bugs are the knots in the world's food webs. Amazingly, insects outnumber all of the other animals combined. Right here in the Rocky Mountains there are over 10,000 different kinds.

Many flowering plants are completely dependent on a specific insect to transfer male pollen to female flower parts. This pollen exchange allows seeds to develop and grow into the next generation. Dazzling flowers like lupine, yellow-bells, phlox, sunflowers and the delicate Calypso Orchid rely on bees, beetles, and butterflies for survival. Because pollination means life or death to a plant species, they put a great amount of energy in to advertising for insects with bright colors and alluring scents. The violet-colored lupine attracts and has a nearly exclusive relationship with the solitary bees in our park. Being a member of the pea family, lupines have very complex flower structures. The two bottom petals have fused together to form a canoe-shaped pollen protector. When a bee lands on a lupine its heavy body pushes down the tip of the canoe-like petals exposing the hidden pollen as if opening a trap door. It rubs onto the bee's belly and the bee then carries it with her to the next lupine. Only bees are big enough to open that secret hatch and pollinate the lupine.

A second vital role bugs play in the system here and across the world is as a major food source. Thousands of animals rely on bugs for their energy and nutrition. Insects are the primary food for blue birds, chickadees, woodpeckers, flickers, lizards, snakes, thrushes, wrens, sparrows, frogs, dippers, warblers, trout, jays, robins, sapsuckers, and even a few ducks. Even the bears in Grand Teton National Park need insects for survival. One of the most interesting interactions between two species in this park involves the massive grizzly and the tiny Army Cutworm Moth. Here and in other high mountains of the Northern Rockies, swarms of cutworm moths migrate from the plains all the way up to the alpine zone to mate in the fall. Grizzly bears have become accustomed to roaming the high peaks at the right time and scooping up paw-fulls of these dying moths. They are an important pre-hibernation protein source. Lower down on the forested slopes, both types of bears feast on whole ant colonies and the larvae of beetles, called grubs. If you see a log on the trail that has been ripped to shreds, it might be where a bear stopped to enjoy a tasty treat. Bears may have a reputation for being ferocious hunters, but they do get a lot of their protein from insects. Beetles are truly the workhorses of the forest.

With their massive numbers they easily staff the construction crews, the recycling crews and the sanitation crews. For example, bark beetles live in dead and dying trees and chew elaborate tunnels through the trunk. These and other wood-boring beetles break down woody plant material and return all of those nutrients back to the soil to be used again. When animals die they too must be broken down and carrion beetles are responsible for recycling the valuable minerals in the animal's body. Through tunneling, chewing, feeding, and burrowing, beetles mix up the soil, play a major role in decomposition, and allow the next generation of plants and animals to start anew. Wonderful, industrious beetles keep the forests moving forward. Watching insects is just like watching any other animals and can even be more fun. Your chances of seeing them are excellent and you don't even have to drive to a national park. There is a whole, undiscovered world waiting to be explored right in your own back yard. Just pretend you are a kid again and delight in what you find between the little blades of grass. When you wake up tomorrow see what little magical creatures you can find right outside your home. Celebrate the wonders of bugs! Insects are the driving forces of nature, without them life would come to a screeching halt. They fill every nook and cranny in the ecosystem. They provide us with food, flowers and healthy forests. Truly, we don't even know yet all of the ways in which we are dependent on insects.

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