Waterworld, or The Year Without a Summer

Geek Culture

Aquatic Life in my Lawn: A Dobsonfly (Image: Kathy Ceceri)Aquatic Life in my Lawn: A Dobsonfly (Image: Kathy Ceceri)

Aquatic Life in my Lawn: A Dobsonfly (Image: Kathy Ceceri)

Here in the Northeast, they’re calling this “The Year Without a Summer.” With rain almost every day and high temps barely hitting 70s on some days, it’s been more like a Pacific Northwest winter than July and August in New York. Over at my house we’ve been feeling the effects. Yeah, the lawn is nice and lush. But most mornings you’ve got to put on your waders to feed the goldfish in the koi pond.
And then one morning, I stepped outside to see this. It was the length of my hand and ugly as heck – kind of like a mantis wearing desert fatigue-print fairy wings. I called the kids out, but none of us had ever seen anything like it before. Luckily, the monster was content to just sit in the grass where it was, allowing me to get some pretty close shots without being attacked.

Now the question was, how to find out what it could possibly be. Luckily, I had the answer. As you may have noticed from the many nature posts I’ve been writing this year, I’ve been trying to get better at identifying the living things in our local environment. And one resource I’ve relied on for years is What’s That Bug?. The creators of What’s That Bug, Los Angeles City College photography professors Daniel Marlos and Lisa Anne Auerbach, insist the site is just an art project. But for bug hunters their site is ideal – easy to read and full of nice clear images.

Turns out our unexpected visitor is a Top 10 perennial on What’s That Bug? — the Dobsonfly. And the reason we’ve never seen one before is that they’re normally found around bodies of water. Which, unfortunately, pretty much describes our backyard this summer.

Here are some tips for identifying bugs (or any living thing) on the web:

  1. Take a good photo.
  2. Put it up on your computer screen, maximum size.
  3. Pick one of the specialized nature identification websites (there’s a list in the sidebar of my blog Home Biology), or just your favorite search engine, type in a written description of what you see. Include color, distinguishing characteristics, a possible name, and where you found it.

I originally found What’s That Bug? when I was trying to ID a fat green caterpillar I found crawling on the parsley in my garden. I discovered it was called a parsley worm, and it was the larva of the beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly.

I’ve listed many more great bug-related websites (freshly updated) in the archives of my former print column, Family Online.

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