featuresBy contributor James Mackinnon

Bugs rule the world, and the sooner we realize this the better. But let’s clarify that. What many of us usually refer to as “bugs” probably fall into the phylum Arthropoda (Latin for sectioned-legs), a group that includes spiders, mosquitos, crabs, butterflies, and more than a million other invertebrates who live in different environments around the globe. Together, Arthropods make up more than 90 percent of all species on the planet. Many have been around since before the dinosaurs. They’re the honeybees that pollinate our crops and the blackflies that torment us while we’re camping. They’re the mysids that feed our Gray Whales, and the barnacles who ride those whales from Mexico to Alaska and back again each year. Insects, crustaceans, arachnids, and the like play a huge part in our day-to-day lives whether we realize it or not. Here are some fun South Vancouver Island critters you can go find (or make a point of avoiding).


West Coast Lady Butterfly. Photo by Ron Wolf

West Coast Lady Butterfly. Photo by Ron Wolf

Butterflies and moths play important roles in many of our local ecosystems, as a prey source and as pollinators. Attracted by warmer temperatures, showy flowers, and the lure of sweet nectar in the springtime, butterflies show up in our region, traveling plant to plant to feed on the sugary juice while carrying pollen from one plant to another. Many plant species would not be able to reproduce without the help of these insects, but it’s a double-edged sword: the butterfly, in its larval stage—the caterpillar—is one of the most devastating pests, relentlessly feeding on fields of crops if left unchecked. Lepidopterans—the order of insects that includes nearly 200 thousand species of moths and butterflies worldwide—are a very exciting and often colourful part of the insect life we see seasonally around the south Island. In the colder weather, we don’t see a lot of moths and butterflies. They either travel south to warmer climates, or tough it out in their larval stage (the caterpillar). But once the warmer weather hits we see a flurry of activity as these creatures begin feeding and stocking up energy for the mating season ahead. While southern Vancouver Island is home to more than a dozen native butterflies and moths, each with its own distinctive lifecycles, most share certain attributes. By the springtime we see many of these species fluttering around our meadows and valleys, searching for mates and areas to lay eggs. Shortly after laying, their eggs hatch into caterpillars who develop for days to weeks, depending on species, by consuming huge amounts of vegetation. Once the caterpillars have grown to an appropriate size and certain critical developments have happened, they weave themselves a silk cocoon and disappear inside it for days or weeks, undergo a complete metamorphosis, and emerge a butterfly. This cycle will happen many times a year, and in certain species such as the Monarch Butterfly, each generation will take part in a different leg of the migration. As the springtime approaches, keep your eyes on flower gardens, orchards, or any green space with abundant native plants, and there’s a good chance you’ll see them.


Paddle-tailed Darner William Hull

Paddle-tailed Darner. Photo by William Hull

Another flashy airborne creature that shows up in the springtime is the dragonfly. We see over 40 species on Vancouver Island, ranging from two to eight centimetres long. Characterized by their long slender body, large multifaceted eyes, and two sets of broad wings, dragonflies are among the strongest fliers of any insect; they’re capable of fluttering backwards, hovering in mid-air for over a minute, and reaching speeds of nearly 100 km/h. Feeding on mosquitos, flies, ants, and other small invertebrates, these insects belong to the order Odonata, the carnivorous flies.

The reproductive cycles of many dragonflies are similar to those of butterflies, except that almost all of the dragonflies’ activities, mating or otherwise, happen in or around wetlands. Females lay eggs on or beneath the surface of water, attached to reeds or grasses, and within a few days the eggs hatch into nymphs, or small larvae, which live underwater. They vaguely resemble the adult dragonfly in proportion and shape, just much smaller and without wings. The dragonfly’s nymph stage lasts anywhere from a few months to several years, where it lives underwater and feeds on small invertebrates, tadpoles, and fish. When the juvenile has developed sufficiently and environmental conditions are right, it will climb its way up the stalk of a partially-submerged plant, shed its outer layer of skin, and emerge an adult dragonfly. Once “hatched,” dragonflies in their adult form only exist for a short period of time, many species living only the few weeks it takes to mate and lay eggs before passing away. The best places to view dragonflies are the fringes of lakes and ponds, although slow-moving rivers will also provide some feeding habitat.


Yellow-spotted Millipede. Photo by Rich Stevenson

Yellow-spotted Millipede. Photo by Rich Stevenson

While butterflies and dragonflies are considered insects (class Insecta), many critters from other classes that crawl around our forests are equally as interesting. Belonging to the class Diplopoda, up to 30 different species of millipedes have been recorded on Vancouver Island, mostly in soils and under logs in moist forest systems. Their worm-shaped bodies are made up of dozens of round segments, each made up of a hard exoskeleton sprouting two pairs of legs. They often display elaborate colour schemes as a warning to predators that there’s poison within. Not to worry, though, the worst you will encounter when handling millipedes around Nanaimo is their almond-aroma, which is actually a very low dose of cyanide. In the forests around Nanaimo, most of the millipedes are between four and 10 centimetres long, and are often black with orange or yellow markings.

Millipedes are detritivores, feeding mostly on dead and decaying plant matter. They are a crucial part of many forest systems as they are often the first step in the decay process of fallen logs and trees, and the first step in creating the rich organic soils that nurture our forests. A walk in many of Nanaimo’s trails, especially near dawn or dusk, will give you a good chance to find some millipedes, especially beneath fallen or partially decayed logs.

Specimens of each of these arthropods, as well as wonderful collections of much more of our local plant and animal life, can be found at VIU’s Museum of Natural History, which is run by students and members of the Resource Management Officer Technology and Biology Departments. Drop by to take a tour, enter contests, or just look around. The Museum of Natural History in bldg. 370 on VIU’s Nanaimo campus is open to students and the public on Mondays from 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, Tuesdays from 1:30 to 2:30 pm, and Thursdays from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm. More information is available on their Facebook page or website.

Winter Birding: Birds from the VIU Museum of Natural History