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By Brad Dokken, Published September 09 2007

Lure of the Lepidoptera

“Bugs are the largest group of livings things on the planet, and without them, the ecosystem would just fall apart.”

– Kyle Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Madison entomology graduate student

Kyle Evan Johnson is at home in the bog. Tromping through water-filled fens and over hummocks of sphagnum moss, across ground that jiggles underfoot like a giant waterbed.

Among the sedge grasses and stilt-like stands of stunted black spruce in the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area in northwest Minnesota, Johnson is at his best.

He’s been doing this for most of his 22 years, searching for insects. Moths and butterflies, mainly. For Johnson, the lure of the Lepidoptera, the scientific order of the animal kingdom that includes moths and butterflies, is a passion most people might find difficult to comprehend.

Especially if they follow Johnson through the bogs where he spends much of his time; where wet feet and difficult walking go with the territory.

Crazy, some would call it.

“Oh yeah, that’s a usual thing,” Johnson says with a laugh. “That’s accepted. I’m not going to deny it.”

As he demonstrates on an August afternoon and evening, though, there’s a method to his madness. A graduate student in entomology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Johnson is wrapping up the first season of fieldwork in a two-year project to document the moths and butterflies of the glacial Lake Agassiz Peatlands.

It’s a huge area that covers parts of Kittson, Roseau, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, Beltrami and Koochiching counties in Minnesota.

“No one has ever looked at what insects are here, and worldwide, it’s one of the most significant peat complexes,” Johnson said. “It’s really diverse, internationally significant, and we don’t know the most common butterflies.

“It’s really just a black hole for knowledge.”

In the process, Johnson is getting an up-close-and-personal look at a northern Minnesota ecosystem few people ever experience. Think the Boundary Waters are remote? That’s nothing compared with Johnson’s “research laboratory” in the big bogs.

That’s also part of the attraction, Johnson says.

“When it came to a master’s project, I said, ‘it’s got to be bogs,’” he said. “The more mysterious the habitat, the better. This is just a very alien place. I’ve always loved the bogs. Each one is unique.”

Norris Camp base

Johnson’s home away from home – and makeshift insect lab – this summer is a bunkhouse at Norris Camp, headquarters of the Red Lake Wildlife Management Area south of Roosevelt, Minn.

According to Gretchen Mehmel, manager of Red Lake WMA, research on the bog area’s vast array of insect life has been limited, at best. There was a county biological survey done years ago, she said, and more recently, youth workers from the Minnesota Conservation Corps collected and put together a display of the area’s moths and butterflies.

But none of those projects match the scope of Johnson’s research.

“I’ve always been interested in things other than game animals,” Mehmel said. “When Kyle’s project came up, I said, ‘I’m going to jump at that opportunity.’”

Johnson says his research would be difficult, if not impossible, without the DNR’s support. For this walking encyclopedia of bugs and bogs, who wears a T-shirt that says “Proud to be a Mother” - think moth, not mom - it doesn’t get much better.

“It’s almost too good to be true,” he said. “I’m in fantasy-land for at least two years.”

In the field

Johnson uses a standard butterfly net to hunt and chase down bog specimens by day. He also sets bait traps, mesh-covered cylinders with an opening in the bottom, which are baited with goodies such as rotting fruit, brown sugar and beer to draw insects inside.

Once inside, the bugs rarely escape unless Johnson releases them.

He places the specimens he keeps in jars containing a small amount of cyanide, which quickly kills the insects. Later, he’ll freeze the insects until he can pin them on a mounting board for permanent display.

By night, Johnson uses two techniques to capture moths. He goes afield with a small generator that powers an ultraviolet light placed in front of a large white sheet to attract certain kinds of moths.

Others, he’ll lure with a smelly concoction of beer, rotten bananas and brown sugar, which he’ll spread on trees or other objects away from the light.

Johnson doesn’t drink, but he always keeps a few cans of Milwaukee’s Best beer in the back of his vehicle.

Moths, apparently, aren’t picky in their beer preferences.

“Moths are wary and hard to catch, but if there’s enough alcohol, they start to get drunk,” he said. “The drunk ones are a lot easier to catch.”

Johnson keeps meticulous records of his catches, documenting everything from the time, date and location, to the weather, vegetation and habitat types where he encounters each species.

He also uses a hand-held GPS to log the latitude and longitude coordinates for each of his findings. Later, he’ll plug the GPS points into a computer program to develop a distribution map of his discoveries.

“My point is to get something to build on - the first real good list,” Johnson said. “And so far, it’s working out to be a pretty good list.”

Home and away

At Norris Camp, Johnson has all the creature comforts – running water, electricity, even air conditioning – but the size of his study area is too vast to cover exclusively from camp. So, he occasionally loads up his tent and his ever-present rations of beans and rice and heads into the heart of bog country for days at a time – all in the name of research.

He’ll leave a note at Norris Camp telling DNR staff when he plans to return, but other than that, he’s on his own.

“I always like the adventure feel,” he says of his work.

There’s no such thing as a typical day.

“You can never predict the weather, never predict what’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “So, a typical day could be anything from sitting inside pinning up bugs, to falling through bogs to having beavers charge you.”

And yes, Johnson says, he did get charged by a beaver.

“That doesn’t happen every day, but I suppose if you poke it with a stick, that will do the job,” he said.

Call it a lesson well learned.

Impressive list

So far, Johnson has documented about 200 species of moths and butterflies from his northwestern Minnesota study area, and perhaps that many more await identification in his freezer, which he says holds “buckets” of frozen specimens.

“Some of these moths we knew nothing about,” Johnson said. “It’s unbelievable what’s really out there - you just don’t see it.”

For most people, of course, the obvious question is: Why go through all this work to collect moths and butterflies?

That’s easy, Johnson says.

“(Bugs) are the largest group of living things on the planet, and without them, the ecosystem would just fall apart,” he said. “As for peatland species, they don’t have much impact for economics, they’re not important to agriculture, but they’re a very good biological indicator of the health of our planet - kind of the canary in a coal mine.”

There’s also the thrill of encountering new sightings for the area, or perhaps even species never before documented in Minnesota. Some of Johnson’s favorites are so small they look like specks of brown or gray to the naked eye.

“Size is not the issue - rarity is,” Johnson said. “Especially peatland species. Finding records – that is the draw now.”

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, a Forum Communications newspaper