Conservation: Every Drop Counts

With melting icecaps, rising sea level, flashfloods and severe droughts making news in the media every other day, the Blog Community has come up with an interesting idea “that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking a global discussion and driving collective action” called the Blog Action Day.

In order to minimize our impact on water, let’s view water as a large resource, and then break it down into small stages in the way water has helped humanity expand; based on its availability (for all living things), productivity (for agriculture and irrigation) and further human development (urbanization). The earth’s surface is covered in 70.9% water, with oceans holding 97% of surface water, 2.4% in solar ice caps and 0.6% in lakes, rivers and ponds. To some terrestrial organisms, including us, we only have this 0.6% of water available as a direct, cheap resource. Now when you look at the percentage, it really doesn’t make any sense to consider the available water as a “large resource” over the larger resource it is a part of.

Let’s have a look at how water helped us prosper. Many centuries ago, humans and other living things shared land as well as water with one another (availability). Over decades, we explored the benefits of freshwater and started growing crops – consuming the water as well as the fertile lands (productivity). This gave rise to development; hence it is not surprising to see that the early civilizations were mostly built around a water source. As we continued to exploit water, some civilizations flourished over this abundant resource, many perished, while some parts of the world were left behind in droughts. This has happened in the past due to natural changes in geology or atmosphere, but today, it is realized that it is also due to human intervention with the natural water-cycle, such as building of dams and deforestation. The rains have increased where it rained more than enough and the rains have disappeared forever where it rained scarcely. A recent study suggests that “large swaths of Earth are in fact drying up”.

Today, this linearity cannot be viewed as a sustainable way of living anymore. This causes drastic disturbances in some parts of the world, such as drying of Aral Sea in Kazakhstan and Eucumbene Lake in Australia and unfortunately, it’s not only the water that flows back into the seas or aquifers, but tones of insecticides, pesticides and other chemicals with it.

To solve these problems, there are many organizations trying hard to mend this straight line of unsustainable use of water and join both the ends. And thankfully, we don’t need to be an expert to help achieve it. All we need to do is be aware, and view the environment as a resource we share with other living creatures – from your children and their future, to the worms in your backward and the whales in the oceans. I’d like to discuss a few basic things (also discussed in another article) that we as citizens of this world can follow (I welcome additional input):

·         Ban bottled water: It’s strongly recommended to stop using bottled water, for reasons such as plastic pollution, unnecessary treatment of water as well as due to the presence harmful chemicals in the plastic. Instead, buy water bottles which can be refilled n number of times. In Canada, there is a public awareness program to encourage usage of tap water, since Canada is known to have potable drinking water supply straight from the tap. If you are extra cautious, use a tap filter, or simply boil the water.
·         Buy organic products: Even the food you eat has a significant impact on water. Food grown under minimal or no use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is considered organic and it has less impact on the environment than intensive agriculture. If many people start buying organic products, we indirectly encourage farmers to opt for organic agriculture, thus we lower the chances of pesticides and fertilizers entering our water systems. Watch Food Inc. if you ever get a chance.
·         Harvest water: It is a great way to conserve water in all parts of the world, but many don’t realize it yet. For example, Mumbai receives a lot of rain, but I’m surprised to find that only a fraction of this is actually conserved through water harvesting, and most of it enters drainage systems, or the lakes. The best case is my home back in Mumbai, where they have now put up a roof over the terrace; instead, I think they should have put some water harvesting structures, which would definitely solve problems of water shortage in odd seasons! In Canada, especially the suburbs can have their own water harvesting structures that will make it way easier to manage water, thus relying less on the water from the lakes.
·         Permeable surfaces: Such surfaces help water that falls on the land to percolate underground. It usually happens naturally, but in urban landscapes, where most of the ground is paved, using permeable pavements is of a great help. Again, I’d like to talk about Mumbai that is always flooded during monsoon months. With more and more permeable surfaces on sidewalks, or low-traffic roads, it will be of immense help to get the water into the ground, which ultimately flows back into the lakes. Unfortunately, it is considered an expensive project, but we should not overlook the damages these floods do to business and properties, which can be easily avoided with permeable pavements.
·         Use sustainable forestry products: Simply speaking, in sustainable forestry, trees are allowed to grow freely for years, and then harvested for manufacturing products, thus the land can be used several times. It is far more efficient than deforestation of ‘real’ forests. It causes less soil erosion and helps retain water. Although there may be many ill effects of sustainable forestry, it is environmentally significant over a period of 10 or 20 years, and is an efficient way to retain water underground.
·         Reuse and Reduce: Reuse products that might end up in a landfill, such as many plastic products or better still, reduce the products that end up in landfills, which are nasty to the environment as well as expensive on the pockets. Best example of a badly managed landfill is the dumping ground at Gorai, India (watch a video of this dumping site, courtesy YouTube). Such landfills cause tons of chemicals leaching into water sources, causing harm to the environment and human health. In this context, we often blame the municipality that they don’t clean up properly, but in reality we are more careless and ignorant than they are. It’s we who must reduce our wastes, and then blame others who don’t clean up.
·         Plant trees: Trees are not only excellent for trapping CO2, but they are efficient at avoiding soil erosion as well as retaining water. If everyone plants just one tree a year, there will be a million more trees growing up every year! (And if the sapling dies, plant another the same year.)
·         Cut daily water usage:  Monitoring your daily usage to every liter of water used can be difficult, but if you avoid using bathtubs and instead aim to shower in about 10 minutes, you will save a lot of water over the long run. You can also stop using dishwashers, and instead wash and dry your own dishes. Just put on some music and do the job, it’s pretty relaxing! Watch GOOD and Fogelson-Lubliner’s video on how to cut daily usage of water (Worth watching!).
·         Donate to the needy countries if you can, through organizations such as Water.org or simply focus on cutting down your own usage of water. I find it easy and I’m happy to do at least something for the environment. It’s surprisingly easy how you can conserve water by doing such simple things, and you don’t need to change your lifestyle either – just a little bit, maybe!

When you do all these things, there are many good things happening back in the environment. Things mentioned above can save liters of water every day, as well as reduce polluted water from reaching back in natural systems. This, over a period of time, will help water bodies sustain for a long time – which is good for us as well as every other living organism. Also visit Change.org’s Five Facts about Water You Might Not Know. This is how we can help in joining the ends of the linear pathway in which we exploited water for so many years.

There are many other “industrial” solutions to our water problem (besides waste water treatment), such as desalination, by which we remove salts from saline water and use the freshwater for consumption. In a recent report on TreeHugger.com, funding desalination projects is on a steep rise. Although desalination is an expensive process on a large scale, it is also not environmentally friendly, but it is always fair to explore alternate sources of water. We as citizens must focus on how to reduce our use, and if possible, help the drought stricken areas in whichever way we can. It can be achieved by sensitizing people on these issues, supporting local communities who may be affected by proposed dams and participate in cleaning of nearby aquatic ecosystems (visit Pearl Jam! for more options!).

Water has become a highly precious resource. There are some places where a barrel of water costs more than a barrel of oil (Lloyd Axworthy, Foreign Minister of Canada). We need to tackle this problem as one planet, and not as individual nations. It has been predicted that the next world war would be over water, but we can definitely avoid it if act now. We don’t need soldiers; we need water conservationists like you. J

Chasing Tiger Beetles

Cicindela sexguttata, photographed in early spring at Medway Creek, 2010
Patience is virtue, but if there is an insect that knows how to tests your patience, it has to be a Tiger Beetle. Belonging to the order Coleoptera, family Carabidae , subfamily Cicindelinae (all Tiger Beetles belong to Carabidae, but not all Carabidae beetles are commonly called Tiger Beetles; they were previously considered to be under a distinct family Cicindelidae), these beetles are commonly referred to as Tiger Beetles for a very good reason. We all know that tigers are carnivores, earning the rightful throne of being on top of the food pyramid in their prime habitats. Their hunting tactics involve ambushing, stalking, chasing and surprising the prey, making them efficient – if not supreme – predators of the Indian subcontinent. Likewise, Tiger Beetles are known to use all these tactics while hunting for food. Only difference between the mammalian tiger and an insect tiger is their apparent size, but if we were to blow a Tiger Beetle to the proportion of a tiger, the Tiger Beetle would be a far supreme predator to rule the planet. The reason behind their success is because they are one of the fastest insects, capable of running as well as flying at great speeds (20 to 30 mph!). But worry not, a tiger beetle will never run you down, it will, in fact, make you chase after it, if you are curious about these marvelous beetles flaunting an extravagant armor of Chitin. This post is about my field observations of the Tiger Beetles of southern Ontario, as I stalked and chased for hours to photograph them over the summer.

I tried to document as many tiger beetles as I could besides other insects (such as butterflies that I discussed in the previous post), herptiles, birds and mammals. And out of these, most challenging were obviously the Tiger Beetles. You know the reason why, but I had quite an idea of how to get close enough for a photograph through countless tries. I am talking about photographing Tiger Beetles using a Point-and-shoot (PNS) camera with no high-end super-macro lenses. Using a PNS strips the photographer of the privileges of shooting the subject from a distance, which is practically possible but the result is photographically insufficient. In order to obtain that near-perfect shot for any PNS, the photographer has to be as close as possible, but not too close to scare the subject.
C. sexguttata was observed feeding on ants at Medway Creek, Spring 2010
In order to achieve this, one must first know where to find the Tiger Beetles. These beetles inhabit a range of habitats from woodlands, forest clearings, river and lakeshores, mangroves and salt marshes, deciduous forests of Ontario to sand dunes near the Great Lakes. And if you see one beetle, there are bound to be more around. It’s often by accident that you may come across a tiger beetle, since they sit still until we approach close enough, and disappear quickly – but often land close by. Therefore if you ever see one fly and disappear, walk around and you will probably find it in close proximity. On the other hand, if you know which tiger beetle you are looking for, you will have an idea about the habitat it is found in as well, making it easier to find the place they prefer living in, although you may have to do a little research about the distribution of the certain beetle.

The biggest deal after you know where to find one is when to find one. The best season to find tiger beetles in Canada is spring, summer and late summer (March to October). Only a few Tiger beetle adults emerge during early spring, the best example is Cicindela sexguttata. As summer proceeds, many more show up and the diversity peaks with the passing season. By the end of August and early September, the diversity dwindles again – it’s time for the adults to hibernate (while some die) and for the grubs to wait for next season.
C. sexguttata, seen basking on a log during noon at Turkey Point, Summer 2010
Tiger beetles, like all other insects need to raise their body temperature in order to perform bodily functions (since they are ecothermic), and to do that they prefer basking in clearings such as on exposed logs, rocks or on the ground. This is usually observed during early morning hours till noon. Most beetles become very active by afternoon, engaging in activities such as hunting for prey or searching for mates. By late evening, their metabolism seems to slow down, making them sluggish and weak. By twilight hours, they prefer roosting in plants. I observed Cicindela lepida burrowing in the sand during evening at Long Point, but I did not come across any available literature on such behaviour. Through my experience, I find early morning hours and early evening hours until twilight to be the best period to photograph these beetles, but it is not so difficult to photograph them in their active period of time – all you require is patience and persistence.
C. formosa feeding on an unidentified beetle. It only consumed the soft parts and left behind the exoskeleton.
Photographed at Long Point, 2010
Once you know when and where to find a Tiger Beetle, photographing it becomes half easy. Like photographing any animal, one has to be cautious, watch their movement, step on the right ground in order to keep the subject from spooking and slowly move closer. Tiger Beetles almost always prefer to sit on clear grounds; hence it’s often easy to maneuver around in order to get perfect light on the subject. However, I find it easy to shoot Tiger Beetles on cloudy days, because on sunny days, the light is harsh, and the Tiger Beetles reflect a lot of the light, hence the images are usually high in contrast. On cloudy days, the clouds act as natural light diffusers, helping in capturing the beetles in their true colours. Use of flash is also very helpful to light up the subject in cloudy conditions. I prefer to use a homemade flash diffuser in order to keep the tiger beetle from being overexposed by a strong flash.

There are approximately 2,600 species (Pearson and Volger, 2006) (2,100 or 2,300 according to Wikipedia and Pearson, 2001 respectively) of Tiger Beetles known to science. About 930 species of Carabidae (or Ground Beetles) are found in Canada (CBIF), and 109 species of Tiger Beetles in North America (Pearson and Volger, 2006). In Ontario, about 14 species (University of Guelph, 2000) of Tiger Beetles occur. Their numbers are usually concentrated around the Great Lakes, especially along the sandy shores and sand dunes, rocky shores and the alvars. A few species are found farther from the lakes as well, especially around rivers and streams.

...yet another photograph of C. sexguttata, showing the typical six spots (that may or may not be present) giving it
the common name Six Spotted tiger beetle. The common name is not to be confused with
Six Spotted ground beetle, Anthia sexguttata found in India, which is also wrongly called a Six Spotted tiger beetle
 The first Tiger Beetle I photographed in Canada was at Medway Creek in April 2010. It was Cicindela sexguttata, one of the early Tiger Beetles to greet the warming season. Since then, I recorded about eight species of Tiger Beetles in Long Point area and Manitoulin Island. The habitats explored were Carolinian forests, sandy shores of Lake Erie, the alvars and rocky shores of Manitoulin Island.

Cicindela sexguttata: Commonest tiger beetle. Seen at Medway Creek, Long Point, Turkey Point and Port Rowan.
the very last picture of C. sexguttata.
Cicindela formosa: Largest tiger beetle of Canada. Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. formosa
Cicindela scutellaris: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. scutellaris
Cicindela punctulata: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. punctulata
Cicindela lepida: Seen at Long Point and Turkey Point
C. lepida
Cicindela repanda: Seen at Manitoulin Island
C. repanda
Cicindela longilabris: Seen at Manitoulin Island
Probably C. longilabris, with some confusion with C. punculata, but due to the some morphological characters and since C. longilabris is seen at Manitoulin Island, I am inclined towards it.
Cicindela purpurea: Seen at Manitoulin Island
C. purpurea, one of my favorite tiger beetles of Ontario!
These beetles play a pivotal role in the ecosystem by providing valuable ecosystem services. Their contribution towards keeping other insect population under check is apparent by their appetite. Although I have never seen a Tiger Beetle feed on mosquitoes, they will, given the opportunity, feast on them. They also predate on other beetles that are pests on plants, or are invasive in nature. They also seem to have an appetite for ants – as they are often seen standing near an ant nest and leaping on a passerby. The grubs are a nemesis for ants as well, as they wait in a burrow, protected by an armored head for any passing insect. Tiger Beetles are also considered for studying the health of a habitat, thus greater the diversity of Tiger Beetles, healthier the habitat. Pearson and Volger (2001) also noted, “the use of tiger beetles as model organisms has made possible or greatly enhanced many areas of research, including molecular phylogeny, the function of acute hearing, spatial modeling and physiology of vision.”
C. formosa showing the fearsome mandibles that are a nightmare to many pests!
Conserving these beetles is very important for the above mentioned reasons, but they face threats like every other species. There are several species of tiger beetles that are endangered throughout the world, mainly due to deforestation, habitat loss, urban and industrial development, as well as, interestingly, sport activities such as dirt bikes. This destructive hobby is of interest to many in North America. This has caused the Carolinian life zone, which is rich in sand, and hence supposedly ideal for this sport, to be prone to bikes that not only cause air and sound pollution but damage the ground as well. Extensive use of lands for this sport, as seen at Long Point, has lead to a great impact on wildlife, such as the Species-at-Risk Eastern Hog-nosed snakes. Tiger Beetles as well are disturbed by such activities and more so due to the fact that these dirt bikers have a special desire to bike on protected wildlife areas, rampaging thoughtlessly on the delicate ecosystem that is already struggling to survive.

Thank you for reading!