Monday, February 20, 2012

Adirondack Aquatic Insect History Made, Again

When entomologist James Needham arrived in Upper Saranac Lake in 1900 on a mission to study Adirondack aquatic insects, he found no room at the Saranac Inn. For the first 10 days, Needham, State Entomologist Ephraim P. Felt, and their assistant Cornelius Betten, were forced to find lodging two miles from the Adirondack Fish Hatchery where they hoped to “collect and study the habits of aquatic insects, paying special attention to the conditions necessary for the existence of the various species, their relative value as food for fishes, the relations of the forms to each other, and their life histories.” Although their study was short, it was also a historic first, up until that time all that had been written about Adirondack aquatic insects amounted to a few short paragraphs by former State Entomologist J. A. Lintner (1889).

The daily trek to their study area didn’t diminish their enthusiasm. “I arrived at Saranac Inn on the evening of June 12m and at once began looking over the ground,” Needham recalled. “Dr. Felt came on the 14th, and spent the day with me canvassing the situations to be studied… and the regular work of the session was at once begun, to be continued without cessation to the date of closing [on August 20].” The study session was the first of a comprehensive study of aquatic insects in the state funded by the NYS Museum that also included short surveys in Old Forge and Lake George, and two additional trips to the Saranac Inn.

Needham and Felt identified a number waters to be studied. They were provided by the hatchery a space to work, the use of several hatching troughs for insect breeding, a carpenter bench and tools to build specialized breeding cages, and a small boat. They brought with them or acquired additional equipment necessary to sweep vegetation, raise insects, and store their collections. “Extensive use was made of white wash bowls, soup plates and saucers in the examination of our catch,” Needham reported.

The entomologists chose Little Clear creek on the hatchery grounds for their study area, which proved to be the most fruitful, but also the hatchery’s three fish propagating ponds, Little Clear, Little Green, and Bone. Twice they made trips to Lake Colby, Stony Brook (just north of Axton) and St. Regis, at the end of the carry from Little Clear, and the first week they spent mornings and evenings at Lake Clear.

The study they produced, “Aquatic Insects of the Adirondacks” (NYS Museum Bulletin 47, September 1901, link to pdf), proved to be the most important study of the subject for more than 100 years. It was one of the first truly scientific studies of aquatic insects in North America, and yielded life histories of more than 100 species, the discovery of 10 new species and and two new genera, plus additional information about Chironomidae dragon flies.

Needham, who studied under renowned entomologist John Henry Comstock (1849–1931), was then refining his pretracheation insect wing theory. Although discredited in 1938 by more refined studies, Needham’s work was the basis for the Comstock–Needham System of naming insect wing veins, considered “an important step in showing the homology of all insect wings.” Needham later replaced Comstock as head of the Department of Entomology at Cornell, a position he held for more than 20 years.

A new study by Luke Myers (a Saranac native) and Timothy Mihuc of the Lake Champlain Research Institute at SUNY Plattsburgh, along with Boris Kondratieff of Colorado State University, highlights the role of Needham and Betten in the rise to prominence of of aquatic insect entomology in New York State in the early 20th century and treads new ground as an important update to our knowledge of aquatic insects in the Adirondack region.

After four years of studying mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, Myers (who did much of the fieldwork with the assistance of self-taught caddisfly expert D.E. Ruiter), Mihuc, and Kondratieff have produced what is being considered the most comprehensive biodiversity study of those aquatic insects in the Adirondacks.

According to a story by Mike Lynch in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, “Myers and his team examined 25,000 specimens from 465 locations. They found 509 species of mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, including 99 that were reported in this state for the first time. They also discovered several species new to science and some species of conservation concern.”

Even given the new techniques and equipment available to modern researchers, that’s no mean feat. It’s also one that will be a welcome addition to those interested in the biodiversity of Adirondack wetlands and their place in the larger ecology of the region.

Photos: Above, Little Clear creek, Adirondack Fish Hatchery (1900 NYS Museum Photo); Middle, illustration from the 1901 report “Aquatic Insects – Sepedon and Tetanecera”; Below, Luke Myers working on the Raquette River near Axton Landing (Photo Provided).

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John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




2 Responses

  1. Mary Thill says:

    Wow, John. Really interesting. How did you find the historical information? Have you happened across any on wasps, spiders or ants?

  2. Susan Setzler says:

    I stumbled on your article because I was searching “Cornelius Betten” the one mentioned in the article was my Grandfather, a noted caddis fly expert, and dean of the faculty at Cornel U. His son, also Cornelius Betten was my father.