PEQUEA, Pa. (WHTM) — Pennsylvania creeks are popular for wading, inner tubing, kayaking, and fishing. But while you’re floating along with the current, have you ever thought about what might be living beneath you? Sure, you might see the occasional fish darting around, but there’s probably something else there, too, that you most likely won’t see without looking for it.

Clinging to the bottoms of rocks in creeks and streams are often benthic macroinvertebrates (organisms without backbones that are big enough to be seen with the naked eye) including immature aquatic insects.

“A lot of people think bugs aren’t fun,” said Lancaster Conservancy Community Engagement Coordinator Keith Williams. “I think they’re amazing.”

Aquatic insects found in Climbers Run

Aquatic insects are a staple in water ecosystems, explained Williams. They eat plant material in creeks and streams, helping it decompose and also turning it into animal matter. Fish like brook trout, the Pennsylvania state fish, eat the insects. And other terrestrial animals like birds eat the insects as well as the fish.

Aquatic insects contribute to healthy aquatic ecosystems, and they are also indicators of healthy waterways. In the creek at Climbers Run Nature Preserve in Lancaster County, Williams gently turned over rocks to reveal immature mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies.

“Some of these benthic macroinvertebrates can live in really, really poor water quality conditions, almost no dissolved oxygen. Others need some of the cleanest, highest oxygen water we can find, and in fact, the ones that we found today here at Climbers Run are in that category. These are some of the most sensitive aquatic insects we can find,” Williams said.

Stoneflies and mayflies, especially, indicate that the Climbers Run creek is pretty healthy. Williams says that that creek is a restoration success story.

The stream was highly degraded 10 years ago when the Conservancy took ownership of the land, Williams said. The Lancaster Conservancy, Donegal Trout Unlimited, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked together to restore the lower stretch of Climbers Run.

Climbers Run

“And now we have brook trout in this lower reach. We didn’t have brook trout in the lower reach ten years ago. We had them in the upper reach, but we didn’t have them down here,” Williams said.

“There was a forecast that came out a couple years ago that indicated brook trout were going to go extinct in 100 years in their native range east of the Mississippi, which is pretty scary. And that fact that with partnerships…doing this restoration and adding a mile of habitat and trout now in that mile of habitat for a species that’s predicted to go extinct in the next 90 years, I think is a pretty great success story. It shows that we can reverse course when we put our mind to something,” he added.

The Lancaster Conservancy says there are 1,400 miles of streams and rivers in Lancaster County, about half of which are impaired.

“Everything is dependent on good, cold, clear, clean water,” Williams said. Ongoing Lancaster Water Week, which in 2022 runs from June 3-11, aims to teach Lancaster County residents about the area’s waterways and what can be done to keep them healthy (and keep the bugs and the fish around).

Development and agriculture, urban, suburban, and rural lifestyles can all contribute to poor water quality, Williams said, but steps like managing runoff in Lancaster City or planting native plants with deeper roots in your backyard can help care for waterways.

“It can be as simple as planting native plants in your backyard. It could be removing some paved-over surfaces on your property. It could be planting a tree in your local park with your neighbors; going around and picking up trash; identifying what stream or river you live closest to, and going and exploring it, and making a deeper connection to nature and that stream,” said Fritz Schroeder, senior vice president of community impact with the Lancaster Conservancy.

If you want to explore a nearby stream to look for aquatic insects, Williams says all you need is a dishpan, a strainer, and a field guide (or Google). You can gently flip over rocks and hold the strainer downstream, then check the strainer and the rocks for any wiggling critters.

If you spot any bugs, you can put them in the dishpan with some water to get a closer look and identify them. Once you’re done inspecting the critters, put them back into the creek or stream.

(And as a side note, Williams says to make sure you put any rocks back down where you found them and do not use them to build dams, which change the flow of the waterway and alter the rocky habitat those benthic macroinvertebrates need to live.)

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The Conservancy occasionally holds group excursions to check out Lancaster County streams for those looking for more guidance. Information on Conservancy events can be found here.

Aquatic insects play an important role in ecosystems, support other species that humans may eat or interact with, and indicate the health of waterways, but Williams says they also have intrinsic value that becomes clear when you take time to observe them.

“They’re amazing in and of themselves. I mean when you actually get into a creek, and turn over a rock gently, and look at that life that’s living on that rock, all those insects, and just admire their form and their function and their beauty, all of a sudden they have value just because they are,” he said.