WSU Whatcom County Extension

Stewardship is Where You Are

Water Bugs

The Big Picture

In the Northwest we have an abundance of beautiful streams and rivers. They are inspiring to look at, relaxing to fish in, and fun to explore. They can be used for agriculture, recreation, and learning. Healthy natural streams can be home to many types of fish as well as salamanders, crayfish, beavers and many interesting insects.

When streams in cities or rural areas are not cared for, polluted or developed, we lose many valuable natural resources. Fewer kinds of fish and wildlife can live in degraded water, and too much contact with polluted water can make living things sick. Even the insects are affected! In fact, biologists can look at the aquatic insects that live in streams and uncover clues about the health of the stream for other kinds of life. Why? Because water bugs are a part of an aquatic food web.

Explorer - Skill Level: One Engager - Skill Level: Two Citizen Scientist - Skill Level: Three


Water Strider
"Strider" - Photo used with permission, Robert B. Suter PhD

Activity: Brining Life back to the streams

Skills and Standards:
Objective: Assess and improve biotic integrity of local streams
Science Skills: Relating, Collecting and Interpreting Data, Applying Learning
Life Skill: Responsible Citizenship, Contribution to Group Effort, Community Service

Preparation Activities:
Familiarize yourself with the Stream Assessment Guide.

Contact a local agency focused on habitat restoration, such as the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association or the Whatcom County Conservation District.

If you have a stream on your property which you like to enhance or restore, identifying and locating plants and other materials to aid in Habitat Restoration.

What You Will Need:
Pencils, tape-measure, filed guides, ping pong ball, Stream Assessment Guide, rubber gloves, waterproof boots.

1. Review the Stream Assessment Guide. How are healthy streams able to support more bio-diversity? How is this beneficial to the stream ecology? From what is described as a healthy stream habitat, what do you think would create a poor habitat? Why?

2. Revisit an impaired stream you identified in the Engager Activity: “What’s Swimming your Stream: The Sequel.” You may want to do a study of the aquatic insects as a part of this activity.

3. Use the Stream Assessment Guide to figure out what, if anything, this stream might need to support more life.

a. Using a tape measure, pick a 200 foot long area along each stream and its surroundings to explore.

b. A ping pong ball or an orange can help you assess stream speed.

c. The Stream Habitat Evaluation Index will ask you to score the stream based on the things you see. The total score will give some idea of if your stream is a “healthy” habitat. For each point scoring attribute, ask yourself: Why do you think that makes for a healthy stream?

4. Take along field guides to native plants and trees of your area. See if you can identify native plants and keep a list of them. You may also want to keep a list of places where you find large healthy populations of particular plants “in the wild.”

5. Identify a small area of the stream for potential restoration. Find out who manages that area of the stream to make sure you have permission. There are several organizations listed in “It’s All Connected” who can help you plan a successful restoration.

Teachable Moments:
The health of a stream is influenced by the land around the stream as well as the bacteria and pollutants that enter it. Professional and citizen scientists measure the health of a stream in several different ways including examining the animals such as aquatic insects which live in the stream, assessing riparian zone - the land directly adjacent to the stream, and measuring the quality of the water in the stream.

Trees along the banks of a stream provide shade for the water, which helps to keep it cool, they stabilize the stream banks which helps to prevent excessive erosion, and the leaves that fall into the stream grow bacteria and algae which are food for the aquatic insects who live the stream and form an important part of the food web. Trees, shrubs and natural vegetation also filter and clean the water that may flow over the land in a rain storm before it gets to the stream.

Even dead trees are beneficial to streams. When trees fall into the stream they change the course of the stream and help to create riffles and pools and cover for fish. This wide variety of different habitat types support a wide variety of aquatic insects for the fish to eat. Different habitats also offer fish places to hide from bigger fish and bird predators and places to rest out of the current.

Working in cooperation with the right groups you can offer invaluable service in restoring the habitat that supports so many of your natural resources.



Natural Resource Stewards


Finished this Activity?

Complete this survey.


Explore More

Water Encyclopedia

Water Quality Test Kits and Opportunities

Compare and Contrast Two Different Streams


It's All Connected

Stream Assessment Guide

Nooksack Salmon Association


Coastal Atlas

Local Streams

Whatcom Conservation District Native Plants

“The animals living in a stream provide the best indicators of that stream’s overall health and ecological condition. Human activities that alter a watershed and interfere with the natural processes of a stream have immediate as well as long-lasting effects on the animals that live in the stream. We monitor invertebrates because they represent an enormous diversity of body shapes, survival strategies, and adaptations. Many invertebrates require clear, cool water, adequate oxygen, stable flows, and a steady source of food in order to complete their life cycles. These animals, in turn, provide food for trout, salmon, herons, and kingfishers.”

- Leska S. Fore

Heading using the h3 tag

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

WSU Whatcom County Extension, 1000 North Forest Street, Suite 201, Bellingham, WA 98225, (360) 778-5800, Contact Us