She has a small business that depends on healthy stream ecosystems, so she is taking matters into her own hands to try to find out if high water conductivity threatens her fresh-water friends.
Kathy Stout stood in front of her indoor stream exhibit at Smart
Centre Market—an interactive science store in Center Wheeling geared at
capturing the imagination of children and, admittedly, adults who are young at
heart. Stout’s stream has a resident toad, a blue gill fish, and several caddisflies
all collected from local streams. Kathy scoops up a caddisfly larva to show two
young boys who are peering into the stream.
Stout says, “If you look in here, do you see those blue
stones in the bottom of the stream?
"This caddisfly goes in there and he picks those stones up
and glues them together to build a really cool house to help protect him. What
would happen to a little worm who lived in the water? What do you think would happen?"
One boy replies, “He’d get hurt and die?”
“He’d get hurt and die because things would eat him!” she
“So these caddisflies are pretty cool because they know, they say, ‘I
build something really strong to protect me, then they won’t get me,’ right? But
do you know what’s also neat? This is their cocoon.
"You know how butterflies build a cocoon and
then when they grow up they come out of that cocoon and fly away as a butterfly?
He does the same thing. This little larva in here, although he lives in the
water, he’s going to come out one day and he’s going to swim out of the water
and fly away as an adult caddisfly.”
Stout’s interest in caddisflies began when she discovered
that in a laboratory setting, if you supply the caddisflies with various
materials, they build their cocoons with them.
“They never leave these cases,” Stout explains.
them around with them. This is also their protection so when they are afraid
they can hide back into their case. This also is their cocoon. At the end of
the season, these guys have a one-year life cycle, so end of August they will
seal themselves inside their case, and then it is their cocoon.
"They go through
metamorphosis and then a pre-adult will emerge about four weeks later in the
water. They have to swim out of the water and then the adults fly off. And they leave these cases behind. So they’re
cylindrical, about an inch long, hollow, about 5mm in width and they make a
perfect sized bead to use in creating unique jewelry.”
Stout collects thousands of caddisfly larvae every year from
local streams and in her own lab, she supplies them with predator-free
“I provide them with all different types of gem stones,”
Stout says, “malachite, garnet, ruby, sapphire and sometimes gold nuggets and
they produce pieces of art. So that’s what’s unique about these incredible
insects is that they are not only good insects for our stream eco-systems, but
they are also artisans, natural artisans.”
Caddisflies are an important part of healthy stream
eco-systems because they are an “indicator species.”
“We know that they like good quality water,” Stout says.
find them in headwater streams which are the purest of our stream water
quality. They break down the bacteria and fungus that grows in the stream so
they help maintain good water quality. When effluents are flowing into the stream
that they are intolerant of, we won’t see them.
"Therefore if we go to a stream and
we’re looking and they should be here but there are not, then we know that
there’s some source of an affluent that’s causing them to have died off. And
then we start doing water quality analysis to find out what it is and where it’s
Stout travels a lot with her jewelry to various artisan
fairs and craft shows and sometimes to specialty group meetings such as the Society
for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, which is a nonprofit, professional
society engaged in the study, analysis, and solution of environmental problems,
management and regulation of natural resources, and environmental education and
research and development.
“A lot of the scientists are coming to me and saying, ‘You’ve
been studying these caddisflies for eighteen years now,’” Stout says.
probably one of the only people in the country that do what I do with the
caddisflies and have them in an environment where I watch them daily and I have
them for eight to nine months. So they ask me a lot of questions about water
quality and how I analyze it. And I’ve never really looked very closely at it
because my caddisflies seem to do very well.”
Stout uses city tap water in her simulated stream lab which,
these days, is under the science store. But recent Environmental Protection
Agency concerns about high water conductivity in headwater streams inspired
Stout to do some research of her own.
Conductivity is a measure of the ability of water to pass an
electrical current. Water can only conduct electricity if various solids are
dissolved within it.
According to the EPA, each stream tends to have a
relatively constant range of conductivity that is affected primarily by the
geology of the area through which the water flows. Significant changes in
conductivity could be an indicator that a discharge of inorganic dissolved
solids such as salts or metals has entered a stream.
Since Caddisfly larvae use gills to breath under water, much
like a fish, Stout speculates that concentrations of dissolved salts and metals
disrupt their respiratory system.
So she collected water from local area stream where
conductivity is known to be high because of run-off from a coal slurry
impoundment—these impoundments contain waste fluid produced by washing coal
with water and chemicals prior to shipping the coal to market.
The conductivity level of the tap-water control group was
about 350 micromoles per centimeter. The
conductivity level of the water from the stream was about 2700 micromoles per
Stout introduced healthy caddisfly larvae into both waters.
“What I noticed was that their cases weren’t as good,” Stout
“They weren’t as strong. The caddisflies seemed to start transitioning and
they started to build with their stones but then couldn’t finish. I found a lot
of caddisflies that got half-way through their case and were done.”
Stout said that in eight weeks all but one of the
caddisflies in the highly conductive water died. Stout points out that she
doesn’t think the larvae would have survived as long as they did had they not
gotten a head-start in cleaner waters.
Stout plans to present her findings this May at the national
meeting of the Society for Fresh Water Science.
She hopes to find funding so that she can continue her water-quality
studies in the fall.
Stout also hopes to get other organizations involved, but
for now, the Caddisfly-lady is watching out for her bugs solo, and the bugs are
continuing to watch out for their mountain-stream homes.