Posts Tagged ‘Insects’

The Charisma of the Drab

Wandering down Boulevard Saint Germain near Notre Dame in Paris, I passed a store window filled with insect specimens on display. The stylish sign read Claude et Nature (Claude and Nature).

I veered into the store, astonished that such a place exists. A small stuffed bison (small for a bison, that is) stood in the center of the store, next to a case of fossils. On the right were black cases full of artfully arranged insect specimens. On the left were fossils, shells, stuffed birds, skulls (human and weasel, among others), and sea stars. All were perfectly preserved and arranged, and neatly labeled with the species name and country of origin.

I spent some time perusing the insects—they had an uncommon family of weevils!—then wandered into the fossil section, then back to the insects.

Other customers were in the store, buying up iridescent blue morpho butterflies, flashy rhinoceros beetles with horny ornamentations, and large walking stick insects, which look just like knobby sticks with legs. All of the creatures on sale were eye-catching in some way. I found myself disappointed that there weren’t more insects with mundane appearances. I craved some little drab ones so I could learn about their diversity. One of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen was brown and white and hardly bigger than a pinhead (a lacebug, in case you are curious). The insects present were in families already familiar to me.

This led me to ponder one of the differences between amateur and expert naturalists: level of attraction to charismatic megafauna.

Amateur naturalists and non-naturalists flock to the Serengeti to see lions and elephants, even just for a few hours. Few head to sandy beaches in Massachusetts to see tiger beetles. And when they buy preserved insects, they buy the largest, most colorful individuals. Experts and devoted amateurs, on the other hand, may be eager to see lions and tigers, but they are also there for the naked mole rats and dung beetles. Why?

I believe the answer has to do with memory and learning. An inherent characteristic of many animals is that they easily remember something bright, large, or dangerous. This is what is exploited by the wasp’s black and yellow warning coloration: remember me, don’t bother me, I sting. Young blue jays who eat a monarch butterfly and then vomit refuse to eat a second monarch because they recognize it. They may also refuse to eat other orange and black butterflies, whether or not those butterflies are actually noxious.

Just because I can easily remember what a blue morpho butterfly looks like doesn’t mean I’ll want a dead one hanging on my wall. A blue morpho is a beautiful blue that flashes sometimes deep sea blue, sometimes robin’s egg blue. I enjoy seeing beautiful things—that’s why I want it on my wall.

But I could just as well hang an iridescent blue hubcap on my wall; why a butterfly? Now my answer comes to the crux: because our love of living things is inherent.

This love is called biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson and expounded upon by him and Stephen Kellert. This is why I find myself drawn to watch the fish in my aquarium and end up with a stupid, happy grin on my face. This is why people spend 30 Euros on a dead long-horned beetle (in spite of being dead, the beetle retains its living appearance when preserved).

I think experts have these three things—memory, appreciation of beauty, and biophilia—in larger or more finely tuned doses. Entomologists know and remember much more about insects than the average Schmoe, so they are more likely to remember the little drab ones as well as the big sexy beasts. They can notice more about a lacebug because they already know what it is. Their appreciation is honed to subtler beauty.

I have made it sound like being an expert is better than being an amateur in terms of seeing and loving the beauty of the world. Not so. Experts in the beauty of soil chemistry may be amateurs in the intricacies of maggot hibernation or cloud formation. They may not even see other parts of the world in any depth. Amateurs may be able to see and appreciate a broader slice of the world because they do not dig too deep a tunnel. I think there is a world between the loud blue morphos and the rare weevils where subtle beauty can be found and cherished.

On my last night in Paris I walked to Notre Dame, then across the Seine to the Hotel de Ville. There was an ice-skating rink set up in the square and a crowd of bundled Parisians whirling round and round. Some wobbled and held onto their equally wobbly friends, laughing and crashing into the wall around the rink. Others raced in weaving lines between the wobblers, or twirled on their blade tips in the center, muscular and graceful. The amateurs enjoyed laughing with their friends. For the experts, it may have been getting a move right. Both the amateurs and the experts were paying attention to the beauty of the experience, be it loud or subtle.

Happy Maggot Land

I came in to my cubicle at school last week to find a maggot squinching across my desk. After a moment of shock and disgust, I thought, “Ooh! What a nice present!”

You know you’re a naturalist when finding a maggot among your things makes you happy.

I’ve been collecting insects, so I naturally thought that one of my classmates left the plump grub for me to add to my collection. Surely it hadn’t come from the pile of soil samples I had on my desk, nor the cache of snacks I had in the cabinet. But yes, it had. I had collected a handful of red oak acorns and left them in an open plastic bag on my desk. Later, when I was working at my computer, I looked over and saw a pale yellow grub with a red face squinching around inside the slippery plastic among the acorns. I examined the nuts and discovered a hole in one of them, about 3 millimeters across.

That was when I got really excited. All I had to do was feed the little creatures and keep them happy, and I’d eventually find out what species they were. So I dug around in the faculty kitchen for a plastic takeout container, poked some holes in the lid with a pen, dumped my soil samples into it, and dropped the acorns and grubs on top. The grubs promptly burrowed out of sight. I labeled the whole thing with a permanent marker, “Happy Maggot Land, Please do not disturb.”

Then I started to worry about my maggots. What if the soil wasn’t enough to make them happy? Did they need something to eat?

I visited Jeff Hughes, the director of the Field Naturalist Program, who recommended I look in Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, a recent book by Charley Eiseman, an alumnus of our program, and Noah Charney. I thumbed through and found the name of my maggots: long-snouted acorn weevils.

The female of this beetle species saws a hole in the shell of a red or white oak acorn and lays her eggs inside. The eggs hatch in a few days and the larvae eat the acorn meat. Beetles undergo metamorphosis like butterflies do; caterpillars are butterfly larvae, maggots are beetle or fly larvae. They molt five times inside the acorn and then leave their nutty shelter and burrow into the soil to pupate. Pupation in beetles is analogous to the caterpillar cocoon: a usually immobile stage of metamorphosis just before emergence as an adult. In the spring, adults emerge from the soil and fly off to mate before beginning the cycle again.

I have named my maggot friends Weevil Kneevil, Do No Weevil, and Axis of Weevil, but I have no intention of keeping them. I plan on releasing them back into the forest to continue to parasitize on oaks. It’s not because I don’t like oaks, but because I like ecology. These weevils create food for other species: one genus of ant lives inside acorns abandoned by weevils and eats the leftover meat. Squirrels eat acorns sometimes just for the grubs inside—that’s one reason why you might find partially eaten acorns.

Having maggots as pets helps me see more when I go outside. I see potential Happy Maggot Lands everywhere—inside plant stems and fruit, in dying tree trunks, and in the soil under my feet. A new way of knowing the world around me has opened up.

Time Slips

By Danielle Owczarski

Crickets sound their high-pitched hum, blaring sirens swell and shrink, sweat percolates in overlapping areas, distant music floats through the moonlit breeze, insomnia returns, a kingfisher chatters along the lake shore, a main sail flaps in the breeze – all signifying the shift to summer in Burlington. Spring has its moments with its ephemeral blooms, but with summer, we shed the last layers of clothing. White skin peeks out no longer shy, soon many shades darker and prominently displayed. We relish the summer months without the taunting of spring’s undulating meteorological moods. Like our seasonal feathered friends, we break out into bold colors and partake in the ritualistic dance of the Burlington Jazz Festival and music on the waterfront. The neighborhood druids welcome the summer solstice by gathering around the Earth Clock in Oakledge Park, drumming in the sunlight’s energy.

Midsummer festivals, boldly celebrated in pre-Christian times and still today in many cultures under an altered guise, take place around the solstice. The Oxford English Dictionary states that summer has its origins in Old English as sumor, sumere, and somera among other variations first recognized in text c. 825, referring to its role as the warmest season of the year. And while summer more accurately applies to the astronomical solstice then to the actual beginning of the seasonal and climatic change, it is understood as a time of fertility, growth, and warmth. Bonfires and heavy drinking are the most common signifiers of midsummer revelries throughout the world, the celebration linked to the birth of John the Baptist, born six months prior to Jesus. However, stripped of its religious shroud, in the silence and beauty of the early morning, summer is the celebration of energy transformed into life.

Despite the simplicity of its title, summer is dynamic, generating an ever-changing understory and flow of biotic change. Those of us who work outside during this time of year follow the influx of hatching insects good and bad. Appearing first are the black flies, followed by the deer flies and mosquitoes. While the former two usually abide by shorter seasons, the mosquitoes continue hatching throughout the late summer months. Overshadowed by the annoying, small flying insects are those who act as predators keeping them at bay.

Dragonflies, unbeknownst to some, live most of their lives (up to four years) as armored nymphs in calm aquatic environments. The warm sun of early summer heats the waters, enticing the mature nymphs to the surface where they crawl out and clasp themselves to tall grasses, wood, and stone. Here they begin their hatch. Attached to a cattail leaf above the water, the nymph’s exoskeleton begins to dry and crack along the back where the dragonfly emerges, compressed and translucent, expanding into a world of bug feasts, avian maneuvers, sex, and egg laying. Their terrestrial phase occurs no longer than two months causing their numbers to dwindle by late summer.

Those of us working inside this time of year suffer through the mocking rays of light filtering through paned glass windows. The vigor of those coming in from outside tickles the nerves and draws conscious thought away from tasks and into daydreams of lake breezes on bare skin, lush winding hiking trails, and the transforming hues of clouds low on the horizon. For most of us trying to take advantage of the summer day, a strange phenomenon occurs, while the length of the day in relation to sunlight increases, time seems to move more quickly. Weekends fill with social obligations, and the list of things to do and places to visit become too numerous to accomplish. Summer spurs the endless chase of the elusive present moment.

In nature, as the season progresses, the once electrifying greens of spring begin to dull. Before we know it, tomatoes are ripening into deep reds and purples, and the goldenrods and asters are blooming. In town, the college students are moving into their dorms and young children board the yellow bus while we wait patiently in traffic. Some welcome the change with anticipation of harvest festivals, cider donuts, and corn mazes, while others feel depressed by the notion of winter’s encroaching darkness. Despite our resistance, the mayfly, stonefly, and caddisfly, each year during this time, hatch, lay their eggs, and die. The brook trout rise to eat, and a small red maple leaf flutters, dropping slowly to the water’s surface.