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Insects inhabit an often unseen world, pursuing strange, tiny, and astonishingly full lives far beyond our wildest imaginings. From the dawn of the written word, humans have recorded their fascination with insects, from Aristotle, the world's first "biologist," to the journals of the nineteenth-century naturalists, to the hyperbolic and highly entertaining science fiction ...
Insects inhabit an often unseen world, pursuing strange, tiny, and astonishingly full lives far beyond our wildest imaginings. From the dawn of the written word, humans have recorded their fascination with insects, from Aristotle, the world's first "biologist," to the journals of the nineteenth-century naturalists, to the hyperbolic and highly entertaining science fiction screenplays of the twentieth century. Insect Lives delightfully captures the entire range of our insect preoccupation. This eclectic and absorbing anthology of hard science, thrilling discoveries, and outlandish tales features everything from the Bible to Dave Barry, from Henry David Thoreau to Charles Darwin.
Erich Hoyt (North Berwick, Scotland) has written for National Geographic and the New York Times and is the author of The Earth Dwellers: Adventures in the Land of Ants. Ted Schultz, PhD (Washington, DC), is a Smithsonian Institution entomologist and former editor at Whole Earth Review.
Plagues of Vermin: Insects Reviled.
To Conquer the Earth: Insects Take Over.
A Cast of Millions on a Fantastic Journey: Mass Movement.
The Superorganism: Social Insects.
Go Forth and Multiply: Mating and Reproduction.
Symbioses and Mimicry.
Lives under the Microscope: Insect Behavior.
Edited by Erich Hoyt and Ted Schultz
Note: The Figures and/or Tables mentioned in this sample chapter do not appear on the Web
WONDERS OF CREATION: INSECTS PRAISED
Since the beginning of human history, we have carried on an up-and-down, hot-and-cold relationship with this planet's much more ancient inhabitants, the insects. On the positive side, we have long appreciated the obvious beauty of some insects, for example, butterflies and ladybugs. We have erected gardens devoted to the evening enjoyment of firefly watching, we have caged crickets just to listen to their songs, and we have ornamented our bodies with the metallic elytra, or wing covers, of buprestid beetles. We have worshipped the archetypal image of the scarab beetle and used it and other insects- damselflies, wasps, and katydids among them- as motifs in jewelry, sculpture, and even architecture. We have, since ancient times, entered into alliances with ants to keep pests out of our citrus groves, we have tamed bees for their honey and wax, we have gathered the secretions of scale insects to make shellac, and we have pampered caterpillars for their luxurious silk. In most human cultures, we have even enjoyed insects from a culinary perspective.
In this chapter, we celebrate the biology, aesthetics, and practical, utilitarian value of insects with writings from authors who appreciate insects as objects of extraordinary complexity, elegance, and beauty, and who have tried in one way or another to tell us more about them.
SO GREAT THE EXCITEMENT
Alfred Russel Wallace
Along with Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823- 1913) was one of the architects of the theory of evolution by natural selection. Wallace spent many years collecting plants and animals in South America and in the islands of the Malay Archipelago, supporting himself by selling specimens to avid natural history buffs back in Britain. (How times have changed!) Wallace's two book-length accounts of his travels are engrossing natural and human histories of a more pristine world. More than anything else, Wallace's enthusiasm for the natural world, and especially for birds, beetles, and butterflies, radiates from every page.
On our way back in the heat of the day I had the good-fortune to capture three specimens of a fine Ornithoptera, the largest, the most perfect, and the most beautiful of butterflies. I trembled with excitement as I took the first out of my net and found it to be in perfect condition. The ground color of this superb insect was a rich shining bronzy black, the lower wings delicately grained with white, and bordered by a row of large spots of the most brilliant satiny yellow. The body was marked with shaded spots of white, yellow, and fiery orange, while the head and thorax were intense black. On the under side the lower wings were satiny white, with the marginal spots half black and half yellow. I gazed upon my prize with extreme interest, as I at first thought it was quite a new species. It proved, however, to be a variety of Ornithoptera remus, one of the rarest and most remarkable species of this highly esteemed group. I also obtained several other new and pretty butterflies. When we arrived at our lodging-house, being particularly anxious about my insect treasures, I suspended the box from a bamboo on which I could detect no sign of ants, and then began skinning some of my birds. During my work I often glanced at my precious box to see that no intruders had arrived, till after a longer spell of work than usual I looked again, and saw to my horror that a column of small red ants were descending the string and entering the box. They were already busy at work at the bodies of my treasures, and another half-hour would have seen my whole day's collection destroyed. As it was, I had to take every insect out, clean them thoroughly as well as the box, and then seek for a place of safety for them. As the only effectual one, I begged a plate and a basin from my host, filled the former with water, and standing the latter in it, placed my box on the top, and then felt secure for the night; a few inches of clean water or oil being the only barrier these terrible pests are not able to pass. . . .
I have rarely enjoyed myself more than during my residence here. As I sat taking my coffee at six in the morning, rare birds would often be seen on some tree close by, when I would hastily sally out in my slippers, and perhaps secure a prize I had been seeking after for weeks. The great hornbills of Celebes (Buceros cassidix) would often come with loud-flapping wings and perch upon a lofty tree just in front of me; and the black baboon-monkeys (Cynopithecus nigrescens) often stared down in astonishment at such an intrusion into their domains; while at night herds of wild pigs roamed about the house, devouring refuse, and obliging us to put away every thing eatable or breakable from our little cooking-house. A few minutes' search on the fallen trees around my house at sunrise and sunset would often produce me more beetles than I would meet with in a day's collecting, and odd moments could be made valuable, which when living in villages or at a distance from the forest are inevitably wasted. Where the sugar-palms were dripping with sap, flies congregated in immense numbers, and it was by spending half an hour at these when I had the time to spare that I obtained the finest and most remarkable collection of this group of insects that I have ever made.
Then what delightful hours I passed wandering up and down the dry river-courses, full of water-holes and rocks and fallen trees, and overshadowed by magnificent vegetation! I soon got to know every hole and rock and stump, and came up to each with cautious step and bated breath to see what treasures it would produce. At one place I would find a little crowd of the rare butterfly (Tachyris zarinda), which would rise up at my approach, and display their vivid orange and cinnabar-red wings, while among them would flutter a few of the fine blue-banded Papilios. Where leafy branches hung over the gully, I might expect to find a grand Ornithoptera at rest, and an easy prey. At certain rotten trunks I was sure to get the curious little tiger-beetle (Therates flavilabris). In the denser thickets I would capture the small metallic blue butterflies (Amblypodia) sitting on the leaves, as well as some rare and beautiful leaf-beetles of the families Hispidae and Chrysomelidae.
I found that the rotten jack-fruits were very attractive to many beetles, and used to split them partly open and lay them about in the forest near my house to rot. A morning's search at these often produced me a score of species- Staphylinidae, Nitidulidae, Onthophagi, and minute Carabidae being the most abundant. Now and then the "sagueir" makers brought me a fine rosechafer (Sternoplus schaumii) which they found licking up the sweet sap. Almost the only new birds I met with for some time were a hand-some ground-thrush (Pitta celebensis), and a beautiful violet-crowned dove (Ptilonopus celebensis), both very similar to birds I had recently obtained at Aru, but of distinct species.
About the latter part of September a heavy shower of rain fell, admonishing us that we might soon expect wet weather, much to the advantage of the baked-up country. I therefore determined to pay a visit to the falls of the Máros River, situated at the point where it issues from the mountains- a spot often visited by travellers, and considered very beautiful. Mr. M. lent me a horse, and I obtained a guide from a neighboring village; and taking one of my men with me, we started at six in the morning, and after a ride of two hours over the flat rice fields skirting the mountains which rose in grand precipices on our left, we reached the river about halfway between Máros and the falls, and thence had a good bridle-road to our destination, which we reached in another hour. The hills had closed in round us as we advanced; and when we reached a ruinous shed which had been erected for the accommodation of visitors, we found ourselves in a flat-bottomed valley about a quarter of a mile wide, bounded by precipitous and often over-hanging limestone rocks. So far the ground had been cultivated, but it now became covered with bushes and large scattered trees.
As soon as my scanty baggage had arrived and was duly deposited in the shed, I started off alone for the fall, which was about a quarter of a mile further on. The river is here about twenty yards wide, and issues from a chasm between two vertical walls of limestone over a rounded mass of basaltic rock about forty feet high, forming two curves separated by a slight ledge. The water spreads beautifully over this surface in a thin sheet of foam, which curls and eddies in a succession of concentric cones till it falls into a fine deep pool below. Close to the very edge of the fall a narrow and very rugged path leads to the river above, and thence continues close under the precipice along the water's edge, or sometimes in the water, for a few hundred yards, after which the rocks recede a little, and leave a wooded bank on one side, along which the path is continued, till in about half a mile a second and smaller fall is reached. Here the river seems to issue from a cavern, the rocks having fallen from above so as to block up the channel and bar further progress. The fall itself can only be reached by a path which ascends behind a huge slice of rock which has partly fallen away from the mountain, leaving a space two or three feet wide, but disclosing a dark chasm descending into the bowels of the mountain, and which, having visited several such, I had no great curiosity to explore.
Crossing the stream a little below the upper fall, the path ascends a steep slope for about five hundred feet, and passing through a gap enters a narrow valley, shut in by walls of rock absolutely perpendicular and of great height. Half a mile further this valley turns abruptly to the right, and becomes a mere rift in the mountain. This extends another half mile, the walls gradually approaching till they are only two feet apart, and the bottom rising steeply to a pass which leads probably into another valley but which I had no time to explore. Returning to where this rift had begun, the main path turns up to the left in a sort of gulley, and reaches a summit over which a fine natural arch of rock passes at a height of about fifty feet. Thence was a steep descent through thick jungle with glimpses of precipices and distant rocky mountains, probably leading into the main river valley again. This was a most tempting region to explore, but there were several reasons why I could go no further. I had no guide, and no permission to enter the Bugis territories, and as the rains might at any time set in, I might be prevented from returning by the flooding of the river. I therefore devoted myself during the short time of my visit to obtaining what knowledge I could of the natural productions of the place.
The narrow chasms produced several fine insects quite new to me, and one new bird, the curious Phlaegenas tristigmata, a large ground-pigeon with yellow breast and crown and purple neck. This rugged path is the highway from Máros to the Bugis country beyond the mountains. During the rainy season it is quite impassable, the river filling its bed and rushing between perpendicular cliffs many hundred feet high. Even at the time of my visit it was most precipitous and fatiguing, yet women and children came over it daily, and men carrying heavy loads of palm-sugar of very little value. It was along the path between the lower and the upper falls, and about the margin of the upper pool, that I found most insects. The large semi-transparent butterfly (Idea tondana) flew lazily along by dozens, and it was here that I at length obtained an insect which I had hoped but hardly expected to meet with- the magnificent Papilio androcles, one of the largest and rarest known swallow-tailed butterflies. During my four days' stay at the falls I was so fortunate as to obtain six good specimens. As this beautiful creature flies, the long white tails flicker like streamers, and when settled on the beach it carries them raised upward, as if to preserve them from injury. It is scarce even here, as I did not see more than a dozen specimens in all, and had to follow many of them up and down the river's bank repeatedly before I succeeded in their capture. When the sun shone hottest about noon, the moist beach of the pool below the upper fall presented a beautiful sight, being dotted with groups of gay butterflies- orange, yellow, white, blue, and green- which on being disturbed rose into the air by hundred s, forming clouds of variegated colors....
The part of the village in which I resided was a grove of cocoa-nut-trees, and at night, when the dead leaves were sometimes collected together and burnt, the effect was most magnificent- the tall stems, the fine crowns of foliage, and the immense fruit-clusters, being brilliantly illuminated against a dark sky, and appearing like a fairy palace supported on a hundred columns, and groined over with leafy arches. The cocoa-nut-tree, when well grown, is certainly the prince of palms both for beauty and utility.
During my very first walk into the forest at Batchian, I had seen sitting on a leaf out of reach, an immense butterfly of a dark color marked with white and yellow spots. I could not capture it as it flew away high up into the forest, but I at once saw that it was a female of a new species of Ornithoptera, or, "bird-winged butterfly," the pride of the Eastern tropics. I was very anxious to get it and to find the male, which in this genus is always of extreme beauty. During the two succeeding months I only saw it once again, and shortly afterward I saw the male flying high in the air at the mining village. I had begun to despair of ever getting a specimen, as it seemed so rare and wild; till one day, about the beginning of January, I found a beautiful shrub with large white leafy bracts and yellow flowers, a species of Mussaenda, and saw one of these noble insects hovering over it, but it was too quick for me, and flew away. The next day I went again to the same shrub and succeeded in catching a female, and the day after a fine male. I found it to be as I had expected, a perfectly new and most magnificent species, and one of the most gorgeously colored butterflies in the world. Fine specimens of the male are more than seven inches across the wings, which are velvety black and fiery orange, the latter color replacing the green of the allied species. The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in a pprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement.
Wallace, Alfred R. 1869. The Malay Archipelago: The Land of the Orangutan, and the Bird of Paradise. London: Macmillan & Company.
TO A BUTTERFLY
The English poet, William Wordsworth (1770- 1850), in "To a Butterfly," evokes the delight of having one's own garden where butterflies come to alight and spend time and provide metaphors for the full yet ephemeral nature of summer. In recent years, butterfly "gardening" has become popular. The idea is that by planting certain combinations of flowering plants, butterflies in great number and diversity can be attracted to visit.
I've watched you now a full half-hour,
Self-poised upon that yellow flower;
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless!- not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!
This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister's flowers;
Here rest your wings when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We'll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now
Wordsworth, William. "To a Butterfly."
THE SACRED BEETLE
The feature documentary Microcosmos- the popular 1996 film that created a new, appreciative audience of insect watchers- was the work of love of two French naturalists-filmmakers, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perranou. One of the longest and most lyrical sequences in the film shows a beetle rolling its precious dung ball across uneven terrain- a Sisyphean task rendered larger than life on the big screen. In the credits, the filmmakers acknowledged their debt to the nineteenth-century French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre (1823- 1915), who wrote hundreds of tales of the insect world, based on his keen observations. Fabre's contemporary Charles Darwin called him "an incomparable observer" and made references to his work in On the Origin of Species. The son of an illiterate mother and a father who was a failed innkeeper, Fabre managed to work his way through school, eventually becoming professor at the lycée in Avignon, France. He taught there on a modest salary for nearly twenty years before being discharged for his unpopular ideas on teaching; among other things, he admitted girls to his science classes. Following his teaching career, he took up writing full time, supporting his wife and children with superb stories based on his adventures and work with insects. Self-educated in entomology, Fabre wrote about what he knew and loved: the insects found in the fields surrounding his home in the Rhône region of the south of France. The following selection is the original story of the beetle and the dung ball. It is typical Fabre, making the discovery of insects and insect behavior into an adventure.
It happened like this. There were five or six of us: myself, the oldest, officially their master but even more their friend and comrade; they, lads with warm hearts and joyous imaginations, overflowing with that youthful vitality which makes us so enthusiastic and so eager for knowledge. We started off one morning down a path fringed with dwarf elder and hawthorn, whose clustering blossoms were already a paradise for the Rose-chafers [beetles] ecstatically drinking in their bitter perfumes. We talked as we went. We were going to see whether the Sacred Beetle had yet made his appearance on the sandy plateau of Les Angles [a village near Avignon], whether he was rolling that pellet of dung in which ancient Egypt beheld an image of the world. . . .
But let us ... clamber up the bluff to the plateau above us. Up there, sheep are grazing and horses being exercised for the approaching races, while all are distributing manna to the enraptured Dung-beetles.
Here are the scavengers at work, the Beetles whose proud mission it is to purge the soil of its filth. One would never weary of admiring the variety of tools wherewith they are supplied, whether for shifting, cutting up and shaping the matter or for excavating deep burrows in which they will seclude themselves with their booty. This equipment resembles a technical museum where every digging-implement is represented. It includes things that seem copied from those appertaining to human industry and others of so original a type that they might well serve us as models for new inventions.
The Spanish Copris carries on his forehead a powerful pointed horn, curved backwards, like the long blade of a mattock.... All are supplied with a shovel, that is to say, they have a broad, flat head with a sharp edge; all use a rake, that is to say, they collect materials with their toothed fore-legs.
As some sort of compensation for their unsavoury task, several of them give out a powerful scent of musk, while their bellies shine like polished metal. The Mimic Geotrupes has gleams of copper and gold beneath violet. But generally their colouring is black. The Dung-beetles in gorgeous raiment, those veritable living gems, belong to the tropics. Upper Egypt can show us under its Camel-dung a Beetle rivaling the emerald's brilliant green; Guiana, Brazil and Senegambia boast of Copres that are a metallic red, rich as copper and rubybright. The Dung-beetles of our climes cannot flaunt such jewelry, but they are no less remarkable for their habits.
What excitement over a single patch of Cow-dung! Never did adventurers hurrying from the four corners of the earth display such eagerness in working a Californian claim. Before the sun becomes too hot, they are there in their hundreds, large and small, of every sort, shape and size, hastening to carve themselves a slice of the common cake. There are some that labour in the open air and scrape the surface; there are others that dig themselves galleries in the thick of the heap, in search of choice veins; some work the lower stratum and bury their spoil without delay in the ground just below; others again, the smallest, keep on one side and crumble a morsel that has slipped their way during the mighty excavations of their more powerful fellows. Some, newcomers and doubtless the hungriest, consume their meal on the spot; but the greater number dream of accumulating stocks that will allow them to spend long days in affluence, down in some safe retreat. A nice, fresh patch of dung is not found just when you want it, in the barren plains over-grown with thyme; a windfall of this sort is as manna from the sky; only fortune's favourites receive so fair a portion. Wherefore the riches of today are prudently hoarded for the morrow. The stercoraceous scent has carried the glad tidings half a mile around; and all have hastened up to get a store of provisions. A few laggards are still arriving, on the wing or on foot.
Who is this that comes trotting towards the heap, fearing lest he reach it too late? His long legs move with awkward jerks, as though driven by some mechanism within his belly; his little red antennae unfurl their fan, a sign of anxious greed. He is coming, he has come, not without sending a few banqueters sprawling. It is the Sacred Beetle, clad all in black, the biggest and most famous of our Dung-beetles. Behold him at table, beside his fellow-guests, each of whom is giving the last touches to his ball with the flat of his broad fore-legs or else enriching it with yet one more layer before retiring to enjoy the fruit of his labours in peace. Let us follow the construction of the famous ball in all its phases.
The clypeus, or shield, that is the edge of the broad, flat head, is notched with six angular teeth arranged in a semicircle. This constitutes the tool for digging and cutting up, the rake that lifts and casts aside the unnutritious vegetable fibres, goes for something better, scrapes and collects it. A choice is thus made, for these connoisseurs differentiate between one thing and another, making a rough selection when the Beetle is occupied with his own provender, but an extremely scrupulous one when it is a matter of constructing the maternal ball, which has a central cavity in which the egg will hatch. Then every scrap of fibre is conscientiously rejected and only the stercoral quintessence is gathered as the material for building the inner layer of the cell. The young larva, on issuing from the egg, thus finds in the very walls of its lodging a food of special delicacy which strengthens its digestion and enables it afterwards to attack the coarse outer layers.
Where his own needs are concerned, the Beetle is less particular and contents himself with a very general sorting. The notched shield then does its scooping and digging, its casting aside and scraping together more or less at random. The fore-legs play a mighty part in the work. They are flat, bow-shaped, supplied with powerful nerves and armed on the outside with five strong teeth. If a vigorous effort be needed to remove an obstacle or to force a way through the thickest part of the heap, the Dung-beetle makes use of his elbows, that is to say, he flings his toothed legs to right and left and clears a semicircular space with an energetic sweep. Room once made, a different kind of work is found for these same limbs: they collect armfuls of the stuff raked together by the shield and push it under the insect's belly, between the four hinder legs. These are formed for the turner's trade. They are long and slender, especially the last pair, slightly bowed and finished with a very sharp claw. They are at once recognised as compasses, capable of embracing a globular body in their curved branches and of verifying and correcting its shape. Their function is, in fact, to fashion the ball.
Armful by armful, the material is heaped up under the belly, between the four legs, which, by a slight pressure, impart their own curve to it and give it a preliminary outline. Then, every now and again, the rough-hewn pill is set spinning between the four branches of the double pair of spherical compasses; it turns under the Dung-beetle's belly until it is rolled into a perfect ball. Should the surface layer lack plasticity and threaten to peel off, should some too-stringy part refuse to yield to the action of the lathe, the fore-legs touch up the faulty places; their broad paddles pat the ball to give consistency to the new layer and to work the recalcitrant bits into the mass.
Under a hot sun, when time presses, one stands amazed at the turner's feverish activity. And so the work proceeds apace: what a moment ago was a tiny pellet is now a ball the size of a walnut; soon it will be the size of an apple. I have seen some gluttons manufacture a ball the size of a man's fist. This indeed means food in the larder for days to come!
The Beetle has his provisions. The next thing is to withdraw from the fray and transport the victuals to a suitable place. Here the Scarab's most striking characteristics begin to show themselves. Straightway he begins his journey; he clasps his sphere with his two long hind-legs, whose terminal claws, planted in the mass, serve as pivots; he obtains a purchase with the middle pair of legs; and, with his toothed fore-arms, pressing in turn upon the ground, to do duty as levers, he proceeds with his load, he himself moving backwards, body bent, head down and hind-quarters in the air. The rear legs, the principal factor in the mechanism, are in continual movement backwards and forwards, shifting the claws to change the axis of rotation, to keep the load balanced and to push it along by alternate thrusts to right and left. In this way the ball finds itself touching the ground by turns with every point of its surface, a process which perfects its shape and gives an even consistency to its outer layer by means of pressure uniformly distributed.
And now to work with a will! The thing moves, it begins to roll; we shall get there, though not without difficulty. Here is a first awkward place: the Beetle is wending his way athwart a slope and the heavy mass tends to follow the incline; the insect, however, for reasons best known to itself, prefers to cut across this natural road, a bold project which may be brought to naught by a false step or by a grain of sand that disturbs the balance of the load. The false step is made: down goes the ball to the bottom of the valley; and the insect, toppled over by the shock, is lying on its back, kicking. It is soon up again and hastens to harness itself once more to its load. The machine works better than ever. But look out, you dunderhead! Follow the dip of the valley- that will save labour and mishaps; the road is good and level; your ball will roll quite easily. Not a bit of it! The Beetle prepares once again to mount the slope that has already been his undoing. Perhaps it suits him to return to the heights. Against that I have nothing to say: the Scarab's judgment is better than mine as to the advisability of keeping to lofty regions; he can see farther than I can in these matters. But at least take this path, which will lead you up by a gentle incline! Certainly not! Let him find himself near some very steep slope, impossible to climb, and that is the very path which the obstinate fellow will choose. Now begins a Sisyphean labour. The ball, that enormous burden, is painfully hoisted, step by step, with infinite precautions, to a certain height, always backwards. We wonder by what miracle of statics a mass of this size can be kept upon the slope. Oh! An ill-advised movement frustrates all this toil: t he ball rolls down, dragging the Beetle with it. Once more the heights are scaled and another fall is the sequel. The attempt is renewed, with greater skill this time at the difficult points; a wretched grass-root, the cause of the previous falls, is carefully got over. We are almost there; but steady now, steady! It is a dangerous ascent and the merest trifle may yet ruin everything. For see, a leg slips on a smooth bit of gravel! Down come ball and Beetle, all mixed up together. And the insect begins over again, with indefatigable obstinacy. Ten times, twenty times, he will attempt the hopeless ascent, until his persistence vanquishes all obstacles, or until, wisely recognizing the futility of his efforts, he adopts the level road.
Fabre, J.-Henri. 1918. The Sacred Beetle and Others. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. (Translation by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.)
ENJOYING INSECTS IN THE HOME GARDEN
Howard Ensign Evans
Howard E. Evans (b. 1922) is a brilliant scientist who has explored seminal questions about the evolution of complex behaviors in wasps. One of the finest popular writers about entomology, past or present, he is the author of, among other books, Wasp Farm, The Pleasures of Entomology, and Life on a Little Known Planet- which he dedicated to "the book lice and silverfish that share my study with me. May they find it digestible!" In this selection Evans turns conventional gardening wisdom on its head by asking, Why not treat insects as ornamentals?
The growing of vegetables in one's backyard has much to recommend it. Some thirty-eight million Americans have such gardens, altogether occupying nearly two million acres. The flavor and food value of freshly picked vegetables so far exceed those of the store-bought equivalent that gardeners look forward eagerly to each year's harvest- and spend cold winter days planning next year's. (I always order my seeds from the catalog on the day the IRS forms arrive; it takes away some of the pain.)
It is claimed that despite the high cost of food these days, one doesn't really save money by having a home garden- if one counts the cost of one's own labor. But who wants to count that when gardening is such good exercise and so full of challenges and rewards? What will the summer's weather be like? Drought? Hail? Early frost? Will we have enough sweet corn to invite friends for a corn roast? How many canning jars will be needed?
Then, of course, there are insects to think about. Will flea beetles be abundant this year? Will leaf miners decimate the beet greens? Will the cabbage butterflies find the broccoli? (Of course, they always do.) Shall I ring the garden with marigolds to keep the grasshoppers out? (Doesn't work; they love marigolds.) Shall I sacrifice my ideals and stock up on insecticides? Or shall I plant a little more than we need and simply enjoy the insects, the rabbits, the birds?
There is much to be said for the last suggestion. Our garden is not far outside our picture windows, and as we drink our coffee we can watch the robins and grackles slipping into our strawberry patch and emerging with their beaks smeared with red. Now and then a squirrel stares into the patch, then dives in, emerges with a berry, and takes off for the nearest tree. Like the rabbits that nibble the peas, he has learned that we may pursue him. It is fun for all; of course we never catch anything.
Each year I look forward to the insect inhabitants of the garden. I don't begrudge them their share: they amuse us, inform us, and often stimulate our sense of beauty. If they take what I consider more than their share (a fairly rare event) I don't mind being a bit brutal. No animal should multiply so as to destroy its environment (though, being a member of the species Homo sapiens, I may have no right to say that).
As I write this I am rearing some zebra caterpillars that were skeletonizing the leaves of our roses. (We do make space for flowers, which after all are food for the spirit.) The zebra caterpillar is very beautiful indeed: its head is orange, its body yellow, with three pairs of black, longitudinal stripes, each pair separated by a white streak. In color it rivals the orioles that are nesting in our cottonwoods. One does, of course, need a microscope to fully appreciate the beauty of zebra caterpillars, but that is an essential item in the household of everyone who admires insects. The caterpillars don't remind me much of zebras. I prefer the scientific name, Ceramica picta, which I would translate from the Greek and Latin to mean "a painted earthen vessel."
It has been a good year for asparagus beetles. I am glad; we had a good harvest, and the beetles are most decorative on the bushy flowering stalks. There are two kinds, and we have them both. One, officially called the asparagus beetle, has a black head, antennae, and legs, with an orange collar and blue-black wing covers bordered with orange and bearing six light yellow spots- as elaborate a color pattern as one could design. The other, called the spotted asparagus beetle, is wholly orange except for black "polka dots" on its wing covers. The two kinds have similar defensive behavior: if the bush is shaken they simply release their grip and drop to the ground, a response called "thanatosis" in the scientific literature, where suggestive terms such as "playing dead" are frowned upon. If captured, both emit high-pitched squeaks, presumably addressed to birds and other predators, which may drop them in surprise.
Neither species feeds on anything other than asparagus, and hardly anything else in the insect world will eat asparagus. Is there some chemical in the plant that repels herbivores? How does it happen that two related species of beetles can live together on the same plant at the same time- a seeming contradiction to the rule that complete competitors cannot co-exist? What is the significance of the fact that the eggs of the asparagus beetle are laid in rows in an erect position, while those of the spotted asparagus beetle are laid singly, flat against the stems? How did two related species happen to evolve such brilliant and such different color patterns?
It appears that the larvae of the asparagus beetle feed freely on the foliage, while those of its spotted cousin live primarily within the seeds. Thus to a certain extent they share the plants and are not complete competitors. Perhaps, with some research, I could answer the other questions. But these are difficult questions, without simple answers. And there are so many other unanswered problems within a few yards of our back door! . . .
Parsleyworms (the larvae of black swallowtail butterflies) feed on carrot tops, parsley, dill, and parsnips, all members of the carrot family (Umbelliferae).
Parsleyworms are most welcome denizens of our garden. They are elegant creatures, transversely banded with green and black and ringed with orange spots. When disturbed, they erect a pair of orange "horns," actually eversible glands that secrete a repellent substance that smells like rancid butter- in fact, it is butyric acid, the essence of rancid butter. It is an enjoyable experience to collect the mature larvae or chrysalids and rear the butterflies indoors, where one can follow the expansion of their glossy, spangled wings. We always release them outdoors, of course, where they can find mates and plants on which to lay their eggs. Their larvae are seldom abundant; it would take a lot of them, all season, to do as much dam-age to our carrots as the local rabbits can do in one evening.
Parsleyworms are fastidious feeders, requiring food containing certain essential oils, such as methyl chavicol, which is found principally in members of the parsley family. They will even attempt to eat paper if it is soaked in these oils. On members of the parsley family, they can feed without serious competition from other insects, since parsleyworms have evolved the ability to thrive in the presence of psoralens, substances that deter feeding by most other insects by binding DNA in the presence of ultraviolet light. G. Wayne Ivie and his colleagues in the U. S. Department of Agriculture have recently fed tissues treated with carbon-14-labeled psoralens to fall armyworms (which are very general feeders) and to parsleyworms. They found that parsleyworms rapidly detoxify the poisons in their midgut, so that they do not enter the body fluids to any great extent; within 1. 5 hours, 50 percent of the carbon-14 passes out with the feces. By contrast, fall armyworms accumulate more psoralens in the body tissues, and within 1. 5 hours only 1 percent of the carbon-14 has appeared in the feces. So it is not surprising that, despite the appetite of armyworms for plants of many kinds, they do not flourish on parsley and related plants.
It is interesting that some members of the parsley and carrot family are relatively unpalatable to parsleyworms. Paul Feeny and his colleagues at Cornell University have shown that cow parsnip and angelica have evolved certain modifications of the form of the psoralen molecule that cause a reduction of the growth rate and fecundity of parsleyworms. They cite this as an example of coevolution: parsleyworms first evolved a means of over-coming the effects of psoralens, in members of the carrot family, and later certain members of this family evolved a modification of the molecule that parsleyworms could not handle. Will parsleyworms further evolve the ability to overcome this novel plant defense? In a few hundred years, perhaps a few thousand, the answer should be apparent.
On the other hand, some plants of the parsley family that grow as wild-flowers in woodlands lack psoralens, which are ineffective as deterrents in the absence of plenty of light. Unlike most umbellifers, these plants are attacked by a variety of generalist feeders.
Parsleyworms, cabbageworms, and similar insects were the subject of a 1964 article that has become something of a classic of entomology: "Butterflies and Plants: a Study of Coevolution." The authors were Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University, and Peter Raven, of the Missouri Botanical Garden. The science of plant-insect relationships has since blossomed into a major field, the subject of several books and innumerable scientific articles. Once these relationships are better understood, it may be possible to breed varieties of crop plants that either lack the chemical cues required by pest species or that have repellent or toxic properties with respect to these insects. To some extent this is already being done. For example, plant breeders have for some years been developing kinds of wheat resistant to the notorious Hessian fly, a stem-infesting insect reputed to have been brought to this country in straw bedding used by Hessian mercenaries employed during the Revolutionary War. Resistant varieties provide a theoretically perfect insect control, requiring no intervention with insecticides. Unfortunately, insects can sometimes overcome, in a few generations of evolution, resistant factors that have been bred into these stocks. This has happened with the Hessian fly, requiring a continuing program of plant breeding.
That, incidentally, is one of the strongest reasons for preserving as much of the wild plant world as possible: the genetic material needed for the breeding of resistant stocks may lie in wild relatives of wheat, corn, and other crops. The rapid extinction of species and locally adapted populations that is occurring as a result of widespread habitat destruction is not pleasant to contemplate as we look forward to feeding the crowded world of the future.
Many of the seeds available to home gardeners are, in fact, those of varieties that have been developed for resistance to various diseases and insects. However, neither our basic knowledge of this complex subject nor our technology has advanced to the point that we need fear that next year we will miss the cabbageworms, the parsleyworms, the asparagus beetles, and all the other insects that provide half the joy of gardening. . . .
For gardeners everywhere, the late Cynthia Westcott wrote The Gardener's Bug Book, an encyclopedic treatment of all the "bugs" one might possibly encounter. Although ostensibly addressed even to "the organic gardener who shuns all chemicals and [to] the wildlife enthusiast who is worried about them," two early chapters are devoted to chemicals and how to use them. After listing alphabetically many hundreds of pests (" and a few friends"), she provides an alphabetical list of host plants with the important pests of each. It is an intriguing list, with all kinds of insects I could never hope to lure into my backyard, surely not the rednecked peanutworm or the longtailed banyan mealybug. But I am disappointed never to have attracted the harlequin cabbage bug or the imbricated snout beetle, both of which sound exciting. But no matter; I shall still look forward each year to my old friends, all of whom have their own stories to tell.
Evans, Howard E. 1985. The Pleasures of Entomology. Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
THE WAYS OF A MUD DAUBER
George D. Shafer
The standard in scientific writing is supposed to be one of objective detachment. This is especially true of writing about animal behavior, which for years has conformed to the knee-jerk behaviorist dictum of avoiding anthropomorphism at all costs. George Shafer didn't have to worry about this dictum, however, because he wasn't a behaviorist (he had made his reputation as a physiologist) and, by the time he wrote the words below, he was a Stanford professor emeritus studying wasps just for fun.
The result is what most readers will agree is an acceptable level of anthropomorphic affection for his little subjects. The story of Shafer's pet wasps, begun in this selection, concludes with "Little Crumple-Wing," in Chapter 10 (page 299).
Shortly after receiving the title of Emeritus Professor, I was out early on the day that a new year of University work was to open. This was the day when, for many years, I had gone to office and classroom for another term of strenuous work with young men and women- University students- and I had liked it. How much I had liked it was never so fully realized as on this morning. Long before, the resolution had been made to let this day come and go as a vacation day, with hardly a passing thought. But here I was, up early in spite of my resolution, and entertaining the uncomfortable feeling that there was no place to go.
And yet there was a place to go. Instead of going to hear the voices of students I could go and listen to the hum of my bees. Experimenting with bees was one of my hobbies. The abandoned University beehouse had been turned over to me, and a room had been built where I might carry on experiments of my own choosing. The air was cool that fall morning, but the sun was out and the bees were out. The music of their wings was in the air. Aware of all this upon arriving at the bee yard, but without stopping to enjoy it, I walked aimlessly past the row of beehives and entered the old beehouse. Across the room the sun was streaming through a window. I stepped over and stood in its warmth, half insensible to my surroundings. Suddenly I became aware of a gentle, low whir of wings passing my head. They were not the wings of a bee; but they made a most pleasing sound. They brought me around, alert, at once. Their owner alighted on the window sill. She was a beautiful mud dauber wasp, her regal, richly black body circled with golden-yellow stripes- our largest species of thread-waisted wasps, Sceliphron cementarium. She walked leisurely and yet with a businesslike air along the window ledge, twitching her neat, slender wings as is the habit of all mud daubers. She seemed to know just what she wanted to do. She selected a particularly warm spot in the sunlight, lay down on her stomach, stretched her forefeet out in front of her like a kitten, and began to enjoy a sun bath. Every move she made, it seemed to me, was eloquent of assurance and purpose. She had a certain likable air of self-sufficiency. She was only a solitary wasp; her universe was big, but she had a place in it and seemed to know it. She accep ted the things that nature provided and used them. More than that, she aroused my admiration.
Every morning, in the early part of that new University year, this mud dauber was at the window enjoying the warmth of the sun, and I came to the window regularly to see her. I began to feel that this little insect was much more than a mere automaton. Somehow she showed personality and confidence, and she inspired me to confidence in my own judgment. Yes (I confess it), a mud dauber was helping to set me right with the world again. Besides the mud daubers, there were many other creature-people at the old bee yard, and now they all took on new interest. Of course, there were the bees- twenty colonies of them, with their thousands of individuals. At one corner of the yard, in a hole in the ground, was a big nest of yellow jackets. Individuals were numerous there too. At several places within my reach the paper wasps (Polybia flavitarsus) had nests, and some of their nests were inhabited not alone by wasp larvae but also by the larvae of an interesting moth. Little lizards looked sideways at me as they sat ready to catch bees near the entrances to my hives. An old gopher snake came often to the beehouse that fall looking for mice. All these, and several other creatures, were either inhabitants or visitors of my bee yard. Most were welcome, some not so welcome- but I became interested in them all. They all seemed worthy of study, worthy of acquaintance; and if I was curious about them, many of them seemed just as curious about me. They were not human beings, but often they showed traits and emotions similar to those of humans. Evidences of timidity and aggressiveness, of anger and joy, I observed daily.
While the weather remained favorable that fall, I could step into the beehouse any warm afternoon and listen to mud daubers here and there on the rafters above my head, singing as they spread their pellets of mud to build a new cell or to plaster the surface of a nest almost completed. "Buzt, buz-z-z, buz, buzz-z-z, buzt," they sang as they shaped the mud to their purpose. It was a joyful song. I liked it and was drawn more and more to a study of the songster. Most of the songs came from the large, yellow-banded species that I liked best. There were some specimens of the steel-blue species (Chalybion coerulium); and I found a few nests, under the covers of my beehives, of a very small species. These nests were odd, and of interest, but I had little opportunity to become acquainted with the owners, which probably belonged to the genus Eumenes. Around the beehouse, Sceliphron cementarium- the one with the golden bands- was most plentiful. It was with this species, during the next five years, that I became best acquainted. It is my feeling that, with a few individuals of this species, I even gained a real, though necessarily brief, friendship. The relationship seemed like a friendship and, always, it seemed too brief.
It was not long that first fall until noticeably fewer mud daubers could be seen. In the afternoons the number of nest-building songs fell off. Within a few weeks they had ceased altogether, and in the mornings there were no more visits at the sunny window. The adult mud daubers had completed their work. Their life span was over; but their nests were hidden away on the rafters of the beehouse, and the young larvae of a new generation of wasps were in the sealed cells of the nests.
A little later in the fall, I gathered some of the nests in the beehouse and examined the contents of their cells. At that time the cavity of each mud cell was occupied by a brown cocoon within which a larva lay limp and at rest. In this condition, I knew, they were to remain until spring. Then they would pupate, and after a while, adults would emerge from the pupae; mating would occur; and, in due time, each female would start to build the cells of a new nest for herself. Having built the first cell to full length, she would commence stocking it with spiders, captured and paralyzed by her sting. On one of these paralyzed captives, as it was stored in the cell, an egg would be laid. When the cell had been fully stocked, it would be sealed with a plug of mud before the next cell of the nest was begun. The stored spiders would serve as food for her young- the tiny white larva that would come from the egg in every cell. Each larva would eat and grow until its food supply was constituted. Soon after that, it would split a cocoon about itself, within its mud cell, and be ready to spend a winter there at rest, just as had its ancestors before it. This much- the main features of the life cycle of mud daubers- was known. But while studying larvae removed from their cocoons that fall, I was impressed by the number and size of peculiar little white pellets which were easily visible through the body wall. These were conspicuous enough to be readily seen in photographs. . . .
It was interest in these strikingly unusual pellets that started me on an investigation carried on intermittently for five years.
The period when one can observe adult mud daubers and study their larvae, during the active growing stage, is comparatively short. The earliest adults I have had at my beehouse came out May 12, and the very latest I have observed a living adult was October 8. Although they were present in this period of nearly five months, they were numerous during scarcely three months; and individual adult females live but three months at the most- at the greatest age limit. It is during about this same time that the active stage of larval life must be studied. This is the time, also, when honeybees, yellow jackets, and paper wasps are most active. However, in the five seasons of my association with S. cementarium, I not only learned about the little white pellets in the larvae- what they are, why they are present, when and how they are removed from the body of the insect- but in that connection there was revealed also a most astonishing method of sanitation possessed by the larva. Moreover, during the detailed study, the mud dauber revealed some new and interesting secrets about her nest-building, egg-laying, and working habits. Finally, an intimate acquaintance with a few individual wasps brought to light certain responses and reactions tending to convince me that adult females of this species possess a nervous system which, though tiny in size, enables them to remember, to learn, and to show individuality.
Shafer, George D. 1949. The Ways of a Mud Dauber. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press.
ODE TO THE CRICKET
The British poet William Cowper (1731- 1800) wrote this ode, which hints at the close rapport possible between humans and insects. Jiminy Cricket, the 1940 Walt Disney motion picture star, was the four-legged cricket as conscience to Pinocchio, but crickets remain underappreciated. Cowper's verses, below, seem to sing with the rhythm of crickets.
Little inmate, full of mirth,
Chirping on my kitchen hearth,
Whereso'er be thine abode
Always harbinger of good,
Pay me for thy warm retreat
With a song more soft and sweet;
In return thou shalt receive
Such a strain as I can give.
Thus thy praise shall be expressed
Inoffensive, welcome guest! . . .
Frisking thus before the fire,
Thou hast all thine heart's desire . . .
Wretched man, whose years are spent
In repining discontent,
Lives not, aged though he be,
Half a span, compared to thee.
Cowper, William. "Ode to the Cricket."
MANNA FROM HEAVEN
Exodus, The Bible
In Exodus 16, Moses and Aaron lead the people of Israel into the desert where they are near starving and beginning to wonder about the glory of the Lord and why they left Egypt in the first place. And this time, insects come to the rescue, saving their lives. Of course, the "manna," which the Bible says looked like fine frost on the ground and tasted like honey, was thought to be a miracle from God, but it is generally believed today that it was insect excrement known as "honeydew." It came from sap-feeding scale insects, or coccids (Coccidae). These scale insects feed on the phloem sap of plants, and the sugar-rich liquid travels through the gut and out the anus. A single insect can process and expel an extraordinary 2 percent to more than 100 percent of its weight per hour, depending on the species. The insects flick the excretions away with their hind legs, using the propulsive power of their contracting rectum, sometimes even by collapsing their abdomen and expelling the air to get the honeydew out of their way. Typically, it lands on the surrounding ground or vegetation. Arabs in the desert still gather this material, which they call "man." It is apparently very nutritious and, in a desert environment, akin to "manna from heaven"!
13 And it came to pass, that at even the quails came up, and covered the camp: and in the morning the dew lay round about the host.
14 And when the dew that lay was gone up, behold, upon the face of wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground.
15 And when the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, It is manna: for they wist not what it was. And Moses said unto them, This is the bread which the Lord hath given you to eat.
16 This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded, Gather of it every man according to his eating, an omer [one-tenth of a bushel] for every man, according to the number of your persons; take ye every man for them which are in his tents.
17 And the children of Israel did so, and gathered, some more, some less.
18 And when they did mete it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; they gathered every man according to his eating.
19 And Moses said, Let no man leave of it till the morning.
20 Notwithstanding they hearkened not unto Moses; but some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and stank: and Moses was wroth with them.
21 And they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating: and when the sun waxed hot, it melted.
22 And it came to pass, that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for one man: and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses.
23 And he said unto them, This is that which the Lord hath said, To-morrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord: bake that which ye will bake today, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.
24 And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade: and it did not stink, neither was there any worm therein.
25 And Moses said, Eat that today; for today is a sabbath unto the Lord: today ye shall not find it in the field.
26 Six days ye shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none.
27 And it came to pass, that there went out some of the people on the seventh day for to gather, and they found none.
28 And the Lord said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?
29 See, for that the Lord hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days: abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.
30 So the people rested on the seventh day.
31 And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna: and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.
32 And Moses said, This is the thing which the Lord commandeth, Fill an omer of it to be kept for your generations; that they may see the bread wherewith I have fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you forth from the land of Egypt.
33 And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations.
34 As the Lord commanded Moses, so Aaron laid it up before the Testimony, to be kept.
35 And the children of Israel did eat manna forty years, until they came to a land inhabited: they did eat manna, until they came unto the borders of the land of Canaan.
Exodus 16: 13- 35. Authorized King James Version (translated into English 1603- 1611).
THINGS CLEAN AND UNCLEAN
Leviticus, The Bible
Insects have long served as human food, and it is only cultural prejudice that largely excludes them from the twentieth-century Western larder. Leviticus 11 has one of the earliest references to "entomophagy" (eating of insects), in which commonly consumed winged insects such as locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are distinguished from crawling insects, which are identified as "unclean," possibly because a few of them serve to transmit human disease.
Other insects, such as ants, are neither suggested nor rejected as food in the Bible, though the Chinese and other ancient cultures ate ants and used them as medicine. A story recently circulated on the Internet tells of a very worried and upset woman who called a poison control center because she had caught her little daughter eating ants. A medical student doing a rotation in toxicology was said to have quickly reassured her that the ants were not harmful and there would be no need to bring her daughter to the hospital. The woman calmed down, and at the end of the conversation happened to mention that she gave her daughter some ant poison to eat in order to kill the ants. The medical student told her to bring her daughter to the ER right away.
1 And the Lord spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them,
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. . . .
22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
23 But all other flying creeping things . . . shall be an abomination unto you. . . .
41 And every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth shall be an abomination; it shall not be eaten.
42 Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination.
43 Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.
44 For I am the Lord your God. . . .
Leviticus 11: 1- 2, 22- 23, 41- 44. Authorized King James Version (translated into English 1603- 1611).
THE CULINARY MARVELS OF INSECT LIFE
In many human cultures, insects provide essential nutrition to humans foraging in marginal environments, but certain species are sought-after gourmet items that demand top dollar in Oriental markets and upper-crust Mexico City restaurants. Among the few exceptions to this widespread entomophagy are the European-derived cultures, which are increasingly imposing their misplaced squeamishness onto indigenous peoples, with malnutrition as the unfortunate result. As one Mexican agronomist, quoted in the Food Insects Newsletter, observed, "More Mexicans would be eating bugs were it not for decades of ad campaigns by international companies pushing white bread and Spam."
After all, doesn't it make more sense to eat locusts (as generations of Africans and Native Americans have done) than to dump pesticides on them? From all reports, they are quite tasty, similar to fried shrimp. In fact, pound for pound, insect pests are often more nutritious than the crops they eat!
A visitor from one of the other planets would probably be surprised to learn that though the civilized races of the earth indulge in the eating of live oysters and some other strange foods, they abstain as a rule from the eating of insects. Why it should be so is rather difficult to understand, when one considers the things we do eat, and the fact that uncivilized and semi-civilized peoples retain the primitive habit. The abstention from insects as food has been brought about, no doubt, by fashion, for that it is not merely culture and civilization that produce an abhorrence of such food is proved by the fact that the cultured Greeks and Romans found nothing disgusting in it. They ate their cossus, their cicadas, and their locusts; and even their poets praised such fare.
We are all familiar with the story of John the Baptist subsisting upon locusts and wild honey, and though controversialists have sought to show that the locusts in question were the seed-pods of a small tree, there can be no doubt that they were the insects still eaten by the Arabs and other races of countries where the swarms of migratory locusts visit. Hasselquist found at Mecca, when corn was scarce, t he Arabs ground locusts in their hand-mills or pounded them in stone mortars to make a substitute for flour. Moistened with water and worked into a sort of dough, this was made into cakes and baked. He adds that they also eat locusts without waiting for the excuse of a famine, boiling them in water, and then stewing with butter "into a kind of fricassee of no bad flavour." Sparrman, too, tells us of the Hottentots that they rejoice when swarms of locusts visit their country, though it means the destruction of all verdure. They feast upon the locusts, and make a coffee-coloured soup of their eggs, getting visibly fatter on such nourishing diet. Forskål, a Swede, says, there is no great relish in this diet, and that if indulged in too freely it thickens the blood, and becomes injurious to those of melancholic temperament. For all that, in Calcutta the natives still regard a swarm of locusts as a providential event, and their dried bodies form an ingredient in the preparation of curries.
In parts of South Africa it is not only the migratory locust that is eaten, but other large grasshoppers, including one that we figure that is coloured black and red. This is a livery that is regarded as being outward evidence of unwholesomeness; but we are told that in spite of it the thick leaping legs are eaten as a relish with "mealies." The entire insect is fried, and the legs are detached for food as they have a salt flavour. Our informant says the custom of eating insects is dying out and is now only practised by the poorest of the natives, the reason being that meat and salt are now so easily obtainable, and most of the natives are in a position to buy them. On the other hand, Mr. W. L. Distant, author of The Naturalist in the Transvaal, informs the present writer that he never heard of the natives eating this particular black and red species, not does he think it likely that they do so.
Caterpillars of several kinds are eaten by the African Bushmen, the Australian Blackfellow, and the Chinese. The latter also utilize the chrysalids of the silkworm after the silk has been unwound from the cocoon. Indian rearers of the Tussar silk-moth make a similar use of the chrysalids. More important as a food is the white ant. Sparrman tells us that the Hottentots eat them boiled and raw, and Smeathman says that the Africans among whom he explored parch them in iron pots over a gentle fire, much as coffee is roasted. In that state they are delicious food; and they eat them by handfuls. He thought them delicate, nourishing, and wholesome, being sweeter than the big grub of the palm weevil, and tasting like sugared cream or sweet almond paste. The palm weevil grub, the gru- gru of the West Indies, is also eaten on the Amazons, according to Wallace. In Nyassaland they make a paste of a species of mayfly and gnats, and eat it under the name of "kungu".
Step, Edward. 1916. Marvels of Insect Life. New York: Robert M. McBride & Co.
The Food Insects Newsletter, a labor of love from the Department of Entomology of the University of Wisconsin, always has a few useful recipes. The following excerpt has all that and more under the apt headline "Insect Extravaganza at Iowa State University."
The Insect Horror Film Festival which unfolded at Iowa State University on September 6- 8 had more to offer than bug horror movies. A horror movie was indeed shown, as advertised, at 8: 00 pm each evening. But the doors opened at 7: 30 pm and those who were attracted by the prospect of seeing bug violence found that they had inadvertently exposed themselves to some additional education about insects. The Festival was sponsored by the Entomology Club, the Student Union Board and the ISU Committee on Lectures.
Before each film, at 7: 30 pm:
Among the recipes featured at the Insect Tasting Event:
Corn Borer Corn Bread: Use favorite corn bread recipe and substitute 1/ 2 cup ground dry roasted corn borer larvae for 1/ 2 cup corn meal. Any larvae without hairs or bright colors can be substituted for corn borer larvae.
Chocolate Covered Crickets: 2 squares of semi-sweet chocolate and 25 dry roasted crickets and/ or grasshoppers with legs and wings plucked. Melt chocolate as directed on the box. Dip insects in chocolate, place on wax paper and refrigerate until party.
Insect preparation: To clean insects, place in a colander or fine mesh strainer, rinse and pat dry. Dry roast in a 200° oven, until crispy. They can then be ground into flour, cut into pieces or used whole.
The entomology students serving the insects attempted to make them irresistible by displaying them on silver trays with white tablecloths and candlelight. Cynthia Lidtke, an entomology student helping with the festival, said she hopes movie-goers will come away a little more appreciative of insects. "I hope they won't just step on them any more, and say, 'Well, there's another one. ' "
Mertins, Jim. 1990. "Insect Extravaganza at Iowa State University." The Food Insects Newsletter III( 3): 2.
WHY NOT EAT INSECTS?
Vincent M. Holt
The nineteenth-century food writer Simmonds suggested that the scientific name for locusts, Gryllus, was tantamount to an invitation to cook them. Vincent Holt- author of the little-known 1885 treatise Why Not Eat Insects?- took things a step further by creating a complete insect menu, rendered first in French, then in English. Despite Mr. Holt's unfailing enthusiasm, most will probably prefer the French version. "Of course these menus are unnaturally crowded with insect items," he writes, "but they are merely intended to show how such dishes may be usefully introduced into the chief courses of an ordinary dinner."
Potage aux Limaces à la Chinoise
Morue bouillie à l'Anglaise, Sauce aux Limaçons
Larves de Guêpes frites au Rayon
Phalènes à l'Hottentot
Boeuf aux Chenilles
Petites Carottes, Sauce blanche aux Rougets
Crême de Groseilles aux Nemates
Larves de Hanneton Grillées
Cerfs Volants à la Gru Gru
Boiled Cod with Snail Sauce
Wasp Grubs fried in the Comb
Moths sautés in Butter
Braized Beef with Caterpillars
New Carrots with Wireworm Sauce
Gooseberry Cream with Sawflies
Devilled Chafer Grubs
Stag Beetle Larvae on Toast
Holt, Vincent. 1885. Why Not Eat Insects? (Reprinted 1978, Faringdon, England: E. W. Classey.)
SUGARING FOR MOTHS
W. J. Holland
W. J. Holland (1848- 1932) was a lepidopterist (moth and butterfly specialist) at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, around the turn of the century. His The Moth Book: A Guide to the Moths of North America is especially appealing for its pleasant literary style and copious use of quotations from prose and poetry. This excerpt conveys the sheer joy of encountering, through a particularly entomological collecting ritual, these rare and mysterious denizens of the natural world.
The day has been hot and sultry. The sun has set behind great banks of clouds which are piling up on the northwestern horizon. Now that the light is beginning to fade, the great masses of cumulus, which are slowly gathering and rising higher toward the zenith, are lit up by pale flashes of sheet-lightning. As yet the storm is too far off to permit us to hear the boom of the thunder, but about ten or eleven o'clock to-night we shall probably experience all the splendor of a dashing thundershower.
Along the fringe of woodland which skirts the back pastures is a path which we long have known. Here stand long ranks of ancient beeches; sugar maples, which in fall are glorious in robes of yellow and scarlet; ash trees, the tall gray trunks of which carry skyward huge masses of light pinnated foliage; walnuts and butternuts, oaks, and tulip-poplars. On either side of the path in luxuriant profusion are saplings, sprung from the monarchs of the forest, young elm trees planted by the winds, broad-leaved papaws, round-topped hawthorns, viburnums, spreading dogwoods, and here and there in moist places clumps of willows. Where the path runs down by the creek, sycamores spread their gaunt white branches toward the sky, and drink moisture from the shallow reaches of the stream, in which duckweed, arrow-weed, and sweet pond-lilies bloom.
The woodland is the haunt of many a joyous thing, which frequents the glades and hovers over the flowers. To-night the lightning in the air, the suggestion of a coming storm which lurks in the atmosphere, will send a thrill through all the swarms, which have been hidden through the day on moss-grown trunks, or among the leaves, and they will rise, as the dusk gathers, in troops about the pathway. It is just the night upon which to take a collecting trip, resorting to the well-known method of "sugaring."
Here we have a bucket and a clean whitewash brush. We have put into the bucket four pounds of cheap sugar. Now we will pour in a bottle of stale beer and a little rum. We have stirred the mixture well. In our pockets are our cyanide jars. Here are the dark lanterns. Before the darkness falls, while yet there is light enough to see our way along the path, we will pass from tree to tree and apply the brush charged with the sweet semi-intoxicating mixture to the trunks of the trees.
The task is accomplished! Forty trees and ten stumps have been baptized with sugar-sweetened beer. Let us wash our sticky fingers in the brook and dry them with our handkerchiefs. Let us sit down on the grass beneath this tree and puff a good Havana. It is growing darker. The bats are circling overhead. A screech-owl is uttering a plaintive lament, perhaps mourning the absence of the moon, which to-night will not appear. The frogs are croaking in the pond. The fireflies soar upward and flash in sparkling multitudes where the grass grows rank near the water.
Now let us light our lamps and put a drop or two of chloroform into our cyanide jars, just enough to slightly dampen the paper which holds the lumps of cyanide in place. We will retrace our steps along the path and visit each moistened spot upon the tree-trunks.
Here is the last tree which we sugared. There in the light of the lantern we see the shining drops of our mixture clinging to the mosses and slowly trickling downward toward the ground. Turn the light of the lantern full upon the spot, advancing cautiously, so as not to break the dry twigs under foot or rustle the leaves. Ha! Thus far nothing but the black ants which ten-ant the hollows of the gnarled old tree appear to have recognized the offering which we have made. But they are regaling themselves in swarms about the spot. Look at them! Scores of them, hundreds of them are congregating about the place, and seem to be drinking with as much enjoyment as a company of Germans on a picnic in the wilds of Hoboken.
Let us stealthily approach the next tree. It is a beech. What is there? Oho! my beauty! Just above the moistened patch upon the bark is a great Catocala. The gray upper wings are spread, revealing the lower wings gloriously banded with black and crimson. In the yellow light of the lantern the wings appear even more brilliant than they do in sunlight. How the eyes glow like spots of fire! The moth is wary. He has just alighted; he has not yet drunk deep. Move cautiously! Keep the light of the lantern steadily upon him. Uncover your poisoning jar. Approach. Hold the jar just a little under the moth, for he will drop downward on the first rush to get away. Clap the jar over him! There! you have done it! You have him securely. He flutters for a moment, but the chloroform acts quickly and the flutterings cease. Put that jar into one pocket and take out another. Now let us go to the next tree. It is an old walnut. The trunk is rough, seamed, and full of knotted excrescencies. See what a company has gathered! There are a dozen moths, large and small, busily at work tippling. Begin with those which are nearest to the ground. When I was young my grandfather taught me that in shooting wild turkeys resting in a tree, it is always best to shoot the lowest fowl first, and then the next. If you shoot the gobbler which perches highest, as he comes tumbling down through the flock, he will startle them all, and they will fly away together; but if you take those which are roosting, well down among the branches, those above will simply raise their heads and stare about for a moment to find out the source of their peril, and you can bag three or four before the rest make up their minds to fly. I follow the same plan with my moths, unless, perchance, the topmost moth is some unusual rarity, worth all that suck the sweets below him.
Bravo! You have learned the lesson well. You succeeded admirably in bottling those Taraches which were sucking the moisture at the lower edge of the sweetened patch. There above them is a fine specimen of Strenoloma lunilinea. Aha! You have him. Now take that Catocala. It is amasia, a charming little species. Above him is a specimen of cara, one of the largest and most superb of the genus. Well done! You have him, too. Now wait a moment! Have your captives ceased their struggles in your jar? Yes; they seem to be thoroughly stunned. Transfer them to the other jar for the cyanide to do its work. Look at your lantern. Is the wick trimmed? Come on then.
Let us go to the next tree. This is an ash. The moist spot shows faintly upon the silvery-gray bark of the tree. Look sharply! Here below are a few Geometers daintily sipping the sweets. There is a little Eustixis pupula, with its silvery-white wings dotted with points of black. There is a specimen of Harrisimemna, the one with the coppery-brown spots on the fore wings. A good catch!
Stop! Hold still! Ha! I thought he would alight. That is Catocala coccinata- a fine moth- not overly common, and the specimen is perfect.
Well, let us try another tree. Here they are holding a general assembly. Look! See them fairly swarming about the spot. A dozen have found good places; two or three are fluttering about trying to alight. The ants have found the place as well as the moths. They are squabbling with each other. The moths do not like the ants. I do not blame them. I would not care to sit down at a banquet and have ants crawling all over the repast. There is a specimen of Catocala relicta, the hind wings white, banded with black. How beautiful simple colors are when set in sharp contrast and arranged in graceful lines! There is a specimen of Catocala neogama, which was originally described by Abbot from Georgia. It is not uncommon. There is a good Mamestra, and there Pvrophila pyramidoides. The latter is a common species; we shall find scores of them before we get through. Do not bother with those specimens of Agrotis Ypsilon; there are choicer things to be had. It is a waste of time to take them to-night. Let them drink themselves drunk, when the flying squirrels will come and catch them. Do you see that flying squirrel there peeping around the trunk of the tree? Flying squirrels eat insects. I have seen them do it at night, and they have robbed me of many a fine specimen.
Off now to the next tree!
And so we go from tree to tree. The lightning in the west grows more vivid. Hark! I hear the thunder. It is half-past nine. The storm will be here by ten. The leaves are beginning to rustle in the tree-tops. The first pulse of the tornado is beginning to be felt. Now the wind is rising. Boom! Boom! The storm is drawing nearer. We are on our second round and are coming up the path near the pasture-gate. Our collecting jars are full. We have taken more than a hundred specimens representing thirty species. Not a bad night's work. Hurry up! Here are the draw-bars. Are you through? Put out the light in your lantern. Come quickly after me. I know the path. Here is the back garden gate. It is beginning to rain. We shall have to run if we wish to avoid a wetting. Ah! here are the steps of the veranda. Come up!
My! what a flash and a crash that was! Look back and see how the big trees are bowing their heads as the wind reaches them, and the lightning silhouettes them against the gray veil of the rain. We may be glad we are out of the storm, with a good roof overhead. To-morrow morning the sun will rise bright and clear, and we shall have work enough to fill all the morning hours in setting the captures we have made.
Holland, W. J. 1903. The Moth Book. New York: Doubleday, Page and Company. (Reprinted 1968, New York: Dover.)
BUG OFF! Dave Barry
Popular American humorist Dave Barry (b. 1947) holds forth on the choice of a U. S. Official National Insect.
I am sick and tired of our so-called representatives in Washington being influenced by powerful special-interest groups on crucial federal issues. As you have no doubt gathered, I am referring to the current effort to name an Official National Insect.
This effort, which I am not making up, was alertly brought to my attention by Rick Guldan, who's on the staff of U. S. Representative James Hansen of Utah, at least until this column gets published. Rick sent me a letter that was mailed to congresspersons by the Entomological Society of America. (An "entomologist" is defined by Webster's as "a person who studies entomology.") The letter urges Representative Hansen to support House Joint Resolution 411, which would "designate the monarch butterfly as our national insect." The letter gives a number of reasons, including that "the durability of this insect and its travels into the unknown emulate the rugged pioneer spirit and freedom upon which this nation was settled."
The letter is accompanied by a glossy political-campaign-style brochure with color photographs showing the monarch butterfly at work, at play, relaxing with its family, etc. There's also a list entitled "Organizations Supporting the Monarch Butterfly," including the Friends of the Monarchs, the National Pest Control Association, the Southern Maryland Rock and Mineral Club, and the Saginaw County Mosquito Abatement Commission.
Needless to say I am strongly in favor of having an official national insect. If history teaches us one lesson, it is that a nation that has no national insect is a nation that probably also does not celebrate Soybean Awareness Month. I also have no problem with the monarch butterfly per se. (" Per se" is Greek for "unless it lays eggs in my salad.") Butterflies are nice to have around, whereas with a lot of other insects, if they get anywhere near you, your immediate reaction, as an ecologically aware human being, is to whomp them with a hardcover work of fiction at least the size of Moby Dick.
But what bothers me is the way the Entomological Society is trying to slide this thing through Congress without considering the views of the average citizen who does not have the clout or social standing to belong to powerful elite "insider" organizations such as the Saginaw County Mosquito Abatement Commission. Before Congress makes a decision of this magnitude, we, the public, should get a chance to vote on the national insect. We might feel that, in these times of world tension, we don't want to be represented by some cute little flitting critter. We might want something that commands respect, especially in light of the fact that the Soviet Union recently selected as its national insect the Chernobyl Glowing Beetle, which grows to a length of 17 feet and can mate in midair with military aircraft.
Fortunately, we Americans have some pretty darned impressive insects ourselves. In South Florida, for example, we have industrial cockroaches that have to be equipped with loud warning beepers so you can get out of their way when they back up. Or we could pick a fierce warlike insect such as the fire ant, although this could create problems during the official White House National Insect Naming Ceremony (" WASHINGTON- In a surprise development yesterday that political observers believe could affect the 1992 election campaign, President Bush was eaten").
Other strong possible candidates for National Insect include: the gnat, the imported Japanese beetle, the chigger, the praying mantis, Jiminy Cricket, the laughing mantis, the lobster, the dead bugs in your light fixture, the skeet-shooting mantis, and Senator Jesse Helms. I could go on, but my purpose here is not to name all the possibilities; my purpose is to create strife and controversy for no good reason.
And you can help. I recently acquired a highly trained, well-staffed, modern Research Department. Her name is Judi Smith, and she is severely underworked because I never need anything researched other than the question of what is the frozen-yogurt Flavor of the Day at the cafeteria.
So I'm asking you to write your preference for National Insect on a POSTAL CARD. (If you send a letter, the Research Department has been instructed to laugh in the diabolical manner of Jack Nicholson as The Joker and throw it away unopened.) Send your card to: National Insect Survey, c/ o Judi Smith, The Miami Herald Tropic Magazine, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132.
Judi will read all the entries and gradually go insane. Then I'll let you know which insect is preferred by you, The People, and we can start putting serious pressure on Congress. If all goes well, this could wind up costing the taxpayers millions of dollars.
In closing, let me stress one thing, because I don't want to get a lot of irate condescending mail from insect experts correcting me on my facts: I am well aware that Senator Helms is, technically, a member of the arachnid family.
Barry, Dave. 1991. "Bug Off!" Dave Barry Talks Back. New York: Crown Publishers. (Column originally appeared in the Miami Herald.)