May 23, 2003

What are Entomologists Made of?
Snakes and snails and puppydog tails. Sugar and spice and everything nice. These are the things we're made of, depending on wether we got one or two doses of the X chromosome. Some would argue about those exact ingredients, but no matter what you think we're made of, a certain portion of the recipe, I am convinced, is pre-mixed at birth and influences... without rigidly determining... our propensities throughout life. We've been talking here off and on about appreciation of 'nature' and I suggest that perhaps we come into this world hardwired in some degree of attraction to or repulsion from the world of snakes and snails.

I was fascinated with insects from very early in life. Their tininess and intricacy and beauty amazed me. I am told (as one of those oft-repeated family traditional stories) about the time I hollered from the tiny back yard for my mother to come see! come see! something on the trunk of a tree.

"Look mommy! A pillowcase!"

It took me several years to sort out some word pairs. Frog - turtle. BandAid - rubber band. Pillowcase - caterpillar. But the point is, turning rocks in the back yard looking for 'things' is one of my first memories of excitement and adventure and wonder. And I guess it never left me. Twenty years later, I was deciding what to do for graduate school, and I really wanted to be an bugologist.

The undergrad entomology class (at Auburn) was one of my first field-intensive classes, and I had a ball making my required insect collection. Collecting amounted to such onerous activities as playing tennis on a muggy Alabama night. When a nighthawk or bat would knock down a perfectly good Giant Water Bug, Hawkwing Moth, or Rhinocerus Beetle (see picture) that swarmed in a cloud around the bright lights on the court, I'd call a brief halt in the game to put the 'windfall' in my kill jar and tally up a few more specimens of the 125 we had to have in our collection by the end of the term. And of course, there was the sweep-net method, also very productive: take a butterfly net and just sweep it back and forth across a field of Queen Annes Lace and Black Eyed Susans... and find in the small end of the net a writhing mass of Leafhoppers and Assasin Bugs and Tumbling Flower Beetles.

There at the Married Students Village where we lived, the early morning routine that semester found me plucking Long Horned Woodboring Beetles and Click Beetles from under the neighbors' front porch lights. Like most biologists, I was considered quite mad, of course. But eventually, I was getting calls from the folks over in C Building to come get some odd beetle or moth. I think they thought I was eating them. Nevertheless...

I told my friends I was considering Entomology for my masters degree. They said, in their helpful and supportive way, that that was a lot of trouble to go through to be able to wear that neat monogrammed shirt and Cap that said "ORKIN". Yeah, right. Worse than that, I learned that a good bit of the financial support for entomological research was coming at the time from the likes of Monsanto and other producers of agricultural insecticides (and this shortly after the revelations of Silent Spring). I was more interested in biological controls, but it was an idea whose time had not yet come, and the $$$ for research was controlled by the fox who guarded the hen house. So I collected toads in the rain instead. But that's another story.

Well! Whaddaya know! Once again, the bush has been beaten all around in my usual long-winded way, just to suggest that the early appreciation of insects may be a way to encourage a greater awareness of nature's wonders in your kids. You might learn something in the process, too! You and little PuppyDog Tails or Sugar'nSpice might want to start by going to the Insect Company and have a look around. There are some wonderful pictures of all sorts of insects, and a page that tells how to collect and prepare them properly.

And NO. You do NOT have to know any scientific names. I have lowered my requirements (let's say I've raised the bar) for Fragments readership, and Wiggly Black Bug will be acceptable. You will, however, get extra credit if you make a stab at a common name. And be advised: there is no currently known insect called a Pillowcase.

Posted by fred1st at May 23, 2003 06:33 AM | TrackBack

Aha, now you are talking about something I understand! I know a few bugs, esp. the ones that tend to live around trout streams. Isonychia, Baetis, Hexagenia, just about all of the ephemerellidae clan are old friends of mine.

I'm also pretty fond of Plecoptera and Trichoptera, too.

Usually they'd rather be called mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, though. Being bugs, they don't much like it when you go all formal on them.

Posted by: ronbailey at May 23, 2003 08:40 AM

Earlier this week we released the gypsy moth that had been an catapillar 3 weeks prior when my daughter plucked it off the mailbox post and deposited it in her bug jar, after hitting the internet with mom to make sure we were providing the proper nourishment and environment to faciliate metamorphisis. She also had us plant a couple of butterfly bushes on the side of the house (which are just blooming this week) in anticipation of a bounty of butterflies hanging around the yard all summer. Now if it would just stop raining long enough to go out and enjoy nature...

Posted by: Chris at May 23, 2003 08:50 AM

Females of small brain and little knowledge do try to keep up. Here's where i've been spending time of late:

Have a superb weekend!

Posted by: Anne at May 23, 2003 11:04 AM

What a great post (and links) that brought back a rush of childhood memories, in fact, I think I still collect bugs, not quite as a hobby, but certainly, still from a fascination stand-point.

As a child I was never a sugar n' spice type, but, like my four brothers, I was *into* all sorts when it came to nature. Collecting huge Roman snails one time, in a large cardboard box, which got put under my bed one night, where upon in the morning all had escaped, round the room. Mother was less than happy or, polite about what I was!

Posted by: Alexandra at May 23, 2003 11:22 AM

I've been always more attracted to plants. Although I always thought those perfectly layed out insects under glass cases were pretty stinkin cool lookin. I prefer to see them when they are still moving though, and pretend the ones under glass are old shed skins or replicas of insects that died a natural death, like the jaws of a bird I guess. Edible plant life held my interest in particular, all the wild edibles, even the idea of living in the woods. When I was in sixth grade I read the book "My Side of the Mountain" for school which really promoted the concept. I promptly read the second, and noted all the technical advice and tricks. I even brought in cooked up red clover leaves and something else, broiled dandelion crowns with salt and butter maybe? Just about every readily recognizable weed by just about everybody is edible. Dandelions are particularly amazing because you can eat the whole dang thing! Even the roots can be cooked and made into a coffee!(which I've done, unfortunately I don't like coffee though) I've also had a special fascination with birds in particular also. I have a bit of scientific tendencies. The urge to study, measure, observe, hypothesize, question, diagrams, numbers, patters, charts, graphs, data, whatever.

Posted by: Josh at May 24, 2003 01:58 AM

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