Already Missing the Insects of Autumn

Locust Borer Beetle–wasp-bee look-alike! This is a found piece from my Floyd Press column, The Road Less Traveled, from a long-ago September. Many of the insects of that summer did not show up this year. I did not see a single Locust Beetle. Not one. This is a found piece from my Floyd Press column, The Road Less Traveled, from a long-ago September. Many of the insects of that summer did not show up this year. I did not see a single Locust Beetle. Not one.

In an earlier column I confessed my (and my hapless wife’s) checkered association with snakes and so I suppose it’s a short step to admit that I also have an inordinate admiration as well for insects—for joint-legged animals (arthropods) in general, I suppose, even including spiders.

There. I’ve said it. They have fascinated me for countless hours over the course of a long life as a bug-watcher.

In miniature, inside an armor-plated exoskeleton of a crayfish or millipede, wasp or butterfly exists all the working parts—muscles, nerves, vessels, cells, tissues organs—that sustain a human or an elephant on a larger scale of space and time.

Here on the planet long before us, the insects have become specialists with marvelously unique job descriptions or “niches” in their inherited life settings of desert sand or ocean floor, under tree bark or pasture soil. Let me just describe a few of them to you from those we find along Goose Creek in September.

A thoughtful neighbor brought me a gigantic immature insect in a bucket last week. Oh Joy! It had been years since I’d seen a Hickory Horned Devil—a hideously beautiful caterpillar that might just as well have come direct from the lot of a B-grade science fiction movie as from a modern-day forest floor.

This blue-green sausage-sized monster is the unlikely preparatory stage required to build the elegant Regal Moth, a beast and beauty story if ever there was one. You’d hardly think something lovely could come from the intentional ugliness designed into this largest of North American caterpillars with its orange, re-curved and thorny “antlers” (which actually are harmless to touch).

Today’s beleaguered forests are not the same as the undisturbed forests to which these creatures have adapted over their long history and this species—an intimate forest dweller—is one of many insects in decline across the country. So if you find one, show it to the neighbors—like mine did!

As fall approaches and summer vegetation begins to droop and brown, milkweed and goldenrod are both likely to harbor colorful and interesting species.

Common milkweed has been a plant-distribution success story as fields and pastures were cleared from the original virgin forest of the continent. Air-borne seed on silky parachutes spread across America, and with the milkweed as a food source, the Monarch butterfly and other insect species also spread.

The remains of our wild milkweed looks pretty rough by this time of year, dog-eared, raggedy and full of milk-weeping holes. The grasshoppers use it as resting spots, and inch-long Assassin Bugs lie in wait behind a leaf. When dinner comes, they spear it, and suck up its juices with their needle-like mouthparts that also contain in inner straw for this purpose. Also called the “Wheel Bug” for the toothed curve on its back, this is one to watch but not touch, as its bite can be painful.

Here I should mention that this bestiary of creatures on the milkweed is likely to have hard times ahead. While it’s important to insects like the Monarch butterfly, milkweed is just that—a weed—to those who grow crops or cattle on their land, and it is being exterminated across large parts of its former range. So if you have milkweed growing around the perimeters of your place, please leave it–or even plant a “butterfly garden” of milkweed and other host plants with the idea that species other than man and his animals need to make a living, too.

Lastly, check out the goldenrod, wonderfully crawling with a little community of specialist insects who come there for mating or dinner. One to look out for is the Locust Borer, an elongate beetle that you’ll hesitate getting too close to at first. With its yellow and black stripes it looks for all the world (and this is no accident) like a yellow jacket. (Notice a distinctive black “W” across the tops of the outer wings.)

This is a great example of “protective resemblance” in which a harmless animal wears the garb of a noxious one. Just don’t do like I did this week in my haste to show Ann this “sign of fall”: I quickly scooped up a Locust Borer from a goldenrod to show her, and when I opened my hands, I’d also captured a little bumblebee hiding on the back side of the flower cluster!

They’ll be gone soon, the insects of autumn, as much a part of the march of seasons as the passing of the wildflowers or migration of the songbirds. So do pay attention to the little zoo of fall invertebrates just out your back door, in your meadows and woods. They offer all sorts of lessons for those who take the time to look carefully at the small things close at hand.

Author: fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

4 thoughts on “Already Missing the Insects of Autumn”

  1. I have since learned that the locust borer is an ecological bad actor. From wikipedia, the following:

    In 1900, due to attack by M. robiniae (the Locust Borer), the value of Robinia pseudoacacia (our common locust tree) was reported to be practically destroyed in nearly all parts of the United States beyond the mountain forests which are its home. Were it not for these beetles and their larval tunnels promoting fungal infections, it could be one of the most valuable timber trees that could be planted in the northern and middle states; young trees grow quickly and vigorously for a number of years, but soon become stunted and diseased, and rarely live long enough to attain any commercial value.

  2. I like arthropods, too. I have a science question for you. I tried Google and came up empty. How can insects pack all their organs into their tiny dimensions? I think I once read their cells are far smaller than ours, but how can their cells be so small and still contain the huge DNA and protein molecules that make them up? There are not two sizes of atoms in the universe! If you can find a link for me I would be grateful.

  3. Thank you for your wonderful post. After reading it we now are going to look up the insects you mention above to get a better understanding from when the seasons change and what do the bugs do after. Hope you have a great rest of your weekend,

  4. The word is out there that the population of insects is diminishing, world wide. Hope that isn’t true, since insects are the vanguard to our own survival. But it is inevitable, isn’t it, given the way mankind is taking over the planet?

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