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.