Once again, I’m taking the easy way out. I’m happy to share—need to, even—lest I finally accept the eddys are good enough and just hush. So nothing fancy. No eye candy. Just the facts, m’am.
Not surprisingly, it is the fellow creatures we live with that draw my amazement, admiration and respect—not to mention the previously-intact ecosystems that gave rise to them, many of which are now on their way off the page of history occupied so completely and with such a heavy hand by our invasive species.
You really should call in the children to see the spider-tailed snake and the gaping maws of Finches from Outer Space.
For those who genuinely care for the sanctity of life, these “low” creatures and so many more marvels like them matter to the whole of life, far more than we will likely every know. The pity that many will never even be discovered to be observed and written about before their populations and entire species goes extinct in the very near term, perhaps.
They just are there–in the five pound bag of flour you just brought home yesterday. There, in the mixing bowl that was going to hold the biscuits for dinner, but now, in a puff of white smoke, ground grains with tiny hard beetles go into the burn pit out back.
But don’t blame the insects. They are just doing what they do to make a living, wingless though they are. They have learned to hitch-hike around the world over the past few thousand years as post-glacial humankind cultivated the land, then stored, then globally-shipped wheat products everywhere.
I happened through a fairly mature oak-hickory forest on the grounds of Warm Hearth Retirement Community yesterday. With the road being surfaced, the woods became the alternative route to my car parked well beyond the paving trucks.
I smelled them before I saw them–an amazing assortment, probably a dozen species–of mushroom, flushed into the above-ground world by the ample rains we have had since Florence passed through a few weeks back.
Gathered, the three clusters of Hen-of-the-Woods would have totalled probably 10 pounds. They were in very good condition. I have never eaten them. Many have. Why didn’t I fetch at least ONE of these clusters home?
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.
I recently had the opportunity to ask one of the most knowledgeable botanists I know as many pertinent questions out of my confused and confusing plants folder as I could tastefully work into the conversation.
“Have you run across Giant Hogweed on your place?” He lives on a sizable parcel of Floyd County property that he knows well, both as a farmer and as a retired botany-educated professional. He said “Why yes I have.”
It had recently been observed in Virginia, but not the southwest part of the state.
We talked about the so-what, and he was not optimistic that its spread could be contained, given the effort it would take and the general apathy of local citizens–even other farmers.
I contended that, even so, it made sense to me that, for sake of prevention of the health impact of this plant, we should educate folks. And so…
The best source I have found for comparing similar plants is from a New York source–a state where Giant Hogweed is long and well-established. If you want to be knowledgeable and possibly save yourself or someone you know from a really really bad time, give it a careful look. There are helpful illustrations here of five plants that bear resemblance to and could possibly be confused with Giant Hogweed.
And I’d hope that our local network of naturalists, farmers and hikers would communicate about observations. Catching these populations when there are few individuals and they are not 20 feet tall would be preferable. We don’t want our kids coming in contact with this. And animals–who may not react to the exudate–can carry it on their coats and transmit it to human skin that way.