Sunday, June 24, 2012


            In her fascinating book, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World, entomologist Marlene Zuk posits that humans have trouble relating to insects because they’re so difficult for us to anthropomorphize. Mammals are easy to love, even de facto nasty ones like pandas and koala bears. We can even stretch our affections to reptiles and amphibians, demonstrated by that adorable GEICO gekko, the teenage mutant ninja turtles, Majolica Palissy ware, and the explosion of frog-themed garden ornaments. That third pair of legs, however, apparently cancels out any hope of potential cuddliness. (Snakes elicit the same emotional disconnect because they lack “hands” or “feet” all together.) Zuk cites a 1973 survey that puts bugs at number three—tied with “financial problems” and “deep water”—on a list of things people fear most. “Public speaking” and “heights” beat out the six-legged ("death" came in sixth, in case you were wondering), but she says if spiders had been lumped in with insects, they may have soared to the number one spot.  

            The more contemplative yogic disciplines emphasize opening ourselves to the beauty and harmony in all things, a practice I have a lot of trouble with when it comes to people-in-general and politicians-and-bureaucrats-in-particular. Bugs, not so much. Entomologists have found evidence that insects can communicate, learn, teach, and manipulate their environments. Some species make very good parents, a finding that more daring scientists think may indicate personality and emotions. On the other hand, people who love sci-fi films that depict evil, alien creatures as insectile would appreciate the more grisly aspects of reality in Bug-World: sexual deviancy and cannibalism, despotism, chemical mind-control, slavery, live sacrifice. Hey, bugs are sounding more human all the time!

            Like most gardeners, I have only a nodding acquaintance with most of the bugs passing through my yard. We wave, but don’t know each other’s names. A comprehensive reference work with photographs—either print or online, Bug Guide notwithstanding—doesn’t exist yet. The undertaking is too massive. Insects account for more than 80% of known species on Earth. They were here long before us and will be here long after.  Naturalist E.O. Wilson said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”

            Kind of rips a huge hole Homo sapiens carefully cultivated superiority balloon, doesn’t it?     

            Read Zuk’s book. She’s a decent writer with a flip sense of humor, and her subject will broaden your mind.

            Meanwhile, crawling around in my own yard, I make an effort to notice bugs. I take pictures of the ones I don’t recognize, and send them off through the ether to the entomologists manning the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic (PDIC) at North Carolina State University in Raleigh for identification. The Extension specialists there also offer control solutions, if any are necessary. Me, I just want names. (See my posts Bugged and Bugs, the Good for more information on PDIC.) I encourage all enquiring gardeners to do the same, because once you know who they are and their place in the scheme of things, six- and eight-legged creatures become less threatening, less, well, other. No, really, they do.

            Here are some of the beautiful animals to whom PDIC has formally introduced me this season.

            Two caterpillars, and the moths they metamorphose into:

Eight-spotted forester caterpillar
(Alypia octomaculata)
Eight-spotted forester moth


Saltmarsh caterpillar
(Estigmene acrea)
Saltmarsh caterpillar moth




            Two larvae, and the adults they become:

Wheel bug (an assassin bug larva)
(Arilus cristatus)
 Wheel bug (assassin bug) adult


Euphorbia bug larva
(Chariesterus antennator)
Euphorbia bug adult

Green stinkbug, ovipositing
(Banasa dimidata)
            An egg-laying (ovipositing is the technical term) stinkbug (an alert anole ate all the hatchlings, though):


Leaf-cutter bee
(Megachilidae family)

            A leaf-cutter bee:


Narwhal-nosed bee fly
(Dave didn't know what species)

            A narwhal-nosed bee fly:

Basilica orb weaver
                (Mecynogea lemniscata) 

            Two spiders, the first very common in my back yard, the other seldom seen:

Spiny-backed orb weaver
                (Gasteracanthus cancriformis)

What's your name?

            And the latest, not-yet-identified submission, a black-and-white wasp-like creature:

None of these guys require controlling: only the stinkbug and euphorbia bug have even the potential to hurt my plants, and neither is likely to be present in sufficient numbers for any damage to be significant. And isn't that nice to know?

Tiger bee fly
(Xenox tigrinus)
            A note about bee flies, a category of insects I’d never heard of before NCSU’s entomologist extraordinaire Dave Stephan clued me in to the identity of this impressive screen-sitter last summer. Members of the family Bombyliidae (pronounced bom-bi-LIE-ih-dee), stingless bee flies eat nectar and pollen, making them important pollinators. Their larvae are parasitoids of other insects (what’s “parasitoid"? See Chatter from OG). That uncanny resemblance to bees may be a defense mechanism, to throw predators off track. Not a whole lot is known about this group, because they are not seen in great numbers. Keep your eyes peeled, you citizen-scientists, and you can help increase mankind’s knowledge of the world around us before we do ourselves in.

Not to worry: the insects will clean up the mess we leave.

Thanks for dropping by.


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