What’s Bugging You?

Young girl with tarantula crawling over hand while other children look onMany people feel the only good bug is a dead bug. My mother is one of those. She will shriek if she spots a cricket. And indeed, it is difficult to find much good press for some bugs. Take mosquitoes, for example. Even the scientific literature can find only secondary value for these pests. (They are at least food for other species.)

But life in the insect world, as everywhere, is not that simple. Bugs–scientifically known as arthropods–have roles that, while not conspicuous, are vital. Consider the vast number of plants and animals that have lived and died before we got here. Where are they now? What if their bones, carcasses, and substance were still lying around? Where has all this gone? Decomposers are an important group of the animal kingdom. Insects can achieve overwhelming feats that would be difficult for any of us to tackle. They move silently and unnoticed much of the time undertaking the job of cleaning up the dead plants and animals that litter the planet, often consuming the parts left behind by larger animals.

I witnessed the amazing job some tiny dermestid beetles were doing on the skeleton of a fox at the Youth Science Institute (YSI). The role of these beetles is to clean up old bones. Eggs laid on the skeleton had hatched into larvae that were feeding on the seemingly inert and unyielding bones. Right before my eyes a specimen that seemed to be impervious to the ravages of time was being consumed mouthful by tiny mouthful. Moth holes in favorite sweaters and termite weakened houses give ample testimony to the diversity of dietary needs among the more that 700,000 kinds of insects in world.

The role of insects as pollinators is widely known. Probably not a day goes by that you don’t eat something that has required the services of an industrious bee or other insect. And, of course, there are the silk blouses and ties that come to you compliments of the world of arthropods.

But not all bugs are good bugs either. And this good-bug, bad-bug business is, after all, just a human notion. Plagues of locusts and medflys, mosquitoes carrying malaria and ticks spreading Lyme disease, tomato horn worms and cabbage beetles all set about their business, and at times their business interferes with people’s lives.

So what should you do about the bug dilemma? There are poisons that can kill the “bad” bugs. Sometimes they work, at least temporarily. Often they backfire and kill or poison more than the “bad” bugs. Sometimes the “bad” bugs resist and become stronger bugs. And, very occasionally, the “bad” bugs can kill you. Who told you the world has easy answers?

The Youth Science Institute’s annual Insect Fair will be held at Sanborn Park, May 20, 10-4. Admission free to YSI members; non-members, adults $3, children $1; county parking fee $4/vehicle. Sanborn Park is located on Sanborn Road off Highway 9, just 3 miles from downtown Saratoga. For more information call (408) 867-6940 or (408) 356-4945.

What’s the Buzz?

A bee pollinating a flowerSuddenly the sunny silent April air began to vibrate. Something imperceptible commanded my attention. First a distant hum, then a distinct buzz broke the stillness. It became louder with overtones adding richness and depth to the sound. It was moving toward me. In a flash it became clear. A swarm of bees was headed my way.

On one other occasion I had experienced this phenomenon. Then, too, it was spring. I was out in the open as a swirling mass of hundreds–probably thousands–of bees headed directly for me tumbling over themselves like waves breaking on the shore. I had only time to take shelter behind a tree trunk before I found myself surrounded on all sides by a cloud of driven insects. The buzz of countless wings made a sound like no other. It happened so fast that I had neither time nor previous experience to consider what might happen to me.

I had only been stung once in my life and that was no wonder. Barefooted, I had stepped on a bee. But there I was in the midst of a whole hive of bees. Why, with no provocation, had they headed straight for me? What a bit of arrogance that thought turned out to be! These bees had no interest in me. Who did I think I was–their queen?

The tree bisected their headlong flight. In less than a minute the cloud passed, becoming only a faint shadow in the air as it vanished. Their queen was seeking new digs. These bees had no choice but to follow. More powerful than perfume, her chemistry bound these bees to her. They would follow her blindly until she found a new home. But to them I was nothing.

But to me they were something.

In the years since that time bees have come on hard times. A fungus has found them–at least the European bees that work so hard in our orchards and fields. Their numbers have shrunk. These migratory workers, often living in stacked boxes at the edges of farms, do more than we know to fill our plates with abundance. Their absence or presence can drive food prices up or down. The ceaseless labor of worker bees during their short lives ensures food on our tables and new generations of bees that work tirelessly for their queen–and for us.

So I have come to admire bees, in their many varieties, and to marvel at their skill to do things I cannot. I take an interest in their welfare and hope that they thrive. They have shown me respect, I will give them the same.

On that recent no-longer-silent April day I watched as the buzz in the air came alive. Well above the ground and off to the east, they passed like a billow of smoke. I wished them good luck in their search for a home.

I know I need them more than they need me.

Katy Did It

There I was minding my own business when suddenly my eyes fell on a huge—well, at least a large—bug snuggled into a dim corner of the living room ceiling.

Bugs were not something that were taken lightly when I was growing up. To this day I can lose my mother during a phone conversation if she spots a wayward cricket or spider invading her turf. I never shrieked like other girls did when I saw a bug, and I tried to act cool when I spotted an insect, mouse, or snake; but I certainly didn’t qualify as a nature girl. Inwardly I knew my bravado was false.

I still do not know much about bugs and am not inclined to cohabit with them on my side of the screen where they so cleverly hold me hostage. So when I saw it, I knew this bug had to go. I got closer.¬† It wasn’t a huge spider like I had originally thought. It was something I had never seen before. Would it jump? Would it fly? What was my next move?

I am here to tell you that I’ve come a long ways. I went to the kitchen and found a jar with a good screw on lid, got a small ladder, and climbed up close enough to take a pretty good look. The longish brown creature looked so interesting that I felt compelled to find out what I was dealing with. I swiftly popped the open jar over it, and it obligingly fell in. I capped the jar in a hurry, and a good thing too. The creature appeared to be a mighty good jumper.

Close inspection revealed a brown insect with long hair-like antennae and a backward jointed leg as long as the body. Leg, rather than legs, because it had lost one of them. A Field Guide to the Insects resides on my bookshelf. It is a good picture book with a lot of scientific words I haven’t learned yet. In the section of pictures of grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches, a Bush Katydid came pretty close, but it was green, not brown. And it had wings. Where wings would normally be my creature had a blocky triangular piece of body.

I would need help finding out what I had stumbled on. Fortunately I work with a group of immensely talented and knowledgeable people who more than make up for my deficiencies. A call to Pat Kucker, YSI’s Sanborn manager, a talented biologist who has taken care of YSI’s insect zoo for more than a decade, led me to believe I indeed had a katydid. She promised it a starring role in the Habitat Hunt and Bugology summer camps the next day.

But what should I do in the meantime? I didn’t want my insect to die! I read on a bit. This group of insects eats plants. I would feed it lettuce. I dropped part of a leaf into the jar. It fell on the katydid who eventually found its way out. I put the jar on the mantle and waited. I checked back in two hours. It was eating its lettuce. So here I was, with an insect in a jar on my mantle that I was sharing my dinner with.

I drove my bug to summer camp the next day. When I walked in with it, a young camp instructor recently graduated from high school and headed to Harvard in the fall to start a biology degree calmly said, “Oh, a Shield-back Katydid.”

Wait until my mother hears about this.