Nature Notes

Vol. II July-September 1987 No. 13


It's easy to get turned on to insects. One need only know a little bit about their fascinating lives in order to overcome those initial feelings of revulsion and horror. Most of us don't relate to insects very well because we have never made an attempt to understand them. There are bizarre and wonderful insects that make science fiction seem dull and commonplace. Take some time to look closely at these little dynamos of the animal kingdom.

Insects are animals, as we and the black-tailed deer and the banana slug are animals (that is as close as we come to being related to insects). Most insects have an exoskeleton, which means a skeleton on the outside of their body that provides wonderful protection and support for their internal workings. Their systems for transport of nutrients and oxygen, while efficient for them, are much different than ours and would not support a large animal. As interesting as insects are, it is comforting to know that they can never reach the size they do in the imaginations of science fiction writers.

However, a description of the life of most insects is fantastic beyond the realm of science fiction. Those colorful butterflies you see in the summer at Paradise or Sunrise have adapted brilliant wing patterns for survival. Some patterns are for camouflage and others for scaring would-be predators. I was walking through the meadows at Summerland and noticed a lot of butterflies with ragged edged wings. I later learned that many butterflies have dark patterns around the borders of their wings that tell birds to "bite here." The butterfly then can slip away leaving only a tiny morsel of wing for the hapless bird.

What can be said for those flies that pester you, slurping your blood without asking? "Fly" is an appropriate name for this group of insects, which includes mosquitos and other insects having only one pair of wings. They are beautifully designed for flying and are probably the most advanced flying machines in the insect realm. The mosquito hovering by your ear is beating its wings at 600 times per second. Hence the humming sound that is all too familiar to those who have slept outdoors. This humming attracts the male to the female and the male will fly to a tuning fork or other humming noises. Unfortunately, the female is not attracted to humming and it is she that bites. If she were attracted to humming we would have an easy way to control this insect.

Another fascinating insect found at Mt. Rainier is the carpenter ant. If you go into the Longmire Museum you can pick up a very light piece of wood that has been excavated by these denizens of the trees. When you walk through the woods you may notice a tree with little sawdust piles at its base and sawdust clinging to the outer bark. Carpenter ants are busy chewing on the tree, tossing its insides out to make the tunnels and caverns in which they raise their young. I saw some of these creatures at work on a tree one day and when I leaned close to get a better look I could hear them grinding and chewing on the wood. Now I am alert to these little piles of sawdust and have recently noticed one on the front porch of my house. This may prove an example of a conflict of interest between human and insect.

Those conflicts of interest are numerous, and some seem never ending. Some insects destroy crops, others spread disease, and a few make camping unpleasant at certain times of the year. But surely we focus too much of our attention and energy on the "insect problem" and spend too little time in childlike awe and admiration of insects. Once one starts looking at the insect world with curiosity, insects no longer are such beastly creatures. Instead, they are transformed into wonders of the animal kingdom, endless in their variety and outstanding in their ability to cope with adversity.

Watch carpenter ants ripping apart a dead tree or bees gathering nectar from a flower. Notice the dragonflies skimming over the water or a beetle crawling on a log. These are little events but it is these that make life rich.

Mary Landis

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