Six Legs Good
Adventures in Insectland
Stories From the Microverse…
Insects and their kin, are an endless source of fascination, entertainment and discovery. There is no end to their variety, surprises and befuddlement moments. One lifetime only scratches the surface, but becomes a life well spent. On these pages I intend to tell stories from the microverse as lived through the world’s wild places and homely gardens.
These are vignettes from putrid swamps, searing naked dune deserts, quiet shady dripping cloud forests, and sunny spring flower wanderlands the world over. 50 years very well spent, and post covid madness, hopefully resumed…
The stories here are experiences, observations, ooops, and oooohh-aaah moments, and most of all ‘pictures tell a thousand words’ illustrations, from a slightly obsessed life. The result has been 18 books, many articles, hundreds of plane rides, several worn out camera systems, and this blog.
Where to Start ?…..
How about start with – Why Insects ??
How to describe infinite variety ? As a science fiction fan, I am constantly surprised by the lack of imagination in created film aliens, versus the millions of weird and wonderful species on this planet. From 0.3mm long fairy wasps with feathers for wings, to giant goliath beetles weighing as much as a rat, to stick imitating insects up to half a metre at a stretch. But it is the details that amaze most. Bring insect faces up close and you get the gravitas and the silliness in equal measure. Bring your mind’s eye to their size, and let them stare back at you square on, with their myriad moving appendages, multi eyes, sideways jaws, antennae and outrageous haircuts, and you see they got:
Top row above is an Australian Pyralid moth returning your stare. Next to it is a hover fly from Costa Rica. Bottom row above is a weevil with warthog-like tusks on its long nose, and a giant longicorn beetle from New Guinea. Below is the unmistakable hypnotic stare of a praying mantis – the last thing many insects see before having their bodies dismembered with gusto. Below that is a nasty bull ant from Australia, a hover fly from Borneo, and a haircut-deficient tussock moth from Oz.
If you had thousands of ‘eyes’, like the flies below (top row = house fly and march fly, and bottom = two march flies), would you see the stars…. well not any better than us. But you would time travel. The compound eyes, composed from hundreds to tens of thousands of individual lenses, see movement anywhere around, with off-the-scale precision. Like the information on the surface of pixels in a computer picture, individual eye segments pick up the movement across them, and all the segments together, trace the trajectory on this ‘map’ – at up to 100 times a second. To them we and the world around us is passing in slow-motion. They have time to comb their hair, pick a direction for their escape, finish sipping their coffee – all as the rolled up neswpaper we are hurtling towards them, lands on the spot they just left.
What about those eyes…
And dont get me started on the babies !!
There are gazillions of ways in which the babies dont look like the grown ups. For entomologists who give insects names and place them on the complex family tree, this has no end of headaches. But for normal humans it just adds to the outrageousness of these creatures, using every survival device/appearance in the book, and heaps besides.
This one looks like purple spittle, though this comes out of the bum, and not the genteel jaws. Inside this blob is a squidgy nymph of a frog hopper (right), which feeds by inserting syringe-like mouthparts directly into the ‘veins’ (phloem) of the plants. Sugary syrup is pumped into its guts, and the excess comes out as waxy bubbles.
The unholy mess on the left is a mountain of dry husk dead bodies of the victims this lacewing larvae sucked dry, using its lovely, tubular, hollow jaws, seen bottom left of centre. When big and happy, it pupates into the glorious ‘golden-eye’ lacewing.
Enough with the babies. What about evolution. Insects with their very fast generation time, and huge numbers, show this at work more clearly than us slow breeding mammals. Mutations are happening all the time. Most are too minor to make a visual difference. Some are non-advantageous – and that individual dies. Other changes may just help the individual insect to survive a change in their habitat, from fires, genaral warming, cooling, or a way to fool their predators. It survives longer/better, and makes babies that may carry on and fine tune these advantages. We can only hope that random mutations will help many insects to survive global warming – many will not. But the most fun are the changes which cause new shapes and colours, which generally are not dis-advantageous, or advantagous for survival. These can persist in populations and modify, until some pretty weird aliens result…
On the left is an example of evolution hitting on an adaptation (in many many steps) which these plant hoppers can use to evade detection by looking like the spines on this Acacia, their food plant. But riddle me where the good and bad is in this other hopper species from the great cauldron of evolution, Costa Rica. Most of the body are ‘extra’ weird bits to the normal shape of this group, and what about the wild colours…
OK, so this set is not really all about weird, but more of an example of evolution with more serious and obvious results. On the left, a plant hopper nymph, flat against a surface it fully imitates, with an adapted flange around the body which hugs the surface and eliminates shadow. On the right, a hopper whose evolutionary pathway has gone wild in the other direction. Presenting the sort of hooray in your face shock, which predators learn to avoid, as it warns them this prey is probably poisonous.
….. this page will slowly grow with more ‘what makes an insect great OK’ info, but the neverending stories of brave, heroic, narly, beauteous, bizzare and silly insects, is growing on the BLOG pages as we speak. Press the links below, to see what they are doing….
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