Meridian Star


April 25, 2014

The unseen world around us

MERIDIAN — Having spent 32 years as a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist, I am drawn to insect life wherever I find it, which is almost anywhere on this earth. Given the recent cold, one might not notice the thriving insect life already suited up for spring. Here I am thinking of minute life forms, say less than an eighth inch long. Most folks never see these little guys because they don't look – and likely don't care. Let me give you reasons to care.

    I was seated comfortably recently waiting for a turkey to gobble who had no such inclination. The setting sun was to my right a bit over the treetops. Its wide shaft was almost blinding. On its way to my eyes it passed below the dark forest which formed a perfect background for lighting even the tiniest airborne creature; including the most minute “bugs” curling about like miniature sky divers at an aerial show. They were whirling in playful unplanned flight. My involvement with so many of these petite creatures over the years suggests they are following an inherited inclination to show off to us; to call attention to their presence and thus their worth. So what? (you are thinking.)

    Well, each little winged creature is adorned in its own special uniform and its biography is almost as interesting as many of our admired human counterparts. Take for instance the tiny wasps (Hymenoptera). The family Chalcididae are mostly less than 1/8th inch long, some as small as 1/60th of an inch! Each one has clear wings, segmented like stained glass windows (every one with exactly the same number of segments), sometimes with spots or stripes, depending on which one of thousands of species they are – that's right thousands of species in this one family! Their bodies are often metallic colored and their antennae are elbowed, each one of millions of their species exactly alike. These are one of the most beneficial insects to man, preying on our food parasites.

    How about the petite beetles (Coleoptera)? The family Chrysomelidae contains species that are a mere 1/20th of an inch long. Some are the most colorful of beetles with striking patterns of yellow bands, spots and stripes, and some appearing to be plated with gold.

    And consider (Lepidoptera) moths, butterflies, skippers. The family Nepticulid has less than 100 known species and a common one measures an eighth of an inch wingspread.

    The flies and fleas (Diptera) includes the family Braulidae that has only two known species and they are a mere 1/16th of an inch long! One of the two lives on the body of the queen and drone bees, securing its food, honey, from the queen bee's mouth. Remember there is only one mature queen in a working colony of honey bees, and just a tiny percentage of drones. Is this Braulid specialized or what? These symbiotic relationships are common in the insect world; even in the invisible world.

    These creatures are the size of some of the dancers I saw in the sunlight shaft. But they are there all the time. We just can't see them except in exceptional circumstances. But there is another way! Get yourself or your child an inexpensive microscope. What a great gift for a child! A microscope will open up this wonderful world of the unseen. The child will see tongues and antennae and sculptured wings and colors and unlimited interesting characteristics of creation; all while looking at a mere speck on a white paper.

    And take a look yourself. You might be moved to buy yourself an insect key book and learn what these little guys do and why.

    Catch them by “sweeping” tall grass and weeds with a sweep net made of a pillow case threaded around the loop of a fishing net after removing the net. It will look like a wind sock. A dozen sweeps will yield more tiny “bugs” than you can view in an afternoon.

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