Sunday, November 18, 2012

34. Praying Mantises and Painted Ladies: The Surreal World of Insects

         This post is about bugs, and most specifically insects.  No, I don’t mean our fellow tenants who pay no rent, the roaches, or the little bugs that have adopted my apartment as a habitation and a home – bugs that I am zealously massacring daily to the best of my ability.  I mean the insects that have the good grace to stay outside where they belong, and that don’t require the tribute of our blood (which excludes female mosquitoes) and only sting in self-defense.  Though in the past I’ve always been more oriented toward birds and wildflowers, while observing the wildflowers in summer I couldn’t help but see the insects that feed on them, spread their pollen, ravage them, or find in them a snug repository.  You can’t separate insects from flowers; they depend on one another, are inseparable.

                                                                                    User 2535
         Let’s begin with one I’ve seen only rarely, since it doesn’t bestir itself much but waits in place patiently for other small creatures to come within the range of its forelegs: the praying mantis.  The name comes from the insect’s posture, which to many suggests prayer, though “preying mantis” would be just as appropriate, since the mantis is predatory, feeding mostly on other insects, but sometimes on larger creatures as well, even up to three times its size.  It waits quietly until a victim approaches, then grasps it in its long spiked forelegs, from which there is no escape.  It has even been known to devour a wasp eating a bee.  Such is the world of insects: ruthless and surreal.  I've never been much interested in science fiction, because nature gives me the real-life equivalent, as seen in the appearance of this sinister character with the hungry jaws and barbed forelegs, easily matching anything that the wildest Surrealist artist could come up with.  And if you wonder why its prey comes within reach, consider how it blends in with its surroundings.  In the next two photos, can you see it clearly?  In the first one, maybe.  But the second (green) one??

File:Mante religieuse FR 2012.jpg
                                                                                  Nick Smith
         Now for something less sinister: painted ladies.  (Once again, please, no jokes.)  The painted lady is a common and wide-ranging butterfly found all over the world, as its other name, the cosmopolite, indicates.  (There is a distinctly New World species, the American painted lady, that differs from the cosmopolite only in a few details.)  The painted lady is easily recognized by the black-and-white corners of its forewings, and the rest of its wings orange with black spots.  It is one of my favorite butterflies, usually visible every summer, though sometimes abundant and sometimes fairly rare.  Last spring I saw a large number of them in vegetation along the Hudson River, which suggested a migration in large numbers, though a week later they were gone.  Its life span, alas, is only two to four weeks.  A related species is the red admiral, easily identified by the red-orange bands across the forewings and on the margins of the hind wings: another common summer visitor throughout North America, and another of my favorites.

                                                                          Zorba the Greek

         Insects usually elicit from me feelings of fascination and wonder, but in one case they elicit disgust.  In spring you will often see a whitish silken tent in the branches of a tree whose leaves are just coming out, and in that tent, if you look close, you will find a writhing mass of tent caterpillars who at intervals emerge to feed on the tender leaves of the host tree and then return to the tent.  I say “feed on,” but at times it amounts to defoliation.  Probably the amateur observer should let nature take its course, but this writhing mass so offends me, and I so love trees, that on occasion I have used a sturdy twig to rip the tent off the tree and then trample its squirming contents to death, thus preserving the tree from this menace.  But there are so many tents visible in the spring that my perhaps foolish interference poses no real threat to this species of caterpillars, the larvae of a moth, who in time leave the tent, disperse on the ground, enter the pupa (cocoon) stage, and finally emerge as adult moths who quickly breed and reproduce and then, within twenty-four hours in the case of the female, die.  Underlying this antipathy of mine to the larvae may be the suspicion, supported by some scientists, that insects through sheer numbers may in time inherit the earth.  

                                        Gary Alpert
         Tent caterpillars may inspire antipathy, but they aren’t a menace to us.  Not so the wood tick or dog tick, a tiny eight-legged creature akin to spiders and therefore not an insect. About 3-4 millimeters in size in the adult stage, it appears in this area usually in May and June, though a rainy season may extend the time somewhat.  Its nourishment is the blood of a host, so it waits patiently in weeds and grasses at about knee level until a mammal passes and it can latch onto it and, after a decent interval (about 24 hours) feed.  They are often found on dogs.  I have encountered these ticks both on the Palisades shore path in New Jersey and at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Queens, where they can be abundant.  Even though I avoided brush and wore light-covered clothing to make them visible, and long sleeves to cover my arms, I at times spotted them on me and had to flick them off.  Even so, hours after returning from an outing I once encountered one crawling in my hair, and on another occasion found one skulking in a private part I shan’t further describe (your imagination can do wonders); in both cases they had yet to dig in, so getting rid of them was easy.  Which is just as well, since they can communicate disease. 

                                               Stuart Meek
         But the real menace in this area is the wood tick’s cousin, the much smaller deer tick or lyme tick; prevalent from March to October and almost undetectable by virtue of its size, it communicates lyme disease, a serious but treatable ailment.  I have managed to avoid these tiny pests, which is little short of a miracle, since in my annual visits to Monhegan Island in Maine in blissful ignorance I often visited a wet, low-lying area where I later learned they were especially thick.  Bob was not so lucky.  Even though he hiked less than I did on the island, on two separate occasions he discovered a tick digging into him.  Luckily, both times there was a doctor on the island who removed the tick and gave him antibiotics; he didn't get lyme disease.  Birds probably brought the ticks to the island, where deer were their preferred host (though the ticks are quite willing to settle for dogs or humans instead).  The Islanders finally voted to rid the island of its beloved deer, so a professional shooter came to the island and did the job, and since then the incidence of lyme ticks has dwindled and that idyllic island is rid of the chief nuisance plaguing it (aside from a few objectionable tourists).  To my knowledge, the lyme tick has not appeared within the limits of the city of New York, though it has so invaded Westchester County, just north of here, that gardens there have to be avoided through all the warmer months, or planned carefully so as to create low areas, free of weeds and grasses, that form a barrier the ticks don’t cross.

                                                                             Patrick Coin
         There are always those creatures that one knows from pictures but has never seen.  At the top of my insect list is the hickory horned devil, the larval or caterpillar stage in the life cycle of the regal moth, a species found from southern New Jersey south and to the west.  The adult moth is rather humdrum in appearance, but just look at the caterpillar, its body bright green with black-tipped red horns, a candidate for horror movies and just 
as surreal as the praying mantis.  I wouldn’t want it in my dreams.

         Another insect that I’ve never seen – indeed, one that is almost invisible – is the walking stick, whose long, thin body imitates the twigs it lives among.  A glance at the photograph shows why this is considered one of the most successful camouflage jobs in nature.  Can you detect the insect?  Be honest.

File:Ctenomorpha chronus body.jpg

         Finally, a species that I have seen just once, hugging a tree trunk in broad daylight in High Rock Park on Staten Island: the luna moth.  For me, this long-tailed creature has a spectral beauty, strange, haunting, almost unreal.  Lime green with transparent eyespots, it has a wing span of up to 
4 1/2 inches, making it one of the largest moths in North America.  Though common in hardwood forests in the eastern half of the country, it is rarely seen, being nocturnal and having a life span of just one week.  It emerges only to mate, has no mouth, never eats (talk about focused living!).  Why the name "luna moth"?   Probably because the eyespots are marked with crescents that suggest the moon.  But for me, the creature is so strangely beautiful that it could well be a visitor from our own or another moon.  On this note I’ll end my brief look at the buggy world.  I could go on and on, but nothing surpasses the luna moth for otherworldly beauty. 

Thoughts for the day:  

The primordial language is light.  (For this, I am indebted to modern physics.)

Light made flesh is life.  


The studio of station WBAI (post #16) on Wall Street ("in the belly of the beast") was flooded by Hurricane Sandy.  They continued broadcasting thanks to Gary Null, who let them use his uptown facilities.  They have just returned to their building.

The Union Square greenmarket (post #17) was suspended following the hurricane, so emergency and construction vehicles could be parked there.  I went three times and found no market.  Now half the market is back, but part of its site is still in use, so the rest of the market is up at Madison Square.

Westbeth, the massive artists' residence near the Hudson River where Barton Benes resided (#33), was flooded by Sandy, with nine feet of water in the basement, and water up to five feet high surging down Bethune Street to Washington Street, a whole block from the riverfront.  Residents were without electricity (therefore no lights or elevators) for four days, and had no running water for seven days, and no heat or hot water for eleven days.  

Occupy Wall Street (#1, #4) has transformed itself into Occupy Sandy, a volunteer relief effort that, working with other volunteers, is bringing supplies and volunteers to victims of the hurricane not yet reached by other organizations.  Their current needs: nonperishable food, air mattresses, batteries, crowbars, and other items.  To find out how to help, go to their website.  More power to them!

                                                        © 2012  Clifford Browder

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