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Tuesday, February 24, A.D. 2009
What’s That Bug?

One of the easiest ways to observe wildlife is to focus on insects. People often dislike insects because many are pests, but they are quite fascinating. They are so odd and different from the mammalian world that they inspire science fiction’s imagination concerning possible extraterrestrial aliens. Their bodies, societies, life cycles, and habits are marvellously bizarre, and yet, their wondrous world carries on right under our feet.

On any given summer evening, you ought to venture outside with a flashlight to see how full of life your yard actually is. My nephew and I engage in a cheap but interesting summer night activity called “spider hunting.” The goal of spider hunting is not to hunt down spiders but to hunt for spiders. Spiders get well along on their own just fine, but it is fun to help out. We catch suitably sized prey for a given spider, and then we carefully toss the unfortunate victim into the spider’s web. If the catch is not too large, the spider immediately goes to work on it. It is a sight to behold. I especially like to feed beautiful orb spiders; I love their colors, designs, and web artistry.

If you have an interest in arachnids, insects, and other creepy crawly thingies, you may appreciate a site called What’s That Bug?, staffed by a few entomologist educators out West. They teach people about bugs; I’m not sure that they teach the bugs themselves. The site is informative and humorous, and it provides a wonderful resource for identifying little critters. It even has a page on invertebrate porn called “Bug Love.” Make sure to check out their “Worst Bug Stories Ever” page, too, where they published my e-mail, which I reproduce here:

You have an amazing site; I have spent the last three hours looking it over. Before I share my awful bug story, I would like to suggest an idea to your readers who experience ladybug invasions. You mention that they can vacuum the ladybugs. Yet, why waste good ladybugs that are just trying to survive the winter? Gather them up (a bagless vacuum might work without killing them) and refrigerate them or store them in a cool place until you can release them outside in the spring—targeting, of course, prized shrubs that may be hosting some nasties that the ladybugs could eat.

Now, here is the story (which pales in comparison to the mystery plague and tampon stories listed on your page). Before the store closed down, my stepmother had a bad habit of shopping at a local IGA that frequently sold expired goods. She also never looked at the expiration dates. After one of these shopping trips, I opened up a “new” box of cereal (I forgot—or suppressed—which kind), poured a bowl, and started to eat. Very soon afterward, my family noticed several flying insects buzzing around the kitchen. They looked like quarter inch mayflies, but with shorter proportioned bodies. I thought that they were a bit strange, but I merrily continued to enjoy my cereal—until I happened to look closely at the bowl. The cereal was alive. I ran to the garbage disposal and spit out what I had in my mouth. When I had collected myself, I reopened the cereal box, and a swarm of the pests escaped. The box was very expired, though I am not sure that such is a good excuse for the cereal company. Larva and Flakes just doesn’t sound like a winner for General Mills. Needless to say, it was the last time that I confidently poured cereal without an inspection.

The wise ones at What’s That Bug? responded thus:

We hope the Reputation Defender Service Team doesn’t attack us for your letter mentioning General Mills or IGA. We haven’t posted a letter to the Worst Bug Story Ever page of our site in three and a half years, but your story grabbed our attention. Expiration dates are on products for a good reason. While this does not look good for the manufacturer, the burden of enforcement does lie with the retailer and the buyer. On a more positive note, a little additional protein is far less injurious than E. coli in spinach, Salmonella in peanut butter, tainted pet food from China, or the myriad chemical additives that have been approved by the FDA. Thank you for a thoroughly engaging letter and a tip on ladybugs.

True story! To this day, I still inspect each bowl of poured cereal.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, February 24, Anno Domini 2009
Tuesday, February 10, A.D. 2009
Ants and Butterflies

Last week, I read an interesting article on the Maculina rebeli butterfly—“Ants tricked into raising butterflies.” This European butterfly lays its eggs near ant nests, and the resulting catepillars exude scents and mimic sounds to trick the ants into feeding them, caring for them, and even protecting them from predators:

But, not content just to be fed, the butterflies even manage to demand special treatment, Jeremy A. Thomas of Britain’s University of Oxford and colleagues report.

It turns out that ant queens make subtle sounds that signal their special status to worker ants. The caterpillars have learned to mimic those sounds, the researchers say, earning high enough status to be rescued before others if the nest is disturbed.

In times of food shortage, nurse ants have been known to kill their own larvae and feed them to the caterpillars pretending to be queen ants, they added.

Amazing is our world, full of wondrous things.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, February 10, Anno Domini 2009
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