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NATURE HAPPENINGS - July 2002

Who's Bugging You?
by Damian Fagan

Mr. Fagan If Spring is for the birds then insects rule Summer. Whereas a dedicated birder may observe one hundred species of birds on a good May day in Utah, an insect watcher’s species list could easily tally in the thousands on a hot July day. That is, if the watcher can bypass trying to squash many of these hard-shelled, joint legged creatures.

More than 100,000 insect species reside in the United States. Many are the Rodney Dangerfield’s of the wildlife world - “they don’t get no respect.” In fact, humans spend a great deal of money, time and energy, somewhere in the neighborhood of four billion dollars annually, in their attempt to rid the planet of insects. But, time is on the side of insects - insects have been buzzing about on this planet long before the creation of humans was but a mere boardroom concept.

Insects occur all over the Earth and may be found in every habitat type. Except for the ocean, where they haven’t really gotten well established, these living members of the Animalia kingdom solved the difficult problem of flight long before the first feathered dinosaur attempted an Icarius swan dive.

Take dragonflies, for example. Some 350 million years ago, the sky belonged to the dragonfly. The archaic prototype, called Meganuera, stretched out some 30 inches and was the Red Baron of those Pennsylvanian Period skies. Today’s dragonflies are similar, smaller replicas of this historical giant, and their method of location is still an affront to the laws of aerodynamics.

Dragonfly wings do not beat in unison; the two sets of wings move in opposing directions, which reduces flight efficiency. Large muscles drive the wings (these muscles may equal one-quarter of the total body weight) and the muscle is connected directly to the thorax on either side of the joint. This “direct drive” system that controls muscular energy, reduces the speed at which the wings may beat. At 20-30 beats per second, dragonfly wings beat slower than those of a hummingbird. But just try and catch one. Their helicopter like movements make them a difficult target.

Butterflies, on the other wing, have very slow wing beats but they beat together to create a more efficient and stronger flight system. This Lindenburgian system enables certain species to perform phenomenal feats of flight endurance. Every spring, painted ladies (butterflies, not madams of the night) travel close to 3,000 miles on their annual migratory route. Along that route, these butterflies will encounter busy air spaces that would make the toughest of all flight controllers shudder in horror.
The mix of flying insects - mosquitoes, lady bird beetles, wasps, damsel flies, house flies, and many others, at times makes for some crowded aerial conditions. Throw some predators into this mix - white-throated swifts, common nighthawks, violet-green swallows, big-eared bats, and watch out, it’s an aerial eat-or-be-eaten world.

Besides being fodder for each other or for other groups of animals like fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds, insects play a huge role in terms of pollination. Just think about all the crops grown commercially or in your garden that depend upon the transfer of pollen from plant to plant. Insects fulfill the role of transporter quite well; without the intervention of insects, many plants would remain sterile, unable to set seeds. These services greatly outweigh what humans spend annually in their attempts to reduce insect populations. Of course, flowers have dressed themselves up to attract these insects, and often provide rewards of nectar or pollen for these services.

So as July roles in on wave of heat, take time to observe some of the numerous insects that you encounter in your garden or on a canyon hike. A hand lens or inverted pair of binoculars will help to provide a closer look at the amazing diversity of these creatures. And then, maybe they won’t bug you as much (pun intended).

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