Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Kate Crowley
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Worthy of observation and appreciation

Going Nature's Way

 


Bugs. Insects. Creepy crawlies. These are just some of the names used to describe the enormous biomass of living creatures we share the earth with. According to the Smithsonian Institution, the actual number of living species of insects can only be estimated from current and past research. Conservative estimates suggest that this figure is two million, but estimates extend to 30 million. There are very likely more insect species that have not yet even been identified than those we already know about. In terms of actual biomass, one article in the New York Times claimed that the world holds 300 pounds of insects for every pound of humans!

Summer in Minnesota is when we become most aware of insects. Granted, many of our encounters with them are annoying or even painful, (i.e. mosquitoes, ticks, flies and hornets), but there are so many others that are simply beautiful or fascinating to behold. I don’t know what makes some people squeamish or repulsed by these life forms, but in our family there are at least three, maybe four grandkids who fall into that category and probably two of our children.

For Mike and I, our son and granddaughter, any insect is worthy of observation and in many cases admiration. Maybe because they are so small that as we grow up we lose sight of their presence, except when they are annoying us. I believe every child has an innate fascination with insects and if given any encouragement by adults, will grow up enriched by an understanding of the importance they play in the overall health of our planet.

When I was in Montana last week, my son, granddaughter and I visited Yellowstone National Park one day. We were thrilled to see massive herds of bison mingling, resting and feeding in the Lamar Valley. In fact, we set up lawn chairs and ate our lunch while admiring the scene below. A little while later, we walked out from a parking area to overlook the Yellowstone River which runs through the park. As we returned down the path, I spotted some movement near my foot.

I stopped and stooped down for a better look. Two small black insects were engaged in a herculean task, rolling a small ball (bigger than them) of what looked like dirt. I realized these were Dung Beetles — seen in many National Geographic programs, only much, much smaller than what I imagined. Their bodies were smaller than the eraser on a pencil. I could see that one was using its back legs to push the pellet, which may have been a rabbit dropping or maybe a bit of bison dung. The second beetle seemed to be hanging on to the side and taking a ride.

It was very strange and after calling Jon and Teagan to come back and look, we speculated about what was happening. Teagan, who is seven, squatted down to look and all three of us were fascinated by the tiny drama playing out in this massive park. Would they make it all the way across the three foot wide trail, would they get stuck in a depression, would they give up, would they take turns? Well, they didn’t give up and they managed to get out of a small dip. They may have switched places, we weren’t sure, but we stood there until they made it all the way across the path.

Other people walked past us, but no one stopped to ask what we were looking at and if they had, they would probably have just said “Oh” and walked on. But we were happy to have witnessed this behavior. Jon even recorded a bit of it on his phone. As a child, he could spend a long time watching ants move in and out of a crack in the sidewalk. I’m very glad his daughter inherited the same trait.

Back home, another insect caught my attention. It was during one of the stormy nights, and I got up to look out the bedroom window. Lightning had been flashing in the distance, but the flash I saw outside was made by a beetle flying in search of a mate. Some call them lightning bugs, while others refer to them as fireflies. Both names references their seemingly magic ability to produce light from their small bodies. The brief flash seen on a dark night may have given rise to the belief in fairies.

The magic is created by a chemical reaction in an organ in the insect’s lower abdomen, called appropriately the ‘lantern’. Luciferase and luciferin are the two chemicals, that when combined with oxygen and a hormone known at ATP produce a bright glow, but no heat. Each species (there are more than 12 in Minnesota) has its own sequence of flashes, so that it can communicate with others of its kind; both males and females have the ability to glow or flash. The goal is reproduction.

Around the Fourth of July is the peak time to see these special insects. Because of development and loss of farm fields and meadows, they are seen less frequently these days. If you do have a good place to see them, you might consider signing up for Firefly Watch through Mass Audubon. Go to their website for more info (https://www.massaudubon.org/get-involved/citizen-science/firefly-watch) and become a Citizen Scientist.

However you spend the month of July, take some time to appreciate all the variety of insects that surround us. Even if it’s hard for us to understand their purpose in our world, they have existed far longer than our species and obviously have found a way to adapt to drastic changes in the environment; something we humans may be forced to do in the near future.

 

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