The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects

Su Zan Swain’s drawing of a praying mantis

I’m watching insects through an entirely new lens on this autumn day, bathed in October Light (as John Gardner would have it). Crows raise hell in the trees on the other side of the ridge. Stanton Moore’s tribute to Allen Toussaint rolls out of the cabin in a funky tumble of brass and drums, rattling widows that I just squeegeed clean.

And the insects. Stink bugs queue up on the screendoor, waiting for opportunity to knock. Hordes of small white butterflies flutter about, seeking a taste of nectar from fading wildflowers. Bugs blur by on translucent wings, too fast for me to discern details.

It was cold last night. Not freezing, but close enough at 37 degrees to try the cabin’s fireplace for the first time. As I sit on the deck at Innisfree, I sense their insect urgency. Winter is coming. Time to breed and die. Or burrow. Or suck the life juices out of one last aphid.

I’ve been gnawing on Edwin Way Teale’s “The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects.” Annie Dillard referred to it in her magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as “a book that I cannot live without.” That set me in motion to acquire a copy of the 1962 field guide. It was worth the effort.

I suspect much of the info might be dated, given that the book is more than 50 years old and scientific research never stops. For instance, Teale notes praying mantises have flown to the rooftop deck of the Empire State Building, which he refers to as the tallest building in the world, a title it lost to the World Trade Center in 1971.

But it’s still a delight to read, delivering gems like this: “The dragonfly nymph is a bloodthirsty ogre, stalking endlessly for living prey.”

My copy is old, perhaps a first edition. Every time I open it, that wonderful old-book smell drifts upward, whisking me back to the Carnegie Library in Swissvale that was a key contributor to my lifelong love of reading.

The insect drawings by Su Zan Swain are wonderful, and the black-and-white photos give the whole thing a noire feeling. I picked up numerous interesting tidbits while reading Teale’s book, including:

  • The period between an insect’s molts is called the instar.
  • Chitin is the substance insect shells are made of
  • The scientific name for mayflies is ephemerae, after the Ephemerides in Greek mythology, who live only a day. Ephemeris means daily journal in Greek.
  • Ephemerides is the Greek god of celestial mechanics “The mayfly stands in literature as a symbol for the swift passing of life, for the transitory nature of existence,” Peale writes. He also references Benjamin Franklin’s amusing letter on the ephemera, which I Googled and enjoyed thoroughly.
  • Dragonflies — a.k.a. the mosquito hawk — eat the larvae and the fully developed mosquito, and it’s not uncommon to find a dragonfly with a hundred mosquitos stashed in its mouth
  • The corn-root aphid’s eggs are carried by ants into their burrows to winter over. As the thaw comes, the ants take the aphides through tunnels to the roots of smartweed, where they can feed until the corn is available as a food source. Then the ants carry the aphides to the cornstalks, where they can spend the summer milking them for honeydew. This blows my mind. The ants are treating aphides like a herd of goats they are raising for milk …
  • Fireflies aren’t flies; they’re beetles.
  • Aphides can reproduce with no male. The males emerge in late summer to fertilize eggs for overwintering, but during the summer, the females are able to reproduce without any males and the spawn don’t turn out to be male until it’s time to lay eggs for winter.