Sometimes insects just make you pay attention to them. For example, throughout most of the eastern US, during the summer when you're sweating and sit down for a rest, if you're not far from some trees -- even in towns and suburbs -- you may feel a certain tickling on your back or arm, and it'll be the butterfly at the left, the Hackberry Butterfly, Asterocampa celtis, a critter with a perfect passion for sucking up sweat with its slender proboscis, which is exactly what the one in the picture is doing, on my hairy knee.
Most insects are more retiring, however, and you need to keep your eye peeled for them. For example, I'd never have noticed the insects on my hand at the right (they're Two-striped Walkingsticks, Anisomorpha buprestoides) if I hadn't been snooping around my trailer, looking for something interesting just like them. You may have to look closely to see the second insect. The big one is a female and a small male about half her length is on her back, for they are mating.
This insect is very common around my home in southern Mississippi. When I first identified it and learned that it wouldn't bite or sting me, I picked it up, wondering how such a seemingly defenseless critter could survive, for at a certain time of the year they are all over the place, in plain view. Then the big female squirted a drop of milky fluid onto my finger. I smelled it. It didn't have much of an odor at all, but I instantly began sneezing, and I sneezed for about five minutes. Therefore, I figured out something my books hadn't told me: This species defends itself by squirting a powerful chemical at its enemies. It must be awful to get the milk in one's eyes. The milk had the faint odor of almonds, and often that odor means that cyanide is present, and cyanide is one of the most deadly of chemicals.
This is how insect watching works. You find something, being careful not to be stung or bitten and not to hurt the insect, and then you identify it. Once you identify it, find out more about it. Watch it, read about, ask others about it on the Internet... By the way, at the right that's a couple of mating Harlequin Bugs, Murgantia histrionica, found in my garden. In April they were already eating up my radish and mustard-green plants, and judging from the numbers of mating bugs, before long there will be a lot more of them!
Here there is no instruction on how to collect and preserve insect specimens, even though it's certain that if you ever become a dedicated entomologist, making collections will be obligatory. If you have your heart set on learning killing and mounting basics, you can learn the accepted technique from any good field guide. Otherwise, how about producing an online insect collection showing living specimens? We have a special page showing you how to do that.
Here, insect watching is urged instead of insect collecting. On most of your insect-watching expeditions, we hope you'll set off with your field guides and magnifying glasses, look here and there for insects and, when you find them, sit down next to them, watch them, wrap your mind around them, relate to them, identify them, understand them, take notes on them, and let them be.
Even non-violent watchers can intervene in insect life in some limited ways, especially if it means causing kids to become excited about nature. Sometimes instructions for school projects suggest collecting insect eggs and pupae, so students can watch the creatures' development from egg to adult. These efforts often fail when the eggs hatch and the larvae die because it's hard to provide the larvae's foods in a fresh state, and maintain the larvae's required humidity, light intensity, etc.
The best approach with eggs and pupae is to watch them where they've been deposited. If you find eggs under a cabbage leaf or on your petunias, tie a ribbon next to them and visit them regularly, hoping to catch them as they hatch, grow, and metamorphose. Don't bring cocoons or chrysalises into warm houses during the winter, for the adults will emerge too early, won't find appropriate food, and starve. If you need more information about this you may want to review Amazon.com's More Pet Bugs : A Kid's Guide to Catching and Keeping Insects and Other Small Creatures.
Gardens are wonderful insect zoos not only because many plant species grow there, with each kind of plant supporting its own insect populations, but also because during the domestication process many garden plants lost their natural defenses, and thus became favorite insect targets. Humans bred the bitterness and toughness from many plants, but bitterness and toughness keeps bugs away..
One sweet-tasting, fairly succulent garden plant with bitter, tough ancestors, for example, is cabbage. According to Anna Carr's Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects, the following insects eat cabbage: aphids, leafminers, thrips, whiteflies, cabbage maggots, five species of beetles, three species of true bugs, and five species of caterpillars. The caterpillars are the Cabbage Looper, Corn Earworm, Cutworm, Imported Cabbageworm, and Yellow Woollybear. In early summer when cabbage is lush, lie down next to a row and just look at all the different critters that nibble cabbage leaves.
The more kinds of plants inhabiting a certain area, the more kinds of insects will be there. Notice that we're saying "more kinds of insects", and not "more insects." That's because when many species live next to one another they tend to keep one another under control. In your garden, Ladybird Beetles consume huge numbers of aphids. Reduce the number of species by removing the Ladybird Beetles and you'll get "fewer species" with the Ladybirds gone, but "more insects" when aphid numbers skyrocket.
In gardens with many kinds of plants and where chemical insecticides haven't thrown garden ecology out of whack, don't expect abundant, easy-to-spot insects. Instead, look for shy, well camouflaged critters that probably won't show themselves unless you turn over a few dry leaves and decaying stems, or look beneath a rock or two.
Finally, here's a very important point about insect watching: When you see something special, ask yourself what's going on. For example, if you see the Io Moth at the right, with those big eye-like circles, why do the circles look so much like eyes? Well, if you were a bird about to snatch up this moth as a meal, then suddenly the moth opened its wings and revealed those glaring, owlish eyes, wouldn't you be disconcerted? Nature's "secrets" nearly always make sense if you just think about them.
On the Internet, fun insect-oriented sites include the University of Kentucky's Entomology Youth Facts, the Book of Insect Records at the University of Florida and Colorado State University Entomology.
You can review these insecty books at Amazon.com, available in both the USA & the UK, by clicking here.
Article courtesy of Jim Conrad of Backyard Nature.