Sunday, 15 April 2018

No 61 - Wonderful, many-legged life

White-barred gypsy moth - but what's with the green
bubbles around the head?
In my parents’ bookshelf, which I pored over endlessly as a child, was a book entitled The Living House. It wasn’t a gothic horror, nor did it mean “the house that one is living in”, though the pun occurred to me. It was a book about all the seen and too-small-to-be-seen creatures, mostly with six legs or more, that scurried across your ceilings and behind the skirting-boards, that lived in your carpets and inside the wood of your socks-drawers and even in the socks themselves. There were also (it still makes my nose itch to think of it) mites that lived in your left ear by day, and the right ear by night, and daily made an invisible trek across your face to get there.  So we were told anyway.

Our house, which is now close on a century old, was ideally decrepit to host innumerable such critters. So is my present abode, which may be just as old, and just as riddled with rot and hospitable cracks and crannies. Just the visible spectrum of  my diminutive housemates is endlessly fascinating. Most people, of course, regard themselves as desperately at war with the insect world – not entirely without reason. But most people fail to recognise that we could scarcely exist without insects, that the world of vegetation and oxygen and fertility on which we depend is intimately and irreplaceably serviced by them. Insects preceded us by millions of years, they outnumber us by an order of hundreds, and they will almost certainly outlive us. However our demise might transpire, it will very likely leave behind what Jonathan Schell, in his book on nuclear holocaust, The Fate of the Earth, dubbed “a republic of insects and grass”.

Who was it said caterpillars are longer-lived, more complex,
and just as beautiful as the butterflies they become?
Our war on insects has nevertheless succeeded in many places, and not only in our sterilised new urban architectures and pesticide-saturated monocultured fields. One perhaps unlikely place I experienced this was Germany’s Schwartzwald (Black Forest), within which I illicitly overnighted once. It was 1979, the days of acid rain, and forest life of all kinds had been devastated; all that night there was not a sound – not a cricket, not a bird – nothing. Brought up in a teeming African forest, I found this unnerving and lonely. Another place was a farm near San Diego, California – a farm, in summer, surrounded by orchards presumably pollinated by bees – yet their nights too were dead: not a stridulation, not a song, not a single moth fluttering to the lights. And I once saw a boy in England driven to the edge of hysteria by the presence  of a single fly in his sanitised house. All these incidents happened some time ago; now, entomologists tell us, a quarter of all flying insect species in large parts of Europe have been extinguished just in the last twenty years. A genocide of sorts.

Handsome fellow - a longhorn beetle?
I do not sentimentalise insects. Some sting, some are downright dangerous, and I’d be an idiot not to powder the fleas the cat brings into the bed, or squash the ticks that might kill her with biliary, or spray the mosquito plaguing my ear in the night – even if it’s a Bush Mosquito with its rather pretty stripy legs. But I am perfectly happy to coexist with the vast majority of them and, some minor altercations notwithstanding, valorise their short but complex, exquisitely mysterious, even miraculous lives.

This has to be the sweetest defence mechanism.
There are the many-legged ones, like the harmless nodding chongololo millipedes that apparently breed up in the ceilings, because they seem to drop out of nowhere, wander haplessly across the walls, or end up, desiccated and starved, dying behind a couch or cupboard before I can find them and put them out in the green world. And there’s the occasional centipede, swift and glossy as toughened plastic, a sting worse than a wasp’s but really just wanting to hide, with no malice aforethought.

Flattie snacking on a damselfly.
Always there are spiders, tiny ones that might bite, others like pinheads that abseil from the light fittings on filaments spun endlessly out of their own bodies. The daddy-long-legs perch on their overnight webs in the corners, shivering into paroxysms of defensive shaking, or lurch away from the duster on stilty legs as fine as horse-hairs. Always, of course, the Anyphops “flatties”, scooting behind the paintings to escape the cat. They seem panicky and vulnerable, but they too are predators, nabbing mosquitoes and moths and damsel-flies in their lunging pedipalps. Even each other. It’s an insect-eat-insect world. Now and then I find one of their nurseries – a shallow pale dome of sheerest silk stuck to a wall, which suddenly begins to appear bruised around the edges – until you look closer and the dark stain resolves into a spreading cloud of a couple of hundred of the tiniest flattejties, each one hardly a millimetre across. Just as well for us that not so many survive. The survivor grows, and periodically grows too big for its own skin, and so, niftily, just reverses right out of it, leaving it hanging in public like a golden ghost of itself, complete down to its very leg-hairs.

The six-leggers are even more numerous and varied than the eight-leggers – partly because many of them also have wings and like to gather at the windows at night, trying to get in, or inside during the day, trying to get out. Dozens of moths of unidentifiable species, even the tiniest of which are beautifully marked on close examination; and lost butterflies – Painted Ladies and Green-banded Swallowtails and, most commonly of late, Garden Inspectors. An occasional dragonfly flashes blue and frantic and metallic along the windowsills. Wasps of various kinds – the Polistes Paper wasps who build their clustered nests under my porch eaves, the Potter wasp who leaves her little amphora of mud stuck to a window pane, and the leisurely but menacing Yellowjacket, legs all a-dangle – an imported foreigner, like me. Flies, of course: big galleon-like flies off the neighbours goose-pen, down to the tiny fruit-flies hovering over that neglected banana, and the soft little triangular guys, Psychodid Moth Flies. who favour the toilet-bowl.

Philoliche aethiopica - I think.

Finally, one will never escape the ants, that most accomplished of all terrestrial societies. There is an occasional raid on my honey by a couple of glowing Spotted sugar-ants, but mostly it’s the little guys – the mop-it-ups – who find their way with uncanny speed to anything tasty or dead and swiftly devour and cart it away. On at least two corners of the house, trains of Argentine ants travel up and down, in greater numbers when it’s about to rain, servicing heaven knows what vast, diffuse cities beneath my roof and riddling my foundations. Not termites, thankfully, though every so often a suspicious drift of light brown shavings of something structural accumulates on the edge of the bath...

Chequered ladybird
So many more, from the giant red-and-black locusts to the powdery Ctenolipisma fishmoths that secretly devour the spines of my books – all feeding and breeding and building and swarming and, like the krill in the ocean, being in themselves the vital substrate of nourishment for hundreds of species above and around them. Apart from such ecological utility, though, so many of them are simply beautiful, and beautifully complex. Living with and alongside them all, keeping confrontation and damage to a minimum, could be a model for living with all kinds of vital wildlife.



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