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The World of Insects: How to identify all the six-leggers in your back yard 

Welcome to the world of insects! If you're ever bored or think life is the pits, grab up an old sheet, place it under the nearest bush, tree or flower patch, take a stick and gently beat the plants and see what drops out.

click to enlarge naturalworld_walkingstick.jpg

Welcome to the world of insects! If you're ever bored or think life is the pits, grab up an old sheet, place it under the nearest bush, tree or flower patch, take a stick and gently beat the plants and see what drops out. I'll give you two-dollars-to-a-donut there will be things flying and hopping around on the sheet you have never seen before, most of them a wonderful mystery.

If no one will give you an old sheet, buy a stout butterfly net and go "sweep-netting" in the grasses and tall plants in your backyard. When you stop, you'll find the net teeming with animals of wonderful variety, and like the creepy-crawlers on the sheet, you probably won't know many of them.

What I hope this column will do is open doors for you to want to learn more about biological diversity. I also hope that it will provide you with the desire to name the insect you have in that jar; the one that sucked some of your blood or the one that escaped when your child came rushing into the house all excited, shouting, "Mom! Look what I found in the garden!"

(My grandchildren do that to their mother repeatedly, so much so that the command, "Not in here! Take it back outside, and I'll bring the books!" is heard commonly, but not unhappily, in their home.)

As we go traipsing off into the world of insects, I'm going to follow the same enthusiasm my dear friend, Eric Eaton, uses in the book he and Kenn Kaufman published, Field Guide to Insects of North America. It's the best field guide on insects I've run into in many a year.

I am also going to share Kaufman's introduction, for it sums up what I have always felt for the myriad of insects with which we share this beautiful old Planet Earth.

"If variety is indeed that spice of life, then insets are the spiciest creatures on Earth. Their seemingly endless variety is almost impossible to comprehend. It is also utterly unknown to many people..."

Take the walking stick insect pictured above; there are over 3,000 species of those bizarre-looking creatures on the planet with new ones still to be discovered. Some are a mere half-inch long, but others, such as Timema cristinae of our homeland is 12-inches long, while another in Borneo is 21-inches in length! Some people even think they make good "pets."

If you come across a tiny creepy-crawly that looks something like nature made a mistake, it's probably something you should know. For, like all life on Earth, it's really a good idea to know a little about them because, one way or another, at some time in your life you will be interacting with arthropods. It is unavoidable.

Perhaps the most costly lesson we should have learned in our relationship to insects is the story of DDT and mosquitoes. The bottom line of that fiasco was that no one took into consideration the ability of insects to adapt and survive. Even though we doused them with a chemical that was supposed to annihilate them, it didn't. The survivors bred hardier forms and in a very short time, all that stuff was capable of doing was making some mosquitoes angry. As a result, it was the DDT that came back to bite us.

The impact of chemicals on human society has been documented for hundreds of years, but no one has given us a clearer picture of the horror of misplaced chemicals than Rachel Carson in her monumental work, Silent Spring. From all that's been said about chemicals and insects, the best thing I can say is: "Think before you spray!" The terrible tragedy that has befallen our bees may be linked directly to what we spray into the air and dump into the earth.

Now, grab up your beating stick and sheet, or your net - or both - take your child by the hand and introduce him, her or them to the wonderful world of arthropods (animals with jointed legs, skeleton on the outside and muscles on the inside). If you find things you're still wondering about, send me an e-mail and we'll puzzle it out together:


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