In Bob Parks’s first (and only, as far as I know) brush with the law, he was presumed a corpse. He was about 11 years old. He’d been lying facedown, very still, for so long in a vacant lot next to Greenwood Cemetery that a neighbor called the cops. When Parks was growing up, his neighborhood was mostly barren hills and chaparral. Turns out he was falling in love — with insects. He was observing a wasp, a hunting wasp called Ammophila. Parks was so absorbed in his observations that he didn’t move for a long time.
About 45 years later, I asked Bob Parks to name his favorite wasp. Ammophila: after all these years. Perhaps it was her (the wasp Parks was observing was a female) shape that first drew his attention. One naturalist has written: “…her abdomen looks like a pear on the end of a length of string. Nevertheless, she is graceful and svelte. Her favorite color is black, with the upper half of her abdomen an orange-red, giving quite a chic effect.” Early in her life, Ammophila lounges around flowers, nips a little nectar, warms in the sun. A sybaritic life: a butterfly’s life.
But when motherhood calls, she turns her attention to business: “She loosens the sting in its sheath — that as yet unbloodied sword, so slender and delicate, so feminine in its daintiness — and goes a-hunting.” But first she builds a nest, a tunnel leading to a chamber in the ground. Her name means “sand lover.” She removes the excavated material with her mouth and puts it in two neat piles a few inches from the entrance. She is a tireless and fastidious worker, and she finishes by closing the entrance with a pebble or small clod of dirt, many of which she will first examine and then reject before she finds the perfect fit. Then she plugs her nest’s entrance with it. Then she does something only you or I and a few other creatures can do (though I don’t do it very well): she uses a tool.
She selects a comparatively large stone, again inspecting and rejecting many before finding the perfect one, picks it up in her mandibles, hauls it to the nest, and “uses it to hammer down the loose soil that has been placed over it.” She hides the nest so well that she must carefully memorize where it is. Then she’s off a-hunting, for caterpillar, the young of night-flying moths the preferred entrée. She means to take the caterpillar alive but completely immobilized. Now, this is a problem with caterpillars because the nerves in each segment are self-controlled. Each segment is like a little engine: knock out one and the other 12 can keep the car running more or less the same. Ammophila has to slip her stiletto, tipped with poison, into each segment. Sometimes, she leaves a segment or two uninjected — maybe because she needs to cook up more venom.
There’s one more important task before she hauls her prey home. Though it’s helpless against the wasp, it can use its jaws to inconvenience her, by grabbing onto things, slowing her down. This can’t be so. She stands astride the caterpillar’s head and bites the base of its skull. She bites very carefully, applying slight pressure to the caterpillar’s brain. She raises her head to study the effect: “The brain is a delicate organ and her patient must not die.” The Ammophila Sleeper Hold — brings down the big boys every time.
Next she dashes home to open the nursery door and then back to her prey.
It was at this point in his observations that a neighbor or passerby saw young Bob Parks and thought he might be dead.
He was watching Ammophila drag her booty home. This is how she does it: she flips the caterpillar on its back, bites it by the throat, and drags it beneath her, not unlike a cheetah dragging an antelope. When she gets it home, she pulls it headfirst into the nest and promptly lays her egg on its side. She won’t lay another egg in this nursery, though she might drag in a few more paralyzed caterpillars. Depends on how hungry her baby is, how big the caterpillar. But she doesn’t check again for a while. She takes a few days off and goes back to her old ways, a beach babe, bagging some rays and sipping some piña coladas. Then, refreshed, it’s back to baby-making and giving the needle to caterpillars.
Shall we return to the chamber? The caterpillar’s jaws are now working — the head-squeezing causes only temporary narcosis — and there’s a slight throbbing under its skin. In a few days, a tiny white legless grub emerges from the wasp egg and, like every newborn thing, is ravenous, but, unlike every newborn thing, it gnaws into its cradle, which is the flesh of the caterpillar. It becomes even clearer how precise the mother wasp’s sting must be: improperly or not fully paralyzed, the caterpillar might buck or squirm (most creatures, being eaten alive, would!) and knock the baby to its doom or crush it against the walls of the nest. Just as the surgeon’s knife slips sometimes, so does the mother wasp’s, and some opened nests show live caterpillars and dead larvae. Most of the time it works: fresh, juicy, 24-hour room service, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Luckily, as the poet Theodore Roethke said, “Great Nature has another thing to do / To you and me…” Or does it?
Bob Parks’s love of small creatures led him, eventually, to macrophotography, the photographing of very small things. He’s almost completely self-taught — as a photographer, as an entomologist, lepidopterist, herpetologist, etc. — and like many autodidacts is driven, proud but self-effacing, devoid of self-interest but wanting attention for his work, short on money, crafty, and self-contained. Like all autodidacts he has read prodigiously. When I asked him what he does for a living, he said, “I convey things, sometimes people.” He drives a truck or van or bus. When I first met him, he was delivering flowers.
More recently, he’s been working as a custodian at the San Diego Natural History Museum, not the kind of work he usually likes, but it keeps him close to creatures he loves and he’s devoted to the museum, has both taught and taken occasional classes there. He owns little and spends most of his disposable income on film and better photographic equipment, most recently a new lens, which has features that will greatly improve the things he can do. Bob Parks is 57 years old and about six feet tall, lean, and brown of arm and face, from the sun — he spends as much time as possible in the field, photographing. His pictures have appeared in several publications and at the San Diego Natural History Museum as well as the San Diego Art Institute. One of his photographs was recently a finalist in a national competition and was exhibited at the Smithsonian. I never saw him wearing anything — in the field, at home, out for dinner — but a denim work shirt, jeans, boots. Outside, in the sun, he wore a hat. On a scorching summer day, we went to the field. I like saying that: We went to the field. Specifically, we went to Palomar Mountain State Park, where Parks knew we’d find butterflies, even though it wasn’t a prime time for them.
In one of our interviews, he told me about “hilltopping,” the phenomenon that hilltops, mountains, etc., are great places to find butterflies and all sorts of other insects. He described it as a kind of dating bar.
There was one other person with us: Bill Johnson, also a photographer and, briefly, a student of Parks’s. As I said, Johnson’s also a photographer, but his subjects are often inanimate, i.e., dead. He’s the manager of the Chula Vista PD Crime Lab and a forensic photographer. As his art, and for his soul, he takes splendid nature pictures and was just learning macrophotography. I have a shot of us taken at Palomar. I must say, we are quite a trio. Parks, laconic, in blue; me with binoculars around my neck and a tape recorder in my shirt pocket; and Johnson, a meticulous man, in a photographer’s safari suit, film canisters lined up in his vest. It turns out, they knew what they were doing. It turns out, most of what I thought I taped didn’t get taped because I plugged the microphone into the earphone jack.
As soon as we got to Palomar, we walked to a small pond with a large reed bed at one end. Parks knew we’d find butterflies there and we sure did. What would be a slight blur to me, less than one of those motes we occasionally see in our peripheral vision, he would spot and identify — giving both the popular and the scientific name and other details about it. He’d sometimes say, after he’d given a name, that he wasn’t sure if he’d pronounced it absolutely right. If I referred to him as an entomologist or a lepidopterist, as I did above, he would always correct me, remind me that he didn’t have the academic credentials to claim those professions. Ziiiiiip — an iridescent dragonfly, and crossing its flight path, the green glint of a damselfly. I ask Parks the difference. Bingo: dragonflies, also known as darning needles, have the reputation of being dangerous. They are: to smaller insects. Dragonflies rest with wings outstretched. The more delicate damselfly rests with wings held to its sides. They both lay their eggs in water, which is why there were so many of them near this pond.
We took one of the trails into the forest. I noticed a sign: Plague Warning. Since I’m a bit of a lay expert (if I am to be reincarnated, let it be as a professor of medieval history!) on the Black Plague, I took this to be a good omen. Still, I made a mental note to be sure not to feed any squirrels or other rodents, a thing I sometimes find myself doing unconsciously.
There was also a sign about rattlesnakes. This did concern me. It’s not exactly an uncommon feeling: lots of people are not nuts about snakes. I read about them. I watch that crazy Australian guy on the Nature Channel picking up the world’s deadliest and most aggressive snakes and talking sweet to them. I read somewhere that we should confront our fears. Or did I hear it in a psychiatrist’s office? Or did some pop psychologist say it? That’s how to get over this fear: I’ll just touch a snake. Fat fucking chance! Parks told me a story of lying down for a long time once in the desert, taking photographs of a lizard, and finally, he looks to his left, and just a few feet away, “within easy striking distance,” is a rattler, which was probably there all along. If that happened to me I wouldn’t need to spend years at the Maharishi University learning how to levitate: that would lift me right off the ground. I did just about step on a copperhead when I was a kid while climbing a half-assed mountain. My homeboys still claim it as the highest vertical leap they’ve ever seen. So snakes I was hoping we wouldn’t see.
We followed the trail, Parks leading the way, identifying flora as well as butterflies and other insects. We came to a flat, grassy, weedy place at the bottom of a hill. It teemed with butterflies. It’s practically impossible to photograph butterflies on the wing. When they’re feeding at a flower, imbibing fluids, one can usually approach. Ditto mating pairs. Courting pairs, however, are too frenetic. Basking or perching butterflies are approachable, but ovipositing females (a female about the business of laying eggs) are too skittish. Parks waded into the brambles carefully, slowly, one step at a time, eyeing different butterflies, planning a route, actually, to be in position to get a good shot. It’s all about timing, and angles. There’s a lot of frustration, perfect opportunities are few and may last only seconds. Parks said what one needs most is patience and knowledge, which he has gained from reading “all there is to read,” because we need to know “what the hell we’re looking at.”
Parks has a butterfly Zen thing going, though. The butterflies were more…comfortable around him. I’d heard this about him, that he was a Dr. Doolittle of insects. As usual, modestly and a little impatiently, he explained it as just experience, a sense of what will spook them and what won’t. At times, butterflies would surround him, or even light on his hand or wrist. Most never came that close to, and certainly never landed on, Bill Johnson or me. Sometimes I could follow close enough behind Parks to lean over or around his shoulder while he set up or took shots. Johnson took a beautiful picture of Parks, the lens of Parks’s camera only a few inches from a bright yellow butterfly called a California dogface perched on a neon pink thistle. I’m behind him, looking very intently too, but, if I remember right, I was staring at a stick thinking: that looks like a snake!
Later, we took a walk in a large mountain meadow. It was too dry and hot out here for butterflies. Parks told me about a fly he likes: the robber fly. A fierce predator, it catches its prey — other flies, butterflies, etc.; it’s not picky — in the air, injects it with a paralyzing fluid. It then falls to the ground, and quickly the robber fly sucks it dry. If nature had made them the size of cocker spaniels, Parks said, there would be no humans on earth, just our husks. I like to think about stuff like that.
My interest in insects is relatively new. I’d done some bug reading in the past, but in recent years I’ve read more and more. The most expensive book I own — E.O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler’s definitive text on ants — cost me close to a C-note. Worth every penny. Put a gun to my head and demand to know my second-favorite insect, I have to say the ant. (I hold my favorite until the latter parts of this to increase suspense.) That would put me with a lot of people. Much work has been done on ants. Ditto bees — one of the most beautiful books I’ve read recently was written a little over a hundred years ago: The Life of the Bee, by Maurice Maeterlinck. More about bees later too.
I asked Parks what his favorite ant was. He didn’t like questions like this. It was as if I asked a father which of his children he loved best. His girlfriend, now wife, Dee Norton, whom I met on other occasions, would often help me to get answers to certain questions. She’s an intrepid mountain-climbing outdoorswoman (she was leaving for Kilimanjaro soon), who also works at the Natural History Museum. Forced to choose, Parks said the bearded harvester ant of the genus Pogonomyrmex. The Pogonomyrmex branch of the ant family contains the most industrious and ingenious and some of the most vicious ants (in human terms) on the planet. Pogonomyrmex molefaciens, not surprisingly a Texas ant, not only harvests but also sows. Lots of creatures harvest — in the sense of gathering food. But this ant reaps what it sows. They love the seed of a plant of the Aristida genus: “ant rice.” Some ant people believe they deliberately sow it — it’s always close to the burrow; they clear debris and weed the area. Other ant people believe they just sort of drop the seeds there and forget them. Because no one has yet figured out how to read an ant’s mind, men have spent entire careers debating these issues. A few of them get pretty exercised over it: “Wheeler [an entomologist] pooh-poohs the idea that the ants sow the seeds deliberately. Indeed, he gets somewhat wrought up about it, which is unusual with this level-headed and unbiased writer. One can sense his vexation when he says that even Texas schoolboys regard the notion as a joke.” I love it when academics get in this kind of catfight. And them’s fighting words: telling someone that schoolboys laugh at their ideas. We’ll never know, although I have heard that two scientists — one at MIT and one at Georgia Tech — are working on devices to read the minds of ants. Their quarrel over whose method is better (and therefore more deserving of funding) has brought me much amusement and is reminiscent of Edison and Tesla’s famous squawk over AC or DC current.
Another pogo is Pogonomyrmex barbatus, large, fierce, and powerful. This is the species ancient Mexicans used to torture people, by staking them over their nests. The pain of their bite has been oxymoronically described as “fiery and numbing.” That’s what a bee sting feels like too. The pain, lasting hours, travels from the ant’s bite along the limbs and settles in the groin. These big harvesters are tough, and some of the little ones are tough too: Solenopsis geminata, the “fire ant” of tropical America, for example. This tiny red thing gets its name from its sting, not its color. As the 19th-century naturalist H.W. Bates wrote of them in the Amazon: “The houses are overrun with them; they dispute every fragment of food with the inhabitants, and destroy clothing for the sake of the starch. All eatables are obliged to be suspended in baskets from the rafters, and the cords well soaked with copuaba balsam, which is the only means known of preventing them from climbing. They seem to attack persons out of sheer malice.” As many people know, fire ants are in the United States and a serious problem in Southeastern states. Their range now covers about 300 million acres; they cause billions of dollars of damage and kill a half dozen to a dozen people every year, mostly children and older people from allergic reactions. (To put this in perspective: toothpicks kill one to two people per year in America.) The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying something to control the fire ant problem: decapitator flies. The predator-prey relationship, in these early stages anyway, is working well, “like a lock and key,” says an entomologist for the department. This fly is so sharp it attacks only South American fire ants — ignoring the native species and even South American fire ants of the wrong size. A fly “hovers like a helicopter” over the fire ant, dive-bombing a torpedo-shaped egg into the ant’s body, then buzzing off to do it again another few hundred times to other ants. The fly’s egg hatches in the ant, and the larva travels up the ant’s neck into its skull, where it eats the brain. While it’s doing this, it releases an enzyme that weakens the ant’s joints, and its head falls off. The fire ants, who are neat freaks, carry off the skulls for deposit in an out-of-the-way “bone heap.” Here the larva finishes its meal in leisure, after first sending an air tube though the ant’s skull. The larvae eat the brain and are protected by the braincase. Nice work if you can get it.
Back at the wasp’s nest, many paragraphs ago, Bob Parks was hooked. He said the cops laughed when they approached him and found out he was watching bugs. Parks told me he’d sometimes dig up a paralyzed caterpillar to see what the wasp’s egg looked like. (These are about the smallest things he photographs: insect eggs.) He started reading everything he could get his hands on and while still only 12 or 13 found his way to Dr. Charles Harbison, now deceased, but then curator of entomology at the San Diego Natural History Museum. Harbison was generous and encouraging, directed his reading, teaching him all he could. There was turmoil in Parks’s family during these years — his parents divorced — and he saw less of his father, a Navy man, who was at both Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and aboard the USS Missouri during the formal Japanese surrender, Tokyo Bay, September 2, 1945. Parks has three brothers and a sister.
He’d recently purchased a new 200-millimeter macro lens and was eager to use it. It would give him double the working distance he had with his old lens, a 105-millimeter macro lens — very helpful when trying to photograph quick, nervous creatures like butterflies and hummingbirds. The reasons to prefer a little more distance, without sacrificing detail, when photographing rattlesnakes in the wild, were previously illuminated. He’s always upgrading his tools, selling a lens and buying the next model up, and repeat again.
I asked him why macrophotography and not microphotography. He said most microphotography takes place in the lab — it needs magnifying lenses, controlled conditions. He wants to be in the field, and he wants to capture the detail, the great beauty and engineering in these creatures. Detail and color. The colors in his photographs are lush and intensely alive. The verdant, early-spring-in-a-river-valley green of an emerald tree boa; the blazing maraschino red feathers of an epidendrum orchid surrounding the buttery yellow bird-shape at the center of its bloom; an ant caressing an Arrowhead blue caterpillar, who has one feeler against the lavender bud of a lupine; the upturned slender pale green leg of a poppy’s stamen — ending in a fluffy yellow slipper heavily powdered with a golden pollen. The light these give off is the light in the distance of El Dorado. Parks gets a little excited (so do I) when he talks about color. Then again, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the color in the scales of a python. He said each scale looks like an enamel bead — micro-pinheads of light turning up the fire of the color from inside. He dreams a lot in bougainvillea red. He wants things that are not normally seen to be seen. He quoted Georgia O’Keeffe: “People never really see flowers, that’s why I paint them big.” He later tied his impulse to take pictures with a desire to communicate with fellow human beings. He said he likes the medium of photography because “I can not only show what’s in our back yards but also show what we’re destroying.” He laughed and said, “I admit to being a tree hugger, and I hate what we’re doing to our land and habitats.”
I inquired about other misadventures in the field. He didn’t like talking about himself much, but he said, in the desert once, a few guys came up to him on horseback and accused him of trespassing and looking for gold. He told them what he was really doing, and then they were sure he was looking for gold. Once, he ran into someone on a trail in the jungles of Costa Rica. The man asked if he were taking pictures of birds. It was a particularly good place for birders. Parks said no, he was looking for termites. Lesser known, perhaps less glamorous: the jungle is a good place for a termiter too. Speaking of mites, Parks told me there’s a kind that lives in certain flowers from which hummingbirds like to quaff. When the mite wants to move to a new flower, it waits for the hummingbird to arrive, and when it hovers with its tongue inserted in the flower, the mite takes a running leap onto the bird’s beak, scurries into its nostril, and holes up there until the bird goes to the next blossom, and then it hustles down its beak again and leaps. Timing is crucial. I don’t think there is photographic evidence of a mite failing to make the leap, nor do I think the audio equipment has been invented yet that would hear its tiny scream as it plummeted a distance equal to three Empire State Buildings! Perhaps they carry backup parachutes as Evel Knieval did when he tried but failed to leap a canyon? Parks had a lot of stories about survival tactics of flora and fauna — the incredible adaptability and specialization creatures have devised in order to survive and perpetrate each species. One of my favorite examples is a snake whose tail looks just like its head. It’s a particularly long snake. While a mouse is gauging whether its distance from the snake’s head is within the safety range, the real head is sneaking around the mouse to snatch it from the rear. I have yet to explore the metaphorical or psychological reasons I am engaged by that particular predatory strategy.
Everybody’s got a favorite bee, right? Parks’s is Chalicodoma pluto, the world’s largest (body length up to 39 millimeters, wingspan up to 63 millimeters) and most mysterious. Until recently, only a few specimen were known. This bee boasts the world’s largest bee head!: 13 millimeters wide, and it has jaws to rival a stag beetle’s. (A stag is a large beetle collected by schoolchildren in Japan. It can be purchased at post offices there. I thought beetle purchases might be a nice thing to contemplate while waiting in line at an American PO, but when I presented the idea to the Postmaster General an FBI agent was sent to interview me.) The female Chalicodoma pluto wears a velvety black pile, with white hairs on the lower half of the head and the first abdominal segment. I can see Bob Parks getting excited about photographing one. They seem to still exist on only a few of the remote Moluccas, on the eastern end of the Malay Archipelago. This would be a dream place for Parks to go to take pictures. He’d settle for just about anywhere close to the equator, though: insect life teems. Another great place would be the island of New Guinea. So much has not yet been seen or photographed. Chalicodoma is a bull of a bee and a home builder who contracts out a portion of the early work. It nests in association with colonies of wood-eating termites, a species of Microerotermes. The termites build nests of carton-like material, made of cellulose and saliva. It’s light and durable, usually attached to the branch or trunk of a forest tree. The female Ch. pluto burrows into the termite carton. The termites dig a horizontal entrance tunnel and a vertical main tunnel. The bees dig their large cells off of the main tunnel. The main nest tunnel is big enough for two female bees to pass one another (one thinks of old movies when two obese people try to squeeze by one another in, say, a train’s aisle), and two or more females may share a nest. It is thought that they gain from the termites’ building skills protection for their provisions and for their young from the considerable humidity of these islands. What they do for the termites and whether their apartments are rent controlled is unknown.
Lately, Parks has been interested in butterflies. The world’s smallest butterfly, a pygmy blue, about the size of a man’s thumbnail, can be found around San Diego. It likes salt marshes and feeds primarily on a small introduced plant from Australia. Parks has never gotten the pictures he’s wanted of a pygmy blue, despite hundreds of tries. Never got one “that quite filled the frame the way I wanted. Their wings are almost metallic, hard to get the right angle for the right light to bring out the color properly.” Some of the other butterflies common to the San Diego area (I’m just picking the ones with the best names) are fiery skipper (good name for a racehorse!), the West Coast lady, purplish copper, gorgon copper, hedgerow hairstreak, unsilvered fritillary (now extinct, but could there be a better onomatopoeic word for a species of butterfly?), Bernardino dotted-blue.
What’s the difference between a butterfly and a moth, you ask? Butterflies fly by day, are brightly colored, have (with exceptions) clubbed antennae. Moths: mostly by night, dull colors. Really, butterflies are fancy moths. Some creatures have to show off more! Butterflies have a head, thorax, and abdomen. Adult butterflies have two pairs of wings: forewings and hindwings. With the wings they do more than fly. They’re used in courtship, regulating body temperature, and avoiding predators, particularly as camouflage and deception. One tropical moth’s forewing tip looks exactly like the head of a snake. When we were on Palomar, Parks showed me the hindwings of two or three butterflies with big chomps taken out of them. Most attacks come from the rear. If they get nipped in a hindwing or even get it torn off, the butterfly still has a chance of getting away. Mortally wounded pregnant butterflies are said to speed up the birth process so they can accomplish their primary task before it’s time to go.
Most of us are familiar enough with the life cycle of butterflies (even before there were nature shows on TV, there were nature shows about butterflies), so I can just run through it here. It has four stages: the egg, which hatches into a caterpillar (larva) and wraps itself in a pupa (chrysalis) from which emerges the adult butterfly. One of Parks’s hopes is to someday get the perfect photo of a butterfly’s wing just as it emerges from the chrysalis, that split second when the wet wing is parting the fine threads. This unfolding is one of the miracles of life. Most butterflies live only a few weeks. Some of the California blues live only a few days. A few species live six or seven months, a couple almost a year. The adult butterfly spends its time looking for mates, mating, laying eggs, feeding, and resting. Sounds familiar. Maybe the only difference between humans and butterflies is that humans do all of the above and have to hold jobs too! There are two primary mate-finding strategies, personal ads not being an option because of a low rate of literacy among butterflies: patrolling and perching, both more or less self-explanatory and ditto familiar. I mentioned earlier “hilltopping.” The males of perching species tend to favor hilltops for meeting females. Butterflies have a “suctorial proboscis” (a straw for a nose) and can’t chew solids. They drink sugar-rich fluids — nectar, sap flows, rotting fruit, bird droppings. Just-emerged butterflies, usually males of the patrolling species, gather in groups on wet sand to imbibe water rich in salts, probably for temperature regulation.
But do I sense a bit of restlessness on the part of the reader? A certain sense of anticipation? When is he going to tell us about his favorite bug? Well, it’s the beetle. I know it’s yours too. Hello, my name is Tom and I can’t stop reading about beetles! It’s easier when we can admit it: it’s the unglamorous beetle I love the most! Not the bee and its honey, not the ant and its industriousness (and its feature movies), not the butterfly and its brilliant colors. It’s the beetle for me, and, I am not ashamed to say out loud, in print, it is the (there are many, many species) dung beetle I admire most. Darwin said he thought God’s favorite creature was the beetle because He made so many of them. There are 350,000 known types of beetles, and some people believe as many as another 150,000 unknown types. I realize not everyone is nuts about beetles. Joseph Conrad was not. He described them in one novel as “horrid little monsters, looking malevolent in death and immobility” — he was looking at an entomologist’s collection. As a child, growing up on a farm, I was paid, I think, a penny apiece for Japanese beetles I picked off the corn stalks. I often roasted them to death on the lid of the barrel where we burned our trash. They were a serious pest (though I marveled at the beautiful green of their heads and the rich copper bleeding into their carapaces), and their name (they were introduced from Japan in 1917) probably had something to do with my cruelty to them — WWII was the dominant historical reality of the 1950s. Then there was the click beetle. Catch one and flip it on its back. In about a minute, with a loud click, it would flip into the air. Most of the time, it landed on its feet. If it didn’t, it rested a minute and — click! — it would try again. They should teach turtles this trick!
Of my dear dung beetles, let me start with one that is not a dung beetle but a fake dung beetle. There’s a tropical Central American beetle called Leistotrophus versicolor. Like a regular beetle, it gets to a pile of dung posthaste, but not to haul away dung for a meal. Nope. It crawls on the dung pat as if it’s doing dung-beetle business, but what it’s really there for is the flies that come to feast on the dung. It just sits there until a fly walks into its jaws. You want to eat flies, you go where the flies go.
Lest the reader cringe at the word “feast” when applied to excrement, dung is loaded — because most mammals digest only a fraction of what they eat — with proteins, nutrients, bacteria, etc. Dung comes cheap. Animals do not defend their dung, nor does dung, like some plants and most animals, defend itself.
Dung beetles seem to prefer the droppings of large mammals, but the beetles have lived on earth for over 350 million years — since before the existence of large mammals. Some scientists believe the beetles lived on dinosaur droppings, but no beetle fossil has yet been found in petrified dinosaur poop. Several people are looking, you can put that in the bank, as I write this.
Want to know one of humanity’s greatest benefactors? Uncle Dung Beetle. They remove dung from sight, from smell, and from beneath our feet, and what they don’t immediately eat they bury, thus putting in the soil fertilizing nitrogen that otherwise would just be absorbed into the atmosphere. Beetles churn up and aerate the ground, providing as much help this way as earthworms. Their larvae eat parasitic worms and maggots found in dung, thus cutting back on the spread of disease. Some dung beetles are ultraspecialists. A few species live in the rump fur of a kangaroo, wait for the animal to evacuate its bowels, and at that point leap from the fur to the dung, attach themselves to it in midair, and ride it down to the ground — therefore becoming first claimants. A kind of long-necked (only kidding — about the long neck!) beetle lives exclusively on giraffe dung. One entomologist has said that if these beetles did not exist, the whole world would look like a cattle feedlot after months of rain and then turned crusty with heat. The whole world hip deep in dung, carrion, bones, and husks. The whole world covered with a two-day-old cow flop, crusty on the outside, loose inside. One elephant pie, weighing about four pounds, might be covered with 60,000 beetles within minutes of hitting the ground and be gone in a matter of hours or less. They work fast. Competition is great, and insectivores, beetle-eaters, know dung piles are a good place to find meals. Some beetles survive this by disguise: one looks like a twig.
In Australia, the indigenous beetles couldn’t keep up with all the cattle and sheep feces, and a few dozen varieties of dung beetles from other parts of the world were introduced in the 1960s, which greatly reduced the dung, which greatly reduced the flies that feed and breed in it, which greatly reduced incidents of “the Australian salute,” the brush of a hand across the face to chase away flies. Dung beetles are the blue-collar workers of the insect world; without them our planet falls apart, or at the very least, we live life in shit up to our clavicles.
Let me quote a paragraph on dung beetles by the superb science writer Natalie Angier that sounds almost rhapsodic, almost Whitmanesque: “Each day, dung beetles living in the cattle ranches of Texas, the plains of Africa, the deserts of India, the meadows of the Himalayas, the dense undergrowth of the Amazon — any place where dirt and dung come together — assiduously clear away millions of tons of droppings, the great bulk of it from messy mammals like cows, horses, elephants, monkeys, and humans.”
I had one more question for Bob Parks. I wanted to know how those holes got in sweaters from moths when you never saw a moth in your closet or drawer. Well, the moth doesn’t stick around — it lays the egg, the egg turns to larva and eats the sweater, then it leaves. But, it might not be moths after all. Might be a very common beetle called a carpet beetle. Moths often take the rap for their dirty work. Parks told me one more thing about the carpet beetle. It’s a danger to entomologists: it likes to eat insect collections!