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.