What’s bugging you?
“What’s bugging you?” If you ask a farmer or rancher, you might get an impromptu lesson in entomology. Because those who live on and work the land know a lot about insects. First of all, there are good bugs and bad bugs. For example…
The list of pests that crawl, fly or slither their way to crop destruction or livestock torture is almost endless. Corn killers alone occupy a big chunk of farmers’ fury: cutworms, Southern corn leaf beetles, spider mites, army worm, chinch bugs, white grubs, wireworms and seedcorn maggots, corn ear worms, corn leaf aphids, corn rootworm, European corn borer, and more.
Aphids likely make the Top 10 Most Un-Wanted List because they suck out crops’ sweet sap, stunt growth, and reduce yields. Further, they can transmit diseases from plant to plant.
Want to see cattle, horses and other livestock kick, buck, shake their heads or roll in the mud? Just say horsefly, mosquito, black fly, lice. Aaargh!
On the other hand, many insects are beneficial rather than detrimental to crop growers and livestock producers, as well as popular among home gardeners and organic farmers.
Ladybugs gobble up critters that would otherwise gobble up profits or beautiful, healthy plants designated as fall canning candidates. At the top of Ladybugs’ gourmet menu are those wildly wicked aphids, Colorado potato beetles and whiteflies. Attract kids’ favorite little spotted allies with plants such as dandelions, dill and basket of gold.
Green Lacewings enjoy gnawing on aphids, mealybugs, leafhoppers and whiteflies. Dill also draws lacewings, as do angelica and coriander.
Ground beetles massacre slugs, cutworms, Colorado potato beetles and caterpillars (which they must share with Minute Pirate Bugs. The pirates also decimate spider mites, aphids and thrips).
Pollinators such as bees and butterflies are as welcomed by crop producers as is a deep Christmas Day snow to energetic 7-year-olds. And many of that age group, along with younger and older aficionados spent Saturday, Aug. 10 at Bath Garden Center and Nursery in Fort Collins, Colo., at its annual “Bug Day.” Kids were encouraged to come in costume.
CONNECTION TO REALITY
The thing about bugs, especially in today’s technologically based culture, is that they’re real. Their multiple legs, antennae, stingers and other body parts are real. Not robotic, not submissive to gamers’ skills, not controlled by Internet trolls. Stings, bites, itches, and wilting cornfields are real. They connect kids to reality
Though no one knows the exact number, it’s estimated that there are approximately 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive at any given time. In contrast, there are approximately 7.6 billion humans on our planet.
Although most specimens at the Bug Day event were more exotic than cutworms and aphids, Eastern Colorado butterfly species were mounted on a display board. An especially large Black Widow spider (who was ready to lay a cache of eggs) ominously dangled in her portable lair.
Entomologist Mike Weissmann, PhD, brought along cages filled with some of his best bug buddies, alive and exciting. The rules of the game were announced right as the session began at noon as eager little hands reached for the insects’ plastic carriers.
“Look with your eyes, not with your hands,” Weissmann said. After a second admonition, the youngsters got it, cooperated, and began asking really good questions.
Dr. Mike, as he likes to be called, has a superb resume for working with children as well as entomological critters. He and wife Rachel Williams founded the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster, Colo., where he served as curator and she as education director/volunteer coordinator from 1995-1999.
Dr. Mike tenderly cradled “Rosebud,” aka “Rosie” in his hands. He’s had the 25-year-old Chilean Rose Tanrantula since “she was a spiderling.” It was obvious to see that he had a bond with the fuzzy creature.
Williams admitted that she was not an entomology fan until about one year into her marriage to Dr. Mike. That happy union has thus far lasted 26 years; and Williams actually likes bugs now, including an eye-poppingly large Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.
Bold kids petted the female rainforest insect resting in Williams’ hands for almost 1½ hours. The young bug enthusiasts learned that Madagascar is an island off the coast of Africa; hissing cockroaches hiss as a defense, attract a mate, or to get their young off their backs (several mothers nodded and … did they hiss?).
When Williams added that this species of cockroach can’t swim, one boy about 6-years-old shouted, “Hey, neither can I!” Instant soulmates.
Another lad about 7 had wanted to come to “Bug Day” specifically to pet a Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. Suddenly offered the opportunity, his eyes ‘bugged out’ (sorry), he backed up, and rapidly shook his head no.
His younger sister, on the other hand, took one for the team. After assurance that the big bug doesn’t bite or pinch, she reached out and gently stroked the rotund roach.
The highlight of the day, scheduled for 2 p.m. sharp, was a 20,000 Ladybug release. One young Fort Collins girl came dressed perhaps as their queen. Juliette Jennings, age 5, skipped around clad in a Ladybug-patterned raincoat (good plan, as it sprinkled on and off all day) and Ladybug rubber boots. Her Grandpa, Rod Jennings of Loveland, Colo., smiled as Juliette accepted a quick Q & A:
Q: When they are released, will the Ladybugs crawl or fly?
Juliette’s A: “Oh, they’ll fly!”
Q: Cute outfit. Did you go out and buy it?
A: No. I already had it.
Meanwhile, Dr. Mike had his own interrogators. A lot of inquiries were about deadly brown recluse spiders. Everyone breathed a cummunal sigh of relief to learn that, with rare exceptions, they aren’t found in Colorado; and then only as unwitting passengers in suitcases from other locales, on transported farm equipment, etc.
Native to the Centennial state, however, is the Tiger Centipede. The largest of Colorado’s hundred-leggers, it commonly turns up under railroad ties or fallen trees.
The mounted collection of found-in-Colorado butterflies included the Monarch, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Two-Tailed Swallowtail, Weisemeyer’s Admiral.
When asked which are the bad bugs and which are the good, Dr. Mike noted that it all depends which side you’re on. For example, tomato hornworms can do considerable damage to plants. Conversely, hornworms turn into beautiful large moths that anyone might appreciate.
Dr. Mike co-authored a children’s book with longtime friend Greg Grote. The men have known each other since second grade, Grote said. Twelve years ago, he got an idea for this first children’s book, “Do Butterflies Play Tag?” Grote is a former elementary school teacher who now serves as director for the Loveland and Estes Park Teacher Association. The book’s colorful pages are brought to life by Loveland illustrator Dion Weichers.
A fun contest was held at “Bug Day.” Young visitors were invited to bring in secured containers of live pet bugs, or a stray off the family lawn. Winners would be selected shortly before the Ladybug release.
Fynn Lighthouse, age 11, was thrilled when “Whisper,” his Giant Sonoran Desert Millipede, won third place. He said that he’s taken care of the insect “mostly” by himself for two years.
At exactly 2 p.m., large containers of Ladybugs were handed out to adults and children. Immediately, tiny spotted winged creatures… crawled out and tumbled earthward. None flew. Not one. A few children shrieked but most remained stoic as 20,000 bugs crawled over human hands and arms. Cautioned by diligent parents not to step on any of the beneficial little creatures, kids attempted to heed the good but unrealistic advice. Several hundred pairs of feet were milling about. Crunch. Crunch. Oops.
But the survivors that eventually took flight will join other Northern Colorado insect species that earn their meals by wiping out those that would otherwise destroy crops destined for human and animal consumption.
For more information about entomology, visit Dr. Mike at http://kallimaconsultants.squarespace.com.
To view Playful Bug Books, go to http://www.playfulbugbooks.com. ❖
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.