The bright side of bugs

It was ten minutes after midnight. Suddenly I was engulfed in an ear-splitting cacophony of sirens and flashing blue lights that scared the proverbial living daylights out of me.
Issue date 8 June 2007

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It was ten minutes after midnight. Suddenly I was engulfed in an ear-splitting cacophony of sirens and flashing blue lights that scared the proverbial living daylights out of me. I almost lost my grip as I hung ­precariously on to the bars that screened the huge windows in front of our local café.

While walking home after spending the evening with my fiancé, I saw a beautiful moth sitting against the glass near the top of the window. The bars were the only way up there and as a final year entomology student, required to make an insect collection, I was determined to capture it.

Those were the days when you could still safely walk the streets of your home town after midnight to do your window shopping. Those were also the days when the police still patrolled our neighbourhoods and arrested anyone that seemed to attempt any break in. And that’s what they did – they piled out of their patrol cars, guns at the ready, like some SWAT team and promptly arrested me. On my insistence, after making a satisfactory statement under interrogation, they took me back to the café and helped me catch the moth.

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Unlike most of my fellow students I did not study insects to learn how to control or kill them, but rather because they are such beautiful and fascinating creatures. Although they are almost totally absent from the ocean, where they are replaced by crustaceans, they are of enormous importance to the functioning of all terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems. Insects not only form the sole diet of many birds and other animals, but are also the basis of numerous food pyramids on which many more depend. Small ­wonder they are by far the most abundant of all ­macroscopic organisms living on land or in freshwater habitats.

Ancient plants like cycads and conifers were all wind-pollinated, but modern plants are mostly insect-pollinated. Without insects most plant species cannot reproduce and will become extinct. Insects were indeed so important to these plants that the evolution of the wonderful shapes, colours and fragrances of their flowers probably took place at the same rate as insects developed their acute senses of smell and colour vision.

Like the flowers we buy on Valentine’s Day in the hope that they will pave the way to romantic success, the ­majority of plants on land that are unable to fertilise themselves, also use flowers to attract insects in the hope that they will assist them to ­reproduce. For this sexual service they are willing to pay. Part of their nutritious pollen and specially produced nectar is offered as food to their benefactors and sometimes they even sacrifice some of their leaves, ­flowers or seeds as a reward to some species.

If we consider the plants our property, we often over retaliate with broad-­spectrum insecticides by killing all insects in the vicinity, suggesting that we consider them a useless part of creation. But the exact opposite is true. The continuation of the process of photosynthesis, which is the driving force of life on this planet, is in fact maintained by this cooperation between plants and insects. Without insects, life on earth as we know cannot exist.

Although the vast majority of insects are totally harmless and many play a decidedly positive if not essential role in our lives, many people’s perception of the insect world is often overshadowed by the few bugs that give us trouble. We must rather see insects for the beautiful creatures they are and start to appreciate them by getting to know them. My fascination with them started even before I went to school when I would collect them. The ultimate proof that the conservation authorities have lately gone totally insane is that, although you may kill insects at will and millions are destroyed every day by an unethical pesticide industry that is largely unregulated, you nowadays need a permit if you want to catch any insect for a collection.

Of the estimated six million insect ­species on earth, only a fraction are known to ­science, but the near million that have been described are 20 times more abundant than all known vertebrates. Nobody needs to be intimidated by this astonishing multitude. If we take a closer look at these little six-wheel-drive creepy crawlies, we will find that to study and photograph them with the wonderful digital cameras available today, instead of collecting them like in the olden days, we can develop fascinating hobbies that can last a lifetime. The lives of even familiar insects we think we know well hide secrets we can hardly imagine. So one can start anywhere and from time to time we’ll try to uncover some of these fascinating secrets in this column. I guarantee you that it can be every bit as interesting and satisfying as birdwatching. A most wonderful aid in getting to know them is the recently revised Field Guide to the Insects of South Africa by Picker, Griffiths and Weaving, from Struik. It contains 1 200 superb photographs and is indispensable to anyone remotely interested in the outdoors. If your local bookshop doesn’t stock it, ask them to order you a copy. You won’t regret it. – Abré J Steyn

Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822. |fw