Time Enough

How we view time can be a source of comfort or pain. Many people, particularly eastern cultures, adhere to the belief that we live any number of lives: time is seen as cyclical and forgiving. Westerners tend to see time as linear, something we use up, something we never have enough of.

Whatever our beliefs, we all know that the lives we are living now will one day end. This knowledge is the ultimate spoiler, the price we pay for having a neocortex. Other animals are not saddled with this awareness—at least I assume, I hope, they are not.

In 1777 the British explorer Captain Cook gave a newly hatched tortoise to a royal family in Polynesia, who kept the creature as a pet until it died of natural causes 188 years later. That turtle pulled its heavy self across the ground, presumably the same well-worn ground, for 68,620 days. Was it weary by then? Bored? Might it have opted for a life half as long?

On the other end of the spectrum is the mayfly, a creature whose adult life amounts to less than a day; in some species, just a few minutes. The larval versions, naiads, can live up to a year, during which they hide in aquatic debris and progress through several stages—instars—before growing a pair of wings and becoming immature adults. The winged juveniles last no longer than the final version and are not sexually viable until a few hours later, when they emerge from their last molt with features unique in the insect world, paired genitals: two penises for the males and two gonopores for the females. They do not feed: their mouths are useless and their digestive tracks are filled with air. This day, their first and last on earth, all they do is mate—little wonder our creator doubled up on their genitalia.

Like locusts, mayflies “hatch” in stupendous numbers, trillions at a time. The males begin swarming over a river and the females fly into this mass. With specialized legs, the male grab a female and copulation takes place in mid-air, after which the female falls to the water’s surface and lays her eggs before dying. The spent females cover the water, providing a feast for the fish below. The males fly off to die on land, a boon to local birds.

Even the waiting wildlife cannot keep pace with these mayfly windfalls, and in some municipalities snow plows are deployed to clear away the mountains of corpses. While Americans consider mayflies a nuisance, tribes in Africa make nutritious patties out of them.

It would seem that a mayfly’s fleeting life amounts to nothing more than sustenance for larger creatures. Mayflies, all 2500 species of them, are designed as sacrifices, put here for the greater good. Twenty-four hours is all the time they are given and all the time they need.

The ancient Greeks had a saying:

“There is not a short life or a long life.
There is only the life that you have,
and the life you have is the life you are given,
the life you work with.
It has its own shape, describes its own arc, and is perfect.”

A whole life in one day. It must be glorious.

Seasons in the Sun

In the spring of 2013, the seventeen-year cicadas, called Magicicadas, emerged from their burrows along the eastern seaboard. This was Brood II and involved seven states. In 2012 Brood I emerged in Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Brood VIII appeared right on schedule in west Pennsylvania in 2019.

I love this chart—it’s like a treasure map. How wonderful to know that if I show up in a woods in southern Wisconsin in the spring of 2024, I will witness the emergence of millions of cicadas. I would like to be there, peering at the ground, when the very first one sticks his head up. “Welcome,” I would say. “Welcome to this world.”

When the nymphs emerge, their bodies are soft and cave-white. I imagine they are blind, too, which might explain why they show up after sunset: sunlight must be shocking after seventeen years underground. The first thing they do is find a bit of vegetation to rest on while they complete a final molt that takes them into adulthood. In a week’s time, their exoskeletons have hardened and darkened, and they have grown transparent wings with orange veins. Their eyes, now quite large, are bright red. Like stubborn ghosts, the skins of their youth remain in the places they were.

The males, seeking mates, begin contracting their abdomens to make a series of loud buzzing and clicking noises. Often they form choruses high in the sunlit branches of trees, and their considerable racket attracts females of the same species. While the females don’t sing, they answer the males with a noise of their own, a movement called a wing flick, which can vary from a rustle to a sharp pop. Eventually they all find each other and a mass mating occurs overhead, after which the females cut slits in twigs and lay their several hundred eggs. Six weeks later the eggs hatch, releasing nymphs the size of ants that fall to the ground and immediately burrow in. For nearly two decades these pale bugs tunnel through a black world, sucking tree root sap as needed and growing ever so slowly. No one knows why they stay hidden for so long, or what finally beckons them skyward all at once.

Cicadas don’t live long as adults, not even long enough to see their progeny. In a month’s time, they sing, mate, lay eggs and die, leaving an immense litter of dry husks. So many of them come into the world that even after the birds and rodents are satiated, the population remains intact.

I suppose those four weeks of glory is the point of a cicada’s life, but I wonder about the young, who live seventeen years in silence, impervious to cold and wind and noise. I see them tunneling away, no clue there’s another world waiting, no need to know anything but the next quarter inch. It seems a kindness, all that time to be young.

The Praying Mantis

I’ve seen what the bite of a brown recluse spider can do; a friend of mine lost a chunk of his thigh that way. The bite of a black widow spider can be gruesome too—scroll through a few internet photos. When outhouses were still common, so were black widow bites, and men, with their thin-skinned, unprotected genitalia, were especially vulnerable. I can’t imagine a more abrupt wake-up call than a spider bite to the scrotum.

Scorpions deliver venom through a stinger at the tip of their tails. Unchanged for eons, these arachnids have become a symbol of power and/or evil, their cautionary image appearing on countless artifacts. While bees have garnered a friendlier reputation, their stings are equally painful and in some cases fatal. Thirty times more painful than a bee sting is the pierce of a bullet ant, common in the rain forests of Nicaragua and Paraguay. Closer to home is the kissing bug, a creature that inhabits the American southwest and transmits Chagas, an infection that kills 12,000 people a year. Leading the pack of dangerous insects is the mosquito, whose disease-rich blood kills one child every half minute.

While all these treacherous creatures command respect, the bug that truly unnerves me, for its stealth, its guises, its casual cannibalism, is the praying mantis. Harmless to humans, this lanky assassin dispatches other insects with alarming speed and can even snatch hummingbirds from the air, a feat I hope never to witness.

Praying mantises are usually discovered by chance. Trimming a hedge, admiring a bloom, we become aware of a slim apparition poised on the periphery. Tan, green, brown or black (camouflage is one of their many endowments), mantises appear ominous in any color, and only the most hardened among us doesn’t startle at the sight of them. These creatures are gluttonous, their appetites keeping pace with their prowess, and some will explode their own abdomens in an orgy of greed. A mantis in the garden is a harbinger of doom: something is going to die, horribly and soon.

Mantises have triangular heads, a beaky snout and bulging compound eyes with which they can follow minute movements and zero in on their victims. A flexible neck allows them to turn their heads 180 degrees. Sometimes mantises camouflage themselves and wait for a luckless bug; other times they actively stalk, avid as egrets. A few fearsome ground species race across the dirt in pursuit of their panicked prey. A mantis’s forelegs are oversized and edged with spines, ensuring a solid hold on whatever they seize. Most species have two sets of wings, the tougher, outer set serving as armor for the more delicate hind wings. Though they are chiefly diurnal, they often fly at night, perhaps to avoid being eaten by birds. To elude bats, they employ a specialized auditory organ capable of detecting echolocation calls. 

Mantises are masters of adaptation. Some Australian species will turn black after a molt, their coloration mimicking the landscape of fire season. Those that live on mono-colored surfaces have flattened bodies to eliminate their own shadows. Some resemble flowers, turning unwitting pollinators into easy pickings.

Female mantises are mercurial, one day allowing a mate to do his business and leave, another day chomping off his head, even before copulation has begun. The headless male is not deterred and will perform with more urgency. Occasionally the female will decapitate the male afterward, or eat him whole, bestowing a boost of nutrition on her prodigious progeny—as many as 400 eggs are produced. The frothy egg mass soon hardens into a winter-worthy case from which the nymphs emerge on a warm spring day, consuming each another as they stream into the world. Only about a fifth will survive their own savagery.

Some gardeners, wanting eco-friendly pest control, will purchase these egg cases and place them in the yard. The problem is, praying mantises do not discriminate; they will eat aphids and cutworms, along with lady bugs and butterflies. They just don’t see the difference.

I learned this up close last week when I spotted a praying mantis in my flower bed. Thrilled, I bent down for a closer look and saw with dismay that it was dining on a bee. A bee! Our most vital and endangered bug. I watched in horror as the mantis munched its way through the striped body. I watched until the end, until the last tuft of yellow fuzz was gone, and the last tiny pane of wing. Only then did the mantis turn its alien head and look up at me. For several seconds we peered at one another. It did not flinch, even when I raised my phone and snapped a picture.

At last it lowered its head, perhaps concluding I was too big to eat and thus of no value or interest. Then, cool as a cat, it lifted a foreleg and began grooming, neatly removing the last bits of bee.

What Ants Know

824-ant-matabele-wound-dress-1
There are ants that tend to their injured
by licking their wounds,
slowly transferring their own health
into fallen soldiers,
sealing fresh lesions against lethal bacteria.
Who can say why a creature as small as an ant
with so many hardy brethren,
would bother to stop—an hour if need be—
and help a troop.
In that tiny helmet of a head
are there neurons of compassion, of pity,
or are these ministrations automatic, instinct,
like the urge to tunnel or serve a queen
(what is instinct anyway
but a word for what we can’t explain?).
Some ants will even evac a battered brother,
not the terminal—those who have lost too many limbs
to the brutal jaws of termites—
but the ones who, with proper attention,
may fight another day.
The medics sense the difference
and do what they can
before moving farther afield,
gifted with the knowing
there is not a moment to spare.

The Common Lacewing

3722405531_6f628764c7_b

A green lacewing. Isn’t it stunning? The looping cellophane wings, the extravagant antennae, the eyes a pair of shining beads. And that streamlined body–in all the world, could there be a truer green? Imagine taking flight with those diaphanous wings, sailing into darkness with see-through tackle. Maybe, with lives this brief, beauty pre-empts sturdiness.

29171398902_eb4c749fb6_b

Adult lacewings are nocturnal and fairly passive; most feed on nectar, pollen and honeydew. At some point during their four-to six-week lives, they find a mate, touch antennae, mingle mouthparts, and finally join abdomens, jerking and vibrating in a vertical position. The female soon lays 100 to 200 eggs on foliage, ideally with plenty of aphids nearby. Each dainty white egg is secured at the end of a filament about a half inch in length. After a few days the eggs hatch, molt, and the emerging larvae climb up the stalks and into the sunshine. Immediately they start feasting on whatever they can find: aphids, mites, caterpillars, other small bugs and eggs. These creatures are so proficient at dispatching aphids that lacewing eggs are shipped to gardeners and farmers for use as biological pest control.

9050112299_9b5336058e_b

Unlike humans, who are most comely in their youth, lacewing larvae are not what we’d call attractive. Their humpback bodies are swollen in the middle, and tufts of bristles protrude from their sides. These bristles are neither armor nor adornment. They are there to help secure dead victims and other debris to the backs of the larvae. As the gruesome collection grows, it serves as camouflage from birds and other predators, while offering the host cover for hunting.

Green Lacewing Nymph (Chrysopidae)

Lacewing larvae tend to swing their heads from side to side as they search for food, seizing what they find with their strong mandibles and injecting it with paralyzing venom. The hollow jaws then draw out the body’s fluid, after which the corpse is tossed onto the heap of other luckless prey. Occasionally these rapacious predators, also called aphid lions and aphid wolves, will even bite humans. In two or three weeks nature cues them to stop eating and start spinning cocoons, from which adult lacewings appear five days later to repeat the cycle.

Fearsome youth or fragile beauty–makes no difference to the common lacewing, who is always both, forever coming, forever going, a crawler with notions of flight, a flyer with flashbacks of sunshine.

Photo by mbrochh on Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo by dreed41 on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA 
Photo by Pasha Kirillov on Foter.com / CC BY-SA
Photo by Marcello Consolo on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Strange Company

519dbqbolul

As most of you know, I am a writer (and I say that with the deepest humility). Because I believe that everyone should give the world whatever skills they possess, modest or monumental, I have gathered twenty of my brief nature essays into a collection called Strange Company, which  is now available as an eBook for $2.99. If you don’t have a tablet, you can download the Kindle app or Adobe Digital Editions to your computer.

Do lizards fall in love? What do sloths think about all day? Why is the blood of a horseshoe crab so valuable? Do starlings flock for fun? Do turtles ever grow bored with their long lives? Can snails be fearless? Can a parrot be a therapist?

These are some of the questions that keep me up at night. Maybe you’re likewise in awe of the natural world, or maybe you’d just like a breather from daily events. Either way, $2.99 is a pretty good deal, right? And you even get photos 🙂