Five Exotic Creepy Crawlers
By Jay W. Sharp
Some insects, closely examined, would seem more at home in a fantasyland. With often bizarre shapes, astonishing adaptability, remarkable defenses, strange appetites, and unique reproductive strategies, they speak to the limitless evolutionary resourcefulness of our natural world. Insects stir the human imagination. They can alter the course of human history.
Across the globe, according to some estimates, the number of insect species may approach 30 million. A few of the stars in the insect world of our desert Southwest include the following:
Walking Stick -- The slow-moving, plant-eating walking stick, with a twig-like body several inches in length, has raised camouflage, mimicry and defense to a veritable art form. The insect blends so perfectly with its natural habitat that it often goes completely undetected. Its other common names - for instance, devil's darning needle or specter - reflect its hold on the human imagination. Occurring across our desert Southwest, the insect may feed on a single, preferred species of broad-leaf plant or on a variety of broad-leaf plants. When mating, the female and her usually much smaller mate may remain coupled for extended periods. Once she lays her eggs, the nymphs may not hatch for months. A walking stick typically lives for about a year. The walking stick, when it can be found, may be preyed upon by birds, reptiles, spiders, bats and primates. In defense, the insect may mimic a twig, play dead, or discharge foul-tasting liquids. Some species can spray a blinding acidic compound from glands on the back of its thorax into the face and eyes of a perceived predator. Human or pet victims receiving the spray in the eyes should seek prompt medical attention. New Mexico’s giant walking stick, Megaphasma denticrus, six or seven inches in length, ranks among the longest in the United States.
Praying Mantis – The praying mantis appears to kneel as if in reverence. It lifts its front legs, or “arms,” as if in prayer. Humanlike, it swivels its head from side to side – the only insect in the world able to do this – as if surveying the congregation of its church. It walks slowly, meekly, like a monk in a holy trance. But let a bug, say a grasshopper or even another of its own species, wander too near, and the praying mantis strikes suddenly, like an ogre, to kill and devour its victim. Ten species populate our Southwestern deserts. The male and female of a species may engage in a ritualistic courtship dance, stroking each other fondly with their antennae before they finally mate. The male may then make the ultimate sacrifice, serving as a meal for his mate. Come fall, the female lays her eggs, placing them by the dozens in a carefully braided pattern. After a spring hatch, the praying mantis will live for some months, until the fall. With its worshipful appearance on the one hand and bloodthirsty behavior on the other, the praying mantis has given rise to many prehistoric and historic myths. Indeed its large compound eyes bear a striking resemblance to those of some figures found in the prehistoric rock art of the Southwest.
Black Witch Moth -- The nocturnal black witch moth - the largest moth in the continental United States, with a wing span of six to seven inches - bears a foreboding aura of darkness and mystery. According to the folklore of some cultures, it can convey a curse from an enemy or inflict death on the ill. In Mexico, it has earned the name Mariposa de la Muerte (Butterfly of Death). By contrast, in the Bahamas, it's said that the black witch moth can make you rich should it alight on your shoulder. Don’t forget that. The adults feed, primarily at night, on flower nectars, fallen fruits' juices or woody legume sap. Like all moths and butterflies, black witch adults mate possibly throughout the year in some locations. The female lays eggs. Caterpillars hatch, feed voraciously, primarily at night, on woody legumes such as the mesquites, then spin cocoons. Adults emerge from the cocoons, prepared for a highly mobile life, which may include seasonal or mass migrations, sometimes across open water. Although it is active primarily at night, the black witch moth may still occasionally fall prey to birds, bats or even a spider. Otherwise it can live for several months. Despite its aura of darkness and mystery, the black witch moth, should it alight above the front door of your home in South Texas, will assure that you win the lottery. Don’t forget that.
Pinacate Beetle – Mess with a pinacate beetle, especially one standing on its head, and you may smell to regret it. Typically, the beetle – dozens of species of this beetle occur across the Southwest – strolls confidently through our deserts and mountain ranges scavenging for the flotsam and jetsam of desert plants, but if threatened by a possible predator, the bug folds its front legs and extends its back legs, effectively standing on its head. If alarmed, it will – depending on the species – either express from its posterior, “repugnatory” glands an evil-smelling oily ooze or an evil-smelling brownish spray. It is a smell that cannot be washed off. Generally, the unappetizing black insect discourages would-be predators, even skunks, which are not known for a perfume-like fragrance. It does, however, occasionally fall victim to a grasshopper mouse, which may snatch the beetle and stab the bug’s business end into the sand, clogging the repugnatory glands. The clever mouse then dines leisurely on the beetle’s head and thorax. Over the course of a season, the female lays hundreds of eggs. The larva require months to develop fully before reaching adulthood. The adult pinacate beetle, also known as the stink beetle or clown bug, typically measures an inch to inch and a half in length. It may live for one to three years.
Cicada – If the bush katydid serves as a one-bug jazz band, the cicada – perhaps the loudest of the insects of the Southwest – could perform a one-bug opera. Splendidly adorned with two sets of transparent and clearly veined wings, the male cicada has on its abdomen two chambers covered with membranes – “tymbals” – that it vibrates, when at rest, to produce its “song.” Typically a tenor, it produces an insistent call for a mate, an excited call to flight, or a hoped-for bluff of predators. The male produces a call distinctive to his species. Ever faithful, the female – also festooned with transparent and veined wings – responds only to the call of a male of her species. After mating, she lays hundreds of eggs in openings she has gouged into twigs. Once hatched, a nymph drops to the ground, burrowing into the soil, where it will spend the next several years in utter darkness, feeding on roots. Once grown, the nymph emerges, responding to some unknown call. It climbs up nearby vegetation, emerging from its old nymphal skin as a fully winged adult, beginning the celebration of the climax – and the coming end! – of its life. It discovers the freedom of flight, the wonder of light and vision, the allure of sound and hearing, the promise of new generations. Across the Southwest, from prehistory into historic times, the operatic cicada has become a cultural icon, sometimes identified with the hump-backed flute player, or Kokopelli, a charismatic and iconic figure portrayed in rock art and ceramic imagery.
When crushed, yielded a supreme scarlet dye.
Cochineal Scale Insect-- As the Spanish discovered when they conquered Mexico in 1521, the cochineal scale insect (or “crimson,” scale), when crushed, yielded a supreme scarlet dye, which Aztecs had long used in the production of textiles. Propelled by the Spanish, the cochineal would come to play an extraordinary role on the world stage—in textile manufacturing, territorial conquest, international commerce, cosmetic production, food processing and even science and art. Since it measures only a small fraction of an inch, the insect seems far too small for such an outsized task.
The cochineal feeds almost solely on prickly pear cacti in the lower elevations of the desert Southwest. The female drives her tubular proboscis through the cactus skin, where she will remain affixed, sucking out the juice. Simultaneously, she produces a white fungus-looking coating that will help protect her. As she feeds, the immobile female produces eggs beneath her abdomen. When the eggs hatch, the legged juveniles, females and males, called “crawlers,” make their way to the edge of their home cactus pad. The females, wingless, produce long, ethereal filaments, which lift the insects on the desert wind. Some will land by chance on new host prickly pears, where they will breed and make a new home. Winged males take flight, searching urgently for mates, perhaps sensing that they die within a few days. Over time and across Europe, the cochineal would bring the color scarlet to royalty’s garments as well as to cosmetics, various foods and even Michelangelo’s palette. It may even have been used in the cloth that Betsy Ross used in making the red stripes for the first flag of the United States.
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