Insects: their secret lives and lore

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Giles Watson

• Blattodea • Coleoptera • Dermaptera • Diptera • Ephemeroptera • Hemiptera • Lepidoptera • Odonata • Orthoptera • Phthiraptera • Trichoptera

Blattodea

Cockroaches

We stowed away amongst the flour,
But none of it arrives,
And now the merchant’s face is dour;
We scuttle for our lives.
Once the sack was full—’tis still—
Tip it up, and out we spill.
We’ll hitch a ride, on ships and coaches;
All humans love we cockroaches!

“Get your sea legs,” so they say,
Well, each of us has six,
All to help us run away
When we are in a fix,
And we’ve glands beneath, as well,
To make the whole place stink to hell.
We’ll hitch a ride, on ships and coaches;
All humans love we cockroaches!

In Brazil, our cousins eat
Most anything in sight;
They’ll eat your toenails for a treat
While you’re asleep at night,
But we are more genteel than that—
We’ll breed inside your Sunday hat.
We’ll hitch a ride, on ships and coaches;
All humans love we cockroaches!

Our babies come in leather purses,
And while they are hatching
We spread disease, and plagues and curses—
All of them are catching.
We’ll crawl across your butter plate,
Crap on your cheese when it is late.
We’ll hitch a ride, on ships and coaches;
All humans love we cockroaches!

But when it comes to settling down
As we desire, you know,
We like to find, not far from town
A cosy bungalow,
Where some old lady’s baking cakes,
Risen nicely for our sakes.
We’ll hitch a ride, on ships and coaches;
All humans love we cockroaches!

There is nothing nicer than
A little spot of baking.
We’ll sit as quietly as we can
To see what she is making.
And when her cakes are all ingested
She’ll cry, “Oh mercy! I’m infested!”
We’ll hitch a ride, on ships and coaches;
All humans love we cockroaches!

Source material. The larger species of cockroach in Britain are all imported, and most originate from tropical or sub-tropical climes. Eggs are deposited in a leathery egg-case, and the young do not go through an obvious larval stage, being similar to their parents, but without wings (it is this characteristic which distinguishes cockroaches from beetles). They have voracious appetites, and will even eat leather, but they are particularly partial to flour. They have stink-glands under their tail-ends which emit a foul smell, and enhance their popular reputation for odiousness. In fact, fewer than one per cent of cockroaches are genuine pests, and the other members of the order Blattodea are harmless and in some cases very beautiful. See George C. McGavin, Insects, Spiders and other Terrestrial Arthropods, London, 2000, pp. 74–76. The possibly libellous assertion about Brazilian cockroaches is borrowed from Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, p. 297.

Giles Watson (April 2002)

Coleoptera

Water Beetle (Dytiscus marginalis)

My back legs are paddles with blades made of bristles,
My forelegs have suckers for holding my love.
I’m flattened and fluted for gliding through water,
Yellowed my sides, but I’m darkened above.

I once was long, and breathed through my bottom,
Eleven segments, when I was but young.
Waiting for victims in buoyant suspension
By surface-tension, from pond water hung.

Killing my specialty, wee water-boatmen,
Struck by my mandibles, overturned keels,
Their innards I’d liquefy, digestive juices,
And no-one would answer their silent appeals.

Now I am older, I kill just as readily,
Snatching the stickleback as he swims by.
Should a drought threaten, nought shall it bother me;
My pond’s not my prison, for now I can fly.

Source material. There are 110 species of water beetle in Britain and Ireland, of which thirteen are relatively large. As Edmund Sandars notes (An Insect Book for the Pocket, pp. 158–159), a water beetle such as Dytiscus marginalis “very soon becomes the sole occupant of any aquarium into which it is introduced, as it will kill fish, frogs, or any other living thing which it can master, and it is surprising how large a victim it will overcome.” The larvae and adults are equally voracious. The larva hangs suspended from the surface of the pond, and breathes through spiracles at the end of its rear segment. The adults fly readily from one body of water to another.

Giles Watson (May 2002)

Cockchafer (Melolontha melolontha)

My mother’s ovipositor
Deposits me underground,
And there I hatch out, insulated
From every sight and sound.

In springtime I feed on the roots
Of grass and growing corn,
But I retire to greater depths
On a frosty winter’s morn.

The crops shall wither over me,
The farmer moved to tears,
And I shall hide here in the soil,
Growing plumper four long years.

Then I’ll make an oval cell;
As a pupa I shall stay,
When the chill comes in October
’Til the end of May,

When I emerge, my feelers branched,
Into the dazzling light,
I fly up where the oak trees tower,
And eat leaves at a height.

Light a lantern in the dark,
And I shall come a-flying,
And you shall find me, when I crash,
On my elytra lying.

Pick me up, I’ll flail my legs,
And hook at you. Alack!
I spy your lantern once again,
And hit it with a crack.

Source material. Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, pp. 170–171.

Giles Watson (May 2002)

Stag Beetle (Lucanus cervus)

My rival trundles through the mould,
His champing jaws with teeth untold,
He grips me in a vice-like hold
And strains to flip me over.

My six clawed legs are shiny black;
They creak and strain, I push him back.
We tumble down a leafy track,
A-wrestling for a lover.

I champ at him with antlers two,
And make as though to run him through,
Then I embrace my foe anew,
And back and forth we blunder.

Round his pronotum goes my bite,
His chitin crushed with all my might;
You’d think, to watch our silent fight,
’Twould rip us both asunder.

I grasp him in a dewy dip,
His legs fling out and lose their grip,
I turn him over with one flip
He knows I am the winner.

And we shall mate now, she and I,
For she shall pass the vanquished by
And through the darkened wood we’ll fly,
To drink sap for our dinner.

Source material. The enlarged mandibles or “antlers” of stag beetles are not merely decorative, but are used for fighting before courtship. See George C. McGavin, Insects, Spiders and other Terrestrial Arthropods, London, 2000, p. 123. According to Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, p. 166, the larvae eat wood, but the adults subsist entirely on sap.

Giles Watson (May 2002)

Dermaptera

Earwig

When daffodils thrust through the soil,
Then shall I be tending
Little white eggs, twenty four,
While winter frosts are ending.

I’ll protect them with my tail—
’Tis armed with pincers pointed,
For none is more industrious
When to a task appointed.

Four and twenty little babes,
Waiting for their hatching,
All of them with antennae,
And little pincers matching—

And if a clumsy slater comes,
And scatters them asunder,
I’ll gather them, ’neath belly white;
They shall be safe thereunder.

I like to sit and dream that I
Should see them breaking free—
Eggs splitting on the humus damp;
’Twould be a sight to see.

And when they hatched, I’d shelter them,
They’d come for me to coddle,
Like ducklings on the broad mill stream
Who by their mother waddle.

But I shall die before they hatch,
Struggle though I will,
And they shall see their poor old mother’s
Lying by them still.

Source material. Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, p. 299, observes: “The eggs [of the earwig] are whitish and said to number about twenty-four. The insects seem to moult six times and are fully grown by midsummer. They survive the winter and the eggs are laid in the winter or early spring. There are records of a habit very unusual among insects. The earwig is a good mother. She stands guard over her eggs, and has even been found to collect them if, experimentally, dispersed and to resume her station over them. She dies, however, before the eggs are hatched.”

Giles Watson (February 2002)

Diptera

Yellow Dung Fly (Scathophaga stercoraria)

It doubled as our larder,
This horse turd where we grew;
One day we pupated
And another day we flew.

We have hairy legs,
Dung-coloured are our bristles,
We fly and look for fresh new piles
Among the grass and thistles.

When you walk by we’ll gad about,
A merry cloud of yellow
Where the dung is steaming
Or where it has grown mellow.

When we were grubs, we gobbled dung
Like all the other flies,
But now we’re homing in on them
Fixed in our compound eyes,

And all the scatophagic flies
We’ll gobble where they sit,
For now that we are fully grown
We’re sick of eating shit.

Source material. Despite its scientific name, the adult dung-fly Scathophaga stercoraria does not eat dung, but preys on other species of fly feeding on it. The larvae develop in the dung. The males, yellow in colour, are the most commonly observed; the females are rarer and greyer. This poem was inspired by observation of their habits on Port Meadow in Oxford, where there is a ready supply of horse dung. They are equally partial to flies which feed on cow-pats.

Giles Watson (April 2002)

Bee Fly (Bombilius sp.)

First, the hatchling, spawn of a mother
With no ovipositor, crawls exposed,
Gouges the nursery wall with his
Coronet of thorns,

Then casts off his gown, becomes
A spineless grub, legless, wingless,
His mouth toothless, his whole form
A jelly sac with sucking orifice
To drain the baby dry.

Strange bedfellow, stretched
Beside her where she sleeps,
His mouth kissing, not breaking
The skin.  She must not die
Ere he drains her - or she
Shall become poison -
But be mouthed to death
By a loving osmosis.

Then dons he again
His crown, and his gown.
The baby mummified
And dry, lies cradled
In her tomb.

Spine-armoured,
He rams her
Mausoleum wall.

The skin splits, and he
Has stolen all: her life
Her juice, the colour
Of her hair, the form
Of her fat abdomen.
Her nectar-sucking spirit
Is his own. He siphons
Through a straight proboscis,

Then finds an unmown meadow,
Seeks a mate.  The spawn
Is ripe within her, craving birth.
First, the hatchling, spawn of a mother
With no ovipositor, crawls exposed.

Source material. Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, pp. 138–139. The vampiric life history of bee flies (Family Bombyliidae) almost defies belief. In the case of a species observed by Fabre, the mother fly deposits her eggs outside a mason bee’s nest, and when it has hatched, the larva breaks into the cell of a pupa, using a crown of spines on its head. Here it transforms into a grub without appendages, and without damaging the pupa sufficiently to kill it precipitately, slowly sucks it dry. Having finally reduced the host to an empty skin, it pupates, and, taking on an animated form armed like a battering ram, it escapes from the cell. To complete the usurpation, the adult fly often also looks and behaves like a bee. The poem was inspired by my observation of Bombylius major hovering over flowers in spring, with its long proboscis, and its globular, bee-like abdomen covered with yellow hairs.

Giles Watson (May 2003)

Ephemeroptera

Mayfly

I am the last mayfly,
Emerging in July.
Blooms of meadowsweet
Tell me I am late.

Leaf-gilled I lived,
And ate, deep
Among drifts of detritus,
Preparing for this day,
Submerged with the silt
And my larval
Bride to be:

“We shall undulate
On air, we shall pair
Bristle-tailed,
I shall catch you,
I shall clasp you,
We shall fall to ground
Through passion.”

*

I shed the skin
Of the sub-imago,
My mouthparts gone,
My gut gorged with air,
Dark dun, then
Sex-charged spinner.

Flux-winged I fly,
But she lies limp,
Fallen, with
Extinguished eyes.

I am the last mayfly,
Emerging in July.
Blooms of meadowsweet
Tell me I am late.

Source material. The vast proportion of a Mayfly’s life is spent underwater in the larval stage, and adult mayflies live only to mate. The imago does not possess mouthparts, since it does not have time to eat. Mayflies are unique among insects in moulting once more after emerging in their winged form; the pre-moulting adults are darker in colour, and are known colloquially as “duns”, whilst the final instar are called “spinners”. There are some 2500 species of Ephemeroptera worldwide. See Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, pp. 267–269 and Michael Chinery, Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe, London, 1986, p. 18.

Giles Watson (April 2002)

Hemiptera

Bed Bug

I am of fine lineage; my forbears
Skulked in the crevices of London
In 1670. Aristophanes knew them too.

To prevent our coming is impossible;
A greatcoat holds enough of us,
In its hems, to stock a house.

We keep to the cracks by day,
Or secrete ourselves in old socks;
By night we suck your blood.

You can stop every nail hole with putty,
Every crack with plaster of Paris,
Smother the ceiling with white lime,

Dip the bedstead, disassembled
In turpentine or corrosive sublimate,
And sprinkle the sheets also, to no avail.

Though your house reeks and drips with spirits,
I’ll crawl the crack between your legs;
You’ll be scratching by the morning.

Source material. Curtis’s British Entomology, 569.

Giles Watson (April 2002)

Pond Skater

Look down into the water, to the algal layers,
A pincer’s nip from the grip of the dragon nymph,
Where water mites dance in miniscule,
And gold-flecked tadpoles bask and gorge:
There watch the shadowplay of mating and killing,
On a surface of spilled sun.

A film-winged skiff, the middle legs oars,
Twin rudders at the rear, poises on the brink,
Floating on the film, feeling for the tug
Of insects drowning. The water’s skin bends, 
Makes a meniscus she must not pierce 
With predatory claws.

Beneath where the water bends, a shadow blooms,
Like petals of a black orchid. A drowning moth
Looks like a bee, about to pollinate her, but she
Sucks him dry. Her lover skims bright waters
To her side, their shadows black orchids,
Brushing in the breeze.

Source material. Personal observation of a pond near Fingest, Buckinghamshire. There are several species of pond skaters, all of them predators. They spend most of their time hunting on the surfaces of ponds, utilising the surface tension, which allows them to lurk in wait for prey without getting wet. The claws are set back on the legs, ensuring that they do not pierce the surface. On a sunny day, a pond skater casts unusual shadows on the floor of the pond, because the water bends beneath its feet.

Giles Watson (April 2003)

Lepidoptera

Lime Hawk (Mimas tiliae)

By lichened tombs, and under limes
We lazed our dappled day
Where the church tower loomed,
Jackdawed and bat-belfried.
Sherds of snail shells littered
Anvils under grass stems;
Red kites wheeled against the sun.

The lime by the lych-gate, the ground
Littered with spent flowers,
Was his haven, half-wakened hawkmoth,
Part-way up the trunk. His wings
Were stencilled lime-leaves,
Chlorophyll impressed
In microscopic scales,
As squeezed from a green leaf.

Wrinkle-winged and trembling,
Perched upon your hand, he rehearsed
Dim memories of the green worm—
This imago, part autumnal—
And quivered, not with wind,
But with dreams, half remembered
From the chrysalis, freshly split,
Where once his wings were made
Like mottled endpapers
From an antique book.

We left him on the lime bark,
Tamed by daylight, to wait
For hazy dusk. When bats unwrap,
Kites roost, and stalk-eyed snails
Fear no thrushes, the leaves
Shall stir and fly beneath the moon.

Source material. The poem describes a specimen found at Fingest churchyard, Buckinghamshire. It was an unusual specimen, presumably newly emerged, and the green on the wings was much more vibrant than in any illustration I have seen.

Giles Watson (April 2003)

Dark Arches (Apamea monoglypha)

The tracery of dark arches is in my wings,
Continued in the curve of my antennae,
The mirrored cedillas, the ermine wisps,
And chevrons etched in black, the lead
Of the scaled casement, the paled crux
Where the wings meet, were once
A putty-coloured worm, shearing grasses
At their stems.

                        Grasp me, engrossed
By the light at your window. I leave
A smear of sooted scales inside your palm.

Source material. Apamea monoglypha (the Dark Arches) is a noctuid moth with forewings varying from greyish brown to almost black, with an exquisite marbled appearance. The larva feeds on grasses, attacking rhizomes and culm bases. The poem was inspired by a specimen rescued from the inside of a window at Dropmore, Buckinghamshire, on 4th July, 2003.

Giles Watson (July 2003)

Odonata

Damselfly

I clasp you gently by the neck, to mate, and thus we fly,
Your head will hold me in my place, behind each compound eye.
A love-heart shall our bodies make, while strums the cricket, slides the snake,
Our bodies like the sky.

And when you come, my dear, to lay, when songbirds’ notes are blended,
I’ll hold you just above the water; there you’ll hang suspended,
Then plunge you in, your eggs to lay, and I shall not fly away
Until our labour’s ended.

In tandem shall we make our way from weed to submerged weed,
And from our flight it’s plain to tell our way has been agreed,
Diaphanous our wings in flight, barely seen ’til we alight;
You follow where I lead.

Source material. Damselflies form a characteristic “ copulation wheel” when mating, the male grasping the female behind the head, and the female curling her abdomen around to collect his sperm. They fly around in this position. The male of some species (most of the Lestidae, Platycnemididae and Coenagriidae) uses the same grip to assist the female in laying her eggs, either suspending her so that just the tip of her abdomen is submerged, or plunging the whole of her body under water. If the male loses his grip, he will return to haul his mate out of the water. See Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, pp. 262 –266.

Giles Watson (April 2002)

Orthoptera

Mole Cricket (Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa)

Disgruntled little Gryllotalpa,
Unearthed by my wee spade,
Unhappy little Gryllotalpa,
Scuttling for the shade.

What happens if I pick you up
And tuck you in my palm,
And wrap my fingers all about
To keep you safe from harm?

Frustrated little Gryllotalpa,
Digging with all your might—
None but grumpy Gryllotalpa
Would put up such a fight.

First your claw will seek the crack
Betwixt my thumb and finger,
For thus the Gryllotalpa fights,
Equipped not with a stinger.

Determined little Gryllotalpa
Sticking out his head;
Offered safety, Gryllotalpa
Seeks his soil instead.

His body, like a velvet glove,
Slips hurriedly to ground,
He burrows for his very life
And shall no more be found,

’Til cheery little Gryllotalpa
Sings, as daylight fades,
And we shall dig him up again
With little gleaming spades.

Source. Reminiscences from childhood explorations of an Australian garden.

Giles Watson (February 2002)

Bush Cricket

As summer to his stridulence cracked the grasses brown
And twigs snapped in the shadeless heat, he wooed her
With the wands on his head, waving them in time with hers.
And as the burrs stuck to ponies and to socks, and the cuckoo spit
Frothed on the stems, he flipped himself over like a dropped pencil,
And lay in the dust, bum to bum with her. His legs grabbed her,
Caressing her slender sword, and at length he extruded
A gelatinous pouch of sperm, his first and last.

Pearl-coloured and viscous as a mistletoe berry, it stuck to her,
And he escaped the champing of her jaws to seek a slower death.

She found his corpse, clammy with the dew, and devoured it with love.

Source material. The bush-crickets, or long-horned grasshoppers, are unlike their short-horned relatives in a number of ways. The female possesses a long ovipositor, which she uses to bury her eggs, and the male performs the ritual described above in order to fertilise them beforehand. The bush crickets are also partly carnivorous, and if she can catch him, the female makes a meal of her mate after copulation. The male dies regardless within a few days, and the female will eat him then if she discovers his corpse. See Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, pp. 288–292.

Giles Watson (February 2002)

Phthiraptera

Louse

Sylla the dictator fell to our host
As Pliny’s discourse will tell you—
He scratched and he groaned
And he gave up the ghost—
And if that’s not enough to repel you:
We have lobster claws,
We have bloodsucking jaws
For tapping our guts to your pulses,
And our dinner’s apparent,
For our bellies transparent
Make it easy to watch peristalsis.

Source material. Pliny records that Pherecydes Sirius and Sylla the dictator both died of phthiriasis, a disease caused by louse infestation, and Quintus Serenus adds: “Great Sylla the fatal scourge hath known;/ Slain by a host far mightier than his own.” See G. Shaw and F.P. Nodder, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1789–1813.

Giles Watson (April 2002)

Trichoptera

Caddis Fly

Mothlike, she remembers
An aquatic world
Of mudclouds and waterweed.

Stones, twigs and snail shells
She once assembled
To make her tubular home,

Strung together with silk
Spun from her head,
Her body dragged behind her.

She silked herself inside,
Front door like a sieve.
Imprisoned for the changing.

She chews her way without,
Fly with feathered legs,
Her last life lived at dusk.

Source material. The caddis flies comprise a separate order of insects, the Trichoptera, with 188 species in Britain and Ireland. The larva lives underwater, normally with its body encased in an elongated structure made of small stones, aligned twigs or, on occasion, snail shells. The adults only live for a few days, and are moth-like in appearance, with four hairy wings, but with smooth antennae. They tend to fly at dusk. See Edmund Sandars, An Insect Book for the Pocket, London, 1946, pp. 238–243, and Norman E. Hickin, Caddis, London, 1952.

Giles Watson (May 2002)


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