Yesterday was a bitter-sweet day, seeing (for the first time!) the temporary insect exhibition at the Durban Natural Science Museum. Charles Carter and I had spent so much time working on this back in 2018 and 2019. In January 2020 he was still putting the finishing touches on it… when Covid-19 struck.
Entitled Insects: the silent extinction. Do we know what we are losing? For a look at the contents, click here.
Insects are good at multiplication. They dominate life on earth – in diversity, numbers and volume. It may be hard to believe, but termites and ants alone could account for a quarter of all animal biomass on land. But now these creatures, that we took for granted, and whose existence even irk certain people, are suddenly on the long (and growing) list of things we need to protect, not destroy.
Luckily, insects can bounce back quickly in numbers, as soon as their natural habitat is restored, and the poisoning ceases – thanks to their ability to multiply. This issue contains stories related to this multiplication process.
The word ‘cockroach’ evokes in most people a response of revulsion. Like the word ‘rat’. We may associate cockroaches with filth, unhygienic conditions and disease, but by their own standards, roaches are actually quite clean. They frequently groom themselves. In doing so they probably spread the biocidal substances that have been found in their gut, over their body, possibly disinfecting themselves, like we do with hand sanitisers.
In these difficult and unprecedented times, where the Corona virus is spreading disease, death and mayhem around the world, it may seem strange and untimely to think about the virtues of cockroaches. And yet, the coronavirus can also teach us much about our unsustainable and unhealthy relationship with nature. Our aversion for a creature (the roach) that is not only harmless, but an essential member of ecosystems, is just one example of how far we have fallen from our God-given role as shepherds and custodians of life on earth.
Nature is not our worst enemy. We are. Nature is our life support – if we treat it right. If not, it has the power to fight back.
Or ‘The poor woman’s guide to higher magnification’
One day I saw this crab spider on a flower. Then I saw my grandfather’s old magnifying glass lying there, looking at me. “Hmm… I wonder…”
I got my camera, held the magnifying glass in front of the lens and took a picture. The one you see above. Thus began my love for macro photography.
Around that time I also got serious about my insect book. But living on one salary, with three kids, this stay-at-home mom could not afford to invest in expensive camera equipment. So I had to make do with my standard 18-55mm kit lens and… several hacks.
So the kids could not only hear amazing stories about them and see them in the book, but also meet them live and study them closely, aided by a digital endoscope which magnified them on a laptop screen.
Small though they are, insects seem to excel at everything. They have the five senses that we do, and then some. They hear, taste, smell, see and feel. But that’s not all!
Vinegar flies have speedometers and gravity meters. Bogong moths complete long night-time migrations navigating by stars and the magnetic field of the earth. Bees can see ultraviolet light. Some flowers wanting to attract their insect pollinators, or butterflies wanting to attract a mate, display special patterns that are only visible in ultraviolet light.
Sometimes I wonder how the insects cope in this world that humans have altered so fundamentally. Atmosphere, ground and water is infused with toxic chemicals, the air vibrates with strange radio waves and electric charges, nights are no longer dark, lit up by innumerable artificial suns and stars. So how do they cope? Not well it seems. Not well at all.
The beautiful Common Striped Hawk moth (Hippotion eson) eats our local arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica), but refused a range of common, exotic garden plants of the same family (Araceae – below).
Well, this was a little experiment in my own garden, that illustrates (1) what fussy eaters plant-eating insects are, (2) why exotic (non-native) garden plants always look so perfect (they don’t get eaten), (3) therefore, why they hardly contribute to the food chain, and (4) why, if you truly love nature, you should plant indigenous plants.
If you are looking for strange forms and shapes, you have come to the right address. Insects are famously eccentric when it comes to body structure. This article will look at one particular sub-topic: ‘Long things that stick out’.
Starting at the front end, the prima donna in this performance has to be the hose-nose cycad weevil (also featured in the title image), whose snout is longer than her entire body! She uses this unbelievably long ‘rostrum’, which bears tiny mandibles on the very tip, to chew deep into cycad seeds, where she lays her eggs. This gives new meaning to the Afrikaans saying, ‘sy eet met lang tande’.
They are irritating. They sting. They eat our vegetables. They make honey. They pollinate flowers.
That was kind of it.
It was such fun telling them about the many crucial roles insects play in nature, how we couldn’t exist without them, and then sending them on an insect treasure hunt outside. There was a map to follow, instructions to read, insects to spot, questions to answer…
What a wonderful topic: the endless variety of life forms and living spaces.
After a presentation on the subject, the grade 11s from the Umkhumbane Schools Project biodiversity group explored what lives in the car park at their school. The flowers on the waterberry trees were being eaten by a gazillion garden fruit chafers – a very common but nevertheless spectacular beetle.
Someone had donated a microscope to the group. That was a big hit! There is something special about seeing the life forms that exist beyond our immediate experience – and it so happens that the vast majority of species, numbers and biomass is on the tiny to microscopic end of scale – like this springtail which is less than 1mm long.
“Do you know what an insect is?”, “Have you ever seen an insect?”, “What insects do you know?”, “What do you think of insects?” The answers made it clear some of the kids had not even thought about thinking about insects.
Then they got a chance to stroke my enormous pet hawk moth caterpillar, to hold it, look it in the eye, they were both thrilled and ‘grilled’ (an Afrikaans word that means exactly the sort of shudder you get from a close encounter with an insect).
Just so we are clear: things are really looking dismal. Extinction rates are 1000 times higher than before we spread across the globe.
Yesterday my mom asked, “Exactly why is that a problem?” (that from a life-long nature lover and bird-watcher!) Answer: because we are part of this vast interconnected web-of-life. If they go, we go. Perhaps not all of us, but too many to contemplate. And being left behind in a world depleted of biodiversity is, quite frankly, unimaginable.
Today I stand with EO Wilson in heart and spirit, as he and his team celebrate the first ever Half Earth Day, and as they set out to protect and preserve half the earth’s surface to ensure that 85% of species have a chance to survive.
Watch a video at:
To mark the day, I visited a local school primary school and spoke to the Grade 6s about the environment, Half Earth Day and of course… insects!
I had never been terribly interested in fungi, until our recent visit to Ngome forest. One just couldn’t help falling in love with these little-known, little-appreciated ‘completers of the food chain’. Their beauty and variety was shocking.
Not sure why I’m posting fungi on this insect site. To share it, I guess, so someone else can go “WOW!”
Of course there were also plenty of insects . I was particularly intrigued to see a bugweed (Solanum mauritianum) apparently getting eaten by ladybird beetles. These horrible local invasive alien plants are normally in perfect condition, because they are so very unpalatable to our local mini-fauna. (Yes! Some ladybirds are herbivores. They are often furry, like these ones.)
Another very interesting sighting was a dead ant. Huh? Yes, an ant that had clamped its jaws tightly onto a twig and died there. A fungus seemed to be growing out of its head. This is a macabre story: the fungus produces brain chemicals that control the ant’s mind, forcing it to do exactly what this ant had gone and done: wander around like a zombie… clamp down and die… become fungus food (read more here).
Globally, biodiversity teeters on the brink of the next great extinction. Plant biodiversity is intricately linked to the survival of insects, and v.v. Together they support all other life on land. As the world strives for sustainable development and tackles critical environmental challenges, a deeper understanding and love of nature is essential. Educating children for the immediate future is key to achieving global sustainability.
2020Vision is an environmental education initiative that wants to give young people ‘glasses’ of passion and knowledge. Humanity must learn to coexist in harmony with nature. The world needs passionate young people who can see clearly, who understand the workings of nature and global environmental challenges, who know what can and must be done about it and who are motivated to act for the environment, in their sphere of influence, both now and in their future careers.
The Centre for Advancement of Science and Maths Education (CASME), in collaboration with Dr M.H. Craig, author of What Insect are You? are developing an innovative school curriculum enrichment programme supporting biology, life sciences and environmental education:
Yesterday I was thrilled to discover that the condition I have happily suffered from for most of my life has a name: it’s called ‘Biophilia’.
Most children have a bug period, and I never grew out of mine.
— Edward O. Wilson, Naturalist
The word was first used by the social psychologist Erich Fromm to describe a healthy ‘life-loving’ attitude. But in his 1984 book Biophilia, Harvard University entomologist Edward O. Wilson published his hypothesis that humans are innately attracted to other species and inclined to love nature. Here is a fascinating interview with Wilson.
I also firmly believe that children do have this innate love, and that ‘biophilia’ can be aroused easily in those who do not have it yet, simply by introducing them to little creatures. With every educational event this belief gets confirmed.
When people love, they become invested. When their heart is invested, they want to protect and nurture. It is the heart that motivates us to pro-environmental action.
Not fear. Not necessarily zealous environmentalism, nor dispassionate facts. But faith that something can be done, hope that we will succeed, and most of all … biophilia: the love for all living things.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.
— 1 Corinthians 13:13
Last week I gave a lecture to over 300 1st and 2nd year student teachers at UKZN School of Education, Edgewood Campus. Wow! What a thrill! I was delighted to discover that – truly – insects have universal appeal. The students exclaimed, laughed, participated enthusiastically, happily swept along by insect stories, which are always fresh and new and bizarre. The antics of insects can enthrall anyone!
They were particularly intrigued by different romantic strategies: from elaborate courtship dances in micropezid flies to the ‘run-and-jump’ manoeuvre of a male darkling beetle, from complicated sperm-transfer mechanics of damselflies to male-less, sperm-less cloning in aphids.
What really excited me that day was knowing over 300 young teachers are going out into the world, understanding that insects are the food base for most vertebrates, that insects need indigenous ecosystems to survive, and knowing of a few, simple things we can do to make a difference.
When teachers know something, there is the very good chance that very soon very many children will know the same thing. Teachers are the door to the nation.
In the light of this, we are soon announcing an exciting new project. Stay tuned…
“If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen”… they call it the windshield phenomenon.
This worrying article appeared in May, reporting that over the last 25 years 80% of insects have disappeared from multiple sites in Western Europe. While the world had taken note of shrinking vertebrate populations (58% lost from 1970 till 2012), smaller creatures were being overlooked (evidenced by the lack of long-term insect population data).
However, if it truly is, then there is no hope, it is too late, for it cannot be stopped, due to a “secondary cascade of …devastating chain reactions that no one understands.” (Doug Erwin) He says, “to a certain extent [people who claim we’re in the sixth mass extinction] are claiming it as a way of frightening people into action, when in fact, if it’s actually true we’re in a sixth mass extinction, then there’s no point in conservation biology.”
Our local futurist, Clem Sunter, in a recent talk to a Mensa audience, included this wave of man-made extinctions in a list of things he calls “a new normal to which we will all have to adapt”. He said, “the displacement of fauna and flora is set to intensify …meaning that the planet will be far less diverse […] in one hundred years’ time. Many unforeseen consequences may occur to the ecosystems […] as the links in the chain disappear.”
I am not ready for this ‘new normal’. Such defeatist talk is premature. For now the extinctions are mainly of ranges and populations, not yet (too much at least) of species. The degree of population and range loss is serious enough and “the time to act is very short” (Paul Ehrlich). But for now there is still hope. If you restore the flora, the animals comes back (eg. see here or here).
The worst fallout of the anthropocene can still be averted if we act immediately and decisively.
And what exactly should we do? Restore indigenous ecosystems and protect what is left. Get rid of invasive aliens, plant indigenous trees. Everyone. Everywhere. Now.
I was recently invited to speak at the Hillcrest Conservancy AGM. It was extremely humbling and heart-warming to meet so many dear people (mostly pensioners), who for decades have put their time and effort into preserving parcels of our natural heritage. The current chair, George Victor, for example was instrumental in getting Springside Nature Reserve declared and protected.
These amazing people regularly go in, remove rubbish, clear out invasive aliens, organize walks and public events. They even run training courses for gardeners. Thank you! I salute you!
Last week I teamed up with CASME for two days of educational outreach at the American Corner in Bessie Head Library, Pietermaritzburg. Talking about biodiversity with about 150 high school kids was so much fun. Are you wondering what they are all getting so excited about? Science! Nature! Insects! Genetics!
Insects are full of surprises, and there are so many of them, that one can never run out of fresh, interesting material. For example, we kind of know about courtship displays in birds. We may have seen male impalas battling it out to win the favour of their ladies. We know mammals feed their young with milk. But courtship, territorial battles and suckling of young – in flies???
The children were riveted by the idea that female aphids make ‘photocopies’ of themselves, then giving birth to these clones, which already have the next generation developing inside them. I mean, that’s just CRAZY!
The idea of urban forests is very exciting and trendy. Here is an interesting interview with the author on the subject.
It is heart-warming to see tree-planting included in our government’s agenda. See article. More about tree-preneurs in South Africa.
Indigenous trees, apart from all their other wonderful benefits, provide the edible biomass that insects need to build up populations large enough to support other wildlife (birds, frogs, reptiles, mammals and a whole lot of invertebrates). Indigenous trees.
However spectacular Singapore’s Gardens By the Bay (of concrete-and-metal tree-shaped superstructures with live plant skins) may be, I reckon if you like trees, plant trees.
I look forward to a future of serious tree-planting. Taken to its logical conclusion, it will lead us to the paradise cities that China has in mind. As long as we stick to indigenous species, I’m happy.
They were very interested, participated in the insect hunt, stayed for the mini-SASS presentation by Lee D’Eathe, and were thrilled to look at the water creatures Lee had brought with him, through a digital microscope.
It was just plain wonderful, and tickled me pink, to witness such spontaneous enthusiasm. It confirmed everything I believe about children’s innate fascination with nature, and is exactly what we need to tap into when it comes to life sciences and environmental education.
After sharing on this topic at Hillcrest Camera Club in June, I thought it might be nice to publish something here – in a few installments. It’s a big topic. I’ll start with what I would call ‘philosophy’, then follow it up with technical considerations and general tips and tricks.
Arguably the most important consideration in any form of photography is the content. If the photo ‘tells a story’, all other photographic ‘laws’ and ‘guidelines’ may be relaxed. In extreme cases a photo may even break the number one cardinal rule – “subject must be in focus” – (many would disagree, and I admit I’m a bit squeamish about this one). As long as it is worth looking at. And that happens when the photo has something worthwhile to say.
During a quick trip to Tanzania to visit family, I had some free time one day. So I went for a little walk on the outskirts of Dodoma – on the flanks of ‘Antenna Hill’ – to see what I would see. It was a disturbed area, a mosaic of natural vegetation and tiny cultivated fields.
James, my friendly Masai companion, spoke not a word of English but got the idea: we were hunting insects. And there was a lot to see – starting with a staggering abundance and variety of blister beetles. I have never seen so many in once place!
Yesterday, 24 April 18h21 local time, our family watched as the world population clock ticked from 7 499 999 999 to 7 500 000 000. 7.5 billion humans! Each one infinitely precious and worth saving. I know what it feels like to agonisingly long for a baby, to lose one, to give birth to one, to love three.
All these people have to eat and live. Unfortunately we want more than that …”the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life”… (1 John 2:16). What we are doing to earth in our selfish greed is frightening (see WWF and WRI reports).
The lecture at Edgewood Campus (UKZN) on 21 April was to celebrate Earth Day, which commemorates the birthday of the modern environmental movement 47 years ago. Though some things have improved, we are still losing ground. Since 1970 wild animal populations worldwide have gone down by more than half (WWF). Between 25 and 50% of forests and grasslands have been converted for farming purposes (WRI).
I can’t bear the thought of this lovely indigenous forest in Hogsback, which we visited recently, being threatened. The South African National Biodiversity Institute estimates that a quarter of our indigenous plant species are threatened or in a worrying state, the main threats being habitat destruction or deterioration and invasive aliens. Everywhere we went we saw depressing evidence of this (SANBI Red List stats).
The general attitude towards the environment is still marked by ignorance and apathy. Linked with humanity’s insatiable hunger for money, meat and ‘more-more-more’, nature continues to languish. Quite frankly, I am determined to do whatever I can to change even a few people’s hearts, and show them how they can make a difference in their immediate surroundings.
Insect-wise, our amazing Easter-time road trip around the Eastern Cape was dominated by amazing butterfly and moth sightings. Here are just a few examples. The hummingbird moth (Macroglossum sitiene, bottom row, 2nd pic) was special, but my favourite was the Sargasso Emerald (Drepanogynis bifasciata, top left). It is just too pretty for words.
The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is a beautiful picture of Easter, and of baptism: the dying of the old incomplete life, the rising of a completely new glorious being.
Educational event with school kids grades R-9 at Paradise Valley. Thanks kids for being so enthusiastic. One boy said, “I thought it was going to be boring, but it was so interesting!” I hear they went back to school and started digging for antlion larvae… That’s the idea, isn’t it?
Winning insect: a large longhorn beetle, the same species as on the back cover of the book.
However, I found my own special beast that day, crawling across a rock in the river: a rove beetle of the genus Paederus.
“Future generations depend on these small animals, so the focus must be on increasing awareness among the young. Research has shown that children are intrinsically interested in what a bee, cricket, butterfly or snail is…Yet strangely, while we care about our children, we care so little for all the small creatures on which our children depend on now and into the future.”
The presentation at the Bird Life Forum meeting (at WESSA, Howick) again started by explaining the role that insects play in nature, but then looked more closely at who else in the food chain relies on insects.
It turns out insects are on the menus of the vast majority of other animals. But even pure herbivores rely on insects indirectly, because around 80% of plants need insects to pollinate them!
Insects and plants are locked into a close partnership. Together they form the bedrock of every ecosystem outside of the oceans. This world cannot exist without insects.
Educational event for Botanical Society, at Durban Botanic Gardens.
The first talk, entitled “Insects at work”, showed the important role insects play in nature, as farmers (pollinating flowers and dispersing plants seeds), in the food supply chain (eating each other and being eaten), and in the waste management and recycling department. Insects, in a tight partnership with plants, are the bedrock of the rest of nature (outside of the oceans).
A paper published on how Grade 10-12 kids respond to the school life sciences curriculum concluded that more emphasis needs to be placed on what learners are interested in.
The most important aspect of science and environmental education is to tap into children’s natural curiosity.
As homeschoolers we know that children love to learn. They are programmed to learn. Tell them interesting stuff, in an interesting way, and they want to know more.
The better we know something, the more we appreciate it. And the more we appreciate it, the more invested we become: we want to protect it, preserve it. “Why do we harm nature? Because we are ignorant.” (P Cafaro*) Continue reading “Learning nature”→
…I don’t mean cicadas and their screechy Christmas songs… I mean BEETLES!
It has been the most wonderful beetle holiday, with amazing beetle sightings. It helped that we briefly visited Hluhluwe Game Reserve, staying at Bushbaby Lodge. The bushveld teems with beetles, especially now that there has been some rain after the worst drought in recent years. The best treat were various blister beetles, which Prof Brothers from UKZN, who proofread my book, said should have been included. Of course they should have! Duh! Next edition…
Then my husband gave me a gorgeous beetle book for Christmas, so I could fall in love some more. 600 spectacular beetles from across the world.
The first educational event at Paradise Valley was a great success. The children (and parents!) were such a joy with their interest and enthusiasm.
By the end of the presentation everyone was just itching to go insect-hunting. No killing of course, just catch, look and release.
There were some lovely results. Many kids found the skins of cicadas clinging to tree trunks, which have been emerging from their long underground existence, in time for Christmas. Others found crane flies, a soldier fly, a miniature ladybird, damselflies, antlions – both pit building and roaming, some interesting bugs, and many more.
The hands-down winner: a Fool’s Gold Beetle. This is a tortoise beetle of the leaf beetle family.
Running a fun, educational event for the local home-schoolers this week at Paradise Valley Nature Reserve. 100 people are coming! Hoping for good weather. Another event follows next week for the general public.
With lots of insect photos and videos the presentation shows how insects hatch and grow up, how they breathe (in air and in water), how they feed (different diets, different equipment) and how they stay alive (mimicry, camouflage and other more exotic predator avoidance strategies).
This book saw the first light of day in public when I presented it at our municipal eThekwini Biodiversity Forum. It got a warm reception and the first ten local copies were sold. An endorsement from the Senior Environmental Technician can be found here.
This book is the product of my various passions: insects, nature, photography, writing, teaching/training and people, especially children (not necessarily in that order).
This book has been a hobby project. I wrote it to bring joy to me and hopefully to others. It has been a labour of love as well as an act of worship. I love everything that ‘lives and moves and has its being’, and I adore the creator of it all. With this book I want to share that passion.