Insects: The Savage Eden Before Your Eyes

A patch of otherwise innocuous nettles and weed, but I know there’s at least 3 7-spot ladybirds in this picture, I believe there were two spiders (different species) and if my camera was detailed enough there were numerous flies, barely noticable to the naked eye, flittering about before me. It really is a dense, busy, living world in every patch of green or decay! (Credit: Me)

You may look despairingly at your wilted herb in the garden, mourning its loss and the fact you’ll no longer be able to nip out for a quick snip of thyme. But look closer and, unless you maintain a strictly regimented garden even that wilted shrub will be teeming with life.

I think it’s a truth universally acknowledged that anyone who studies biology eventually catches the bug ‘bug’. Life drags you down to the nitty gritty of the undergrowth sooner or later, whether you’re investigating its many mysterious, regenerative cycles, wondering what it is those horses, cows, wildebeest, elephants etc. are swatting away with their tails or, in my case, writing a list of the most hated animals.

It started with a wasp. If you’ve been following me you’ll know the story. I wrote a list of the top ten most hated, but misunderstood, animals. I pencilled wasps in to be #9 on the list because I thought people thought like me. Even then my understanding was mainly empathetic. I knew about their social collapse at the end of the nest and the colony’s life cycle. I knew those late-summer/early-autumn wasps that so often sting us were half-drunk on fermented fruit, fearful, having fled a nest where their siblings who didn’t escape probably cannibalised each other.

This might be a wasp (the red one on the right, the black one on the left is definitely an ant!) but I don’t know. You see, there’s so much about life on this scale I am ignorant of! IT’S SO EXCITING! (Credit: Me)

I knew wasps hunted, I knew they pollinated, but I did not know the remarkable, dramatic extent to which they did so and my work just happened to coincide with work by Professor Seirian Sumner at University College London, and others, to change our view of wasps and their value to us and our world.

By the time I’d done my research wasps went from #9 to #1! They were almost universally loathed. I could find many defenders of the other species on the list but wasps had few. It changed me.

But it wasn’t just my view of wasps that changed. In looking for wasps, in seeking them out, I’ve found a whole world that I had ignored. A world of shape-shifters, disguise, metamorphosis, trickery, mimicry, beauty, colour, iridescence, savagery, love, pain, ugliness, grimness – It’s a whole microcosm of the very play of life we love to watch on the world stage, in grand documentaries featuring sweeping drone shots over forests and plains. Except this one can be seen in that wilted bush in your garden!

In confronting our mutual feelings about wasps I confronted my own, personal, feelings about the things that slime, slither and crawl. Some of them I had no specific aversion to, some of them I found disgusting and some of them freaked the shit out of me, to be honest. I still have no love for things with legs longer than their main body! But I’m not as scared. In coming to know, in learning, in understanding, my irrational fear has lessened as I have adopted a greater curiosity.

Above is a gallery of ‘bumblebees’ but one of these is not like the others. It is not a bumblebee at all. Can you tell which one?

If you follow my twitter timeline you’ll see I spent a lot of yesterday uploading photographs from a walk. Of over a hundred species shot I could identify and name only a fistful! I could point at birds in the sky, skittering rodents on the ground, I could give you their common name, their Latin binomial and tell you a little bit about them. On a larger scale I know a little about everything. On the smaller scale, amidst the leaves of the hedgerows, the blooms, fruits and grasses…I’m an idiot! A Curious Idiot™, thankfully! But an idiot nonetheless.

To many that would shake their confidence a little. One of the reasons I promote an agenda of Curious Idiocy™ is because I think embracing our not-knowing is one of the only ways to prevent harmful, ignorant action. I think being excited by your own ignorance as an opportunity to fill in the gaps, to learn more, is infinitely more valuable than to be insecure about your idiocy and thus cement it in with nonsense just so you can hold the pretence that you know something.

This is a leopard slug. They are a friend to your garden, eating decayed wood and plant matter. This one must have been close to 15cm at full stretch! (Credit: Me)

I was astounded at the diversity of life I saw on display and this was on a 7-8 mile (12km) walk across, I would argue, only 3 majorly different habitats.

The thing is what we think of as a ‘habitat’ is on our scale or, even, a scale above. We look at a forest as a ‘habitat’.

But life, well she’s a cruel opportunist and doesn’t look at it that way. I saw, for example, how the cuckoo bees, Nomada spp., were hanging around certain specific bushes. Now I’d assume they were either looking for other bees to parasitise, as is their preferred breeding method, or looking for food. Either way they knew where they wanted to be. The whole woodland was not their habitat, these specific bushes were. Certain flowers had a likelihood to have certain beetles on, there are beetles evolved to eat specific plants! Now if there are, say, wasps that parasitise those specific beetles it stands to reason those wasps then have to be around those plants to parasitise those beetles!

My favourite shot of a Nomada bee, caught mid-flight, but in focus so not merely a blur! They look very wasp like, and thankfully Professor Sumner set me straight that this is not a Polistes wasp! (Credit: Me)

I have said multiple times on twitter during this process, every bush is a coral reef. You can find yourself one innocuous flowering shrub and watch it for hours and see such a variety of life arrive as will blow your fucking mind!

On my walk I, sadly, had a destination. I had somewhere to get to. If I hadn’t, I could think of five or six places where I could have stopped and watched for hours.

What I think is a 16-spot ladybird. One of only three UK native yellow-and-black ladybird species. (Credit: Me)

In confronting our collective prejudice about wasps I have not only changed my perception of them, but I have changed my perception full-stop. There’s a whole Eden in the hedgerows, in the flowers, in the grass beneath our feet, and in the blossoms before our very eyes. There’s a bountiful paradise, a cruel paradise mind, it’s just you have to peer closely to see it.

I’d encourage everyone to do so. From tiny little spiders hiding like buds, big fat slugs, wasps so tiny and fragile you’d hardly notice them, lizards and slow worms slithering in the shadows, multiple bumblebee species, moths, butterflies, hoverflies so convincingly bee-like you can’t tell the difference, caterpillars, beetles (so many beetles!) there’s so much to see. I want people, especially people with children, to be encouraged to explore this tiny world beneath ours. Not only does it give you a healthy respect of how truly giant we are compared to most life on Earth, but it gives you a healthy respect for how hardy life on Earth is and why it is so vital we do our best not to fuck it up like we have been doing.

One of the reasons there are so many beetles! Yup, these guys are doing it. (Credit: Me)

I’m sure you’ve seen memes showing you how the bulk of mammalian biomass, the weight of ‘stuff’ on the planet that is mammals, is mainly humans and human agricultural species. It’s not wrong we’ve completely changed mammal kind. But arthropods, the segmented, many-legged phylum of life that insects and creepy-crawlies come from make up the biggest bulk of all animal biomass. Arthropods outweigh us on this planet by a ridiculous factor, arthropods probably make up somewhere in the region of 20-100x the biomass of humans. They own this planet! So I think it’s a good idea to learn about them before they get wise and realise we’re a harvestable resource, don’t you!?

One of the most important graphs for life perspective. Not only do ‘animals’ the group to which humans belong, make up only one 35th of the biomass of bacteria (yes, there is 35x more bacteria by mass, on this planet, than animals!) but of those animals, mammals, humans and their livestock make up just over a tenth of the biomass of arthropods, the phylum to which insects belong.

Plants rule the world, bacteria back them up, animals are an afterthought and even then arthropods dominate that world.

humans…We have a mighty big impact for something so small.

(Credit: Bar-On, Phillips and Milo, The Biomass Distribution on Earth, PNAS)

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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