Things Unseen – Tracking Tiny Creatures

Things Unseen is a special series of posts to get you and the people where you live thinking about the unseen or under-appreciated wonders of the natural world and what lies beyond.  It is April 2020, and the world has become a very different place as a tiny virus makes its way across the planet.  At a time such as this, we are sobered and humbled by the fact that this vast universe holds much that is far beyond our understanding and certainly our control. Perhaps we are meant to enjoy and ponder it more, as well as the things that really matter in this life.. things unseen.  Just a thought. What do you think? 

Bloody NetWinged Beetle
Bloody Net-winged Beetle (Lycus sanguineus)

Scottsdale, Arizona – It has been a very mild winter in the desert.  We have not had extreme cold and we are not yet starting to really heat up.  It means we have more time to be outside tracking wonder. The mountain slopes are loaded with spring flowers –  owl clover, lupine, chuparosa and desert marigold to name a few. Calling birds perform their nesting and mating rituals and can be heard from sunrise into the dark of night. As the ground warms, it is also critical that we make it our business to notice the reptiles coming out of hibernation.

With all that going on, it’s easy to miss some of the smallest creatures crawling, hopping, and flying over the landscape. At any given moment, there are an estimated 10 quintillion insects alive and well on our planet.  That is ten followed by 18 zeros! No other group of animals can even come close to their numbers. You might be tempted to ask… what good are they? What is their function in this world?

Like most tiny things on earth, insects carry out critical tasks we tend to take for granted. In the realm of unseen or unnoticed, teams of insects are busy acting as pollinators, decomposers, exterminators, seed spreaders and food providers among other beneficial functions we have yet to discover.

For instance, the vast majority of plants are pollinated by insects.  Trees and other plants are the lungs of our planet and also provide shade/cooling, habitat/nesting sites as well as food for animals and humans. The effects of massive deforestation impacts all life in ways we may not yet understand. Insects make up the unseen workforce that keeps those critical global layers of provision and protection thriving.

Narrow Collared Snail Eating Beetle
Narrow-collared snail-eating beetles are part of the clean up crews in the lowland forests.

Insects also play a vital role in recycling dead plants and animals into usable nutrients in the soil.  They are the first decomposers on the scene when a massive tree falls to the ground.  By drilling holes and excavating deep passageways, insects actually provide access and prepare the way for much smaller microbes, bacteria and fungus to break down tough fibrous bark.

Insects are designed with every imaginable eating strategy.  Some insects are shredders and chewers, while others are scrapers/raspers, scraping algae and other matter off of surfaces. Suckers and siphoning insects use straw-like mouths to feed. Investigate the unseen world of insects by looking for insects or evidence of insects in your natural space.  Can you find plant damage caused by insect chewers, raspers or suckers? Insect Mouthparts

Many insects are strict herbivores, while some prefer to eat other animals, hunting their prey with a variety of ingenious hunting tactics. Omnivorous insects will eat plant or animal depending on their stage of life or what food is available. One final group is known as detritivores. These insects actually consume any dead organic material that is nutrient dense, be it plant, animal or even feces.

Banded Alder Borer Beetle
Banded alder borer beetles help to quickly break down the bark and wood of fallen alder trees, releasing nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. Common in lowland forests of western Washington

Healthy populations of insects act as the foundation for balancing and maintaining the fragile conditions necessary to support healthy ecosystems. Not only are they an important part of the food chain, but beneficial insects also keep their harmful insect cousins from overwhelming vast swaths of wilderness, farmland and backyard gardens. In many ways, they are a gardener’s best friend.

Credit: Brett Hondow from Pixabay
Preying Mantises are the only known insect that can turn its head to look over its “shoulder.” They are so much fun to watch if you are fortunate enough to find one in the wild.

One such insect is the elegant preying mantis.  Although adult mantises eat both beneficial and pest insects, they are the only insect known to feed on destructive nocturnal moths. Their lightning speed forearms are also fast enough to catch pesky mosquitoes and flies. However, mantis populations in the garden take time to develop, but can be wiped out quickly with the use of pesticides.

Insects live on every continent, including Antarctica and can be found in abundance in both urban and rural settings. Ten quintillion strong, they each possess and ingenious exoskeleton, three main body parts, six legs and a set of antennae to help them navigate the world.  Beyond that, insect species exhibit mind-boggling variety and are a delight to behold once you start regarding them as wondrous creatures to be admired.  (View 360+ insect images by photographer Linden Gledhill) Their life stories are as diverse as their numbers with some pretty bizarre behaviors documented in the pages of Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

Here are just a few of those stories, but be warned: when you track wonder in the unseen lives of insects, your imagination just might run wild.

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

(c) SPegany
Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

References and Resources

  1. askabiologist.asu.edu – Big bad beetle
  2. howstuffworks.com – How many insects are there on earth?
  3. insectidentification.org
  4. Insect Mouthparts
  5. kingcounty.org – It’s a stream bug’s life
  6. Penn State Center for Pollinator Research – What are pollinators and why do we need them?
  7. Xerces Society – Bring back the pollinators

Images: SPegany ©2020 Preying mantis image by Brett Hondow from Pixabay  Header image is a Desert or Master Blister Beetle (Lytta magister)

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