Outdoors

Monsters of the midday found on hunt for insects

The Nature Call: But only a small caterpillar was found on this trek

In his hunt for unusual insects recently, John Hanson was only able to spot a small caterpillar. (Aaron Eckley/community contributor)
In his hunt for unusual insects recently, John Hanson was only able to spot a small caterpillar. (Aaron Eckley/community contributor)

Bulbous, with a skin that rippled and undulated as it heaved its bulk in reaction to the disturbance.

The creature’s maw was formidable.

Only a madman or a fool would provoke it to discover if those jaws preferred meat or plant matter. It was the stuff of nightmares. And with an active imagination, or a size-shrinking machine, the nightmare could be real enough.

Alas, the small caterpillar was harmless and not too uncommon a species. Our trek for unusual insects would continue.

The weather was hot, it was approaching noon, and few clouds loomed to filter the sun. So, of course I was wearing leather boots, bib overalls and gaiters joining the two. Heat be darned but there was no way I was risking some small, many legged critter from finding a way in.

I was suited up for battle.

My guide, by comparison, looked like my man Friday: flip-flops, shorts, a T-shirt and no hat. The man who knew the most about all the little creepy-crawlies seemed to have no cares. I, on the other hand, was anxious; ignorance truly does stoke fear.

We tried the long grass along a shallow pond. The most interesting find was copulating dragonflies. United, they skimmed across the surface, regularly grazing the water. Friday said that was how the female laid eggs. Knowing dragonflies feast on mosquitoes, I wished them offspring as numerous as the stars.

It was possible even my man Friday was feeling the effects of nature’s broiler. He suggested we explore the woods. Sold.

A bike trail-cum-footpath wound us through a screen of honeysuckle to the shaded woods of maple, ash and elm. While my eyes were full of trees, my mind was on ticks. They are bedeviling little creatures with no redeeming value save for the manufacturers of repellent.

Their abundance has increased in Iowa. They are the boogeyman of mushroom hunters, turkey stalkers, geocachers and all parents who still encourage their kids to play outside. But why?

Nature’s ecological webs are so rich that rarely does one or two variables make the difference. Our trend of warmer winters means less tick mortality. The deer in Iowa provide ample hosts. Beyond the “ick” factor, the threat of Lymes disease also is real.

High populations of small mammals like mice and voles are needed for black-legged ticks — the ones that carry Lymes — to complete their life cycle. Our affection for whitetails and addiction to fossil fuels could be some reasons for the curse of so many ticks. I wish I could blame barberry bushes. But I’ve wondered if we are responsible for two more factors — noise and coyotes.

Foxes and owls are top predators for small mammals. Both rely on keen hearing in a silent world to locate their prey. But with our ubiquitous machinery, traffic and hum of air-conditioners, have we made a world in which they are less effective predators?

Owls can’t kill what they can’t hear. Wolves coexist with foxes but kill coyotes. The pioneers killed the wolves. Now coyotes are the common canidae in Iowa and they don’t tolerate foxes. With fewer foxes do we get more rodents?

At any rate, I now expect to return home with parasitic hitchhikers every time I take to the woods. Even groomed trails and mowed parks are no guarantee of uninvited guests. But neither is surviving any day from car accidents, dog bites or the deranged.

So I carry on, I hope you do too.

Friday and I got back to the car, drenched in sweat but happy. Happy to have taken up a challenge on a day when porch sitting or couch surfing was the default. Happy to have learned a thing or two about the micro wildlife that exists beyond my lazy gaze, such as syrphid flies and miner bees.

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And very happy I was free of ticks. I guess my preparation paid off — Friday was tick free, too, but he probably gets by on respect to remain unscathed.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

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