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Outside » Natural World

Kids and Bugs: Talking birds and bees...literally

Those of you who have been reading this column for any length of time know that I have more than a casual interest in insects

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Those of you who have been reading this column for any length of time know that I have more than a casual interest in insects -well - all arthropods for that matter, including scorpions, spiders and other "creepy-crawlers."

The main reason that I enjoy them is that they are so varied; there's lots of them and just about all of them interact somehow with you and me. There are millions of species worldwide, with new ones being discovered almost weekly. I also receive a great many questions about arthropods. In that light, arthropods are hard to ignore.

Among all the outstanding adventures I've enjoyed with nature in my 80-plus years, by far the most delightful have been with children and insects: especially tagging Monarch butterflies. Kids never cease to wonder about nature, and neither do I.

One time, years ago, over at OMSI's old Camp Hancock -which has since been elevated to the status of "Hancock Field Station" - a young man asked, "Mr. Anderson (adults were called, "Mister" back in those days), I wonder if you could tell me about the birds and bees?"

That was a surprise, I knew the young man well. His dad was a doctor, so him asking me about that business was something I hadn't expected. Anyway, I told him if he wanted to join me with any of his friends after the campfire that evening, we'd get down to brass tacks. Just as planned, he and two of his tent pals (we camped in tents in those days, not the snazzy "A" frames they have today) came along, and as we settled down by the dying campfire I started into Planned Parenthood 101.
About the third sentence, he stopped me and said, "Oh, I know about people, Mr. Anderson, I want to know about the birds and bees..."

With that we shifted gears and got into birds. Like how a male American Kestrel, with mating on his mind, snatches up a juicy lizard and goes off a-courting, and how a female moth, when she is ready to mate puts off powerful pheromones (perfume) that shouts "Yoo-hoo! Here I am!" And as it is with humans -it's a fragrance that is impossible for males to ignore. We ended up with the bizarre mating habits of praying mantids.

That's Ellie Long in the photo above, looking at that tiny praying mantis we found over on her grandfather's place near Mitchell a couple of weeks ago. Ellie spotted it - of course - and after a while, I scooped it up, we both took a good look at it closely, and then I did that Disney photo. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you if the mantis is a native or an introduced species.

Praying mantids are well known for their predatory habits, and in that light they've been used for "biological control" in farming practice; from commercial to kitchen gardens, praying mantids have been the site of releases.

It makes no difference to a praying mantis what wanders by in front of it, those huge, multifaceted eyes don't miss a thing; they just reach out, grab it and eat it. Don't let that pious look of a mantid's front legs held in prayerful supplication fool you, either. If they're "praying" about anything it's for some delicious little morsel to come within striking distance of those long, barbed front legs. That's what they use to imprison their victims while they chomp them into bits. I watched one sneak up on a huge barn spider living on our weather station, grab her in those powerful legs and bite the spider almost in two.

Oh, I forgot to mention: life is not all peaches and cream for the male mantis either, his mate literally bites his head off during mating.

Unfortunately, not everyone who uses mantids for pest control is careful about where they buy their mantids. As a result, we see them imported from China and other parts of the world. Last summer, I bumped noses with the Chinese variety at my place between Sisters and Bend. While I certainly prefer natural control to chemicals, even then you have to be careful and make sure the "control" you're using doesn't come back and bite you later.

In the meantime, observe your children and encourage them to be curious; they will notice small things that hop, crawl and fly around and then they will bug you with questions. That's what "family" is all about. If you want to share with me what your children ask, please do; I love it.

jim@northwestnaturalist.net.

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