Annoying bugs just doing what comes gnat-urally

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This is the eighth in a series of weekly columns about Colorado National Monument in honor of the park’s centennial anniversary on May 24.

At Colorado National Monument, the desert bighorn sheep is our Big Whopper. A bighorn ram can tip the scales at 250 pounds. This massive indigenous species attracts significant numbers of hikers to Lower Monument Canyon year-round. No surprise. It’s human nature to be wowed by sheer bulk.

Meanwhile, more “size-challenged” wildlife, such as rock squirrels and ravens, don’t command the same adoration from Homo sapiens. What a shame.

By obsessing over the biggest beasts, it’s easy to ignore a boatload of the monument’s tiniest, most-common and yet equally fascinating residents: bugs. Or should we say BUGS!

Among the most spellbinding insects are wild silk moths, swallowtail butterflies, scorpions, entire nations of highly industrious, if rather common, ants, and several “gall-inducing” parasites such as aphids, beetles and wasps.

John Moore, a retired biology teacher and monument volunteer, is a gold mine of information on the monument’s flora and fauna. One summer morning, the erudite Moore was in his element, surrounded by note-scribbling park rangers. He expounded on the metamorphosis of the western tent caterpillar, a bug that some of us knew only to look at curiously and wonder about.

Moore, who could turn the dullest story into a survival adventure, explained that tent caterpillars grow inside the protection of cottony tentlike nests attached to mountain mahogany branches. “They eat leaves,” he said, “but they don’t kill the plants.”

Admittedly, bugs do have a real marketing problem. They’re common as Kleenex and carry disease. Plus, bugs go buzzing around some pretty gross stuff, like roadkill. Then they find our neck to latch upon. Smack!

It’s difficult to put a positive spin on such unseemly behavior. As is often the case, a relatively small but vocal minority tends to cause the biggest trouble.

Exhibit A: the gnat.

Like a petty thief, the gnat has a multitude of goofy aliases: “no-see-um,” “pinyon midge,” “punkie” and “biting midge.” Scientists identify him as Leptoconcops. We like to call him #@$%&!

If the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences handed out a Nobel Prize to Mother Nature’s most obnoxious insect, the gnat wins every time. Consider, for a moment, the month of June. Famous for being the unofficial kickoff of summer vacation, June kicks off gnat season for those of us who work at the monument. They’re everywhere, emitting a low hum before every ear, scalp and ankle bite.

Swarms of these bugs — each no bigger than the tip of a lead pencil — attack our unwary visitors and us every June and well into July.

Gnats laugh at bug spray. You can crop-dust your exposed flesh with OFF! Deep Woods all you want, it will not faze gnats. They must take enormous pleasure in watching us scratch ourselves like flea-infested mongrels. (And you thought our monument trail crews wore mosquito netting because they are fashion-conscious.)

A Colorado State University entomologist once told us, “Only the female gnat actually bites.” His point? Be glad that half the gnat population leaves us alone.

Wait one minute. Before branding all bugs bad, let us consider the antlion. If ever an insect could use some publicity, this bug is it. In their mature stage, these delicate flying insects lead an almost anonymous existence at the monument. Many people mistake antlions for dragonflies only without the iridescent colors that make dragonflies cute.

Indeed, our antlions rarely attract attention from monument visitors unless a park ranger points out the telltale sand pit traps. So that’s what we do. We squat down to examine several funnel-shaped depressions in the desert sand.

An antlion larva, nicknamed doodlebug, excavates his or her trap for purposes of metamorphosis in the desert beneath rock overhangs. He or she has to eat well enough to grow up and fly some day. Hence, this simple trap.

Only now, when a young schoolteacher from Los Angeles and a retired machinist from Germany take time to notice this hole in the sand does an antlion become almost as interesting as a bighorn sheep.

We see the trap but no doodlebug, which is probably just as well. Scary doesn’t begin to describe this prehistoric-looking creature. (A National Geographic video, Antlion Death Trap, deserves an “R” rating in my book. ) Don’t look now but a brown harvester ant just casually strolled over the top edge of the trap. Fatal mistake.

This six-legged prey scrambles to keep from slipping down into the hidden jaws of a doodlebug. The trap’s angle of repose prevents the ant from getting traction. In the blink of an eye, it’s gone. We have witnessed a common and routine event, nothing more than an instant in the cycle of two relatively insignificant lives.

Yet the schoolteacher whispers, “Wow!” And again. “Wow!”

Over a century ago, transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.”

His words could launch a nationwide publicity tour for the monument’s bugs. We can see it already. Wow!

# # #

Eric Sandstrom teaches at Mesa State College and is a seasonal park ranger at Colorado National Monument.


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