On this morning’s hike we encountered this colorful critter puttering his way along the rocks on the slope of Margaret Hill. He was bright and highly visible against the gray granite and the backdrop of green plants and about the length and thickness of an index figure. Which end is the front, you ask? He was moving right to left, so you’ve got to think the red knob at the left end was its head — but then again it might have been trying to trick us by backing up.
Shaanxi Province is in northwest China, near the border with Mongolia. It is home to the Wei River, mountains, and deserts. It was the founding place of many feudal dynasties. Its capital, Xi’an, is an ancient city that was the eastern end of the fabled silk road.
And now Shaanxi Province can add another chapter to its rich and storied history: huge, killer hornets are killing citizens by the dozens. The hornets are of the vespa mandarinia variety — the largest hornet in the world, as big as a man’s thumb, with vivid yellow and black coloring. These gentle creatures have stingers that are six millimeters long and carry venom so strong it can dissolve human flesh. Those unfortunate people who are stung by the hornets not only have to deal with unsightly dissolved flesh bite marks, they often die of kidney failure or analphylactic shock.
So, you’re sitting at an outdoor cafe in Shaanxi Province, cooling off after a vigorous walk through town, enjoying an adult beverage and admiring the bright costumes of your fellow patrons, when suddenly you hear a queer high-pitched buzzing, see the other customers scatter, and then notice an airborne phalanx of thumb-sized black-and-yellow flesh-dissolving insects heading your way.
Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be planning a trip to Shaanxi Province anytime soon.
As Milton recognized, every Paradise needs a Beelzebub or two. Here in Antigua, the satanic actor is an invisible bloodsucking insect that has made mincemeat of my feet.
What’s especially devilish about these vicious biting bastards is that they don’t seem to bite everyone. Kish, for example, has been left blissfully unpierced by the no-see-‘ums. Obviously, these are highly discriminating creatures. But what is it that causes them to shun some people while leaving others tattooed with bites that itch like crazy? Are they some form of hellish punishment for the wicked? Or is there something about my blood that makes it especially attractive to these misbegotten monsters? And why do these vermin seem particularly eager to nibble on my feet, which are now dotted with more welts than the Caribbean has islands?
It’s impossible to resist itching the bite marks, but fortunately Russell suggested going into the ocean — and it seems to have worked. At least, the bites aren’t quite as itchy as they once were. Rum drinks and cigars seem to help, too.
Yesterday Kish and I were at a store and she bought two new pairs of sunglasses. It’s a familiar scene. By my rough estimate, with these two new additions, Kish has now owned 3,461 pairs of sunglasses during our years of wedded bliss.
Unfortunately, the life spans of those unlucky eyewear items tend to be as fleeting as that of the common mayfly. They inevitably end up lost, or destroyed, or otherwise discarded, left to join their brethren in the Great Sunglasses Beyond, where they fondly reminisce about their brief but crucial days of service in shielding the eyes of sensitive humans from the sun’s cruel glare.
If these two new pairs of sunglasses turn out to be anything like their predecessors, their likely fate is as follows:
Left on a restaurant table — 10%
Pulverized by heavy items in an enormous handbag — 15%
Chewed to smithereens by Penny — 22%
Fallen apart after cheap screw falls out of flimsy frame and can’t be found, even with use of magnifying glass — 17%
Inexplicably lost within 48 hours of purchase — 35.9%
DNA testing has confirmed that multiple Timema species are female-only species that have survived for hundreds of thousands of years without males or sexual interaction. Instead, the females generate eggs without fertilization and give birth to genetic clones of themselves. Two of the Timema species have persisted for more than a million years without sex.
Scientists note that asexual reproduction has certain benefits, such as permitting rapid population growth. My guess is that any females who have dreamed of a world without males might think of another benefit or two.
An example of an insect encased in amber from an earlier find in Spain
The photos of the trapped insects are very evocative, because the insects look so much like the insects of the modern world. They feature antennae, and feelers, and segmented bodies, and lacy wings. It appears that, in the last 50 million years, there have been no large, developmental leaps for insects — at least, not in connection with body design and external appearance. Instead, the insects have been biding their time for those millions of years, letting the long roll of years and the forces of natural selection hone and incrementally improve what had already proven to be a very successful evolutionary design.
One interesting aspect of the recent find is that the soft Indian amber in which the insects are encased can be dissolved, allowing scientists to handle the insects themselves. Imagine, holding an insect that lived 50 million years ago!
Cousin Jeff is in town, and last night after dinner he, Kish and I sat out on our patio in the darkness, talking. As we chatted, I was struck by how loud the background sounds of a summer evening can be. There was a steady, discernible buzz of different insect noises, led by the high-pitched, crackling chirping of crickets. That symphony was then punctuated by an occasional dog bark, a happy shout from one of the neighborhood kids, or the distant drone of a passing car.
To me, at least, the thrum and throb of a summer night is incredibly soothing — and it also makes me realize how many unseen bugs call our backyard home.