Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Aaand there went another Groundhog Day. You know what that means: we're more than halfway through winter. Time to think about the birds and the bees.


I think about the birds much of the time, but late last year I found myself suddenly intrigued by the bees and other bugs (thank you Ed Yong, for An Immense World). In typical fashion my timing was off, as it was nearly the start of winter -- not the ideal time to tromp around looking for invertebrates.

But now the days are finally getting longer, and with the help of a good-sized stack of books, I continue to be gobsmacked by insects. On top of the stack is a new book by Karen Bakker that I mentioned in my previous "Deep Listening" post, called The Sounds of Life. I recommend it highly, both as a sharp follow-up to the animal communication theme of that post and as a source of more fascinating facts about the life that surrounds us. Which, of course, includes far more bugs than you ever imagined. (But fewer than before. More on that later).

In the insect realm Bakker mostly focuses on honeybees, which is a little unfortunate but understandable, given how everyone seems to like them. Perhaps you know that the honeybee is the official Kansas State Insect -- although it's not from Kansas. Kansas is home to hundreds of species of native bees, all of whom are tougher and do a better job of pollination than imported honeybees. Of course there are loads of other Kansas insects one might also consider, like grasshoppers, butterflies, sphinx moths, cicadas, velvet ants (which are wasps), brown recluse spiders, and even chiggers (though those last two aren't insects).

Speaking of velvet ants, one of the charismatic little critters that made a big impression on me (not literally) when I moved to Kansas, I have to mention Justin Schmidt's The Sting of the Wild, if for no other reason than his informing me that those cute fuzzy red wingless wasps are also called cow killers. Schmidt knows all about this, for he has a Ph.D. in getting stung. When I picked up The Sting of the Wild I expected a light-hearted ain't-this-a-hoot kind of book, but Schmidt is seriously scientific in his efforts, and lays all kinds of evolution and ecosystem dynamics on the reader. Which is great. It certainly beats getting stung by a cow killer.

That book and its painfully extensive take on stinging insects led me to Seirian Sumner's Endless Forms, a biggish book with a Darwinian title and more than you ever wanted to know about wasps. I'm lucky enough to live amidst mud daubers and parasitic, gall, and paper wasps, and find them fascinating -- from an appropriate distance (pro tip: hold your breath, for they key into CO2). I have to say, however, that I'm disappointed that my favorite one doesn't make an appearance in Endless Forms -- the massive and menacing cicada killer. Nothing quite compares to witnessing one of those beasts flying fast and low across the yard, clamped tightly to the cicada that it somehow carries beneath.

Alas, many of the bug books we have at the library describe how insect numbers are declining and what that means for the global ecosystem. Some of us remember how our car windshields and grills used to get disgustingly splattered by bugs, even on a short summertime drive to the 7-11. Not so much anymore. This may seem innocuous, or even welcome, but as yet another example of the biodiversity crisis it does not bode well. Famed ecologist and entomologist E. O. Wilson (who did much to push the term "biodiversity" with a big conference nearly 40 years ago) suggested that we set aside a few acres not just for his beloved ants, but to stave off the mass extinction of species -- including our own. His proposal: Half-earth

There are more buggy doom and gloom books in the stacks, but…I feel I’d be remiss if I didn't change course and mention A Kansas Bestiary, which celebrates its tenth anniversary right about now. Written as a fundraiser for the Kansas Land Trust, Doug and Lisa and I tried to include within our small book a representative chunk of Kansas animals, so along with the familiar bison and redtails, we devoted a couple chapters to bugs: two-striped slant-faced grasshoppers and regal fritillary butterflies. I'm happy to report that the funds we raised, which were earmarked for Douglas County, have recently gone toward a new Land Trust project south of town, called the Wells Farm Conservation Easement. Douglas County’s latest little piece of Half-Earth.

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.