Sunday, July 26, 2009


Yesterday morning I went down to the Effie Yeaw Nature Center to see a presentation on insects. I had a pretty good idea that it was going to be aimed at people much younger than myself (and I was right), but I hoped I might thereby get a gentle introduction to the local bugs. It would have been worth going anyway just to hear the questions the people much younger than myself were asking: "Does a bug see like us?" asked a small person, who had just had compound eyes explained to her, "Or does it see the same thing lots of times?"

After the presentation the group was lead on a short walk around the nature center to see what we could see. A tiny child, with a fluff of fine blonde hair that made her look rather as though a hearty wind could blow her away like a milkweed seed, spotted the first bug--really a bug, I mean, something like this one, but after that, the pickings were rather slim. The naturalist in charge had thought ahead in case of such an emergency and knew where we were likely to find a few galls. Here are some on a black walnut leaf.Yes, they are a bit freakish, especially when you stop to consider that they are made from cells of the leaf itself. I'm not sure what sort of critter was responsible for these; it may have been a mite.
The oaks were becoming a bit of a neighborhood. Whose neighborhood, again I can't say.
Off the subject of galls altogether, a plant which the naturalist pointed out in particular was the Dutchman's Pipe Vine. Here is a specimen from the hands-on exhibit inside the nature center.
It's not blooming season now, so the real live Dutchman's Pipe Vine lacks those fantastically shaped flowers.
The plant was pointed out because of its status as the host plant of a very picky eater, the Pipevine Swallowtail.
After the presentation was over, I went a-hunting through the wilds of the American River Parkway. It was a glorious place, full of sun (okay, I don't like it, but the bugs seem to) and trees and deep grass and all things fine. Fabre would have loved it. Then again, possibly even Fabre would have been driven out of his mind, because of The Rule: you are kindly reminded to stay on the paths, please, thank you very much.
This is a logical rule, since it is not an enormous park, and, judging from the number of visitors in there today, could be walked right down to nothing in short order. But the pipevine swallowtails take heartless advantage of it. You might think that they have plenty of space to go on living their little butterfly lives, off in secluded nooks. Perhaps they do live that way, but if so, they like, at least, to take an extended lunch hour (which probably lasts all day) and spend it perched on the flowers nearest the paths. They're clever about it, gracefully lazy, opening their wings up to just the right angle so the naive photographer thinks, "Man, that pose couldn't be more perfect if I set it up myself. . .now if you'll just wait for me to turn on the camera. . ." The butterfly watches out of slitted compound eyes as the camera comes up. It stretches drowsily, and examines its fingernails, and then, in the millisecond just before the shutter closes, it takes to the air and begins to do an interpretive dance to "Flight of the Bumblebee."

"And it was such a perfect picture," the photographer sighs. But wait! The miniature cyclone is settling down over the flower it just left. Down, down. . .and the camera is following. . .down, and--vrooom! the butterfly, was just doing a low fly-by, and accelerates into the centre of the patch of star thistles where it once again becomes a delicate, picturesque insect, meandering from flower to flower well out of the reach of the macro lens. Of course, the photographer feels cheated if she doesn't get some sort of shot, so she switches to a longer range setting and presses the shutter in a state of panic. The results are not particularly stellar:
That is a pipevine swallowtail's favorite trick, but it has others. Occasionally it tires of waiting on a flower and looking picturesque, and it takes off while you are still fifty feet away. It flies towards you. To optimize the effect, it usually calls one of its friends over and they hold a mock-dogfight right over your head. If you even think about the camera, they part company and fly up into the highest, darkest branches of the nearest oak.

Another popular move is the quail imitation. With any other butterfly I would lay the phenomenon to my own clumsiness, but judging from its other habits, I must give the credit entirely to the pipevine swallowtail. It lurks unseen in the grass at the border of the path, and then, just as you come within what would have been excellent macro range, it takes to frantic and almost vertical flight. I did not see that it had yet perfected the skill to a point where it had gathered a covey of other butterflies for the maximum effect, but it is an impressive start. The finish is, as above, in whichever patch of flowers contributes to the most impossible camera angle.

With the aforementioned methods, combined with its uncanny ability to gauge the difference between too far away (which can be shrugged off) and just too far away (which is excruciating for the photographer) when landing, one insect can keep a human occupied indefinitely. (It helps, of course, if the human is is unused to thinking of insects as sly, manipulative creatures.) Add to that the fact that there were dozens of swallowtails in the park. . .and the result is more than enough pictures like this one which fall into the Loch-Ness-Monster-could-be-just-about-anything category of photos:
("See, I told you I got a picture of a pipevine swallowtail!"

"That's not a pipevine swallowtail! Nobody gets pictures of The Pipevine Swallowtail. It's a hummingbird. . .maybe. Or a bat."

"No, really! I was looking at the flower, and it was there, and--"

"Enough of your tall stories! Clean that smudge off your lense and go chase a ground beetle! And stay on the path!")

I did make one very interesting discovery:butterflies laugh. And it sounds like this: "Mwahahahaha!"

1 comment:

Elizabeth in Alaska said...

This made me smile. :)