Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Not So Creepy Crawlies

Being a mom sometimes means that you have to put aside your fears and investigate the things that make you squeamish. 


There are more of us than there are of you. Just so you know.

Last year my daughter became fascinated with insects. In our Arizona summer, we would find a new insect in our pool every morning. At some point during the night, they may have come to get a drink of water, and instead had fallen in and drowned. Kat wanted to know what they were, she wanted to hold them, and she wanted to keep them. Fortunately, I had several extra petri dishes on hand, and from there, we began a journey into collection and discovery.



I often forget that I have these lying around. It can freak people out when they come over and come across them.

Collecting the specimens was easy enough, but we wanted to actually learn about the insects we had. Where did they live? Do they go through a metamorphosis like caterpillars do? Are they awake during the day, or are they nocturnal? We went to a bookstore to pick up an adult field guide to insects, and poured through it, looking for matches to the critters we had in our house. For information we couldn't find in there, we had tools like What's That Bug, Google, and an online Entomology community. We would also call the Phoenix Zoo and the Sonoran Desert Museum and ask them questions about the specimens we had.

During our quest to identify our insects, we learned the techniques of how to properly identify and classify them. Our handy tools included a desk lamp, a magnifying glass, a ruler, tweezers, scalpel gloves, and of course, a pen and paper. Measuring the whole body was important, but so was noting the length and width of the thorax, abdomen, and legs (both individually as well as leg span). Our powers of observation needed to be refined too, as we needed to distinguish between hairy beetles, lightly hairy, spines, hooks, how many eyes and where they were placed, etc.

We began to keep track of this information on index cards, and I had Kat draw pictures of the insects she had found and identified. Soon we had quite a number of index cards, and insects!


All index cards contained the following information: habitat,  time of day when active, description of eyes, description of antennae, length, width, color, and any special notes.

Because of the activities we undertook last year with insect collecting and identifying, we tend to get pretty excited when we find a new insect or spider in the house. We are both still a little wary of insects, but our fascination with them has begun to extend beyond our fears. Now that we have our own vegetable garden, we have a nice view of the life around us. We'll watch different kinds of bees and wasps as they pollinate our flowers. We see caterpillars and grasshoppers munching on leaves, and even boring holes into our fruit. We watch as ants herd aphids around on plants, protecting them while siphoning the "honeydew" from the aphids' abdomens.


Hey, how's it going? Thanks for the sunflower leaves, they're delicious.

This year we're focusing more on the insects while they are alive, instead of learning about them after they've already died. However, we do still come across the deceased specimens, and we collect them and catalog them.

A few days ago, Kat found quite an interesting new specimen. She had been talking all morning about a brown spider, but I thought she was talking about the tiny brown house spiders that we occasionally see running around on the floor. It quickly became apparent that we were talking about something much larger.


I was wrong. This sucker was huge!

We grabbed our supplies and set off to measure it and identify it. It measured 3" in total length, the legs were 1 1/4" long, it's body was 1/2" long and 1/4" wide. It had lightly hairy legs and a fuzzy, shrunken abdomen.


Dutifully taking measurements with her bee pen.

We had our measurements, but we still lacked a positive I.D. We were able to rule out the notorious Arizona Brown spider (relative of the Brown Recluse - and just as dangerous), and Kat suspected that it might be a Wolf Spider. It had 1/4" long "arms" (these were separate from the 8 legs; we later learned that they are called pedipalps) with what she thought were sperm pads at each end. She suggested that they might be used for mating, which she demonstrated with a really cute imitation of the wolf spider's mating dance.

Since we were having a difficult time identifying the spider on our own, we decided to take our quest to the experts. I called and left messages with the Phoenix Zoo and Sonoran Desert Museum, and posted pictures to the "What's That Bug" and the online Entomology community.

While waiting for the ID, Kat decided to dissect our specimen. Amazingly, she found a small, black, tightly coiled spring inside the pedipalps. It was very hard, and very small at only 2 mm in diameter. I thought they might be used to aid in the sound and vibration techniques used by spiders to find their mates. Kat proposed that they were used for transferring sperm. Either way, we had another question for the Arachnologists/Entomologists!


Fear my pedipalps!
(Image posted with permission from Irene Lindsay)

By the end of the day, we had heard back from everyone. Our spider was a Giant Crab Spider. It was a mature male, relatively harmless, and it hunts large insects like cockroaches. The pedipalps were used for mating, and the coils were used for sperm transfer!

I was very impressed with Kat's ability to not only find the spider and tell us about it, but to set aside her own fears and measure the spider, dissect the spider, and then use such keen observation to find the small coils in the pedipalps. Further, she was able to come up with some interesting ideas about the spider, based on her own observations and the stock of knowledge she already had in her mind.

As for us and our fear of insects...

It's easy to lose your fear of something when you take such a methodical approach to it. I have heard Arachnologists on David Attenborough's Life In The Undergrowth say that they became experts due their fear of spiders, that they wanted to learn as much as they could about them, until they became quite fascinated by them. I guess you could say the same is true for us.



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