Science and Art: A group of naturalists make beautiful bugs

Another installment in my progress as a Maine Master Naturalist Tier 1 student.  

Susan shares here sweet moth cake

Susan shares her sweet moth cake (Donne Sinderson)

We are in the home stretch, final assignments are due, and there is some scrambling to finish projects. Nineteen never-say-die aspiring naturalists, who might just possibly all be called over achievers, were given the assignment of building an insect model. We also had two minutes to present it and teach about it.

Over the top does not even begin to describe them. There was a bumblebee pancake with a step-by-step PowerPoint presentation and printed recipes for us to take home. The potato bug was actually hand-carved out of a potato. The felt lady beetle (they are not bugs, in spite of their name) had moving parts and was a teaching tool for kids. There was a weevil costume, donned by a volunteer model, with folding retractable wings, a large weevil mouth, and glittery weevil markings. I was not the only one who wanted to wear it home. The firefly model had a battery-operated light. The black cricket came apart illustrating the three insect parts–head, thorax and abdomen, and included noise making wings. For dessert there was a chocolate cake moth.

Wendy and the weevil costume

Wendy and the weevil costume (Donne Sinderson)

My head is still spinning with the creativity of my fellow classmates and everything I learned about their chosen specimens. Not one of us failed to complete our models, and there was not one of them that failed to be detailed, informative, and, yes, beautiful. A roomful of aspiring naturalists had turned into artists. Every presenter really knew their insect, its life cycle, identifying characteristics, a bit of history, etymology, habitat and behavior, and then went on to create museum-worthy representations. I love this class.

Two minutes! I know I could have talked more about Necrophila americanus, the American carrion beetle and my chosen insect. Did you know these bold yellow and black beetles transport tiny arachnid mites on their wings to the site of a carrion meal? And that they eat maggots more than they eat dead flesh?

Lightningbug with illuminated tail

Lightning bug with illuminated tail (Donne Sinderson)

This assignment was not taken lightly. I examined palps (sensory appendages), moving mouthparts, and variations in patterns on the pronotum (a plate that protects the head and thorax). I really wanted to share this very cool beetle with everyone. The sharing generated new information, deeper understanding, and reinforced that we are a whole, not just a room of individuals. Hannah had captured and frozen a carrion beetle for her insect collection (another whole project). After it came to room temperature she opened the Petri dish to pin it, and a swarm of tiny mites came out in a cloud, along with a stench that still had her recoiling as she told about it. So, arachnid mites can survive extended freezing temperatures. We learn something new at every turn.

My polymer clay Necrophila americanus, American carrion beetle

My polymer clay Necrophila americanus, American carrion beetle

But wait; there is a big gap here. After our class in July there was a six-week break. What was a naturalist to do? I signed up for a 30-hour bioblitz at the Schoodic Research Center, and learned to sort and pin Lepidoptera and do some preliminary identification. Sure enough, half a dozen of my classmates were there, too.

I took a weekend mushroom workshop, and, what do you know, there was another Tier One aspirant in the group.

We did have things to keep us busy during break, though—our journals, plenty of reading, a pod-party canoe adventure, and an insect collection.

Wally and Carol's bumblebee pancake

Wally and Carol’s bumblebee pancake

The insect collection was more challenging than I had expected. First, there was simply acquiring the specimens.

I pulled a large fly out of a spider nest, and had saved that pesky toebiter from the first field trip, but stumbling around with my little net trying to catch the cricket in the back yard had me laughing, and anyone watching would have been in stitches.

Pam and her Ladybug

Pam and her Ladybug

I was not alone in having to work at the insect hunt. I was in House Wine in Bar Harbor when a large black wasp flew in. Dawn, the owner and a classmate, did not get agitated or sweep it out. She calmly clapped a cup over it and sent it to rest in her freezer. Pam swept her specimens up from her front porch in the morning. Jim got an enormous cicada in the tailgate of his trailer.

Once we had our five orders of insect, we were to label and pin them. My Lethocerus americanus, Giant water bug, had been in a warm attic bedroom for months, and was dry and brittle. I heard that dry specimens could be softened by resting on Windex-infused paper towel in a jar. It went from resembling a shriveled brown potato chip to a possibly recognizable insect. Unfortunately it quickly became a shapeless mound of mold.

Insect collection, with cleaned up Toebiter

Insect collection, with cleaned up Toebiter

This was the king pin of my collection, my star, my anchor store. The cricket and housefly and bumblebee just did not have the cachet of a toebiter. I was determined to save it. A bit more research, and I sat with illuminated magnifying glasses on my head; a tiny sable artist brush gripped in my hand, held the soft and fuzzy bug in tweezers, and painstakingly brushed off the mold with isopropyl rubbing alcohol. It worked.

We have not shared our insect collections, that is next week, along with graduation. I am pleased with mine and want to show it and am just as eager to see what everyone else has done. There is so much generosity and good will as we share insights, questions, another awesome insect fact, bug spray and sometimes cookies. What a group, and next year we get to take part two together. We still have more gatherings before it is over, but just as the summer is shifting to fall, there is an awareness this class is coming to a close.

No, I refuse to think about that, plus I have a spider to draw for next week.


Karen O. Zimmermann

About Karen O. Zimmermann

Karen O. Zimmermann savors chance encounters with people throughout the state of Maine, and is endlessly delighted with the tales they have to share.