Bug Walks - the end of the first season

Over the past six months on selected Sunday mornings, you may have noticed an odd assortment of people peering intently at the weeds, shrubs and trees in the area of the NIC public parking area. For those of you that might have wondered, these people were not searching for money or a lost contact lens but in fact were participating in the "bug appreciation walks" sponsored by the center. I say "appreciation" simply because they were just that. Most of the bugs seen went unidentified. This is a direct result of the relatively poor quality of bug (for our purposes insects and spiders) guidebooks for naturalists. When the best insect guide, "California Insects" by Powell and Hogue, lists only 600 of the more than 28,000 species expected to occur in the state you know that you need to swallow your pride and admit you don't know more often than you would like. When what you are looking at is sitting less than an inch away in plain view at the focus of your 10x magnifying glass this can be somewhat discouraging. On the other hand, most of the bugs that saw us went unnoticed so we didn't have to do this as many times as we might have and perhaps surprisingly a lot of what we did see seemed to be in the book. With bugs, precise identification in the field is usually rather daring because the books seldom give you any idea how many species look similar or what range of variation (especially size, color and markings) is possible. In addition, the pre-reproductive stages (eggs, larva, pupa) are seldom described at all. Finally, post-reproductive changes sometimes occur. Familiarity sometimes breeds misplaced confidence.

Observing insects thus becomes essentially and perhaps fortunately an exercise in appreciation. Even if you can't identify it, you can still appreciate the fact that it has endured the trials and traumas of existence and now is enduring, sometimes with incredible patience or daring, your particular presence. It exists as a fully integrated part of the environment - a little piece of life in the midst of a much bigger piece of life. Observing something you cannot name can become a true exercise in seeing. If you've never seen something before you can observe it without a bunch of preconceptions which tend to focus your attention perhaps causing you to miss interesting and perhaps unique behavior. I am reminded of the children's song which begins something like this:

This is my toe
And it's a very good toe
But that's not all of me
No, No
There's much much more!!!!
and repeats over and over each time including more of the child's body until at last it includes his or her whole body. Yet even at this point there is still much much more - named, unnamed and perhaps even unnameable. (Certainly, it is from our standpoint useful to name things but the process has an important downside which often goes unnoticed.) On the other hand, if you really need a name you can always give the bug a name you make up - after all except for really common bugs and those regarded as "pests" or "destructive" by gardeners, farmers, homeowners and such the chances are good it doesn't have a common name.

Leading the bug walks has been an interesting and enjoyable experience for me. To avoid being totally surprised I check out the area the day before the walk. (Having moved from Ontario, Canada this spring I didn't really know what we would find so this checkout allowed me some time to consult my references in peace.) I would note or mark the promising locations and hope the bugs I saw would be there the next day no matter what the weather might be like. So far this procedure has proved fairly reliable. However I was caught by surprise on one of the recent walks. Along the railway tracks, I had marked with arrows drawn in the sand a number of shrubs containing the best samples of certain insect activity. On the walk I confidently walked along to examine the selected shrubs. I was surprised to find that, after I had left someone had come along, noticed my arrows and proceeded to mark all the remaining shrubs the same way. At least whoever it was was observant enough to notice that only one type of shrub had been marked. I might dread the day when we can't find anything but I doubt it will ever happen. The walk is a real cooperative effort and I have to admit that I have seen things on the walk I would never have seen by myself. It's amazing what an extra dozen or so pairs of eyes, hands, feet, altitudes and abilities can find when they are given the opportunity.

As one participant said after kneeling in the sand watching aphids on some plants, "I've seen pictures of them in books but I never realized they were so small!". I certainly am not the only one who has been surprised and fascinated by what we've seen.

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Ron Lyons (volunteer 1990-1999)
Chula Vista Nature Center, 1000 Gunpowder Point Drive, Chula Vista, CA 91910-1201