By Arthur V. Evans
Two wars, recession, earthquakes, and the seemingly endless wrangling of politicians—the news has not been very good lately. These combined with the usual everyday stuff makes it all too easy to get bogged down wondering where the world is headed. But occasionally, I am afforded a welcome change of perspective—that of seeing the world once again through the eyes of a child.
The author at the tender age of 14, or thereabouts, enjoying a summer day on a family camping trip somewhere in California's Sierra Nevada.
I was given this fresh viewpoint awhile back at the grand opening at the new Children’s Garden at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia. The garden is a microcosm of landscapes, plant adaptations, and human-plant interactions. A boardwalk accessible to all winds through various mini environments on its way to the Leafy Overlook and Tree House, introducing visitors to coniferous forests, deciduous woodlands, grasslands, and a butterfly meadow.
Also included is an International Village with Lilliputian playhouses depicting different cultures to demonstrate how people around the world use plants for food, materials, and medicine. As the garden matures, it will continue to be a haven for young naturalists and their families to explore plant diversity with its creeping vines, prickly plants, and inviting blooms, both sweet-smelling and otherwise.
It is also a great place for bug watching. That’s where I came in. I was invited to participate in the grand opening of the Children’s Garden as entomologist Dr. Art Evans, “the bug guy.” My task was to engage garden visitors in a series of bug talks and walks. My display was simple, consisting of a collection of local insects and a variety of popular identification guides for the region, as well as copies of my own magazine and newspaper writings on insects and spiders.
Families flocked around the display, amazed at the local insect diversity. Soon I was peppered with all kinds of questions. “Are they real?” “What is this?” “Does it bite?” “What does it do?” “What do they eat?” “Are they really found around here?”
Within just minutes, my world-weariness melted away. I was once again caught up in the excitement of my audience’s infectious enthusiasm for insects. After meeting with dozens of parents and their children, it dawned on me that there are two types people in this world: those that love insects and those that don’t yet know they love insects.
After answering some questions, I briefly introduced myself to the audience, and talked about some of the things that entomologists do in the world. Then we covered some bug basics, like their number of legs (6), body regions (3), and metamorphosis. Also discussed was how insects differ from other kinds of common garden animals such as spiders (8 legs, 2 body regions), worms (no segmented appendages), and slugs (no external skeleton or appendages).
The best part of the day was the bug walk. It was like going on safari. As we searched for tiny game, our goal was not to collect or kill, but to observe and marvel. The weather was overcast and decidedly cooler from the previous day when I had done my reconnoitering for bug hot spots at the garden. Still, there was plenty of insect hubbub about the flowering plants.
Bumblebees, soldier beetles, thread-wasted wasps, and various kinds of butterflies, skippers and moths clambered over the spikes of small yellow flowers as if they knew that fall had arrived and that warm and sunny days were now numbered. Both adults and youngsters peered into the blooms to admire the diversity and activity of this energetic, winged, and multi-legged assemblage. It was a great demonstration of how both plants and insects depend on one another for their very existence.
Nearby, black swallowtail caterpillars nibbled away on a lone fennel plant beneath the dining room window of the Bloemendaal house. We were all being treated to the fact that eating is job one for growing caterpillars of all stripes. Soon, they would all disappear as quickly as they appeared and transform twice more into entirely different creatures with no resemblance whatsoever to their current state.
The shrubs and low hedges were filled with the songs of amorous male crickets and meadow katydids, all scraping their wings together to produce characteristic chirps, clicks, and rasps to attract a mate. In just a matter of yards we found more species of insects and spiders than could be found of mammals, birds, or reptiles in the entire garden!
This fabulous hands-on experience reminded me once again of why I got into this field in the first place. Sure, insects, spiders and their relatives are everywhere and are endlessly fascinating in their ways, fueling lifetimes of scientific research and popular writing projects. But I have come to understand that my attraction to all things insect is really about my desire to learn as much as possible of the world around me. I truly believe that the desire to learn is a very basic human need; the day we stop learning is the day we start dying.
To see the natural world through the eyes of children, or adults who have not lost their childlike sense of wonder and awe, is truly a gift. For me, it is a clear reminder of my own wonder and excitement that sparked my lifelong interest in insects nearly 50 years ago. I am confident in my knowledge that there are still plenty of insects and spiders out there to see, learn, and do for at least another 50 years.
The author, down and dirty on his knees at Virginia Beach in 2007, searching for false soldier beetles (Oedemeridae) under driftwood.
One of the great things about being a biologist is that we always get to keep a part of our childhood with us while we conduct fieldwork. It is part and parcel of our various job descriptions to wonder how things work as we get down and dirty on our hands and knees to rake through the soil, muck about in the mud, or slosh around in creeks and ponds. Now I ask you, what could be better than that?
© 2010, A.V. Evans