The hunt was on. It started on a sunny September morning in room 124 of the Math/Science building. The prey: any insect. The method: catch, kill, pin. The prize: an outstanding insect collection comprised of representatives from 10 orders. To accomplish this required a natural ability and also a keen, discerning eye.
At first I felt ridiculous, peering into bushes, along stems, and under leaves with the intensity of a seven-year-old on a scavenger hunt. However, in a short time I relaxed and began to balance my intense hunting with everyday life. As more time passed, it became second nature for my eyes to pick up on a subtle twitch or flash of color on a fence, a leaf, or a stalk, which indicated the presence of my prey. Then it was only a simple matter of excusing myself from any given conversation, swiftly retrieving my kill jar (a glass mason jar containing ethyl acetate), carefully positioning myself with respect to my target, and smoothly bringing the jar and lid in a dual motion together over the unlucky insect. Then I returned to the conversation, which more often than not had come to a halt because my peers where standing completely still, incredulity etched on their faces.
The questions they asked were varied, but the most common was “How did you see that?!” In truth, I saw the movement because I was subconsciously looking for it. Advanced Biology’s insect collection assignment added another dimension to my view of the world by teaching me to see what is always present around us but often overlooked.
That was four years ago during the fall of my senior year in high school. Following the insect collection assignment, I was adept at noticing the subtleties of the insects all around us. However, no longer tasked with the necessity to catch and kill these creatures, I found myself slipping back into society’s norm of obliviousness to nearly any and all things that don’t demand our attention. Thinking back to that time, there wasn’t a day where I didn’t see insects – whether I was intentionally looking for them or not. During the four-year hiatus, I rejoined the majority of society, only acknowledging an insect’s presence when it drew blood, smacked us in the face, or awed us with its beauty. (Now this isn’t entirely true – the fieldwork I’ve done in New Mexico reawakened my eye for spotting insects.) Signing up for Insect Bio and the lab course welcomed me back into this often-overlooked world.
So, what do you see in this picture? If you said, “Nothing but the Will Rice Quad.” you would be like the majority of my peers. What the keen eye (and a better camera) can pick out are several swarms of gnats moving in vacillating masses above the grass. Depending on the time of day, you can also see five to seven insects from the order Odonata in a feeding frenzy. Interestingly, dragonflies fall into two types of hunters: “hawkers” and “perchers” (Olberg et al. 2005). The hawkers continuously fly during the day to forage while the perchers land on the ground or vegetation and take off when prey flies by. Regardless of their hunting style, their method of prey capture is the same. Dragonflies approach their flying prey from below and rise up at the last moment to ensnare them in their extended legs (Olberg et al. 2005). From my observations, the quad’s gnat feeding dragonflies are hawkers.
I now make the conscious decision to walk around the quad, whereas some of my less observant peers insist on cutting across it oftentimes swatting gnats out of their faces while spitting out small, mangled bodies.
Olberg, R. M., Worthington, A. H., Fox, J. L., Bessette, C. E., & Loosemore, M. P. (2005). Prey size selection and distance estimation in foraging adult dragonflies. Journal of Comparative Physiology A, 191(9), 791-797.