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Incredible Insects

This is the speech I gave tonight at Toastmasters, and the pictures I used.  Links are (obviously) not my material; photos posted here are.

My grandfather always used to tell me I was a weird kid, because I had Barbies and Care Bears and My Little Pony, but I preferred to be outdoors, catching frogs and insects.  In my bedroom I would pour over my field guides, identifying the species I’d seen and the ones I hoped to see.  My parents thought I would go on to study entomology, and some days I wish I had.  For now, my guest bedroom is a shrine to my fantasy life as a naturalist, with mounted insects and nature prints adorning the walls.  Tonight I’ll be bringing a little of that fantasy to life, and telling you about three of my favorite insects. 

To understand my favorite insect, we have to go back to the summer of 1987 in Northern Virginia.  I was seven years old, and suddenly the summer air was abuzz with this sound.  That’s the periodical cicada, sometimes called the 17-yr locust, though they belong to a different order than locusts.  They have the longest lifecycle of any insect, spending most of it underground feeding on the roots of the tree where they were born, and because the many broods across the US emerge in different years, the six species making up the 13- and 17-year broods don’t get a chance to crossbreed.  In 1987 the emergence of Brood X, the Great Eastern Brood, formed a carpet across my world, leaving little brown nymph molts clinging to every surface:

Alien in appearance, smooth to the touch, and completely harmless, the adults fascinated and delighted me.  When Brood X was due again in 2004 I was living in New Jersey, and I closely followed the Washington Post’s frenetic coverage of the anticipated emergence.  It’s fair to say I was just as frenetic, but unfortunately they mostly gave my area a miss.  However, a couple summers ago in Hill Country, I happened upon a late-night molt:

The next insect I want to share with you is the firefly, also known as the lightning bug or glow worm, depending on where you grew up.  Did you catch fireflies in a jar as a kid?  I did, and I can’t think of summer without remembering chasing them all over the yard, catching them in a jar, then taking the into a dark bathroom to watch them flash.  Unfortunately for kids growing up in the western half of the US, they are mostly stuck with non-luminous fireflies.  There are over 2000 species of firefly, and while all of the nymphs are luminous, not all of the adults are.  The ones that are flash in yellow, green, or red.  To me, fireflies are definitely one of those feel-good insects that everyone kind of likes, like butterflies, but you might be surprised to know that they are vicious as larvae — they will hunt down slugs and eat them, and they’ve been seen ganging up on earthworms!  One thing I never knew about fireflies until a couple years ago is that sometimes, huge groups of them flash synchronously.  There are reports that they actually do this in a lot of places, but one of the largest, most stunning displays in the US can be seen every June in Elkmont, TN, in the Great Smoky Mountains.  It’s become such a popular attraction that you have to arrive hours before dusk just to get through the line for the trolley that takes you to the viewing area.  I haven’t had a chance to see if, but hopefully someday I will. 

Finally, we come to the bee.  To say bees are one of my favorite insects is oversimplification, since there are 20,000 species divided amongst nine families, but I suppose for me it would be a tie between the industrious honey bee, whose work I’m a big fan of, and the adorably rotund bumblebee.  The department of agriculture estimates that bee pollination adds $15 billion annually in crop value, meaning that you can thank a bee for one in every three bites of food.

Bumble bees are used commercially as specialty pollinators; the vibrational frequency of their buzzing releases pollen from certain plants like tomatoes.  And did you know that half of the honey bees in the US are responsible for pollinating California’s almond crop?  Honey bees aren’t even native to the US; they were brought here from Europe (I think I forgot to say that sentence!).

As you may have heard, honey bees are facing a serious population decline known as Colony Collapse Disorder.  Theories about the cause include parasites and pesticides.  You can help protect the bee population, and ergo our food supply, but doing a few things: you can be judicious with your pesticide use and avoid spraying during mid-day when they are out and about, and you can encourage bee-friendly plants in your garden.  As an aside, I was terrified of bees as a preschooler and identified ALL flying insects, including butterflies, as ‘stinging bees.’  Ironically, I was never stung by a bee until this past fall.

Having said all that, there are some insects with no redeeming value — bedbugs and fleas come to mind — but I hope I’ve given you a little appreciation for some pretty amazing insects.  I wish you all a summer full of singing cicadas, flashing fireflies, and buzzing bees.

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