Exploring the insect world

   The most abundant and varied of all the creatures you will find in your walks are the insects. As you stride through meadows or along dusty roads in the country, you will stir up swarms of grasshop­pers. In early summer they are mostly small, weak-looking creatures with large heads and tremendous eyes. Later, these insects make their last molt and blossom out with long wings. Where the grass is short enough, they turn around as they alight, so as to watch as you come closer. Some advertise their presence as they fly by, unfurling bright, black-barred, yellow or red wings and making a whirring noise. Once they settle down, all is silence and you may have trouble distinguishing them from the vegetation.

   The grasshoppers you see in dry meadows and along roads are usually the short-horned variety, so-called because they have comparatively short antennae, or feelers. In rich grass, and especially in wet places where plants are lush and sappy, you are more likely to find long-horned grasshoppers, with elongated and thread-like antennae. Female long-horned grass­hoppers have a conspicuous ovipositor, or egglaying tool, at the tip of the abdomen. In some species of these insects it is quite short, in others very long.

   Among the most interesting insects you are likely to see in your rambles is the praying mantis. with its turretlike head, huge eyes and forelegs raised as if in supplication. This creature is one of man's chief allies in the insect world, for it eagerly devours mosquitoes, flies and a thousand other pests (including plant lice, when it is small enough to be interested in such game). The small native species of mantis cannot stand the winter north of southern New Jersey. The large Chinese praying mantis, which has established itself in the eastern part of North America, can endure the cold winters of the north.

   The egg cases of mantes are tough and made of a bubbly substance chemically similar to silk. If you find any, do not bring them inside the house. The indoor heat will cause the eggs of these insects to hatch prematurely and all the young will starve, since their natural prey will not be available. Leave the egg case where you found it. Make a note of the place, and return there daily as the spring sun grows warmer. One fine day you may find a cascade of wrapped up mummies squirming from the case, each attached by a thin thread to the slit from which it emerged. In time each mummy skin splits. Out struggles a skeleton-thin devilkin with long legs, long neck, big eyes and swiveling head.

   The mantis is a finicky eater for all its voracious appetite. Watch how daintily it nibbles its way into a protesting fly or moth; how it holds up one leg of the victim when it has separated it from the body and how it devours whatever is toothsome in the joint.

   You will also probably see a many caterpillars. Some of them what look like numerous white bags adhering to their skins. If you follow one of these caterpillars long enough (or put it in a container with its favorite food plant) you will see it move more and more feebly. The bags are the cocoons of tiny parasites that have eaten away its insides, leaving it little more than a shell. Eventually a gleaming, parasitic wasp will emerge from each cocoon. It will fly nimbly away to mate. The female insect will then lay its eggs in other caterpillars, which will also slowly devoured in time.

   You will find other insect species galore: bees gathering nectar for the hive swarms of ants, lovely butterflies, beetles large and small, darting dragonflies, fragile May flies and many, many other insects.