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Awash with mystery

2022 08 27 hawke beetle          I’m deep into a relaxing bath, a lovely refresher after a hard hike through the local forests, when I cast my gaze across the room and suddenly feel not so relaxed anymore. My pants are hanging on a hook, and hanging on the pant leg is a large copper-coloured… something… with legs.

          So, yet another major decision is put upon me today… ignore said thingy with legs and go back to soaking, or… you know… get out of tub and deal with the situation. I split the difference and stayed somewhat submerged for another minute, but with eyes glued upon the pant leg.

          Fast forward a few minutes and the critter has been scooped into an empty honey jar (never use a half-empty honey jar, the results are not satisfying) and the package placed in the freezer to await proper identification.

          We naturalist folks like to identify and label things. Well, everything, actually. The closer the identification comes to which species it is the better. In this case ‘big brown bug’ just wasn’t doing it for me; time to break out the field guides.

          With birds and most wildflowers it is fairly easy to get the ident down to species level, sometimes even variety. Not always so with insects. Okay, it has three body parts and six legs, so it’s not a spider relative (two body parts and eight legs). Insect.

          There are many Orders and Classes of insects (simply because there are so darn many insects, each with their own general characteristics) but even a keen amateur naturalist can get to Order. If you are shooting for Species or even Genus, good luck to ya!

“My” critter was an insect and it had a hard shell covering its entire back. This brings us to the Order Coleoptera. Big whoop, some might think. But this step is important as Coleoptera are the beetles, a most fascinating group of insects. If the wing covering stopped half-way it would have placed it within Order Hemiptera (true bugs), or if the wings were unprotected and only two, it would be with Order Diptera (flies and mosquitos).

No doubt many of you are seeing how much fun this can be, this task of identifying insects. But you should get familiar with the groups and characteristics of each Order before you get too puffed up.

I learned my insects by osmosis. Shortly after the dinosaurs had disappeared, Julie and I were living in Guelph, she was attending the university and I was employed as a land surveyor. Julie started with mathematics but switched to science then to art and somehow got a BSc in two years. One of her courses was Entomology, the study of insects.

Julie remembers detail best if she writes things down or makes a drawing. So, for each Order of insects she was studying, a large piece of paper was filled with sketches and descriptions of all things Coleoptera or Hymenoptera or Odonata. These sketch pad notes were taped to the wall around the dining table, for her easy reference and remembrance.

So, each morning, as I slurped up my cereal before heading out to freeze my feet on the cold Guelph soil, I perused her wall charts. So much more interesting than reading the cereal box, again.

I knew without doubt that my critter was a beetle, of some sort. I flipped through the field guides and quickly ascertained it was a long-horned beetle… maybe. The beetle guide book was not at all like the bird or flower guides; no quick matches were to be found, only generic groupings. Best to leave this up to the ‘expert’ (maybe make use of that university degree).

When presented with this gift, Julie dropped all other agenda items of her day, grabbed said field guides and a mighty magnifying glass and the identification game was afoot.

Now this is how professional she is: she was actually reading the text! Really? Picture matching isn’t enough? I stood by in awe.

The antennae were measured for length and compared to overall body length (long horned beetles have antennae longer than half their body size, in case you were wondering). Seems that my body size description of “pretty big” isn’t in the text. Transparent rulers are brought out, a stronger magnifying glass procured, tweezers (oops, I mean scientific forceps) plucked from the bathroom shelf. The kitchen table was soon looking like an entomologic laboratory.

After much cross-checking Julie resolved the mystery: Orthosoma brunneum, a member of the long-horned beetle group. Maybe. A good entomologist always leaves room for discussion.

So, there you have it, proof that if you choose your life partner carefully, there will be a time her experience will assist in calming your world. Can you imagine how embarrassed I’d have been if I had stopped at “a honking big beetle of some sort or another”?

Dave’s Notebook: Last weekend of August... I hope your summer has gone well. A few more muggy days of weather to keep my wife happy, then it's my turn with cooler autumn temps!

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© 2022 David J. Hawke 

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