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Creepy Crawlies – part 2

06 Dec 10
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As part of my Fulbright I’m researching famed British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and his travels around the Malay Archipelago. Wallace produced a couple of important papers about evolution while he was here, and those papers are the primary focus of my work.

Wallace though was also a major collector of the flora and fauna. He sold much of what he collected in order to fund his expedition. So the kids and I have decided we should follow in his footsteps – we’re doing some collecting of our own.

So far we’re just finding our samples around the house, and at least for now we’re not lacking in material. In fact, the appearance of so many things with more than two legs was a major factor in our decision to collect. But before we could start, we needed to gather our equipment.

I’ve always wanted to learn more about insects and other creepie crawlies. So I brought to Indonesia a collection of bug jars. Some are round, with a magnifying glass built into the top for better examination. Others are simply plain plastic boxes, square or rectangular in shape.

It’s been quite a learning curve so far. The first lesson was that these boxes hold a lot of air, and it takes a long time for a small bug inside to actually die. Which of course is a bit disconcerting for the kids. So we had to figure something out – some way to more quickly kill these critters without a lot of pain.

Wallace, when he lacked other materials, used a local alcohol called Arak. Back in the 1800s it was distilled from the sap of toddy palms. Today it is also made in some places from rice (this alcohol should not be confused with the similarly-named Arak of Middle Eastern descent, which is made from grapes). Regardless of its source, it has a high alcoholic content (as high as 60% or more), which made it useful for preserving Wallace’s specimens.

A quick aside: Arak leads to major problems of drunkenness in some parts of Indonesia. It also can kill – in 2009 a number of Indonesians, as well as foreigners, died after drinking Arak laced with methanol. A fact I was grateful to learn after Adam and I each sampled a bit of Arak while on Bali.

I did not want to purchase Arak simply to waste it in search of a quick kill, so we tried the next best thing – Purell hand cleaner. We brought Purell with us, assuming that at times we would not be near a place where we could wash our hands. It’s great to have a small bottle when on planes, or while riding on a bus where you may be sharing a seat with someone’s rooster. But one good thing about Purell is rather than clean by using harsh antibacterial chemicals, like so many of the soap products now available in the U.S., it uses ethyl alcohol. In fact, it’s 65% alcohol.

So we’ve found that by using a napkin soaked in Purell (and now distilled alcohol, which we eventually found in a drug store) we can more humanely dispatch our specimens.

We’ve only been collecting for a couple of weeks, and admittedly with school, after school activities, homework and sleep, there isn’t much time left for bugs. But in that short span we have found a number of interesting items.

Twice now we have had a huge wasp fly into our house. And when I say huge, I mean blotting-out-the-sun huge. They look like they could be used by the military to transport tanks – that kind of huge.

Our house has a portion that is an open two story section. It’s sort of a family area, where the TV and our stereo sits, and the openness provides a great acoustic sound when we play music. It also makes for a great wasp flyway. So these wasps have flown in the back door, then glided up into our airspace and played, out of reach of brooms and other utensils we commandeered in an attempt to knock them out of the sky.

So Aris and I resorted to throwing pillows from the couch. Each time this has first served to simply make the wasp mad. A direct hit may knock it halfway down the wall, where it buzzes angrily at us before climbing once again to the ceiling. An errant pillow sometimes crashed into the chandelier (yes, the place has a chandelier – it came with the house), shaking it but thankfully not doing any damage. Another might smash into the top of the big-screen TV (which also came with the house) or rattle the large picture window. Finally, a pillow will hit the wasp, it clings to the pillow, and both fall to the floor where Aris, acting well over his pay grade at this point, pounces on it.

The first wasp we simply killed and threw outside (or I should say Aris killed while I watched from a safe distance). However, the second one went into a collecting jar to surprise the kids when they got home from school.

It actually looks rather tame in the picture, but I swear it could have carried one of us off if we hadn’t been careful. Its length was about 4cm, or 1.5 inches. And yet it’s not even large by Asian standards. There’s another one, called the Asian Giant Hornet, which will fill your whole hand and devour your cat. I’m grateful we haven’t seen one of those yet.

We’ve also collected a moth. This capture was much simpler than that of the wasp. In fact, Adam found it – I never saw it until it was in the collecting jar. Butterflies too are common. One day we had one in the front yard that looked just like a monarch. We checked on-line and found some differences, but nonetheless it looked a lot like our American butterfly. Even dragonflies have made an appearance.

My favorite so far though made its way into the house this week. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam spotted something scurrying under the couch. He immediately grabbed a specimen container and began the chase. It didn’t take long before he had an earwig under plastic.

Earwigs are really interesting to watch. They have long, narrow, flattened bodies with wicked-looking pincers at the rear. They have a broad range, and are quite common in the U.S. Their shape allows them to hide in small places as well as under the bark of trees. Earwigs are omnivores, and have a pretty varied diet.

It’s not clear whether the name earwig came from the myth that these insects crawl into people’s ears, or if the myth was created because of the name. But one thing is clear – they do not slide into your ear, like the Babel Fish of Douglas Adams fame, and lay eggs on your brain (although a small one could wander a short distance into your ear, according to Wikipedia). The one we found is slightly less than two inches long, so navigating your ear canal would be pretty tough for this guy anyway.

The pincers are used to capture prey. They also use them to defend themselves, but they do not contain poison, and they really won’t hurt a human, even if they pinch them.

The toughest thing for us is the display of our collection, now that we’ve started one. Wallace had huge problems with ants, which would swarm his specimen table and devour his insects, birds, and just about anything else he left out. He resorted to putting the table legs in cans of water, which would deter all but the most intrepid ants.

We have the same problem. I was going to mount the insects on a big piece of foam. But before I could get started, ants had discovered air holes in one of our specimen jars, and had begun to eat a dragonfly.

Then last night another problem made an appearance as I was heading to bed after we caught the earwig. The kids were asleep and I was upstairs when I heard the sound of plastic hitting the floor. I went down, and with a flashlight I scanned the counter where we had placed the bugs. A gecko was scurrying off, after trying so zealously to eat the earwig that he knocked the container onto the floor.

While some things I have read claim that there are no geckos in this area, I’m certain that the lizards living in our house are indeed geckos. These lizards are unique among their kind, because they make an odd chirping sound when engaging in social behavior with other geckos. And our lizards can make a lot of noise. One seems to hang out just across the street, and late at night makes the loudest belching sound I’ve ever heard from such a small animal. Those in our house also vocalize.

Most of our geckos are about 15cm, or six inches long, although one tiny one seemed to follow Adam around for a while one evening, chasing him from his bedroom to the living room and back and trying to crawl up his arm. He was probably no more than six to seven centimeters long.

Their coloration ranges from a pinkish purple to a more subdued sand color. They appear to be almost rubber in consistency, but they are slightly moist to the touch. Some can be captured and held for a few moments before they try to scurry away. Geckos don’t have eyelids, which gives them that bug-eyed look made famous by the Geico gecko on the U.S. TV commercials. Those eyes though are rather unique, and provide the lizards with excellent color vision in low light.

These are probably what are called common house geckos. They love climbing all over the walls, and they are fun to watch as they race up and down, but they only come out at night so we don’t always see them. But we know they’ve been about, because of the little piles of gecko poop all over the floor in the morning (it took us a few days to figure out that particular mystery).

We don’t mind it too much though. That’s because of the gecko diet. Geckos, especially house geckos such as ours, thrive on insects, including mosquitos. I can only imagine what our ant population would be like if it weren’t for the dozens of geckos that live in and around our house. And eating mosquitos will reduce the chance of one of us contracting dengue fever.

So we’re enjoying our insect hunts. I hope the kids learn something about Indonesia by examining some of its smallest residents. I’m disappointed that we won’t be able to properly display our insect collection. But I must confess I’m also glad for the pooping geckos, because they keep the majority of the critters at bay.

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