By BEN R. WILLIAMS
I’ve always loved bugs.
When I was a little kid, I would wander around my grandparents’ farm in Patrick County, flipping over rocks and wandering through tall grass hunting for interesting specimens. I carried a dog-eared copy of a field guide to North American insects and spiders wherever I went. In second grade, just for fun, I provided my classmates with a no doubt fascinating presentation on the life cycle of cicadas. I don’t remember what I talked about, but I do remember that I brought a visual aid: A dead cicada I had pinned to a piece of cardboard. It smelled like a manure truck had crashed into a paper mill and it was gone from the classroom the following day, allegedly because my teacher had “misplaced” it.
I never lost my fascination with insects, but I drifted away from it a bit over the years.
However, since starting my new job with the Virginia Museum of Natural History back in December, all that has changed. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about insects over the last few months (along with all aspects of the Commonwealth’s natural history). I’ve gone hunting for unusual bugs with my coworkers. Any time I feel like it, I can wander over to VMNH entomology curator Dr. Kal Ivanov’s office, interrupt him in the middle of whatever important work he’s doing, and ask him about click beetles. It’s a great system, for me at least.
One of my favorite hobbies has become collecting unusual insects to add to the museum’s collections, which is the gradually approaching point of this column.
I live out in the woods in Patrick County and there is no shortage of interesting critters hanging around the property. I recently decided that rather than going out to look for these insects, I would simply bring them to me.
You see, many insects are attracted to black lights. In addition to making your Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers poster look awesome, the UV light emitted by black lights provides a giant flashing neon arrow for many kinds of bugs that fly around at night. If you have an outdoor bug zapper, you have seen this same effect in action (I don’t recommend using outdoor bug zappers, though; they aren’t good at attracting biting insects, only beneficial insects).
With this in mind, I recently purchased a cheap black light and put it in my kitchen window. All I would have to do is switch on my black light before going to bed, and then in the morning, I could go out onto my back porch and inspect the insects that came to hang out on my window screen during the night.
After installing my black light, I switched it on to make sure it worked, and then I decided to grab a cold beverage. On a weekend night, one of my favorite activities is to take a cold beverage onto my back porch, sit down in a rickety lawn chair, and stare into the woods thinking about as little as possible. I took my drink, opened the back door, and stepped out onto the porch.
It was at this moment that I learned two things. First, I learned that I had forgotten to turn the black light off after testing it. Two, I learned that it was the night of a nuptial flight.
Here’s some fun insect trivia to know and share: When an ant colony reaches maturity, the queen will lay hundreds of eggs, some of which become females and some of which become males. These ants grow wings, and on a warm, damp summer evening, they all take flight at once. Amazingly, they are able to synchronize themselves with other ant colonies in the area, allowing the flying females from one colony to meet up with the flying males from another colony and vice versa, thus reducing the risk of inbreeding. The winged females who find a mate then drop to the ground, lose their wings, and become queen ants that start colonies of their own.
What all this meant for me was that I had stepped out my back door and into the middle of a plague.
Ants. Ants everywhere. Thousands of them, flying through the air and collecting on my window screen. The ants on the screen formed a solid writhing mass, chunks comprised of several dozen ants dripping off occasionally like drops of tar. They flew into my hair, my drink and my mouth, which was unfortunately open with surprise at seeing a writhing black mass forming on my kitchen window.
“Gack!” I said, swatting flying ants away from eyes, spilling my drink everywhere. I stumbled back inside, watching ants fly off of me like I was a cartoon hobo. I snapped the black light off in disgust.
That is the story of how I accidentally recreated one of the calamities of Exodus on my own back porch. If I’d been holding any Israelites prisoner, I assuredly would have let them go.