Alley Entomologists


In the summer of the Supersoaker-100 some of the big kids from up the alley terrorized the little ones in the neighborhood with their weapons. Big people declared a portion of the alley around my house as a demilitarized zone. Here little kids could play without fear of attack.

That was the year my son, Matt, moved every blessed decorative rock in the neighborhood, studied slugs, centipedes and lightning-bug larvae, and learned to wash his hands without being asked.

Kids of all sizes began to ask him what he was doing moving all those rocks. With the help of small Golden Guides on different arthropods, everybody learned the names for back-yard spiders and beetles. Bug watching and catching became a popular and less violent pastime, next to raiding neighbors' refrigerators and cooling each other off with hoses.

The Bug Club was formed. Looking on the ground all the time, the alley entomologists noticed the caterpillars before their flying counterparts.

There was a bright green variety on fireman Stan's dill. It poked out orange horns when touched. Matt and brother, Evan, quartered a parsley worm in a terrarium with some parsley and dill. When it finished a long meal, it curled upside down, shed its colorful exterior, bound itself with a few silk strands onto a twig, hardened its new summer green exterior, and took a nap. One morning a black swallowtail butterfly pumped and fluttered its wings beneath brittle, clear casing fragments.

Small black larvae with red spikes were feasting on the little pansy-faced flowers in a back yard up the alley. Friends Tony, Amy and Robbie captured them in a clean plastic peanut-butter jar, continuing to feed them. These caterpillars changed to azure chrysali with silver speckles around the middle.

Days later, when their covering was as clear as cellophane, butterflies emerged. The wings were red, orange and black. The children thought they looked like the red admiral butterflies pictured in the book on lepidopterae.

Once the bug experts tracked droppings across the edge of a porch to discover an enormous caterpillar with a hook on its back end, enjoying moon-flower leaves. It was a tobacco hornworm. Over the days, they watched it become a pupa, taking on a hard, segmented exterior with a point on one end. It burrowed underground and would emerge as a sphinx moth.

Another time a tomato hornworm, embedded with wasp eggs, caught everyone's attention; despite surgery to remove the parasites, this one would not see complete metamorphosis.

In late summer the older children put down their weapons. Big sister Jean, with friends Matthew D. and Julie, spotted an enormous, green caterpillar with many horns of color -- blue, black, brick red and yellow.

They placed the maple leaf-eating cecropia moth larva in a big cardboard box with some branches. The unfinished insect soon blew silken threads from its promontories, wrapping in a shiny blanket. Within a few days the cocoon had collapsed, darkened and dried out, looking like an old spider web around a large brown leaf.

When the warm weather bug hunters looked up from beneath the flowers and under the rocks, they missed any intriguing moths in the evening sky; they were too busy chasing lightning bugs. But in the daytime they soon discovered the Butterfly Tree in little J's yard, up by the haunted house. Big people, who were reading the bug books, too, had quietly observed that the pink spiked blossoms of this mimosa tree attracted swallowtails, fritillaries, blues, sulfurs, admirals, monarchs and viceroys to imbibe the nectar of the flowers and powder the air dusty with tiny wing scales.

So we had to lay down the law. Little J's yard was base for those insects -- another demilitarized zone. No butterfly nets allowed.

Kate Hartig now lives among the insects of Parkton.

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