Craftsmen in Miniature
I WOULD like to introduce myself. I am a bug—more technically, an insect. It seems to me that the giants of creation excite more awe than we bugs do. But really we bugs have some rare credentials. You might say that many of us are craftsmen in miniature. In this age of tiny transistors, we miniaturized, hardworking craftsmen should be of interest.
Let me tell you about some cousins of mine, the Amazon jungle ants. These craftsmen construct hanging gardens on trees and shrubs, where they also make their nests. Here is how they do it: They carry earth up and place it in increasing quantities on branches. Next, passages and chambers are deftly tunneled and strengthened with paperlike material. Then special seeds from older gardens are planted. The new gardens increase in size and finally surround the ant nest in the tree, sheltering it from intense sun and rain.
These hanging gardens intrigue humans who study us. One reason is that the plants in these insect-made hanging gardens are apparently distinct from any that grow elsewhere. So far your experts have identified fourteen distinct species of plants, and not one has been found growing anywhere except in these hanging gardens! Perhaps only the ants know their locations. Babylon’s hanging gardens were considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, but we have performed a similar wonder for centuries, and in miniature!
Upholsterers and Tailors
We have many fine upholsterers among my family. I know a variety of bees that do a splendid job. These delicate artisans line their entire brood cells with successive layers of an amazingly delicate membrane that is more lustrous than the most beautiful satin. It even glitters! Just imagine, they use their own tongues as delicate trowels and produce from their own bodies all the upholstery material, a special secretion.
Among the bumblebees or carder bees there is a species that measures no greater than one-half inch. The female gathers material from abroad rather than secreting it from her own body. The material is a soft substance that she gets from various plants. Her delight is to upholster her base of operations. Some species make their cells by lining hollow reeds, empty snail shells or earthworm burrows, and even gun barrels may be upholstered.
Other members of my family are tailors. They must be, in order to avoid being eaten or in order to obtain a meal. My relatives differ from human tailors in that insect tailors make clothes just for themselves, not others. We do sophisticated work.
You may think her a pest, but the clothes moth is a good tailor. The clothes-eating larva of this moth lives within a case or cocoon made of bits of wool, fur or other cloth bound together with silk. As the larva grows in size, the case gets too tight. Since no seams can be “let out,” the larva makes a cut along one side from end to middle and inserts new material and increases the size of the cocoon. Then it does the same to the other side, to preserve symmetry. The result? You may be angry, but my cousin has a roomy jacket made without depriving itself of protection during alteration.
Experimentally this little tailor has been made to weave a coat of many colors by placing it successively on cloth of different hues.
I am also impressed by the abilities of Cousin Caddis fly. The caddis fly larva usually lives in streams. Here it builds itself a small house or case, each species constructing its own kind of underwater house. First of all, the larva makes a tubular shelter of silk. But more must be done to protect the caddis’ deliciously soft body from would-be diners, so the caddis strengthens the shelter by adding whatever material it chooses: stones, sand, shells and so forth. Some species make themselves a protective covering of leaves that is wrapped around their silken tube. If the material preferred by a particular species is not available, caddis will make do with whatever is available.
One species of caddis prefers to attach to its silken shelter a number of small water snails, the tenants of which are still inside, fully alive. Such a protective covering of living snails is apparently cumbersome, so this tailor adds a bit of stick to each side, giving the required buoyancy, though not enough to float the wonderfully tailored structure. Caddis’ long legs protrude from its shelter and it easily drags its mobile home as it moves along to feed. As if that were not enough, this little creature can increase the girth and length of its fabulous home, all the while being submerged under running water!
We bugs have some marvelous builders. And the way we build is architecturally just right for our needs. Take a familiar example, the cell of a bee’s honeycomb. It is a six-sided structure—a hexagon. For the honeybee that is the precise shape needed! You see, a six-sided cell holds more honey than a triangular or square one. Also this design gives strength by contact with all the neighboring cells. Of course, the bees know nothing of geometry, and so this example of craftsmanship has been called “the most wonderful of known instincts.”
Yes, due to the instinct with which we were created, we tiny craftsmen perform some amazing feats. Take, for example, the craft of web building. Though spiders are not technically classed with us insects, they are craftsmen in miniature. Involved in their web building is the measuring of distances, calculating angles, drawing threads parallel to one another and the intricate geometry of construction. Consider a twenty-two-inch web that a spider built. How much work was required? It took just thirty-six minutes. There were 122 feet of thread, which were attached at 699 places. The spider had traveled over 178 feet without once getting confused or stuck!
Interestingly, spiders oil themselves only at spots that contact their web. A six-inch Indian jungle spider begins oiling at sunset for about one hour, showing an instinct that involves foresight, allowing nothing to be wasted.
We bugs have some termites in Africa that construct mounds that even you humans consider marvels of engineering. Some of these structures resemble gigantic mushrooms. And the architectural styles vary according to the conditions they meet. In one area, termite builders might construct a kind of castle with turrets; in an area with different soil, the mound may look like a twenty-foot-high steeple.
One of the most amazing mounds built by an insect is found in Australia. Here certain termites build what you call a “compass mound.” It may be twelve feet high and ten feet long, and is almost always built so that it points north-south; the flat sides face east and west. I understand that your insect specialists still do not really understand why these miniature craftsmen build their mounds compass-fashion. And, as for us, we are not telling.
Drillers and Miners
Then there is the female ichneumon fly that has a hairlike tube two to five inches long. With it she can drill several inches into a tree trunk and reach the concealed tunnel of a wood-eating insect. Then through the tube she deposits her eggs, which, when hatched, will eat the other insects. How does she drive a slender tube through solid wood? At the tip of the tube are tiny teeth, which are used to saw the fiber apart. Also amazing is this fly’s ability to determine where to drill. She simply explores a tree carefully, tapping now and then with her antennae. Finally she is satisfied and puts the claws of her feet in the bark and starts drilling into the hidden target—bull’s-eye!
Amazing miners are the grubs of the wood wasp. In one instance the wood wasp laid its eggs in a piece of pinewood that was subsequently encased in one and a half inches (fifteen layers) of lead. When the time came for the grubs to emerge, they tunneled through the wood and bumped into the lead casing. Vigorously attacking with their jaws, they gnawed through layer after layer, losing some in death at stages of the journey, but others got right through one and a half inches of solid lead. And it was done by babies, driven by instinct!
Other amazing miners in bugdom are the sauba ants and certain termites. A number of sauba ants once mined a tunnel under the bed of the river Paraíba, a Brazilian river as broad as the Thames River at London Bridge. And certain desert-dwelling termites dig vertical tunnels as much as 130 feet deep into the sandy soil! When they reach water, they carry what they need up to the nest.
There is much more that I could tell you. After all, we bugs far outnumber you humans, so there are many of us to get acquainted with. But what you have read is enough for today. I have enjoyed this chance to help you get better acquainted with us as craftsmen in miniature. I hope it will give you a new perspective that might make us seem more wonderful than pesky.