“We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics.” – Bill Vaughan
We share the same world with insects, but when we take a closer look at the bug’s world, it seems amazing and alien beyond belief.
The Pocahontas County Nature Club got a glimpse into the weird world of insects on Saturday morning, when it hosted a presentation by a renowned bug expert at the NRAO Science Center.
Laura Miller is a taxonomic entomologist with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. Her job involves identifying insects that affect agriculture and giving advice on how to control identified pests. She also maintains a permanent reference collection of insects, plant diseases and weeds. Miller is the person who can answer the question, “what the heck is that little critter?”
Miller began her studies at National Autonomous University in Mexico, where an outstanding professor would change her life.
“I never thought I would have an interest in insects,” she said. “When I started out studying biology, that never even occurred to me. I just liked butterflies. But then I had a wonderful teacher and she just exposed us to all these different kinds of insects, their shape, their color, their behavior, their habitats – all these things and I was just fascinated. It made a difference in my life. And I don’t regret it for a second. It is always fascinating.”
The professor was Dr. Tila Maria Perez Ortiz, who still teaches biology at National Autonomous University.
Another important mentor for Miller was the late Dr. Richard C. Froeschner, emeritus entomologist with the Smithsonian Institute.
During her presentation, Miller conveyed her constant amazement and awe with the complexity of insects and their behavior. The expert said that the Earth’s biological ecosphere would continue without great duress if all large creatures, such as humans, disappeared from the planet. However, if insects disappeared, all life on the planet would disappear with them. Among many other roles in the natural world, insects turn and aerate soil, bury dung, control pests, pollinate and provide food for other animals.
Insects are the largest animal group on the planet, by far, Miller explained. There are about 900,000 known insect species, three times as many as all other animal species together. Insects live in every part of the planet except the oceans and near the poles.
Miller discussed characteristics of insects that people find fascinating, such as camouflage, mimicking, metamorphosis and migration.
The expert described how Monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back again over the course of a year. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, as birds do.
Monarchs born in Mexico begin the journey and reproduce along the way. It takes four generations of Monarchs to reach the butterfly’s northern habitats. The first three generations live just two to six weeks as butterflies and continue flying north and east. The fourth generation, born in September and October, lives much longer. Responding to environmental clues, the fourth generation migrates from the north all the way back to Mexico, and lives as long as eight months to begin the cycle all over again.
Miller said the world’s greatest insect migrant is the Wandering Glider dragonfly, which migrates from India to Mozambique and then back again – a round-trip journey of more than 11,000 miles.
The bug expert displayed several photographs and asked attendees if they could spot the insect in the photo. Ultimately, she had to point out where the insect was located in the photos. The activity highlighted the impressive capability of many insects to completely blend into their surroundings, which they do to avoid predators – especially birds – and to hide and ambush prey.
Miller’s presentation was a brilliant introduction to the amazing world of insects. The expert said she would return later this year to lead a field trip.
Nature Club member Gwen Balogh gave her thoughts on the event.
“Laura has the knowledge, enthusiasm and sense of wonder that made for a great program. I look forward to a Nature Club field outing with her when it’s bug time again,” she said.