Miniature dragons, zombies, monsters with terrifying mandibles and more fascinating insects surround humans constantly. Yet, according to entomologist Cyndi Brast, with hundreds of thousands of bugs in the world, very little is known about them.
“There is so much to learn about bugs. Many insects are named, but virtually nothing is known about them,” Brast said. “I am learning all the time. I learned something from a three-year-old… that pill bugs carry their babies around in a little pouch. They are like our own little marsupial.”
Brast will be giving a free presentation titled, “Bugs; it’s not a costume, it’s for real!” from 7-9 p.m., Oct. 30, at the library.
Brast became interested in insects, she said, because of her mother.
“She would pick them up, and always had an interesting story, an anecdote about them,” Brast explained. Rather than killing insects as a child, Brast would put them in a box to watch them for a little while and learn about them.
Brast has continued her mother’s tradition of collecting data on the bugs she has come across over the decade she has lived on San Juan.
A favorite species of Brast, she said, is the Ten-Lined June beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata). Male June beetles have an orange antenna similar in appearance to moose antlers. Although she provided what she thought was a full habitat in order to observe it for a few days, Brast said something about its appearance gave her the impression it was a sad beetle.
Brast took the beetle outside and opened the top of its habitat.
“It was almost heart-wrenching. The beetle immediately seemed to come back to life,” she said. “It raised its little antennas, looked up at me with its big brown eyes, stretched its legs and flew away.”
The interaction made her reflect upon all the ways human beings impact insects.
“We have a tendency to cut down and clear things without really understanding the full impact of what we are doing,” she said, adding that even lights could have an impact on bugs, especially nocturnal varieties.
Another one of Brast’s tales involves the timber worm, the pupa of a wood-boring beetle that specializes in breaking down dead trees.
“The timber worm has huge mandibles to cut through the wood,” Brast said. “[Toolsmith] Joseph Cox used their design to develop a type of chainsaw blade.”
That chain is commonly known as the chipper blade. Cox went on to found an Oregon company called Omark Industries, or the Oregon Chainsaw Company, that produced the efficient bug-inspired blades, Brast explained.
When Brast moved to San Juan Island, one insect she was hoping to spot was a snake fly. During her search, she described the insect to an old islander who reportedly replied, “You mean a dragon bug?”
With its long sleek black body and lacey wings, Brast said she realized the snake fly indeed resembles a little dragon.
“Each bug has its own regional name, stemming from people’s encounters with them — which is fascinating,” Brast said.
Her talk on Oct. 30, she added, will encompass some etymology — the study of words — around entomology — the study of insects. One person’s ladybug, for example, is another’s ladybird, and Brast will be delving into some of the reasons behind that.
In the spirit of Halloween, Brast will also be giving the bugs Halloween themed nicknames.
“Zombie worm” might be an appropriate moniker for the Gordian worm or horsehair worm. This worm, according to Brast, infects its chosen host — frequently crickets, grasshoppers or praying mantis — by laying its eggs on the vegetation that their hosts eat. Once in the host’s stomach, the eggs hatch.
As the worm grows larger, these zombie worms take over the brain of its host, directing it toward water, where the worm, a water-loving creature at this phase, can exit the body and search for a new host.
“The host animal is now toast,” Brast said.
The mantis has its own spooky side — one variety has been known to murder hummingbirds — but the type found locally does not, Brast said. In fact, mantis may play a beneficial role, feeding island songbirds, bats and other insect eaters, while also keeping the grasshopper population in check.
Each bug has a role to play, said Brast. Like instruments in an orchestra working together, creatures’ life cycles have evolved to be intricately timed, and if one is thrown off, she explained, entire food chains and ecosystems are disrupted. Due to climate change, habitat loss and pesticides the insect population is being threatened, according to Brast. Yet, she added, scientists don’t know what the global effect of losing these insects will be — so little is known about them.
Brast encourages people to learn about insects, rather than squishing or spraying them.
House spiders are actually beneficial, she explained, killing many household pests, including roaches, fruit flies and drain flies that feed off hair or other organic matter that has gone down the drain.
“That spider in your shower could be killing pests living in your drain,” Brast said, noting that she has stopped moving spiders outside as a result.
Brast advocates good hygiene rather than pesticide use, in part, because pesticides kill a wide array of insects, not just the targeted pest. Insects frequently have two — or even three — year cycles, Brast explained, therefore pesticides may not even be effective.
For example, a person might spray in the fall one year, only to have the insect go dormant for the next two years. Instead, Brast says, keeping food picked up and put away avoids attracting ants, flies as well as other critters like rats, mice and raccoons who are also looking for a free meal. Vacuuming frequently keeps carpet moths and fleas at bay and general tidiness — such as not having clothes and papers strewn about — limits shelter options for an array of unwanted bugs.
Natural products like peppermint oil, according to Brast, can also be non-toxic pest deterrents.
“We tend to be human-centric and want to sanitize everything,” Brast said. “But it’s their home, their world.”
For more information about insects and Brast, visit her Facebook page, Insects of the San Juan Islands: The Good, The Bad, and The Bugly at https://www.facebook.com/buggingyoufromSJI/. You can also visit blog Bugging You from Friday Harbor, at https://cynthiabrast.wordpress.com/.