Everybody's Got a Favorite Bug

Bob Parks - self-taught custodian at San Diego Natural History Museum - gives me a tour.

It’s the unglamorous beetle I love the most! Not the bee and its honey, not the ant and its industriousness (and its feature movies), not the butterfly and its brilliant colors.
  • It’s the unglamorous beetle I love the most! Not the bee and its honey, not the ant and its industriousness (and its feature movies), not the butterfly and its brilliant colors.

In Bob Parks’s first (and only, as far as I know) brush with the law, he was presumed a corpse. He was about 11 years old. He’d been lying facedown, very still, for so long in a vacant lot next to Greenwood Cemetery that a neighbor called the cops. When Parks was growing up, his neighborhood was mostly barren hills and chaparral. Turns out he was falling in love — with insects. He was observing a wasp, a hunting wasp called Ammophila. Parks was so absorbed in his observations that he didn’t move for a long time.

I asked Parks what his favorite ant was. He didn’t like questions like this.

I asked Parks what his favorite ant was. He didn’t like questions like this.

About 45 years later, I asked Bob Parks to name his favorite wasp. Ammophila: after all these years. Perhaps it was her (the wasp Parks was observing was a female) shape that first drew his attention. One naturalist has written: “…her abdomen looks like a pear on the end of a length of string. Nevertheless, she is graceful and svelte. Her favorite color is black, with the upper half of her abdomen an orange-red, giving quite a chic effect.” Early in her life, Ammophila lounges around flowers, nips a little nectar, warms in the sun. A sybaritic life: a butterfly’s life.

Bob Parks is almost completely self-taught — as a photographer, as an entomologist, lepidopterist, herpetologist, etc.

Bob Parks is almost completely self-taught — as a photographer, as an entomologist, lepidopterist, herpetologist, etc.

But when motherhood calls, she turns her attention to business: “She loosens the sting in its sheath — that as yet unbloodied sword, so slender and delicate, so feminine in its daintiness — and goes a-hunting.” But first she builds a nest, a tunnel leading to a chamber in the ground. Her name means “sand lover.” She removes the excavated material with her mouth and puts it in two neat piles a few inches from the entrance. She is a tireless and fastidious worker, and she finishes by closing the entrance with a pebble or small clod of dirt, many of which she will first examine and then reject before she finds the perfect fit. Then she plugs her nest’s entrance with it. Then she does something only you or I and a few other creatures can do (though I don’t do it very well): she uses a tool.

Bill Johnson is the manager of the Chula Vista PD Crime Lab and a forensic photographer.

Bill Johnson is the manager of the Chula Vista PD Crime Lab and a forensic photographer.

She selects a comparatively large stone, again inspecting and rejecting many before finding the perfect one, picks it up in her mandibles, hauls it to the nest, and “uses it to hammer down the loose soil that has been placed over it.” She hides the nest so well that she must carefully memorize where it is. Then she’s off a-hunting, for caterpillar, the young of night-flying moths the preferred entrée. She means to take the caterpillar alive but completely immobilized. Now, this is a problem with caterpillars because the nerves in each segment are self-controlled. Each segment is like a little engine: knock out one and the other 12 can keep the car running more or less the same. Ammophila has to slip her stiletto, tipped with poison, into each segment. Sometimes, she leaves a segment or two uninjected — maybe because she needs to cook up more venom.

Monarch. Parks told me about “hilltopping,” the phenomenon that hilltops, mountains, etc., are great places to find butterflies.

Monarch. Parks told me about “hilltopping,” the phenomenon that hilltops, mountains, etc., are great places to find butterflies.

There’s one more important task before she hauls her prey home. Though it’s helpless against the wasp, it can use its jaws to inconvenience her, by grabbing onto things, slowing her down. This can’t be so. She stands astride the caterpillar’s head and bites the base of its skull. She bites very carefully, applying slight pressure to the caterpillar’s brain. She raises her head to study the effect: “The brain is a delicate organ and her patient must not die.” The Ammophila Sleeper Hold — brings down the big boys every time.

Next she dashes home to open the nursery door and then back to her prey.

Monarch wing. At times, butterflies would surround Parks, or even light on his hand or wrist. Most never came that close to, and certainly never landed on, Bill Johnson or me.

Monarch wing. At times, butterflies would surround Parks, or even light on his hand or wrist. Most never came that close to, and certainly never landed on, Bill Johnson or me.

It was at this point in his observations that a neighbor or passerby saw young Bob Parks and thought he might be dead.

He was watching Ammophila drag her booty home. This is how she does it: she flips the caterpillar on its back, bites it by the throat, and drags it beneath her, not unlike a cheetah dragging an antelope. When she gets it home, she pulls it headfirst into the nest and promptly lays her egg on its side. She won’t lay another egg in this nursery, though she might drag in a few more paralyzed caterpillars. Depends on how hungry her baby is, how big the caterpillar. But she doesn’t check again for a while. She takes a few days off and goes back to her old ways, a beach babe, bagging some rays and sipping some piña coladas. Then, refreshed, it’s back to baby-making and giving the needle to caterpillars.

Chalicodoma is a bull of a bee and a home builder who contracts out a portion of the early work.

Chalicodoma is a bull of a bee and a home builder who contracts out a portion of the early work.

Shall we return to the chamber? The caterpillar’s jaws are now working — the head-squeezing causes only temporary narcosis — and there’s a slight throbbing under its skin. In a few days, a tiny white legless grub emerges from the wasp egg and, like every newborn thing, is ravenous, but, unlike every newborn thing, it gnaws into its cradle, which is the flesh of the caterpillar. It becomes even clearer how precise the mother wasp’s sting must be: improperly or not fully paralyzed, the caterpillar might buck or squirm (most creatures, being eaten alive, would!) and knock the baby to its doom or crush it against the walls of the nest. Just as the surgeon’s knife slips sometimes, so does the mother wasp’s, and some opened nests show live caterpillars and dead larvae. Most of the time it works: fresh, juicy, 24-hour room service, breakfast, lunch, dinner. Luckily, as the poet Theodore Roethke said, “Great Nature has another thing to do / To you and me…” Or does it?

In the desert once, a few guys came up to him on horseback and accused him of trespassing and looking for gold. He told them what he was really doing, and then they were sure he was looking for gold.

In the desert once, a few guys came up to him on horseback and accused him of trespassing and looking for gold. He told them what he was really doing, and then they were sure he was looking for gold.

Bob Parks’s love of small creatures led him, eventually, to macrophotography, the photographing of very small things. He’s almost completely self-taught — as a photographer, as an entomologist, lepidopterist, herpetologist, etc. — and like many autodidacts is driven, proud but self-effacing, devoid of self-interest but wanting attention for his work, short on money, crafty, and self-contained. Like all autodidacts he has read prodigiously. When I asked him what he does for a living, he said, “I convey things, sometimes people.” He drives a truck or van or bus. When I first met him, he was delivering flowers.

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