Still bugged

Hey Matt:

I remember as a kid playing with Mexican jumping beans. What ever happened to them? And what made them jump in the first place?

-- Speedy Gonzales, the net

Matthew Alice:

June bugs. I hate them! Why do they fly right at you? Why June? How can I get rid of them?

-- MB, OB


I was spaced out the other night on the porch staring at nothing in particular and I noticed all the moths around the porch light. I got to wondering, why is a moth, a night-flying creature, attracted to light? You'd think it would fly the other way, since it must be more dangerous hanging out around a light. Or is this too trivial for your magnificent brain?

-- Wonderer, on the porch


What is the point of mosquitoes? Who would miss them if they disappeared? Why are they still around?

-- Bothered, the net

The number-one question category in the big M.A. archives over the last 50, 60 years we've been playing our little shell game. Beer questions come and go. Bugs last forever. We save them up. That June bug question came last June.

So, MB, those Mexican seeds still jump. Kids are still underwhelmed by the bouncing beans. They don't have the wow factor they might have had back in the '50s, but back then they only had to compete with yo-yos and Howdy Doody. And it's not like you can go to Beans R Us any time you like and find a shelf full. They're seasonal. The beans are actually ripe seeds from a bush that grows in the deserts of northern Mexico. A local moth lays eggs in the flower buds, and the larvae become encased in the ripening seeds. When the seeds dry and fall, around July, they're harvested and sold. The larvae are still inside, FedExed around the country and spinning cocoons inside the seed. So remember, buying jumping beans is more like adopting a pet. Warmth makes the larvae move around, which makes the bean move. At least it's a pet that doesn't have to be walked. Lots of direct sunlight kills them. You need to spray them with a little water every couple of days, but dry them off so they don't mold cause that will kill them too. If you talk to them nicely and maybe name them and keep them away from birds and cats, they might jump for three or four months. Then, theoretically, a moth should emerge. If so, it will only live a couple of days, searching fruitlessly around your house for a mate. Unless you're willing to drive it in a hurry back to the Sonoran desert, it will croak without producing more jumping beans. Let that be on your head.

If Mexican jumping beans are July bugs because the hit the ground then, June bugs are June bugs because that's when the big shiny green beetles hatch out of the ground and fly around looking for fruit. Their stubby, buzzy wings generate just barely enough lift to get those fat bodies off the ground, and they lack lots in the maneuverability department. When they look like they�re going to fly right into you, maybe you smell like a mango or you're standing between them and a cactus fruit. They know you're there; but it takes a while for them to engage all systems and apply a little right rudder to avoid you. They're also a menace because when they're feeding in trees and they're disturbed, they tend to topple out and hide on the ground to formulate a new plan of action.

And no, Wonderer under the porch light, the moth-flame question isn't too trivial for my enormous brain; but according to Dr. Bug, the Alice staff entomologist, it's baffled the best of them. Moths are very positively phototropic (photo-, "light"; -tropic, "stimulated by"; by contrast, cockroaches are negatively phototropic). Night-fliers aren't looking for sex when they attack a lightbulb. They might be looking for food, since moths are more sensitive to the UV spectrum than we are, and if your light is toward the blue end, it might look like lunch. The most common guess is that moths confuse your bulb with the moon or a star or something, since some moths and butterflies have light-sensitive navigation systems. So far, the moths aren't talking, so we'll just have to continue to ponder that one.

So what's the point of mosquitoes? Aside from being a major hors d'oeuvre on the natural food-groups pyramid (for bats, birds, fish, etc.), they don't serve much purpose to us. But what if you were some ugly blood-borne disease. You'd think mosquitoes were the bomb. Malaria loves mosquitoes. And the elves and I are suddenly positively pizzatropic, so we're outta here.

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