The wind in your hair, the bugs in your teeth

Hey Matt:

I've always wanted to fly in a hot-air balloon. But I was told by a friend of mine that when you are up in the sky, flying about, there are also spiders soaring with you, or at least drifting along with the wind currents. Can this possibly be true, or is it just a myth?

-- Brian, El Cajon

One of Matthew Alice's fondest kidhood memories is the sight of an especially strong gust of hurricane wind sweeping a small member of the Alice clan off his feet and rolling him down the street. If winds can do that, it shouldn't be a big surprise to fid out that they can push a few bugs around. Sorry to burst your dreamy bubble, Brian, but soaring spiders and airborne ants are quite real. I'd advise you to keep your mouth shut and not smile too much either.

There's an aerial bug zoo circling around in the atmosphere-- gnats, aphids, spiders, and the occasional butterfly, moth, or grasshopper, not to mention pollen, spores, seeds, dust, and specs of rubber that wear off our tires. Most commonly, the reluctant travelers are scooped up by warm updrafts at the base of a mountain. If they then happen to get caught in crosswinds before the updraft dissipates, they'll sail around for quite a while.

No need to pack the Raid on your next flight, since most of the critters are definitely dead bugs by the time they hit the upper air. But some can survive the ride. On ice-covered peaks in the Himalayas live colonies of spiders blown up from lower elevations and living on other insects and debris that showers down on them. The highest-altitude permanent residents on earth. The so-called Grasshopper Glacier in Montana has 500-year-old locusts embedded in its ice mantle. They too were deposited by winds after being picked up on the plains of Colorado.

Some bugs, not being as dumb as they look, use the wind to make life easier. F'ristance, certain African locusts that can sprout sail-like appendages when the neighborhood gets too crowded. Then they drift off on the breeze to the suburbs with a little more elbow room.

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