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Solar-Powered Insects and Mad Scientists

Ever since I moved back to the sanctuary, I’ve been fascinated by insects. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve always appreciated them. But something about moving to a place where the insects are unfamiliar to me (and visit regularly) has heightened my awareness of the many charms of Arthropoda.

From whence I write (that's Thunder in the foreground)

Far from the light pollution of the city, nights are dark up on Slate Mountain, as we call the part of the sanctuary also known as “up the hill.” Often, the light over the writing desk in the Airstream is the only artificial illumination in sight. Moths and other night-flyers flock to the brightness. Delicate creatures in infinite shades of green wander among the words whenever I read a book by lamplight. Giant-sized jet-black jumpers drop in and then out again, as if on the way to or from some intergalactic disco.

I haven’t been in a hurry to learn the names that people have for these creatures, not wanting to undermine the awe-inspiring mystery. Nonetheless, I did feel compelled to figure out why these caterpillars were making me itch.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar (photo: Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Turns out that the hairs of these caterpillars, which feed on the beech trees under which I write, dropping onto my neck regularly, can cause allergic reactions—for me, just a brief, mild itchy-prickly sensation. Why? Because these insects absorb toxic chemicals from the plants that they eat, and then secrete those chemicals through their hairs as a deterrent to those who would eat them.

All of which brings me to the original subject of this post: the heretofore unsuspected solar capabilities of western boxelder bugs. Evidently, these bugs use sunshine to synthesize chemicals that protect them from fungi. This hit the headlines (or, at least, the geek headlines) last weekend, due to the publication of a new study, the methodology of which (deep sigh) appears to have involved removing these “highly gregarious” insects to a laboratory, rather than studying them unobtrusively in situ. These beseiged bugs, whom so many people seek to exterminate, turn out to do something no other animal is known to be able to do. This is not to say they are more worthy of respect for that reason (and certainly not to say that we ought to be interfering with them in order to discover the secrets of their success in this). Boxelder bugs are, however, excellent exemplars of the solar-energized biological creativity that we call life.

Boxelder Bug (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

My point is simply that, so often, we know not what we do as we try to force nature to fit our fantasies, such as the notion that boxelder bushes are good and boxelder bugs are bad. Our awe is as insufficient as our pride is excessive.

I remember one day in my garden in Ypsilanti, where I took care to let the so-called “weeds” flourish anywhere they wouldn’t menace the vegetables. I was walking around in my steel-toed boots, making some decision or another, when I suddenly became aware of myself as I must have seemed to any insects or other small animals in the vicinity: a clueless behemoth trampling everything. I often return to the instructive sensation of that moment.

Yes, I know that squirrels and some birds also plant the seeds of their favored plants. And, yes, I know that other, larger, animals sometimes inadvertently trample smaller beings. I’m not saying it was wrong for me to plant squash or walk around. I am saying that—just as the smiles or frowns of other people can encourage us to keep on recycling or turn down the radio—the reactions of other animals could, if we heeded them, offer useful guidance.

Hens sunbathing at the sanctuary shortly after escaping an egg factory

But back to the train of thought that prompted me to start writing this post. I hesitate to mention this, not want to give the mad scientists any ideas for experiments, but I wonder if birds who sunbathe for similar purposes also release chemicals energized by the sun. Chickens sunbathe to synthesize vitamin D and also to solarize harmful microbes. It can be quite a shock to see them at it, because they sprawl in contorted positions in order to expose the undersides of their wings and places where the sun doesn’t usually shine.

I use the term “mad scientist” advisedly. I read New Scientist magazine regularly, and I notice that its editors seem persistently confused about the beliefs of those of us who critique genetic engineering or wonder whether space exploration is a legitimate priority. I consider it useful to separate mad scientists from the legions of scientists who, like me, value the methodical collection of evidence to support or refute hypotheses and theories. In my view, the defining features of mad scientists are (a) hubris, and (b) over-reliance on the intellectual and practical tactic of isolation. What I mean by the latter is this: It’s certainly possible to sometimes learn something useful by studying or thinking about a variable in isolation, but the presumption that such abstracted experimentation is the sine qua non of science leads to to a stunting of the capacity to think relationally or even see the inherent limitations of methodologies that break into ecologies, often producing skewed results due to the very act of isolation.

Mad scientists release genetically engineered organisms, presuming—due to hubris—that they can do a better job than nature and that there couldn’t possibly be any negative consequences that they, with their superior minds, can’t foresee. Precisely beecause of their over-reliance on isolation, they are unlikely to foresee effects such as the deaths of monarch butterflies exposed to the pollen of GM corn. And, of course, hubris leads mad scientists to presume the right to experiment on nonhuman animals while the cognitive habit of isolation leads them to not see the inherent invalidity of results derived from experiments on organisms removed from the social and biological systems in which they normally participate.

There are non-invasive ways to learn about and from other animals. Anything that can’t be learned that way—like all of the things we could learn if we subjected non-consenting humans to medical experimentation—must remain mysteries. We can’t know everything. And that’s OK. Indeed, it might be a significant step forward for our species if we were to develop more modesty about the limits of our knowledge, thereby exercising more caution before doing things like dumping iron in the ocean in hopes of capturing carbon and therefore mitigating climate change. Deliberately altering the chemistry of an ocean? No, nothing could possibly go wrong with that plan!

Cross-posted on Superweed, where you can also read an additional reflection on the death of Baltimore Blum.

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