Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Poking bugs

 What is the source of the affinity boys have for bugs? All three of mine were entranced by beetles and spiders crawling through the dead sticks and leaves unearthed by my husband as we slowly transform our high maintenance landscape into something that real people can handle.

Please don't squash any stink bugs.
The boys were eager to poke the bugs with sticks and their own fingers. D wants to make every bug his pet. M is half-thrilled half-terrified with most insects. Some he tries to help, others he must kill. A, the toddler, calmly sits and watches, pointing and shouting at sporadic intervals "Buh! Yeah! Buh!"

In the interests of science, I took an extremely blurry photo of this moth that was hanging out on our grill cover. It caught my attention because of the stripes on its wings. This moth did not do a great job of picking a background that would help it blend in and avoid predators. If my iPhone ate moths, this little guy or girl would be dinner.

I'd like to find out what kind of moth this is. I know it's a moth, but a few weekends ago, my 6 yr-old and 4 yr-old were engaged in a very high level debate about the differences between moths and butterflies. We saw one of those ubiquitous white flutterers (I don't dare say it was a moth or butterfly because honestly I'm not sure) and the boys took turns calling out why they thought it was a moth/butterfly. "Moths only come out at night," said one. "It's a butterfly." "But it didn't have antennae," said the other. "It's a moth." They went on an on about wing shape. I have to get them a book to learn the differences...and so I can learn, too. We eventually settled their argument by reminding them that in the end, butterflies and moths are all in the same large family. (Have you had to discuss Linnaean Taxonomy with your preschooler and kindergartener yet? If so, let's hang out.)

What am I?
But the camouflage pattern on this insect reminded me of a fun little workshop we used to do at Carnegie Science Center, that taught elementary school children about camouflage and a bit about evolution. Have you heard of the Peppered Moth? During the Industrial Revolution, the amount of soot produced in England created an environment where darker moths were able to hide better from predators, and lighter color moths were less protected. This isn't exactly what I would call natural selection, but it certainly shows the complex interaction of human actions and environmental impact. It also revealed to me how little many of my adult peers understood about evolutionary theory.

Reading on a bit more about the Peppered Moth reminds me that humans like to find one cause for an event, but life is rarely so simple. Turns out that during the research process that determined background camouflage made lighter moths easier to see, the scientist doing the study actually placed moths on tree trunks, in plain view. Rarely would a moth, in nature, choose to perch on a tree trunk. In the great tradition of scientific inquiry, the original findings were tweaked and pulled and teased to show that bird predation of lighter colored moths during the increase in sooty exhaust was only one factor in the changing quantities of light versus dark colored moths. Nature, and bugs, are really very complex and interesting subjects to study, and teach us a lot about the world around us.

Aha! I see it now, why my boys are so obsessed with the scuttling, crawling, wiggling things. Poke away, boys. Let's see what new theories you can propose...