In past columns I have written about declines in several birds, reptiles and freshwater mussels. Other wildlife authorities in the Southeast have noticed similar declines. My Ph.D. major professor, the late Dr. Archie Carr, lamented the declines of many wildlife species where he lived and said, “It’s the penalty I’m paying for living in the same place too long.”
Invertebrate specialists have concentrated mainly on declining freshwater molluscs, many of which are now extinct.
Terrestrial invertebrates, unless they are pests, have received scant attention, despite the fact that some have been extirpated or now exist in relatively small numbers. As every rural old timer and every entomologist is aware, the once common black tumblebug has disappeared from much of its former range. Other formerly abundant insects now seldom seen are predaceous tiger beetles and robber flies, which we used to call “fly in front of you bugs.” Numerous butterflies and moths have taken a hit, including Catalpa sphinx moths, the larvae of which are Catalpa worms. Persons interested in moths should be aware that the week beginning July 19 is National Moth Week. (nationalmothweek.org.)
I rarely see earwigs anymore, the elongate insects with pincers at their rear ends. As a child, I was told that earwigs would enter the ears of sleeping persons and puncture their eardrums. Other terrestrial invertebrates that seem to be less common now are pill bugs, sow bugs and snails.
During our youths, my playmates and I were fascinated by insects. In addition to tumblebugs, we captured green June bugs, tied thread to their hind legs and watched them fly. We would “fish” for what we called coffee bugs. These were the larvae of tiger beetles, which lived in round holes in the ground. We’d insert a grass stem into the hole and, when it wiggled, would jerk it out, often with a coffee bug attached. The bug would spit out a coffee-colored liquid. When we saw a grand-daddy-long-leg, we’d ask, “Grand-daddy-long-leg, which away’s the cow?” Using one of its second legs, it would point unerringly in the direction of the nearest cow. When we spotted a lady bug, we’d tell her, “Lady bug, lady bug, fly away home,” and she would take flight.
Doodlebugs, the larvae of members of the family Myrmeleontidae, construct pitfalls in protected sandy places. Placing one’s lips close to the mouth of the pitfall and saying, “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire,” several times, the doodlebug will respond by moving, and the bug can be caught. Praying mantids, aka devil’s horses, are fascinating creatures, but we were afraid to approach one closely because someone told us a devil’s horse will spit in your eyes, causing blindness. Likewise, we were cautious when we saw an orange millipede, because it would attempt to count your teeth, and if it was successful, death would ensue.
Among other critters I was interested in were snakes, lizards and turtles. The creeks we played and swam in contained several species of turtles and two harmless water snakes. We were mistakenly told that poisonous ‘blunt- tailed moccasins’ also occurred, and that their presence was indicated when slow-flying blue-winged snake doctors were seen, because these doctors specialized in treating moccasins.
Unfortunately, nowadays most youngsters don’t appreciate critters in ways that many of my generation did, and they seldom play hide-and-seek, kick the can, cowboys and Indians, mumblypeg and other such outdoor games. They’re too busy playing video games, sending and receiving text messages and engaging in other mind-numbing indoor activities.
Children in our area, however, do have access to a facility – the Louise Kreher Forest Ecology Preserve – that provides opportunities to learn about and enjoy native animal and plant life. The preserve occupies 120 acres not far north of Auburn along North College Street and has five miles of walking trails, a creek, a lake and amenities. It is open each day from sunrise to sunset and frequently has presentations on animal and plant life by specialists. Additional information about the preserve is available online.
Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Department of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn University. He is also chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.