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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Since posting about the bolas spider, I got an email from the co-author of a cool book called Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating
Her name is Leslie Brunetta, and her co-author is arachnologist Catherine Craig. Leslie gave me a great big present in this David Attenborough video of a bolas spider doing her thing. Get a load of this:

To think of my little beauty getting busy with her sticky bolas, slinging it around as hopeful male cutworm moths circle...well, I had to share that one with Science Club, every fourth, fifth and sixth grade member of which now knows about bolas spiders. In the process, I learned how to convert YouTube files to .mov files that I can keep on my computer, because Liam's school blocks YouTube. There's a free service at that will convert the files into a format of your choice and email them to you! Who knew? So you can have awesome film clips without accessing the Net.
 Not long ago I got a comment on my blog informing me that my use of the word "bug" to describe all insects and (shudder) arachnids is incorrect. "Bug," correctly used, refers only to hemipterans, the "true bugs," which have a long sucking tube for a mouth. Stinkbugs, wheel bugs, milkweed bugs, bugs like that. 

I started to write a reply, got all het up and launched as I am wont to do into an essay, then thought better of it and saved it for the blog.  On this blog and in real life, I use "bug" knowingly, tongue firmly in cheek. For a number of reasons, I feel it best to establish myself here as an entomological piker from the get-go. Bugs are scary enough to many readers without getting all pointy-headed about what you call them. You'll find me describing butterflies as bugs, too. I take my lead from my friend and entomological hero, John Acorn, author of the delightful book Bugs of Ontario. He says in his introduction:

"This book is for bugsters. If you haven't heard that term before, don't feel left out--I think I invented it with the help of my friends. We needed a word for people who are fascinated by insects and enjoy them for no other reason than their intrinsic niftiness. 'Amateur entomologist' seemed too stuff, as did 'insect enthusiast' and 'entomophile.' 'Bugger' is out of the question...I did find the term 'entomaniac' popular among some of the people I know, but it probably isn't the best one to use as a recruiting tool. Maniacs are crazy, but we bugsters are merely enthusiastic.

  "Even the word 'bug' is fraught with problems.In the strict language of entomology, a bug is a member of the Order Hemiptera, often pedantically called 'true bugs'...Let's just cut through all of this confusion and call the critters 'bugs,' and the people who love them 'bugsters.'"

All hail John Acorn, who makes nature accessible and fun. I'm aping him as best I can. Bug, bug, insect, beetle, arthropod and arachnid...I love 'em all, except for ticks, mites and house and wood cockroaches, all of which I hate, except for the brown-hooded cockroach, which I adore, capricious bugster that I am.

I will now reprise a post, because I love it too much to trust you to click upon a link to it, that sums up how I feel about bugs. Even odd cockroaches in the bedroom.

It was a magic moment, the kind Science Chimps live for. I was bathing Liam (this tells you how old this post is--2007!)  and from the bedroom Bill said, "Zick! Look at this!" with that note in his voice that could only mean a kind of gross but interesting bug. He came into the bathroom with a wad of Kleenex in his hand, and this huge shiny cockroach, almost 2" long, squirmed free of it and plopped down onto the bathmat. It crawled methodically, squirming side to side like a little Sherman tank, most unroach-like.

I noticed first that its cerci, the two antenna-like projections at the tip of the abdomen that are one of the roach family's distinguishing characteristics, were very small, but still present. Its legs were heavily barbed, strong and stout. It looked like a miniature version of the Madagascar hissing cockroaches I used to visit in their plastic shoeboxes in the Harvard Biolabs. I knew that I had seen this bug before, but only in a photograph. A photograph in my brand-spankin' new Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America.

Oh! Oh! Oh! Mad scramble for the book. And there it was, the brown-hooded cockroach, right there on the roach page where I remembered it being. But there, too, in one tantalizing paragraph, was its story. The hair stood up on my legs (which took some doing, since I'd just shaved 'em) when I read this:

The Brown-hooded Cockroach (Cryptocercus punctulatus), often placed in its own family (Cryptocercidae), is a unique social insect of northwestern mountains and the Appalachians. It lives in family groups in rotting wood, females giving live birth to three or four offspring. These nymphs feed on adult feces, consuming protozoans that help digest cellulose. They take six years to mature.

So we've got a native insect, an endemic, almost, with a disjunct range. Which gives live birth, instead of laying a gross little egg capsule like most roaches that infest houses. Whose offspring live on the feces of their parents. Which is social. A social roach. Which takes Six Years to Mature. It was almost too much to take in at one time.

I did a little digging around on the Net. From researchers at Sweetbriar College, via came the following synopsis, which differs in some details from the Eaton/Kaufman story:

Wood roaches are monogamous and exhibit considerable parental care: a mated pair stay together for several years and raise a single set of offspring. After a sexually mature wood roach finds a mate (how? I don't know), the pair establishes a nesting site in a dead log on the forest floor. They will probably stay in one log for the rest of their lives. Wood roaches have ecological and physiological similarities to their close relatives, the termites. Like termites, they feed on dead wood and live in galleries they construct within fallen logs. Since insects lack the enzyme cellulase, they rely on microbes to digest wood. Termites and wood roaches house these microbes, primarily flagellated protozoa, in their gut. The mated female lays a clutch of 50-100 eggs. A newly hatched roach nymph's gut is empty - it does not have any symbiotic microbes. To get these from its mother or father it uses proctodeal trophallaxis (feeding on fluids from the adult's anus). The necessity of obtaining gut microbes is a constraint on the life history of the wood roach: these insects cannot grow to maturity as loners. Initially the nymphs feed exclusively by trophallaxis and are completely dependent on their parents for their nutrients. As they mature, they acquire their own gut flora and begin feeding on dead wood directly. Development to sexual maturity takes more than two years.

Here's a roach and its nymph, a picture taken off the Net. Vastly superior to mine. I found this insect a bit tough to photograph, since being out in the light upset it and it made endless circles around the perimeter of its enclosure. This is a jolly good shot, even though it's lifted. (I wish I could find it again to credit the photographer.)

So. Do they lay eggs or give birth to live young? Dunno. Does it take two or six years to reach sexual maturity? Dunno that, either. See how much we don't know for sure about insects? When it comes right down to it, they are unknown, weird piled on weird.

. Hidden cerci. Yeah. Punctulatus would mean spotted. In the words of Tom Morrison, the foreman of the construction crew that built our birding tower, I was "all ate up." I jumped up and down, pumping my fists like Tiger Woods after a birdie. High-fiving Bill. New Bug! Weird Social Long-Lived Bug! In our House! Still am all ate up, to have this venerable Appalachian social cockroach circling around in a plastic pitcher on my kitchen counter. But none of that could have happened unless Kenn Kaufman and Eric Eaton and my beloved publisher, Houghton Mifflin (Harcourt), had gotten it together to make this brand-new field guide to insects, this gift to the planet, to Science Chimps everywhere. Get yourself one at your local bookstore, or order it online. Give yourself the gift of knowing your roaches, your stink bugs, your odd long-horned beetles, your Midas flies and scorpion flies. Let your curiosity rule the day. Tune in to the previously inaccessible world of insects.

I let it go the next day in rotting wood, of course. Hoping there would be a new social group of brown-hooded cockroaches for it to join. What it was doing in the bedroom I can't imagine. As Bill said, "I'm just glad I didn't flush it."


Wonderful post. Very interesting and your excitement was very contagious as I read. Thanks for sharing. I really enjoy reading.


I have a boat-load of birding field guides, but the book that is most tattered and used is my Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. The whole family runs for it when we find a new "bug". I love your bug posts!

Jeez what a bug nerd! Uh, I guess that makes me one too 'cause I read the entire post. Most of all, I love your writing style. While you are probably an embarrassment to all your "pointy headed" friends and colleagues, you really make the scientific world accessible to "round headed" types like me. Thanks!

Psst--Jeff--there are a lot more round-heads than pointy-heads...
so we win in the end.

Just watched the Bolas video clip. Kinda reminds me of a girl I knew back in college. Change scent, lasso, drain of all life force, repeat....

I'm trying to be a Big Girl about this, but that roach has me shuddering. I'll stick to the pet spiders on my kitchen window, TYVM.


Wow, loved the bola video. Spiders are amazing. I watch them and their webs. Not fans of them, a bit of arachnaphobia.....but they are fascinating to watch. My sis is a bug girl, says she should have been entomologist. Will have to find that book for her. Thanks for the info.

Posted by Anonymous October 20, 2011 at 7:04 AM

What a terrific post! That roach has star quality.

Thank you for this post, I love knowing that there are other people who are interested in bugs out there! Just yesterday my friends were teasing me for liking spiders. And its funny hearing people getting upset about the use of "bug"; as a geologist I have heard a few of my colleagues get huffy when a layperson calls something a "rock" when it is mineral. Its hard enough finding a person who is actually interested in rocks (or bugs, or whatever), don't discourage them!

This put a corner-to-corner smile on my face. I've got a few errands to run, and then I'm going to go look for a bird poop spider. And the insect guide! There is so much we don't know. And that delights me.

I'm speechless, that video of the Bolas in action is awesome, thank you for sharing it.

Bugsters and Science Chimps everywhere will love reading "The Pleasures of Entomology" and "Life on a Little Known Planet" (among other titles) by Howard Ensign Evans. For the record, my favorite "bug"--the gorgeous gold-backed snipe fly. My least favorite--the despicable deer fly!

What an awesome video! I love when she pulls the thread out of her spinneret and of course when she lassos the moth.

I sat watching the video, eyes wide open, chin on my hand, just fascinate. I'm in Indiana so I'll be looking for a little bolas beauty. The cockroach story was interesting, too. I love nature and all it's critters -- you always open up a whole new world there for me. Thank you!


Do you know which Attenborough film/series that is from? (always looking for new ones to watch). Thanks.

Thank you for the tip about that video site!
Very useful for a teacher.

p.s. there's another way to save youtube videos without having to have them emailed to you:

I suppose I can be considered a bugster. I am fascinated by every "bug" I see and, other than fleas, ticks and termites too close to the house, bugs are safe in my realm. Still, I avoid all cockroaches and shuddered as I read about the hooded cockroach. I live in the Appalachians, too, and have not had the "pleasure" of meeting one...and, I think that's one pleasure I will be happy to do without. But thanks for sharing!

After you smoke a joint you are left with a ROACH.

Your roach is more interesting and I will be able to remember the post - a definite difference from the 60s

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