As my daughter and I were returning from a walk with the dog, the flutter of what at first appeared to be a leaf and then was clearly a large insect caught our collective view. Whatever it was landed in the grass, and my daughter followed to see it more closely. It looked, she said, rather like one of those large wasps that kill caterpillars, only this one had a dragonfly. I let the dog in and returned, camera in hand, for a closer look because I’m a shameless nature voyeur.
My daughter and I leaned our heads together over the collection of wings and legs on the grass – a dubious position, we agreed, should the thing or things decide to take flight again. The grisly scene unfolding in miniature before us, it turned out, was not of a wasp on the hunt, but of a robber fly.
“Fish gotta swim and bird gotta fly,” wrote Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim on Tinker Creek. “Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.”
Few writers, of natural history or other genres, seem to capture the unfathomable nature of insects as well as Dillard, who goes on to say in that chapter, “I never ask why of a vulture or shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see. More than one insect – the possibility of fertile reproduction – is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.”
Abandon hope, all ye who peer too closely into the grass.
My daughter and I watched with a combination of revulsion and fascination as the robber fly held fast to its prey, one bristly leg gripping the dragonfly’s unnervingly intelligent looking head, the rest firmly fastened along the torso of its prey, and dispassionately drained it down to an empty dragonfly shell.
Robber flies, for people who track these things, apparently are most often seen in Florida in June , perhaps accounting for the fact that I’d never seen one before. The University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or UF/IFAS, the authority on all things fauna and flora in Florida, and with which I came to be very familiar in the course of writing the Florida Allergy Handbook, includes the robber fly among its “Featured Creatures.”
The overview states that robber flies (Insecta: Diptera: Asilidae) “have voracious appetites and feed on a vast array of other arthropods, which may help to maintain a healthy balance between insect populations in various habitats (Joern and Rudd 1982, Shurovnekov 1962). Asilidae adults attack wasps, bees, dragonflies, grasshoppers, other flies, and some spiders. Robber flies are particularly abundant in arid and sunny habitats, which are optimal conditions in which to observe their many morphs and behaviors.”
We certainly had an optimal view.
According to UF/IFAS, robber flies hunt by perching in open, sunny areas, and then seize their prey in flight – the descending flutter we happened upon as we rounded our driveway. The rest is clinical nature: “Asilidae seize their prey in flight and inject their victims with saliva containing neurotoxic and proteolytic enzymes. This injection, inflicted by their modified mouthparts (hypotharynx), rapidly immobilizes prey and digests bodily contents. The robber fly soon has access to a liquid meal, which is generally consumed upon returning to a perched position.”
Our robber fly apparently chose to dine on the ground, possibly because the dragonfly it caught was at least as big as itself. In looking over the photos later, I found myself pondering just what it is about the unflinching nature of insects that can be so unnerving, even as they fascinate. Literature abounds – from classics like Kafka’s Metamorphosis and the variously remade “The Fly,” to modern tales like Spiderman, and cable television shows about exterminators and enormous Amazonian insects. The inimitable Cirque du Soleil’s latest show, Ovo, invites audiences to join in an “immersion into the teeming and energetic world of insects.”
Choreographer Debrah Colker told the Chicago Sun-Times , “Ovo is about the cycle of life — birth, death and transformation — and about the essence of nature.”
Maybe it’s precisely because insects seem to proceed through that cycle so efficiently, so clinically, so indomitably, in their various inhuman forms, that we are as equally driven to stare as we are to stomp. As Dillard mused in Pilgrim, “The earth devotes an overwhelming proportion of its energy to these buzzings and leaps in the grass, to these brittle gnawings and crawlings about. Theirs is the biggest wedge of the pie.”
Ain’t that the truth. There are over 900,000 species of insects, comprising 80% of life on earth. If that’s not mind-boggling enough, consider this: It’s estimated that there are another 2 to 30 million insect species that have yet to be identified. And here’s a fun statement from the Smithsonian: “At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive.”
Finally. A number that makes the national deficit look small. But my, what a lot of bristly legs, whirring wings and chitinous chewing jaws.
If nothing else, I think time spent considering insects can be perspective setting. We can spray and swat and stomp and dust all we want, but the fact is, we’re heavily outnumbered, and nowhere near as skilled or adaptable. As Dillard says, insects “make up the bulk of our comrades-at-life.”
Maybe that’s what makes it both so hard to look at them, and so hard to look away.