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The Little Things That Run the World

Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details.  The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both  may be there at the same time.

This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague .  Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re  arthropods of note and notoriety.  Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now,  which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses.  But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .

I was actually in the middle of a draft review  and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.

I did a double take.

It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB.  The  first

Adult deer tick

reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.

As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “

The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .

Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs.  We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.

West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across  44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.

“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather.  Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”

And that’s exactly what they’re doing.  Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests.   This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.

An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.

“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)

And yet arthropods continually fascinate me.  The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne – that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba.  And yet this creature is replete with organs!

And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe.  Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.

Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says.  No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”

Juvenile Assassin Bug

All around me things are clacking in the grass.  The abundance of summer rains  have

Adult Assassin Bug

produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely.  For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard.  I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a  “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.

Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted.  It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.

The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos,  right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance  covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.

These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone.  The cockroach repels us,  yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings.  We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought.  Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.

And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and  vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals,  decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.

It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand.  E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.”  Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.

The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.



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