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Insecticidal Maniacs?

2 Jun

I’m spending part of the summer dyeing dance flies at a nature reserve near Loch Lomond. Yesterday’s flies were electric blue. Today’s were day-glo orange. Tomorrow they will be lemon yellow. After dyeing them, I’m releasing them back into the wild. The high visibility will allow me to recognise them if I recapure any of them the following day.

On my first day, my supervisor Dr Luc drove me and my assistant to the site and showed us the areas we are to work in, and how to carry out the research project in a sufficiently scientific manner. We are working with gigantic fly nets, which we swing maniacally around our heads whenever our swarm convenes. Each fly captured in the net goes into an individual phial.

If you go down to the woods today

After half an hour of frantic net-swinging, it’s time to sex and dye the flies. Each one is checked for gender, dropped into a vial of dye, given a shake, and released. The vegetation is soon adorned with brightly-coloured dance flies. Some of them take to the air straight away, and look very pretty in the sunshine. Others prefer to clean themselves first.

Fly dyeing

The university’s Health and Safety rules say I must have an assistant for field research, because my ability to walk varies. Katydid is perfect for the job: she’s as batty about wildlife as I am, and strong as an ox. She carries all my stuff – lunch, water, spare jumpers, survival gear, seventy-odd vials, paintbrushes, wooden stakes, hammers, forceps, chocolate, jars of ethanol… you name it. Even though I had hoped the university would loan me a donkey to carry my stuff, I have to admit that Katydid makes a very decent pack-horse.

Malaise trapThe jars of ethanol are for the malaise traps. As well as painting flies, we have set up traps on the reserve to assay the insect life. I can’t say I am delighted about this part of the project, as it’s essentially mass murder – but the results can be fascinating and useful. Flying insects are trapped and preserved in jars of ethanol hanging from the tent-like structure in the photo above.

This is a personal test for me, to explore how far I am able to stretch my powerful moral boundary about harming animals. I need to know if I can make this a part of my future career in Zoology. We are carrying out our mass murdering in a protected area that’s not open to the public, and we have special dispensation to do it. The idea is to provide ecological organisations with information about the species present on this land, while at the same time gathering information about dance fly prevalence for the university. I am self-justifying my killing in terms of its assistance towards preserving biodiversity.

A prevalence of electric-blue dance flies

I was pleased to learn that Dr Luc also has moral feelings regarding invertebrate death and suffering. He and his colleagues display genuine affection for the creatures they study. I don’t find this attitude much in the human world: non-fluffy things with lots of legs are generally considered fair game for cruelty. My childhood role model was the conservationist Gerald Durrell, a self-styled “champion of small uglies”.

It helps me to know that the “small uglies” we trap won’t be flung in the bin when we’re done with them. Dr Luc is not wasteful about death, and he keeps all malaise-trapped insects for future entomological projects. Some of his students are going to spend hours at the microscope, dissecting the ovaries of pickled flies the size of pinheads. I think Gerald Durrell would approve.

Zoos are for Children

23 Feb

We were recently introduced to Five Sisters Zoo by Lisa and Andrea, an animal-loving couple we’re very good friends with. The zoo is significant for its focus on animal rescue. Its latest rescues are two bears who had been saved from a life of circus performance, and a lynx who had been living in a small enclosure at a rescue centre that could no longer provide for him. The zoo had gone to enormous trouble to build spacious naturalistic habitats for these animals. I approved of its sense of priority: it provides proper hiding places for every creature, and visitor visibility be damned.

Thus the bears were out of sight, hibernating in underground hollows among the trees. Buster the lynx was wide awake, though. Here he is, looking a bit unsure of himself in his new surroundings. He had climbed to the top of one of his climbing frames in his woodland enclosure. The zoo owner told us he likes to watch the comings and goings in the car park from this vantage point. I blinked at him in the slow way that cats do to smile at each other, and he blinked slowly back.

Buster

The more long-term zoo inhabitants were busy, happy and curious. They enjoyed looking at the visitors and trying to poke us through the bars. Various species of lemur tried to lick my camera lens, and this one succeeded.

Lens snogger

Some of the birds spoke to us with such charm, it was difficult to walk away from them.

Birdbrains

I loved the scents of the different animals: the foxy meerkats, the goaty-horsey reindeer, the lemony raven. The skunk was, sadly, snoozing in a hole, so I didn’t get to satisfy my curiosity on that score.

Andrea adored the monkey house, particularly the tamarins who all crowded up to her, some of them hanging upside down, to scrutinize her closely. Lisa was immensely popular with all the animals, because she happened to be carrying a crackly bag. Animals have a special affinity for crackly bags. One otter went berzerk, rushed around squeaking, then climbed to the top of a tree and loudly berated her for not sharing her tuna sandwiches. Until then, I hadn’t realised that otters could climb trees.

Tree otter

Major renovations were being carried out at the zoo during our visit. New and better enclosures were going up, but in the interim some animals were unavailable to view, and a lot of  the housing had incongruous signage.

Chipmunk

We had each paid a little extra for a “handling session”, because who would pass up an opportunity like that? At the appointed time we made our way to the reptile house, and presently the head keeper appeared and began setting out chairs. The chairs were very, very small. As more visitors entered the building, we realised that everyone else waiting to handle the animals was half our height and a tenth of our age. A cluster of parents looked on proudly from behind a barrier as the four of us squatted on the tiny chairs among their infants.

Head Keeper Lynn introduced us all to a python, a tortoise, and a giant hissing cockroach. She gave a talk about each one – where it came from, its habitat and body structure, and how to hold it safely. We listened meekly and did as we were told.

Head Keeper Lynn

The looks of wonder on the children’s faces was a joy to behold. We loved that they had been given this experience, but we couldn’t imagine why their parents had chosen not to take part too. Nor could we understand why the zoo (with its tiny chairs) expected this. We thought about other people we knew, and realised that, for most people, animals are a form of children’s entertainment. If an adult buys a pet, then it’s a dog or a cat or a fish. All other pets are bought for children. Even when adults go to feed ducks, it’s generally because they have kids with them. This delight in animals displayed by Lisa and Andrea somehow gets lost  when people reach adulthood:

Animal people

Happily for the future of conservation and this blog, there are still many people who don’t grow out of it. For Bunty and me, the best part of visiting the zoo was that it didn’t have to end. We arrived home to our own zoo, which welcomed us back with a crescendo of squeaks and meows and grunts and binkies, the moment Bunty crackled a bag.

The Taste of a Thousand Ants

13 Aug

Our bathroom wall has been made of ants for a week or so now. I have been hoovering up as many as possible with my mouth, and releasing them outside in clusters. They have a familiar taste that I can’t put my finger on. It’s in the family of wood sorrel, lemons, geranium leaves…

It’s that time of year when ant princesses take to the air for their mating flights before founding new nests. At some point, a new queen founded a nest behind our bathroom tiles. I have no idea what on earth they find to eat there, since the wall is made of plasterboard and it’s not like we store sandwiches in the bathroom – but the nest is a successful and productive one.

To hoover up the ants, I use my trusty pooter, a bong-like instrument through which one sucks tiny creatures through a pipe into a collecting-jar. It reduces the risk of injury to them, but, as with siphoning petrol, it has its drawbacks.

One drawback is that ants are intimately familiar with structures shaped like chambers and tunnels, and so they have no problems navigating their way out of the pooter as soon as they are sucked into it. Thus, I must keep sucking and sucking continuously to keep them in the jar until I am ready to release them.

Another drawback is that, although there is a mesh to prevent creatures from hurtling into one’s throat, this does not prevent one from tasting them. A distressed ant will release a spray of formic acid into the air. Any nearby ant who smells formic acid goes on the defensive and starts spraying too. A hundred distressed ants can release a good lungful of the stuff directly into the back of the throat of any pootering entomologist. It’s like walking into a Mexican restaurant just as they are frying the chilli: it makes you cough.

Each time my coughing exceeded my sucking on that first day, I took my haul of ants outside, breathed the sweet fresh air, and released them onto the garden wall. If I don’t do this on a given swarming-day, it means Bunty and I cannot have a bath without it turning into a scene from Titanic.

The bathroom ants start swarming at around 6 pm each evening. How long they swarm for depends on the prevailing temperature, so my long daily soaks in a hot bath can keep them bouncing off the walls for hours. Fortunately, after my first day of choking, I got the sucking balance right, and was able to keep the ants more or less in the jar without triggering an acid bath for my uvula*. As a result, when I release them now, they immediately take wing to mate, instead of forming these defensive huddles:

Six potential queens with a male (bottom left)

Unlike the bathroom ants, my pet ant Betty has failed to produce a successful colony. She ate very little, produced very tiny workers, and eventually, after two years, she died along with her 20-strong colony. I have been rethinking and revising my ideas on how to care for ants, and have been keeping a sharp eye out for a successor for Queen Betty. The cats have been helping by getting in the way.

Two nights ago, Bunty found one in the bathroom: a wingless queen. The lack of wings suggests she has mated and is full of the fertile eggs of her unborn colony. Upon mating, a queen searches for a crevice in which to start laying her eggs. The only crevices available in the bathroom were already taken. The usual advice for keeping ants is to start a queen off in a test tube, then move her to a nest once her eggs hatch. This time I am trying harder to recreate her natural environment. I let Mab (that’s her name) crawl onto my finger, and I deposited her at the entrance to the hand-made  nest I had originally made for Betty. She immediately entered, and has not emerged since.

Meanwhile, I am continuing to pooter up Mab’s sisters from the bathroom walls, floor, fixtures and fittings. I enjoy playing with ants, but I must admit I’m looking forward to the end of this swarming season, and the prospect of having less exciting baths.

 

* Uvula: that dangly thing at the back of the throat.