Tag Archives: death

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.

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.

Wild Paddy

8 Aug

Paddy, the patriarch of our seven guinea pigs, once lived in the woods with a cockerel. Their many wives roamed around the cottage garden in the Highlands where Bunty’s mother lives. Paddy and the cockerel spent part of the day with their wives, and then the two would cross the burn, climb the hill, pass under the fence or fly over it (depending), and return to their batchelor pad among the Scots pines.

The cockerel

Three pregnant wives

Paddy’s wives would nurture and wean Paddy’s pups in special enclosures where they would be safe from cats and owls. When they were old enough, Bunty’s mother would take them to Pets at Home and sell them. One summer, when Paddy’s wives had eleven pups on the go, Bunty’s mother decided to retire him from stud duties. Eleven was quite enough to be getting on with. Thus Paddy arrived at our home as a new member of our family. His arrival was unexpected and we had nowhere to put him, so we ensconced him  in a spare aquarium for his first few days of settling in. It was a far cry from his batchelor pad in the woods.

Not long after this, Pets at Home revised their policies such that they would only buy from a list of specific dealers – not casual hobbyists. Bunty’s mother was left with more guinea pigs than she could provide for. Paddy’s six sons came to live with us. We bought and customised a big hutch, with permanent access to our garden. Paddy had a new batchelor pad.

Paddy at bottom left

As they got older, the guinea pigs paired off, separating  into territorial areas of the garden. Paddy and his smallest son, Orkney, made their home on a patch of lawn edged by flowerbeds and a birch tree. Orkney spent all summer patrolling the edges of their territory against the other guinea pigs. Paddy had no inclination to follow suit: all his sons already accepted him as Top Pig.

In Wintertime, Paddy and Orkney shared the penthouse apartment in the guinea-pig tower block I had built for them all. The pigs like their tower well enough, but nothing beats the sight of them running and jumping unhindered through the grasses and Summer foliage. This year, the elderly Paddy began to take breaks from all the  running and jumping, to sit under a plank propped against the fence and watch the world go slowly by.

Paddy and Orkney in May (favourite plank in background)

Today dawned glorious and warm. As the sun was burning away the morning mist across the fields, Bunty fed Paddy some vegetable off-cuts. Paddy, feral creature that he is, scurried away to eat them in private. This afternoon, he was lying in the shade under his plank again, his boot-button eyes gazing into the buttercups. He had shuffled off his mortal coil, at the grand old age of five and a half.

I usually go to pieces when a pet dies, but this time it was different. He died quickly and quietly, in his old age, in his own territory – an expansive place full of grass to graze on and secret passageways that he had made among the bedding plants and beneath the tree. He died in freedom, with his favourite son close by. We buried him in his special place under the plank.

His last photo

Rest in peace, wild Paddy.