By Dan Beard
Hints for Collectors
With some marked exceptions, among which we are apt to place wasps, hornets, scorpions, and spiders, insects may be held of slight account as individuals. Collectively, however, they certainly at times demand serious consideration.
We can scarcely regard with contemptuous indifference tribes, for instance, like those of the dreadful African ant, before whose armies of tiny, but savage, soldiers men and beasts fly in terror, or the destructive termites, or white ants, whose countless hordes eat their way into everything made of wood, and hollow out tall telegraph poles until nothing remains but the merest shell, too weak to support their weight of wires. Sometimes, too, these wires are rendered useless by cobwebs, such as are woven by South American spiders, which form conducting lines and steal the messages.
Nothing seems to be more preposterous than the idea that any number of insects can bring an engine and a train of cars to a standstill; and yet every year the newspapers testify that it is not an uncommon occurrence. Caterpillars and, in some cases, grasshoppers appear in such quantities that the rails are rendered slippery with their crushed bodies and no progress is possible until the tracks are cleaned. Journals have had many graphic descriptions of "hold-ups" of locomotives by the innumerable multitudes of potato-bugs that were endeavoring to preempt a right of way on the various lines of the Long Island Railroad.
Practical Value of the Study of Insects
The study of insects is really a matter of no small importance to humanity, and the boy collector who imbibes a taste for this most intensely interesting study, when he breaks out of his boyhood state, to shake out his strong mental wings as a perfect man, may become the wise naturalist who shall show us how to do away with the danger of such small fry as potato-bugs "holding up" express trains or of robbing the hard-working truck gardener of his crop of new potatoes. He should also be able to tell the farmer how to prevent the devastating effect of a horde of grasshoppers, or the vegetable gardener how to protect his cabbage from the larva, of the white butterfly, or the shipbuilder how to secure his lumber from the ruinous effect of "borers," and in a hundred ways be of great service to his country and to the world.
All the great things that are to be done in the next fifty years will be done by men who at the present time are either unborn or are now common, every-day boys. They wear no badges to tell you they are to be great scientists, artists, authors, engineers or statesmen, but they are certain to occupy those positions. The greatest man who ever lived was a boy to begin with, and the next to fill his place may be now reading this book-may perhaps be you!
The Popular Classification
With the exception of butterflies, the general public class the whole insect world under two heads-worms and bugs-and regard them with unqualified disgust. But this is only a sign of universal ignorance.
Some insects are veritable living jewels; many possess all the iridescence of an opal. There are few of our precious stones that cannot be matched in beauty by some despised creeping or buzzing insect.
Baby butterflies and moths are property called caterpillars, not worms. The caterpillar's taste is as varied as that of any other animal. Roots, wood, buds, flowers, wool, fur, flour, wax, lard, and meat, are some of the articles selected as food by different individuals, but the majority of these creeping infants live on the leaves of trees, shrubs, and other vegetables.
If you take a sausage and tie bits of string around it at short intervals, you will have a very good model of a caterpillar. Supply a little lump at one end for a head, some warts along the back, add from ten to sixteen small legs, and your sausage will be sufficiently lifelike to alarm any timid people who see it.
The Life of Caterpillars
Caterpillars are as varied in their mode of life as in their choice of food. Some hide in the earth and only steal forth to feed; others dwell in crowded silken tenement-houses, while their relatives of different taste lead the solitary life of hermits or make themselves small tents of silk or huts of folded leaves.
Every boy knows at which end of its body the spider's spinning apparatus is placed, but the caterpillar carries his thread at the other end, the silk issuing from a little tube in the middle of the lower lip. Inside the body there are two long bags of sticky stuff. The bags connect with the tube in the lower lip, and as the sticky fluid is forced out it is hardened into silk by the atmosphere.
When a caterpillar grows too large for his skin he crawls out, dressed in a brand new suit of clothes that fit his increased dimensions comfortably. About four suits of clothes answer for the young butterfly, and he is ready to be born again. The change is all inside, and when he is good and ready and feels all right, he bursts open the skin on his neck and wiggles out; but his own brothers would not know him.
He is shorter and thicker than ever before, has lost all of his ten or sixteen legs, and has no eyes, nose, mouth, or head. All he can do is to wriggle his funny ringed tail. This is what is called a chrysalis or pupa state.
Not Ready to Fly
After hanging by the tip of his tail under a fence-rail, or after sleeping in his soft silken bed inside his waterproof cocoon or covered in his bed of earth, as the case may be, for a sufficient time to regulate his internal anatomy, he again cracks open the skin on his back and crawls out a six-legged winged insect, but his wings are sadly crumpled from being folded in the narrow quarters within the chrysalis skin.
This, however, is a small matter, and still clinging with All six feet to his cast-off shell, he trembles and shakes until wrinkle after wrinkle and fold after fold is shaken out, and four beautiful wings move slowly up and down; gradually their delicate framework is dried and hardened, and then we see one of the most beautiful of sights-a perfect butterfly or moth.
The reason they are called lepidopters, or scaly wings, is because all that fine powder that rubs off so easily on one's fingers is not powder, but minute scales, which may be seen by examining what adheres to the fingers with a magnifying glass.
As a rule, butterflies fly by day and moths at evening or night. Butterflies have knobbed "smellers," "feelers," or antennae, and moths have feathered antennae. Most moths are much thicker and shorter in the body than butterflies, but this is not invariably the case (Figs. 220 and 221).
In studying insects examine and note the form and proportion of the heads, the length and form of the feelers (antennae), the plan of the veins in the wings, and the size and proportion of the latter, and you will soon see greater difference than there is between Irishmen, Germans, Hebrews, Englishmen, Negroes, and Indians.
The preservation of caterpillars for cabinet use is very difficult on account of their soft, perishable bodies. Some of the more minute ones may be prepared by heating a bottle in the oven until it is a little glass oven itself, and then inserting the small larva, in the bottle, where it will bake and dry, and may be then pinned in the cabinet or box the same as a moth, butterfly, or beetle.
Drying Better than Alcohol
Alcohol will preserve almost any sort of specimen. I have bottles at home filled with all manner of creatures- bats, baby bats, mice, fish, lizards, and shrimp-like animals from salt water. For ten years they have remained undisturbed and practically unchanged, but there is an unpleasant look about alcoholic specimens that is not present in cabinet collections of dried insects.
For the purpose of study, however, those specimens preserved in spirits have many advantages over the dried ones. It is claimed that larva, (young insects, grubs, caterpillars, etc.), if immersed in boiling water for half a minute and then placed in bottles containing half water and half alcohol, will retain all their natural colors and form. Mr. Packard, in his most valuable book on this subject, advises the use of whiskey as a preservative for a few days before placing the caterpillars in their final resting-place in vials of alcohol, the latter being so strong that all soft specimens will shrivel and shrink when placed in it without preparation.
The careful and methodical German collector prepares beautiful, if frail, specimens by first squeezing the insides out of the baby butterflies, and then with a blowpipe made with the nozzle fitted over a fine straw, and worked by a bladder filled with air, he blows up the larva skin by squeezing the bladder under his arm or between his knees, while with his hands he holds the little skin over a small lamp, so that it dries in its distended form.
The perfect insect-that is, the full-grown winged butterfly or moth-may also be preserved in alcohol, after the manner described for the larva, but the most artistic and beautiful specimens are the dried ones.
The best specimens are only procured by rearing the young and collecting the full-grown butterflies after they have freed themselves from their horny chrysalis. The space allowed for these hints is too short for a detailed account of the science of caterpillar farming, but this I can say: By experiment you can learn more than can be taught by books. The American Boys' Handy Book gives many novelties which, of course, are omitted here.
If a larva is found eating willow leaves, it does not require a ponderous volume on natural history to tell a bright, intelligent boy that willow leaves are good food for that particular-young insect. If the experimenter finds that sprinkling the food leaves in his farming box with water causes the caterpillars to swell up with a sort of fungus growth, killing them, he is bright enough to keep his leaves dry the next time. If his pets seem restless and pained by the sunlight, his common-sense will tell him to put them in the shade; so I must rely on his good American common-sense observation, judgment, and ingenuity to supply the information that want of space makes impracticable to insert here.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.