I AM SQUATTING on a sandy riverbank, watching a pack of western red-bellied tiger beetles eat a dead frog. Although the insects are only two feet away and about a third of an inch long, through close-focusing binoculars they fill my vision, an entirely new and surprising world. Tiger beetles have disproportionately large, sickle-shaped mouthparts, which they use now to stab into the white belly of the frog, slicing and scything and scissoring their mandibles like a chef sharpening his knives. Sometimes the beetles stand completely still, each brown wing cover patterned with seven creamy, irregular dots, the abdomen orange, the head and thorax iridescent in the sun. The beetles flash red and green and blue and gold. Suddenly they are gone. Suddenly they return. Suddenly they stare straight at me, their large, bulging eyes giving them a curious, inquisitorial air.
Tiger beetles are not for the faint of heart. Adult beetles typically run down prey like ants and spiders, grab, dismember, drench the victim’s body in digestive juices, and suck up the pureed mess with a strawlike mouthpart. Later, after a successful hunt, the beetles might be seen doing a self-congratulatory push-up — lifting or “stilting” on their long legs to get a fraction of an inch farther away from the hot ground.
I know about stilting, just as I know that tiger beetles are the world’s fastest-running insect (an Australian tiger beetle can go over five miles an hour) because I have recently read cover to cover A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada, coauthored by Barry Knisley and David Pearson, world tiger beetle experts. David and I have been in regular contact ever since I e-mailed him about the emerging role of the citizen scientist — the unpaid, unprofessionally trained nonscientist — and he e-mailed right back. Rather soon, he was gently bullying me into studying his favorite insect, something he has done many times before: the lawyer in Cambridge now writing a book on the tiger beetles of Mexico, the dentist in Ohio with his fabulous collection of North American tigers, the new guy in Texas who has become somewhat obsessed with the insects.
All around the world, people of all ages and backgrounds are dedicating countless hours to monitoring such things as juniper pollen, kestrels, salamanders, horseshoe crabs, black swans, river otters, osprey, hedgehogs, sunflowers, loons, comets, bacteria, solar flares, and roadkill. The sheer number of citizen scientists, combined with new technology, is changing how certain research gets done. Over a half million people have participated in Galaxy Zoo, an online program in which volunteers catalogue the shape of galaxies. A quarter million play the video game Foldit, helping biochemists synthesize new proteins. In the S’Cool Project, school-aged citizen scientists report their observations of clouds to help validate the accuracy of NASA satellites, timing their cloud-watching to the very moment a weather instrument is passing over and measuring the same clouds. Two hundred thousand volunteers help the Cornell Lab of Ornithology track birds, and these birders are working hard; a million observations are reported each monthon the lab’s online checklist.
Early science got done this way too: Charles Darwin relied on a network of amateurs for their observations of the natural world, working-class men and middle-class women, vicars and shopkeepers, people with whom he faithfully corresponded by mail. Although many of today’s citizen scientists participate in online programs, an equal number stand up, join a small research team, and go outside to study urban squirrels, collect water samples, monitor invasive species, or watch the leafing of plants to document climate change. As more people armed with better field guides and dedicated smartphone apps gather information on a species’ distribution and behavior, fewer scientists need to duplicate that work. Professionals like David Pearson confess, with no discernible chagrin, that many areas of traditional research in biology have been “largely turned over to amateurs.”
Enter the western red-bellied tiger beetle, or Cicindela sedecimpunctata, common in the Southwest, neither endangered nor threatened. Despite its abundance, this insect remains something of a mystery. All of the twenty-six hundred species of tiger beetles that have been described so far have some characteristics in common. Hatched from eggs laid in soil or rotted wood, tiger beetle larvae have the same knifelike mandibles as the adults, as well as special hooks along their backs that allow the carnivorous grubs to anchor in their tunnels and lunge out like B-movie monsters, catching and dragging in their prey. Over months or a year or two years, the larvae go through three instars, or stages, in which they grow larger and shed their skins, with some instars hibernating through the winter. Finally, the last instar forms the pupa from which the beetle emerges, fully metamorphosed. But in what kind of soil does the western red-bellied tiger beetle lay its eggs? After the eggs hatch, what do the larvae of this species look like exactly? And how long is the cycle from egg to larva to pupa to adult?
David Pearson wanted me to find out. If I could gather this information, he explained, I would be responsible for helping fill in one of the blank spaces on the world map of tiger beetles, replacing for Cicindela sedecimpunctata the field guide’s phrase “larval biology unknown” with my own observations. I was flattered, of course. I was intrigued. Dear reader — I said yes.
Catching tiger beetles along the banks of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, I am torn between two techniques: the mighty, over-the-head swing of the collecting net, or the twist of the wrist that suddenly flips the net held low to the ground. The first is harder to control and can produce a telltale shadow. The second requires a closer approach. Almost any approach requires the stalking movements of a great blue heron or tai chi master. Sometimes it is necessary to crouch, inching forward so as to not frighten the beetle. Think pure thoughts. Think flow. And be prepared to slam the net down before the high-energy, Type-A tiger beetle suddenly flies or runs off in pursuit of an ant or some other private exultation.
The problem I have is shifting gears from slow and flow to jumpy and hoppy, slamming the net down and rushing over in a half crouch to make sure all parts of the rim are pressed firmly into sand and mud. The tiger beetle will slip through any gap. This doesn’t usually happen, though, since most often the net swings down and the tiger beetle has already escaped while the net was still in the air. I swing ten times for every beetle I trap, and half of those get away afterward.
For those I do catch, I lift the top of the net, forming a cone. The beetle flies up, and I corner it further in a fold of cloth, pinching the area with my fingers. As I transfer the insect into a jar, I’m surprisingly prissy, careful to avoid getting bitten by those mandibles, not keen on handling the beetle or feeling it move against my skin. Above all, I don’t want to hear the sound of small parts breaking — to see someone’s insides or the angle of a broken wing. It’s not a matter of being nice, just squeamish.
In moments like these, I remind myself that I have always wanted to be a field biologist. I have imagined Zen-like afternoons watching a leaf, hours and days that pass like a dream, sun-kissed, plant-besotted. Like so many others before me, I hope for a kind of rapture in nature and loss of ego. The beauty of the world is a tangible solace — that such harmony exists, such elegance, the changing colors of sky, the lift and roll of land, a riverbank, and suddenly a beetle flashing in the sun, an entrance into its perfect world.
Quickly now, as my tiger beetle tumbles to the bottom of the jar, I screw the lid shut. Ah ha!I think, very un-Zen-like:Gotcha.
The path to the river moves through a tunnel of shaded willow and cottonwood into an explosion of sun on water, light and space, a kind of birth. I’m humming along the bank with my net and collecting jars, looking for tiger beetles and thinking about my life. About my failures. How I didn’t do this, didn’t do that. How I’ve taken some paths and not others. At every point in life, and not just the tail end of middle age, there is a long list of what we can no longer be; I do not expect now to ever become a rock star or go to medical school or create cool television shows. But wait, I tell myself. Turn that idea around. At every point in life there is a long list of what we can still be. This is the clarion call of citizen science, compelling dentists to study botany and accountants to map the stars. In every moment of the day, in the middle of any day, I can become newly engaged with the world.
I surprise three ducks, green-headed mallards who fly away in a triangle quacking, and I laugh like the child always amused by peek-a-boo, never tired of the joke: ducks actually quack — QUAACK, QUAACK — complaining and petulant. The delight of onomatopoeia. The delight of remembering that word. The music of water rushing over rock. A butterfly sailing past, an American painted lady. And a toad bumping against my foot, a bit of moving mud.
Every few feet, I spot another western red-bellied tiger beetle, that pattern of seven blotches. Then one of the beetles has a different pattern, four creamy dots, and I’m not only looking at an ocellated tiger beetle, I know I’m looking at an ocellated tiger beetle. I watch as this ocellated is approached by another ocellated, and when they fly up, I can see the reddish ends of their abdomens (similar coloring to the western red-bellied tiger beetle) signaling to predators that they might emit poisonous chemicals and be bad to eat.
Pattern recognition. Four creamy dots. Something in the world and something in my brain snap into place like the two ends of a Tinkertoy. Tiger beetle and butterfly enthusiasts share this satisfaction — matching up beauty with order. Chevrons, bands, circles, dots. We can identify some species fairly quickly. The mind has a picture. The picture matches. Birders also know that pleasure, a flash of color and form, and they have an answer: scrub jay or vermillion flycatcher. This kind of competence feels completely right.
It’s as if we belonged here, as if nature were our true home.
I confess to that Paleolithic nostalgia. We are hard-wired for walking through the woods, along the river, and feeling at home, matching patterns, knowing what we see and what to do next. Willow and bear. Mountain lion and squirrel. They make sense. They feel like family, relatives that are friendly and relatives that are dangerous: people we have known all our lives. Today we’ve replaced these competencies with new ones. Books and computers. How to use a toaster oven. Perfectly reasonable, I think, as I look for tiger beetles along the riverbank, contemplating my life, my failures, what I know, what I don’t know. Something darts by my feet. Another ocellated. And I’m focused again.
An adult male tiger beetle first courts a female tiger beetle by chasing her as though she were something good to eat. But instead of stabbing, jabbing, and covering her with digestive juices, he leaps on her back, grips the sides of her neck with his mandibles, and grabs her wing covers with his middle and front legs. The female tries to throw him off. The two struggle and stagger about as the male inserts his genitalia into her genitalia. Once successful, he may stay attached for hours like some nightmarish backpack.
A female expends a lot of energy producing eggs and wants to get the most from her investment. Her violent response to the male is likely a way to test his strength and endurance. The turbulence also ensures that the fitting parts are the right ones, preventing other species from mating with her. (Evolution doesn’t personalize like this, of course; rather, females who don’t test their mates have less luck over time passing on their genes, and so the trait of the passive female dies out.)
I transfer the beetles I collected earlier today from their jars into a plastic terrarium filled with grassland soil — one of many terrariums I have, each with a different soil type. For heat and light, I use a cheap desk lamp positioned close above the lid of the terrarium. Puttering among the other equipment suddenly filling my home office — my thermostats, my GPS, my recently purchased digital calibrator — I remember to look at the insects as well, and I notice something new among the tiger beetles I had collected previously, who have been mating for a few days now.
When females lay eggs or oviposit, they rear back vertically and make thrusting movements with their abdomen, digging into the soil with their hind-end ovipositor. Just below the surface, at the right depth for their species, they lay their oval-shaped eggs one at a time, each in its own spot and each covered with a sticky substance to keep it in place.
Right now, in a terrarium with soil from a specific cliff bank, a female still ridden by a smaller male is standing in the corner, straight up, as though delivering a speech before an invisible lectern. As though crossing the Delaware. As though looking out like Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, proclaiming, “What is there that matters? Tara! Home. I’ll go home!” The woman of the hour. I look for thrusting movements of the abdomen and think I see one. Soon I am e-mailing David Pearson with the news.
From: David Pearson
Sent: Fri, 12 Aug 2011 12:19:13 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: RE: laying eggs
Great! The trick now is to keep the soil moist but not too moist. After they hatch out, larvae will come to the top of their burrows and actually “learn” to take small insects from forceps. Wow. That’s really great. You may be the first to see and describe the larval characteristics of this species. Dave
Great, yes, but also a great burden. Moist but not too moist. What does that mean? I worry about the eggs, afraid they will get trampled with all the activity in the terrarium, two mated pairs and one lone male. I wonder if I should take the other tiger beetles out, but I’m afraid they might escape in the transfer. I wake at night thinking about my western red-bellied tiger beetles and how I’m doing everything wrong: my heat lamps too hot, my pH soil tester too inexpensive, my collecting techniques pitiful. At 3 a.m., the psyche experiences the equivalence of a sugar low. There’s no resistance to doubt. In the sunshine, I’m a problem solver. In the middle of the night, I’m The Little Engine That Can’t.
I don’t believe my eyes. I call for my husband: does he see what I see? Two circular holes in the terrarium with the cliff bank soil. They’ve been made with the smallest of drill bits. They are perfect. I have babies.
I rush to the refrigerator for the chilled mini-mealworms I have been using to feed the adults, and get a razor to cut one of the thinnest mealworms into thirds. The adult tiger beetles don’t try to escape when I lift off the lid and use my featherweight forceps to drop the dismembered worm parts into the new holes. I imagine my western red-bellied tiger beetle larvae anchored in their tunnels, scything their mandibles. Manna. Momma.
I e-mail David Pearson. I e-mail a few friends. My larvae have hatched! Thirty-one days from when I first saw mating to laying to digging their burrow, which corresponds to the guidebook’s nine to thirty-eight days for most species. My husband and I embrace.
Spoonful after spoonful, the dirt from my terrarium spills onto the newspapers laid on the table. I’m looking for a glimmer of movement, something very small and pale with the same general features shared by all tiger beetle larvae: a relatively large armored head with scissoring mouthparts and a white body kinked where the back hooks grow. It won’t be hard to recognize the first instar of the western red-bellied tiger beetle, even though no one else in the world has ever seen (or at least documented) this creature before. It’s possible these larvae actually have purple fur or whirligig eyes or the ability to communicate telepathically. This is something I’ll know in just a few minutes.
I use a paintbrush to carefully spread out the dirt. Nothing. The kitchen table is a lunar landscape. Peering through my close-focusing binoculars, I glide over craters and rock. A bleak world. And so lonely. One carbon-based creature calls out for another.
Then the heart stutters. The first instar of a western red-bellied tiger beetle shakes off the trauma of being upended and starts to crawl, searching for soil where it can burrow a new tunnel. It may look like every other tiger beetle larvae, but I sense something special about this two-tenths-of-an-inch-long animal headed for the edge of the newspaper. Now another first instar starts to move as well. I am the first person on the planet to ever see this, I think, but I can’t let that go to my head or my larvae will fall off the top of their world and onto the floor.
The river runs dark from the ash of summer wildfires thirty miles away. Slogging through mud, I search the banks. No adult beetles. No larval burrow holes. Clouds in the blue sky mass and tangle. A striped whipsnake flows into grass. A pair of black hawks keen.
Sometimes I stop and look for tracks. Close to the water’s edge, there’s no mistaking that roundness, the leading toe, the size of the front and back feet. After half a century of hiking in the Southwest, I’ve only seen a bobcat once, its tail flickering then disappearing, and I had to wonder: was that a bobcat or a wish?
That’s one good thing about tracks. They stay there. You can admire them for long minutes, the tangible presence of a secret life. It’s another gift, the world showering us with gifts, clouds in the sky, tracks in the sand, and there — growing up the shadowed riverbank, a mound of jimson weed, also called moon flower, also called thorn apple, also called sacred datura, the large, creamy, lavender-tinted, trumpet-shaped blossoms seeming to glow, exuding power and a rich scent. Is this flower for me? And next to this flower, here in this riverbed, a massive dark rock with white radiating lines, veins of quartz cool to the touch. Is this for me too?
I feel the need to fall in love with the world, to forge my relationship with it ever more strongly. But maybe I don’t have to work so hard. I have thought nature indifferent to humans, but maybe the reverse is true. Maybe the world is already in love, giving me these gifts all the time, calling out all the time: Take this. Take this. And this. And this. Don’t turn away. A love requited. I am the bride of the world, and I am the groom.
Two second instar holes appear in the terrarium. My first instar larvae have molted into the next stage. These circles are noticeably larger, and I start cutting the mini-mealworms in half rather than thirds.
I’ve reared up a number of first and second and third instars and put them in alcohol for David Pearson and Barry Knisley to measure and describe. I’ve been in contact with other citizen scientists studying tiger beetles around the world — one of whom discovered that tiger beetles live on the island of Tasmania, where no one believed they lived. (When this Australian schoolteacher sent David Pearson her photos, taken on a family holiday, he e-mailed right back, urging her to go back into the field: was this beetle a vagrant or part of a colony? And could it be a subspecies?)
I am keeping a few third instars in their burrows, hoping they will pupate this winter. Meanwhile, I continue patrolling the Gila River, walking up from the bank along the river benches, walking farther up into grassland and forest. But I have not yet found the tiny, almost-perfect, circular holes of the western red-bellied tiger beetle larvae. I know what kind of soil the female beetles prefer for their eggs. I know what the holes look like. I know what the larvae look like. I have seen it all in my own beetle nursery. I just can’t seem to find them out here.
That’s why biologists invented the second field season. Next summer I’ll collect adult western reds again and — as my mentors suggest — compare their behavior to that of the ocellated. I’ll continue searching for those larval burrows. From knowing next to nothing just four months ago, I’m now well on my way to filling in this blank spot on the map of tiger beetles. I’m deeper into their world, and deeper into my own.
We look at nature as into a mirror: there we are with our singular ideas of beauty and meaning. We look at nature and discover new relationships: me and sacred datura, me and bobcats, me and this white grub with horrific mouthparts and a kinked back. This is love, and this is science, and aren’t they really the same thing?