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On Six Legs - Insects on the Farm


A couple of weeks ago I was facing a long plane flight and needed something to do while cramped in one of those tight seats. So I grabbed two books to read. One was "The Land, The People" by Rachel Peden.

Peden was a newspaper columnist and book author who wrote about life on a family farm in Monroe County, Indiana. The book chronicled farm life from the 1940s through the 1960s. First published in 1966, the book was republished in 2010 by the Indiana University Press.

I loved reading the book because it captured the time when I was growing up on a farm. Peden was a wonderful writer who accurately and poignantly captured the people and the rapid changes associated with rural America of the time.

One aspect of life on the farm in those days was that we lived very close to nature. The land and living organisms, from domestic plants and animals to weeds and wildlife, was in those days -- as it still is today -- the essence of agriculture. And that cadre of living things included insects.

Peden did not ignore these six-legged creatures in her book. She mentioned mud daubers and non-insect spiders that managed to invade the unkept house of a neighbor. There was a dragonfly with a "long blue body and two pair of gauzy wings held straight out from his sides." Dragonflies and tadpoles were some of the animals that caught her attention at the pond in back of the barn.

She described butterflies: the monarch and its mimic the viceroy, dusky swallowtails, mosaic-bright checkerspots and sooty-winged Diana fritillaries. She wrote about hummingbird moths that resembled bumble bees in shape and color.

Peden concluded, "There aren't as many beetle watchers as bird watchers, but that is not the fault of the beetles." Beetles that did warrant mention in Peden's book are the so-called tumblebugs, or dung beetles. According to Peden, "These large, dingy-colored beetles can provide a farmer with an enlightening half hour, as they roll their spherical wealth cooperatively along the dusty, bare ground."

I will admit that as a boy, I, too, spent many an hour watching the dung beetles roll their little ball of cow manure along the trodden cattle paths of the pasturelands. In those days, I didn't fully understand that the entire process was associated with reproduction of the beetles. They would end up burying the ball of manure as food for their offspring. As recyclers of mammal mature, those beetles are a classic example of how all of nature fits together in the web of life. As Peden stated, "On all hands, all over the farm and in the woods, the life patterns of these neighbors (the animals including insects) make thoughtful suggestion for a farm observer to gather, store, and chew on later."

Today, dung beetles are not nearly as common as they were in the days when Peden was writing about life on the farm. Like horse-drawn equipment, milk cows and chickens on every farm, they are relics of times gone by. Dung beetles are victims of the lack of livestock on open pasture. Even when dung beetles are present, they are difficult to see when cruising through the pasture in a pickup truck or a four-wheeler!

Every farm child has had the experience of interacting with fireflies, or lightning bugs as some of us called them. Scientifically, these insects are neither flies nor bugs; they are beetles. Regardless of what they are called, these light-producing beetles are one of the awe-inspiring sights of rural America. James Whitcomb Riley described the sight as, "Fireflies, like golden seeds, Are sown about the night!"

Peden related the story of a firefly captured in a spider's web. Under those circumstances, the encumbered insect flashed a rapid-fire distress signal. Peden responded, but she was too late. By the time she got to the web, the spider had already injected a lethal dose of poison to its prey. Such is the reality of life on the farm.

One thing that Peden didn't mention was what one songwriter referred to as "The Little Brown Shack Out Back." In those days, most farms didn't have indoor plumbing, so an outhouse was a necessary structure. In the summertime, such facilities provided a good place to observe insects. After all, it's hard to ignore the hum of the flies and the drone of the mud daubers when using such a facility. Maybe there were a few things that Peden didn't want to remember about those good old days on the farm!