A bizarre request

gregsamsaJanuary 11, 2013

I am a fiction writer who is trying to hunt down an elusive creature. I'm looking for an insect, indigenous to Massachusetts, that might be seen exhibiting interesting (or disgusting, preferrably) behavior mid-Autumn, in the early 1600s (thus the need for an indigenous species). All the gross/fascinating specimens I've come across I have later discovered were imported/invasive/etc. I would deeply appreciate any species suggestions, or any advice on other resources. I want to exhaust this sort of attempt before I get my nerve on and pester an actual entymologist.

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Monarch butterflies are emerging from chrysalises in autumn. They emerge with shriveled wings and fat bodies, and then pump fluid from the body into the wings to expand them. It isn't a very pretty process, though I wouldn't necessarily call it disgusting. My memory is that it takes an hour or two for the shriveled lumpy brownish black thing that first emerges from the chrysalis to become the familiar monarch butterfly.

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 10:05AM
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claireplymouth z6b coastal MA

Maybe a Praying Mantis?. There are native mantises, such as the Carolina Mantis, although many non-natives have been imported. The Carolina Mantis is found in Massachusetts.

Sexual cannibalism seems to be common to all mantises, as well as the usual predatory nastiness.


This post was edited by claire on Fri, Jan 11, 13 at 10:31

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 10:29AM
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Not to mention that a praying mantis will lie in wait on a hummingbird feeder for a chance to attack, kill & chow down on a hummer...

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 10:45AM
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Have you picked up an insect guide to New England?

Off the top of my head I just think of earwigs. Not that they do anything disgusting in particular. They just look disgusting. It's an urban legend that they crawl into your ear and eat your brains, But did they know that back in the 1600s?

    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 11:10AM
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diggerdee zone 6 CT

Thank you, pixie lou. I will be thinking of you and your earwigs when I get in bed tonight....


    Bookmark   January 11, 2013 at 6:31PM
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Hi All, I haven't checked in on Gardenweb in a month and this caught my eye. It is midnight and now I am completely awake. This question is my idea of a great post!!

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 12:26AM
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spedigrees z4VT

Most aren't insects per se (or at all) but the life cycles of native parasites, both internal and external, are pretty disgusting. I have a particular bone to pick with them all, after decades of trying to annihiliate them, using all the chemical and other means at my disposal. They would make perfect villains in any novel IMO.

BTW does your work (novel? short story?) yet have a name so that we might look it up when it is finished (and see what evil critter you have selected)?

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 12:23PM
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spedigrees z4VT

Dung beetles came to my mind, although rolling up balls of poop bigger than themselves, and carrying them off to their underground burrows probably pales beside the behaviors of the mantis family. I'm not 100% certain dung beetles are native to New England or even America however.

    Bookmark   January 12, 2013 at 6:27PM
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Thank you guys for all your help! When it comes out it will be titled "Tiny Amimals," although it is not about insects. It actually has more to do with bacteria, but the title refers more to theme. It is a large Middlemarch-size novel; for the most part it is set in the present, though with historical flashbacks to dramatize the roots of certain cultural/religious mores.

Mantises eat hummingbirds??? I had no idea such a thing could happen. If I can find more info on that, that may be the winner. Actually, it doesn't HAVE to be insect-related. Any autumnal critter activity that many people would think unseemly would do. Thanks again!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 12:00PM
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gregsamsa - check out the hummingbird forum--that's where I found out that tidbit. Shocked my socks off too.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 1:52PM
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And I I could have sworn that GardenWeed was pulling everyone's leg:
"A praying mantis attacking a hummingbird - HAH!!!"

How wrong I was. . .check out these YouTube videos:



    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 2:57PM
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spedigrees z4VT

If the tiny creatures need not be insects, you might take a look at the arachnid kingdom.

Those giant yellow and black garden spiders also sometimes catch hummingbirds in their webs, and I assume they also feast on the poor little birds. All spiders are especially active in autumn, or at least that is when they seek shelter in human abodes and we are most likely to be bitten. The way their venomous bites dissolve the flesh around the wound (and dissolve all the innerds of insects who fall victim) has always struck me as both bizarre and disgusting.

Now that I know the title, I will be looking for your book when it shows up for sale on Amazon. It sounds intriguing.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2013 at 4:17PM
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bill_ri_z6b(Zone 6B)

I assume you are familiar with the TV show called "Monsters Inside Us". If it's disgusting you want, that should do it. The main focus is on bacteria, parasites and the like so I don't know if there are specific references to insect species, but if there are, I am sure you could then find out if any of them are native to Massachusetts.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 5:12AM
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molie(z6 CT)

Really interesting thread, Gregsamsa!

As I was reading (especially Bill's comments) I was reminded of a work of fiction by Jim Crace called "Being Dead". That might be a resource to check out because it "follows" the seaside murder of a couple backwards in time to their earlier lives and forwards in time to what happens to their remains ---- thanks to the creatures and organisms around and within them. Might be some "named critters" that you could use.

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 1:44PM
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Sorry, folks. . .I posted those YouTube links incorrectly. . .don't watch this
if you're squeamish !


Here is a link that might be useful: Praying Mantis Attacks Hummingbird

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 3:23PM
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corunum z6 CT(6)


gregsamsa: "I want to exhaust this sort of attempt before I get my nerve on and pester an actual entymologist."

Why not go directly to the Entomology Dept. at Harvard? Also, the Massachusetts Historical Society or the Plymouth, MA historical society? I've done a fair amount of research and have found that people are wonderfully helpful if questions are clear, concise and are asked politely. Research folks are great: Publishers on the other hand... Go to horse's mouth for the best info.


Here is a link that might be useful: Harvard Entomology Department - personnel

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 3:41PM
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nhbabs, thanks for the Monarch suggestion, although I'm afraid the metamorphosis thing might be a bit too pre-loaded with symbolic baggage for my purposes.

It was with a grievously disappointed heart I realized that the hummingbird-noshing mantis is, alas, the imported European mantis, as far as my inexpert eye can tell from the photos and vids. I have yet to verify Carolina mantids rocking such juicily shocking predation. ...still looking, though.

Molie I adore Crace and loved "Being Dead," but I think his info was specific to the UK. I'm thinking of something that could conceivably be witnessed by someone in late fall of 1637.

Thank you all so much for your input. This is a fun forum and I think I might stick around even after my question is settled. I've got herb garden issues.

Bill I haven't yet seen "Monsters Inside Us" and while it seems right up my alley generally, I'm looking for something outside us right now! :)

I am now going to approach some academic experts now that my question can be suitably succinct and specific "Could someone have seen a Carolina Mantis eat a hummingbird in the Mass Bay area in fall of 1637?" If the answer is no, I'll inquire about spiders, Spedigrees!

Thanks you guys!

    Bookmark   January 14, 2013 at 5:03PM
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There are parasitic wasps that lay one or more eggs in a caterpillar (often after they have paralyzed it) and then eat the caterpillar from the inside out. Watching the insect emerge from the caterpillar would be pretty disgusting.

Giant water bugs grasp their prey (often tadpoles) and hold them while they pierce them with their mouthparts, inject saliva which dissolves the insides, and then suck the tadpole's dissolved guts out until only a husk is left. I have watched them in shallow water, so this would be possible to watch. Sort of like spiders but without the web. There are videos on the web of this. One of Annie Dillard's books, probably Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, has a great description of this.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2013 at 6:26PM
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And I forgot to add that it would be lovely to have you stay to discuss garden interests and questions. This has been a fun question to think about.

    Bookmark   January 16, 2013 at 6:28PM
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spedigrees z4VT

This is a fun thread! It also is useful for reading suggestions. I absolutely plan to look up "Being Dead" and Annie Dillard's work came to my mind too, Babs. I read "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" many years ago. Ms Dillard had a sort of morbid fascination with the insect world, I recall.

By all means, stick around and talk herbs, gregsamsa. This is an interesting forum, and some wonderful photography shows up here too.

    Bookmark   January 17, 2013 at 3:04PM
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Once again let me express my sincere gratitude for all particiipation, especially significant to me now that I've had my question treated with quite a bit less respect from other sources. Here's the update. I didn't trouble the Massachusetts Historical Society because they have already overindulged me on other issues and I am portioning out my demands from them. I did however email an entomologist at Harvard and the results were embarrassing and unproductive. In the subject line, I had written "An entymology question." It's not like I don't know how to spell "entomology" but I used to write an etymology blog (I'm that kinda word-nerd; Hey, did you know we have two words for food sheep/mutton, pig/pork, cow/beef etc because of the Norman invasion in 1066?) My mnemonic device for remembering was that "entomology" has the n like "ant" does, whereas "etymology" doesn't. I guess I shall have to append the mnemonic so that "o" is for "Oh!" while the "y" is for people who ask WHY. Anyhoo, she responded with the cutting one-word answer "ENTYMOLOGY??" as if it were such a grievous error that you'd imagine Thomas had asked Lady Grantham out to noodle catfish. The rest of the request was error-free, as was my query about whether my typing-fingers inertia born of the word "etymology" would disqualify my question from consideration at all.

Apparently it did.

SO. Another bug expert I asked says that Carolina Mantids go no further north than New Jersey. I'm gonna trust y'all that he's off on that since you gots your noses right in where it counts, and while I'm tempted to give you his contact information, I shan't, out of polite taste partly, and partly to pay ammends for all the evil thoughts I had about settin' them nonymous kids (b/chan) on the Harvard lady. None of this would be kind or professional. So as it stands, I'm looking for two things: awesome late-Autumn ant action or some validation on the mantis-on-hummingbird assault, but only if it was a Carolina Mantid and only if it could happen in late fall. And you know what this is about? An aside thing a guy sees while eavesdropping on a legal hearing. Why do I bother?


    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 2:26AM
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Oh, ps. I obviously can't steal a thing Annie Dillard already did. While I richly admire her writing sentence-by-sentence, I do sometimes want to grab a story of hers by the lapels, shove it into a corner, and make it tell me if it's actually going to have something happen in it. Fantastic sentences, irreducible rhythms like verse, and the gorgeous hideousness of existence are all quite luscious components of a story, but there DOES need to be a story. Actually what I should be doing is straightening up the straying ends of like six different subplots (MIDDLEMARCH-STYLE, B*TCHES!!) of my own story(ies) instead of making sure I have the bugs right outside a window. But I can't. I have to make it right. It's an uncanny urge. It's one that can be overcome, however, unlike how not going to the Iowa Writer's School can never be overcome, never. Never ever. Look up ten new books. They're from that. Always from that. The school that gifted literature with Tama Janowitz, Jay McIrney, Brad Easton Ellis, and even worse does not yet feel it owes American Letters an apology, but feels that America should regret not sending it it$ best writers, and THAT'S the only reason such above-mentioned crapsters got through. No one mentions the Iowa-to-Agents funnel of laziness currently in play. This might all seem far afield from my question and my book, but it's not. I'm about insects, tiny animals, small motivations, and cultural gardening. I do sincerely hope your eyes haven't felt abraded by the grinding of personal axes but I would understand if they were.

This post was edited by gregsamsa on Wed, Feb 6, 13 at 11:28

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 3:14AM
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