Adventures in Insect Identification

by Mark Miles

As you may have guessed by now, I’m endlessly fascinated by insect and arachnid life. As a kid, I would often roam in the forest near my house and catch arthropods in jars to add to my collection. Unfortunately I was a child and had no understanding of how to care for these little creatures, and in the majority of instances they ended up dying from starvation or eating one another. One particularly feisty praying mantis even managed to grab my finger and simply… wouldn’t… let go. It was awkward and slightly terrifying.

Since that time, I’ve mended my ways. Now I only admire and take pictures of the insects and arachnids with whom I come into contact. Occasionally they’ll come close to me or will even land on my finger, but I don’t force contact. It strikes me as bad manners and is also unethical. With all that said, here are my latest and most interesting adventures in identification.

This moth was actually in my house when I found him. He was hanging around the kitchen–where most of the moths that come into my house tend to congregate–and climbed onto my finger after I gently nudged him. He was completely calm, and I managed to take several shots of him, of which this was my favorite. It took me a doozy of a time to identify him, but I’m fairly certain he’s a ruddy Metarranthis moth (Metarranthis duaria), which has to be one of the worst names I’ve ever heard. Nevertheless he was a beauty, and I took him outside after our photoshoot, where he has presumably lived out his mothy days.

This cicada turned up in my front yard, dead when I found her. There was a very odd white coloration on her underside, which indicates a fungal infection and which is unfortunately an increasingly widespread cause of death for many cicadas. I was sad to see that she had died in such an unpleasant way, but I couldn’t help admiring her incredible coloration. If you look at the region covering her head and thorax, you can see a mixture of green, black and brown in overlapping irregular patterns. I was later able to identify her as a scissor-grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus), but to me she’ll always be the original camouflage.

I have to admit, I nearly crushed this little guy when I found him at Eno River State Park in August. I had noticed a beautiful sycamore, which I promptly inspected for photographic potential. I didn’t find any particularly good angles; but as I was inspecting the tree, I placed my hand against the trunk and felt a weird, cool, slightly slippery sensation. I immediately retracted my hand and found this beauty. Later I was able to identify him as an iron worm (Narceus americana)–which is by far the most amazing name I’ve come across in a while–though the more common name is the North American millipede. They’re harmless to humans, but they can release an unsavory substance that discolors the skin. Fortunately that didn’t happen in my case, and we parted on amicable terms.

This last arthropod was one I found at a local carwash of all places. She had built her web at the base of the teller machine, and it was impossible not to see her as I inserted dollar bills. After I’d gotten my quarters for the carwash, I promptly swooped down to her level and took several photos, of which this was the best. She was by far the easiest identification of the four arthropods in this post, since I had only recently read an article about the yellow garden spider (Agriope aurantia) and immediately recognized the brilliant black, yellow and white markings and the characteristic zig-zag formation in the center of her web, which is called a stabilimentum. Its purpose is unclear to scientists, but it provides her with another of her common names, the writing spider. For obvious reasons, she may be my new spirit animal.

The Lump on My Dog’s Breast and What I’m Doing about It

by Mark Miles

Recently I found a lump on one of Bella’s breasts. She turned nine years old in July, so I wasn’t terribly surprised by this; she is after all reaching an age at which medical issues frequently begin to emerge. Still it was an unpleasant reminder of mortality, of how limited her time on this planet is. I look at her, and I see such energy and youth. In my mind, Bella will always be an eternal puppy. The way she whines when she wants something, snuggles up to me when I need a hug, and broadcasts her every thought without hesitation reminds me of nothing so much as a hot-headed, sweet, indomitable child. I speak only from observation on this point, since I have no biological children of my own, but the point remains. She’s my kid, and she may have cancer.

In response to this, I’ve done my best to remain level-headed. Sometimes I think I’m too level-headed in these kinds of situations, since a casual observer could easily assume that I don’t care. On the contrary, I care so much that if I allow my feelings to get carried away I’ll probably become useless, terrified and inert. On the other hand, if I keep my emotions to a minimum, I can maintain some clarity of thought and pursue a rational course of action. Faced with this dilemma, I choose the latter option, even though some people may draw erroneous conclusions from it.

So I’ve kept my cool and made a plan to do what I can without resorting to potentially lethal treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation-therapy. I’m making sure that Bella eats as much organic nonprocessed food as possible, that she drinks filtered water, that she gets a daily walk, that she has plenty of fresh air and sunshine, that she avoids environmental toxins, and that she has a good life for as much of it as remains. I know there are medical treatments available, but each of those entails a risk which is, in all probability, greater than the risk of letting her live a healthy life without medical intervention.

There’s one part I haven’t mentioned. Her sister Abby (a mixed German shepherd and my first canine companion) died of lung cancer in 2013 after developing a similar lump on one of her breasts. The length of time between when the mass developed and when she died was approximately four years. For the record, I hope Bella lives another twenty years–which I’m fairly certain is biologically impossible. But I have to face the fact that she may live for a much shorter length of time. It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s reality. And in the face of that, the best I can do is to love her and make sure she has a good life for as long as she has left.