Blue Ridge Naturalist: Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates

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Potter wasp nests often resemble familiar structures such as vases or, in this case, a little oven. (Photo: Marlene A. Condon)

© Marlene A. Condon

Several years ago, as I was removing plant debris from one of my small, artificial ponds, I discovered gelatinous blobs adhering to the undersides of some of the leaves that had fallen into the water. Up to that point in time, I had never seen these blobs when maintaining my ponds. Thus I was mystified and hugely curious as to what they were.

Although I couldn’t make out anything inside the clear jelly-like substance to suggest there was something within it, I surmised that the blobs were egg masses of some animal, probably freshwater snails. The appearance of the blobs coincided with the arrival of the snails in my ponds.

I returned the leaves with the blobs to the pond because you should never destroy something in the natural world when you don’t know what it is. After all, every organism has a function, so you don’t want to get rid of anything unless you have a good reason to do so. Otherwise, you could interfere with the proper functioning of the environment, which, in this case, meant the proper functioning of my pond.

The mystery of the unidentified blobs eluded me until just a few months ago when I was absolutely thrilled to come across Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney.

As I thumbed through the pages and pages of photographs, I noticed a picture of my blobs! And yes, they were indeed the egg masses of my freshwater snails. I had to own this book!

If you love learning about the natural world and you’ve often wondered about a mysterious “sign” left behind by some critter, then you may want to own this book, too. You might want a copy of this book just to see and read about the many kinds of tracks, eggs or egg cases, cocoons, scat or droppings, or sheltering structures that are out there for all who pay close attention to their surroundings to see.

Insects may be the most numerous and ubiquitous of the creatures that you might find in your immediate environment, but this volumn also covers worms, snails, spiders, crayfish, and numerous other invertebrates (animals without a backbone).

Additionally, if you love visiting the beach, sea creatures are included, such as squid, crabs, periwinkles (I’ve always loved this name), and even octopuses!

One type of insect sign that I am always thrilled to find is the nest of a potter wasp. There are numerous species of these wasps, but they are miniscule so you rarely get to see the insects themselves (don’t worry; they don’t sting people).

But if you keep a sharp eye out, you may notice their tiny—and I think cute—mud nests that let you know they are around. My favorite potter wasp nest is one that really looks just like a teeny-tiny vase that has been thrown by a potter; hence the name for this kind of wasp. Other kinds of potter wasp nests look like tiny ovens where bread was baked in previous centuries and perhaps even now in some countries.

Although in a natural setting these nests would be attached to twigs, I have found them attached to plant cages around my tomatoes or to an outdoor lounge chair that hadn’t been used for a while (your author doesn’t have time for lying around relaxing!).

After a potter wasp female builds her nest, she provisions it with tiny caterpillars or grubs (the larvae of beetles) that she has stung and paralyzed with venom. She then lays a single egg upon the inside wall of the nest and seals it.

When the egg hatches, the wasp larva feeds upon the immobilized critters inside the nest until it’s ready to pupate. Following pupation, the newly developed adult wasp chews its way out of the nest to fulfill its own role of helping to limit the numbers of caterpillars and grubs to sustainable levels.

The natural world is chock full of absolutely amazing life forms, some of which you may never get to actually see, but which will leave behind clues to their existence. Happily, if you pick up a copy of Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, you are likely to be able to figure out which organisms have passed through your vicinity or are living there now.

For years I’ve photographed tracks, scat, pupae, nests, and eggs that I couldn’t identify if I didn’t spot the critter leaving them behind because I couldn’t locate such things illustrated anywhere. Tracks and Sign is an immense repository of such hard-to-find information gathered together into one fine book.

If you find learning about the natural world as fascinating as I do, this book is a must for your library.