Thursday, May 9, 2013

UST GS: Where have all the insects gone? The Lost SPU-QC Ecological Sanctuary

Where have all the insects gone? The Lost SPU-QC Ecological Sanctuary
Dr Abe V Rotor

The SPUQC Ecological Sanctuary, the only kind in Metro Manila in its time, was the brainchild of Dr Anselmo S Cabigan, a co-professor in the university for more than 15

Pagoda bagworm (Cryptothela  heckmeyeri) 

years. I am personally grateful to SPUQC and Dr Cabigan for the rare opportunity of having spent long hours of study and leisure in this garden. This is a re-print of an article I wrote in the garden which at one time had some 300 living plant species that attracted many insects and other organisms. As the metropolis grew, new and high rise buildings engulfed the open spaces, among them the famed SPUQC EcoSanctuary.

With increasing density and population, traffic and commerce all around the school, the SPCQ garden has become a sanctuary of many insects. Here they live freely in the trees and shrubs, on annuals, inside the greenhouses, around the ponds, and in the shade of buildings, and some even visit classrooms and offices.

I have the feeling that these insects have become adapted to the varied aspect of Paulinian life from the sound of hurrying feet to soft echoes of prayer and hymns. They feed on morsels, paper and crayons, drink on fruit juices and honey drops, and aestivate in flower pots and boxes to tide with the harsh summer months. Frankly, I have not seen insects more friendly than these that I think Pavlov’s classical conditioned learning works with insects as well.

Interestingly, as an entomologist, I have been monitoring the insects in the garden for the last five years or so, listing down a good number of species that include those not readily found elsewhere. These include a giant click beetle, a rhinoceros beetle with horns resembling a triceratops, Ficus pollinating wasp, leaf-curling trips of Ikmo, longhorned grasshopper, sulfur and Papilio butterflies. 

An adult stink bug.( Nezara viridula)

Well, it is a fact that there is no escape from insects good or bad ones. In terms of species, there are 7 insects out of 10 animal organisms of earth. Insects comprise 800,000 kinds and scientists estimate that their kin - lobster shrimps, spiders, ticks, centipedes, millipedes and scorpions are to be added, the phylum to which they all belongs, phylum Arthropoda, would comprise 80 percent of all animals organisms. To compare, plants make up only one-half million species.

What secrets have insects in dominating the animal world, and surpassing the geologic history of dinosaurs, fishes, mammals and even some mollusks?

Well, look at the ants, termites, and bees, the so-called social insects. Their caste system is so intact and strict that it has long been regarded model of man’s quest for a perfect society. It inspired the building of highly autocratic empires like the Egyptian and Roman Empires, and the monarchical Aztecs and Mayan civilizations. It inspired Plato to write the Republic, a Utopian human order.

Take the case of the butterflies and moths. Their active time is not only well defined- diurnal or nocturnal, but their food is highly specific to a plant or group of plants and their parts. Their life cycle allow either accelerated or suspended metamorphosis depending on the prevailing conditions of the environment, feat no other animal can do more efficiently. 

A pair of Cotton Stainer (Dysdercus megalopigus)

My students gathered around me by the ponds. There I explained to them the bizarre life of the dragonfly, once a contemporary of the dinosaur. Its young called nymph is a fearful hunter in water as the adult is in air. Apparently this is the reason on how it got its legendary name. I showed them the weapons of insects: the preying mantis carries a pair of ax-and-vise, a bee brandishes a poisonous dagger, while a tussock moth is cloaked with stinging barbs, a stink bug sprays corrosive acid on eyes or skin. The weevil has an auger snout, the grasshopper grins with shear-like mandibles, and the mosquito tucks in a long, contaminated needle.

We examined a beetle. Our thought brought us to the medieval age. A knight in full battle gear! Chitin, which makes up its armor called exoskeleton, has not been successfully copied in the laboratory. So with the light of the firefly which is the most efficient of all lights on earth. 

Wait until you hear this! Aphids, scale insects and some dipterans, are capable of paedogenesis, that is, the ability of immature insect to produce young even before reaching maturity! 

Numbers, numbers numbers. That is the secret of the survival and power in the biological world. King Solomon is wise indeed in halting his army so that another army-an army of ants can pass. Killer ants and killer bees destroy anything that impedes their passage, including livestock and humans.  

Spotted garden butterflies, relatives of the migratory Danaus (lowermost photo)

Invisibility is another key to insect survival and dominance. Have you examined the interior of leaf galls in santol, Ficus and ikmo? Well, you need a microscope to see the culprit - thrips or red mites. I demonstrated to my students how insects, being small, can ride on the wind and current, find easy shelter, and are less 

subjected to injury when they fall. Also, insects being small require relatively less energy than bigger organisms do. All of these contribute to their persistence and worldwide distribution. Insects surely are among the ultimate survivors of a disaster.

In an article I wrote, “ a Night of Music at the SPCQ Garden” I described Nature musicians, the cricket and the katydid. While their sounds are music to many of us they are totally coded sounds similar to our communications. Cicadas, beetles, grasshopper, have their own “languages”, and in the case of termites and bees, their languages is in the form of chemical signals known as pheromones. It is from them that we are still studying pheromones in humans.

Without insects, we are certain to miss the sweetest sugar which is honey, the finest fabric which is silk, the mysterious fig (Smyrna fig). We would be having less and less of luscious fruits, succulent vegetables, reddest dye, flavor in cheese, and most likely we will not have enough food to eat because insects are the chief pollinators, and main food of fish and others animals. They are a major link in the food chains, the columns of a biological Parthenon.

Without insects, the earth would be littered with dead bodies of plants and animals. Insects are co-workers in the decomposition with bacteria and fungi.  They prepare for the life of the next generation by converting dead tissues into organic materials and ultimately into their inorganic forms, thus altogether help bridge the living and the non-living world.

A garden without bees and butterflies mirrors a scenario of the biblical fall. And if the other creatures in that garden strayed away from its beautiful premises just as our first forebears began their wandering, they too, must have learned the true values of life, which they share to us today.

Black field cricket (Acheta bimaculata), fiddler in the garden

Beautiful is the verse from “ A Gnat and a Bee” in Aesop fables. To wit:

The wretch who works not for his daily bread, 

Sighs and complains, but ought not to be fed.
Think, when you see stout beggars on their stand,
The lazy are the locusts of the land.”

In “The ant and the grasshopper,” Aesop, acting like a father with a rod in hand, warns. He was referring to the happy-go lucky grasshopper.

Lo now, while health and vigor still remain, 

Toil, toil, my lad, to purchase honest again!
Shun idleness! Shun pleasure’s tempting snare!
A youth of rebels breeds age of care.”

Ecologically insects are the barometer of the kind of environment we live in.  A pristine environment attracts beneficial insects, while a spoilt one breeds pests and diseases.

I have yet to see a firefly in the SPCQ botanical garden. I remember an article in Renato Constantino’s series of publications, “ Issues Without Tears”. Its title is,” You don’t See Fireflies Anymore,” a prophesy of doom, a second to Rachel Carson’s” Silent Spring”.

Maybe. But I have not lost hope. Someday, a flicker in the night may yet come from a firefly and not from a car or cigarette - if only others will share with me the same optimism.

To a Friendly Killer 

Preying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)

Praying or preying you’re god sent,
You pray for rain, you share our peace;
You prey the pest that feed on crops,

Two lives have you all in one piece.

Your friendly gaze is for a man’s grim, 

Kneeling in the art of a stranger,
Yet a friend you’re to the farmer,
So welcome shy, friendly killer

 Termite colony (Macrotermes gilvus);  Psylla plant lice of ipil-ipil 
  Red dragonfly (Order Odonata)

Crane fly (Tipula sp) or Daddy-long-legs because of its extremely long legs, looks like an overgrown mosquito. It has the habit of swaying continuously in a dizzying speed that its potential nymphalid (nymphalis antiopa) rest during the day and resumes its activity at dusk. Like other skippers it is a crepuscural habit.

(Caterpillar of tussock moth, Orgya australis postica.)

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