The final episode of Roxanne’s wildlife trilogy is devoted to the creatures which many of us overlook or regard with fear and loathing: the creepy-crawlies.
Here I am, back with pen and paper, and scribbling away, this time about insects and other creepy crawlies. They all belong to the arthropod phylum, which means that they all have jointed legs and they all wear their skeletons on the outside, but they are divided into different sub categories called classes. Some people also call snails creepy crawlies. I have a lot of pet snails, some of which I bred from eggs, but snails are molluscs so they’ll have to wait for another time.
It was my friend, Clive, who asked me to write about creepy crawlies in La Manga. Clive introduced me to Mrs Funnel Web Spider, who lives in his garden, but I think he’s really a bird lover. Vultures come top, for him. Mummy’s always been a bit of an ornithologist, too, interested in all the ‘’little brown jobs” – tits, fly catchers, finches, buntings and warblers. I suppose I’m an entomologist. I never really thought of that before.
When we came to Spain I looked doubtfully at the sandy waste, but set to work. And I was surprised to find there were some insects there. Ants, of course, were the first thing I saw, as they poured like water from their hole in the ground. They look like miniature robots, or aliens, and I began to wonder if there was any thing inside that hard bony shell. Stomach? Heart? BRAIN??? (Very small one).
I also began to feel rather sorry for the little beetles that trundled past, as if they were fat, unexercised, but rather good natured people. I often saw one stagger right into the ant’s path (I almost heard it puffing). Then a dozen ants would leap on it. It always got away while I was watching. There are lots of different kinds of beetles here, especially in the spring when they eat the nectar from the flowers. There are also some kinds which live underground. I only find them when they get flooded out, after a heavy rain storm.
Another thing I couldn’t help noticing was the dragonflies. I often catch them, crisp weird aliens, one lot green and one lot orange. I used to think that the orange ones were the males, because male animals generally need to be brighter to be attractive to the females. However, yesterday we saw two dragonflies flying along together, with one hanging underneath. They were obviously mating. It was the green one that was underneath, hanging on for dear life with all six legs, and since it is always the male insect who wants to mate and who seeks out the female, it must have been him who grabbed hold of her. She was still managing to fly but she preferred to sit on the ground so it was obviously hard work carrying him.
We also get locusts at this time of year. I often catch them, though I don’t know quite how. They’re so fast and fly like a bird, but I often manage, usually with a net but sometimes with my hands. I have got one which I caught when he was a pretty little green thing. Unlike most insects, locusts and grasshoppers and crickets don’t have a larval stage. Instead of caterpillars or maggots or grubs which pupate, they hatch out of the egg as nymphs. They haven’t got any wings, so they can’t fly, but they can still jump. They shed their skin several times as they get bigger, until finally they come out of their old skin in a different coloured exo-skeleton. Usually not so pretty. They also get their wings. They hang there, and slowly the wing comes out of a sort of pocket. It’s all crumpled up at first, but it gradually unfurls and dries. You have to be careful if you pick up a big locust because he has saws on his back legs and they can cut you and make you bleed. You have to grab them right behind the join of the leg to the body.
We also get two sorts of small hopping grass hoppers, as dopey as donkeys. They hop about, so confident in their camouflage you can walk right up to them and catch them easily with your bare hands ( if you know their ways very well, and when they are going to jump, and how far they can jump, and so on). The Spanish name for grasshopper is saltamonte. We used to think it meant mountain-jumper! – but actually it just means countryside-jumper. There are thousands of grasshoppers on Perdiguera so we sometimes call it Isla Saltamonte.
There is also, of course, my stick cricket. An odd animal, a little like a stick insect. Its mouth is on its neck, its eyes are on its “horn”, and its legs are also its ears! It was on this occasion that Caesar made slight mistake. I said, “Caesar, can you send a photo of this weird thing to a website, so that I can have it identified?”
“Sure” says Caesar, sending off photo number 64. Then we got an email saying, “Can you send that again, please? I can’t see the insect.” So Caesar sent off photo 64 again. After this Caesar realised it was actually photo 46 that was of the insect, and he had sent the poor, rather puzzled man, two photos of a water melon! But after he sent the right photo we found out, at last, that it was a cricket, and, in fact, a cricket called Acrida ungarica (There is no common name).
The only thing I have ever seen that looks remotely like the stick cricket is the praying mantis. I had a pet mantis for a while and it was quite scary to watch it stalking grasshoppers. It bites off their heads.
Wasps. Okay, I admit, most of my family (except Xoë, of course) are rather good about wasps. But no one else is. “Aaaaaah! Wasp!” Bat! Swat! “Go awayyy!” Don’t they realise the animal will not hurt them until they have hurt it! My friend Cynthia, is absolutely terrified of wasps. But these are really timid little animals, and I found it quite easy, when we were in England, to stroke their backs when they were sitting on the flowers. The wasps ignored me usually, but the bees, especially the bumble bees, seemed to enjoy it. A friend of mine, more then a year ago, actually jumped in the water when she saw a wasp!
Some wasps live together and build paper nests out of wood which they chew. There are also lots of kinds of solitary wasp. They drill a hole in the ground, or dig it with their feet. Then they go and catch a caterpillar or sometimes a spider or a grasshopper. They paralyse the poor thing and drag it to their hole. Then they lay their egg in the victim. Sometimes they capture other insects and pile them up in their too, on top, so that they’re larvae will have plenty to eat, starting with the oldest food. I have watched different kinds of wasps digging these holes but usually I only come across them after the hole is dug, having seen the mother running around or flying around carrying her prey.
There are lots of insects on Isla Perdiguera, which is the island in the middle of the Mar Menor. If you stand on the beach here in the middle of summer the most noticeable thing is the noise. ‘zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” Endlessly. Of course, all Spaniards could tell you it was a cicada. Don’t try and catch cicadas unless you know them well, that’s my advice! The first cicada hunt may result in injury to the brain! The more you hunt the little critters, the more they sing! At last you’re right at the bottom of the tree. ‘’Come on! ‘’ They seem to scream. “Naa! I bet you can’t catch Meee!“! And then they stop. And you go home.
The second time I went on a cicada hunt, (with people on all sides shouting “Come on Roxanne!”) I stayed right there. I WOULD catch that insolent insect. And I did! Ever since then hunting cicadas has been less painful. I almost always catch one. On the island I also found a very delicate thing which was the carapace of the cicada grub. The grub lives in the soil for six or seven years and then he comes out and changes his skin and flies off. And makes all that noise!
What always fascinated me, even more then the singing and flying things I’ve listed so far, is life under stones. Before any of you get too excited, I must tell you that I don’t have the benefit of trap door or funnel web spiders, nor scorpions like they have in most other parts of Spain.
Take ordinary wood lice, for instance. Turn them over, and there they are, with a face shaped exactly like a dogs! For me this changed their character. (By the way, wood lice are not insects. They actually belong in the same class as crabs and prawns and lobsters! They are crustaceans.)
Take centipedes. “Aaaaaaaaaah!”. Xoë leaps half way across the room, nearly banging her head on the ceiling. She says she’ll be an actor when she grows up, so we suffer, for the chance of a remote cobwebby corner of the castle she promises us she will one day have, when she’s rich and famous.
“Centipedes?” Xoë whispers, doing her best to look convincingly frightened. “You’re not going to start breeding centipedes, are you?” I tell her loudly and confidently that I AM going to start breeding centipedes. Unfortunately, I never did, as the eggs didn’t hatch. But the effect on Xoë was rather pleasing. Centipedes aren’t insects either. They’re myriapods. So are millipedes and we get lots of these on Perdiguera. Millipedes are slow and they are plant eaters. Centipedes are fast meat eaters and the big ones can bite you.
I like earwigs too. Xoë regards earwigs with a sort of over-acted suspicion, as if she was scared of them. Earwigs, for goodness sake! You can understand centipedes, but- earwigs!
The other creatures living under stones are spiders – little brown ones, little black ones, and especially a small velvet black one, the size of a small pea. (Go on – tell me I’ve been sharing my jam jars with a black widow!) I have got lots to tell you about spiders, so I am going to write about them another time. If you’re an arachnaphobic, like Xoë pretends to be, you’d better not look!