Bugs can be beautiful

The first hints of spring: a purple crocus peeking out through frozen ground, a robin chirping overhead, seed catalogs in the mail. But for me, this year, it was stoneflies.

I found them in the woods in early March when skimpy light bounced off the snow to cause a sunless glare. The tiny creatures swarmed in an airborne ball, hale and hearty despite the cold.

Instantly I remembered all the insects I knew and didn't love - those summer nuisances that sting and bite and land in eyes. It was strange to find some here and now. Instinctively I waited for a buzz, an armored landing on my face by the small black specks. But they ignored me, content to fly around in their swirling cloud.

Shaking my head in amazement, I continued along the otherwise peaceful trail. This small clump of fliers was the only one I encountered that day, and they melted into memory as the winter scenery, complete with deer tracks in the snow, filled my thoughts.

Later that afternoon I chatted with Nancy and Ken, the local naturalists.

"What did you find today?" they asked.

I told them about a red-tailed hawk and black-backed gulls I'd spotted flying far below the cliffs.

"See any stoneflies?" Nancy asked.

Something clicked in my memory.

"I did meet some tiny swarming insects up at Hawk Lookout. Is that what those things are?"

"Yes, and they're right on schedule."

Apparently these tiny insects - Capniidae, to be exact - are the winter-emerging type of stoneflies. (And yes, other groups emerge at other times.) The small black creatures, less than 10 millimeters long, have two pairs of short, folded wings.

An entomologist I once met waxed eloquent on all sorts of bugs, his face lighting up as he talked about them. He made it clear that there is more to buzzing, flying, stinging things than meets the eye; probably some interesting things to learn, I thought. And I could start with my new acquaintances, Capniidae.

Stoneflies, I read, are members of the insect order Plecoptera (from the Latin for "braided wing"). Gazing at their photographs, I saw that numerous veins in their wings indeed create a beautifully delicate braidlike design.

I read on. Detailed descriptions of stonefly anatomy followed: antennae, tarsal segments, tarsal claws, abdominal cerci, and more. It had never occurred to me that those flying specks contained all the equipment needed for an entire life (albeit a short one of only several weeks).

Year after year, near the end of winter, they emerge again: a new cycle for a new generation of stoneflies.

Suddenly, I saw insects in a new light. A bit of knowledge about this realm of small flying/crawling things helped me glimpse what enthralls those entomologists.

It's still cold, and stoneflies are the only outdoor insects I have encountered so far. My new respect and appreciation for them now extends to all their buzzing, crawling, stinging relatives, too. Perhaps even when summer arrives, I'll look at them all with a more tolerant, kinder eye as I swat and scratch.

If all else fails, I can recall the beauty of those braided wings.

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