For some of us who live in the northern latitudes, spring's arrival is heralded by the appearance of the first robin. For others, it's the sight of buds on the trees, or flowers breaking through the newly thawed earth...or income tax forms.
But in my abode, the first authentic sign of spring is the return of the ants - ants which use my apartment floor as an alternate transport route for a few weeks until things warm up outside.
I tend to leave them to their commuting - they stay close to the walls and don't seem interested in what passes for food in my home (I can't blame them), and I've always been of the opinion that, by and large, insects are just the victims of bad P.R. So this week, in an effort to level the playing field just a bit, I offer a handful of insect-related 'fan sites.'
First, if you're a sucker for a pretty carapace, then a visit to Living Jewels will go a long way towards enhancing your arthropod appreciation. A photo gallery of beetle glamour portraits (and the featured subjects are certainly better looking than anything that ever crawled across my floor), Living Jewels is largely geared to the sale of books and posters, but there is also an impressive selection of free images available online.
In fact, there are close to 200 photographs here, with 'models' ranging all the way from flower beetles to dung beetles. Images are full-screen and fairly high quality, and include the beautiful, the bizarre, and even a few creatures which demonstrate that science truth can hold its own against science fiction. (Have a look at Phanaeus Vindex and Gymnopholus Regalis.)
But as I always say, one doesn't have to be a Polybothris Sumptuosa Gema from Madagascar to be of visual interest. Even a good old American housefly can be worth a good long look, if you get close enough - and MicroAngela's Electron Microscope Image Gallery stands ready to prove just that point. Using artificially colored enhancements of an electron microscope's black-and-white images, MicroAngela gets very up close and personal with such subjects as House Flies, Honey Bees, and my own seasonal co-habitant, the Black Ant. (Still, even science can't completely rehabilitate the reputations of some subjects. A visually attractive image of a mosquito won't keep me from swatting one if I find it on my arm.)
The site also moves beyond the insect kingdom, and includes images of micro-organisms, dust, pollen, and a few sea creatures, but there is no comprehensive site index here, so if you find the material interesting, be sure to fully explore inside pages, as they sometimes contain links to additional images not indicated on the home page.
While still making heavy use of the visual element, Insects on the Web also adds some teaching to the gee-whiz. Though not yet a finished (and in fact, apparently dormant) project, Insects on the Web divides the material it does have into four sections.
Entophiles is a collection of insectmacrophotography - which also includes a selection of arthropods commonly mistaken for insects (eg. spiders and scorpions). The Cultural Entomology Digest is an occasional online magazine (last issue, 1997) that looks at insects in human culture - from butterfly designs in Japanese family crests, to beetles as religious symbols, to the insects in M.C. Escher's artworks. Class Insecta is designed to feature material optimized for the classroom (to date, there is a single section on butterfly wing patterns), and Entolinks offers more websites - just in case these sites leave you wanting more.
Finally, if you missed or wish to revisit the PBS Nature series Alien Empire, the companion site is still online, using text, Flash, and movie clips to investigate such subjects as insect aerodynamics and the annual migration of monarch butterflies. Links, teaching resources, puzzles, and downloadable insect masks are also available.
Of course the masks are for younger surfers. Otherwise (and the declared purpose of this article notwithstanding), you may be identifying with the insects just a bit too much.