5000 Mile Project: Stop Bugging Me! Or is it time to reconsider our relationship with insects?
Buzzing in your ear, crawling over your skin, coiled in your boot or lying drunken in a woozy cloud of rotten apples. It takes a particular personality to appreciate the virtues of our six and eight-legged neighbours.
Invertebrates; the be-fanged, haired, spiked or suckered beasties, are the making of horror films and the base of a multi-million pound extermination industry. Between 2006 and 2007, for example the equivalent of £6,940,276,000 of insecticides was poured over crops around the world (EPA, 2011).
But in the natural world everything has a purpose. We may delight in ridding these “nasties” from our lives but if one takes a little time to regard their antics, it soon becomes abundantly clear how dependent we are on this most unlikely of workforces.
Proximity to invertebrates has become a daily part of life during our quest to become the first to run the length of South America unsupported. Especially now as we pound through the eternal scrubby furnace of central Argentina.
We were warned by locals that this road between San Rafael and San Luis would be, “Lleno de bichos muy feo”, translated as, “Full of ugly bugs!” They were right! We are indeed meeting the “pumped-up” cousins of our British counterparts in the multitude.
At our speed, trotting the hot tarmac, watching our feet, scanning the verges and scrub, it feels that we are living life in their world, in miniature. And as we observe their plethora of forms and intriguing behaviours, these “ugly ducklings” of the natural world, are transforming in front of our eyes into pearls.
In four hours, I count over 100 splatted, squished, spotted and striped bodies peppering the asphalt. We watch ranks of tangerine-bristled caterpillars stream across the road; newly hatched from their larvae cases, hungry for soft leaves. An explosion of coal-black crickets wonder aimlessly on the tarmac, we usher them along before they meet a similar squelchy death. A rainbow-spotted beetle is sent spiralling into the air in the wake of a truck. Legions are drawn to the black and silver twinkling surface and legions fall.
Suddenly something lunges towards Dave. It’s huge and straw coloured. It’s a stick! A giant stick-insect! He resembles nothing of the little green wavering insects that quietly chomped privet leaves and deposited neat little black droppings in the plastic containers on the bookshelf of my childhood. This fiery specimen has “springs” and launches through the air again as we try and catch him.
We crawl the final two miles of the 20 mile run. It’s becoming hotter and harder. Any appeal of running almost a marathon, daily, evaporated in the searing Argentine heat weeks ago. The final steps are run in elation; finally we can rest.
But our “bedroom” is far from satisfactory; we scan the shimmering thorny horizon for an iota of shade. A barbed wire fence will have to suffice. We haul several loads of gear through the thorns and deposit it and the trailer into the sand pit that will become our home for the next 17 hours. We strap the tarp to the wire fence and the trailer and slither into the thin pool of shade, trying to sleep in a dusty puddle of sweat.
It’s hopeless, just too hot and airless. So we focus on the entertainment; a miniscule, 360 degree theatre is performing. The wasps are on the central stage and head-butting one another in between deep swigs of nectar. A large preying mantis wanders on to our mats. I pick him up and launch him into the air. He positively falls over himself scurrying back to be at our side. Bizarre? Must be the shade?
Next come two chubby grey-and-white spotted beetles. Their intentions are clear – they have sighted a few scraps of meat that to them must rival in proportions the Eiffel Tower. Within seconds they’re nosing, rolling and burrowing their treasure into the ground, while new troops are arriving to help the effort.
Ants of every size find us. Perhaps they scent us? Perhaps they simply stumble across the two huge white mountains during their bustling sorties? Either way, we grow accustomed to their pattering on our exposed flesh. A miniscule red species swarms onto the the wing of a fallen spot-winged falcon and transports the flesh back to their nest.
Now an Armada is sweeping passed; leaf blades and twigs sail on the backs of the leaf-cutter ants. They’re carrying the equivalent of one of us balancing a bull on our finger tip! Extraordinary. They have cleared a motorway between their nest and their “gardens” and stream elegantly passed. Occasionally one appears to desire the sail of a passing ant (whether due to size or colour; who knows?) but otherwise all is orderly and this sophisticated society continues its round-the-clock toils.
We imagine what a world without invertebrates would look like. Without the “undertaker services” for fallen animals; without the “composting services” of the detritivores – the beetles, earwigs and worms – mashing nutrients into new humus layers. Without them we would drown in a layer of fettered carcasses and vegetative debris.
And so the undervalued workforce continues in its 24 hour free services, as a bee pollinates a peach flower and a spider ensnares a cloud of mosquitoes in its sticky lair.
We stumble into a roadside cafe on the penultimate day of this eight day stretch. Stars sprinkle the night sky. Argentine truckers slump over milinesas (bread-crumbed meat) and the owner flicks the TV channels. Suddenly a long sticky tongue darts at a passing ant, centimetres away from the foot of a diner. Remarkably he’s oblivious to the presence of this enormous toad who is feasting in the cafe too and clearly paying his dues through his order of cockroaches, ants and flies.
We have been presenting to schools along our route about such “ecosystem services”; the forgotten services of animals and plants that keep our planet habitable. Biologists are striving to place economic values on these processes, so that their importance is not dismissed in the human rush to modify Earth. The USA for example has estimated its fruit and vegetable industry as being beholden to bees to the “buzz” of the equivalent of £134 527, 824, 000 per year.
We quiz the school children as to which animal they most dislike and which they love. Whether bats, spiders, snakes, pumas or parrots, we spend the next 10 minutes showing how they are all inter-linked. That without the “baddies” you cannot have the “goodies”. That often the villain to the human eye plays a star role in the ecosystem puzzle.
As we scramble from our tent to run in the early morning cool the last 20 miles to San Luis, neon fire-flies flash above our heads, an enormous tarantula shuffles in the verge and an orchestra of cicadas and crickets limber up. Our eyes dart and our minds spark with the extraordinary shenanigans of these; the least-likely of human allies.5000 mile project, Argentina, Ecosystem Services, Ecosystems, Invertebrates, running, South America, wildlife
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