Today's Reading

DWARF FAIRIES AND BIBLICAL GIANTS

Insects come in all shapes and hues, spanning a range of sizes that is barely matched in any other class of animals. The world's tiniest insects, fairy wasps, live out the whole of their larval existence inside the eggs of other insects, which gives you a good idea of just how small they are. One of them, the teeny Kikiki huna wasp, is so tiny at 0.16 millimeter that you can't even see it. It takes its name from the Polynesian language spoken on Hawaii, one of the places where it is found. Logically enough, it means something like "tiny dot."

A sister species among the dwarf wasps has an even prettier name. Tinkerbella nana takes its genus name from the fairy in Peter Pan, while the species name, nana, is a pun referring to both nanos, the Greek word for "dwarf," and Nana, the name of the dog in Peter Pan. The Tinkerbell wasp is so small that it can land on the tip of a human hair.

It's a giant step from there to our biggest insects. There are several rivals for this title, depending on what "biggest" means. If we're talking longest, the winner is the Chinese stick insect Phryganistria chinensis Zhao: at 24.5 inches, it is longer than your forearm—but no thicker than an index finger. The subspecies was named for the entomologist Zhao Li, who spent six years of his life hunting down the superstick insect after a tip from locals in the Guangxi region of southern China.

But if we're talking about the heaviest insect, the Goliath beetle is well placed. The larvae of this African giant can weigh up to 3.5 ounces, roughly the same as a blackbird. The beetle was named after Goliath, the ten-foot-tall giant of biblical fame who struck terror into the hearts of the Israelites but was nonetheless slain by a stripling named David, aided only by a sling.


THE VERY FIRST INSECTS PREDATE THE DINOSAURS

Insects have been around for a long time, infinitely longer than us humans. It's difficult to get a proper grasp on deep time: eons and eras, millions and billions of years. So perhaps it won't mean all that much if I say that the first insects saw the light of day around 479 million years ago. Maybe it's more helpful to point out that insects saw the dinosaurs come and go, by a long margin.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, the first plants and animals emerged from the sea and onto dry land. It was a revolution for life on Earth. Imagine, like Shaw in his book Planet of the Bugs, if we could have filmed that fateful moment—what an iconic video clip that would be: "One small step for bugs, one giant leap for life on Earth." Unfortunately, we'll have to settle for tracking the entrepreneurs of the insect world using fossils and our own fertile imagination.

Think back to the earth's earliest days. A few million years have passed since the first adventurous bugs poked their heads out of the sea and decided to check out new, drier neighborhoods. We are in the Devonian period, somewhat anonymously sandwiched between two better-known eras, the Cambro-Silurian period (consisting of the Cambrian, Ordovician, and Silurian periods) and the Carboniferous period (the very basis of our oil-addicted society, with all its attendant wealth and climate change). Evolution has shifted into top gear, and the first insect is now a fact: down there on the ground amid the bracken and the plants shaped like crow's feet shuffles a tiny six-legged creature with three body segments and two small antennae. It is the planet's first-ever insect, taking the first tiny steps toward total world domination by its kind.

The close interaction between insects and other life forms was crucial from their very first day on dry land. Land plants improved the life chances of insects and other bugs by providing them with sustenance up there on the stony, barren earth. In return, the bugs improved the plants' life chances by recycling the nutrition in dead plant tissue and creating soil for new growth.
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