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Wednesday, 07 October 2009 15:28

Costa’s eye for unique insect details

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Western Carolina University biologist Jim Costa traces his interest in insect societies to studies of social interactions of caterpillars made while an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Cortland, an interest that deepened as he worked on master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Georgia. Currently executive director of the Highlands Biological Station and a long-time research associate in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, he has studied insect social behavior in the southern Appalachians, Mexico, and Costa Rica.

For most people, including many trained biologists, the term “insect society” conjures up images of beehives, ant colonies, wasp nests, termite mounds, etc.; that is, structured societies characterized by precise and often elaborate divisions of labor. In “The Other Insect Societies” (Harvard University Press, 2006) — a groundbreaking study of lasting significance — Costa contends that evolutionary biologists have long ignored the diverse, if less elaborate, social arrangements existing among other insects. In 767 densely-packed pages illustrated with drawings by his wife Leslie Costa and numerous photographs, he examines social phenomena from the worlds of the beetles and bugs, caterpillars and cockroaches and sawflies and spiders, demonstrating that many of them exhibit degrees of social interaction and subtle interdependencies that can be both sophisticated and intriguing.

The non-academic reader of “The Other Insect Societies” will find much therein of general interest expressed in a lively manner. But the real gem of natural history writing in “The Other Insect Societies” is tucked away — “hidden way” might be a more apt description — on pages 717-720. Therein, as his long book is winding down, Costa suddenly shifts from the scientific to the poetic and serves up a remarkable closing passage of lyrical homage titled “Coda: Sociality in an Appalachian Spring.”

I was so struck by “Coda” I asked Jim if I could include it in volume two (1900-2009) of an anthology of nature writing from Western North Carolina titled “High Vistas,” which will be published later this year by The History Press. Requested to do so, he provided (via email) an interesting recollection as to how “Coda” came to be:

“I chuckled a bit when you asked about my personal reflections on how I happened to write that ‘Coda’ for TOIS; it came about in an unexpected manner. I had largely finished revising the main body of the text and had been mulling over in my mind how best to end the book. I had several false starts with what you might call a ‘conventional’ conclusion or afterword; each time I would get partway through and realize that I was just rehashing material and arguments already laid out nicely in the book — a pointless exercise. I was half-inclined to just end with the final taxonomic chapter, on arachnids, but I had the gnawing feeling that the book really needed better closure than that. That was the state of my thoughts when I reported for jury duty in Sylva. I usually have a notebook with me to jot down thoughts and ideas, and jury duty involves, as I’m sure you know, lots of waiting. I was selected for service as an alternate juror ... and on the first full day, sequestered away with a bunch of other jurors while waiting for something or other, it suddenly came to me, as I looked out the window on the lovely mountain scenery, that a wonderful way to end the book was to somehow show that the fascinating insects I had just lengthily written about could be observed virtually anywhere — they were all around us, if people would only look. They weren’t confined to some exotic locale; any interested person, just about any place, could find innumerable examples of those neat critters. Almost immediately I hit on the device of an imaginary hike around our mountains, showing how many examples of sociality could be found overhead and underfoot, in meadow, woods, and creeks all around us. I wrote that ‘Coda’ in a single burst of insight; I started writing furiously in that jury room lest the idea somehow slip away, and in less than an hour I had the essay completely written. It just naturally flowed from my pencil; I later edited a little when typing it up, but it ended up very close to what I had written initially. My editor loved it and didn’t want to change a word, which was welcome news to me! I felt immensely pleased with it, because I felt the book ended on a very personal note that resonated with my fundamental motive for studying these insects to begin with — a sense of the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Many scientists were naturalists first, often as kids, and hopefully never lose that spark of wonderment at nature. I realized later that the ‘Coda’ in TOIS was that sense of beauty and wonder seeking an outlet in an otherwise rather academic volume.”

The full text of “Coda: Sociality in an Appalachian Spring” is over 1,500 words in length. Here are some excerpts:

“Springtime in Appalachia is justly celebrated for its astounding explosion of wildflowers. Aaron Copland’s 1944 composition ‘Appalachian Spring’ evokes the beauty, majesty, and prolific exuberance of nature in these thickly forested mountains, endless chains that were already ancient when the dinosaurs walked the continent. Let us set out on a hike on a fine late spring morning, through cove forests and over upland ridges draped with the slowly swirling mists that give the Great Smoky Mountains their name. Here, as almost everywhere, the casual naturalist cannot help but notice the insect societies stirring all around — foraging columns of ants; spectacular mating flights of termites emerging from long-rotting logs; bumblebees packing pollen for a brood developing in a distant underground nest; paper wasps on the prowl for caterpillars, fresh meat for their grubs upside-down in their hexagon-holed nest beneath a rock ledge. These insect societies are as ubiquitous as they are fascinating, evolutionary marvels. But so, too, are the insect societies not immediately noticed, other insect societies that, unbeknownst to our fellow hikers, surround us overhead and underfoot. Let me show you just how common these oft-overlooked societies are in one time and place: May or June in the mountains where I live — Appalachian spring.

“This region of eastern North America is teeming with insect societies and those of their many arthropod cousins, in almost every corner of these wet, dripping mountains. This is land with a primeval feel, mountains clothed in a verdant flora that echoes an ancient link with Asia: towering hemlock and Liriodendron trees, large-leaved tropical-looking magnolias, and lush rhododendron crowding cove forests, with coveted ginseng and a host of other herbs carpeting the forest floor. At first glance it is hard to see the forest for the trees, but the minisocieties are there. Just look ...

“Step over the fallen tree and back into a light gap to admire those ‘Helianthus’ sunflowers so common in the mountains. Why do some have leaves that droop from the middle, was the midrib cut? Flip the leaves over, and see another drama: membracid treehopper mothers tending their eggs while keeping a wary eye on probing ants. Are the ants friend or foe? Many gregarious membracids, like aphids, are ant tended for their honeydew in exchange for protection; but some ants are predators. Other ants catch our eye on the black locust branch overhead; the swarm, it turns out, is associated with the small ‘Vanduzea’ treehopper herd near the leaf axils. We cannot hear it, but that branch is humming with vibrations from the drumming treehoppers as they call to each other, and to their ant protectors.

“Treehopper herds and family colonies are all around us here — on sunflowers, ironwoods, thistle, ragweed, and more; and many other tiny families populate the forest alongside them. At lower elevations, take a look at the common horse nettle. How many naturalists, let alone more casual hikers, realize that most are home to elegant lace bug moms that chaperone their tiny jewel-like brood as they feed from leaf to leaf? ...

“You know, of course, that insects and other animals of all kinds are busily making a living all about you in this rich Appalachian forest. But did you have any idea that overhead and underfoot, inside, beneath, and on top of virtually every tree and shrub, living and dead, this forest really consists of innumerable, tiny, polities? You need not travel to exotic locales to find fascinating insect societies, animals often as beautiful in structural intricacy, color and ornament as they are instructive to those yearning to understand the evolution of sociality.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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