Clellie Lynch: Danny and the walking stick

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EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.— Glorious September! The days are warm and sunny, the skies, an impossible blue. Nights are cool and noisy with insects buzzing, burring, chirring and humming, each species intent on feasting, mating, breeding and eventually either hibernating or dying leaving the natural world to the next generation. Gardens are autumn lush as they begin to fade, but not before we gather the last of the tomatoes, zukes, and cukes, and plant next year's garlic. Time too to uproot the basil and make pesto for the winter. Thankfully, not everything has to be done at once. Potatoes and beets can remain earthbound for a bit.

Today Danny lifts a few beets and digs up red potatoes for dinner. I scrub and prep. Tonight we'll have rosemary potatoes, beets with blue cheese and grilled lamb chops. I snip a couple of rosemary stems from the plant on the patio, then gather up the ingredients from refrigerator to island readying what I need for each dish.


As I turn to start water boiling, I see a walkingstick climbing and slip-sliding over the cold black teakettle, looking up at me twitching its long greenish antennae. I try to take in this amazing creature so much like a spindly branchlet and notice the small pair of hooks at the rear. So disguised is he for his natural habitat one needs to see the antennae and hooks to figure which end is which, not that observing its forward motion doesn't give you a giant clue.

Fortunately, I have not turned on any of the burners, so no burned booties for this little guy. Unfortunately, my hands are full, but Danny is there to help. He reaches for his phone, not the butterfly net, the best tool for capturing critters that have insinuated themselves into the house without hurting them, and starts taking pictures as this stiff, twig-like creature mystified as how it ended up on a stove tries to skitter away. The butcher block counters may be wooden, but his camouflage here is a dismal failure. Mr. Wally WalkingStick must have come in with the rosemary without me noticing!

Danny snaps a number of photos and then attempts to gently pick it up. It is fast, very fast. He does catch it in mid-scurry trying to hold it gently in his hands, but it manages to flee. It dashes around a glass, onto the back of a chair and onto the floor. Danny is faster this time and quickly snatches it from the floor and rushes to let it outside.

Walkingsticks are quite unique within the world of insects, often illustrated with that wrongly-named praying mantis the only thing the mantis prays for is, well, prey. Both though are mimics: the walking stick mimics plant stems and tree twigs, while the mantis resembles greenish leaves. Others brownish bugs called tree hoppers look just like thorns patiently waiting for a meal along a shrub stem. In the tropics, camouflaged critters resemble flowers, colorful and perhaps aromatic, to attract unwary insects into their false florets.

Well over a million insect species have been identified with many new species being categorized daily. Maybe you too could find a weird and wondrous creature new to science in your backyard. There are about 2000 species of walkingsticks worldwide, with approximately 10 species found in North America, many in the tropics. Two are listed in local field guides: northern walkingstick, the more common one, and the giant walkingstick found primarily in the midwest and the south.

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The sticks were once classified as Orthoptera, related to mantises, crickets and grasshoppers for there is a bit of a resemblance about the head, thorax, legs and some internal features. Now though they have their own category with their fatter California cousins that resemble leaves, the timemas: Order Phasmatodea or Phasmida which translates into "ghost insect" for their ability to become invisible, blending in with the background. Unlike grasshoppers and crickets, walkingsticks and timemas cleverly have evolved the ability to regrow lost legs and antennae.


The field guides claim that the northern walkingstick, Diapheromera femorata, grows to about 3 inches, this one though appeared to be 4 or 5 inches long. Maybe this was a giant though it would be a bit out of territory. But then we are experiencing global warming and maybe, like cardinals and Carolina wrens, the giant walkingsticks have come to like the northern woods and fields.

One curious fact mentioned in the literature — and there is not very much written about walkingsticks — is that they produce eggs by the hundreds which then drop into the leaf litter. I quote: "When many females are dropping eggs, the sound is like the pitter-patter of light rain." I wonder where the entomologist was that so many walkingsticks were in the same place. Imagine looking up at a tree and seeing its branches scurry about!

Not only do these more or less stationary stick-bugs blend in with their habitat, they have the ability to secrete a toxic juice to fend off predators. Our walkingstick is a vegetarian and may at times be totally destructive to a host tree denuding it of all its leaves.

Their pseudocousins, the praying mantis, produce egg cases, one of which I came across as a child. I immediately found a cigar box to use an incubator. Every day I checked the egg case to see whether birthing was imminent. Oops! one day I lifted the top and there was a mass movement of dozens of tiny green mantises dashing for freedom. Fortunately, the nursery was in the side porch so I was able to close off the house and open the screen door so they could inch their way to the out-of-doors. Nor were my parents upset.

Bugs or beetles, buteos or buntings, the natural world never fails to intrigue!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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