Tucson Weekly . Volume 12, Number 10 . May 18 - May 24, 1995

B y  K e v i n  F r a n k l i n

[Out There]YOU MAY HAVE more pets in your house than you think.

In fact you may have dozens, says Carl Olson, associate curator of entomology at the University of Arizona.

Of course, whether creatures like giant crab spiders and patch spiders make good pets depends on you.

In their new book, Learning About & Living With Insects of the Southwest, authors Olson and the late Floyd Werner, a University of Arizona entomology professor, assemble a list of more than 120 common "creepy crawlies" people in the southwest are likely to encounter.

Unlike other entomology texts, this book divides groups of insects not by orders of taxonomy, but by the likelihood of where you'd find them. For instance, different chapters include: "Insects in Your House," "Dwellers in Your Yard and Patio" and "Insects in Garden and Landscape Plants."

The most entertaining chapter is "House Pets and Pests" where the authors describe webspinners (those quarter-inch long, slender, black flying bugs attracted to computer screens) as "quite harmless and even entertaining if it gets established and puts one of its silken tunnels on a wall."

This philosophy of coexisting with the world's insects is at the heart of Olson and Werner's book.

"Instead of giving you ways to eliminate, rid or destroy these animals," Werner writes, "I want to do what I can to allay the fears of the citizenry, fears that in many cases are completely unfounded."

At a lecture in Tohono Chul Park, Olson asks, "Do we want to inundate the country with poisons, or do we want to start learning to live with these creatures? We don't want to eradicate, we want to manage."

Olson understands that some bugs may be too loathsome to keep around the house, like cockroaches. Few entomologists advocate a world populated by people like Dracula's Renfield, actively pursuing bugs for an afternoon snack. On the other hand, having giant crab spiders around the house can be useful.

Most people have experienced the annoying chirp of an Indian house cricket, generally in the middle of the night before an early day. There are two ways of dispatching the squeaky serenade. You can fill the house with pesticides and sticky traps, always a big boost for the well-being of children and pets. Or, if you have one on hand, you can stick your resident crab spider in the cooling duct, behind the bookshelf or wherever the noise has been coming from.

Owners can take great pride in their eight-legged pets when the bothersome chirping suddenly stops, never to be heard again (at least from that cricket).

A brigade of patch spiders can perform the same function for irksome little gnats.

Even bugs that seem nothing more than pests are all part of a well-balanced ecosystem, like leaf-cutter bees.

"Leaf cutter bees," says Olson, "yeah, they make your roses look different. But they also pollinate. There's lots of things going on here.

"My whole bent in life, I guess, is educating that all these creatures are out there doing things for you. Without all these things, the desert, the mountains, any habitat you pick, wouldn't be there.

"I very bluntly say that bugs are the foundation of life."

Olson points out that 75 percent of the world's identified biomass is bugs. Without these creatures pollinating flowers, recycling organic debris or stirring up the soil, life on earth would be much less abundant, if it existed at all.

Naturally there are some bugs, like scorpions and black-widow spiders, you don't want in your house, Olson acknowledges. But if you put them in a jar, carry them 100 feet away and release them, those individual bugs will never return and will, in fact, keep the natural systems in balance by preying on other bugs.

Getting stung by a scorpion stems not from the malignant nature of the animal, Olson says, while a giant hairy scorpion scampers around on him. It's only when they feel threatened, like when you carelessly put your hand on top of them. They are reacting just like we would, Olson says. Scorpions will never hunt you down or leap out of trees to attack you. You are not their prey, Olson says. You're too big to eat (and probably not especially tasty anyway).

"Somebody said that if we ever go extinct, the bugs will take over the world," Olson says. "A colleague of mine said they already own it. We better learn how to live with them."

Insects of the Southwest ($12.95) provides good descriptions of various insects' natural history and how they fit into our lives.

"It's so user friendly," says Jo Falls, Tohono Chul Park volunteer education coordinator. "It's not like a field or reference guide. It's like sitting down and reading a story."

This is also a weak point, at least as a means of identifying an insect. Dividing the chapters up by likely location of the animal or its flashiness makes identifying any one bug difficult. You may know the critter is a spider, but the spider descriptions are in various chapters throughout the book. Several entries make no reference to color, and the black-and-white line drawings can leave a lot to the imagination. For several insects there are no drawings at all.

By the same token, an excellent field guide with color photos and a species indexing system, like the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects & Spiders, is difficult to sit down and read. It's like reading a dictionary.

So what the hell, buy both, one to refer to and one to read. With all these bugs out there you can never know too much.

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May 18 - May 24, 1995

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