A 1600 Work I
1600 Work II
1600 Work III
Bill Long 5/14/07
An Interesting Odyssey
Phylum arthropoda is the largest phylum of animals, consisting of well over 1,000,000 species. One previous essay looked at some ants; today I will focus on one family of bugs, the reduviids, also known as the assassin bug, thread-legged bug or the kissing bug. If you want to know how an assassin bug is also a kissing bug, well so do I. There is an answer (see below--the assassin is the "broad category," while the "kissing" is one of the subfamilies that attacks the lips/soft tissues when it bites humans). I ran into this critter principally because I was working through the Collegiate dictionary and discovered that this was a word I hadn't previously seen. The word is derived from the Latin for hangnail, and it is probably because they look like a hangnail that they received this name. You can see a great collection of pictures of them here.
As is often the case, I became distracted in my study of the reduviidae by something else. I learned that the assassin bug, Apiomerus, was placed on a 1999 US Postage stamp, and it got me thinking about insects on stamps. This web site helped me investigate that subject further. Prof. Donald Lewis tells us that the rest of the world got a jump on the US in depicting insects on stamps. I know this to be true, because I began the fascinating journey of philately around 1958, and I remember collecting all kinds of cool and colorful insect stamps from Nicaragua and elsewhere, but the US stamps seemed inordinately interested in dead Presidents and commemoration of historical events. Indeed, the first postage stamp featuring an insect was issued by Nicaragua in 1891 (a honey bee hive). By 1999 there were more than 1,800 different kinds of insects depicted on the 4,500 insect stamps.
The US didn't begin to issue stamps with insects on them until June 6, 1977 (13 cent stamps). Four butterflies were on the stamp: the Oregon Swallowtail, the Baltimore Checkerspot, the Falcate Orangetip and the California Dogface. Wow, Oregon, my home state, had its butterfly depicted on the first US "insect" postage stamp.
So, what did Oregon do in response? Well, the Legislature made the Oregon Swallowtail the state insect when the Legislature next met--in 1979. Here are some of the words from the Senate Concurrent Resolution # 6 (July 17, 1979) approving that action:
"Whereas insects represent by far the largest group of living organisms; and
Whereas the recognition of a state insect would further educate by promoting a greater interest and understanding of entomology; and
Whereas insects have survived well in the face of exploding population and remain a major area of nature study left available to young and old alike; and
Whereas the Oregon swallowtail butterfly (papilio Oregonius) is indigenous to the Oregon territory, contains the word “Oregon” in its common and scientific names, is of great aesthetic value and has no objectionable qualities; now, therefore,
Be It Resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon:
That the Legislative Assembly adopt the Oregon swallowtail butterfly (papilio Oregonius) as Oregon's official insect to join the beaver, the chinook salmon, the Oregon grape, the Douglas fir, the western meadowlark and the thunderegg as unique symbols of Oregon's distincitve history and environment."
Interesting to me is the fact not only that this is an exemplar of Oregon's "naming crazy" frenzy in the 1960s and 1970s (naming a "state" this and that), but that our state insect is one that has "no objectionable qualities." The Oregon swallowtail butterfly is of the Arthropod phylum, the Insecta class, the Lepidoptera order, the Papilionidae family and the the Papilio genus. I find it amusing that the Legislature passed a resolution where the genus name was lower-case and the species was upper-case (just the opposite of the way taxonomists really do it!). I will have to check the official resolution book to learn if this is true--yep it is...
More Bugs on Stamps
In 1987 four more insects were depicted on US stamps: the monarch butterfly, luna moth, tiger swallowtail butterfly and lady beetle. Other stamps with insects were issued in 1996 and 1997, but the "big issue" was in 1999, where 20 stamps depicted 19 species of insects (the monarch is pictured as both adult and a caterpillar). Of those 19 species, we have the following (this web site lists the stamp and issue number 3351 of US postage stamps--10/1/99):
"Black Widow, Elderberry Longhorn, Lady Beetle
Yellow Garden Spider, Dogbane Beetle, Flower Fly
Assassin Bug, Ebony Jewelwing, Velvet Ant, Monarch
Caterpiller, Monarch Butterfly, Eastern Hercules Beetle, Bombardier Beetle, Dung Beetle, Spotted Water Beetle, True Katydid, Spinybacked Spider, Periodic Cicada, Scorpionfly, Jumping Spider."
Returing to the Reduviids
When I read the word "assassin bug" in that list, I said to myself "Bingo!" Our reduviid is recognized. The Eagle has landed. Let's turn then to some information about them. They are so named because of the way they attack their prey. They have a unique three-segmented bright red beak that they use to attack their prey and inject them with a poison that paralyzes them and turns the insides of their prey into liquid--which they prompty suck up as if through a straw. We might want to pause on that thought for a moment. Sometimes the macho ones of us talk about beating our opponents "to a pulp," but no one, even in Extreme Fighting, which a former law student of mine (who wrote a paper on the phenomenon) says is the fastest-growing sport on the globe, would glower at his opponent and say, "I am going to reduce your insides to liquid and then slurp them up!"
The Reduviidae consists of about 7,000 species, and the most familiar of them are the "kissing bugs," "wheel bugs," "ambush bugs," and "thread-legged bugs." I only have space here to mention two. The "wheel bugs" are so named because of the most unusual sight you have ever seen--a sort of cog wheel right in the middle of their backs. Here is a picture. The bug, Arilus cristatus, looks like a mechanical device with its long legs extending in a jerky fashion in addition to the structure on its back. Its sting is so strong that it can feel 10X worse than a bee sting, and its traces can last months on your body. Hence, don't mess with 'em.
Also sobering from a human perspective are the "kissing bugs," subfamily Triatominae. More than 130 species of this haematophagous/hematophagous (blood eating) subfamily exist. They are widespread in the Americas, and they are vectors (carriers) of Chagas disease. This disease, also called American trypanosomiasis, is most common in South America and was named after the Brazilian "infectologist" Carlos Chagas in 1909. Of course things are much more complex than all this, but I can't go into the complexity now. This article discusses the disease, if you are interested in that. As mentioned above, the kissing bug gets its name because of its ability to pierce the lips, eyelids or ears of a sleeping human victim. Gives me the chills just thinking about it..
Now, let me return to my dictionary and spelling words.