National Geographic : 1952 Aug
Back-yard Monsters in Color Even in a Great City, the Insect Kingdom Reveals Its Shimmering Hues to a Hunter Armed with Patience and Kodachrome BY PAUL A. ZAHL NEW YORK City may seem a strange place for starting a natural-history project. But it was amid Manhattan's walls that I discovered the fascination of an unusual form of hunting-hunting insects with a color camera. The project stemmed directly, but acciden tally, from bird photography. In a downtown Manhattan pet emporium I was taking color pictures of tropical birds when all at once an immense brown cockroach appeared on the perch. As Broadway would put it, he stole the scene. On impulse I trained my lights and lens on the insect instead of the bird. The picture proved successful enough to open my eyes-and my shutter-to a colorful kingdom that is all about us, even in such a city as New York. Insect Colors Rival the Birds' Hidden under leaf and bough, beneath the ground, and in the nooks and crannies of man's own habitations, lies this unseen, living world of color, to most of us unknown and often un suspected. The splendor of the miniature, almost secret, teeming world of the insects is largely concealed from human eyes, even though it exists in intimate contact with the world of men. A fleeting glimpse of a fluttering butterfly's gay wings, the brightly spotted carapace of some beetle scurrying to a hide-out, or perhaps a green grub chewing voraciously upon the leaves of a cherished shrub or tree, is all that most people ever see of insect colors. The occasional "bug" that crosses our path, the hungry housefly, the singing mosquito, the honeybee sipping at a clover blossom, even the hordes of grasshoppers or army worms that may devastate field or garden, give hardly a hint of the glamour of the insect world. Yet actually no living creatures, except per haps the birds, rival the infinite variety and delicate loveliness of the insects' rainbow hues. Capturing insect color with the camera is no easy task. To obtain the 27 color photo graphs reproduced on pages 239-246 and 251 258, I exposed about 3,000 Kodachromes. Of these, 100 were used in making the final selection. Many were made no farther from home than my own back yard. One warm afternoon last summer I was at work in my research laboratory, a block from the great new United Nations center in New York, when my wife phoned. Our four-year old daughter had come in from the garden with her hands and arms full of bristly, red headed caterpillars. They were all for me! Little Eda had listened to our dinner-table conversation and knew of my new interest in insect collecting. Now she was trying to help. When I reached home, I found that the caterpillars were larvae of the tussock moth. They were about an inch and a half long, each with four tussocks of white fibers bristling up off the back and with tiny bundles of hairs standing out elsewhere. Good color subjects, they had red-enameled heads and two scarlet spots on the back (page 245). Insisting that I go with her to the source of her find, Eda led me out into the garden which hangs over New York's East River Drive. There on the cherished apple tree were hun dreds more of the caterpillars. By now I was less inclined to rhapsodize over the gaudy good looks of these guests than to grieve at what they were doing to the garden trees. Not only were the leaves of the apple tree being gnawed to lace, but so were those of the maple. In ensuing days I noticed how the greenery in other little gardens and mews of Manhat tan's East Side was aswarm with caterpillars of the same sort. The iron railings in near-by river-front parks were busy caterpillar ave nues. The summer of 1951 had brought to New York City an especially severe infestation of the destructive tussock moth, a member of the family that includes the notorious gypsy and brown-tail moths. With my young daughter, I watched and studied the voracious eaters in action. Miracle of Caterpillar-into-moth Each caterpillar, after it had grown fat on our trees, became sluggish and finally settled in a branch crotch to weave a cocoon from silk mixed with its own pincushion bristles. Then, deep within the cocoon, one of Na ture's great miracles would quietly take place. The tissues of the sleeping caterpillar would break down and reform into new ones wholly different. Finally, toward the end of summer, a small, drab moth would emerge from each chrysalis. Only the male can fly; the female moth is practically wingless and must remain crawling about on the branch where she was born, waiting for a mate to fly to her.