Nocturnal insects put on dazzling show in Clemson spotlight
CLEMSON – When you walk alone in the woods at night, it won’t take long for a buzzing, creeping, crawling cluster of creatures to surround you. Moths, beetles and even parasitic wasps will join you in your journey through the darkness. But there is little to fear. Nocturnal insects may be mysterious, but they are most often harmless.
More than two dozen insect aficionados recently found this out in person when they joined Clemson University entomologist Michael Caterino at the South Carolina Botanical Garden for a free event called “Light Up the Night!”
And what a night it was.
“People come to the Botanical Garden this time of year to see flowers in bloom, trees greening up and stuff coming back to life,” said Caterino, director of the Clemson University Arthropod Collection and the Morse Chair of Arthropod Biodiversity. “In the daytime, they’ll see carpenter bees, caterpillars and butterflies, to name a few. But there are a lot of insects that come out only at night. And these are every bit as amazing as their sun-loving counterparts.”
To spur the insects into action, Caterino’s entomology team set up three sets of lights – one mercury vapor light and two black lights – along one of the garden’s many meandering trails. The glowing bulbs were placed in front of white sheets suspended on lines between trees. As dusk gave way to darkness, the human participants paraded back and forth between the stations, their flashlights casting beams that crisscrossed like clashing lasers.
Expert representatives were assigned to each station, answering questions and helping identify insect varieties. Assisting Caterino were Mike Ferro, collection manager at Clemson University’s Arthropod Collection; Shelley Myers, a post-doctoral fellow in Caterino’s entomology lab; Laura Vasquez-Velez, Sofia Munoz and Anthony Deczynski, graduate students in the lab; and Sue Watts, educational programs coordinator for the Botanical Garden.
It didn’t take Deczynski long to get his hands dirty, overturning a fallen log and ripping through rotted wood in search of hidden critters.
“So far, I’ve seen a small millipede and a whole lot of tiny springtails,” Deczynski said. “There’s also a wire worm, which is the larval form of a click beetle. Other than that, we haven’t found too many things yet, but it’s early.”
The air was still and the sky clear. But as darkness descended, it became somewhat chilly – with temperatures in the 50s. This slowed down the insect action a bit, but plenty still braved the elements to make cameo appearances at the light stations and throughout the trail. Sightings included springtails, mosquitoes, wasps and several varieties of beetles, midges, flies, moths and caterpillars. Adding to the menagerie was an impressive throng of spiders, centipedes, millipedes and harvestmen. One graduate student even made friends with a small snake.
“Does anybody know why insects are attracted to light?” Caterino asked the group. His question was greeted by silence. After a pause, he nodded in approval. “Silence is the right answer. No one – including entomologists – know for certain why this phenomenon occurs. But there are a lot of theories. My favorite is that nocturnal insects are more or less navigating by moonlight. And so, when they get close to a light, they become confused and fly around erratically. But there are a lot of nocturnal species that aren’t attracted to light and are just out taking a walk. They prefer nighttime because there aren’t as many predators around to pick them off.”
“Light Up the Night!” is one of many public programs held throughout the year at the Botanical Garden, a prized 295-acre venue located on Clemson’s main campus.
“We’re able to offer public programs like this for free thanks to the support of Dr. Caterino and the entomology program’s staff and students, who come out here to set up the lights and educate us about nocturnal insects,” said James Wilkins, education and resource coordinator for the S.C. Botanical Garden and Clemson Experimental Forest.
“They have graciously loaned us insect specimens to enhance our own educational collections and displays and have been a great resource for us in general. We hope to find more ways to collaborate with and support the interesting and important work that Dr. Caterino and his crew are doing. Having one-on-one access to scientists of this caliber is rare and valuable. I highly recommend that people take advantage of these and future opportunities.”
Kristin Heape, a 16-year-old sophomore at Walhalla High School, was one of the event’s most enthusiastic attendees.
“Tonight was an enjoyable experience for me. I was able to see first-hand how the community came together and bonded over a similar interest,” said Heape, who has job-shadowed with Caterino and who also does volunteer work with Clemson’s entomology museum. “We were able to observe a variety of insects that many people might not even know exist. Plus, these kinds of outings are great teaching tools for children, as well as adults.”
Heape said that observing and protecting wildlife has always been one of her greatest passions.
“Working with the Clemson entomology group has allowed me to continue my dream of turning my love for wildlife into a full-time career,” Heape said. “After graduating from Walhalla High in 2018, I plan on attending Clemson University, where I’ll study to become a wildlife biologist.”