Thursday, July 28, 2011

Table Manners

or On/Off

Being human has so many lovely perks:  opposable thumbs, brains that can (sometimes) solve complex problems, the capacity to create and enjoy art.  Even better, even more exciting and convenient, we don't have to stand on our food and eat it out from under us.  I'd never really fully appreciated that last perk until this week, when I watched a juvenile angle-wing katydid going through contortions while it ate.  The leaf it was standing on kept getting smaller and smaller as the katydid devoured more and more of it.  About halfway through it either had to stop eating or fall off.  Without even the tiniest pause, it moved on to another floor-table-casserole (or "leaf") and started over again.  I have been fondly patting the kitchen chairs in passing ever since.

Theoretically this katydid should be hanging out in a tree somewhere.  Instead it's settled into the amaranth patch in the microgarden for the last few days.  The amaranth is just a small patch, about two feet long by six inches wide, but intensively planted, with plenty of leaves for a hungry young katydid to stand and/or dine on.

And dine it does, with the relentless precision of a machine, its mandibles perforating a leaf and meshing together, drawing food up and in, up and in, without pause, without a change in rhythm.  It works its way from one side of a leaf to the other and then, like a typewriter carriage, swings back to the starting point.*  During a windstorm the other evening I watched it sheltering on the middle tier of leaves, clinging with its feet to the leaf below it and with its mandibles to the one above.  While the wind blew the katydid was anchored in two directions; when the wind paused it would take a bite.

To eat the shelter from over your head while you still need it—that's some hunger at work.  Watching the katydid this week, I've been aware of its instinct as an implacable, almost mechanistic force.  When that insect is ready to eat, nothing slows it down; it's on automatic pilot.  The sense of robotic drive is all the more striking as the only other thing I have seen this living creature do is sit.  Admittedly, it has a splendid physique, and when it sits it looks like the kind of intricate jade carving that ought to grace an emperor's palace, but still, all it does is sit.  It's as if the katydid is on a toggle switch:  when the switch is on it eats, when the switch flips off it comes to a dead halt.  There's no middle ground, no competing instinct to moderate the hunger, no secondary activity to occupy it.

Other insects, just as driven, still seem to acquire character as a species.  No one can tell me praying mantises aren't hungry, yet they're also curious and engaged.  The baby ones that used to live in the chard in the microgarden would pounce on me when I watered and then be startled at what they'd caught and run away.  No matter how driven ants may be, they still manage to find time to be irritable.  Waterbugs are gregarious—really surprisingly friendly (such a pity they're vermin); bumblebees can be flat-out hedonistic when they think no one is looking.  Character comes from movement, but stasis?  What does stasis produce?

What does a katydid do but alternately eat and look like a jade carving?  To have no one be "home" in a creature of that size—it's unnerving.

Maybe still waters run deep?

* Youngsters, ask your parents to tell you about typewriters.**
** Or better yet, just don't worry about it.

A postscript:  Look what the katydid accomplished today while I was gone!

All grown up
It isn't half-bad at camouflage...


  1. I love finding katydid because they're so pretty, but not as much as I like finding mantids.

    Also, I've decided that I love amaranth. I planted some for the first time this year and it's just a beautiful plant (though mine doesn't have any of the green that yours does, just deep purple).

    Also, if you think waterbugs are pleasant, perhaps you should consider keeping some madagascar hissing cockroaches. They're social to the point of having a maternal instinct, easy to care for and long lived, and are tropical enough that they won't escape and start breeding in the walls.

  2. I almost feel sorry for it being so ravenously hungry that they can think of nothing else. Must be hard to grow at such a rate!

  3. I wonder if it realises that its veins aren't camouflaged on the amaranth

  4. Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits ...

  5. Very nice pictures.
    You cannot beat the amaranth for color, in my world.

  6. Terrific post! Bugs and the world they inhabit are so fascinating. How little we know from our giant's view point!

  7. I looked at the last picture for quite a while before I found the katydid ... What an interesting portrait of a katydid, both visually and in words. I like how your fascination with watching the katydid seems to outweigh any concern about the amaranth. After a too-busy week, your post reminds me of the importance of slowing down and observing nature in the minute details ...

  8. Smashing photos and funny/wonderful observations. I'm off to find a waterbug...

  9. Wow...isn't that amazing? God's creatures are astonishing! And I never thought I liked amaranth, but your photos have me reconsidering. :)

  10. Beautiful photos, Stacy. It was kind enough to let you take them too. That or grateful you did not make it leave the microgarden.

  11. Mud, when you find a mantis, you definitely feel like the world is turning in the right direction!

    Amaranth is one of my favorites—as decorative edibles go, it's hard to beat. I've grown the purple kind before but ended up trying a couple of new varieties this year just for fun. One of them is supposed to have an orange flower head, but it hasn't gotten that far yet.

    Ah, thanks for the info about the hissing cockroaches. I looked them up, and they do sound pretty interesting. Somehow I think if I do end up getting another pet, though, it will be a dog...

  12. Holley, transforming so completely in such a short time must take a huge amount of energy. During all its “off” times it's probably busy digesting its weight in leaves and re-arranging its DNA.

    b-a-g, maybe it has a vague feeling of unease like you get when you're wearing mismatched socks. If it had transformed itself into something with magenta veins, though, I would have called the university science lab to come look!

    Diana, in this case, sometimes it sits, and sometimes it just sits. :)

  13. goatman, thanks, and thanks for visiting. Amaranth colors are beautifully intense, aren't they? Even the stems are gorgeous, and that's saying something.

    Deb, thank you! I wish we knew more about what makes insects tick—not just what they do but why they do it. It would be fun to be inside that little head, even for five seconds, just to know.

    Sheila, some days I've had to hunt and hunt to find the katydid and have been sure it's left for good, and then once I spot it don't know how I overlooked it. Fortunately I've joined a CSA this year and am up to my elbows in fresh vegetables, or I might be fussing about the amaranth a little more. If anything I've been impressed at how well the amaranth recovers—it really does grow like a weed, in a good way!

  14. Stephanie, thank you! So glad you visited and commented. No, no, please don't go find a waterbug! As I understand it, the Madagascar hissing cockroaches are much better all the way around.

    Hanni, they really are amazing. I swear by amaranth as a summer sautéing green, and when the greens are actually red, so much the better!

    Thanks, Donna. I haven't photographed such a cooperative subject in a long time—even the plants usually move around more than that. The most it ever did was twitch an antenna when I got too close.

  15. I can identify with a katydid. I eat, and then I sit, and before I know it, it's time to eat again :D

  16. Greggo, that almost sounds heretical!

    klbrowser, after all, it's always dinner time somewhere...

  17. LOVE the photos!! What are you using for a camera and lens?

  18. Thanks, Baffled! I use a Canon PowerShot SX130 mid-level compact. I usually take the photos at a fairly high resolution with the macro setting and then crop to get the image I want. Sometimes that fuzzes the photo a little, like the one of the katydid's legs. For the most part, though, it's a good trade-off for me. I looked at DSLR's and decided they were too heavy to be practical for someone with CFS to lug around.

  19. Well, your compact trade-off was a great one, Stacy as these photos are stunning - especially the top one. What a handsome beast.

  20. Thanks, Dave--if all green bugs were considerate enough to pose on red leaves (while being the next best thing to comatose) the world would be a better place. I still can't get over the detail in its...hide? skin? crust? Just that its adult form actually has leaf veins--wow.