How it All Fits Together

Ichneumonid wasp female with ovipositorA fascination with form and function. I suppose that would be one way to capsulize my enjoyment of gardening and photography, natural history and writing. How things (including words and pixels) are put together dictates what they do and how effectively they do it. The better the design, the more perfectly the tool does its job, whether it’s the color of an insect against its background or the sequence of adjectives or choice of verbs in a paragraph.

But I ramble. Therefore I am.

This creature offered itself for a portrait, trapped against the old window from the pre-makeover house, now built into the south wall of the little garden shed. And while this individual probably had no notion of the design and color of its background, the colors of the barn, barn roof, trees and sky behind it blend form and function in a nice way photographically.

You will, of course, recognize the ichneumonid wasp, whose “stinger” we used to fear at summer camp, the myth being that it would find your heart and pierce it, dropping you dead in your tracks, still in your swim trunks just stepped out of Kelly Creek.

In truth, the stiletto is an ovipositor, a form exquisitely designed for its function: boring inches deep into solid wood to penetrate the larvae of a host insect, hypodermically insert an egg to grow there inside the living host, and eventually to emerge as an adult ichneumonid.

The how of all this leaves me amazed. The tip of the ovipositor may be reinforced with ionoized zinc or manganese, a metallic drill bit, some suggest.

And could such a flexible tube possibly be forced by brute strength inches into living wood (or even dead wood for that matter?) I’d love to know more about it, but this brief reference (and it is shown in the excellent image at the site if you look closely near the female’s abdomen) says there are two side-by-side parts to the tube that racket back and forth around the axis, driving the tip into the wood.

How fortunate I consider myself to have found an interest in natural history that is forever interesting, with object lessons, morality tales, engineering miracles and natural drama from places as humble as our garden shed.

Some of my city friends reading my insect rambles would suggest I need to get a life. I would offer them the suggestion that I have found it, close and free.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Well this city friend, with a tinge of envy, would say you have found it and can think of none that would be more rewarding.