Sunday, April 24, 2022

Uncanny Valley: I Thought I Saw a Saw Fly


Becker Park on the hill is a place I can walk to from the artist retreat and so I try to get up there every other day. It’s become a ritual and I have my favourite entry points, plants, bees, trees, and trails. Yesterday I was physically tired, so I gave myself a talk before I went up the hill, “Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Don’t fall on any broken glass. Don’t slide off the steep edge of the ridge on loose stones. Be careful up there.” There’s a place where the arrowleaf balsamroot blooms that is incredibly steep, so I decide it would be better to avoid those patches today and save it for a time when I have more mountain goat energy. It’s funny how some days the blossoms can be loaded with bees, and other days, there’s no joy at all. Other flowers nearby become more attractive, the nectar runs out, or I’m just unlucky with the timing of my visit. But right now, they are my favourite flower blooming on the hill. They pull me up the hill with their sunny yellow magnetism, but today it’s the action in the Amelanchier that gives me a surprise adventure.



The Saskatoon berry bushes are suddenly in bloom and so I’m also on a quest to see what pollinates them because I just don’t tend to see bees on them. Today I notice there are some male bees lekking on a bush and I miss getting a shot of a female bee grooming herself on a leaf. She had pale yellow pollen on her back legs—some kind of mining bee. I also see a tiny wasp-like critter, but can’t get a clear shot. Maybe tomorrow. I might need to net some of these pollinators and look up close in a jar. Then on the top of the hill I get a surprise—three large insects are chasing each other around a Saskatoon bush. I try to get a bead on what they are—not bumble bees, but a similar size. Maybe wasps? But they seem too broad and hairy. As I move in closer to get shots I get that “uncanny valley” feeling because this insect is so unfamiliar to me it feels like a dream. I had a similar experience one when I saw my first tachinid fly. The head shape did not fit with my concept of typical fly anatomy. It looked like something someone created in a 3-D printer and then animated it somehow.

And then the unexpected happened, which made the experience even more dreamlike: the three insects started chasing each other. “Mating or fighting?” I wondered as I followed the action with my lens held tightly against my eye. They landed on the dusty ground and appeared to wrestle vigorously with one another. This seemed like a test of male fitness. After a few moments of tussling they disengaged and flew off in different directions. They were clumsy flyers and I must admit I had a shiver of revulsion at the thought they might land on me and continue the battle. I rarely have that feeling about insects, so I had to step back, get some distance and examine my reaction. At the base of this reaction was fear and unfamiliarity. I didn’t know if these were stinging or biting insects. Upon examining the photos later, I see they have very large mandibles and I’m curious what they’re used for. If these are males, they are using them for fighting and possibly mating, since that’s while the “tools” on male anatomy are usually evolved to do. Something in my brain told me these were saw flies, which was confirmed by entomologist Lincoln Best. I'd just never seen them this large and I don't see saw flies very often at all--especially giant pugnacious saw flies.



I think one of the things that tends to get under one’s skin is not knowing which direction an insect may head toward. With bees you often get a clear sense of trajectory as they go from flower to flower and flower to nest. They’re just not into humans and are very good at keeping out of our way. We humans want to stay out of their way so they can do their work. The more we disrupt their work, the less likely they are to survive. We are creatures of disruption. We are the interlopers here. When you grow up with mosquitoes, you know the irritation of avoiding insects that want to drink your blood. Horsefly bites are not much fun either. But when you grow up as a free-range child in the country you get stung and bit by insects, scraped and poked by thorns, and you inevitably end up picking soil and pebbles out of a skinned knee. But the next day you get out there and do it again. Unless you’re my wee neighbor Sidney. I have a vague memory of mom telling me he suddenly became afraid of bugs and wouldn’t leave the house. “Should I be afraid,” I wondered? And I was, for about a week, then I forgot about the fear and went on getting poked and scraped.



“I’m afraid of trees,” my friend’s nephew admits as he looks up from a game on his cell phone. “Hold on,” I thought. Where did that come from? I’m absolutely flabbergasted. This is coming from a woman who can be seen regularly getting up close to inhale the heady butterscotch scent of Ponderosa Pine bark as if it were the sun-warmed chest of a lover at the beach. I am worried folks think I’m nutty for getting too close and personal with a pine tree. But to be afraid of individual trees? Oh dear, what has technology done? It’s seduced children and their parents away from the hills, bees, trees and uncanny saw flies. We need to help children from a young age simply get used to being in nature with a biodiversity of insects, plants, trees, ecosystems, and weather. We need to teach them how to be safe in potentially dangerous situations. We need to face an element of risk in order to create deeper relationships with nature. Oh and yes, I did fall on a prickly pear pad with my full weight onto my hand. It hurt like hell. I pulled out the thorns as best I could. Drank some gin. I’ll still head out there today and take the same damned risks all over again. But my attitude toward the saw flies will have changed because now I know a little bit more about what they are, and my fear has turned to curiosity.


What inspires you to face your fear of critters that move in unexpected ways? I’d love to hear your stories.


Special thanks to Lincoln Best, who IDed the mystery critters as club-horned sawflies.



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