The Beauty of Bugs

Insects and their songs come to life in a new book.

By Kiera Butler

You might be able to identify birds by their songs, but how about insects? Naturalists Wil Hershberger and Lang Elliot aim to make bug appreciation easier with their new book, The Songs of Insects (Houghton Mifflin). In addition to photos of no less than 77 unique species of insects, The Songs of Insects includes a CD, so that readers can match songs to the appropriate bugs. Plenty chatted with Hershberger about insect personalities and quirks, katydid lore, and how to ready a bug for its closeup.

I know you used a pretty unique process to take pictures of the insects. How exactly did it work?

We thought that it would be cool to have the bug on white on the left-hand page, so it looks like it’s sitting on the page. So we developed a white box, which is made of foam core, and the top is made of plexiglass. We fire two flash units down through the plexiglass to a white disk of the same foam core, which the bug is sitting on. And that piece is sitting on top of a lazy Susan. If the bug got into an incorrect pose, we could turn it around real quick.

How long does it take to do your average insect photo session?

It can vary. Some insects are a lot more cooperative than others. Originally everyone we talked to said, ‘Just put the insects in the refrigerator and they’ll become really docile.’ Well they sure look like it—they look like they’re dead! And as soon as they warm up, they fly off and get really energetic. We found that the best way was just to handle them. Let them crawl around on your hands, warm up, and they get used to you. And they don’t fly away or jump around as much. Then when you put them down on the white background, they’ll preen to get rid of the oils they’ve gotten on their feet and antenna. So that gives you about two minutes of window to start taking pictures.

Where did you find the specimens?

We had field sessions from 2001-2003 where we went from Southern Canada out to Missouri, all the way down to Florida and up the East Coast. So we were trying to find insects in their native, natural habitat, and we recorded a lot of them there. Some of them we brought inside to record, because they were such quiet singers and we wanted really clean sounds.

What’s your favorite insect song?

Definitely the common virtuoso katydid, whose song is about 30 seconds long.

There’s a story behind the katydid’s name, right?

The story goes that a young woman named Katy was dating a man who ran away with another woman and got married. Shortly after the couple got back to their cottage in the woods, they were found dead, poisoned in the night. Everyone thought that Katy did it, but there was no evidence. It happened during the summer, when the insects were active. To this day, the insects tell the tale. “Katy did! Katy did!”

Katydids can get pretty loud.

Yes, the robust katydid in particular. That one is so loud that in our house, which has a security system with glass break detectors—a katydid was setting it off!

A lot of people think of bugs as just annoyances, but ecologically, they seem to play a pretty important role.

They are crucial parts of the web of life. There’s research being done on the partitioning of the audio spectrum. Each individual species has its own niche within that spectrum. If you record the chorus in a wild area, each insect sings in a particular band of frequency, so it doesn’t compete with anyone else. I took a marsh insect into the woods where there were true katydids, and they wouldn’t sing at the same time. The marsh insect would wait until there was a brief pause in the katydid chorus.

It’s like they were cooperating.

Exactly. It blew my mind—it was really cool.

Plenty Extra: Click here to hear the song of the Common True Katydid, featured in this book.


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