Introduction

Whap! "What the heck was that?. . . Gross! I'll have to clean the windshield; the wipers are just smearing it everywhere." Sound familiar? You have just had a close encounter with one of the many species of insects in the United States. Everyday thousands upon thousands of people experience this event while driving their automobiles up and down highways.

But what are these insects that smash unfortunately into our cars? Besides running into automobiles, insects lead amazingly unique and distinct lives. Having been around for over 350 million years, insects represent greater than half of the known species of animals, and they dwell in nearly every terrestrial and aquatic habitat. Currently, close to one million species have been described; however, as many as three million insect species are estimated to inhabit the earth. The number of insects is thought to be close to 1018, or approximately one billion insects for each human being. Wow! No wonder we normally encounter insects everyday of our lives. . . . Hardly a day goes by without hearing insects buzzing around our heads, seeing insects crawling nonchalantly across our paths, or feeling pesky insects biting various parts of our bodies.

Even in the protective capsules of our automobiles, we cannot help but notice insects careening crazily off the front of our windshields. How difficult it is to get what's left of those critters off our cars! Numerous car owners know the consequence of leaving these insects on their cars for an extended length of time. . . . The paint is eventually eaten away. Industrial products to remove this gunk off your car is a million dollar industry. Are insects just plain stupid, or were they designed to degrade the beauty of our most illustrious automobiles?

Hold on! Let's step back for a moment and take the viewpoint of the insect. For millions and millions of years, insects have been reproducing, foraging, and doing the things insects do without the influence of humans and their devices. Suddenly, insects (as well as other animals) have to deal with a predator that they have never encountered before. . . . A huge hunk of metal that can go faster than 40 miles per hour - the automobile. Paved roads were built for this metallic creature, and now this predator (which by the way, does not eat its prey) is practically everywhere. In the past, insects have had to worry about only natural predators, such as bats, birds, and lizards . . . but never something as big and fast as the automobile. Can you imagine an insect that is able to detect a car in time to get out of the way?

In the search for food, shelter, and mates, insects continually traverse numerous roads in the U.S. Some species are actually attracted to highways (e.g., lovebugs), and others are lured in by car headlights (e.g., moths). Consequently, many insects are unintentionally hit by motorists. . . . Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how one looks at it), this event provides a unique opportunity to identify and learn about these wonderful insects.

The intent of this book is not only to help you to identify the splat left by each insect (a distinct residue on one's car) but to provide interesting facts about each insect and activities you can do with them. Information is given about how you can observe insects in their natural environments, and even how you can raise them at home.

For the industrious person, this book contains ideas on how one can conduct scientific research in order to discover new things about insects. Whoops! I said the "S" word. . . . Science (and scientists) sometimes give people a "creepy" feeling, and people believe that anything scientific must involve complicated contraptions and ideas that practically nobody will understand. Often the public thinks that only people with university degrees can conduct research, but anybody can be a “scientist." Believe it or not, research is often fun and easy to do. All you need is an inquisitive mind.

This book also contains games for kids (as well as adults) to pass the time while driving down the road. I remember many family trips, where in addition to fighting with my brother in the back seat, we played an assortment of silly but fun games. I hope these games in this book will be added to your collection.

You may wonder how I collected data for this book. First, to get an idea of what types of splats are made by different insects, I spent most of my time at a Greyhound bus station in Gainesville, Florida. This bus station was a perfect place to find a number of vehicles covered with squashed insects. . . . These monstrous buses had a huge surface area, and they traveled throughout the State of Florida . . . . During some months, the front end was practically covered with insects! I had a fantastic time collecting specimens, and I am indebted to the bus drivers and people that run the station. Many people thought it was unbelievable that I was actually picking dead bugs off the front of the bus. I heard quite a wide range of comments. . . . Here are some of my favorites:

" What are ya goin' to do with them bugs . . . smoke 'em?"

" When you're done, you can wax the front end too."

" Mommy . . . why is that man scraping bugs off the windshield? Is he crazy?"

" He must be an archaeologist. No . . . that's not right. What are those insect people called?"

" You must be one of them buggy people from the University. Cool!"

" No son . . . he's not a mechanic."

" What the #@!*@# are ya doing? Yuuckk! That's gross!"

" Are you sure you aren't psycho?"

Second, to gather additional information on insects encountered in other regions, I also took a trip across the U.S. in the summer of '94. On May 8, strapped in my '84 Honda Accord, I ventured first from Gainesville (FL) to Massachusetts; next, I motored west through Detroit (MI), Chicago (IL), Rapid City (SD), and eventually ended up in Seattle (WA). From Seattle, I headed south through Portland (OR) and Death Valley (CA) to Tucson (AZ) and continued east to Florida, stopping in Austin (TX) and Baton Rouge (LA). Incidentally, I rigged the top portion of my car to collect insects that ricocheted off the windshield to match each splat with the appropriate insect. This apparatus was easy to build, and I explain how to construct it in the section on collecting and preserving insects. Two months, 12,000 miles, and dozens of Greyhound Bus Stations later, I had collected quite a number of insects and observed all types of splats in various regions of the U.S. In some areas, my windshield was almost covered with insect goo.

Driving through the United States, I was struck by the sensation that I was watching a movie with my windshield posing as a big picture screen. . . . The scenery whizzed by, changing with every hill conquered or turn navigated. At times, it felt like only the things in my car were real, and the outside stuff was fake. Yes, technology has brought us many wonderful things to make our lives easier, but it has done one unfortunate thing - technology has isolated us from nature. Lewis Mumford, a noted urban ecologist, lamented about the technological advancement of humans; he described one technological innovation, urban cities, as

". . . a tendency to loosen the bonds that connect (the city's) inhabitants with nature and to transform, eliminate, or replace its earth-bound aspects, covering the natural site with an artificial environment that enhances the dominance of man and encourages an illusion of complete independence from nature."

Looking out the window of my car, watching a kaleidoscope of colors and vegetation structures whiz by, I almost felt as if the melange of trees, meadows, streams, and mountains were photos, merely images in my mind. Only when I stopped and got out of my car, hiked down a trail or tromped through a meadow, touching, smelling, and listening to nature did I realize that all of those images were real. . . . They were not just figments of my imagination. These metallic creatures in which we travel from one place to another have essentially isolated us from the natural environment. We have all the comforts of home right at our fingertips: heat, air-conditioning, a comfortable chair, and music (sometimes playing quite loudly to drown out all outside noises). . . . No wonder we may be lulled into thinking that the scenery outside our car is just cinema.

However, the sound and the up-close view of some insect crashing into the our front windshield disrupts our view of this surreal world. Not only do some larger insects make a loud "Bang!", startling us out of our mesmerized state, but they leave behind a gooey residue that ultimately, if enough insects strike the windshield, obstruct our view of the road. Pull into any filling station across America and you will find a window washer especially designed to wash off the remains of those unfortunate insects that cling to the surface of the windshield. Do people think at all about the insects they are wiping off their cars?

Motivation for this book came from my desire to communicate to people outside the scientific community about science, animals, and the natural environment in which we live. I chose to focus on local animals because I feel that these critters are just as fascinating as those from faraway places (e.g., those seen on T.V.). . . . Folks of all ages can identify with creatures that they encounter everyday. People are naturally interested in animals and the environment, but the dilemma for scientists is how do “we” effectively communicate to the public about the world around them and get them involved without being humdrum and boring? This question was on my mind just as I hit a large insect on a highway road.

I hope this book will not only spark interest about our country's diverse insect fauna, but will increase peoples' awareness about their local environment. This guide can also be used as a education tool for teachers interested in teaching science. Take this book on any trip; I suggest placing the book in your glove compartment and when you have a "close encounter" with an insect, you can immediately identify and learn some interesting facts about it. Good luck and have a safe trip!