“If you thought birds were the first animals to fly you’d be wrong,” intones Oprah Winfrey in the introduction to the Life episode "Insects." “Insects did it 100 million years before birds got off the ground… insects live hard and die young.” Your challenge, as the viewer of this rich documentary, is to watch the entire hour without scratching.
Insects are interesting, but they are also—shall we say—icky. I wouldn’t say all bugs are icky (I guess I’m not a total girly-girl), and I will admit that a lot of them are interesting and quite resourceful. Let’s face it, though, there are too many of them. Ninety percent of the animals in the world are insects. Insects! The majority of them fly. And, if I’m not mistaken, the majority of the flying ones fly around my house.
I can’t walk out the door without being surrounded by wood bees, males looking for mates and boring into my porch roof, building tunnels and nests. I don’t need to go outside, or open a window, to hear their ferociously loud buzzing. Bees are subjects of “Insects,” but the documentary features Dawson’s bees and honeybees, “the alchemists of the insect world.” The honey they produce is one of nature’s richest foods (and one of my favorites).
“Insects” brings us all kinds of bugs—some weighing less than a postage stamp, some with nasty defense systems, some scary, some beautiful. What they all have in common, we learn, are three body sections, six legs, and body armor. Because so many of them fly, they have colonized every habitat on earth.
In Patagonia, you will meet Darwin’s stag beetle, the insect with the most powerful jaws. The male mates with a female in a tree, 80 feet above the ground. First he must climb the tree, then fight off her other potential suitors (which he tosses off the tree—plummeting large beetles, oh my!) before he can make a date, which lasts about six seconds. Once his quest is satisfied, he tosses her off the tree.
Also featured are damsel flies (there are over 120,000 varieties of flies — if you don’t see enough of them here, come to my kitchen in July), African beetles, Australia’s Dawson’s bees, Japanese red bugs, and Argentinean ants called grass cutters. All these little beasts have fascinating stories, whether about mating, chemical defense systems, the wages of crime, or air ventilation solutions. The Argentinean ants are the coolest.
The most visually impressive are monarch butterflies. Flying from Canada, 100 miles across Lake Erie, they use the sun as a compass as they migrate to Mexico. Monarchs fly more than 2000 miles across North America, traveling 80 miles a day. Their destination is a rare fir tree in a remote Mexican forest. How do they find these trees? No one knows. But 300 million butterflies drape themselves across the trees, hibernating for four months. The monarchs that return to Lake Erie in the spring are not the ones who left months before. They are their offspring (and their grandchildren). Monarch butterflies do not live long enough to make the round trip; on their return trip they reproduce in Arkansas and Oklahoma (among other places).
One sadly impressive thing not included in “Insects” is the tide of monarch butterflies in the Gulf of Mexico. Not all butterflies that leave Canada make it to Mexico; many die on the way. For a short period every fall, the Gulf’s waves carry their fallen bodies to the shore. Despite our knowledge of the “cycle of life,” we mourn the deaths of these beautiful creatures littering the beach.
Whether you watch "Insects" for beautiful butterflies, bees chasing bears, or swarming ants and flies, you will learn new things about the insect world. Because this natural history documentary series is so viewer friendly, none of what you see will be disgusting or disturbing. Well, not too much anyway.
If you miss “Insects” on Sunday, April 11, Discovery will show it again on April 18 and it will soon be available on DVD.