“So, I’ve got this bug?”
I grimaced into the phone. It was going to be one of those calls.
One of those calls where the caller expects me to identify an insect over the phone. An insect they didn’t really look at terribly closely and didn’t bother to collect.
“It’s sort of brown, with long feelers. What is it?”
I try to help. I try to tell people where and how they can get their bug identified, but sometimes I think I’m just talking into the wind. Most of the time I’m sure they hang up thinking, “Well, she didn’t know much, did she?”
Here’s the thing.
Even in New Zealand, which has a very limited number of insects, compared with other places in the world, there are 10,000 species of insect to choose from.
Some are iconic, to be sure. Some are easily recognisable.
Many are not. Many look different as an adult than they do when young. Sometimes males and females look very different. Colours and markings can vary from individual to individual. Some features are only visible under a microscope. And verbal descriptions are less than useless.
So when a person says an insect is brown, I wonder whether it is a dark chocolate sort of brown, a reddish brown, a light brown…because “brown” could be anything.
When they say it’s “about a centimetre long” I wonder whether it is closer to 9 millimetres or 11 millimetres, because it might matter.
When they say, “It looks sort of like a huhu grub” I wonder what features make them say that. Is it legless? Is it a creamy white colour? Or is it just that they’ve seen pictures of huhu grubs and it’s the only thing they can think to compare it to?
When they say it’s got long feelers, I wonder whether those antennae are filiform, moniliform, pectinate, capitate, or serrate.
When they say it has clear wings, I wonder whether it has two or four. And whether those wings are fully clear, tinted, or partly covered in scales.
I wonder how many tarsal segments its legs have.
I wonder whether it has setae on its tibia. And if so, how many, and what size they are, and how, exactly, they are arranged.
I wonder what the shape of the marginal cell on the front wing is. Or whether the wing venation is reduced, or whether the wing is fringed at all.
Sometimes, someone can describe an insect in detail to me over the phone, and I am baffled. Then they bring me the insect, and I can immediately identify it, and it looks nothing like I imagined from the description they gave.
I’m always happy to try to answer people’s entomological questions, but sometimes I feel like one of the three blind men trying to identify an elephant by feeling just a small part of it’s body.