Builder-boats as friends

Russell Wangersky
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I’ve always had a strange fascination for carpenter bugs; builder-boats, some people call them, while others go with the more proper sow bug or wood louse.

Why do I find them fascinating? Because I can’t help but think how much the little grey armoured pills remind me of trilobites. If today’s builder-boats were only a million years old and smacked between two pieces of shale, they’d be counted as an exciting fossil find rather than a nuisance.

The little beasties have a look to them that, as a species, they could easily outlast almost anything. It’s funny that, as individuals, they succeed mostly by invading in numbers.

On their own, crossing a span of open floor, they tend to dry out and die long before they reach any sort of goal. They’re little arthropods, I think; crustaceans, in fact, leggy like their ocean cousins.

They’re just one of the world’s critters without spines. From the likeable, like slow-flying bumblebees, to the beautifully tricked-out, like the fine-needled small dragonflies that find you so that they can hover in front of you, big-eyed, bug-eyed and brilliant unnatural blue, just one of the 5,680 identified dragonfly and damselfly species.

Even the most hideous of the invertebrates has their moments. Seeing a raft of golden-yellow jumbled jewels of slug eggs on the inside of the bark of a log the other day, I was struck by the thought that, if you didn’t know what they were, you’d think them remarkably beautiful, shining perfect and round in the sun.

There’s a lot to choose from.

There are, apparently, 6.7 million invertebrates (that’s a bit of an estimate — only 1.4 million have actually been fully catalogued) and only slightly more than 80,000 vertebrates. Get into mammals, and there are only 5,500.

But there may not be so many to choose from in the future. A new report from the Zoological Society of London suggests that one-fifth of those invertebrates are now threatened with extinction. They face habitat destruction, global warming issues, ocean acidification and chemical pollution from agriculture.

You can find it here, https://stat, a four-megabyte, full-colour requiem for the spineless.

The report includes this hint of the role such beasties play, from Geoff Boxshall with the Society: “Invertebrates are one of the essential foundations of healthy ecosystems that we depend on: almost every marine fish that forms part of the human food chain will have fed on invertebrates at some time during its development, for example. We directly consume invertebrates, such as shellfish, or their products, such as honey, but our awareness of the importance of invertebrates has generally been low, even though we rely on invertebrates to pollinate our crops, to reprocess our waste, and to deliver a multitude of other services.”

And how close is the tipping point, according to the report?

“Population declines are a prelude to species extinction, and there are ample indications of population declines and potential for high extinction risk in many groups of invertebrates. Pollinator declines in particular have made the news in the past years, because of the obvious effects on ecosystem stability, crop production and food security.”

Many creepy things

The report has a lot of buggy facts — like the idea that, by burying livestock dung so it can’t foul crops, spread parasites and flies and so it can help trap nitrogen — dung beetles prevent $380 million in economic losses.

Or there’s information on

the pygmy hog sucking louse,

which seems to be losing its host: “The pygmy hog sucking louse Haematopinus oliveri (order Anoplura) is listed as critically endangered as it is a specialist parasite of the critically endangered pygmy hog.”

There’s other bugs I wouldn’t want to meet or can barely imagine — the eight-centimetre-long St. Helena giant earwig hasn’t been seen since the 1960s, but I can’t really say I miss it.

Maybe you wouldn’t miss blackflies either.

Would you miss blueberries? Because that’s the invertebrate conundrum.

I don’t like the little pests when they are biting my eyelids or diving deep into my ear canal, driving me batty with their sound when I

can’t come close to reaching them. There’s some confusion and, as always with invertebrates, little full research, but there’s plenty of suggestion that blackflies do have a role in the pollination of some bog plants — and the males sample blueberry flower nectar and may pollinate the plants.

Oh, and to get back to builder-boats? Maybe there are lots — but four of their close Slovenian cousins are already on the red list for extinction, and only 0.2 per cent of the 4,000 known terrestrial crustacean species have even been looked at yet.

Who knows?

They might even wind up being best known as the fossils they resemble some day.

Then again, if we’re sloppy enough in our role here on Earth, so might we all.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Zoological Society of London

Geographic location: St. Helena

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Recent comments

  • Winston Adams
    September 08, 2012 - 22:19

    Russell, I like your reminders that climate change is a serious issue. Our misuse of fossil fuel is creating more extreme weather, and adaption will be more and more difficult, and more expensive. Science says there is a tipping point when we can do nothing to avoid future disaster. CO2 emissions continue to grow,and methane is even worse. Yet our economy can't run without fossil fuel. A conversion to a green economy is a monumental task. Energy efficiency in the USA alone can avoid the construction of hundreds of new electricity generation plants in the coming decades. Why is there no discussion of the benefit of energy efficiency (efficient heating uses 60 percent less electricity) to solve our energy problem here, rather than the very expensive Muskrat Falls? My figures sugests we are wasting 600 MW of our 1500MW demand, and most is recoverable at 1/4 the cost of MF. It would avoid an expentiture of many billions for about 2 dacades or more.