Where Have All the Big Bugs Gone?

Written By: Mark Scholl

Growing up in East Quogue, with regular journeys to Southampton where many of my relatives lived, I spent countless summer days and nights exploring the jungles, deserts, and driveways of the East End of Long Island, delighting in the volume and variety of insects that were constantly crawling and buzzing about. The real eureka moments would come when I spotted something new, usually large, and immediately recognizable from the photos and artist renderings in my collection of insect books. Such creatures as the tiger swallowtail butterfly, the tile-horned prionus beetle, and the praying mantis were among the prizes discovered while scoping out my mother’s flower garden, keeping vigil in the woods beyond the backyard, or hanging out in the glow of streetlights during the evening. There were also plenty of smaller, more common creepy crawlers like the metallic bronze and green Japanese beetle (a notorious pest back then, feeding on and destroying every plant imaginable) and the ever-enchanting firefly. But I was always happiest coming face-to-weird-bug-face with something big.
On a blazing summer day sometime in the late 1960s, as I roam my family’s backyard, butterfly net in hand, a tiger swallowtail soars by, its yellow-and-black-striped wings unmistakable from the pictures in my “How and Why” science volumes and Golden Books insect guides. Sweeping my net through the air, the majestic insect flutters straight in. That afternoon another one “makes the scene” (yes, it’s the 60s), and once again into the trusty net. Now the only species making the scene around a flower on the East End seems to be the plain white, unassuming cabbage butterfly…and of course the all-too-common, orange-brown monarchs as they migrate south along the beaches at summer’s end.
As the East Quogue dusk descends in July 1972, the tile-horned prionus club is calling their nightly meeting to order on the corner of Central Avenue and Old Country Road. The prionus is a large black beetle, about the size of an American cockroach or “waterbug” – and fairly hideous. It usually appears on the same page in bug books as another similar black monster, the stag beetle – named for its mandibles which resemble a stag’s antlers. So I instantly recognize Mr. Prionus, with his thick, ugly antennae…and his cohorts as they buzz happily under the sickly-yellow-colored sodium-vapor streetlight, like cigar-chomping gangsters in a corner social club. Occasionally one hits the pavement with a loud snap – alerting me and my jar as I go forth to make the capture. I have not seen one of those beetles since.
However, the most fascinating insect to me was the praying mantis. Its large size (most of the ones I remember were four or five inches long) and unique appearance (its space-alien-like triangular head with bulging eyes, and “praying” forelegs used to grasp small-insect meals) guaranteed excitement and elation every time I saw one – which back in the summers of yore was fairly often. Some green in color, some more brown, others a mix – always hued to blend in with the surrounding plant life.
My first encounter with one of those intriguing insects happens a bit west of the East End, and before my bug obsession really takes off. On a visit to my grandmother’s house “up the island” in Hauppauge, she tells me she has something to show me, goes into the back storage area and emerges holding a glass coffee pot containing a curious creature. She and my father fill me in: the insect’s name, the forelegs, the triangular head. I’d never seen anything like it, loping around on its thin, stick-like legs inside its slippery glass prison. But only temporarily! As we pull away in the family station wagon for the trip back to East Quogue, my grandmother removes the coffee pot lid and allows the mantis to crawl out and onto the trunk of a tree. I just hope she thoroughly washed that pot before brewing her next batch of coffee!
Because the praying mantis was known for eating insect pests that damage plants, causing one to die was not only frowned upon, but subject to a fifty-dollar fine! Really? I mean, were there praying mantis police patrolling backyards and gardens – on the lookout for nasty kids killing poor defenseless bugs? Perhaps there should have been, because not since sometime in the 1970s have I seen another praying mantis. Or tiger swallowtail. Or tile-horned prionus.
Nowadays, it seems only the firefly remains as the Hamptons’ harbinger of summer. Gone are the nearly bird-size swallowtail butterflies and giant silk moths, the June bugs that used to buzz around and hit window screens like pebbles, the iridescent, impossible-to-catch tiger beetles and gravel-gray-colored grasshoppers that would dart around on dirt driveways in the afternoon heat, the once ubiquitous Japanese beetles (good riddance I suppose), and that other-worldly green predator, the praying mantis. Why? Is it the natural evolution – or de-evolution – of things? Looking around there are now houses – huge houses – where once there were fields, meadows, and vacant lots. Have big houses displaced big bugs?
On a warm Southampton morning in 2017, making the rounds in my yard, the insect population consists only of non-descript bees, flies, and the occasional cabbage butterfly. After dark it’s small moths and little, depressingly plain brown beetles that always seem to invite themselves into the house, bouncing around on the ceiling as soon as I lock the door. Like the great music of the 60s and 70s, with its catchy melodies by colorful performers, so the bugs of those decades were big, exciting, even beautiful. And like today’s music, which to my ears often seems uninspired, today’s insects – at least on the East End of Long Island – just can’t hold a candle to those of old. So…I’ll go outside now and hold a candle myself…and hope an enormous polyphemus silk moth will see it and land nearby with its magnificent, purple-eyed wings. Just hoping.