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‘The gnat’s supremacy is large as thine’

At the Roan Mountain Naturalist Rally last week, Ken Kaufman, a nationally renowned expert on birds, related some of the feats of North America’s warblers.
Warblers are those beautiful, tiny birds barely one to two ounces in weight that cover 200 to 300 miles in a single night’s migration flight.
Also at the event, local naturalist Larry McDaniel demonstrated his technique for capturing a photographic record of our area’s rich diversity in night flying insects.
The study of insects was the lifelong passion of 19th century entomologist and botanist, J. Henri Fabre.
In a voluminous body of writing, he described their behavior and skill at various tasks, including finding prey or incapacitating it, building a domicile and properly outfitting it, storing and sterilizing food, and cooperative hunting or communal care-taking of the brood.
He perpetually wondered how the insect “knows by instinct what man hardly ever knows.”
Watch, as an example, his sand wasp at work. She is gripping by its neck a caterpillar, later to encase it in her burrow as food for her grubs, and methodically, in succession “drives her poisoned sting into the nerve centers of every segment” of its body.
Then she squeezes its head just enough to make the victim unconscious; a dead caterpillar wouldn’t do because it “would speedily decay and be unfit eating” for the grubs.
The skill and knowledge the wasp shows are so astounding, Fabre remarks as “would make science turn green with envy.”
The garden spider’s web demonstrates the “logarithmic spiral,” he notes, its radiating lines all forming obtuse and acute angles on opposite sides, the transverse chords all remaining constant and parallel to each other.
A work of art “like the rose-window in a church,” he muses, her construction “no designer could have drawn better with compasses.”
Butterflies’ habit of laying their eggs on only one or a very few different plants is a better guide for identifying a new plant, he attests, “than anything I could find in books.”
To this student of nature’s creative wonders in the animate world, the knowledge underlying such remarkable skills “comes from the power that rules the world.”
In humans’ longstanding belief about our place in the kingdom of life, we have held homo sapiens to have been favored by that power with the biggest brains, and with superiority rights over all other creatures.
The New Scientist magazine, in July, reviewed neurology and biology scientists’ research, including studies on insects, from several continents.
It may be “time to rethink” our notions of absolute human hegemony on brain power, the studies’ authors suggest.
It’s a hint worth taking note of.
We have much to learn from the fellow creatures and a larger degree of humility would stand us well.
Emily Dickinson thus argued in a small poem, long ago. Since death is “the common right” and “privilege” throughout creation, alike for toads and men as for earl and midge, why then, the poem asks, should man “swagger”?
Better be humble, its answer: “The gnat’s supremacy is large as thine.”