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The Scrivener: Multi-legged Beasties

Brian Barratt tells of encounters with creepy-crawly-wriggly creatures.

Winnie the Cake Fly was a visitor during my childhood in England in the 1940s. She appeared in the dining room during the cold winter when flies were not supposed to appear. And she seemed to join us only when my mother had cooked one of her delicious war-time-economy eggless fruit cakes. If the truth be told, of course, we did see a fly buzzing around only a couple of times during the winter, but we gave her a name and built a legend around her: whenever Ma makes fruit cake, Winnie will appear.

Something else appeared, and was more worrying (to me). In the warm summer months — July and August were warm in England in days of yore — I was allowed to erect a small tent, with two wooden poles, on the lawn. The lovely natural aroma of warm, perhaps slightly damp, grass soon pervaded the interior. My pal and I used it to play pirates, explorers, all sorts, even pilots, but I can't recall how we imagined the tent to be an aeroplane. Then again, there are no limits to a child's imagination if it is allowed to roam free. Maybe that doesn't happen very often nowadays.

In the tightly stretched narrow space where the tapered tent pole went though a reinforced hole in the cotton fabric, at the top, I sometimes saw one or two earwigs. They looked nasty, wriggled threateningly, and, I believed at the time, would get inside my ears if I didn't take care. That is nonsense, of course. Earwigs do not eat your brains. But unimaginative play does.

Wriggly multi-legged beasties surround us. I've had to deal with dangerous redback spiders which lurked beneath rocks in my garden; well nigh saucer-sized hairy Huntsman spiders which joined me, unwelcome, in the car; a wild African bee which stung my eyelid and put me in bed for several days; benign Cicadas which deafened us to distraction on certain auspicious (for them) days here in Melbourne. And I once lifted a rock in my back garden and found an extraordinary creature hidden beneath it: a mole cricket.

One of the most interesting, and certainly more friendly, encounters was with a dung beetle. Just the one. It was doing what dung beetles do, on the rocky slope near a river in central Africa — rolling its prized sphere of dung, backwards, in a dead straight line up the incline. These remarkable creatures are said, variously, to be able to push up to 10 or 50 times their own weight. They insist on proceeding in a straight line regardless of obstacles along the way. Scientists are still working out how they navigate, perhaps by the stars, the sun, the Milky Way, or something we mere humans cannot see in daylight.

Did you know that dung beetles have a sacred place in ancient myth? This is from Encyclopædia Britannica:
The sacred scarab of ancient Egypt (Scarabaeus sacer), found in many paintings and jewelry, is a dung beetle. Egyptian cosmogony includes the scarab beetle rolling its ball of dung with the ball representing the Earth and the beetle the Sun. The six legs, each with five segments (total 30), represent the 30 days of each month (actually, this species has only four segments per leg, but closely related ones do have five). An interesting member of this subfamily is the Australian Macrocopris symbioticus, which lives in the anus of the wallaby.

The beautiful, very clever and very funny TV series 'Minuscule' also features a dung beetle as one of its star characters:
The beetle is monomaniac, ultra stubborn. He has one thing in mind: to push dung and preferably that of others.

Distinguishing feature: He has a big snitch that he uses to find balls of dung larger than his own.

Another encounter of the wriggly kind was with a chongololo. A what? I hear you cry. A chongololo is a giant African millipede. They grow up to about 30cm in length. I saw a few when I lived 55 years ago in the lovely country now called Zimbabwe. In spite of the name, which means 'a thousand legs', millipedes do not have 1,000 legs. They can have less than 300, and the African giant has over 400. Long, black and shiny, they certainly look unusual but they are not frightening. Indeed, people keep them as pets. But people can be stranger than creepy crawlies. I had a friend in Africa who kept a venomous spider as a pet... until it bit him.

Come to think of it, perhaps we should have adopted Winnie as our pet. She could have curled up on my lap on those cold winter evenings.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2013.

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