Cure-all lizards! Bulldozer ants! Voracious spiders! A high school biology class finds high drama among the creepy-crawlies.
By Blair Tindall
Find me some bugs. And make sure they have six legs!" bellows Stanford University ecologist Nate Sanders. Ten ninth-graders from East Palo Alto, California, scatter across the San Francisco peninsula grasslands, swatting each other with butterfly nets. A girl looks at her watch in misery, but two boys race off gleefully. "I got one, I got one!" yells Miguel Chavez, clad in baggy rip-stop pants, a mesh "Mexico" jersey, and a red and green bandanna stretched across his forehead. Something blue-green flails in the net as he hands it over. "Ooh, a dragonfly," says Nate, inspecting the five-inch iridescent creature through the gauze. "This guy is one of the oldest members of the whole insect world. To catch a dragonfly, that's really nice."
Miguel blushes. The insect buzzes helplessly as Nate pulls it out of the net, holding it high, explaining how its dome-shaped eyes almost wrap around its head for peripheral predator vision. He asks two girls to come closer. The taller one wrinkles her nose and recoils. "That's not close," says Nate.
Though he's 27, Nate shares their childlike fascination-though not their revulsion-with bugs. Growing up on an Arkansas farm without cable TV or video games, he was shooed outside for entertainment. Ranging through the woods in search of big adventure-mountain lions and grizzly bears-he became obsessed with the tiny, bizarre world of insects instead. As the kids look closely at the dragonfly, Nate happily watches tough teenage attitudes slip away and a whole new sense of discovery awaken, just as it had for him.
A shriek pierces the air. Hopping backward from a gnarled oak, Amber Bundy points down. "Catch it, catch it! It's a potato bug!" All bravado, Miguel rushes to her rescue, scooping up a three-inch, striped insect with threatening jaws and a large, baldish head that looks eerily human.
"We have a winner!" says Nate, holding up the burrowing insect unaccustomed to sunlight or an entomologist's affection, its spiny legs cycling in the air. "This is a Jerusalem cricket. If it were our size, this thing would belong in that bar full of aliens in Star Wars." Nate sets the cricket down, and it immediately tunnels under the dirt.
"Every single person has to catch an insect and show it to me," commands Nate. "What makes an insect an insect? Are spiders insects? They have eight legs-so do ticks. Insects have six legs and three body parts-head, thorax, and abdomen. There are about 30 million species of insects in the world, a lot more than people-you should have no trouble finding one."
Miguel is off again, chasing something big and fast a hundred feet away. Five classmates follow. "Don't worry, it doesn't bite," says Nate, catching up. He looks more closely at the lizard. "Uh-it does bite. Do you have a glove?"
Miguel and Amber see no pretty dragonflies at home in East Palo Alto. An island of poverty in Silicon Valley only five miles from Stanford University, East Palo Alto lacks even a public high school. While elaborate stucco walls hide verdant backyard gardens in Palo Alto, rusty chain-link fences guard untended patches of soil in much of East Palo Alto, its arid atmosphere of dilapidated homes and liquor stores distant from the bustle and beauty of a forest ecosystem.
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