The Best Australian Science Writing 2012

The Best Australian Science Writing 2012 by Elizabeth Finkel Read Free Book Online

Book: The Best Australian Science Writing 2012 by Elizabeth Finkel Read Free Book Online
Authors: Elizabeth Finkel
precision of expert cake decorators, and the nets sweep so quickly that the unsuspecting insects don’t stand a chance.
    After a suitable number of sweeps, the bottom of the net is held up to the light to inspect the captured prize. If the sweepis successful, scientists carefully extract the captured insects by gently sucking them into a plastic tube for easier identification.
    The entomologists’ capture techniques don’t stop at sweeping nets. Soon after I met up with them, we got back into our 4WDs and travelled to an old decommissioned well shaft, its rusting windmill collapsed and lying ruined beside it.
    After removing two of the railway sleepers sealing the top, entomologist Remko Leijs, from the South Australian Museum, lowered a weighted netting cone with a sample pot into the shaft and its still, stagnant water.
    Then slowly, hand over hand, he retrieved the cone from the well floor with the water sample, some dirt and – hopefully – some subterranean insect life inside.
    Whether in the air, perching on plants or swimming in water metres below, it seems there was no hiding from these determined scientists.
    * * * * *
    Just when I thought I’d seen the full extent of insect hunting, I arrived back at sunset to the homestead to encounter a set-up that resembled a strange ritualistic altar.
    In a disused shed, a white sheet hung from a beam, weighted down with stones. Three tree branches were crudely knotted together in a teepee fashion, and hanging from these crossed limbs was a huge light bulb.
    That’s when I was introduced to ‘the bug man’, Andy Young. Young, an entomologist from Kangaroo Island contracted by the South Australian Museum, offered to take me out to ‘the sheet’ later that night to show me how it’s used.
    â€˜Come as you are, no cologne or Aerogard,’ he insisted. In this area, not wearing insect repellent is like walking naked and defenceless.
    For the next hour, as we prepared, I heard murmurs about just how amazing – and gross – this experience could be. Still, even I, who rate The Silence of the Lambs as a favourite film, was psychologically unequipped.
    As we approached the sheet, I saw Young lying on the ground, closely scanning the thousands of insects now on the sheet: they’d been attracted by the warmth and UV rays emitted by the only light in the dark night sky. I saw his eyes dart across the area my feet were about to land on and I stopped dead in my tracks, realising I might be about crush some of his prized specimens.
    Stock-still a metre behind him, I was close enough to watch as moths, flying ants, wasps – and too many other bugs to classify – dropped from the sheet onto Young’s head, shoulders and everywhere else, and began their trek to any warm dark hiding place: the back of his neck, under his shirt, and around the folds of his ear.
    I was so mesmerised watching Young being covered in insects that I hardly noticed something land on my eyebrow, then dart into the corner of my eye, trying to burrow into my head.
    I flicked it away and instinctively proceeded to swat my forearms a few times to remove the critters that were now crawling all over me.
    Standing there with no insect repellent and thousands of bugs flying in and around me, and on me, crawling towards the light, I felt waves of skin-crawling goosebumps dancing across my skin.
    Something wriggled through my armpit, while something else slithered upwards along the back of my thigh. I watched as, nearby, an entomology student stood in shock, mouth open (and in my mind I screamed, ‘Quick, shut your mouth!’).
    I knew I needed to let the bugs roam over my body in order to get good pictures. So I blocked out what was occurring on thesurface of my skin for more than an hour, until Young finally, blessedly, decided he had enough samples.
    He invited me to return to his classifying desk and watch him process the findings. The light

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