After our trip, I do my research. I make a call to Coconino National Forest, home of Humphreys Peak. I ask, “What’s with the gnats?”
The woman who answers the telephone says, “I’ve never heard of gnats on the summit. I have no idea.” She connects me with Pat in Recreation & Wilderness to see what he knows.
++click, click++ “Hi Pat. What’s with the gnats?”
Pat says, “I’ve heard of the gnats on the summit but I have no idea.”
Let’s take a different approach. I call the University. I can ask for Entomology, or the Department of Annoying Insects.
Looking for the appropriate Professor Of Gnats on the website for Northern Arizona University I find these areas of study, comments are mine…
Pathogen evolution, disease ecology
— could be fascinating
Plant reproductive development
— I know what this is
Microbial fuel cells
— can’t imagine, but sounds promising
Genetic and ultrastructural analysis of development in microbes
Biology of fishes
— I love it!
Plant-mycorrhizal-herbivore interactions in semi-arid environments
— now you’re just making shit up
People have doctorates in this stuff! They are the experts, which means they know more about Phylogenetic Systematics of Ribes and Cirsium, or whatever, than just about anybody else on Earth.
Years ago, I worked with a guy who, in his academic job, claimed to be the world’s leading expert on penile stimulation in the Rattus norvcegicus. Or in other words, he was trying to figure out why lab rats get hard-ons. I never asked him another question about his work at the University.
In fact, I’ve resigned myself to the idea that, no matter what I do in this lifetime, no matter how much research I do, there will always be mystery. The gnats, unlike the lustful rats, were of interest to me, but from what I was able to find, as you will see, the gnats will be one of these mysteries. Watch what happens next.
From the department list, I pick one guy whose area of expertise seems closest to gnats, call him and find myself lucky enough that we have a lively conversation. Dr Stefan Sommer is on the faculty of the University there and is director, producer, moderator and advisor of a whole bunch of egghead activities. If anyone knows, it’s gonna be him.
I ask Dr Sommer, “What’s with the gnats?”
We go back and forth but this is the gist of his response. “…It may be that the gnats were ‘hill topping.’ Many insect species will fly to the highest point in the landscape as a way of finding mates. I have seen this kind of accumulation of gnats on ridges bordering canyons.
“Did you collect any of these gnats?” he asks me. “Do you have any idea what species they might be?”
Species? Gnats have species? I thought this was one of nature’s tautologies: Gnats is gnats.
“No,” I tell Dr Sommer. “I don’t collect samples. I collect high points.” He is delighted by this idea.
I send him some photographs, including this one of the gnats on a hat. Hmm, sounds like Dr Seuss.
Dr Sommer responds. “Sorry, I can’t really tell who they are at the scale of your pictures…. I would guess from their gestalt that they are probably not gnats, but true bugs instead. That would make more sense in terms of their location too. It would be a long way to go for gnats since their larvae are aquatic.”
“The bugs are mostly plant suckers so they might be ‘hill topping” from a more local origin on the slopes or meadows below the peaks…. These are my best guesses.”
He sends more info and this, I suppose, is where Dr Sommer particularly shines: “Here are some images of ‘true bugs.’ True bugs are insects belonging to the orders Hemiptera and Homoptera. The four species of bugs below…” He sends me more photos of these beasties. And now I gotta tell you, he goes on with the Hemiptera and Homoptera, Miridae (part of the order Hemiptera), Mirids and more Homoptera, and he throws in a few Diptera, and oh my!
But heck, I knew all this. You didn’t?
He includes an image of thousands of ladybugs clinging to a tree. Had nothing to do with my gnats but it was an awesome picture. He explained how the ladybugs are hill topping and that “ladybugs are actually a type of beetle and are not bugs at all,” and that “beetles all belong to the order Coleoptera…”
Yes, yes, of course.
To be a true bug, you’ve got to have a certain structure of proboscis and mouth, the type that allows you to pierce and suck. (I dated a girl like that once.) He throws in more information about sucking fluids from plants, feeding on animals, the shape and form of various proboscises working like a juice straw. Also honeybees and butterflies. Uh-huh. I told you we had a lively conversation.
I go to an on-line insect identification site and click on Arizona. There I find 140 species, but none look like our gnats. In fact, the more I look over the list and photos of true bugs, and at Dr Sommer’s photos, and the on-line photos of gnats and my own photos of these little winged suckers on our hats, the more convinced I become: aquatic larvae or not, these are gnats. And… They are hill topping. So are we, only we call it Highpointing.