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Nature is justly famed for inventing things long before man, or even Leonardo da Vinci, got round to it, but this chapter will reveal to us the full glory of nature’s ingenuity, coming up with everything from dice games to airline luggage. All that man has invented in the insect field is insect spray. It sometimes makes one modest to be human.

 

First World War Flying Machines

           

The biplane was invented just before the First World War and discontinued shortly afterwards, presumably because of its lack of speed or because passengers hated sitting under a wing as well as on top of one, but it has always been present in nature as the one-seater Dragonfly or Damselfly. On summer days these pleasant little flying craft can be spotted out on reconnaissance missions over enemy lines. It probably cannot see or take aerial photographs very well, but its hearing is remarkable; you only have to say, ‘Hey, look at the drag…’ and it vanishes.
             Incidentally, lack of speed might be rather useful in modern aeroplanes. Advanced  defence systems are all programmed to spot something fast approaching; a biplane would probably get through without being challenged. Still , this is  beyond the scope of the present book. The First World War Flying Machine Insect is actually more advanced than any aeroplane in one respect: it can step up production fast and cheaply by breeding. Its mating ritual is so private that it can only be seen on television.

 

The Flying Suitcase Beetle

Shiny, hard-backed luggage has recently become popular for travellers who have to protect themselves against that terrible predator, the airport employee. The same device was invented millions of years ago by the beetle to protect himself against birds. In fact, the beetle is in the position of a traveller who actually gets inside his own luggage for protection. Will things ever get so bad at Heathrow that we have to do the same? One hopes not.
            Nature, of course, is still ahead of the game. We may think that the beetle has a design fault when we see it lying on its back, apparently unable to right itself, but before we laugh we ought to think what trouble we too would have locked in our suitcase. It is the beetle who has the last laugh, though. With a convulsive click it can leap in the air and land the right way up. When I see my suitcase tossed this way and that, with the duty-free being pounded to bits inside, I wish mine could do the same.
            In addition, the flying suitcase beetle is able to come home to base through some sort of inbuilt radar that we do not fully comprehend. My suitcase shows more talent for going to Amsterdam.

Single Seat Fighters

            This seems the best description for those small flying insects which can fly and sting. Nature, again, has come up trumps by inventing aerial warfare long before man even thought of throwing stones at each other. The only thing that nature has not bothered to invent is the equivalent of bailing out by parachute, but when you have as many aircraft in the air as nature does, it doesn’t make economic sense to worry about repairs and rescue work.
            People who like identifying aircraft will enjoy spotting the different kinds of fighting insect. There is the Wasp, for instance, which will attack everything living; the Bee which refuels in mid-air from flowers but possesses only a one-strike retaliatory firepower; the Kamikaze Ant, which only flies one mission and then dies after mating in mid-air (unlike our gallant World War 11 pilots , who mated first  and then died in mid-air); and the Mosquito, which refuels in mid-air from man.
            The Mosquito, incidentally, is the only one so far as I know which makes a noise while flying. It is a high-pitched whine which cuts out abruptly before an attack on the enemy. Hitler copied this during the War, but could not call his device the Mosquito as the British Patent Laws are very strict about this sort of name-stealing, so it became know as the Doodle-bug. Why doodle-bug, though? The German for bagpipe is Dudelsack. Did Hitler think of his weapon as a sort of flying pibroch? We shall never know. The subject, in any case, is somewhat beyond the scope of this book.


Night Reconnaisance Flyers


Naturalists get very cross when beginners classify bats with birds, simply because bats can fly. I can see their point. But then I get very cross when naturalists classify bats with dolphins and dogs, simply because they have a similar warm-blooded family background. The crucial thing about a bat is that it flies crooked and is therefore closer to a lot of insects. For me, a bat is a flying insect and I will not budge from this position.
            Flying crooked is the one great invention of nature that human flying has hardly even started to copy, and yet if nuclear-armed missiles flew like anything mentioned in this chapter – dodging and crouching, weaving and bobbing – they would be unstoppable. This, too, is beyond the scope of this book, but I wish someone would do something about it.

 

The Flying Dice

flying ladybird dice
                                                                              

Another mystery that has bothered naturalists is why so-called ladybirds, of all crooked flying things, should be the only ones with clear markings like some Third World air force – bright colours and squadron recognition dots. It seemed to have occurred to none of them that this was nature’s great attempt to create an in-flight dice and board game. ‘Look, I’ve thrown a two-spot!’ you can hear nature almost saying.
            You can certainly hear me saying it sometimes. I once spent a happy afternoon in the Chilterns with some friends and a bottle of wine, playing Throw The Ladybird. I stood to win £50 in the final round and the only man who could beat me had to throw a seven-spot to creep ahead of me and scoop the jackpot. That is, unfortunately, exactly what he did.
            There is , however, no such thing as a seven–spot ladybird in nature. When we looked closer, we found that the unscrupulous wretch had secretly painted an extra blob on a six-spot.
             It is sad that a lust for money should interfere with natural selection.

Air Stewardesses

       

  There is a kind of flying insect which is so ethereal, so transiently beautiful, that it cannot bear to die old, and dies within twenty-four hours. It is sometimes referred to as the May Fly. I compare it privately to Ilse, an air stewardess I once met on a Lufthansa flight. Oh, Ilse, how perfect you were, how utterly devastating! Did you live long enough to hand out earphones on another flight, I wonder? If you did, could I have my Jack Higgins paperback some time, please?

 

The Cloud Insect

        

An insect that always flies around in clouds. A cloud of gnats, we say, or a cloud of midges. It is always the same insect. So small that it cannot even be seen unless forming a cloud. I am always reminded, when watching them, of standing on the Sussex Downs in those terrible days in 1941 and watching the clouds of Spitfires and Messerschmitts far above me. Oddly enough, I was watching a cloud of midges in my garden only two feet away, when one of them startled me by pulling out in a plume of smoke and falling to the ground at my feet, a burnt-out wreck. Amazed, I bent to have a closer look. It was a cigarette end thrown from next door.

 

Tiny Crawly Things On Leaves


           

These can easily be recognised by the fact that if you stick around for a couple of weeks watching them closely, they will suddenly turn into butterflies or other winged insects when you have taken your eyes off them for a moment, and fly off before you look back. When touched, they roll up into a tight ball. If this is their idea of avoiding being eaten, they are going about it the wrong way.
            Some of these so-called caterpillars are very hairy. Some are very smooth. Some have tiny drooping sales rep moustaches.

 

The Directionless, Unarmed, Multi-Coloured Decoy



           

The great family of butterflies and moths can be recognised by their habit of flying so crooked they even deceive themselves and always land on a place they were not aiming at. They spend the next few minutes in silent thought, trying to work out where they are and then trying to look as if they meant to be there all along.
            The fact is that nature created this charming creature simply as an experiment to see how far evasive flight could be taken. It now knows the answer: too far. There is nothing in nature that can fly crooked enough to catch a butterfly. What this means is that nature has created a weapons system that can never be stopped and can never hit the target. It is a humbling thought.
            It also means that if butterflies flew straight, they would now be extinct. Perhaps there used to be a great family of straight-flying butterflies which did become extinct.

 

Fly

         Anything not contained in the above is a fly.

Nature Made Ridiculously Simple 1983

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