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Lime or linden?

Languages are weird. All of them. That's because they were not invented or created. They evolved. Evolution never produces anything that is truly simple, perfectly designed and unambiguous. Nature's a mess, which, of course, is exactly what makes it so interesting. While biologists decry the ongoing human-induced loss of biodiversity, linguists bemoan the annihilation of natural languages we are witnessing today. Obviously, both mass extinctions are closely related. Charles Darwin, rather characteristically, was the first to note the analogy between the origin of species and that of human languages. But while he would almost certainly have deplored the current sharp drop in biodiversity, he might very well have welcomed the recent extinction of hundreds of languages that were still alive and kicking at the time of his circumnavigation of the globe. He was into barnacles, finches, worms, orchids and carnivorous plants. Not into languages, which may explain why he missed Gregor Mendel's paper Experiments on Plant Hybridization that would eventually revolutionize biology and prove Darwin right. Not only did Mendel write his groundbreaking paper in German, it also had lots of mathematics, another language that Darwin wasn't exactly fluent in. He hated it. According to some estimates, no less than 90 percent of today's 7,000 living languages are endangered and may well become extinct before the end of the century. English, of course, won't be one of them. It is the first language of over 350 million people, surpassed only by Spanish and Standard
Chinese. Add in all non-native speakers, and English may well be the most widely spoken language worldwide. Superseding German, French and Latin, it has certainly become the lingua franca of science. Darwin would have been pleased, but I for one have serious misgivings. Of the four languages that I've learned to read and write, if not necessarily speak, English is by far the weirdest. It lacks clarity, sobriety, precision and austerity. Deeply impressed by the genius of Shakespeare and the like, Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot praised English for its
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Fully grown caterpillar of the lime hawk-moth, looking for a place to pupate.

poetic qualities, but thought French was better suited for scientific writing. They would, wouldn't they? Of course, 18th century French was nothing like the gibberish produced by 20th century post-structuralists and other self proclaimed geniuses that earned contemporary French philosophy such a bad reputation, especially in scientific circles. Anyway, the magnificent creature in the photograph is a fully grown caterpillar of Mimas tiliae, one of the many hawk-moths named after its favourite host plant. In French, German and Dutch it is commonly and unambiguously known as, respectively, le sphinx du tilleul, der Lindenschwärmer and de lindepijlstaart. These are good, solid names, making it perfectly clear that the species involved is a hawk-moth that has a special relation with trees of the genus Tilia. In the British Isles, these are commonly known as lime trees. In the rest of the English-speaking world, however, they are usually called linden or basswood trees. In fact, to the vast majority of both native and non-native speakers of English, lime trees are mainly plants of the genus Citrus that produce – wait for it – limes. Stands to reason, doesn't it? Meanwhile, Mimas tiliae is stuck with an English common name that is about as confusing as black pudding: The caterpillars of the lime hawk-moth may be lime green – they only turn purplish when they are about to pupate – but they certainly do not have a sweet tooth for the leaves of any kind of citrus tree. So why not simply call it the linden hawk-moth? Because that's not how languages work. They are messy, all of them, and English in particular. Which, of course, is exactly what makes it so bloody interesting.
Phyllobius or Polydrusus?

There are many more or less sensible ways to classify life on Earth. I happen to prefer the scientific approach that reflects the origin and evolution of species. It works rather well and has the additional advantage of being largely impervious to ephemeral fads and flimsy, frivolous beliefs. Most non-human animals, however, stick to an entirely different and far simpler classification: Us and them, with them being further divided into them that we eat, them that eat us and them that us don't really care about. Come to think of it, before domesticated species, pets and dietary taboos complicated matters, this may well have been how Homo sapiens classified nature too. In fact, from what I gather, some of my fellow human beings basically still do. Amazingly, to differentiate between us and them, non-human animals do not need field guides, identification keys, magnifying glasses, stereo microscopes or DNA sequencing. Considering they have no access to either mirrors or selfies, it is almost uncanny how they instantly and infallibly recognize members of their own species. Quite a feat, especially since so many animals share their habitat with look-alikes that, in the field, will fool even the trained eye of an expert. However basic, they appear to have at least some sense of self. Take, for instance, broad-nosed weevils of the genera Phyllobius and Polydrusus.
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This specimen of Polydrusus sericeus illustrates the hallmarks of its genus: conspicuous scrobes, smooth femora and antennal insertion points that are not visible from above.

Many of these beetles are not only easily confused with species of their own genus, but also with some that belong to the other one. A good case in point is Polydrusus sericeus, known as the green immigrant leaf weevil in the United States and Canada, where it was introduced from Europe. At first, second and more often than not third sight too, it is the spitting image of several Phyllobius species, such as P. pomaceus (green nettle weevil) and P. argentatus (silver-green leaf weevil). As a result, on the World Wide Web, many if not most alleged illustrations of Polydrusus sericeus are in
fact illustrations of a Phyllobius species and vice versa. Once you get the hang of it, however, these metallic-green beetles are in fact relatively easy to identify, at least to genus level. For one, in Phyllobius species, the scrobes in which the elbowed antennae can fold back (in the photograph, the black groove between eye and snout) are almost never clearly visible. They do not stand out. Most Phyllobius species also have a prominent tooth or thorn on the underside of the femur or thigh of their forelegs (and sometimes that of other legs too). This femoral tooth is always missing in Polydrusus species. Still in doubt? In Polydrusus species, the antennal insertion points are located on the sides of the snout and therefore invisible from above. In all Phyllobius species, however, they are right on top of the snout. From above, it's as if you are looking straight up their nostrils. The difference is striking and conclusive. Naturally, I would have loved to illustrate all of this with a couple of photographs. To date, however, I haven't observed even a single Phyllobius in the garden. Though highly unlikely, it is not impossible that the genus is simply not represented. Only time will tell*.

* Time did tell. In April 2012, I finally observed and photographed a weevil in the garden that was clearly not a Polydrusus species. It turned out to be Phyllobius pyri, the common leaf weevil. In one of the rather poor photographs, the femoral tooth is just visible. But the inconspicuous scrobes and, especially, the antennal insertion points on top of the snout are dead giveaways.
The miracle of Moerbeke

Due to various circumstances – none of which, two years after the event, I remember or care to recall – I was prevented from observing Mrs Five Legs for an entire week. To my utter surprise, seventeen days after my first encounter with the severely handicapped heroine of Episode 2, I discovered a wasp spider with the usual two times four legs happily sitting in Mrs Five Legs' web. Mystifying, for wasp spiders are dedicated stay-at-homes that will often spend the entire summer upside down smack in the middle of the same old, durably built wheel web. Unlike cross orb-weavers, they do not almost daily build a new web, but only undertake the necessary remedial work.
Could it be that an antisocial, unscrupulous fellow spider being had taken possession of Mrs Five Legs' residential parking space for the disabled? As it turned out later, that's exactly what happened, but more about that in the next episode. At the time, I did not know that, except for species that have a life span of several years, such as tarantulas, adult spiders do not moult and basically stop growing. The combination of my ignorance and my awareness that (young) spiders are able to regenerate lost limbs, deceived me into believing that, in my absence, Mrs Five Legs miraculously acquired three brand new legs. In my enthusiasm, I even convinced myself that her regenerated limbs were slightly shorter than their original counterparts. From the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot to phrenological math or language bumps, intelligent design or the therapeutic value of psychoanalysis: one sees what one wants to see. Discovering that you are not immune to this, can be both disconcerting and chastening. It certainly counsels caution, at least for a while. Before you know it, of course, you will once again fool yourself into believing something outlandish. It is, to say it with the title of one of Nietzsche's books and, while I'm at it, in the language of Goethe Menschliches, Allzumenschliches. Considering that a fair dose of self-delusion is often a vital necessity and by and large tolerably innocent, I usually find this defect more endearing or amusing than reprehensible or depressing. It more often makes me smile or laugh than curse or weep. In the end, it all depends on the consequences for yourself and the rest of the world. The fact that, for a day or two, I was convinced that a
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The short 'legs' on the spider's head are called pedipalps. They function as taste and smell organs. When mating, males also use them to transfer sperm.

wasp spider can regenerate three legs in barely a week's time, did not cause material damage to either myself or my fellow men. True, by rashly revealing the miracle of Moerbeke* on an Internet forum, I made myself look like a complete idiot. But, except for my ego, nothing or no one was hurt. If, tomorrow, I happen upon a wheel web with a moonwalking wasp spider looking like Michael Jackson, announcing the end of the world in perfect Oxbridge English, I shall share my discovery with the rest of the world only after a thorough, interdisciplinary enquiry by a team of esteemed Nobel Prize winners, competent illusionists and shrewd, sagacious sceptics. That's a promise!

* Moerbeke is a formerly independent municipality in the south of East Flanders. In 1977 it became part of the city of Geraardsbergen. It is the birthplace of William of Moerbeke, the 13th-century Dominican who, at the request of Thomas Aquinas, undertook a complete translation of the works of Aristotle from Greek into Latin.
True colours or masquerade?

What do most famous last words and other quotations have in common? The fact that they were never expressed, at least not by the individuals they are attributed to. This is almost certainly true of the most cited witticism of Pierre-Simon de Laplace, the distinguished French mathematician and physicist. When Napoleon Bonaparte pointed out to him that his book on the system of the universe did not even once mention God, he allegedly replied: "Citizen First Consul, I had no need of that hypothesis." Apocryphal or nor, except for a handful of mainly American muttonheads, all contemporary biologists endorse that statement. To explain the origin and evolution of species, the existence of God is indeed a superfluous and in many respects even incongruous hypothesis. Prior to 1859, the year Darwin and Wallace presented their theory of evolution by natural selection, most biologists or naturalists
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Does the spotted longhorn impersonate a wasp? Perhaps, but to assume that without question…

saw the hand of God in just about everything. They were deeply impressed by the diversity of creation and the ostensible perfection of nature. Every species was a perpetual, sublimely designed cog that perfectly fitted the cosmological hourglass fabricated by the Great Watchmaker in the Sky. Nature was, basically, one giant argument for the existence of God. To this day, a somewhat weakened version of that obsolete view is still widely popular, whether or not disguised as intelligent design or a naive, rather romantic perception of the concept of ecological equilibrium. Modern
biologists, however, are no longer fooled by the apparent perfection of life on planet Earth. The ingenious, purposeful engineer of their predecessors turned into a harebrained, short-sighted bungler called natural selection, obviously just soldiering on with whatever comes along. Though I totally agree, I am frequently somewhat annoyed by how readily some evolutionary biologists see the hand of this clumsy, every so often unwittingly inventive do-it-yourselfer in the external features of specific species. Whenever a completely harmless creature slightly resembles a far less innocent species, they shout in unison: "Mimicry!" There is, of course, no doubt that even the slightest resemblance to a dangerous, nasty or venomous species can be advantageous and favoured by natural selection. Still, I have a strong suspicion that some examples of mimicry that keep turning up in the literature say more about
the unbridled imagination of my fellow human beings than about the true impact of natural selection on other species. Do the black and yellow patterns on the elytra of the spotted longhorn beetle and the wasp beetle or the abdomen of the wasp spider truly illustrate mimicry? Are their respective predators really so easily and persistently fooled? It is quite possible, but in some cases it seems so unlikely that I'll only believe it when it is experimentally demonstrated. Who knows, perhaps the genes or networks of genes that happen to be responsible for the black and yellow patterns of aggressive,
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To my eyes, the wasp beetle looks far more like a wasp than the spotted longhorn does. But would its predators agree?

stinging wasps are so advantageous that, over time, they evolved in numerous other arthropods too. Not because of those black and yellow patterns, but because they were favoured by natural selection for an invisible, as yet unknown reason. After all, and in spite of all Atlantis baloney, the fact that both ancient Egyptians and Aztecs built pyramids does not imply that they made contact and that one imitated the other. Without recourse to modern materials and machines, pyramids are simply the easiest way to build high, yet extremely stable constructions. Sooner or later, even a hopeless klutz may pick up on that and get carried away. Eureka!
Three men and a lady

Even though I'm not Irish, I am a born potato eater and proud of it. From time to time, I do indulge in exotic oddities like rice, pasta, couscous or even polenta. At home, however, I put potatoes on the table most every day. Boiled, steamed, baked, au gratin, fried, roasted, mashed or en papillote: my beloved spouse and I are wild about them. As far as I'm concerned, the European Middle Ages did not end with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 or the discovery of America in 1492. It was the introduction op the humble potato in 1536 that heralded the modern era. Consequently, it really aggravates me that, in my part of the world, the popularity of this savoury, versatile, low-calorie and yet exceedingly nutritious and high-fibre tuber from the Andes is waning. Of course, self-proclaimed diet gurus, hyped by women's magazines and lifestyle TV shows, have been putting potatoes in a bad light for decades. May the Grim Reaper swiftly take them away and make them choke on their own hot air for all eternity. But perhaps even more deterring is the simple fact that the noble potato comes in a neat jacket. You have to peel
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While two green dock beetles fight for a female…

it, at least when it concerns a somewhat older specimen. This takes time – a precious commodity that seems to have become so scarce that fewer and fewer people are inclined to waste it on peeling potatoes – and some effort. I don't mind one bit. I hardly ever buy my potatoes at the greengrocer's or in the supermarket. I get them from Ernest and Georgette, my agricultural neighbours from just across the street. A 25 kilo bag of glorious potatoes costs me between five and ten euros, depending on the harvest and the season. At the baker's, these days that will buy you at most two or
four 800 gram loaves. My favourite potato dish has to be mashed potatoes and sorrel. Sorrel or spinach dock is one of those old, so-called forgotten vegetables that are becoming fashionable again. Years ago, I planted maiden sorrel or mountain dock in the kitchen garden. Since my Rumex montanus never flowers, from early spring to late autumn it produces huge quantities of tasty fresh green leaves. Unfortunately, the green dock beetle, a tiny creature with metallic green elytra, is fond of them too. Once my wife has harvested, stewed and preserved enough sorrel to see us through the winter, I let the shiny beetles and their gluttonous larvae have their way. How I adore observing them! Top left in the photo, a male is riding a female, her swollen abdomen chock full of eggs. While he assiduously acquits himself of his duty, she jauntily trots along. When a rival turns up, however, tension rises and a paw-to-paw fight is imminent. Poor Mr green dock beetle is unseated and a Herculean clash ensues. Meanwhile, a proverbial third dog mounts the female and runs away with her. That'll teach 'em!
Lolitas in the orchard

Like all beetles, green dock beetles are holometabolous. Their eggs produce larvae that moult, grow and eventually pupate. Like the caterpillars of butterflies, they go through a complete metamorphosis. Bugs, like the dock bug, are hemimetabolous. Their eggs produce tiny bugs called nymphs that increasingly resemble their parents after each moult. The nymphs of the dock bug go through five incomplete metamorphoses. While the green dock beetles and their larvae devour the maiden sorrel in my vegetable garden, the dock bugs and their nymphs clearly prefer the several species of wild dock in the orchard. Even the rhubarb, another member of the knotweed family, can hardly seduce them. More often than not, the nymphs of bugs and dragonflies look like a cross between Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and a parasitic monster from the movie Alien. They are, to most
human eyes, ugly as hell. That's funny, because in Greek mythology, nymphs are always alluring, more or less divine young ladies with an overdose of sex appeal. Google nymph – images, and you will see far more attractive naked damsels than somewhat repulsive young insects. But be careful: before you know it, you may well end up on a site featuring legal or illegal, more or less compromising images and movies of so-called lolitas. Once upon a time, Lolita was simply a hypocorism of Dolores, the real name of the title character of Vladimir
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In the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat, dock bugs can be observed almost all year round.

Nabokov's 1955 scandalous novel. Nabokov wasn't just an accomplished writer. He was also a highly respected lepidopterist. The genus Nabokovia and several butterfly species, such as Madeleinea lolita, are named after him or characters from his novels. Obviously, Nabokov knew perfectly well that the nymphs of bugs and other hemimetabolous insects are usually anything but delightful sweetie pies. In English, however, the language in which he wrote Lolita, the pupa of a butterfly or chrysalis is sometimes called a nymph or nympha too. So when the main character calls the twelve-year-old lassie he is obsessed with a nymphet, he is not referring to the several nymphal stages or instars of hemimetabolous insects, but to the pupae of butterflies and the nymphs of ancient Greece. The novel certainly saw to it that, today, in many languages, including English, sexually precocious,
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From above, the difference is striking, but in profile the final instar of the dock bug already looks almost exactly like an adult specimen.

lascivious teenage girls are known as lolitas. My edition of the Dikke Van Dale, the most authoritative Dutch dictionary, defines a lolita as "a (pre)puberty girl (10-14 years) as the object and subject of sexual feelings and experiences". According to the same dictionary, adults that find themselves attracted to lolitas have a lolita complex. In Japanese, the term is contracted to lolicon and refers not only to the complex in question, but also to people that suffer from it and to comics and cartoons featuring lolitas. Google lolicon – images and you'll see what that's all about. Funny fellows, those
Japanese? Surf to just about any porn site, type in the search term "lolita", and you'll soon find out that the phenomenon is not confined to the Land of the Rising Sun. Fortunately, most lolitas concerned are actually adult women with Pippi Longstocking braids, dressed in fake school uniforms with checked skirts that are way too short. Though it doesn't make me jump for joy and begs reflection, basically, there's nothing wrong with that. Anyway, who am I to judge? After all, the fact that my imagination is more stimulated by the juvenile bugs in the orchard than by the real or make-believe lolitas on the World Wide Web, is clearly an aberration too. I have, better own up to it, a nymph complex.
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Geraardsbergen, 8 August 2012.
Latest revision: 29 November 2016.