Last Saturday night, I donned my rustic attire and joined thirteen random people in the darkness of Silverado Canyon to play music and stare at bugs on a bed sheet. We found a comfortable spot between two sycamore trees along Maple Springs Road, beyond the national forest gate. Our fearless leader was Rich Schilk, an amateur entomologist, botanist, ornithologist, and volunteer naturalist.
Rich and his wife Mary, a demented fiddle player who claims that Rich impregnated her with a parasite, ran a clothesline between the trees and clipped a cheap white bed sheet and black light to the middle of the line. The sheet hung down to the ground like a movie screen with the glow of the black light in the center.
When a black light (ultraviolet light) shines on a pale reflective surface, it attracts night-flying insects, including many moths, beetles, flies, and other bugs. Many insects can see ultraviolet light, which has shorter wavelengths than light visible to the human eye.
We situated ourselves on foldable chairs, blankets, and a bed of dry leaves near the illuminated sheet.
Our musical instruments included drums, shakers, fiddles, a mandolin, and a strum stick. To kick off our bug lighting ritual, we beat our drums in an ancient tribal rhythm, droned our voices, and improvised melodies with the fiddle and mandolin. Throughout the woodland, thousands of crickets chirped in a steady chorus. Large and small flashlights and expensive camera equipment were whipped out in preparation for the ensuing spectacle on the bed sheet. Mary played some kinetic jigs, which seemed to compliment the erratic flight of various moths accumulated on the sheet.
As the night progressed, the radiant beacon of purple light grew brighter. I strummed my mandolin while my wife, Leslie, drummed in a trancelike state. More and more bugs appeared on the sheet. A line of ants marched the entire length of the clothesline. My eight-year-old daughter, her girl friend, and a young boy ignored our activities in favor of bouncing a giant rubber ball back and forth on the forest road. We continued to perform folk songs even though our instruments were barely visible in the darkness.
Meanwhile, Rich stood very close to the sheet with an almost maniacal grin. His eyes shined purple because of the reflection on his glasses. He focused intensely on the chaotic swarm of winged invertebrates with his camera ready in one hand and a specimen container in the other. As each new species landed, he excitedly called out to the rest of the group.
"There's an adult ant lion! There's a true bug!! There's a red-eyed fly!!!!"
One at a time, we put our instruments down and hastily stumbled into the light.
"Whoa, look at that one!" "What's that crazy thing?" What's crawling on your leg?!"
Our enthusiastic shouts eventually caught the attention of the kids. They noticed our shadowy figures huddled tightly to the bed sheet. They raced over and squeezed into the frenzied mass of gawking adults and bugs. At that moment, two giant leaf-like katydids flew around the kids and landed on the sheet. The kids competed for the capture of the fantastical green creatures. Then, a minor ground mantis (praying mantis) landed at the base of the sheet.
A much larger California mantis surprised everyone by landing on the back of Rich's neck. We shuffled around Rich to catch a glimpse of the strange and menacing beauty. Rich patiently held still, while we snapped some photos. The bubble eyes of the mantis appeared to scope out the swirling stream of fluttering moths. In an instant, it lunged forward with its serrated arms and snatched a moth from the air!
"Oh my god! It caught a moth!!!"
We cheered in triumph.
The disturbing and delightful carnage began. It immediately tore into the moth using its arms and mandibles.
The wide-eyed, slack jawed kids writhed with giddiness.
The mantis chewed voraciously into the head of the moth. Bits of wing and abdomen delicately fell to the ground.
"I can't believe it caught that moth right in front of us! Gross!!!"
We watched the gruesome sight with fiendish satisfaction.
Poor Rich was stuck with his head tilted forward and his camera pointed down while all the action continued on the back of his neck.
"I wish I could see what's going on and take some photos," Rich blurted in frustration.
The captivating scene finished quickly. Noticing Rich's discomfort, I gently removed the mantis from his neck and placed it on the sheet. Our attention was easily diverted to other crazy looking bugs. We leaned closer and closer to the sheet until our faces were used as landing strips by midges, moths, and other unexplained phenomenon. The tiny organisms were inundated with our protruding cell phone cameras and digital SLRs.
"Excuse me. Can I get by? Give somebody else a chance to see!"
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The rapid fire of the camera flashes reminded me of the paparazzi at a red carpet event. Maybe the mantis felt sorry for Rich because it climbed up to a perch and caught another moth right in front of him!
We cheered again. Rich swooped in with his camera and captured the "in-your-face" carnage. With proud smiles, we remarked about our fortunate involvement in a sort of mini-gladiator game. Who would of thought that a light, a bed sheet, and tiny bugs would provide as many thrills and chills as a coliseum full of desperate men and wild animals?!
Our next "Black Lighting Insects and Mountain Music Jam" will be on Saturday, October 6, from6:30PM-9PM. Full details are on our website calendar. Find Rich's Facebook photo album of bugs on our Facebook page.
Side Note: If you think I run around naked in the woods, I would like to clarify my title for the record. I am a "naturalist" (environmental educator/tour guide), not a "naturist" (outdoor nudist). However, the two titles sometimes collide when our tour participants visit an inviting hot spring in the woods. You get the picture.