A lace bug, probably in an immature stage of its life. Photo by Dana Wilde

It was tiny, and it was crawling across my knee.

Its shape and gait suggested something more like a tick than a spider. But I couldn’t tell how many legs it had. Maybe an aphid. So I herded it into the nearest vial and got out my pocket magnifier.

What the heck is this?

Yet another mini-beast I had never before seen or, frankly, imagined. Its dominant feature was translucent, squared-off, winglike webbing that made it look like a Star Wars spacecraft. It was extremely busy inside the vial, scooting back and forth, up, down and around. It did not seem to be building a web and it had six legs, meaning it was an insect, not an arachnid such as a tick or spider. I took some pictures, hoping someone could ID it and verify it did not come to Earth on a meteorite from deep space.

A few summers ago while we were sitting on the deck we spotted another tiny alien-looking bug, green with some weird kind of dark helmet looming over its head like a character in a Dr. Seuss book.

A clavate tortoise beetle larva. Photo by Dana Wilde

The headgear turned out to be even stranger than I’d up to then seen or imagined. For the bug turned out to be a clavate tortoise beetle, in its larval stage, and the headgear turned out to be “frass,” which is the entomologists’ delicate word for excrement. The tortoise beetle uses a special appendage on its hind end to transfer and arrange the frass into a sort of carapace for defensive purposes — primarily camouflage rather than repellent, apparently. Plagiometriona clavata, as they’re known to the entomologists, feed on morning glories and nightshade plants such as tomatoes, both of which were growing in pots on the deck where we were sitting at the time.

Tortoise beetles are coleopterans (beetles). The tiny creature I was hoping did not come from outer space turned out to be a lace bug, which is a hemipteran, or “true bug” (e.g., stink bugs).

Lace bugs get their name from the lacy appearance of their wings, which emerge as working parts in their later instars. I think my tiny lace bug was in its adolescence, so to speak. They feed by piercing the undersides of leaves with a needle-like mouthpart and sucking out the chlorophyll and sap. Particular species of lace bugs live on particular plants, including evergreens, and occasionally an infestation of them can kill a shrub. I don’t know where my lace bug came from, or which house plant in the bay window behind me it was supposed to be eating.

I do know that there are more weird-looking creatures on the green Earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy. And who knows what else lives out there, and what it looks like, and whether it’s even made of flesh and hemolymph, or something else you can see only with your mind’s eye, in the 2 trillion galaxies west of the back deck.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His new book, “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods,” is available for pre-order from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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