Over the weekend I was reading an article in the wonderful science journal Seed. In this 2004 issue was an article about Ben Stout and Caddisflies. Well, I had never heard of either Mr. Stout or Caddisflies, but the article looked like the sort of topic that has always appealed to me. I love stories that are about some person doing what they love, doing something utterly fascinating to them, and after I read about them, uttlerly fascinating to me. It assures me that there are people out there leading authentic lives.
So first of all the article explains who Ben Stout is and what exactly are caddisflies. It turns out Ben Stout and his wife Kathy have been studying caddisflies for two decades. They are West Virginia wildlife biologists and have dedicated a good portion of their lives to caddisflies. Caddisflies, or Trichoptera ,(trich means hair, ptera means wings) are insects that build their homes out of small rocks and twigs that they glue to themselves with their own silk. They make their homes in streams and creeks.
Here is a very thorough treatise on caddisflies with a bit of trivia that I find fascinating. Apparently the word cada or cadace (caddys) was used to refere to a ribbon made from a certain kind of yarn that was sold by traveling vendors who were sometimes called "cadice men". These cadice men would attach samples of the ribbon to their clothing "a habit which may have suggested the name caddisfly or caddisworm for the aquatic larvae, who exhibit the analogous behavior of attaching bits of leaves and twigs to the outside of their cases (Hickin 1967)."
So getting back to Ben and Kathy Stout. Ben Stout was presenting a research paper on Caddisflies in New Mexico and he ran into a student who had made earrings out of caddisfly cases. Ben thought they were intriguing,but not very attractive as jewelry goes, but he purchased a pair for his wife. Later when he was touring Santa Fe he noticed beautiful Native American artwork displays and was very impressed by the use of gemstones. Ding, ding, ding!!! When Ben got home to West Virginia he told his wife."Kathy, if we can get these Caddisflies to build their cases out of gemstones we'll really have something special." The Stouts turned their garage into a simulated ecosystem and after much trial and error if finally happened-the Caddislfies began to build their cases out of gemstones.
The Stouts story can be read here.
Here is a photograph of a caddislfy emerging from an opal-encrusted cocoon. Kind of odd, but also amazing.
When I first started reading about the Stouts I thought, "Oh someone else exploiting animals/creatures for profit". I'm glad that this is a bit different.
Will I be purchasing a piece of caddisfly jewelry? I don't think so. I am very fascinated with the process, but it's sort of giving me that same uneasy feeling I get when I see an insect trapped in amber hooked on a chain around someone's neck. I know, I know, but it just gives me the creeps.