To see the world in a grain of sand*

5 06 2012

I am constantly amazed at how much life there is surrounding me—that something barely half the size of a sesame seed has such incredible detail that you can’t see without a macro lens. I was photographing Indian Pink blooms (Spigelia marilandica) at Green Spring Gardens last weekend and discovered this miniscule, yet-to-be-identified bug. I shortened and splayed out the legs of my tripod, plunked myself down in the dirt, then got settled in to examine all the angles I could photograph the slender two-inch-long tubular crimson blooms.

Stalking the miniscule
I saw this tiny white spec slowly moving along the edge of a stem and decided to follow it, moving in as close as my 105mm micro lens would allow. Magnification revealed all sorts of oddities in this little bug—a head like a spotted fish with big round eyes and a fuzzy coating, virtually no neck at all, a segmented thorax like a roly poly pill bug, followed by a cotton-candy-like burst of white fluff at the end of the body and crab-like freckled legs.


What in the world is it?
Brian, my photography mentor, said it could possibly be a larvae of a deer fly or horse fly, but without more photos with different angles, he couldn’t be sure. I looked online at larvae of various flies and don’t see anything that looks as odd as this little guy. He also said that it could be transitioning from larvae to adult stage, which makes it harder to identify.

When I moved toward it, it would hide behind the stem, so it clearly sensed my presence. To get it to move into the crook of the flower stem so I could photograph it unobstructed, I would wave my hand near it and it would move around the stem into view again. When I wasn’t looking at it through my lens, I was hard pressed to locate it—it was that small!

Learn something new every day
I learned a new word this morning, also courtesy of Brian. Entomologists have a word for unknown specs of stuff—frass. According to wikipedia, frass is the fine powdery material phytophagous (plant-eating) insects pass as waste after digesting plant parts. It causes plants to excrete chitinase due to high chitin levels, it is a natural bloom stimulant, and has high nutrient levels. Frass is known to have abundant amoeba, beneficial bacteria, and fungi content. Frass is a microbial inoculant, also known as a soil inoculant, that promotes plant health using beneficial microbes. It is a large nutrient contributor to the rainforest, and it can often be seen in leaf mines.

So, in the words of Martha Stewart: Frass…it’s a good thing!

What have I learned from this encounter?
The smallest, seemingly insignificant spec of dust or dirt may not just simply be “frass.” It just might be a live fuzzy-spotted, fish-headed, roly-poly-bodied, cotton-candy-tailed, crab-legged larvae-in-transition, making its teeny tiny way in this big old world. I also learned a new word—frass. F-r-a-s-s. Frass. And yes, I can use it in a sentence: Frass is a good thing.

Ah, my time behind the lens—never a dull moment!


* “To see the world in a grain of sand” is a line from William Blake’s poem, Auguries of Innocence. I found an enlightened explanation of the meaning of this line by an unknown author here, and wanted to share it with you:

Blake is never the easiest of poets to understand at the best of times, because he is the first by far who can justifiably lay claim to the title of symbolist poet, and as such is open to personal interpretation.

Here what he is, I think, saying is that one can find vast truths in the smallest of things—or to put it in fashionable literary terms, he’s dealing with the microcosmic as representative of the universal. So, knowledge of the whole world can be gained from examining its smallest constituent part, or later on, even such a small thing as a caged robin is an affront to both God and man—it’s a tiny thing but it’s symptomatic, and absolutely representative of the whole.

Not wanting to get too “Twilight Zone” here, but from the little I understand of today’s mathematics and physics, looking at Chaos Theory and the Mandelbrot set, Blake is indeed more literally right than he probably knew. The tiniest part of something does apparently indeed represent the entire construct, and the smallest thing can indeed have a huge effect—there’s allegedly a butterfly near Tokyo who with the flapping of its wings has a helluva lot to answer for 🙂


Ever wonder where “the butterfly effect” theory originated? Check this out here!

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