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
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
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
“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
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.
disturbing and delightful carnage began.
It immediately tore into the moth using its arms and mandibles.
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.
can't believe it caught that moth right in front of us! Gross!!!”
We watched the gruesome sight with fiendish
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
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!”
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
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, from 6:30PM-9PM. Full details are on our website calendar. Find Rich's Facebook photo album of bugs on our Facebook
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.