Outer Wear

Outer wear – it’s the designation given to a certain type of couture dominated by such brands as The North Face, Patagonia and L.L. Bean. Think parkas, insulated bibs, boots and gloves and you’ll know the kind of manufactured protection I am thinking of. Meant to help us survive the harsher environments of winter, if we are dumb enough to think of blizzards as playgrounds, outer wear still must submit to the same trendy rules as anything else in the way of decorative clothing. To be seen in the latest fav brand is oh so chic, while sporting last year’s model, which is doable because of its durability, is to advertise that your sense of styling in outer wear is outdated.

Then there is Under Armor. This is a brand name, but it is also a misnomer. Under Armor is still a type of outer wear, this one specializing in the proper attire for the more sensible fair weather sports; the ones that do not require an insulated jock in order to survive the elements. Tops, bottoms, shoes and everything in between can be found in their catalogue. And while the clothing brand may not make you the best athlete, you still might be the best eye-catcher on the court, links, bike path or diamond. Of course it helps to already have the desired physique on display underneath the latest glam treatment in sportswear. (Let’s face it, if this was just about functionality, you would still look like you had just suited up for your high school gym class).

When it comes to the best outer wear, however, we are millennia behind the ones who have modeled it best – insects. This week’s lesson in the master gardener program I am attending is entitled Entomology, which is the educated way of saying the study of these little beasts. Informed estimates place the current number of species at more than one million around the world, which is a rather intimidating number when you must pass a final exam in order to earn your certificate as a master of the garden. Still, there is some reprieve from buggy oppression in the fact that there are merely a hundred thousand species in North America and even far fewer in residence here in Wisconsin.

Our goal in our study of insects is to learn how to manage our shared place on this planet. For the home gardener this means mostly coping with them since 99% of insects do no harm to the garden. Therefore the humane thing for us to do in return is little or nothing in a managed, peaceful coexistence for the benefit of both our tribes. Intervention strategies addressing the remaining one percent, however, is necessary and calls for a surgical precision worthy of any special ops force on a mission of death or extraction. And this brings us back to the topic of outer wear.

An insect’s skeleton is on the outside of its body. Called an exoskeleton it is essentially a hard outer shell, which serves many purposes. It is in truth its outer armor. It protects them from their adversaries, prevents them from dehydrating, and allows oxygen to be absorbed into the body through tiny holes called spiracles. It also keeps them small by confining their growth. Despite what those really cool sci-fi movies of the 50s showed us with their terrifying scenes of giant grasshoppers, ants and other mutant ninja insects, these little guys are destined to stay small. Their outer wear defines the outer limits of their ability to grow. But like they care! Insects preceded and outlasted the large lizards we call dinosaurs. So maybe in the claim that size matters, diminution has proven to be the preferable condition after all.

What does matter in the lawn and garden wars on the home front is how to protect our most precious plants from the ravages of the one percent of the insect world. Not that we are necessarily bug-o-phobic. But for those of us who do want to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of our labors, or to see our flowers bloom with the coming out beauty of any debutante, some means of intervention must be employed and that is where knowing about the insect’s outer wear, as well as the design of its mouth and method of eating, is of value.

Insects do have an Achilles heel, or should I say heels since they have three pairs of jointed legs? The protection of their exoskeleton can be compromised by using an insecticide soap or oil that plugs those spiracles through which they get oxygen, causing them to suffocate. Other insecticides are lethal when ingested proving that even with insects gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. They are even vulnerable due to their sexual proclivities, but, then again, who isn’t?

Bottom line, when all else fails, we can simply crush the little beggars. We are, after all, far larger and stronger than they are. And there is a simple delight, even if it is puerile in nature, in hearing their little bodies crackle under the vice-like grip of their homo sapien adversaries. Being born with the outer wear of a natural body armor has its advantages. But having an opposable thumb is even better.

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