Black Lights Matter

As we pulled down the driveway that led up to the Darling House in Harlingen, which was to be our home away from home for the next few days, the sun was setting to our west, bathing the lower Rio Grande Valley in the dusky hue of late evening. A waxing crescent moon was still nowhere in sight, but the shadows of the pecan and live oak trees had fallen in long, accentuated slants across the yard, and the resident harvester ants were scurrying about our feet, wrapping up another hard day’s work of lawn maintenance and seed gathering. All about us the day life was winding down to make way for the night crew, and I had been anticipating our arrival at an early enough hour that I could set up my ultraviolet lights to advertise for nocturnal flying invertebrates.

The word “vacation” is a broad term. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as ‘an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.’

In that context is where my wife and I possess different opinions. I tend to focus on the ‘away from home or in traveling’ part, while she places emphasis on “recreation.” The term “recreation” refers to ‘activity done for enjoyment when one is not working.’ Just how my ‘vacation’ can provide ‘recreation’ (aka enjoyment) in the form of setting up massive lighting systems to attract bugs (the construction of which often takes an hour or more to build), then getting up every half hour throughout the night to see what has shown up, then getting up early the next morning before the birds pick the sheets clean before tearing the whole thing down, only to repeat the process nightly for the duration of our stay, is beyond her. Tedious, time-consuming, and monomaniacal, she would likely agree with. But recreational? Hardly. Nevertheless, we had arrived later than I had expected, and what should have been my chance to finally relax and unwind after a ten-hour drive south to the Valley had now turned into a high-speed, nervous rush to get everything set up as quickly as possible. So while Michael put on some 9:00 coffee, I dug through the back packs and duffel bags and suitcases like a madman, searching for tools and other items necessary to employ this oft-used strategy in the world of entomological eccentrics.

Things went wrong from the start, as they tend to do whenever I get in a hurry. I misplaced the flashlights, the clothes pins for the sheets, and then the wrenches I needed to get the framework connected. After all this had finally been found, I was faced with the task of selecting a choice locality in which to place the sheets. The wind was blowing, seemingly from every direction at once, which caused the white bedsheet I was trying to fasten to the frame to flap like a sail. I tried to pin one up to the clothesline, draping the blacklight over the top, but then it bumped against the vibrating sheet. The cord was about three inches too short, and couldn’t be stretched a millimeter. I had a fifty foot extension cord, but it was reserved for my new 275 watt mercury vapor lamp. So I just hung it like it was and ran a loop of wire through the cloth in the sheet’s center, then tied it back to a nail that was protruding from the exterior wall of the back deck. This left the light to dangle freely about a foot away from the sheet, illuminating it ideally.

Mercury vapor light setup on the veranda of the Darling House

Feeling like the MacGyver of bug nerds, I then proceeded to the mercury vapor light, which held in store for me its own can of woeful worms. I got the framework set up quickly enough, even with the aide of a hand-held flashlight and a motion light that kept going out just about the time I would get a grip on the next bolt. But then the extension cord was too short for where I wanted to set it up. It seemed that every good place that would successfully buffet the sheet from the wind would hide the light behind a bunch of foliage, or would be too close to competing lights shining out through the windows of the house. But by this time the better part of an hour had passed, and I could see Michael and Amber sitting at the dining room table through the window, drinking coffee. I wondered if he was giving her advice on marital counseling, and so I just stuck the setup by the kitchen window, plugged in the vapor lamp directly to the plug on the side of the house, and washed my hands of the mess, for better or worse.

Makeshift blacklight setup on the back porch

For all this toil and trouble I was eventually rewarded for my efforts. The wind kept the bugs at bay until midnight, but I stayed up and snuck out of the house after everyone else was asleep, and in so doing feasted my eyes at long last on the veritable beetle bonanza I had gone to such obsessive lengths to bring in. I selected a few of the most notable fruits of my labor for my collection, and photographed the rest. By this time it was nearly one o’clock in the morning, and we had to get up bright and early to hit Boca Chica beach and then the Sabal Palm sanctuary, so I turned in at last and called it a night, leaving the lights running strong to keep bringing in the bugs until morning, when I would rise before the rest and set about deconstructing my setup until the next evening. Vacation indeed.

Unicorn mantis, a border specialty

Eburia stigmatica

Enaphalodes mimeticus

Phaneropterine katydid

Temnoscheila acuta

Repipta taurus


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