A louse is a louse is a louse, Close enough, In German, Norwegian and Dutch, While Romancers keeps it in-house, Close enough, From the Latin pedis, and such, While Slavs use a different nous, Close enough, With vusi – it doesn’t change much. So a louse is a louse, from West to East, And ev’rywhere the same. But a woodlouse, that’s a diff’rent beast – The bug with a thousand names… Roly-poly, cheesey wig, The sow bug, pill bug, backyard blimp – And dandy postman, parson’s pig, Or slater, cafner, carpet shrimp. And other tongues have a similar feast – Or so the pundits claim… But an insect louse ? That’s just a louse – They’re itchy, but they’re tame.
I have touched on woodlice before, and also eyelash lice. Their diversity of names reminds me somewhat of butterflies. Incidentally, though both ‘wood’ and ‘louse’ are present in Anglo-Saxon, they don’t seem to have been put together until 1611.
A tick is a bug that sucks up meaning, A tiny check-mark on the skin That no amount of language-cleaning Will ever dislodge now it’s sunk its snout in. A facial tic on our pristine tongue Of too many meanings from a single noun – Oh for a language that’s regular and young Before the parasites invaded the town. We use words on tick, to be paid for later, Like the stuffing in a tick-case that is already frayed, Or the ticks on a rule till the namesakes are greater And we’ve spewed-out enough for a tickertape parade. It ticks us off that such gaudy schlocks lurk, But they’ve plagued us forever, siphoning their fraction – Older than moments, older than clockwork, The tick is as ancient as Anglo-Saxon.
‘Tick’ is also a Middle English word for goat (whose latter name is even older), and though thoroughly out-of-use can still be found in placenames such as Tickenhurst.
Incidentally, what does a twitcher call the first whinchat of the year ? A tick tick.
The Roman snail was bred for the eating, Bred by the Romans on gastropod farms – Bred to be fatter and bred to be sweeter, Bred for behaviour and oozing with charms ! Red shells and blue shells, thoroughly adaptable, With endless potential curled-up inside – Many shapes of eye-stalk, fully retractable, And you should see how speedily these beauties can glide !
“You join us at the Coliseum, bursting to capacity, For the Trophy Mille Denarii – ave, sports fans, and well met – And they’re off ! Down the first straight, led by Number Three, While Number Thirteen stalls, as he retracts into his helmet. Hard into the corner at a tenth-a-mile an hour, And slamming on the brakes – and out goes Number Ten ! Spinning in slow motion as she gives it too much power, And slams into the backside of her team-mate, yet agen ! And the Formula Unum poll position passes on to Seventeen – While her rival Number Twenty-Two is sliding for the pits, To lubricate his tired foot, while they give his conch a sheen, With a quick refuel of lettuce, and he’s back into the blitz ! Now shell-to-shell on the final lap come slithering the leaders, Stretching their antennas out to take the chequered flag. But competition never ends for Golden Helix breeders, When looking for an offspring with a slightly better drag.”
Caterpillars – nibble-eaters, strictly vegetarian, They’re chowing-down on sugarbeats and duckweed and valerian, And wriggling over cabbages and newly-vented greens, Just look at all the gaping holes between the runner beans ! Row on decimated row beneath their painted swarms – Lord knows how they cling on through the heat and thunderstorms ! Where are all the hungry songbirds ? Browse my salad bar. Where the parasitic wasps ? Attend my buffet car ! Of course, there are the carnivores, though these are very few, And they eat ants and aphids, not the skipper or the blue. But still, a few round here would be a very welcome catch, Though they are in the Tropics, nowhere near my veggie patch. But there is hope – I hear that sometimes, when the Moon is full, That certain individuals, on a whim, turn cannibal, Gobbling up their brother bugs, to dominate the leaf, And sucking all their insides out like so much bully beef. But otherwise, my only cheer is hearing on the vine How numbers of the butterflies are in a steep decline – A shame the planet has to burn to stop their constant graze, But you should see the harvest that I’ll reap those final days !
Incendentally, the carnivorous caterpillars mentioned are the Hawaiian pugs.
Many moth and butterflies Are wearing genders proud – Males are coloured-up as males, And ladies sport theirs loud. But back when they were caterpillars, They dressed all the same, Until their pupas split to show the world, As out they came. It’s not like they have any choice, Deciding which they’d rather – They’re future’s set before they’re laid, The sons become the fathers. It must be hard to be a parent Waiting long to be amazed, As your kids emerge from their cocoons And you see what sort you raised. Except…a very few can play both sides, Maintain the riddle – With two wings boys and two wings girls, And split straight down the middle. Alas they cannot breed, these ones, They’re an incidental plus – When it comes to sexual selection, It’s the others who choose for us.
Of course, by the time most caterpillar pupate, their parents are long gone. A few butterflies such as the tortoiseshell can hibernate over the Winter, though of course these are the ones which emerged late in the previous year and they don’t mate until the following Spring.
Insides on the outside. I was always told That they’re rigid suits of armour That cannot stretch or fold – Usually, the process is To shed, and swell, and harden – And that’s their lot, till next they moult – No piling all the lard on ! But the sloughing of the shell enables Fixing dings and missing limbs – And that’s why adult lobsters Keep on shrugging off their skins. They don’t increase that much in size, But do perform repairs – Though there is danger here as well, When things go wrong downstairs – Not to mention getting trapped half-way, Their robes un-doffed, Or creeping-in mutations, Or if gobbled-up when shedder-soft. So long-lived lobsters in the end Just wear the same old clothes, And adult insects die before The wear-and-tearing shows –
And mostly this is true – But creatures are a funny lot, And odd ones swarm into the mind Like ants around a honeypot. To pluck out one example, Just ask a termite queen Why her bum looks big it that While her subjects are so lean ? And she’ll reply, “My abdomen was once a slender thing, But see how it slowly stretches year-by-year, And king-by-king. And though I’m decades-old And my body marked with time, I’m very well-attended To keep me in my prime – I since I lie about all day, What need I beauty for ? Or even care for working legs Which barely reach the floor ? The changing fashions of the young are not for me, My togs are fine – I take-in food and pop-out eggs In this old skin of mine.”
Ramshorn snails with ammonite shells, A spiral without a hint of helix, More like a wheel than a pyramid, I feel, Just adding variety into the mix. Some look drunken with sideways shells, Half flat on their backs and half-falling off Like a coil of rope – but they seem to cope, And it’s still a home, and we shouldn’t scoff.
And honestly, they’re shaped much more like a ramshorn Than any ram’s horn, which is more like a corkscrew – Though any shepherd could tell you with scorn That some horns’ spirals leave gaps you could walk through. Unlike the snails, those geometric purists – And yet they’re just tourists in the twist of fate – They barely take a turn and let the helter-skelter churn, Yet rams’ horns grow ev’ry which way but straight.
But I know what you’re thinking: what about the hermit crabs ? What of it will spring-loaded scavengers make ? Will they recycle these torus-shaped slabs, Or are they afraid that their body-skew will break ? Is such shelly symmetry unnecessary gimmickry ? Or circular efficiency for streamlining’s sake ? Much better suited than the filigreed or fluted, Or the messy-convoluted coilings of a snake.
Ramshorn snails with ammonite shells, So ambidextrous in their twisting – Easy gliders or top-heavy sliders ? Some are upright, and others are listing. If snails have ramshorns then rams have crownhorns, The biggest ones worn by the king of the dales – And even when shorn, it becomes a shepherd’s cornet To warn us of the wolves or the thieves or the snails.
The European Garden Spider Bore a name both accurate and dull. Till some do-gooding Victorian Decided to give the matter a good old mull – And, believing truth must always bow To poetic hyperbole, He grandly named them all orb-weavers And wrote to the Times after tea. Who cares if the webs are as flat as a silk cravat ?, (Of course, monogrammed). Should he have named them all plate-spinners ? Geometry be d-mned !
Never drop your tardigrade in alcohol or acid, when It isn’t curled-up tightly like a bun. Never dehydrate it, or stop its oxygen, Until all of its shrivelling is done. Never heat your tardigrade a hundred-plus degrees, Or blast it with a gamma ray, or leave it out to freeze, Or send it into space, or in a pressure fit to squeeze – Unless it is a hibernating tun. If it’s slowly, slowly moving, Best to leave it be – For now is not the time for proving Indestructibility. For a tardy’s only hardy When its legs no longer run… But if it’s small and in a ball ? Then sure, go have some fun.
Always getting in our way, By stringing threads across our paths, Or playing statues on our carpets, Getting trapped inside our baths, Or hanging down from lightshades Or on wing-mirrors, left unchecked, Or guarding rarely-opened doors We never asked them to protect – Always forcing us to shoo them, Leaving webs that we must snap – No wonder we believe the lie That some get swallowed while we nap !
Always stinging beads of dew, And cupboard-lurking in surprise, Always scuttling just in view Of the very corners of our eyes – Yet when the flies are buzzing, buzzing, Where are they to shoot them down ? And all that silk as strong as steel, Yet can’t be farmed to spin a gown. Always raising jumps and squeals And relocated in alarm – No wonder we believe the lie That spiders only bring us harm.