Life: Insects - Episode Six Synopsis

There are more kinds of insects than all other animals put together. There are thought to be 200 million individual insects for every one of us.

Insects are successful because of their flexibility, their ability to develop new ways of living and changing their body shapes.

Darwin’s stag beetle of Chile is the insect world’s perfect demonstration of a flexible body form. The female is shaped like a normal beetle. But the male’s jaws are vast – longer than his body. They are serrated and strangely curved. Over millions of years they have grown to become fighting weapons. Males battle with them high in the trees and getting the right grip is crucial. The first male to grab under his opponent’s wing case tries to lever his rival off the branch, before hurling him away to the ground, 100 feet below.

Insects’ flexible bodies enable them to become walking chemical weapons.

The bombardier beetle has two chambers within its body, each a store for a different, inert chemical. When threatened, the beetle mixes the chemicals in a third chamber where they react explosively and burst towards its enemy from its rear end in a boiling, caustic jet. The jet pulses 500 times per second, allowing the beetle’s rear to cool just enough between each burst to prevent it from cooking itself!

The Japanese red bug displays amazing care for its young. The youngsters eat a rare fruit but, as they are too small to scout the forest floor for it, their mother collects it. It can take her hours to find a suitable fruit, and when she does another mother may fight her for it. But if she doesn’t win and get the fruit back to her young quickly enough, they will grow impatient and abandon their nest to search for a better mother.

Insects’ greatest societies are the closest thing in the natural world to the complexity of a human city.

Grass-cutter ants harvest the grass of northern Argentina. Some of the ants are huge-jawed, perfect for cutting, others are smaller and do the carrying. They march in their thousands along well-worn roadways, carrying cut grass above their heads. And yet they can’t digest it. Instead they act like farmers, cultivating a fungus in their nest which is able to break down the grass and grow on it. The ants then eat the fungus. They grow so much fungus a colony may contain five million ants – as many inhabitants as a good-sized human city.

Flying With Butterflies

The team wanted to “fly” a camera through thousands of monarch butterflies during their mass hibernation in the Mexican forests. First, they worked at a special place where the butterflies come to the ground each day to drink from a small stream.

Climbers Tim Fogg and Jim Spickler took three days to rig a very complicated spider’s web of cables among the trees, all to support the central one which was the runway for the camera. The result was a unique series of camera shots flying alongside butterflies.

Then they rigged the whole system at 50 metres up in the trees, in order to fly the camera close past vast roosts of butterflies hanging from the branches. This was a much more demanding and delicate job as the roosts disperse at the slightest disturbance.

Producer: Rupert Barrington.

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