by Whit Gibbons

August 16, 2015

I heard my 8-year-old grandson Nick say "OW!" I waited a second for other sounds like the tinkle of glass, a heavy yard tool hitting the ground or the sound of little boy feet running toward me with a swarm of yellow jackets close behind said boy. I walked to the other side of our cabin in the woods to see what the problem was.

Nick pointed into a wheelbarrow half-filled with clear water from the night's rain. He was not crying, but clearly the hand he was holding up hurt. I said, "Did you pick it up?" He nodded. He knew I was not talking about the wheelbarrow but about the half-inch-long bug that was doing the backstroke in the water.

"It's a backswimmer," I said. I told him that the pain is intense at first (he already knew that), but that it would go away within a minute. I took his hand. "Is it still hurting?" Another nod. "But it's getting better?" Nod again. "By the time I tell you what a backswimmer is, it won't be hurting at all. It won't even leave a mark you can brag about."

They are appropriately called backswimmers because they swim upside down - on their backs. The body is the shape of a triangle in cross section; the back is like the keel of a boat. They have long back legs that they use as oars. An animal that swims only on its back is unusual enough, but these little aquatic beasts have another cool trait for living in lakes and streams. When they dive to the bottom, they carry their air supply with them in the form of a bubble they capture on hairs on their body. Natural scuba gear.

A backswimmer has a beak with four sharp, needlelike mouthparts known as stylets. Backswimmers use their four front legs to grab their prey and then stab it with their stylets. They don't bite, and they do not inject venom, but getting jabbed by needles hurts, whether you are a small aquatic animal or a person. Armed with their rapier-like stylets, these little carnivores go after mosquito larvae, zooplankton and even small vertebrates like fish fry. Once the backswimmer pierces its victim, it proceeds to suck the life out of it through a channel formed by the stylets, rather like one drinks a milkshake through a straw.

The stylets of a backswimmer can also be used defensively. Pick up one of these critters, like Nick did, and it will encourage you to let go with a quick, painful piercing. They can also be a nuisance if you get one in a boot full of water. They do not like being stepped on. Getting acquainted with a backswimmer is not a world-shattering experience for a person, though the first jab feels like an electric shock. Being aware that they are in the water can make an encounter less disturbing.

Wildlife experiences come in many forms, and our memories about and appreciation for such experiences may vary depending on the particular situation and its outcome. Seeing a bear or mountain lion on a hiking trail could range from pleasantly memorable to the wildlife tale of a lifetime. Marveling at the fly amanita, a bright red mushroom with white spots, in a wet forest or a spectacular cardinal flower blooming in a swamp in early autumn can also be exhilarating. Getting bitten, poked, scratched or stung by anything may be temporarily unpleasant. But such experiences increase our understanding of nature's wonders and remind us that we do not have a balcony seat for nature's show. When we are outdoors, we are part of the play.

Should you happen to pick up a backswimmer or get one in your shoe, the pain ought to be gone in under a minute - and once the discomfort subsides, you'll be left with another special wildlife memory to cache.

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