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Going buggy in the desert.

By Gregory McNamee

JANUARY 20, 1998:  TO JUDGE BY this graceful study of insects and desert plants, John Alcock, a professor of zoology at Arizona State University and prolific writer about Sonoran Desert ecology, is a suburban neighbor's worst nightmare.

First, he relates in the opening pages of In a Desert Garden, he replaced his Bermuda grass lawn with gravel, cacti, and succulents to replicate what the desert around Phoenix looked like before humans remade it. Next, he festooned his yard with cowpies carefully selected for size, weight, and dryness, "the crème de la crème of termite chow, as far as Gnathamitermes are concerned." Then he seeded his property with flowers to attract a flotilla of winged and crawling creatures, "carpenter bees and globe mallow bees, brittlebush aphids and milkweed aphids, these and many other insects." Thus equipped with a backdoor laboratory for ecological studies, Alcock spent the next few years observing what happened.

Alcock fills his pages with asides on the insects he's studied for so long at close hand. We learn that female praying mantises have gotten a bad rap as spousal murderers; rising to their defense, he observes that "the extent of female consumption of males during copulation had been greatly exaggerated." (Whew!) We learn as well that aphids are to be prized, the occasional loss of a rose bush or milkweed plant aside, for their marvelous properties: They reproduce "without the curious beings we call males," and otherwise develop and mutate in unexpected ways.

He may not convince you to invite termites into your home or strew your own yard with cowpies, but Alcock does a fine job of revealing the role of insects in the environmental workings of the desert.

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