Biologist Experiments With His Own Front Yard

February 03, 1998

John Alcock was tired of his high-maintenance bermuda grass lawn, so he replaced it with a natural slice of desert. The xeriscaping went a step or two beyond the standard gravel and saguaro in faithfully recreating the messy, shrubby Sonoran landscape, but Alcock found that the extra effort repaid him amply with peace, joy and an endless source of scientific entertainment.

It could be a scientific goldmine, in fact -- if his neighbors don't call the yard police first.

Alcock, a regents professor of biology at Arizona State University whose research specialty is the behavioral evolution of insects, found that his transformed Tempe, Arizona yard was an ideal home laboratory where he could conveniently study a wide variety of subjects and conduct experiments morning, noon and in the middle of the night. For lab assistant, he had his wife Sue (who has the patience of a saint) and the neighborhood association served as an oversight committee for his lab practices.

Wanting to share the rewards of his domestic discoveries, Alcock has written a book about his experiences, In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects , published by W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. Beautifully written, filled both with a profound love and respect for nature and with an infectious sense of scientific excitement, the book talks about the small commonplace events that go on everyday in the yard and flowerbed.

"There's such a wealth of natural history out there, even in your yard," Alcock said, "All I'm really doing is acting as a translator to give these stories a broader hearing than they would get otherwise."

Alcock has a knack for drawing the reader into the otherwise unnoticed world of the insects he studies, beginning with simple, curious observations and leading to riddles of nature which he deftly analyzes, revealing biological systems of stunning intricacy. Alcock shows the natural romance of scientific inquiry, as his lay readers find themselves suddenly thinking like scientists, caught up in the possibilities for exploration waiting right outside the front door.

And he pulls off this bit of enchantment with insects -- "bugs" to most of us.

"The insects are the stars as far as I'm concerned," said Alcock. "Their lives are so rich and yet they are so utterly ignored by most people. All these bizarre things are going on right underneath our noses and we never stop to see them and think... People are overlooking some really intriguing aspects of the world they live in when they do that."

And with insects, one of the intriguing things is sex. In species after species, Alcock shows how different and complicated it all can be -- bees that mate high in the air, where the male literally blows himself apart to insure successful fertilization (maybe); the promiscuous female rove beetle, who the jealous male follows around after the act to try to insure that the offspring are his; male praying mantises who sometimes become a protein-rich snackfor their mate during or even prior to copulation; or aphids, who have done away with males altogether and reproduce more quickly and efficiently by simply cloning themselves -- Alcock shows that the arthropod Kama Sutra is infinitely varied and imaginative.

Though always a scientist fascinated by his subject, Alcock also maintains a humorous sense of self-awareness, conscious of the fact that some people may find his interests ... well, weird. There's the discussion of his willingness to eat live bugs in order to test their tastiness to birds (and to impress party guests) and which ones not to eat because of their potential heart-attack causing poisons. There's the story about adding laboratory rat waste to the compost heap in order to make it more efficient, and the stink that it made (literally) in the neighborhood. There's the neighbor who wonders what he's doing out in the yard all hours of the day and night, staring at a plant... And, speaking of testing the neighbors, there's the dried cow patties that he puts out in his yard to attract termites.

"The cow pies still generate a certain amount of disapproval, but I'll always keep at least one out there," Alcock noted with no apology. They are part of the "natural" landscape in Arizona, he explains, and the termites they attract are truly fascinating social animals.

Beyond the possibilities for science, Alcock also has deeper reasons for making his yard the way it is.

"The idea that urban environments are loaded with potential for biological research is true, but I'm doing this on a tiny scale for purely personal pleasure," he said. "I would love to see much of Phoenix converted from Bermuda grass lawns to my kind of lawn -- bringing nature back into your yard is a way to compensate for the fact that we are so incredibly 'concrete-ized.'

"It would make a big difference in terms of the desert insects and birds that would be present."

Does he think this will ever happen?

"Let's just say I can't imagine my yard becoming a little Lourdes for the desert afficionados of Phoenix."

Arizona State University

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