Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock


Teacher's Story

"And there's never a leaf nor a blade too mean

To be some happy creature's palace".


dropcap image AY not Lowell have had in mind, when he wrote these lines, the canny little creatures which find sustenance for their complete growth between the upper and lower surfaces of a leaf, which seems to us as thin as a sheet of paper. To most children, it seems quite incredible that there is anything between the upper and lower surfaces of a leaf, and this lesson should hinge on the fact that in every leaf, however thin, there are rows of cells containing the living substance of the leaf, with a wall above and a wall below to protect them. Some of the smaller insects have discovered this hidden treasure, which they mine while safely protected from sight, and thus make strange figures upon the leaves.


Serpentine mines in nasturtium leaf.

Among the most familiar of these are the serpentine mines, so called because the figure formed by the eating out of the green pulp of the leaf, curves like a serpent. These mines are made by the caterpillars of tiny moths, which have long fringes upon the hind wings. The life story of such a moth is as follows: The little moth, whose expanded wings measure scarcely a quarter of an inch across, lays an egg on the leaf; from this, there hatches a tiny caterpillar that soon eats its way into the midst of the leaf. In shape, the caterpillar is somewhat "square built," being rather stocky and wide for its length; it feeds upon the juicy tissues of the leaf and divides, as it goes, the upper from the lower surface of the leaf; and it teaches us, if we choose to look, that these outer walls of the leaf are thin, colorless, and paper-like. We can trace the whole life history and wanderings of the little creature, from the time when, as small as a pin point, it began to feed, until it attained its full growth. As it increased in size, its appetite grew larger also, and these two forces working together naturally enlarged its house. When finally the little miner gets its growth, it makes a rather larger and more commodious room at the end of its mine, which to us looks like the head of the serpent; here it changes to a pupa, perhaps after nibbling a hole with its sharp little jaws, so that when it changes to a soft, fluffy little moth with mouth unfitted for biting, it is able to escape. In some species, the caterpillar comes out of the mine and goes into the ground to change to a pupa. By holding up to the light a leaf thus mined, we can see why this little chap was never obliged to clean house; it mined out a new room every day, and left the sweepings in the abandoned mine behind. Mines of this sort are often seen on the leaves of nasturtium, the smooth pigweed, columbine, and many other plants. There are mines of many shapes, each form being made by a different species of insect. Some flare suddenly from a point and are trumpet-shaped while some are mere blotches. The blotch mines are made, through the habits of the insect within them; it feeds around and around, instead of forging ahead, as is the case with the serpentine miners. The larvæ of beetles, flies and moths may mine leaves, each species having its own special food plant. Most of the smaller leaf mines are made by the caterpillars of the moths, which are fitly called the Tineina or Tineids. Most of these barely have a wing expanse that will reach a quarter of an inch and many are much smaller; they all have narrow wings, the hind wings being mere threads bordered with beautiful fringes. The specific names of these moths usually end in "ella;" thus, the one that mines in apple is malifoliella,  the one in grain is granella.  One of these little moths, Gelechia pinifoliella  lives the whole of its growing life in half of a pine needle. The moth lays the egg at about the middle of the needle, and the little caterpillar that hatches from it, gnaws its way directly into the heart of the needle; and there, as snug as snug can be, it lives and feeds until it is almost a quarter of an inch long, think of it! Many a time I have held up to the light a pine needle thus inhabited, and have seen the little miner race up and down its abode as if it knew that something was happening. When it finally attains its growth it makes wider the little door, through which it entered; it does this very neatly, the door is an even oval, and looks as if it were made with the use of dividers. After thus opening the door, the caterpillar changes to a little, long pupa, very close to its exit; and later it emerges, as an exquisite little moth with silvery bands on its narrow, brown wings, and a luxurious fringe on the edges of its narrow, hind wings and also on the outer hind edges of the front wings.


Serpentine mines in leaf of columbine.

Comstock's Manual.

The gross mines in the leaves of dock and beet are not pretty. The poor leaves are slitted, sometimes for their whole length, and soon turn brown and lie prone on the ground, or dangle pathetically from the stalk. These mines are made by the larvæ of a fly, and a whole family live in the same habitation. If we hold a leaf thus mined up to the light, while it is still green, we can see several of the larvæ working, each making a bag in the life substance of the leaf, and yet all joining together to make a great blister. The flies that do this mischief belong to the family Anthomyinæ;  and there are several species which have the perturbing habit of mining the leaves of beets and spinach. It behooves those of us who are fond of these "greens," as our New England ancestors called them, to hold every leaf up to the light before we put it into the skillet, lest we get more meat than vegetable in these viands. The flies, who thus take our greens ahead of us, are perhaps a little larger than house-flies, and are generally gray in color with the front of the head silver-white. These insects ought to teach us the value of clean culture in our gardens, since they also mine in the smooth pigweed.


Trumpet mines in leaf of apple.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

References—Manual for the Study of Insects, Comstock.



Leading thought—The serpent-like markings and the blister-like blotches which we often see on leaves are made by the larvæ of insects which complete their growth by feeding upon the inner living substance of the leaf.

Method—The nasturtium leaf-miner is perhaps the most available for this lesson since it may be found in its mine in early September. However, the pupils should bring to the schoolroom all the leaves with mines in them, that they can find and study the different forms.


1. Sketch the leaf with the mine in it, showing the shape of the mine. What is the name of the plant on which the leaf grew?

2. Hold the leaf up to the light, can you see the insect within the mine? What is it doing? Are there more than one insect in the mine? Open the mine and see how the miner looks.

3. There are three general types of mines: Those that are long, curving lines called serpentine mines; those that begin small and flare out, called trumpet mines; and those that are blister-like called blotch mines. Which of these is the mine you are studying?

4. Study a serpentine mine. Note that where the little insect began to eat, the mine is small. Why does it widen from this point? What happened in the part which we call the serpent's head?

5. Look closely with a lens and find if there is a break above the mine in the upper surface of the leaf or below the mine in the lower surface of the leaf. If the insect is no longer in the mine can you find where it escaped? Can you find a shed pupa-skin in the "serpent's head?"

6. Why does an insect mine in a leaf? What does it find to eat? How is it protected from the birds or insects of prey while it is getting its growth?

7. Look on leaves of nasturtium, columbine, lamb's quarters, dock and burdock, for serpentine mines. Are the mines on these different plants alike? Do you suppose they are made by the same insect?

8. Look on leaves of dock, burdock, beet and spinach for blotch mines. Are there more than one insect in these mines? If the insects are present, hold the leaf out to the light and watch them eat.

9. Look in the leaves of pitch or other thick leaved pines (not white pine), for pine needles which are yellow at the tip. Examine these for miners. If the miner is not within, can you find the little circular door by which it escaped? Would you think there was enough substance in a half a pine needle to support a little creature while it grew up?

10. If you find leaf-miners at work, do not pluck off the leaves being mined but cover each with a little bag of swiss muslin tied close about the petiole and thus capture the winged insect.


Witch-hazel, showing work of leaf-rollers, leaf-miners and gall-makers.

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