Pond skaters feed on spiders and other insects that drop into the water.
We were standing on the bridge, and thankfully it was a public one, with no cars allowed, so I could linger for a while.
The water was only a few feet deep, and tall horse chestnut trees along its bank created a deep shade.
What was apparent after a few minutes was how the kids look differently and interact with the world around them. I was taking some notes on the wildlife while they were dropping in leaves and watching them race to the distant horizon.
I remember playing the same game with my brother when we stayed with my grandmother. If the weather was any way decent, she was take us to the local river. We would tire ourselves out swimming, and making boats out of leaves.
There was a thin wall underneath the bridge, and we used to chase each other around on this thin precipice without been able to swim.
As more of the kids boats emerged from underneath the bridge, I spotted a large insect floating downstream. It suddenly turned and headed for a safe harbour that was constructed from the branch of a fallen tree. With a few strong strides against the flow of the water, it reached port. This was the only safe place away from the current.
Another insect then approached, operating on stealth mode at first, but as he got nearer he used his body to make concentric waves on the water. These increased in intensity and the two had a brief battle before the loser retreated. Downstream several insects were also engaged, and the whole surface of the water was moving.
Water skaters or sliders are common insects on freshwater habitats like ponds, lakes, streams and slow moving rivers. They are mainly brown, narrow bodied and have six legs. The front legs are the shortest and are used for grasping prey. The longer middle legs are used for propulsion and steering, while the back legs are used for paddling and provide brakes and steering.
Skaters can move along the surface of the water without falling in because of some neat adaptations and surface tension. Their long thin legs help to spread its body weight, and they are also covered in thousands of microscopic hairs. These act as a water repellent and keep the insect dry, as any extra weight might drag the skater beneath the water. Any boy or girl who has flung in a stone to see these insect ships will have noticed how hard it is to sink them.
These hairs might also have human application in developing self-cleaning surfaces, a dream of any child filled house. Surface tension is like an invisible skin and allows some insects to literally walk on water.
They are carnivores who feed on spiders and other insects that drop into the water. As they struggle to get out, the skaters can sense their vibrations and by sending on waves hone in on the insect. This is like a surface radar and works incredible well.
Their mouths are long, thin and sharp and are used to pierce the bodies of insects. Next they inject in enzymes that liquefy the insides, and they drink the juices. Skaters are considered useful as they help control the population of other insects. They will also feed on dead insects.
Predator can turn into prey in the blink of an eye, and birds and fish are their greatest threats. Speed is one of their greatest assets, and they can dart away from danger at up to a hundred times their body length per second. This would be the same as an adult swimming at 400 miles per hour.
Mating takes place on the water and the males have a do or die strategy. He lands on the female's back and starts to tap the water, alerting fish to their presence. If the female is not interested he will still hold on, and if she does not submit, they might both be eaten.
You can see pond skaters between early spring and autumn, and they are one of the most interesting insects to observe.
A new species floated past me on the river as the kids hats have now joined in the race. They complain of cold heads for the rest of the day, but get little sympathy from their dad.
Albert is available to give walks/talks to schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups.
A bus trip to The Burren in Co. Clare takes place on Sunday 21st May. Pick-up points are as follows: Cashel Esso Petrol Station 9am, Thurles Parnell St. Carpark 9:20am, Borrisoleigh Church Square 9:35am, and Nenagh Supermacs 10am. Booking is essential. Bring lunches (no time to visit restaurants) and suitable clothing. Children must be accompanied by an adults. Contact Jane at 067-31741 or Tom at 0504 22519.