Archive for October, 2010

ATTACK OF THE BLOOD-FEEDING ARTHROPODS

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Lists of Top Ten Things People Fear vary a bit from source to source. Fear of vomiting (who knew?) shows up on some. Fear of death shows up on far fewer lists than public speaking. (I guess that’s good news, since public speaking is the more avoidable of the two activities.) A fair number of people fear dogs. More fear snakes. But one fear shows up on almost every list: Arachnophobia.

I suppose every kind of spider engenders unease among those made anxious by the eight-legged, from the gorgeous pastel flower spiders that lurk between the layered skirts of zinnia petals to the ridiculously marionette-like Daddy-Long-Legs that aren’t actually spiders at all. (And, while we’re at it, spiders aren’t insects. It’s the season of deception all around.) But the dark and hairy ones (we’re talking tarantula!) are clearly the hang-in-the-window Halloween fearmongering favorites.

We don’t have indigenous tarantulas up here in the BosNYWash corridor. We have crab spiders and orb weavers and wolf spiders. We have spiders that spin silk funnels in the hostas and spiders that set up housekeeping in the corners of our bedrooms, spiders so small they escape our notice and spiders so richly colored and robustly shaped we can’t fail to notice them clinging to their web sails in the garden. But they all have one important thing in common: they want nothing to do with us. NOTHING. They wrap their prey in silk and hang them up like country hams to dry. They pierce them with their vampire fangs, inject them with enzymes that liquify their innards, and suck them up like smoothies. They are frighteningly effective predators. But they don’t want US.

There are creatures that want us. Mosquitoes want us. While the males happily feed on nectar, the females’ biological drives set the 72 types of odor detectors on their antennae twitching. When they find us, they inject a cocktail of anaesthesia and anticoagulants and sip our body sap like Bloody Marys. Black flies, midges, fleas and no-see-ums leave calling cards of itchy welts behind their hematophagous feasts. Bedbugs want to get far too close to us while we sleep, and a variety of head and body lice want to hang with us night and day. Chiggers dig their way into our flesh in order to nibble on the inner layer of our skin. Eye gnats are crazy about our lachrymal secretions. And let’s not even discuss the human botfly.

You know what we need to protect us from the creatures that prey on us like this?
SPIDERS!

– Sharron Cohen

Woodsman, Spare That Bug!

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

 

Several years ago, I made a set of insect CDs for my then-8th-grade niece’s science teacher. I had been enticed into helping her collect insects for a start-of-the-school-year science project, and, while I found many aspects of the project admirable, I was put off by the need to kill what we collected. Let me stop right here to point out that I’m not a vegetarian. I have no high horse from which to decry the sacrifice of wasps and walking sticks for the good of a middle-school education. I did take exception with the teacher’s defense of the lethal demands of the project: “The insects are through producing young, so their deaths will make no difference in the scheme of the universe.” (That logic was a bit too close to the menopausal bone for me.)

My objection was aesthetic. Beautiful creatures were being transformed into far less beautiful creatures. Asphixiated and pinned, their colors faded, their bodies stiffened, and they lost the infinite varieties of behaviors that made them such fascinating objects of scrutiny. I made the CDs in an attempt to convince Julianna’s teacher to allow at least some of his students to capture insects photographically. The teacher was surprised and grateful, but, before my nephew could follow his slightly-older sister into the class, the teacher had retired and been replaced, alas, by someone who “can’t stand bugs.”

Julianna’s 8th-grade year left me with an abiding love for photographing insects (prowling my yard for insects is a form of going on safari), a collection of insect guidebooks (and a frustratingly clear understanding of how difficult it is to identify any one specific insect with those guidebooks), and a sobering look (via internet) at the prevailing cultural view of the class Insecta. In one word: ENEMY. Oh, sure, we have our happy little honey bees and our cute little lady bugs and even the generally well-respected praying mantis (there’s a Utube video of a mantis killing hummingbirds that might give some people pause), but, in general, all insects tend to be painted with one brush, and that brush has usually been dipped in poison.

I understand the desire to bring tomatoes to unblighted fullness and to avoid the filth of Japanese Beetle excrement on one’s beans. But a garden without insects is a stage set without actors. Bring on the hard-working shepherd ants minding nurseries of planthopper babies, matriarchal aphids popping out live-birth clones of themselves, and marauding ladybugs looking for a meal. Give me Lady Macbeth-like spiders hidden in the zinnias and sexton beetles burying the dead. Send in the high-flyers and the low crawlers, the rapaciously predatory and the lasciviously sexual. I’ll trade a bit of broccoli for the show.

– Sharron Cohen