Woodsman, Spare That Bug!


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

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