A Bugged Life

Posted on July 19, 2011

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In one of my earliest memories, I wake up with the feeling that I’m covered with ants. I panic, climb over the side of the crib, and run to my parents’ bedroom.

“There are no ants on you,” my mother says. “Go back to sleep.”

Returning to the crib, I notice that the ants are gone. I check everywhere, and stand up repeatedly to make sure. I’m wearing one-piece pajamas, the kind with the feet, which would have made it hard for ants to work their way to my skin in any great numbers. I must have been dreaming.

It’s hard to be sure how accurate that memory is. First, if I were in a crib, I couldn’t have been much older than two years old. Second, at such a young age, where did I get the experience of being covered with ants — either in reality or even as a dream? And third, was my mother really that unconcerned about her young son climbing into and out of his crib? Yet, some version of this early morning adventure really happened. I know it did.

Even in our world of paved roads, brick buildings, and concrete sidewalks, insects were part of life. Monarch butterflies were common. So were grasshoppers, wasps, and crickets. And there were those amazing fireflies — we called them lightning bugs — which flashed on and off as they flew in random patterns in the dark, creating the illusion that they were instantly moving from one point to another with no travel in between, like gigantic electrons or tiny UFOs. We caught them and put them into jars, and for some reason were always surprised the next day when we looked into the jars and found that all of the lightning bugs were dead.

We didn’t dare do anything like that with a praying mantis. According to my older brothers, and later confirmed by my father, it was against the law to kill one. You could be fined or even jailed for just breaking the leg of a praying mantis, even if it was an accident. My friends and I were endlessly intrigued by this idea. A praying mantis was a pale green insect, about four inches long, and looked as though it were made of paper. You could kill one with a good sneeze, or by riding your bike too close to the hedges and clobbering it with your handlebars. We were always careful any time we had to go hacking through someone’s garden looking for a lost ball. We didn’t think twice about trampling a neighbor’s roses, but nobody wanted to get thrown into the slammer for murdering some ridiculous looking origami bug. Still, at the corners of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering: How would the police know? Were they watching us? Why protect a praying mantis? Because it was praying, I concluded. It must have been some kind of religious law, which of course added greatly to the imagined punishment for ending such a flimsy little life.

I eventually learned that no law protecting the praying mantis has ever existed anywhere in the United States. It was just one of those things we all believed, simply because we had no reason to believe otherwise. Since those days, I’ve also grown to respect some insects, while maintaining or developing an unshakable disdain for others.

Bees, for example, are organized to such a degree that it’s a little spooky. And you have to admire their work ethic, although a little recreation now and then might not be such a bad idea. The same goes for ants. They always seem to be racing around, as though they forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, or they’re late for a job interview. How do they even know what to do, that’s what I wonder. Their brains are so tiny. I have a human brain and I’m lost without a list.

One thing about ants, though. They’re supposed to be incredibly strong, carrying fifty times their own body weight, which would be like you running around with a Ford Explorer on your back. Okay, but still, they’re just moving crumbs from a Chips Ahoy. If the ant could actually pick up a Ford Explorer — or even a Honda Civic — now that would be impressive.

Ladybugs were another insect that had earned our affection, although we had no idea why. They never helped anyone. They never seemed to do anything at all. They were the only bug that could land on someone’s arm without producing a flurry of swatting and yelping. People liked ladybugs, and even called them cute. It must have been the spots. It was as though they had put on a special outfit for us, and that distracted us from any innate desire to squash them. As children, we also believed we could tell the age of these insects by counting their spots. I once found a twelve-year-old ladybug.

Spiders were terrifiying. They built these visible traps that helped them catch, preserve, and devour live prey. It was easy to imagine being one of those prey, and getting caught in the web. As we struggled to get free, the enormous spider would approach and begin its work. What would that look like? To this day, I can’t allow myself to think about it.

And I’m still amazed by spider webs — their symmetry and strength. Most of all, I’m baffled by how the spider starts a web. Sometimes I’ll see one that stretches between two trees. How does it get that first strand across, from one tree to the other? Does it crawl down one tree, along the ground, then up the other side? Frequently, spiders will build webs in the doorway of our house, again stretching them from one side of the doorframe to the other. I’ve walked into too many of these webs, so that now, when leaving my home I begin by doing a vertical arm wave and head bow until I’m completely through the danger zone. The neighbors, I’m sure, must think this is some sort of religious ritual. But really, I’m just trying to avoid walking around all day with a spider in my hair.

Butterflies migrate thousands of miles and find their way. Some people love butterflies so much that they catch them in a net and pin them to sheets of cardboard. If that’s love, personally, I’d prefer a little indifference.

Mosquitoes are a mystery. What do they eat when people aren’t around? The local drive-in movie theater is always swarming with mosquitoes. But there’s no show on Monday nights. Are the mosquitoes there on Mondays, starving, or do they check the movie listings in the newspaper and head over to the soccer field? These are the only animals I kill, intentionally. Mosquitoes make holes in my body and suck out my blood. They leave me with itching welts. They also spread hideous diseases. I have to draw the line somewhere.

A fly is both highly intelligent and unbelievably stupid. A fly can squeeze in through a tiny opening in a window, but then when the window is opened all the way, it can’t find its way out. I don’t kill flies, but man, sometimes I’m tempted.

June bugs are huge beetles. They emerge from the ground in late May, either unaware of their own name or very eager to get started. Then they begin slamming themselves into walls and garage doors, falling straight down, and dying on their backs. That’s their life.

Moths seem to have no observational skills. They watch other moths hovering around a streetlight and enduring an agonizing death on the hot bulb. But they don’t have the ability to process that information. Why not? Other animals, including insects, have learned to avoid eating certain things because of their bright colors or other markings. Why do moths continue to incinerate themselves, for no discernible reason?

Worms, too. After a hard rain, they slither out of the ground. According to experts, they do this not because they have to, but just because they can. Worms like moisture, so when the streets and driveways are wet, they go for a walk in the rain. But then they stop. They don’t burrow back into the ground. They hang around on the pavement, drying out and turning into bird food. Worms have brains, but I’ve read that you can remove their brains without seriously affecting their behavior.

Speaking of brainless behavior, I left the house this morning and forgot to do the bowing and waving thing, and walked straight through a large web. It’s very likely that there’s an angry spider now living in my hair. I just hope it’s still there tonight, when I wake up with ants crawling all over me.

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