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Jun 17 2015

Spineless Superstars: An Apologia for Bugs

by Arthur G

Consider the cockroach.

No, seriously–consider the cockroach, if just for a moment. For most of us, the very thought of these despised and lowly creatures sends a chill down our spines and plants an ugly, homicidal thought in our minds. It’s probably fair to say that we see cockroaches less as living things or creatures than as diabolical instruments of disgust–existing solely to pop up at the opportune time to scare the living daylights out of us, whether we’re in the shower or raiding the kitchen for a midnight snack. And the cockroach doesn’t weather our contempt alone, for while the humble roach is arguably the most despised arthropod on the planet, most people don’t think much better of his (or her) relatives. Bugs, spiders, scorpions–basically, if you’re small, creepy/crawly, and have more legs than Fido in the back yard, then it’s safe to assume that you’re not high on anyone’s “favorite critter” list.

I must admit that even as an ardent bug lover, I have a bit of a blinder when it comes to seeing these amazing creatures as, well, creatures, instead of “objects” of admiration. What I and the bug haters have in common is a tendency to de-animate insects–to neglect the fact that they are animals, with behaviors and drives similar in kind, if not degree, to anything found on the Serengeti. Even most entomologists, who probably have a greater appreciation for creepy crawlers than the rest of us, often view insects through a disturbingly mechanistic lens; insects are biological “machines,” with “sophisticated hardware and software” honed by millions of years of evolution.

Compleat CockroachSo what does it take to open our eyes and reconsider? Well, you can heed my advice and consider the cockroach. David Gordon’s The Compleat Cockroach: A Comprehensive Guide to the Most Despised (and Least Understood) Creature on Earth puts a spotlight on this most hated of insects, drawing attention to some little known facts. Did you know, for instance, that many species care for their young? Or that, despite their reputation as “dirty nasty bugs,” they actually clean themselves with a fastidiousness that puts most cats to shame? While it’s unlikely to convert any hardened roach hater–or make the average Joe have second thoughts about reaching for the bug spray if one scurries across the floor in front of him–at the very least, Gordon’s book opens up the possibility of recognizing these bugs for the amazing animals they are.

LIfe in the UndergrowthIf you don’t want to dive head first into the world of cockroaches, then you might want to give a gander at David Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth. Although this is just one part in the splendid Life series by the renowned naturalist, it stands out for being the first to actually examine small land invertebrates from their perspective, using technologies previously unavailable to give a bug’s-eye view of the world. The results are telling; it turns out these tiny biological “machines” are endowed with a myriad of complex behaviors and even rudimentary personalities. If you’re able to resist the cold shudder from getting up close and personal with so many bugs, you just might find yourself marveling at the ballet of a springtail mating dance, or the tender care a wolf spider puts into crafting an egg sack for her young. It may not be the best cure for arachnophobia, but you just might give pause before introducing a spider to the bottom of your shoe.

These books introduce the zany idea that we can actually develop a rapport with arthropods as fellow living animals; they live, die, swim, feed, and care for their young, just like any creature, and in ways both spectacular and familiar. They are not instruments or machines; they don’t exist to annoy or frighten us. They’re our neighbors on the same blue planet, and while they may not be as cuddly as a puppy or as majestic as an elephant, they are no less fascinating, or worthy of our respect.

If I’ve sparked your curiosity, here are two other bug books to get under your skin:

So maybe we should show a bit more understanding to our crawly kin–or at least, not automatically reach for the Raid can at every turn.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Dea Anne M. June 18, 2015 at 9:09 AM

Great post! Clearly, I have underestimated insects all of my life. I’m not very squeamish about bugs and tend to leave spiders and beetles alone if I see them. Still, I would rather not have roaches in my house…oh well.

Joseph M. June 24, 2015 at 9:29 AM

Good stuff! Intellectually I’m fascinated by Arthropods, but some of them (especially spiders and roaches) inspire an atavistic revulsion such that I find them difficult to appreciate when they are in my personal space. I’ll strive for greater tolerance next time!

Camille June 26, 2015 at 2:09 PM

I’m not opposed to the occasional spider myself.

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