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bugs

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.

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Aug 20 2010

ShareReads: Bugged Out

by Jimmy L

ShareReads appears on the DCPLive blog on Fridays. Each week, a different person will share a little about what they’re currently reading, and why they like or don’t like it. The heart of ShareReads will be responses from blog readers, and the window of opportunity here is wide. Feel free to respond and discuss the book or author being mentioned, ask or answer a question, or even take the conversation in a different direction: mention what you are currently reading, and how you feel about it. The point of ShareReads is to have an ongoing discussion about books and reading. Remember: posting a response also counts as an activity for the Summer Reading for Adults program.

About a month ago, I was poking around my crawlspace when I noticed a lot of dark crickets jumping around like popcorn as soon as I got close to them.  Wondering whether they were harmful, I looked online and found out that they were called camel crickets (but also sometimes known as cave crickets), and completely harmless.  They like dark damp spaces, eat detritus, and are completely silent, so you won’t hear them chirping at night.   The little things looked so cute, the 5 year old in me thought about raising a few in a cage so I could observe them.

Then last week, I was in a used bookstore and I came upon a book through pure luck— Broadsides from the Other Orders: A Book of Bugs by Sue Hubbell.  A cursory glance through the contents revealed that each chapter is about a different insect, from much loved ones like the butterfly and the ladybug, to ones we consider pests like gnats, silverfish, and flies.  I put it in my huge pile of finds that day and took it to the checkout counter.  It wasn’t until later that I saw the title of the last chapter—Order Orthoptera: Camel Crickets.

I’m still reading this book, slowly, savoring it chapter by chapter, and I’m reading it impulsively rather than in order, skipping to katydids or dragonflies just because I suddenly feel like it.  But, obviously, I started with the camel crickets.  I found out so much more about these little critters than Wikipedia could ever be able to tell me.  Hubbell writes from a personal angle; she is not a bug expert, just someone who’s very enthusiastic about them, so I was able to get that same sense of excitement and discovery that she did.  She presents you with amazing tidbits (did you know that the daddy longlegs uses his legs as a kind of cage to trap other insects underneath him as he feeds?) that never feel dry.  Her approach with each insect is different.  With the ladybug, she followed ladybug harvesters (because they sell them now for people who want them in their gardens), for the daddy longlegs and camel crickets, she raised some of her own in cages and observed them, for the butterfly, she followed a few taxonomists, helping them count the different varieties in the Beartooth Mountains.

Sue Hubbell has written many other books, some of which are available at the library.  A Book of Bees… And How to Keep Them is about beekeeping, A Country Year: Living the Questions is a book about living and exploring nature, and Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones is a book about invertebrates.  I’m excited to check these books out too, once I finish with this one.

Have you read any books lately that make you feel like a giddy 5 year old?  Any books that satisfy an odd curiosity?  Please share in the comments.

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Jul 31 2009

Bugs and Books

by Lesley B

At a safety training session this week, our speaker had a great story. He said he was driving on I-285 when he felt Something Big crawling up his leg. He was in the fast lane, so he trapped the big thing with his hand, keeping it from climbing any higher.  He managed to ease over to the roadside where he faced a dilemma – to strip or not to strip? Fortunately for the passing drivers he managed to trap the Something Big with one hand and force it out of his pants with the other, whereupon he discovered he’d had a large Dung Beetle moving up his leg.

This is a great story only because it didn’t happen to me. But let’s say you’ve trapped an interesting bug in your pants and you’d like to identify your new friend. One place to start might be What’s That Bug? Two Los Angeles artists identify bugs from photos and letters sent in by the terrified and the fascinated. They don’t pretend to be bug experts but I still find it helpful, especially for identifying bugs commonly found around the house. If the WTB folks are stumped they often refer you to Bugguide.net, an amateur naturalist site created by Georgia resident Troy Bartlett and now hosted by Iowa State University.  Bugguide is more formally organized than WTB, with many useful links and books and some great photos (click on the Dung Beetle link above).

If you are interested in learning more about these creatures (not a bad idea since they seriously outnumber us) you might enjoy one of the following titles:

An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles by Arthur V. Evans and Charles L. Bellamy

Broadsides from the other orders: a book of bugs, by Sue Hubbell

The Superorganism: the beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson

Of course the library also has insect guides that you can check out and take home. I generally recommend the take-home method as you may disturb other library patrons if you bring in Something Big in a jar.

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