Editor’s Note: We are unlocking this archive piece to celebrate the release of The Book of Bugs, on sale now.
I AM FORTUNATE to live in an area where the stink bug, also called the darkling, pinacate, or clown beetle, is common. About an inch long, with a jet-black carapace and long walking legs, the stink bug is nothing out of the ordinary — except when startled. Then the insect bends its front legs, extends its rear legs, raises its posterior almost vertically, and emits a powerful odor. It is meant to be the scariest headstand in the world.
A pinacate beetle can brighten my day. I connect to something nonhuman and am knocked happily out of myself. Many of us have this experience when we see a charismatic mammal like a deer or bear, raccoon or moose. Birds can have the same effect. Hawks, cranes, ravens, hummingbirds — they give us a thrill. They say: stop! look at how beautiful I am, how different from you. They make us feel grateful for being on such an interesting planet.
Insects can do this, too, if we shift our attitude — and spatial perspective. Insects are also wild creatures and have the advantage of being everywhere. If you are a lover of insects, you have many opportunities to love, and you will feel less lonely and discouraged than if you have chosen only to adore the vanishing Siberian tiger or your local threatened predator. You may become a connoisseur of anthills — or intrigued by spiders. Even the most familiar or seemingly insignificant insect can surprise you. (Viewed up close — I promise — the oak treehopper will make you gasp.)
Another beetle example (as the naturalist J.B.S. Haldane noted, God must have had an inordinate fondness for beetles since he made so many different kinds): Tiger beetles are often brightly patterned and look like small jewels. An Australian species is the fastest running insect in the world, going nine kilometers per hour or 170 body lengths per second. After a successful chase, tiger beetles cover their victims in a corrosive liquid that begins the process of digestion. Tiger beetle larvae are equally ferocious; these white grubs have horns on their backs, which they anchor to the sides of their tunnels, allowing them to lunge out and pull in prey with a single powerful motion.
In their way, tiger beetles are as charismatic as their mammalian counterpart. In their way. That’s the rub. The truth is that insects usually inspire repulsion more than admiration. They scurry away with an unpleasant sound. They have disgusting eating habits. That compound eye gives us the creeps. All those reflections. And all those legs! Mouthparts that drink blood? Hairy distended abdomens? Not before eating, please.
For most of us, insects are just too far outside the human aesthetic — alien, brutal, and uncuddly. This is also good. Because this is nature, too. I have learned (somewhat slowly) that if I want to have a relationship with the natural world, it can’t just be with the parts I pick and choose. The gorgeous mountain view makes my lover’s heart ache. But I also have to admire the rejuvenating aftermath of a forest fire, as “ugly” a landscape as any on Earth. I have to get to know the parts of nature that make me wince and turn away. Because turning away is not really what good lovers do.
So I’m paying more attention to insects. It usually requires getting down on my knees, much lower to the ground. A new perspective. And, inevitably, another beetle — this time, the giant North American rhinoceros beetle, with its jaunty horn and ability to lift its own weight hundreds of times over! Right here on my front porch! I feel that thrill of gratitude. I live on such an interesting planet.
One of my fondest, earliest memories is of the year we moved to southern California when I was a child. I became entranced with the ivy snails and, belly to the ground, would follow their silver papery trails through the undergrowth. Decades later, on our ranch in Wyoming, I became enthralled with the scouring nature of maggots and how quickly they could clean up the carcass of a lightning killed cow. Sharman brings these memories to life and make me glad that I’ve befriended a few of the spiders that drink from my bathroom faucet.
Thank you for the lovely piece. I once had a cosmic epiphany while sitting on a bench, doing nothing. A black beetle landed on my left wrist. The outer edges of its hard wing covers — its elytra — were perfectly shaped, as if they had been carved and honed out of ebony by a wiry Egyptian craftsman. They looked like the hinged ebony lids to an Egyptian coffin, crafted to last through eternity.
The occasion for this epiphany? Simple. I had stopped what I was working on and decided to sit and do nothing. Thus, my left wrist became a landing strip for the beetle, and the beetle a launch pad for my Egyptian epiphany.
The key, as you pointed out in your excellent piece, is to STOP. As you put it:
“They say: stop! look at how beautiful I am, how different from you. They make us feel grateful for being on such an interesting planet.”
I couldn’t agree more.l
two domed spiderwebs made visible by dew
something, invisible, shakes a stalk of miner’s lettuce,
then a blade of grass
the dew also defines
the texture of leaves—drops on some
a sheen on the others—
and the superstructure engineered to hold the domed shapes
airy but sufficient
the webs—asymetrically perfect—must be new this morning
unless they are stronger than they look
and survived yesterday’s rain
this caterpillar, twisty as spaghetti
will soon starch itself up
AN ELONGATE GAIT
clop-clop goes the horse
if our ears were sharp enough
What a delight to read an article from someone who observes and thinks about the natural world, and can embody their love of life in what they write about the experience.
Thanks, and thanks again.
Insects are indeed everyday, everywhere marvels. What mysteries they are. How can something so small, with such a tiny brain, be so good at getting about, feeding, mating? How beautiful these natural gems are, especially if viewed with magnification. Liberace had nothing on these guys.
Much appreciating your big, wide embrace of nature and humanity, Sharman.
Geoff, in Vancouver where spring is reluctantly but ineluctably springing…
Thank you very much for a story which praises our fellow nonhumans. If we truly believe in nonviolence and peace, then we must consider, protect and not harm insects. They love life as we do.
I do my best to relocate ants, spiders, mosquitoes and do my best not to harm them. We live in the country, and there are thousands of species. I am vegan as well so I do not eat any animal flesh or products and protecting insects is in keeping with vegan principles.
If you look closely at a cockroach, and put one’s prejudices aside, one can see how complex and beautiful they are and what survivalists they are as well.
Thanks again for this. There needs to be more articles like this.
I couldn’t agree more about the beauty and intrigue of creepy-crawlies. But, LiveVegan, you seem lucky to have never lived in an old farmhouse overrun by flies!
The reasons farmhouses probably have so many flies is because of animal dung laying around. Flies love it. So if we ceased exploiting animals, there would probably be less flies. Additionally if we ceased creating and leaving so much rubbish around, that would also reduce flies. Some farmhouses are in very rural areas where there is no garbage pickup, and so they have their own little garbage dump on site.
Flyscreens are also very helpful 😉
Some nature lovers have taken up following charismatic insects – in my area, some birders become butterfly and dragonfly watchers in summer when the birding is less interesting.
I’m more interested in insects than birds. The variety is astonishing. Just by keeping your eyes open, you can find something new and unexpected. Last week, as my New England landscape was waking up from winter, I saw dozens of tiny bugs on a birch tree, clustered on last year’s seed tassels. I’d found the birch seed bug, about 5mm long and beautiful. With each new insect you find, there is another life story (natural history) and niche to learn about.
Ms. Russell is so right – it’s all about paying attention to the mystery that surrounds us. Her article made me think of a recent outing to southeast Utah where friends and I were royally treated to a cicada hatch. We’ve visited the area for years, but this was the first time we’d seen this particular variety of cicada. They were beautiful with greenish bodies and delicate wings outlined with ruddy veins. Their snapping sounds, four to six in succession, rose and fell throughout the days. We were vexed in trying to determine the specific variety, but ultimately settled on the reality that these creatures were part of a fantastic experience that rivaled the scenery of the landscape. Just as fantastic were the dried husks of their former selves, scattered across the ground, some still clutching stems and branches. It was absolutely marvelous! Thanks to Ms. Russell for her insightful observation and enthusiastic reminder. Thanks also for writing the book “Standing in the Light.” An excellent read!