When you look at a pond, you might see the pond, or you might see the sky reflected in the pond. When you look at an insect, you might see astonishing beauty, machine-like precision, and superhuman strength, or you might see reflected cultural interpretations: Threat. Pest. Invader. Germ. Defoliator. Parasite.
Relatively abundant and widespread, insects provide some of our first interactions with wild living beings. They are mostly harmless, containable, and amusing. We have innate curiosity about insects, but it often gets stomped out of us as we grow up. The bug-collecting hobby falls by the wayside, and schoolchildren move on to collecting Pokémon cards and fidget spinners. My mother humored my quirky proclivities and fostered my love of insects by providing me with tools to advance in my hobby, so the fascination stayed with me into adulthood. Behavioral biologist Marlene Zuk captures the way such proclivities can make the aspiring entomologist different from other people: “Those of us who study insects are passionate about them in a way that can seem incomprehensible to outsiders. People get why Jane Goodall loves chimps; they are less sanguine about my fondness for earwigs.” As a child, I wanted to be a National Geographic explorer and go on night hikes in search of Monocentropus lambertoni spiders in Madagascar.
A shallow pond would form in our yard when it rained, and, when the sun shone, I’d sit next to the pond for hours, completely absorbed. One day, while staring into the microcosm below the surface, I noticed minute, S-shaped worms, squiggling around slivers of grass that formed the architecture of their world. I collected a water sample in a jar and covered the mouth with pantyhose. The following morning, I went out to the garage, where my mother insisted I keep my specimens, and found hundreds of mosquitoes clinging to the net, some dead, some dying. How had I known the worms were larvae? Intuition.
In the overgrown vacant lot next to our house, I hunted dragonflies, millipedes, crickets, inchworms, caterpillars, snails, and lightning bugs. I remember the phosphorescence of lightning bugs becoming a glowing smear on pavement or skin. Tiny, red spiders that elude most eyes showed themselves to me. I honed my methods; diversified my specimens. I graduated from pickle jars to mesh cages specially designed to house insects. My prize takes were monarch butterflies. I’ll always remember the thrill of catching bumblebees. Grasshoppers were a dime a dozen. I’d make a day of capturing as many as I could. I filled a cage with seventy-two grasshoppers one day. When I discovered fire, I fried the creatures in the flame of a match. I would sneak matchbooks branded with restaurant logos from the cupboard where straws and bags were also kept. No matter where my mother hid them, I would always find the matches. I wouldn’t fry a bug today; that was all in the spirit of early experimentation. However, later in life, I did eat fried crickets, called chapulines, in Mexico—continuing the spirit of experimentation.
In 1997, I trekked through the Ecuadorian Amazon. Rainforest insects are astoundingly big—as big as you imagine they are before you go there. On that trip, I harvested palo santo wood from Parqué Naçional Machalilla, on the Pacific coast. Shamans regard Bursera graveolens as the “holy tree.” Several resinous species in the Burseraceae, or torchwood, family are prized in ethnobotany and used ceremonially across the world, including frankincense and myrrh. The locals on the beach where we camped used palo santo incense to ward off mosquitoes. Most of the palo santo sold today is farmed, due to unsustainable practices in South America that depleted it. No store-bought palo santo has the same, exact scent signature as the wood I’d collected, which had grown wild and died of natural causes. I saved these shards for twenty years, and only recently brought them out of my keepsake box for use in my own rituals.
Now that I have two kids, I can’t go on international expeditions. So, I bring a piece of the outdoors inside by keeping live insect habitats. Our family currently shares our home with stick bugs, praying mantises, and one Brachypelma hamorii tarantula (Mexican Red Knee) named “Princess Leia.” She’s my second tarantula. “Ocho,” an Avicularia avicularia (Peruvian Pink Toe), was my first. I had Ocho for seven and a half years, and she might’ve lived longer had I taken better care of her, since she succumbed to parasites. The guilt won’t leave me. Rest in peace, Ocho.
There’s a lot to be said for teaching children responsibility and compassion through animal husbandry. Most households, however, don’t keep insects as pets, let alone give them names. I’ve tried to do things differently with our daughters. We inherited a colony of Annam Walking Sticks (Medauroidea extradentata) from the nursery school when the science teacher went on vacation. Walking sticks reproduce by parthenogenesis; most captive colonies are entirely female, and don’t need a male to fertilize eggs that produce offspring. So, we had an explosion of nymphs, with five to ten baby stick bugs hatching daily for several weeks. We moved our favorites to a fancy glass terrarium we called “The Mansion” and dubbed the original plastic box lined with soil “The Hatchery.” A few robust individuals thrived and became 3-inch-long adults.
Our daughters enjoy taking them out for an occasional stroll up their arms. The girls giggle and try to hold still while the bugs grab their skin with tiny pincers and crawl up toward their collars. One of us has to wrangle any rogue walkers back into its enclosure. “Katy,” “Perry,” and “Greenie” were treated like family. We’d greet them in the morning, and whisper goodnight to them before bed. We watch, sometimes with magnifying glasses in hand, as the stick bugs gobble romaine lettuce with their many moving mouthparts. The orthopteroid insects have chewing mouths made up of labrum, mandibles, maxillary palps, labial palps, and the lower labium. A walking stick eating looks like an alien with a broom where the mouth should be, and, as the bristles sweep over the edges of the lettuce, the leaf disappears. As walking sticks grow, they must shed their exoskeletons and molt. Many mornings, we delight in the discovery that some of our pets have molted. Sometimes we get to witness the molting take place. The body will pulse with contractions and squeeze out of the old exoskeleton. How cool is that?
Knowing insects as individuals within our household has made the challenges they face outside of our household more real to us. According to Dave Goulson of Sussex University, “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.” Goulson was on a team that observed a sharp decline in flying insects in protected areas of Germany over a period of twenty-seven years. Bird, amphibian, and mammal populations in the same area declined, too. “As entire ecosystems are dependent on insects for food and as pollinators, it places the decline of insect-eating birds and mammals in new context,” observes Hans de Kroon, of Radboud University in the Netherlands. “We can barely imagine what will happen if this downward trend continues unabated.” But research shows insect populations worldwide are in severe decline.
In Europe and the United States, bee populations have declined by 40 percent or more, due to colony collapse disorder. Pesticides and parasites are suspected to cause grave interference in normal beehive productivity. People love their chocolate, honey, and almonds—and at least one-third of the world’s produce depends on pollinators for supply that meets demand. “The decline of honeybee populations has received widespread public attention, in large measure because of their vital role in pollinating food crops,” writes Christian Schwägerl for Yale Environment 360. “The rest of the insect world has been widely ignored.” Rodolfo Dirzo, an ecologist at Stanford University, developed a global index for invertebrate abundance that showed a 45 percent decline over the last four decades. It is hoped that the shock of these findings will prompt stricter bans on the use of pesticides.
Now that I’ve got you worried about the decline of the global insect population, I’d like to paradoxically discuss the mind-boggling excess of their numbers. I hesitate to share this factoid because it is hotly debated, but many sources say that at any given time, there could be 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive on Earth. “There are more species of insects than pretty much anything else in the world. And scientists know there are millions they haven’t identified yet,” says Véronique Lacapra, reporting for NPR on an unparalleled insect census taken in Panama. While about 1 million insect species are known, many times more insect species have not been described. There are estimates as high as 30 million for the number of as-yet-unknown species. In the United States, the number of described species is approximately 91,000. The undescribed species of insects, however, are estimated to be 73,000. (Don’t ask me how they estimate how many species are unknown.) After a certain threshold, beings become too numerous to count. When it comes to insects, an accurate census will never be possible. I wonder, if a species remains undiscovered until it goes extinct, did it ever “exist”?
To avert the “ecological Armageddon” that Dave Goulson warned about will require holistic approaches to habitat conservation. Wild pollinators will be just as important to sustain as agricultural pollinators. Birds, mammals, trees, and plants depend on insects, and our vitality depends on them, too. So, we must protect their ecosystem and resources.
Human beings, it would seem, are steadily moving toward individuation, and away from interdependence. Depending on others may be seen as a weakness in our society. If we took a lesson from the bees, ants, and wasps, many species of which are eusocial—living in cooperative groups with many generations and a division of labor that benefits the swarm—perhaps the pendulum could swing back to a village mentality, where youngsters are raised by elders, cousins, and neighbors.
Our pet walking sticks move and act like robots. They power down and rest with their two front legs extended in front of them, making them appear very long while they sleep. It’s an effective defense mechanism. Nymphs gestate in egg cases the size of sesame seeds, and emerge, miraculously, four times as large as the case. They molt and grow larger for their entire lifespan. They live in harmony in colonies without the cannibalism that preying mantises exhibit when food is scarce. Adult walking sticks lay eggs before they die, producing dozens of clones of themselves. Nevertheless, they aren’t identical. We named “Captain Hook” for the curved nub where her jointed middle leg should be; “Argyle” for her unique diamond pattern that makes her stand out from the others; “Emerald” has bright green legs; and “Discovery” is unchallenged as the largest member of our current fleet. I return to the spectacle of the singular insect as a source of awe and wonder.
What is the value of one human life, when the Earth is teeming and overpopulated? One soul, out of seven billion and rising? When someone dies, they get a eulogy, a funeral, and a memorial. When an insect dies, does he or she deserve a funeral?
When Perry died, we gave her a funeral in our back yard. She’d reached old age at 18 months.
We walked to the burial site single file, hanging our heads in somber remembrance, banging the kids’ tom-tom with a padded mallet. The drumbeat set the pace. I burned some palo santo from Ecuador. My husband, David, played master of ceremonies. He improvised this eulogy:
We are gathered here today,
To remember the life of our beloved late stick bug, Perry.
Perry came to us from Beth El Nursery School.
And, while we thought we were just going to be taking care of Perry for a few days, we wound up taking care of Perry for almost a year. When she came to us, she already was a fairly old stick bug; she might’ve been a year old, which is about as long as stick bugs normally live, but instead she lived almost two years. And she was such a wonderful pet for all of us, so fascinating to look at, she opened up a whole new world for us. We didn’t even know what a walking stick was—or, at least, I didn’t—and she turned out to be really fascinating. And… there she is.
I held Perry in an open casket, which was actually a long, rectangular, cardboard necklace box from Macy’s. Our 8-year-old daughter, Adela, read an original poem:
Perry, you were weary and old
And truth be told
It was meant to be
That your spirit be free and bold
I dug a small pit, and placed Perry’s body in the ground. Then I covered her body and patted the earth over it. Adela had drawn a picture of our stick bugs on the poem. She wanted to ceremonially burn her page. I lit a corner of the artwork, and let it burn until I had to drop it on the burial mound. The smoke spiraled into the air and disappeared.
Adela said, “Look at the fire.”
David said, “Aw, we always wanted a fire pit, and now we have one.” The paper turned to ash, and we mixed the ash with the soil.
I’d recently gone to a rock painting party inspired by The Kindness Rocks Project™, a national movement that encourages people to leave rocks painted with inspiring messages along public walkways. I’d already left some around my town, and this gave me the idea to commemorate Perry’s passing with painted rocks. Our family pressed our painted rocks into the earth, to mark the area of our garden where the stick bug was laid to rest. The next owners of our house will have to decide what to do with the painted rocks that say, “Peace,” and “Greenie,” and “RIP, Perry,” because I can’t in good conscience move them.
I said, “Shalom.”
Adela said, “Shalom.”
Bliss, our 4-year-old, said, “Shalom. Daddy, say, ‘shalom’.”
David said, “Shalom.”
We recessed with the same solemn drumbeat that began the service.
David said, “Goodbye.”
Adela repeated, “Goodbye.”
I also said, “Goodbye.”
Bliss said, “Thanks for being so funny.”
The impulse to mourn the dead is not exclusively human. Chimpanzees will encircle a dead friend, inspect the body or touch it, then sit down with their backs to the corpse, facing out, and temporarily cease their usual rollicking behavior. Elephants will gather round a deceased member of their herd, groaning, and may excrete liquid from their temporal glands, which some interpret as tears. There was a report of a magpie who laid a grass wreath on the body of his deceased friend. Ravens and crows have been known to perform similar rituals.
I beat the drum. With each meditative footfall, the kids said, “Goodbye; miss you; goodbye; we miss you; goodbye; we loved you.” We walked up our creaky wooden stairs and into the house and had lunch together as a family.
This dramatization was our way of preparing our children for the loss of a special person in their lives. We cherry pick from the traditions handed down to us by our parents, and invent new rituals as we go along, to give the kids a framework for how to handle major lifecycle events. Our family of four may seem insignificant among seven billion and rising, but we believe the way we treat Earth’s most fragile creatures makes a world of difference.
This essay was developed on retreat at Omega Institute during the Orion Magazine Environmental Writers’ Workshop, with mentorship from Lisa Couturier.