Bug Love: My Life With All Creatures Small and Smaller

I’ve always loved insects — and they’ve always loved me

Some young girls love horses; I loved bugs.

In fact, I was afraid of big critters and I still am, though I pretend otherwise because it seems too neurotic to run from a cow. Still, not for all the money in the world would I ride a camel in Egypt, pet a dolphin or go on a safari. I don’t ride horses and keep my distance whenever I’m around them. I pretend big dogs are great but secretly wonder how anyone can live with a member of another species bigger than their child.

Maybe it’s because I’ve lived most of my life in big cities where there are way more little critters than big, even if some are irradiated. In the 1980s — when NYC was Ed Koch, crack, graffiti, Times Square porn, break dancing, AIDS, garbage strikes and rats the size of squirrels — I had my first baby in a Soho loft that I shared with my artist husband and a herd of cockroaches and a community of mice. We had these visitors not because our place was dirty but because, like most buildings in Soho then, ours was "mixed use." Below us was a manufacturer of identical eyeglasses like out of communist Russia and a factory that made nothing but black raincoats for Hasidim.

At the time, I was a personal fitness trainer and my day started at 5 a.m. Instead of turning on the light and startling our nighttime friends, or god forbid, killing them, I’d stand in the dark and throw balled-up socks at the kitchen until the scurrying ceased.

By the time our second child came along, we had a cockroach that hung out in the bathroom (“waterbugs,” New Yorkers benignly call them, though they are enormous cockroaches). We named him “Moose,” after the dumb jock in Archie comics, because he put his head in a crack in the tile but his whole body was exposed. The old toddler logic: If I can’t see you, you can’t see me. Moose fascinated my kids with his silly behavior. We couldn’t step on Moose anyway. It would be like a snuff film. My kids also adopted a mouse that came out of a hole in the counter in broad daylight to eat the bits of cheese they left next to a rubber mouse (lest he not know it’s for him).

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My love of bugs started when I was 6 and we moved to a new tract housing development deep in the San Fernando Valley. Before the endless rows of badly constructed identical houses appeared, there were farms and fields — even ranches, I’ve heard. On the newly seeded lawns that we children knew so intimately, there were all kinds of bugs that had probably been there for ages before we were. There were pills bugs that rolled up when you touched them and potato bugs that were the muse for the Cootie game and all sorts of beetles. I liked staghorn beetles best. You could put a rock on a staghorn, and when you moved it, the beetle reared up waving its crazy antlers at you. There were also horny toads truckin’ along and fast lizards to try and catch by the tail so it would break off (they grow a new one).

When I was still 6, I turned a corner at school and a gigantic grasshopper jumped on my sweater. I was way too shy to scream, so I gasped back tears and continued to walk. The grasshopper turned its pretty green head, as they do, and we watched each other and then I sat on a rock and willed it to jump in the grass and it did.

Decades later, I walked into my house on Long Island, stepped in the dark kitchen and something jumped on me — it was a cricket. The room was overrun with crickets from wood stacked against the house. I remembered when I was 6 and shrieked for both of us — the child and adult me.

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For days after, there was a cacophony of crickets in the kitchen as I shepherded each one outside in designated cricket-catching Tupperware. It wasn’t that I was scared of them, but we weren’t living together in harmony, bug and woman — they were trying to take over.

A few years ago, in Brooklyn, I encountered the coolest bug I ever saw in my life: the Eastern Cicada Killer. My dogs and I were in Prospect Park on a summer day when a slow, low-flying blob of an object passed us. It was clearly two different species stuck together. I watched in fascination as a giant wasp with its much larger cargo slowly propelled around people toward a hole in the ground and then vanished.

Had it been the days of yore, I would have headed up to the Entomology department at the Museum of Natural History, but instead I relied on the Internet. I learned that the wasp stung the cicada into a coma and then transported it into its lair to lay eggs on it. The wasp then covered the nest so the cicada could not get out, in the event it came to. When the offspring hatched, they had a live bug feast. That is about the most amazing thing ever.

Recently in Northampton, where I now live, and where there are more big critters than tiny ones, I returned from the farmer’s market with a bag of vegetables. Lo and behold, looking up at me, perched on the lettuce like it was the Produce King, there was a cricket. It wasn’t the huge camel cricket, some of which I found in my Long Island kitchen, but its ordinary black cousin. I tied up the bag and fretted. Then I remembered that my new downstairs neighbor, who I hadn’t yet met, was doing his doctorate in entomology!

I don’t know that he appreciated his date being interrupted by a batty lady from upstairs asking if he’d remove the cricket from the lettuce, but as he dropped it on the front lawn he did smile when I told him about the Eastern Cicada Killer and said “sure” when I suggested we talk bugs sometime in the future.

Tags: memoirs

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