For months now, since August, I’ve been tracking my days by bugs.
I use the word bugs in a general and familiar sense. What I really mean are varieties of little creatures with lots of legs, and some with wings: Hemiptera (cicadas especially), insects (mosquitoes mostly, but also dragonflies) and arthropods (spiders primarily). These are the bugs in my life and, like the people in my life, my affections for them vary from fondness to something much darker.
It was their song that attracted my attention in August, all that singing in the heat of the day and into the hot night. How brave of them. Linda Ronstadt says people sing for the same reason birds sing: “For a mate, to claim their territory or simply to give voice to being alive in the midst of a beautiful day.” Cicadas — although I grew up in Nowata County where we call them locusts — also sing to keep the birds away. They sing so they won’t be eaten. Good reason to carry a tune.
Cicadas sing like a small church. A lone song leader begins, then the choir joins in and then the whole congregation. Congregations from neighboring trees take up the song riding the summer heat. They don’t have much breath though, so the song is short lived. A couple of gulps of air and they start all over. By nightfall, they’re sung out, but then tree frogs and katydids step into the darkness and sing until the air throbs with rhapsody.
What spoils this season of insectile joy are tiny mosquitoes that come in great swarms out of thin air. Every year they get smaller and more aggressive. Mosquitoes remind me of Ogden Nash’s poem “The Fly,” which, in its entirety says:
“God in his wisdom made the fly.
“And then forgot to tell us why.”
That goes double for mosquitoes.
We can learn more than we ever dreamed about them in a new book by Timothy C. Winegard, “The Mosquito: A Human History of our Deadliest Predator.” He maintains that this little insect not only killed the dinosaurs, it also has destroyed more people than any single cause, almost half of all humans who have lived.
Winegard posits the malaria they carry affected evolution in prehistoric Africa, decimated armies and shaped history. Malaria stopped Hannibal’s forces in Italy and Genghis Khan’s armies in southern Europe, killed a third of the crusaders en route to the Holy Land and in ancient China drove people to Christianity, a small religion that cared for the sick. The disease-bearing mosquitos that came with Columbus’ ships decimated indigenous people as much as smallpox and influenza. In contemporary times, the mosquito has introduced the scourge of the Zika virus. Oh, so much to hate about mosquitoes.
Another insect that appears in late summer and autumn is the dragonfly, popular in art nouveau, Native American lore and Japanese haiku. I like shimmery dragonflies. They symbolize courage and happiness, and they eat mosquitoes. Beautiful, ethereal and carnivorous; who can resist that combination? Sadly, there are not enough of them to make a dent in the mosquito population.
I am not alone in singing hymns to bugs. Norwegian author Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson has written “Buzz, Sting, Bite,” which reminds us of both the importance and the magic of insects. Although at the bottom of the food chain, they are essential to agriculture and contribute $577 billion to the world economy. Plus, like horror movies in reverse, they shape-shift from caterpillar to butterfly.
Then came October and my favorite, the artistic orb-weaver spider. All spiders are more fantastic than Hollywood animation. They move by using an internal hydraulic system to coordinate 56 body parts — eight legs of seven segments each.
All of these bugs are now creepy, crawly, stinging, biting, singing memories. But they’ll be back. Until then, I’ll spend the winter reading about gardens and anticipating spring without heat, drought or bugs.