Saturday, February 17, 2007

My Life in Bugs, Part Two: Older, But Not Much Wiser

One sunny spring morning in Los Gatos, California, I was sitting in the tiny kitchen of my garden apartment, enjoying a bowl of granola and a cup of coffee. The year was 1975. I was reading the New Yorker magazine while I ate, but something made me lift my head—perhaps an intimation of darkness on the white wall next to the window. There it was, black as soot, black as night, black as a black hole—a black widow spider. Even from a distance I knew immediately it was a black widow. It remained motionless on the white background. I stepped gingerly toward it. Although I was afraid it would leap from the wall and bite me, I had to investigate. As I inched closer, I could see the telltale red hourglass on its abdomen.

I felt a frisson of delight. I was face to face with the spider of legend, a spider that seemed too mythic to die, at least by my hand. Yet, I knew we couldn't coexist. It had to go. So I did the logical thing—I called my husband, Eric, and entreated him to kill it. Eric reluctantly grabbed a newspaper, but that seemed too flimsy a weapon for the task. I handed him the New Yorker. While perhaps no more hefty than the newspaper, at least it had the force of intellect behind it. Eric approached the spider, still motionless on the white wall. As it perceived the shadow of the rolled magazine, it began a rapid crawl upward. Eric took aim and brought the magazine hard against the wall. To our surprise, the fearsome black widow expired as readily as a common house spider.

The black widow wasn't our only uninvited guest during the year we lived in Los Gatos. A few months after that episode, Eric and I returned from a week's vacation. The apartment was stuffy, having been closed up during our trip. I hurried to open the sliding glass door which led from the living room to a tiny patio. As I opened the slider I was met with a sight that could have inspired the insect scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom--earwigs, thousands of them, filling the entire track of the door. A few intrepid ones had managed to get off the track onto the orange shag carpet and were advancing into the apartment. Once again, I did the logical thing—I screamed. Eric came running. During the next hour, he engaged in a truly heroic removal effort. With no more than a broom, he swept the earwigs away, back to their natural habitat. A few survived the onslaught intact, but many were severely injured, and most died. Not having the saintliness of an Albert Schweitzer, I felt no remorse at their demise. And I still can't open a sliding glass door without a shiver of anxiety.

Apparently, I hadn't learned much from my childhood experiences with bugs. I still dreaded most varieties and behaved like a distinctly unliberated woman when I came across them. For better or worse, though, Eric wasn't always around to rescue me. During the late seventies, he was often away on business and my only companions in our Boston waterfront apartment were the cockroaches that freaked me out when I turned on the bathroom light. After we moved to the suburbs in the early eighties, Eric still traveled frequently, so I had to learn the ways of carpenter ants, ground bees, and gypsy moths.

Considering that we lived in a manicured enclave not far from the city, we were visited by a surprising number of bizarre and alarming insects. One year, our screened-in porch was invaded by small, winged creatures. I feared the worst—a termite swarm. I was reassured by my exterminator, Danny, that they were not termites but citronella ants, winged ants which emit a citronella odor when threatened.

Ironically, for someone as averse to bugs as me, I'm even more averse to the use of pesticides. Fortunately, Danny, whose kids went to school with mine, didn't push pesticides on me. Rather, he was a genuine bug enthusiast. Once, when a cicada found its way into my living room, where it died on the windowsill, Danny excitedly asked if he could have it to show his son. He promised me that the citronella ants were harmless and would soon disappear from the porch on their own. When they did, I called a contractor and had the foundation rebuilt in the hope of preventing a return visit.

Once my children were old enough to notice my reaction to bugs, I felt it imperative to display courage and calm in the face of even the scariest invader. Some of my worst moments came when bees got into the house. Nothing seemed more threatening than a frenzied bee in an enclosed space. Many was the time I simply closed off the room with the bee in it until Eric arrived home and worked his magic with a folded newspaper. Usually by then the bee was so exhausted it died easily.

But one summer afternoon, I saw the light. A friend was sitting in the kitchen with me when a buzzing sound alerted us that a bee had somehow gotten in. Heading toward the light, it had found its way to a closed window where it buzzed angrily. I suggested we leave the kitchen immediately. My friend pooh-poohed that idea and instead picked up a glass and a thin piece of cardboard. She put the glass over the bee as it came to rest on the window, trapping it, then slipped the cardboard between the window and the top of the glass. Holding the cardboard over the glass, she carried the imprisoned bee outside, where she set it free. It was a moment of revelation and exhilaration for me. I didn't have to kill the bee! I didn't have to wait for Eric to kill the bee! Better for me and certainly better for the bee! Since learning this amazing technique, I've saved numerous bees, an occasional wasp, and not a few flies.

My biggest challenge bug-wise came when a cicada killer wasp decided to build its burrow beneath our brick patio. The cicada killer is an admirable creature, industrious and protective of its nest. It's also gigantic—nearly two inches long. I first encountered one on a lovely mid-summer day when I stepped onto my patio and it dive bombed me from seemingly out of nowhere. I retreated into the house from where I watched it enter a small opening in the stone dust between two bricks on the patio. In short order, little piles of dust formed around the hole. The cicada killer was building its nest by dislodging soil with its mouth and kicking the loose particles back much as a dog would dig a hole.

From that moment on, I only ventured onto the patio in a state of extreme vigilance. Even then, it was hard to predict when the enormous wasp would emerge, zooming straight toward me. I didn't know then that males, though particularly aggressive, have no stinger. Females will sting but only when provoked. Normally, their stingers are used to kill cicadas, which they then bring back to their nests. Even had I known these fascinating facts, my conclusion would have been the same—the cicada killer had to be evicted. We couldn't share the same patio. I was about to call Danny, thinking this problem might actually require a dose of chemicals, when I happened to mention the situation to my children's babysitter, a feisty older woman who knew many old-fashioned remedies.

"You don't need pesticides," she said. "Just wait until the wasp goes into its nest and pour boiling water on it." Eureka! I'd found a solution to the problem, albeit a cruel one. That very day, I boiled a kettleful of water and waited. When the wasp entered the opening to its nest, I went outside with my kettle and poured the entire contents down the opening. I never saw the cicada killer again. I did feel a twinge of guilt, but mostly I exulted in my newfound resourcefulness. For the next decade, every summer brought another cicada killer to our backyard. Sadly for the unsuspecting creature, I made quick work of it each time.

I could go on and on—the mysterious blistering bites that turned out to be from fleas infesting our East Palo Alto apartment; the palmetto bug that terrorized the kids and me in an Orlando hotel; the humongous, though harmless, millipedes that hung out in our basement and occasionally showed up in our bedroom. You get the picture. Bugs are everywhere. They continue to fascinate, repulse, and sometimes scare me. But I've adopted a laissez-faire approach. Live and let live, unless they invade my personal space. Then I do the logical thing—I call Eric.


Anonymous said...

your story takes me right back to the sweltering summers of my childhood in southern nevada, when the cicadas would fill the trees and buzz obnoxiously each afternoon. if you dared to walk under a tree while the roar was in full force, the impolite bugs would reward you with shower of what I can only imagine was insect pee. had I only known then that there was such a thing as cicada killing wasps, I would have had you ship me a few dozen. Pat (now in Tampa, where the bugs are truly evolutionary wonders!)

Anonymous said...

Your Blog about Bugs takes me right back to your childhood. I remember very well how bothered you were by bugs,and often wondered if you would ever grow out of that fear. You wrote so well about your experiences, that I could see and feel just what you were seeing and feeling. Good job.

Anonymous said...

I am so impressed with how much you know about all these creatures. All I can manage is to scream, call for help, and lump them all together in the icky category! You certainly gave me an appreciation of your curiousity--and I love that when necessary, calling Eric is the appropriate response! Fun one! Judy

Kim Mosley said...


This is so beautifully written. It was really enjoyable to see how you play with language.

Photographers say that the true subject of a photograph is the photographer. In the same way, for me, this is about you, and your ability to bring humor to your relationships with life (bugs, Eric, your exterminator, and your kids).

Thanks so much for such a fun read.


Anonymous said...

I can truly identify. I have many many "bug" stories, usually accompanied by insane behavior on my part. I've tried positive thinking. I've tried logical thinking. I tried shaming myself, but never-the-less everytime I'm surprised/confronted by an insect--especially those Giant House Spiders here in the Pacific Northwest that creep out of the cracks of the universe to breed in the fall--my reaction is predictable and LOUD. My husband is also my appointed "bug-killer."