The Bugs and Us – Who Bugs Whom | Online Lifestyle Essay

The Bugs and Us – Who Bugs Whom

The Bugs and Us – Who Bugs Whom

They fall from the sky, emerge from the ground, fly across your face, crawl up your back. Bugs that fly, flies that sit, spits the spittlebug, and thus comes spring! We live around them, and they live around us. We are intrigued by them, repulsed mostly, adore them sometimes, but most of all, do we know they were here first!

Is always every surface of the house mapped, named, and claimed for human habitat? Could there be tiny spots of shared spaces where the insects run their ‘BnB’ during their touristy season? What are the seasons in a bug’s life? They have one for weddings, I am sure, one for having all the babies for the whole year, and of course the season for industrial level food production or procurement, before they go into mass hypnosis and then death, leaving behind countless newly orphaned critters and crawlers of all kinds.

Who named these bugs? Have all the bugs on the planet got discovered and named? I understand the scientific naming process, mostly after the dude who first finds them inside some marshy wet forests of Costa Rica, but the folksier names are worth a review. Sometimes they are simply names that mean smelly in a local dialect. Sometimes sticky and sometimes simply poop - the ones that push balls of dung around, the dung beetles, I mean. The English names give a much more refined foreign ring to it.

How many times have you been called by the name of a bug? and how many times have your friends named a bug after you? Calling you by some bug name implies a shaming observation about your weight, about your gait, about the sound of your voice, and sometimes even about the frailty of your very being.

We have mini rain forests in our homes. Spiders, flies, beetles, ants, wasps, booklice, and the list goes on. How buggy is a household depends on the dweller’s openness to coexistence and simultaneous self-preservation. Bugs are everywhere on earth. Their biodiversity is overwhelming, their ecological success a marvel. But those that visit or live around us humans daily, the encounters and interactions throughout the lifetime of both the species- us the less hairy bipeds and them with all the dramatic features, is often surprisingly so entangled and deep that they do warrant at least a thousand words of pure bewilderment.

I will skip the miseries associated with episodes of pest infestations and consequent catastrophes on agriculture and general human well-being. Those pests form less than one percent of the total number of insect species on earth. That war of the species will get covered on another day. I will also gleefully omit mentioning the ones living in our bodies in various forms and sizes - way too gross and abhorrent for literary ruminations. This is an essay about the daily mini wars and cases of cooperative space sharing. Who came to live on whose property is never quite settled – the bugs in ours or us in theirs. Who will decide who is the pest here!

When we live together by habit

We cringe. We loathe. We are disgusted. We can’t waste even a few seconds before pressing the trigger on the repellants. But our encounters are inevitable. Each of the bugs is so unique, and the way they affect our lives thus generates a different distinctive human reaction. One doesn’t have to be a naturalist to spot the behavior-altering patterns in these interactions between humans and bugs. During childhood, we are more fascinated by these creatures and are kinder and more gracious. With familiarity, we only learn to despise them.

Sometimes bugs belonging to the same insect family but are distant cousins, affect our lives in different ways. For example, the red ants warrant a different reaction than the far less malign black ants. Then the ants that fly are so less creepy than the unsightly ones that lay eggs in troves in the damp corners. Although universally disliked, our reactions to bugs primarily draw from our childhood experiences and myriad other cues like the olfactory, auditory, or visual. The dramatic swarms of the bug cult have been the source of inspiration for movies, limericks, songs, and now Data Science and AI.

The dragonflies signaling the rains. The flies implying garbage nearby. The grating termite sending one into a psychotic rummage to find them right then, even if it means to crack open everything made of wood in the house – from window to the floor to the cutter board. The caterpillars infesting the Gulmohar tree in the backyard. The ants taking over the kitchen countertop and almost the entire house during summers. The electrical sockets that are rendered useless for the whole spring when the wasps lay eggs inside them behind the white sealings they secrete and then hatch into tiny wasps, and finally, the families are packed and gone to face a wild world. Later, when you try putting in a plug inside the abandoned sockets, you are worried that you might end up squishing one or two tiny wasp babies accidentally left behind. There are never-ending myths and legends surrounding insect life, insects in religion, insects in relationships – like the butterfly signifying beauty, love, and marriage. But then the silk moth, the butterfly’s lesser handsome cousin, feeds on the wedding silk saree kept in the closet during an entire winter. Days following the shocking discovery the next summer are hopelessly spent in sad nostalgia of the beauty of the shy bride that glowed in the evening lights resplendent in the red, gold motif fabric that draped her. The same moth has beguiled the poet, lost in thought, sitting next to that window overlooking the street and counting the circles on its wings till it abandoned her with a startling flight. How often do we find that dead mosquito fossiled in between the pages of a hard-bound book that has sometimes remained there till scratched off casually a generation later by some tidy reader!

Not just Swami from Malgudi, we all have played in the rains placing the unsuspecting ants on paper boats and see them set sail in tiny roadside puddles; deftly snatched a tiny ball of sugar from their formidable grip, drawn crazy lines around their colony, put sugar jars crawling with them in a plate of water and watched them huddle around the moat of water, have shifted their attention with giveaway sweets just to keep them away from our favorites. We have learned not to shriek at the sight of the rice weevils on opening the jar after a long time and poured the grains out on a tray laying it in the scorching sun only to find the critters crawl to nowhere and gone. The carpet beetles are a handful, I agree, but the unsightly centipedes are, in fact, the unsung heroes – devouring almost all the other bugs in the house. The bugs seldom come in search of food. It is mostly always the weather. How much of this is peaceful coexistence and how much is war is hard to say.

When it means war

In popular culture, if all you do at work is kill the pesky mosquitoes with the clap of your palms, then you are lazy. If you don’t and would rather sit through the blood-sucking monsters buzzing around your head, then you are slow. You shield them off; you are safe. You fail; you are dead. This war was won through medical science. And the same science sometimes carries these pesky rogues from place to place, accidentally jet-setting inside transcontinental airplanes, from the tropical beaches to tundra grasslands. The wall-stains of smashed mosquitoes must be the story of their martyrs – the wall of smashed heroes, regular museum display for their seasonal tourists in the mosquito world. Only Female heroes though, the male mosquitoes died for nothing. They would rather suck nectar from flowers and mind their own business, but alas to the human eye; the mosquito gender is hard to spot. To humans, any mosquito is a parasite and therefore should be smashed.

Then there’s always the roach that got away. They are the ultimate villains of the humans among all the household bugs. They bring the other bugs – the microorganisms like bacteria. They procreate like nobody’s business. Their army is formidable and never retreating. They unknowingly and most reluctantly foster romance among the human species – when the petrified lady squirms at their sudden sighting, but then the cape flaunting hero boyfriend squirms too, especially when the villainous roach takes flight and begins to hover like a copter over their heads.

As far as the spiders are concerned, they deal with way too much unwarranted bad press. Even the recurrent portrayal in popular media (globally) as the quintessential villain makdi (Spider) is grossly undeserved. They are mostly harmless, and apart from preying on other damaging household bugs, they are, on the contrary, hidden inspiration for many Robert the Bruces.

Nature’s ultimate Reality – The Food Chain

The case of the food chain, always our best argument before we start eating other living creatures on this planet. It looks like very soon the bugs are going to be on our menu more regularly. We are going to have industrial-scale production of insects as food for human consumption. They will be our new fast food. We are entirely exhausting one food chain and then creating a new one. But no, even that would not upset the insect ecosystem. They will win. They always do.

We perhaps don’t just love or hate bugs. Our interaction with the day-to-day insects is somewhat nuanced and not fully understood. We don’t fully value their being there around us, but again we have allowed them to shape our habits and behaviors so consistently that it almost feels like we would not entirely enjoy their absence, and in fact, doubt if we would manage to survive at all in their absence.

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Author: Staff Contributor
Illustration/Photograhy: TDLM Design Team

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July 19, 2021