It may seem odd to some (or maybe not) that, as an old man, I am enthralled with the birds and the bees. It’s just that now, I sit and watch things more. I’ve noticed bees, particularly.
On my porch there are yellow and orange marigolds growing in pots. Bees go continually from one marigold to the other, arching their furry backs as they feed. I can lose myself in just observing how they go about their lives.
I’ve learned that insects are among the world’s most numerous inhabitants, somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 quintillion. Bugs, as we casually call them, are everywhere; in the tropics, the arctic, deep in the earth and can be found traveling around the earth at distances of 20,000 to 150,000 feet high. There are regulars, like ants and fruit flies that make seasonal visits to my house. Some bugs are rhapsodized, like butterflies and ladybugs, and some become playthings as crickets have been in Chinese culture. Some bugs are universally loathed, like deer ticks, spiders and stink bugs. We find them in the most unexpected and frequently inconvenient places, like the deer ticks that dig in firmly in the folds of our buttocks. They make us miserable.
St. Augustine thought God invented flies as punishment for man’s arrogance.
I know little of insect life. I’ve wondered, since there are so many, how the way they live their lives may inform aspects of our own. I have read accounts of insect life; some are appalling, even horrifying, while others are simply wonderful and totally amazing. Maybe that alone suggests qualities of own nature; qualities that amaze and wonder and others that horrify.
Hugh Raffles wrote a book called, Insectopedia. Raffles is an anthropologist. He explores the work of entomologists and reflects on their studies.
Entomologists study bugs. Like you and me, entomologists are selective in their likes and dislikes. Jean-Henri Fabre was a famous entomologist who lived in the mid 19th century. He was enthralled with wasps, but hated cicadas. He lamented, “The plague(cicadas) of my dwelling which I hoped would be so peaceful.” Cicadas raise a ruckus.
Fabre wrote about the Ammophila, a particular kind of wasp. His description of how she hunts and captures prey is both fascinating and chilling.
She sets upon a larval worm fifteen times her weight. She stuns it with a sting and drags it to her nest. Then Fabre writes, “Like a surgeon thoroughly acquainted with his patient’s anatomy she drives her lancet into the victim’s abdominal segments, first to last, nine stings in sequence –– like surgical strikes.” With her mandibles, she then carefully crushes the worms head only enough to ensure neural immobility. The worm remains alive as her offspring eats it.
It was chilling to read. What a monstrous creature I thought: But then, I don’t bat an eye when I eat raw oysters on the half shell. I have on occasion even delivered live lobsters and crabs into a cauldron of boiling water . . . I will cringe at that. What then is the difference between this wasp and me? I’m enjoying seafood delicacies, but the wasp is ensuring the survival of her offspring. I am only being indulgent while she is acting generatively. Pondering bugs’ habits can be humbling when entertaining any illusions of my moral superiority as a human being.
Some bugs engage in a process called metamorphosis.
Everyone loves the monarch butterfly. They are the stuff of religious iconography, the ultimate symbol of grace and beauty and of course, like the Shore’s snowbirds, they go south for the winter. Unlike the beautiful Venus, butterflies do not suddenly appear, buck naked and ravishing, emerging from a scallop shell. They begin as a non-descript egg as tiny as a pinhead and become hairy and stinky caterpillars. Caterpillars are the scourge of gardeners and arborists; they waste gardens and defoliate trees. The caterpillar bites and eats all the time. Their hairy bodies can be prickly and they regurgitate “unpleasant fluids and repellent odors,” as one entomologist describes it. They sting. Some are poisonous and exhibit lovely florid colors but beware; this is not to invite adoration. The caterpillar is warning predators that should they come for a bite, it will be their last. With metamorphosis, the caterpillar we see is not, at the end of the day, what we get. It will be the glorious monarch.
What fascinated entomologist, Jules Michelet, in the mid-nineteenth century was the entire remaking of the caterpillar by the process of metamorphosis; the caterpillar became, quite literally, a whole different animal. The caterpillar was prickly, smelled, over ate, and had but a few tiny eyes; he had stubby legs, short antennae, and could only creep. In the transformation, the butterfly gained long legs, compound eyes, grew long antennae and could fly. The butterfly was beautiful. All this from a creepy and stinky caterpillar.
I know Americans are bugged these days. We long for a social metamorphosis. I’ve felt in recent years that our social climate is waspish. We are repeatedly stung by dishonesty and injustice. We’re encouraged to sting each other. Our senses are being anesthetized by lies and, like the hapless worm, we watch as our democracy gets eaten alive. That’s not the whole story, however. I sense there’s another process under way, a metamorphosis in the making.
In a chrysalis, the larval transformation of the caterpillar isn’t visible. You can only wonder what’s going. Inside our fragile social chrysalis of today, there are three things in the making: one is the increasing hunger for real justice, as we’re seeing in the Black Lives Matter movement. Another is the disenchantment with lies and the hunger for truth as we’ve seen during the pandemic. Increasingly, the public trusts scientists and epidemiologists, not political leaders for the truth. And finally, the inspiring witness of those who, through the pandemic are risking their lives in the service of others.
What a caterpillar calls the end, a butterfly calls the beginning.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.