Insect torment – the road to sociopathy?

The Revenge of the Flaming Roaches tale in my “Madcap hazmat” entry might suggest that I take great delight in tormenting insects, or at least reading or hearing about such. After all, the nasty little kid who pulls the legs from hapless flies is an archetype. But is this truly sinister? Is insect torture the gateway drug to tormenting puppies and kittens then moving on to Jeffrey Dahmeresque gorefeasts? I think not.

I grew up on a farm so I had the opportunity to observe many different kinds of bugs. I had no fear of insects, and in fact, genuinely liked most six legged critters. As a kid, I loved watching ants, beetles, and grasshoppers. Cicadas fascinated me, and I collected their discarded shells. Even better were the cicada killers, a species of wasp which hunts cicadas and paralyzes them with venom. Please check out Professor Chuck Holliday’s page for detailed information on this fascinating bug. One of these formidable wasps set up a homestead, namely an earthen lair, near the foundation of our house. Putting a pragmatic distance between the wasp’s home and myself, I hunkered down and watched the wasp come and go from her burrow. Finally, I saw the wasp ponderously glide in for a landing, and lug a stunned cicada into the little tunnel. I knew that down in the dark, the wasp would deposit eggs via her ovipositor into the still living cicada. The eggs would then hatch, and the larvae would devour the cicada and overwinter before bursting forth as young wasps the next season. My familiarity with this gruesome reproductive tactic may have been the reason that the movie “Alien” truly freaked me out. The concept of larvae in a host was nothing new to me, but to see it realized in such a ghastly way, if only cinematically, with human-as-cicada was horrifying.

Our farm’s honey bees, which lived in an old hive in our orchard, were great: cute, industrious little champs with complex behaviors. The bees sometimes fell into the water trough for our cattle, and I rescued them. Initially, I used a stick as lifesaving device so the bee could crawl onto it. Later, when I realized that honey bees would not sting if handled gently, I used my finger to lift the bee out of the water. I liked watching ants, also captains of industry, but they were not as endearing as the honey bees.

We regarded bumblebees and yellow jackets as pests so they were fair game for insect torment. These loutish rugby-shirt striped hymenopterians tended to nest in less than desirable places, including the hay and straw mangers. This was quite unpleasant for a heifer or steer which unwittingly chomped down on some bee filled hay. In an ill advsed attempt at extermination, my brother and I often ventured into the barns, shook bumblebee nests in the straw with a pitchfork, then swatted the enraged yellow and black suckers with badminton rackets. I was stung more than once playing this game. We also engaged in a risky activity dubbed “bumblebee plipping” in which we would lurk by a patch of false dragonhead plants whose tubular flowers cover tall stalks. These attracted a somewhat smaller variety of the bulky how-can-it-fly bumblebee. Using the time honored configuration of thumb and forefinger, we flicked the bees’ backsides while their heads were immersed in the heart of the flower. The object was to stun ’em but not kill ’em. We gave the bees a fighting chance by removing our shoes for this activity. Barefooted, we danced with pain over a gravel driveway, which abutted the bed of false dragonhead, to evade the highly annoyed bees.

So, by and large, I had no problems with insects other than mosquitoes, flies, bedbugs (encountered these horrid little beasts at 4H camp), chiggers and cockroaches which became all to familiar during my years of living in the rabbit warrens of undergrad apartments and in the labs during grad school. Roaches are disgusting bugs. They grew to large proportions in the labs, and one could hear them scuttle when the lights were turned on. However, I admit I found the Madagascar hissing cockroaches to be kind of cool. A former boyfriend (now a geologist and an old fart like myself) had a pair of these which he kept in a small vivarium. He also had a seven foot boa constrictor which we tucked away in my apartment since we figured our mutual landlord, who roundly forbade him from keeping a snake, wouldn’t suspect that a woman would harbor such a beast. Sexism worked to our advantage in this case.

Another one of my favorite insect-torment stories came from one of my architectural design studio instructors (I had a checked undergrad career). He and his grad school classmates captured flies and sedated them by chilling them briefly in a refrigerator. Then, my instructor and his artsy classmates quickly glued little slivers of balsa wood and tissue paper to the abdomens of the sleepy bugs. When the flies regained full consciousness and flew, a vertiable squadron of fly-planes filled the air. A Google search of “fly plane” reveals that this is not a wholly original concept, but my instructor and his friends used far more intricate designs. After all, they were artists! I have to wonder if the Flypower product line is somehow connected to my instructor and his chums since there are distinct similarities between his design and the fly plane product offered on Flypower.

So, yes, some fine upstanding citizens of my acquaintance have engaged in insect torment. A truly kind animal lover is welcome to go Jain on my ass, but I never felt the temptation to willfully torment a bunny, a puppy or a kitty. And I never have entertained the thought of bringing home the bacon by way of homicidally harvested “long pig.” Still, karma is karma, so I may well wind up in some circle of Dantean hell, buried up to my neck in sugary pollen and nectar, butt waving wildly in the air, only to be “plipped” by an plutonian imp.

Photograph by Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service