2007.07.11 Bugs—the good, the bad and the bling

Written by David Green.

Guest column

By Heather Walker Whitehouse

Despite being a vegetarian, my sympathy for living things pretty much ends this side of bugs, particularly nasty bugs that occasionally sneak their way into the house—spiders, silverfish, the occasional earwig—ugh. If anything deters me from squishing one of those disgusting intruders it is my gag reflex alone—not my soft heart. Trust me, I have a shoe and I know how to use it.

Nonetheless, there are certain bugs I will not kill. For instance, the roly poly. You know what I’m talking about, those small, grey beetle things that roll up into a ball when frightened? Yeah, too cute to kill. And then there’s the Daddy Long Legs—a spider, yes, but without all the leg hair. I just try to scoot them out the door whenever possible. And how could we forget the moth, the box elder bug, the ladybug or the bumblebee (the latter too closely resembling a small dog to be swatted indiscriminately).

Though my no-kill list may be longer than most, I suspect almost everyone would agree there is one bug that one should never—not ever—kill. That bug is the sweet, lantern-toting firefly (known affectionately in these parts as the lightning bug).

I remember as a child carefully collecting lightning bugs and placing them in translucent plastic containers with plenty of air holes punched through the tops. How gingerly my siblings and I handled the creatures, mindful not to damage their delicate bodies. How lovingly we furnished them with grass and clover, not only for rest but for food. How enthusiastically we brought them inside for the night, much to our mother’s chagrin.

OK, I admit, I do wax a bit nostalgic on the theme of lightning bugs. And OK, the truth might not be quite as idyllic as I let on. I think we may have gotten those plastic tubs from my grandma’s collection of old liver containers, and the lids we perforated actually sported the words “Brookview Farms” between two iconic cow heads, meaning the “farm” is really a butcher shop. And yeah, apparently lightning bugs don’t eat grass or clover. They actually prefer a fleshy meal of snails, slugs, earthworms—or, in a pinch, fellow lightning bugs. But hey, what’s a little cannibalism between friends?

Besides, childhood means nothing if not blissful naiveté and the ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Catching and keeping lightning bugs seems to epitomize both.

Or so I thought.

Imagine my horror when recently I attended a family gathering and witnessed what can only be described as the senseless torture and mutilation of lightning bugs at the hands of (are you sitting down?) little girls!

Apparently the practice of ripping the glowing hind abdomens off the bugs and sticking them onto parts of one’s body as jewelry is the latest craze in “bling” fashion.

“But they’re alive! You’ll kill them!” I cried incredulously to the girls.

“So?” was their only response, as they giggled and ran away.

My initial reaction was to interpret the experience rather cynically as a metaphor for the reckless, materialistic, “it’s all about me” culture of today, but I’ve had second thoughts about that. I suppose in their own way those girls are experiencing youth in much the same way I did—naively and even simply, albeit in a 21st century sort of way.

I remember at their age adorning my hair and bicycle with flowers from the ditch and making bracelets from dandelions, despite the sticky milk of their stems. Those innocent acts of my youth were done in the same spirit as the girls and their jewelry-making—in all cases the materials used were borrowed from nature, free of charge, and seemingly unlimited in supply.

Besides, it is strictly a personal choice that I avoid killing animals. The vast majority of people have no problem following the food chain by enjoying a steak or burger, and they certainly have no qualms about swatting an insect that comes their way. It would be unfair and, yes, even hypocritical of me to pass judgment on the girls’ actions.

After all, if they were weaving tiaras from earwigs or scarves from silverfish, my reaction would be much different—something along the lines of “good riddance.”

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