Jessica Gross | Longreads | July 2019 | 14 minutes (3,842 words)
The ants arrived with the heat in May, streaming into my bedroom through my air conditioner. My roommate had covered hers in tape earlier that week, and I used her supplies to block any and all points of entry. Me: in. Insects: out. I can imagine the disgusted grimace I wore on my face as I taped and taped. One of the ants got caught underneath, and I remember feeling a perverse sense of retribution.
I thought about this stance a lot while reading ecologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s new book, Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects, which first came out in her native Norway last year. With a combination of delight and passion, Sverdrup-Thygeson makes the case that, first, insects are fascinating creatures who deserve our curiosity, and, second, they are essential to our survival and deserve our protection. As I considered the multitude of impressive and strange facts she presents (there’s a species of swallowtail butterfly with eyes on its penis, and spiders’ silk is, on a per-weight basis, six times as strong as steel!), I was transported back to childhood. I remembered how, when my parents lay new sod in the backyard, my brother and I peeled it back to find the worms slithering underneath. I remembered plucking cicada shells off trees and storing them in a shoebox, which I kept in my closet for years. Back then, bugs didn’t disgust me — they filled me with a sense of wonder.
When we spoke over the phone in early June, Sverdrup-Thygeson suggested that the disdain for insects that I and so many others have grown into isn’t natural or necessary, but a learned response. Witnessing her awe, as she put it, for these tiny creatures, it was hard not to feel that she was right. I haven’t stripped the tape from my air conditioner, but when I saw a little bug crawling up the wall of my shower a few weeks ago, I let it be, and took a moment to marvel at the way it moved with such delicate grace.
You describe in the book how, when your children were in elementary school, you would turn brown mud over with a metal sieve for them to see all the bugs, and get excited about them. So I wondered if you could start by talking about your own childhood relationship with insects. Was that something your parents instilled in you? When did this fascination begin?
Yes, I think it started when I was a kid. My family spent a lot of time in the outdoors — we picked berries and mushrooms in the fall, and we went skiing and slept out in a snow cave in the winter. We did all these things together. We also had this very simple cabin on a tiny forested island in a lake. There were no other houses on this island, and there was no electricity, so no television, of course. You pretty much had to play with whatever was there, which was nature.
So I got used to having bugs around me. Even if I sat reading, I would still sit in nature: bugs would crawl over me or fly past. When we put fire on the firewood, which was how we kept warm if it was cold, there would always be bugs in these pieces of wood. It was part of life to have bugs around, and it never occurred to me it was supposed to be annoying, or something to fear.
I also had a grandfather who was really good at showing me not insects, really, but other things in nature. He told me the names of flowers; he taught me birdcalls so I could recognize them. And I think that meant something. If someone you love shows you that nature means something to them, that transfers and has a lot of impact on a small kid. Read more…