Letters From Idaho

Insects Will Not Take Over The World (They Already Own It)

As winter approaches, the insects go underground. What we will miss? Moths that can smell sex a mile away. Butterflies with tongues on their feet. Centipedes able to kill birds. Our man in Idaho reports from the pastoral.

It’s autumn and that means the bugs are going underground. That’s good news for a lot of us. No more earwigs swarming under the barbecue; no more squads of ants muscling decapitated Teddy Grahams across the kitchen floor.

Nobody I know, except my little boys, seems to like insects. Oh, ladybeetles are OK, butterflies are nice, lightning bugs will do. But the lumpen multitudes often strike most grown-up humans as preternaturally revolting. If we pay any attention to bugs, it is in a frantic, guiltless rush to kill them. We extinguish a half-dozen lives on the way to the Subaru and worry only that we’ve besmirched our soles.

What, we grownups want to know, have insects ever done for us? They eat our lettuce, spread our pathogens, gnaw our roofs, raid our cabinets, presage our plagues, and drink our blood. They multiply; they infest.

So all summer long we pry them off our roses and smear their bodies across the windows with dish towels. Insects are fine hovering in the ballpark lights, perhaps, but we don’t want them in our hair, or our soup, or—God forbid—our beds.

My kids, however, seem to know differently. Except for perhaps our dog, insects are the only living animals with which my sons are in regular contact. “PYYDE-err!” Owen shouts and aims his pointer finger and off he and his brother go, clomping across the dining room after a house spider. They crouch over it, they prod it. Revulsion is not in them; revulsion is the farthest thing from their minds. They see a spider and they see life; they see something interesting.

Henry and Owen are 19 months old, and here is what they teach me every day: The world is full of miracles. Every minute, all day and all night, thousands of miracles are happening, at our feet, in our walls, in the soil of our lawns and in the air above our shingles.

The key is to try to forget the world we think we know and try to understand, once again, the world as it is.

Insects comprise more than 75 percent of known animal species. There are somewhere around a million ants for each of us. Some scientists estimate that ants, coupled with termites, make up 20 percent of the planet’s animal biomass.

Insects have superpowers, too. Some species of male moths can smell females a mile away. Dragonflies make airborne love at 30 miles an hour.Believing that we can or do keep insects out of our lives is ridiculous. Even the FDA knows this. Their rules state that “peanut butter is allowed to contain 30 insect fragments per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) and frozen broccoli up to 60 aphids per 100 grams.”

Without bugs there would be no pollination and, therefore, no vegetables anyway. Or birds, or flowers, or hamburgers, or honey, or trout. Or ice cream sundaes. Terrestrial ecosystems would collapse. Dead bodies would rot in the streets.

We might have airports and operas and Wiffle Ball, but Earth is a planet of insects. They are always around to remind us that our way of interacting with the world is just one way. Butterflies can taste with their feet. Some have ears on their wings. Some—brace yourself—have eyes on their genitalia.

Insects have superpowers, too. Some species of male moths can smell females a mile away. Dragonflies make airborne love at 30 miles an hour. Certain centipedes have poison in their mandibles and, according to one writer, “have been seen capturing birds.”

You probably know about butterfly migrations. Monarchs navigate thousands of miles twice a year without getting lost. In southern Texas in 1921, as many as six billion Snout butterflies reportedly congregated and took flight for one huge, sun-blotting migration.

Remember the cicadas? In the Chicago area in 1956, a million and a half adult cicadas emerged per acre of lowland forest. That’s 530 tons of bugs coming out of every square mile of dirt.

There are somewhere around 10 billion insects for every square kilometer of land surface. Think about all those lives, all those murderers and egg raiders, cooperators and queens. Here’s a hypothetical: If a pair of houseflies and all their descendants were allowed to reproduce, without attrition, for a single summer, their offspring would, according to entomologist Gilbert Waldbauer, “cover the Earth to a depth of 47 feet.”

Good Lord. But even one lowly housefly is an extraordinarily cool animal. My brother once took me into Bell Labs, where he works, and showed me a housefly coated in liquid gold under an electron microscope. It was the perhaps most incredible thing I’d ever seen. Whole savannahs of small, soft hairs on the fly’s nose. Hundreds of arcing rows of domes in each compound eye. Whiskers and antennae and veins—there is more intricacy in a barb on the leg of a fly than there is in an entire F-16.

I know we can’t live like 19-month-olds. We’d spend all day playing with leaves and waiting for someone to bring us milk. We turn 20, we turn 40, we work, we get sick, we worry. The beauty—the incomprehensible complexity—of the world becomes familiar to us so that we can bear to get out of bed. Perception becomes habitual. The remarkable becomes ordinary.

But it’s probably important every once in a while to slow down, to lie in the grass at twilight, to watch the ants, to wait for a miracle to go walking past.


TMN Contributing Writer Anthony Doerr is the author of four books: The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and most recently, Memory Wall. He lives in Boise, Idaho, writes the “On Science” column for the Boston Globe, and is a 2010 Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Learn more at anthonydoerr.com. More by Anthony Doerr