Bugs: Creepy, Crawly, Weird, and Icky
- Dr. Heather W. Allen Contributing Writer
- 2008 23 Jul
A while back I wrote an article about bug collecting at our home, and I have learned that we are not necessarily a normal family when it comes to bugs. Our family, not normal? How is that possible?
I guess I should have first suspected our “abnormality” when our fifteen-year-old son, who was about thirteen at the time, said that I was not a “normal” mom. He said that “normal moms squash bugs when they see them. They don’t put them in containers all over the kitchen waiting for us to gas, pin, and identify them.” Is that true? Other moms squash perfectly wonderful and fascinating bugs?
Guess what? I’ve found that our son is correct. In fact, other moms make strange faces or shuddering movements when the discussion of bugs comes up in normal conversation, or worse, they scream when you show them your latest find. What is wrong with these women? Here is an incredible creation of God that ranks right up there with snakes and mice in eliciting irrational fear among so many.
That said, I’m writing this article as a plea to consider the creepy, crawly, weird, and icky world of bugs. They are so cool, and in our home we find them fascinating. In fact, all of our cars, as well as all the sheds around our property, are equipped with bug collection containers “just in case.” It boggles my mind to find that others are not similarly equipped and prepared just in case that really creepy, crawly, weird, and icky bug happens to cruise by.
For instance, have you ever seen a Jerusalem cricket? Deborah Wuehler, Senior Editor, emailed me and said, “If you’re doing yucky bugs [insects], Heather, you have to add those Jerusalem crickets to it—those are scary.” See, even Deborah has some negative feelings about bugs. Granted, these feelings might be reserved for Jerusalem crickets, but then again, maybe not. Anyway, our family finds the Jerusalem cricket fascinating. In fact, we have always known them by the name “child of the earth” and have found them, at times, referred to as “potato bugs.”
Jerusalem crickets (Stenopelmatus fuscus) live in moist areas in the desert. Typically they live underground, feeding on plant roots, but sometimes they emerge if driven out by water, heat, or drought. Occasionally hungry predators or curious children dig them up. They are not poisonous but can give a nasty bite if provoked (not speaking from experience of course). If you happen to see one, carefully pick it up by its sides and look into its face. It is a little unnerving, but with one glance you can tell why it’s often referred to as a child of the earth. A Jerusalem cricket has a face that is the most human-like face ever seen on an insect. We often find Jerusalem crickets outside near our animal pens. They seem to like the moist earth near the place where our goats and sheep drink; sometimes we find them under protective layers of hay.
Then there is the vinegaroon, or whip scorpion (Mastigoproctus giganteus). This cool little creature is a family favorite. A vinegaroon looks like a cross between a cockroach and a scorpion. When frightened, it secretes a nasty vinegar-smelling liquid from its long tail. Vinegaroons also have these big pincers that they use to catch and eat other bugs and to tidy up their living areas. We have had two vinegaroons as family pets. Each of them lived for about two and a half years and ate primarily crickets, with an occasional mealworm thrown in as a treat.
They are fascinating insects in that they burrow into the sand, come out to eat whatever is crawling around nearby, and tidy up the area when it becomes messy. Periodically the vinegaroon will immerse about half its body in its water bowl (headfirst) for hours at a time. To this day we don’t understand why this insect doesn’t drown when immersed in water in this manner, but it doesn’t. We’ve never been bitten, directly sprayed, or pinched by a vinegaroon, so I am unable to tell you if the bites, spray, or pinches hurt; however, I can say they are docile creatures who are not looking for trouble, and they are fascinating towatch.
Another family favorite is the black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus). Granted, true entomologists would say a spider is not an insect but rather is an arachnid, but then those of us who are into creepy, crawly, weird, and icky things are not picky about labels. Now that I think about it, a vinegaroon probably falls outside of the true insect category (and is actually in the arachnid family), but like I said, we’re not picky about labels when it comes to bugs.
Now, back to the black widow spider story: One day we were working outside and came upon a beautiful black widow spider. Immediately one of the children ran to get a bug container, and the rest of us prepared for the capture. Actually, the capture was pretty uneventful, at least compared to the capture of the rattlesnake that now resides frozen in our freezer, but it was fun. We merely used a long twig to coax the spider into our bug container; it cooperated nicely and walked in. Once it was in the container, we were able to see the red hourglass on her belly and watch her movements. It is recommended that an adult supervise any interaction with poisonous insects or arachnids. They are dangerous and should be considered as such.
I’m guessing that most normal families would have watched this spider and then let it go after a brief period of observation. (Note that I’m giving these normal families credit for watching it and then letting it go, rather than screaming and then squashing it.) We, on the other hand, being “abnormal,” felt compelled to take our new friend back to the house and transfer her to a bigger container in which she could live for a while. We put some sticks, leaves, and grass in the container, added a little moisture, carefully transferred our spider to her new home, and added a cricket for lunch. At the time, we had four children (I think), and all of us watched as “Spidey” swooped onto the cricket, wrapped it up tight, and sucked all the fluids right out of it. What an amazing sight.
Well, Spidey lived for several months on our kitchen counter, happily eating crickets and “hanging out.” Then, one day, it happened. Spidey decided to produce an egg sac. When something like a black widow spider (living in a bug container on the kitchen counter) produces an egg sac, husbands and fathers tend to take the mature approach and suggest that it is time for Spidey to go. Given that it was winter, and very cold outside, this particular wife and mother pleaded for the life of Spidey and her potential babies. This discussion went on for weeks. Normal (notice the use of the word normal here again) families do not have black widow spiders as pets, certainly not living in the kitchen, and definitely not with egg sacs. Abnormal families think of this as an incredible educational opportunity.
One morning there was a gasp from one of the boys when he discovered that there were babies. We all ran to look and, sure enough, hundreds of cute little black widow spider babies were emerging from the egg sac. Now, in spite of the “abnormal” label attached to me as the mom, I did have the foresight to get our biggest clear bag and secure the whole spider nursery within it. Even I have my limits; I definitely did not want any escapees.
I suggested that we could have a black widow spider baby mail order business. You send in money, and then we send you a black widow spider. After a very short discussion, we figured there would probably be “issues” with such a business, so we didn’t continue that particular line of thinking. For safety reasons, we finally ended up gassing the whole bunch, but we learned so much from the spider experience. Every child and every adult in our family has learned from experiences such as these.
I could go on and on about bugs we have captured and learned about, but those stories will be reserved for future bug issues. Suffice it to say, entomology is a great area of study for the whole family.
How does a family get started learning about bugs? First, purchase some inexpensive bug collection jars of different sizes, along with several bug nets. We typically find them on sale at the end of summer and prefer the jars with magnifying lids, which enable everyone to easily see the bug and its markings. You can never have too many jars or nets. You’ll also want to pick up some field guides to help with identification.
As a family, we have spent many afternoons or evenings identifying bugs. It actually is great fun for all. We also keep journals about our bugs, and several family members spend time drawing their bugs and including labels of body parts, interesting facts, etc. If you are interested in photography, bug collecting is a great opportunity to take fascinating pictures. We have spent some tense moments attempting to capture just the right picture of an insect or spider without getting injured or allowing the insect or spider to escape during the process.
Creepy, crawly, weird, and icky bugs—we are fascinated by all of them at our house. Before you scream and squash the next bug you see, reach for a seldom-used container and carefully capture it. Then pull out your field guide and see if your family can identify what you have captured. It is an incredible experience for all, regardless of age. If you get hooked by the bug bite, so to speak, you’ll find yourself making sure you always have a bug container nearby—just in case.
Heather Allen is The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine’s Town Square chief contributing writer and Senior Analytical Consultant. She has a PhD in Experimental Psychology, served as an Aerospace Experimental Psychologist in the U.S. Navy, and worked 11 years for Sandia National Laboratories. She and her husband Steven have homeschooled their five children for nine years.
Copyright 2008 The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.