Insects are creepy. I’ve been watching quite a few documentaries about them lately, and each one only serves to affirm my certainty that they weird me out. In my on-going, intermittent quest for self-knowledge, I ask myself why I’m writing a novel that involves researching, pondering, getting insights into, and writing about a form of life that makes me squirm and twitch with discomfort. So far I don’t have an answer to this burning existential question, but I go on anyway.
In one memorable excerpt, bees ganged up on a vicious hornet who was scouting out bee hives. If the bees could kill the scout, their hive wouldn’t be decimated by the scout’s hornet pals. Instead of stinging the hornet however, here’s how the bees did it in. They surrounded it, and vibrated their abdomens, thus creating heat. The hornet can survive temperatures up to 45c, but the bees can survive temperatures up to 47c. The bees vibrate until the hornet dies of heat exhaustion. Some of the bees die too, but they’re quickly replaced, and the scout can’t go summon its mates to destroy the hive.
In another segment I wish I could forget, the action shifts to central Africa, and a “mating column of flies,” sorry, I just have to say that again, “A mating column of flies,” as it rises from the surface of a lake. Caught on a gust of wind, the “mating column” is blown towards a village, and swamps it, covering and smothering it with millions and millions of tiny little…, I can’t go on. As I was gagging in sympathy with the poor, terrorized villagers and thinking the whole thing couldn’t possibly get any more revolting, the hearty and resourceful villagers came out in force with nets and began scooping the flies out of the air.
Apparently, half a million flies can be compacted into a paddy the size of a hamburger, and grilled. This tempting morsel contains seven times the protein of a beef burger. By this point I was curled up in a ball with my arms over my head and my lunch threatening to make a second appearance, but my chattering monkey mind couldn’t escape the horrifying truth: on an outrageously overpopulated planet with an uncertain future to say the least, what makes more sense, husbanding huge forest-destroying beef cattle, or harvesting protein out of the air. Of course I’m no ecologist, so I don’t know the ramifications of trying to feed the world on bugs, but having raised the question, I’m having trouble setting it aside, and believe me, I’ve tried.
If you’ve read a particular one or two or three ) of my previous posts, you may know that each year on my birthday, I try to do something I’ve never done before. Although it’s fully 10 months away, my current plan is to eat insects. I’ve already planted the idea with a friend of mine who’s passionate about sustainable local food, and asked/challenged her to make this happen for me. I could just go buy chocolate covered crickets or something, and I will if I have to, but I’ve let her know I trust her to source quality ingredients, and present me with something intriguing and provocative. Exactly what it will provoke is unclear. I’m curious about insect flour. I hear it’s indistinguishable from grain flour in recipes. My ideal birthday offering would involve a few delicacies, only one or two of which contains alien DNA, oh sorry, I mean insects.
Why is it so revolting? It’s all a matter of what you’re used to I suppose. I made the mistake of asking a Portuguese friend over dinner once whether she’d ever eaten anything that was still living. I got a spirited answer that made me wish I’d stuck to talking about TV shows or gossiping about our friends. Food is largely about conditioning. Part of the insect thing for me is that, though I eat meat, I eat select parts of animals, not the animal in its entirety. Rationally there’s no reason why one is ok and the other isn’t, but emotionally, one’s normal, and the other is hideously wrong, and I’m really clear about which one is which. For the purposes of my research, it’s insects in their role as pollinators that I’m focusing on, and that’s really pretty cool. As a fiction writer however, I don’t have the luxury of treating this role out of context; like eating a bug, it’s all or nothing.
Some of my favourite metaphors and similes that draw from the insect world:
- a fly in the ointment, to describe a party-pooper
- being bugged by something, like the way I feel when cigarette smokers poison me while I’m waiting for the bus, or trying to enjoy a cold drink on a patio
- an anthill, to describe the subway station during rush hour as I applaud myself for working at home
- a fly on the wall, as I would like to have been when the first person discovered civet coffee was something to write home about
- A beehive of activity, which is the way I’d describe the polar opposite of my dream work environment
- Nit-picking, which describes the polar opposite of my dream boss, ok, I don’t have a dream boss
- mind your own beeswax, although admittedly this refers more to insect husbandry than insects themselves
- worm your way out of that one, worms are insects right?
- that’s a real hornet’s nest, like how you might describe a case of competing human rights issues
- more nauseating than a quarter pounder made from a million mating flies, ok I just made that one up, catchy eh?