My daughter made a new friend at school today.

But her fresh acquaintance was not gifted with the standard two legs: rather, it had six, and a hard shell.

A shield bug came to visit her during a national test.

It’s a spindly legged leaf-chewer with a shield-shaped set of boney wings, and a cheeky-chappie attitude .

Every child in their sixth year of schooling must take standard assessment tasks this week, and today it was the turn of the mental arithmetic paper, during which time is short and concentration is king.

Apparently the bug tried some blatantly attention seeking behaviour, wandering onto the space where Maddie was just about to put a 5.

It gazed engagingly at her, and won her young heart. If it had been a frog, and she a princess, this could have been the beginning of something big; but bugs just don’t have the same kudos as frogs, which is saying something because frogs are generally considered something of a mythical eyesore.

The bug’s lack of charisma was underlined later: much later, as the class were about to go home for the day and my daughter was bidding farewell. A peer in a not particularly engaging class exclaimed in loud disgust on beholding my daughter’s new friend, and trod on it before anyone else could fraternise with it.

Poor little living thing. Its path to princedom, or at least a happy bug life, brought to a sudden halt. Because few of us can admit to having a true regard for insects.

There are those who adore them. The composer, Harrison Birtwhistle, for one. This week I listened to the most extraordinary radio programme inspired by moths, those buzzing night-spirits which get trapped in our hair and our nightmares.

It was called Requiem for a Moth.ย 

It seems that some find them quite beautiful. Birtwhistle has become entranced by the creatures and their fairy-tale names.

As a child he ordered silk-moth eggs. He put them in a drawer over the winter. One morning, nine months later, he woke and the whole wall was covered with hundreds of baby silk-worms, moving in a fan up the wall.

Do you love them, asked the gifted presenter, because they are despised?

It’s partly the mystery, and their names, Birtwhistle told him. Umbra, woodiana, prolita, green-brindled crescent, beautiful arches, lunar underwing. Their names read like a poem, he says.

He talks about imagos, the last stage of development into an insect. Some composers, says Birtwhistle, come into the world fully fledged imagos, with technique and memory: all one needs to be a composer.

“I’m not like that,” he adds. “Everybody’s better at doing things than me. Life’s not been like that for me. Maybe I’m in the larval stage right now.”

His orchestration and sketches for his Requiem for a Moth are full of mystery and winsome beauty worthy of these winged wraiths.

Our children’s stories are peppered with caterpillars turning into butterflies, bad-tempered ladybirds, wise spiders and engaging ants. Our youngsters love insects. But somewhere along the line between childhood and our adult years we grow a revulsion.

There is one overriding example of sympathetic adult writing about an insect, and its circumspect perceptiveness both enchants me and breaks my heart.

It’s not a novel one is naturally drawn to, this short offering by Franz Kafka, ‘Metamorphosis’ because it’s about hard-working young man, Gregor, who wakes up one day to find out he has turned into a very large insect.

Don’t stop reading. Our revulsion kicks in at such a basic level it is easy to close the book and walk away. But it’s so very short, and written with true genius: a matter of fact account of how it feels to ย wake up and realise one is two hours late for one’s train into the city. What is more, one is unable to get up because one is lying on a hard shell for a back.

It is the detail that captures us right at the outset: the absurd juxtaposition of his boss coming to the house to see where he is, and his family knocking on the bedroom door; and all the time his speech is now that of an insect, and they cannot understand a segmented syllable he is saying.

And then as time wears on and it becomes clear his state will never change, his family can only view him as a burden who repulses them and frightens away paying lodgers.

His beloved sister, for whom he had such plans when he was a human, loses her self-control and rants to the family: the insect is no longer Gregor, their brother. If it had been, he would have left long ago to save them the heartache and inconvenience of living alongside an insect.

The following dawn, Gregor decides without rancour, he must go. And as the sun rises he chooses to breathe his last.

He is an outcast in a desolate, uncaring world: not a million miles from those moths, or my daughter’s little bug today. Gregor’s death is met with relief. What a clever metaphor for a young man to choose, to show utter dislocation from a loving, caring world.

No point in being naive about these little creatures: they can defend with every millimetre of their being with stings and antlers and body armour a-plenty.

But it’s as well to remember they, too, have earnt their place on this planet.

29 thoughts on “Bug-ologist

  1. i have a soft spot for silkworms, those busy-eating fat soft worms (white or if you are lucky black and white striped) that enchant children.

    then the moths, especially those gently powdered ones that fly as quietly as an owl and suddenly appear.

    ladybugs, those lovely little red circles with the impossible black dots that eat the things that destroy the roses

    but then we have something we call a Parktown Prawn. Actually a king cricket. An insect of nightmares!

      1. Sidey, I am briefed now. Thank you ๐Ÿ™‚ Having read and giggled I went to look for pictures. I am now truly horrified. Strike all the sympathy in the post: if I ever come to SA I’m packing a tennis racket and a brick.

      2. They are indeed more fearsome, Kate, don’t even look at the Parktown Prawn, it is the most repulsive thing in the world!

      3. Too late, Cindy, I’ve been following up Sidey’s leads….I read about it first and went all sympathetic, what with the males finding the females through chemical communication and all, and then looked.

  2. Another winged wonder, Kate.

    I do not despise bugs . . . but I prefer them to stay out of doors. When possible, we capture them unharmed inside and escort them to the door.

    Charlotte, of course, is my favorite Arachnid.
    Praying Mantis are a delight to behold.
    Ants are so terribly industrious.
    Flight of the Bumblebee ~ my first classical fave.

    Gregor’s fate is a terrible one, but still I had to laugh at: And then as time wears on and it becomes clear his state will never change, his family can only view him as a burden who repulses them and frightens away paying lodgers.

    Wish you lived nearby, Kate, so that we could attend the new exhibit at the South Florida Museum together:

    Sweet dreams!
    Don’t let “those buzzing night-spirits . . . get trapped in [your] hair and [your] nightmares.”

    1. That’s the strange thing about Kafka: as desolate as the story is, his sense of the absurd always shines through. Poor old Gregor.
      Ants! What a wonderful exhibition! We are busily planning our own ant farm as I type….

  3. Oh poor Maddie. Poor child.

    Shield bugs are fascinating. Our mint patch has gloriously metallic green beetles that glisten, but I have not identified them.

    For me my reaction depends on the type of insect. I’m sensitive to wasps, but intrigued by them, love bees and beetles, except for the mad Maybugs that batter themselves against the window at this time of year! I don’t like daddy long legs any where near my hair, but love butterflies.

    Silver fish: how do they appear out of nowhere?

    Here’s a little something I wrote earlier:


    Moths drawn by light
    to the white wet bath
    make grey smudges
    of damp dust
    โ€˜til overcome
    they give up
    surface tension stronger
    than the struggle it seems

    while fragile craneflies
    smooch along the wall,
    buffeting their way
    in search of a partner
    for their ungainly dance
    of Daddy Long legs
    with Mummy Long Legs
    linked one to the other
    for sex on the wing

    their only fling:
    their single chance
    before they die.

    1. Oh, that is gorgeous, Pseu! Thank you! That single chance -such a poignant part of an insect’s life. Although, maybe it’s all a matter os temporal scale, and their short lives feel like three score years and ten ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Too true. And if it is all you know, you don’t know what you’re missing …

  4. Some of very similar appearance to that one, known with great originality as stink bugs, show any displeasure by depositing upon one a substance which pongs to high heaven. I am sorry to hear about the leaf cutter’s demise – I am also inclined to rescue crawly things from swimming pools or the attention of cats.
    I also have an insecty post coming – when time and speed of line permit. Only this is on spiders.

  5. I’m definitely with Viewfromtheside on Parktown Prawns – utterly disgusting creatures which, thankfully, we don’t get here in Oz, but I remember them only too well. As usual, your post has immersed me in a subject I wouldn’t otherwise have thought about in the morning pause before work ๐Ÿ™‚ and set me wondering why we’re repulsed by some insects but not by others…

  6. That reminds me of a story Jack Paar told about visiting Albert Schweitzer. They were sitting and talking when Paar saw an ant crawling on Schweitzer’s collar. Paar reached over and brushed it off. Schweitzer looked at him sadly and said, “It was MY ant.”

  7. Too bad about the untimely demise of your daughter’s new-found friend – her peer, like so many humans, must have been labouring under the delusion that what we find repulsive, everyone else must also find repulsive…

  8. My daughter has a fondness for ladybugs. She once gave one a ride on her arm for a long stretch as we were hiking.

    I’ve never braved reading Metamorphosis – your description of it is intriguing. I may have to give it a go.

    1. I’ve avoided it for years, Patti. it’s full of a strange, detached compassion. And of course that sense of the absurd which appeals to me. Certainly, it’s worth a try ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Just catching up after a tiring week, Kate, and oh, how I enjoyed this.

    Has Maddie read Charlotte’s Webb. She must, though have some tissues on hand for the tears that always sprout when I read it. A childhood classic.

    We have an interesting cycle here of the 17 year cicada. This locust emerges from deep in the ground as if on cue once every 17 years. They tunnel their way up to daylight, by the millions, crawl up trees and whatever else they can climb up, shed their hard armor, mate and die. The birds and dogs and skunks and raccoons and most of wildlife feast on them. The mating is unbelievable, especially the ear piercing chorus that goes on for weeks, drowning out all other sounds. So frantic are the cicadas in their pursuit of each other, that one runs from car to door to store to wherever avoiding them (all while keeping one’s mouth closed). The eggs are laid, the parents die, leaving quite a mess to clean up, and the newbies slowly crawl underground, using the tunnels their parents made, where they stay for 17 years until they emerge and begin the cycle again. I’ve lived through 3 cycles and remember each and every one. Any child seven years old remembers his or her first cicada summer.

    1. That sounds almost nightmarish, Penny: I would have to keep myself under tight rein to be a part of it! Keeping ones mouth closed especially! 17 years, though, is a very long time. What a miraculous thing nature is.

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