Words Matter

Two bumblebees sleeping on New England asters in my garden — not icky at all!

Gross. Icky. Scary. Disgusting. Creepy crawlies. Those are the kinds of words often used to describe bugs. If you do an internet search on an insect name, many of the first results you’ll get are for websites that tell you how to kill that insect (or arachnid). If you don’t believe me, do a search for “spider in my house,” and see if you don’t get lots of results telling you how to kill it.

It’s a shame that humans have decided that our homes (and even our lawns!) should be sterile havens from those creepy crawlies. In some cases it’s understandable because they can do damage that has a significant financial or health impact, as with termites or rodents. But most insects are harmless to us. When you know more about them, they become much less scary. And as I’m finding, the more you pay attention to them, the deeper your connection to nature becomes. And having a closer relationship to nature is a way to make your life richer.

With that in mind, I’ve been trying to study and photograph various kinds of insects. As you know, 2020 has been my first Big Bug Year. But even before this year, I’d begun tracking insects in my own yard — and in my home. This last part was inspired by the book “Never Home Alone,” by Rob Dunn. Don’t freak out, but there are nearly 200,000 species of insects and other organisms potentially living in your house. Although I’ve only recorded 15 species in my house so far…mostly spiders and ants. (I feel like I need to keep pointing out that spiders aren’t insects, but it’s just easier to keep saying “insects” as an all-inclusive word for the arthropods I included in my project.)

Sometimes I’m amazed at how my attitude toward insects has changed in recent years. I grew up with the feelings toward them that I described in the first paragraph above. I did things as a child that horrify me now, like pulling the lights off of lightning bugs to wear on my finger, or using a magnifying glass to pop ants in the sunlight. I had no concept of them as individual life forms just trying to survive. I feel like I’m trying to make amends now by sharing interesting info about these misunderstood tiny organisms that make up the intricate web of life that supports our own lives.

Common eastern firefly, aka lightning bug — a beneficial insect for your garden ecosystem

Some insects are naturally interesting to us because they’re pretty and we see them on flowers. They’re not threatening at all. For most people, butterflies would be in this category. In my case, dragonflies caught my interest first, and then I began learning butterflies as well. But aside from those more obvious and charismatic insects, it’s a tough sell to get most people to open their minds to being more tolerant of insects, let alone to study them. But I persevere with my mission….

My yard list has 145 insect species at this point, a number that really surprised me. Eventually I’m going to track the changes in insect diversity in my yard as my native plants mature, to see if I can discern any changes. But that’s a separate project for another time.

Everybody loves butterflies like this eastern tiger swallowtail, right?

Because of the pandemic, I didn’t travel far from home this year. All of my insect observations were in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. My Big Bug Year project on iNaturalist shows 351 species at the time of this writing, but there are some caveats to interpreting that number:

  1. Many of my observations are still unidentified at the species level, and some not even at the genus level. I’m nowhere near an expert, and have to rely on people with more knowledge than me for some identifications. And I’ve found that in many cases, insect identification can’t be done from a photograph alone. It requires having the insect in hand to put it under a microscope. And honestly, that level of study is beyond my interest.
  2. Some of the identifications may change as other people review my uploaded photos. The community on iNaturalist is full of dedicated identifiers of various types of life forms, and sometimes they disagree with each other over an identification. I learn so much from the discussions that ensue from some of these (always friendly) disagreements.
Grapevine Beetle - Pelidnota punctata
This grapevine beetle is an inch long — very big for a bug!

Having said that, and after downloading all of my data for the year and starting to sort through it, I’ve already realized that I have tons of questions. And that makes me a happy girl. I could easily spend the next year researching the answers to all of those questions. I’m especially interested in all kinds of beetles right now, as they make up the largest portion of the insect world and are so varied in their ecosystem roles as well as their appearances.

We all know that words have enormous power to influence how people think and respond to ideas. In my own life, I’ve discovered that by consciously changing the words I use in my self-talk, I can drastically alter my feelings and behaviors. If I tell myself that I’m a loser, I’m going to feel and act like one. But if I consistently tell myself I’m strong and can do anything I set my mind to, then I’m going to end up believing that and behaving in ways that make it true.

So I’d like to propose some new words for our conversations about insects and other arthropods (yes, including spiders!). How about cute, amazing, incredible, fascinating, or even funny? If you look at each insect and think about why it’s there and what part of its life it’s showing you, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to want to know more about it. You may still decide you don’t like it, but I think you’ll be surprised at how often you’ll decide you’re glad you discovered it and are sharing this world with such a cool critter. Try it out and let me know!

Black-legged meadow katydid — Adorable! Fascinating!

9 thoughts on “Words Matter”

  1. My interest in insects has increased since reading your blog Kim. Also, it has increased since having a proper veggie garden this summer…but not in a good way. We will just have to not include spiders. A couple of times a year we have enormous huntsman spiders in our house and I will never get used to it, but I don’t kill them. We have a wide mouthed plastic jar that we simply place over them and their instinct is to hop toward the bottom of the jar! I put the lid on and carry it outside and release them. THAT is pure bravery on my part, but doable. Only yesterday I took a screen shot of a gorgeous weevil to save for future drawing ideas. So, I am a work in progress. Thank you for your lovely photos, and yes, those bumble bees asleep in the asters are very cute. x

    1. Ardys, you have just made my day by telling me that your interest in insects is up because of my blog! That’s awesome.

      I definitely share your discomfort with the very large spiders (and I’m guessing yours in Australia are even bigger than ours). I’m not perfect, and one night last month I was chasing one around in my bedroom and couldn’t catch it, and ended up killing it out of frustration so I could go back to bed. That’s not my preferred reaction, but I’d been surprised by it when I woke up in the middle of the night and it was by far the biggest one I’d ever seen in my house. I felt bad and resolved to do better next time. πŸ™‚

  2. Kim, this blog is very enjoyable to read. Your photos are excellent. Kudos on attempting a Big Bug Year. 351!!!! Wow. You are so right about attitudes about bugs. Our grandchildren have finally gotten used to getting our “mercy” cup when visiting our house and seeing a pesky bug. Grandpa Elliot covers the intruder with the cup and whisks it outside. Liberty instead of death…that is our motto. Insect tolerance does not seem to be innate…I think we have to foster it from an early age. Keep up your good work!

    1. Thanks, Chris!! I knew I wasn’t the only person with a mercy cup in the house, LOL. Although I don’t like putting bugs outside in the winter, so a lot of the time I will just look the other way and let them go about their business. And I try to make sure the cats don’t see them until they go into hiding again.🀣

  3. I used to take pictures of bugs in my garden. Back when weused film. Ha… I can say the diversity has dwindled over the years.

    1. Lisa, I’ve heard that from a lot of people, about a loss of diversity among insects in recent years. That’s a big part of the reason I started my native plant garden and I hope to show increasing diversity over the years. I’ve only lived here for three-and-a-half years, so I don’t have much historical data for this property, sadly.

  4. The Katydid picture is spectacular..and so is the bug.
    It looks like it’s easier to build a bug list than a bird list.

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