Nothing to Fear Here

Harmless little jumping spider – so cute!

Do you reflexively kill every spider you see? Have you ever thought about why you do that? Has a spider ever done anything to hurt you? Do you just think they’re gross or scary? Why are they scary? Because their bodies are so alien from our own and we can’t relate to them, right? And because Hollywood has often used insect and spider bodies as inspiration for terrifying monsters, thus feeding into the misapprehension that they are to be feared. But most of the time there’s nothing to fear from them at all.

I think a lot about entomophobia (the fear of insects) and arachnophobia (fear of spiders) these days. Recently I read this in the introduction to E.O. Wilson’s book, Tales from the Ant World:

“…the most frequent question I am casually asked about ants is, “What do I do about the ones in my kitchen?” My answer is, Watch where you step, be careful of little lives, consider becoming an amateur myrmecologist, and contribute to their scientific study. Further, why should these wondrous little insects not visit your kitchen? They carry no disease, and may help eliminate other insects that do carry disease. You are a million times larger than each one. You could hold an entire colony in your cupped hands. You inspire fear in them; they should not in you.”

I felt a smile spread across my face as I read that paragraph, because this is exactly the way I hope we can all begin to think about many insects. As a former entomophobe myself, I’m proof that our irrational responses to them can be transformed into a bright curiosity that enriches our lives. It’s possible for someone (in the developed world) to go about daily life with very few interactions with any insects at all, and I think that contributes to our aversion to the little buggers when they do dare to cross our paths. We’ve forgotten that humans are a part of nature; we’ve separated ourselves from it and decided that our homes (and sometimes even our yards) should be devoid of any life other than our own and those of the animals we’ve chosen to domesticate. And that’s a real shame.

Great golden digger wasp – Sphex ichneumoneus

You’ve probably heard of “exposure therapy” to treat a phobia by gradually exposing the fearful person to the thing they’re afraid of. It’s used for many things, from snakes to public speaking. And it can work for insects too. I’ve found that the more time I spend watching them and learning about specific insect families, the more relaxed I am around them. For instance, a few years ago I would have been quite wary of large wasps like the great golden digger wasp that measures an inch long. It’s very intimidating at first glance, but now I know that there’s nothing for me to fear from them at all, and I can watch them closely in my garden and they aren’t bothered in the least by my presence. They show no interest in me at all, in fact. It’s such a thrill, to be honest.

This is one of the reasons I write about insects so often, because I want everyone to experience that excitement — of not only conquering a fear, but of actually learning to love the thing you feared. It’s incredibly empowering. I’ve been sharing my own journey with you on this blog, admitting to my setbacks and rejoicing when I discover something new and exciting. And occasionally one of you will tell me that you’ve started paying more attention to insects because of this blog, and that just makes my day!

Snowberry clearwing moth feeding on blue vervain – THAT was an exciting day!

Anyway, today’s post was prompted by a webinar sponsored by The Ohio State University (my alma mater). It was given by professor Mary Gardiner, and titled “Beneficial Insect Biodiversity: What It Is and Why It Matters.” She covered much of what I write about here, but she delivered it all with the authority of a university professor rather than the bumbling of an amateur entomologist like me. I think you’ll find it fascinating and maybe even life-altering. The recording of her program is below, and it’s from an ongoing 6-part series called “Tending Nature.” Every Friday morning they present another webinar on the ecological roles of native plants and the creatures that depend on them. This free series is halfway over but you can still register to participate in the rest of them as they happen, and you can watch the recordings any time you like here.

The next two webinars focus on how you can support bees in your garden — and we’re not talking about the non-native honeybees, we’re talking about the hundreds of species of native bees that provide essential pollination services. It sounds like the final program will focus more directly on using native plants. I hope you’ll check it out, and I’m betting you’ll be inspired by what you learn.

11 comments

  1. Love this post, Kim. Like you, I’ve been slow to appreciate the wonders and benefits of spiders, bees, and all insects. Now, I let spiders snag flies in my house, even if most would consider those dead flies hanging in corners unsightly. I was slower to feel comfortable around bees because I’m allergic to the stings of some types, but I overcame my hesitance when bumblebees visited my wildflower garden in Idaho the past two summers. They’re so focused on their work – collecting nectar and pollen – that they hardly noticed me as I took close-up photos and videos. I hope I can recreate that garden and bee experience here in Vermont this summer. Our lives depend upon insects!

    • Thanks, Cindy! One of my photos from that series won the People’s Choice Award in the national Wild Ones photography contest two years ago. I’m pretty proud of it!

  2. Kim, Good article. What are your thoughts on carpenter ants and termites? If those show up in my house I think I better take some action. I once saw the damage termites did to a cement block wall; it wasn’t pretty 🙂

  3. My own fear of insects changed many years ago when I too realized something you said- they have no interest in us. They’re just living their lives, and as you know better than most, that can make them interesting to watch or study.

  4. “I’m proof that our irrational responses to them can be transformed into a bright curiosity that enriches our lives. ” Beautifully stated! Just last evening I was discussing with two other gals my fascination with bugs. The only ones I “smash” (to avoid unnecessary suffering) are those that can inflict harm. Otherwise . . they’re gently taking outside.

    • Yes, except that becomes a problem in winter…the other day I found a big spider in my bathtub. I knew he’d die in there, but he would also die if I put him outside in the freezing temps. My solution was to capture him and release him into the cupboard under the bathroom sink. He gets to live, and I don’t have to worry about my cats eating him out of the tub, LOL. Thanks for reading, Cathy!

  5. One of the insurance companies right now has an ad with a man letting a spider crawl on his arm and bite him and he swells up and is put into an ambulance! LOL! That adds to the distrust of spiders. And a bee gives off that humming sound for a reason to stay away. I have been stung stepping on a bee barefoot and hated it, so I’m glad you see them in a good way. They are wonderful creatures but sometime our worlds collide! They will be here long after we are gone.

    • Of course anyone who stands to make money off of our fear will take advantage of it, right? That’s the entire business model of the insurance industry, LOL. And you’re right, the insects were here long before us and they’ll most likely be here after humans are gone. Thanks, Mom.

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