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!

26 Letters

{ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z }

There’s a lot of power in those 26 simple symbols. That small set of letters is our entire tool kit for communicating with one another in the English language. Every word we write or speak is formed from nothing more than these few building blocks arranged in various ways: letters into words, words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. Endless combinations to express innumerable thoughts and ideas. The U.S. Constitution. War and Peace. The Bible. Your grandmother’s love letters. The owner’s manual for your car. The script of the latest blockbuster movie. It’s really remarkable when you stop to think about it.

Kindle keyboard (1024x683)With these 26 letters we can convey our feelings upon witnessing something wondrous like the birth of a baby, or something horrific like a car crash. We can give names to each other as well as to every species of plant and animal on the planet. We can tell bedtime stories to our children.

We need no more than these 26 letters to explain why the leaves turn those brilliant colors in the fall, where birds go when they migrate, or how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. These same letters can be combined to form something as important as your birth certificate or as mundane as a grocery list.

We educate, entertain, compliment, insult, soothe, incite, encourage, and irritate each other with words made from this very small group of symbols. Think about some historic inspirational speeches: Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” or John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Combinations of these twenty-six letters, that’s all.

There’s such power in language, whether it’s written or spoken. Because of our mastery of language, our species has been able to dominate the world. We’ve done good things with this power. And we’ve done bad things. I often wonder what the other animals would say to us if they could use our language. I’m sure they would teach us some valuable lessons.

I believe we have an obligation to use this powerful gift to make the world a better place for all of us, not just those like ourselves. I’m saddened when I see words used to tear down or belittle other people. So much potential is wasted by those words, so much unnecessary hurt inflicted. On the other hand, when I hear language used to uplift and encourage people, my heart smiles with hope. I push aside my doubts about the future, cast off the weight of my fears, and am inspired to try harder to be a part of the solution.

If you ask me, these 26 letters have the power to save us all.