Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Undiagnosed Untreated. Yes, I do talk to bugs. More than that, I communicate with them. We all do. CO2 attracts mosquitos; many things — smoke, DEET, the sound of a slap — will repel mosquitos. Simply stimulus/response, you say. What is conversation? I ask. It’s easy to argue that I communicate more effectively with many insects than most of us communicate with our own spouses and children. I can often influence the behavior of insects. I’ll explain this, but you may have to listen differently.
Recent efforts to learn how to write taught me that the human brain is designed to receive information in very specific ways and that good writers present information structured in the forms most readily received by others. This only served as a reminder that my brain was not designed with the organization to accomplish this.
Large individual bugs can be very difficult to communicate with. Large swarms of small insects are the easiest. Most swarms respond to humming. Many respond weakly and will only slightly change tempo and flight patterns. Some respond so dramatically that they will almost suffocate a person when the swarm converges, while a different pitch will make them disperse. I met a swarm along the Green River in Wyoming that was exceptionally communicative. Humming at different pitches and intensities, I could make them converge or disperse; speed up or slow down; rise or drop. I didn’t find the limits of our communications. My wife Kathy appeared concerned. I’m not sure why. She often suggests that I should try to improve my communication skills.
I might relate best with non-human animals. Most of us tend not to know what we’re saying to animals. Many folks talk to their pets without communicating anything more than mood. Most communication with other species involves posture, demeanor, tone, odors, colors … yellow, orange and red against black are universal warning signals in the natural world. So universal are these colors, among color-vision animals, that even humans have adopted them for warning signage along roads, construction sites and crime scenes. Viceroy butterflies imitate the black and orange of Monarchs to borrow the protection of their toxicity. Bees and wasps imitate one another to mutually reinforce the black and yellow warning of impending pain. They speak to a wide audience. Recognize warning signs.
A few days ago, when it was slightly above freezing between sub-zero cold spells, I saw a tiny gnat-like bug flying around. He was an outlier, a deviant. He was doomed. His sort, however, will be the pioneers on the frontiers of climate change. They will be the first to adapt to changing conditions and survive. They make me proud to be an outlier — doomed or not. Honey bees will not adapt. They are an example of a very stable population that has virtually eliminated variation and mutation. They are almost completely unable to adapt to changing conditions.
I met a bug (?) in Madagascar that I chased for a long time to confirm that it even was a living thing. It looked like a fleck of floating detritus. Its motions were almost random, but were more than could be explained in the absence of any breeze. It was a small white triangle that moved with no apparent flapping of wings. The triangle (wings? sail?) was apparently propelled by contracting, like the motions of jellyfish or squid. When it finally landed and I moved in for a closer look, it made menacing motions at me. While I could not identify any eyes, antennae or even legs with which to grasp the leaf, it was definitely aware of my interest and ready to challenge me with aggressive little “lunges.” While almost too alien to recognize as a living thing, it communicated quite clearly. Its threat was successful and I left it alone.
My first proposal for graduate research involved the large-scale capture of insect pests using pheromones, light and sound frequencies and other attractants. The intention was to reduce use of pesticides and to harvest the nutritional value of the insects, if only for livestock feed. I could tell you how my father had brought this to my interest by describing a grasshopper invasion in South Dakota. How even as a young lad he had believed that harvesting the hoppers would have been more productive than trying to destroy them. How driving an old sedan missing a few floorboards through a field had randomly harvested more nutrition equivalents in ’hoppers than a combine might have harvested in grain over the same distance. How he believed that most insect infestations could be considered a resource rather than a problem, if not but for the constraints of society. “For men are prone to go it blind along the calf paths of the mind, and toil away from sun to sun to do what other men have done” (“The Calf Path,” by Sam Foss). But that would be a digression.
In the liberal-minded, creative world of academia, my buggy idea was considered a digression. I was persuaded to pursue a more-conventional topic: mountain goats, with current interest and ready funding. There’s more funding available for killing bugs than there is for calling them.
“Bees smell fear.” Most really smart people say that if honey bees disappear, humans will follow. Most insect populations are declining at alarming rates. Bugs tells us much. If humans no longer exist, does anything matter anymore? I think so. It’s like the dumb little conundrum about “If a tree falls in a forest … ”. For this to be a valid question, one must assume that only humans can hear.
Henry David Thoreau said something along the lines of “our greatest attribute and only hope for survival is our ability to change through conscious endeavor.” I believe this to be true on an individual level, but it doesn’t seem to apply to the collective consciousness of society. I have little faith in our ability, as humans, to survive our impacts. This bugs me. But I do believe that through complete incorporation and involvement with nature, we can transcend our human confines. With earnest love and respect for all other living things, we can become part of the force of nature that always survives.
There’ve been more little “gnats” out lately and several types of birds singing spring songs months early in spite of unseasonably cold weather. The scouts are exploring the new frontiers. Nature speaks. Are we designed to hear it? Until next month I bid you AADDUU.
Dropping out of high school to pursue the life of a cowboy in Texas, Jim Duke eventually earned a BS in Zoology and an MS on Mountain Goat Habitat in Alaska. He enjoys remote travels to exotic locations, including Patagonia, Upper Amazon, Madagascar and mountain biking across Tibet. Largely unemployable, he works on an “as-tolerated” basis, mostly dealing with equines and compost. “Kiss My Ass” appears monthly in the RFWJ.