Close Encounters of the Bug Kind

I don’t know why I suffer in any way about insects, especially when I find many of them abhorrent. Just today, I watched a cluster of wasps die a brief but convulsive death on our front porch after my boyfriend D. sprayed their nest with wasp killer. The heartiest of the bunch tried to escape but within a minute they were all twitching and on their backs, legs curling.

If that weren’t enough for one day, I received an important tutorial this morning on the tomato hornworm. I was commenting to D. about how pathetic the leaves on our one tomato plant looked, and he said it was because he had found two hornworms on the plant.

“In fact,” he said, “there could still be more.” The two of us pondered this thought as we stared intently at the pot. I had no idea what a hornworm looked like, but it did not sound pleasant.

After a minute, D. said, “There is another!” and he pointed at a bulbous almost-neon green caterpillar, close to four inches long. He was hiding under a leaf, clinging for his dear life (or so it seemed to me). And he did have an odd horn-like protusion coming out of either his forehead or his rear end (if hornworms have rear ends).

This was one fat, green worm. He blended into the leaves almost perfectly (at least into the healthy, green ones that he hadn’t eaten yet).

“How do you get rid of them?” I asked D.

D. said, “I’ll show you.” He took the worm off the plant, and set it on a cobblestone.

Suddenly, I panicked. I remembered the family of baby mice that had emerged from our gas grill the first time we lit it last spring, and their sad little fate under his sneaker. So I immediately turned my back and headed up the porch stairs. “Are you going to squish it?” I asked, not looking back, not really wanting to hear the answer.

“No, I will just cut it in half,” he said matter-of-factly. And then I turned back and saw a steak knife in his hand.

“Ugghhhh! I can’t watch this,” I said. And I went into the house. That poor very hungry caterpillar would never become a five-spotted hawkmoth.

Maybe I am enthralled by these insect encounters because I just returned from a week at poetry camp. I always feel a bit tender after being around poets for that long. Heart opened, compassion meter off the charts—it’s not the easiest place to be.

I once found a gnat crushed at the edge of page 74 in a book I was reading—The Happiness Project. I brushed his body with my fingertips but he didn’t move—two tiny wings splayed flat like baby leaves. Legs angling in every direction like a spider. Did he know what hit him? Was this the moment I slammed the book shut to answer my cell or fill my wineglass or set the book by my bed?

Without thinking, I tried to brush him off, using my fingernail to scrape his body to the edge of the page. And then I realized what I had done. I just prayed he wasn’t under my fingernail.

Now, there are just two tiny specks left on that page 74. It could be an eye, a vein of a wing, a gnat toe. I will never know for sure. All I know is that a gnat, a tomato horn worm, and a handful of careless wasps will be forever stuck in my story.


P.S. In case you are worried, D. is not a psychopath. He’s an engineer and he used to own a garden center, so he can be immensely practical about bugs.