Embracing my love of insects and spiders

I honestly have no idea why it is I love bugs. When I was a child, bugs were things to smash or spray. Nuisances at best, dangers, at worst. Growing up in the country in Northern Minnesota we were forever battling mosquitoes and ticks. Flies and horseflies joined the list of pests bothering us and our horses. Bees or hornets stung my sister, and a few times me, every summer.

Maybe it started when my daughter was a toddler. We checked out books of every kind from the library, including about bugs. She went through a phase where she wanted nothing but “learning books” from the nonfiction section, mostly about animals, insects and various types of ocean creatures.

I wanted to foster an interest in science, a subject I could tell she loved and one I had an interest in too. I didn’t want her to be afraid of creepy crawly things or other vilified creatures such as sharks or snakes. In the beginning I suppressed my learned reactions (fear, revulsion) and eventually I shed them completely.

When she was barely walking, I remember showing her the exoskeleton of some kind of insect that molted. We captured a giant carpenter ant, figured out what it was, whether it was an invasive species or not (they’re not) and then gently released it where we found it. In Sitka, Alaska, we observed and learned about various invertebrates such as the giant banana slugs. All the “gross” stuff that makes most people go ewww, we are fascinated by.

Then we moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, for my husband’s travel nurse job. I think that’s where it really took off. Due to Virginia’s mild winter climate, spiders and insects grow to what seemed to me giant size and can be active nearly year round, compared to my home state of Minnesota. So we were exposed to a lot of new kinds of spiders and bugs.

It was also at that time that I stumbled on inaturalist, an app that helps you identify and report insect, spider or plant sightings. Now that I could more easily identify and learn about insects and spiders, I was fascinated. I happened to buy a clear plastic jar with a screw on lid at a dollar store, I have no idea what for, but it suddenly became our observation unit. As in, “bring the observation unit! There’s a spider/bug/centipede!” We’d catch them, take photos, talk to them and then release them outside. My daughter, then a 5 year old, once played piano for a tiny house centipede, as part of a scientific experiment, of course.

It wasn’t just specimens we found inside. Once, in our yard, I chased and took photos of a bright red and black wiggling bug that barely held still long enough to get a photo. After I’d identified it I learned it was what’s called a cow killer, an insect with such a painful bite it’s insinuated it could kill a cow. I should have guessed it’s bright red was a signal to back away, “I’m dangerous.” Despite learning that, I was thrilled to have encountered it.

One day an acorn weevil hatched from my daughter’s acorn collection. We read up on it, discovered it wasn’t harmful, except to acorns, and decided to release it near an oak tree. My kiddo badly wanted to hold it, so after I researched as best I could I decided it couldn’t hurt her. It bit her in the palm of her hand with jaws meant to help it escape it’s acorn hatching pod. “I should have known when I saw the mandibles,” my 5 year old said. Fortunately it hurt a bit but didn’t leave a mark. Scientific discovery is not without risk. (Said partially seriously and partially with a giggle.)

Then we moved back to Minnesota, where everything was familiar, right? Wrong. Suddenly we’re finding all sorts of interesting creatures I had no idea lived here.

Often it’s my daughter that spots the creatures we identify. Then time stops for me. I’m sucked in, examining it and taking photos. If it’s indoors, like the tiny assassin bug we found recently, we capture it and release it outside. Others we find outdoors, like the glittery green tortoise beetle found crawling in the grass, which I took photos of and then left alone.

My family has gotten used to the fact that when mama finds a creepy crawly, time stops. My daughter will entertain herself doing something else when she gets bored. It’s when I identify the bug and we learn about it together, that she says it becomes interesting. When I asked my husband about what happens when I see a bug, caterpillar or spider he made his voice high and shrieked in mock excitement, “There’s a pot of gold under the rainbow!” OK, fair enough, that’s accurate, I laughed.

Whatever the reason, my interest in creepy crawlies is here to stay. I love the rush of getting a photo, identifying and learning about creatures around me. It has revealed to me a small fraction of a whole world, teeming with life, that most people only want to run away from or squish.