One of the fun parts of summer and being out of school when I was a child in Arkansas was renewing an interest in the inhabitants of our backyard, an acquaintance that I abandoned each year when school began in September and when cold weather kept me contentedly inside with a good book. But summer time was outdoor time, and I shared that yard with all the insects familiar to anyone who grew up in the South: mosquitoes, bees, ticks, moths, hornets, wasps, chiggers, ladybugs, roly polies, stinkbugs, grasshoppers, butterflies, crickets, and cicadas–though all I ever saw of a cicada was a tan, empty husk gripping a tree trunk. It was an eternal mystery to me that I never saw one in the process of shedding its outer shell; the event had already occurred by the time I came along.
Playing with bugs was a part of growing up, and I never shrank from handling them. Who didn’t tie a thread around a beetle’s leg and watch it fly, tethered, a living kite? Who didn’t cup their hands around harmless lightning bugs and watch the pulsating glow from between parted fingers? (Or, as my best friend and I did, who else took a pimiento jar filled with lightning bugs to a Saturday afternoon movie and turned them loose in the dark theater?) Who didn’t love to poke a gray roly poly bug and watch it gather its many pale legs inward and roll into a ball like a tiny armadillo? Who didn’t catch a grasshopper just to watch him spit “tobacco juice” on a kid’s imprisoning fingers? And who didn’t love the bright little ladybug, so different from the drab stink bug that gave off a terrible odor when disturbed? Each year we renewed our disgust at the smell by provoking one until it employed its defensive chemical weapon and we were satisfied that it did indeed stink.
One summer I took a particular interest in ants. Lying on my belly in the grass, I watched, fascinated, as the creatures scurried about their business. My favorite Aesop’s fable had always been the one about the ant and the grasshopper, and I imagined these small creatures as busy in their nest as my grandmother was in her kitchen when she canned vegetables from her summer garden and made fig preserves for future winter biscuits. I wanted to be helpful and supportive of such diligence, so I rummaged through the trash to find a pair of Coke bottle caps; one I filled with water and the other with grape jelly, carefully placing them near the entrance to the ants’ nest. The final touch, breaking off a sprig of crepe myrtle and sticking it upright in the ground near the caps, was intended to provide shade for those ceaselessly toiling insects. In my eight-year-old imagination, the pink, frilly blossoms were also sure to beautify the ants’ environment. My efforts were not met with success, however; I don’t recall that the ants even showed interest in the jelly, and I eventually abandoned my role as backyard deity–but not before personal observation and World Book Encyclopedia had taught me about formic acid trail-markers, queens, aphids, and other facts and lore about the admirable ant.
Unfortunately, we can’t share the world with insects without occasionally coming away from our close encounters on the losing end. Like all Southerners, I’ve had my share of mosquito bites, bee stings, the occasional tick fastening itself to me, and exasperating, painful encounters with those invisible clouds of stinging varmints called no-see-‘ums. At the age of four, while living with my grandmother in Mississippi, I was stung in the face by several red hornets when I accidentally disturbed their nest in Mamaw’s shrubs, my features obscured by swelling so dramatic that the boy who delivered groceries to our home daily did not recognize me.
Years later, as I stepped out of a car and into an unnoticed fire ant bed, my feet were instantly the focus of the swarming fury of dozens of fire ants, their venom inflicting immediate and intense pain and, for several days afterwards, feet too swollen and tender for shoes. Fast forward a few years again. Leaving Saint Simons Island on a lovely spring day with my car windows open wide, I was stung on the stomach by a bumble bee that flew into my car and inside my loose cotton shirt. Despite the unpleasantness of these encounters, since none was fatal, I hold no grudges. Instead, I reserve my intense animosity for another, a tiny critter whose ability to inflict misery exceeds its miniscule size a million-fold. It’s known to entomologists as Trombiculidae–and to Southerners as the loathsome chigger, a mite picked up in woods and grasses and whose bite doesn’t inflict pain on its hapless victim, but torment nonetheless.
Leave a mosquito bite alone, and its itch will subside. No so the chigger bite. The intensity of itching defies belief. I’ve never met a fellow Southerner who didn’t know more than one remedy for chiggers, most of which, unfortunately, are useless. They include slathering the afflicted area with petroleum jelly, turpentine, clear nail polish, calamine lotion, Noxema, and other commercial or home-brewed concoctions. The object is to smother or otherwise kill the mite and stop the itching, but, contrary to common belief, chiggers do not imbed themselves in human skin and suck blood or burrow in and die. Instead, in the larval stage of their life, they attach themselves to a host and immediately set about making themselves a skin-cell smoothie. They inject saliva that liquifies cells, and then they suck up the juice. The combination of chigger spit and the hardened tubes that function like straws are what cause the agonizing itch in human tissue. When the chiggers have dined, they drop off–just ahead of the skin’s allergic reaction. By the time you realize they’ve been there, those Elvises have already left the building.
Years ago, in the yard of our newly purchased home in Chapel Hill, I knelt in the grass for hours while helping my husband fence in an area for our Basset hounds. The memory of the severe case of chiggers I got in the backs of my knees traumatizes me still. For many days I was in agony with torturous itching and unable to sleep at night. Lying in my bed, miserable and despairing, I actually contemplated going to the kitchen for my sharpest knife and slicing away my tormented flesh. Hornet, bumble bee, and fire ant stings never drove me to such feelings of desperation. For years afterwards, if my bare foot touched grass, I bolted for hot water, a wash cloth, and a bar of soap to protect myself from any possibility of a chigger bite.
These days, I have lost contact with those other universes that intrigued me as a kid. The only meetings I have now, in my air-conditioned world that seals them out and me in, are with an occasional roach that scurries beneath the bathroom sink or a couple big black ants that have found the mother lode known as my kitchen garbage can, ants so large they could do their own landscaping with water and jelly features. My childhood fascination has changed, and I am likelier now to think of insects in terms of disagreeable chance encounters in a darkened kitchen rather than while sprawling in the grass on a bright summer afternoon, watching with avid interest. Over time, I have grown squeamish, and bugs are unwanted, undesirable guests in my world. And that change makes me just a little sad.