A love-hate relationship with African insects
by Sally Hardin, guest writer; illustrations by Elle Emery, staff artist
“There’s a dinosaur in the car! Get it out! Get it out!” my friend Katie screamed as we drove along a dusty Kenyan road in our Land Rover. And there it was—an unidentifiable, bird-sized flying insect (read: dinosaur) had made it through the back window and was angrily buzzing and dive-bombing us as though we were the ones encroaching on its territory.
In one calm, practiced motion, my other friend Caitlin reached all the way across the now whimpering Katie, yanked open the window, and expertly shooed out the dinosaur-bug-bird. We all breathed a sigh of relief, but the collective heart rate did not return to normal for at least ten minutes. Finally, I was forced to come to a conclusion that I’d been avoiding since September: the bugs in Africa kind of suck.
Let me preface this by saying that I have loved insects since the age of six, when I got to hold both a tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta, not to be confused with the tomato hornworm common in Colorado) and a giant Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa, which can reach four inches in length) in the same day at an insect petting zoo. Other kids collected dolls; I resorted to plastic toy caterpillars and beetles when I couldn’t get my hands on the real crawlers.
I learned to pronounce the word for bug-scientist early in life to keep myself from stumbling over the awkward syllables of “entomologist” when adults asked me about my future. When the red-eyed seventeen-year cicadas (Magicicada!) emerged in 1999, I gleefully attended my neighborhood cicada barbecue. And whenever our close family friend—who is, coincidentally, the director of the Smithsonian Insect Zoo—went out of town, I always volunteered to pet-sit his family’s tarantula, Sport.
Despite this early and continued leaning towards entomology, Kenya and Tanzania have challenged me. The prospect of an entirely new world of insects, separate from the seemingly tame American species to which I’ve become accustomed, thrilled me. However, I’ve learned over these months that most of the flora and fauna here is either pokey or poisonous, and for those of us privileged enough to be here during the rainy season, bugs are no exception to that rule. No more minor league ladybugs and butterflies—African insects are the real deal.
At first, I approached my six-legged friends of chitinous exoskeleton with the enthusiasm of my six-year-old self. During my first few nights here in Kenya, I tried my best to save every last wiggling, upside-down beetle from meeting its demise in the bathroom sink, doing my best to ignore the fact that some had rudely tried to nest in my hair, and trying my hardest not to drown them in spit while brushing my teeth. But recently, one poor, unfortunate soul sealed the fate of the entire beetle-race by mysteriously finding its way into my underwear. The little buggers now die nightly at the hands of my faucet-turning indifference, and I feel only a little twinge of remorse.
Living more or less outside for a semester has its ups and downs. One morning while on our five-day expedition in Tsavo National Park, my friend Zarah woke up with a nasty, bubbling red rash all over her neck. We wondered at first if maybe she was dying of a strange African disease, until our program manager explained that she’d probably just had a little buddy in her tent the night before, the colorful Nairobi fly (Paederus crebinpunctatus, which is actually a beetle).
Unfortunately for Zarah, this was the kind of “buddy” that gives you acid burns when it gets crushed against your skin. Bummer. The Nairobi fly’s hemolymph, the fluid that courses through the circulatory systems of most arthropods, is filled with the potent toxin pederin, which causes blistering. Second-degree skin burns from a seven-millimeter beetle? Score one for African insects.
We thought she’d taken the cake for the ickiest insect interaction of the trip, but that was before our guard Olekeni held out a hand swollen to the size of a softball, a result of his tussle with a scorpion the night before. Scorpions are actually not insects, but belong to the eight-legged Arachnida class. They are a predatory arthropod with the power to render a full-grown human weak, tingly, and numb for up to twenty-five hours with a single sting—that is, if that full-grown human survives at all.
But don’t worry, only twenty-five species of scorpions are actually fatal to humans; the rest have the power merely to immobilize. Needless to say, after this incident my smelly shoes (perfect scorpion dens) were quickly welcomed into my tent.
When it comes to things that fly, Africa takes the gold on that front as well. Many Americans have seen photographs of flies crowding the faces of wide-eyed East African children. I quickly substantiated the stereotype once a fly posse of my own began flitting around an open wound on my knee. My first approach to this constant brush of flies on my legs, feet and face was one of meditative Zen, an attempt to accept their presence and move on.
I soon progressed to full-on hysterical fly-swatting outbursts, which proved fruitless; African flies, unlike those of North America, are not easily deterred by a spazzing human. Revenge came sweetly, however, when we learned that my friend Devin harbored a secret talent for stunning flies by clapping just above their heads. While one was down for the count, we tied a hair around its abdomen (easier said then done), and voila! We had a fly on a leash, and at least a full twenty minutes of entertainment.
And of course, the nagging presence of fleas is not easily forgotten. In Tanzania, I was welcomed to East Africa by what our program director Dr. Moses Okello, fearless protector of all African wildlife, calls “negative biodiversity.” Being the CC student that I am, Chaco sandals became my footwear of choice while I trounced around in the Tanzanian dust. Imagine my surprise when a blister with a small black dot rose up on my baby toe, and I was informed that my foot was playing host to a happily ensconced mama jigger (Tunga penetrans, more formally known as a chigoe flea) and her many offspring.
Getting those suckers out of your foot is like sneaking up on an unsuspecting volcano. One minute, you’re poking at the spot with a needle, and the next, hundreds of gooey eggs are gushing out of your own toe. Surprise! It’s the kind of event that requires a crowd of disgusted spectators oohing and ahhing at the proceedings. Once the total number of jiggers-in-feet for our twenty-eight person study abroad program reached more than 200 (I got thirteen; the record was seventeen), it was a little less funny.
But don’t jiggers have the right to live too? Who doesn’t want to bury their head into a nice, warm toe, feed on the blood vessels of the cutaneous dermal layer, and then procreate? Seeing no positive aspects resulting from the presence of jiggers on earth (other than perhaps their great name), I began to lose faith in the entirety of insect-kind.
When it began to seem as though my affinity for insects had reached a cold finale, I laid eyes on my very first African dung beetle. It was love at first sight. My childhood adoration was immediately rekindled. This member of the Scarabaeoidea superfamily feeds nearly exclusively on feces, and is also the very same beetle known as the scarab, revered in ancient Egypt as a physical manifestation of the god of the rising sun. And it gets better, because the one I saw was a member of the “roller” class, so named for its ability to roll dung into spherical balls up to four times its size. These balls of dung are used as both a breeding chamber and food source—the gingerbread house of the insect world. The beetles’ crowning attribute is their utter indifference to the human race; no flying at our faces, holding court in our toilets or crawling in our panties—just a peaceful, poo-centric existence.
During a research interview at a household, or boma, in a Tanzanian village, I became distracted from my interview when the sun hit the iridescent exoskeleton of one of these beauties. I watched as it used its powerful hind legs to roll its dung ball from one side of the dusty yard to the other, admiring its strength and perseverance. Just then, a blur sped through my peripheral vision and WHAM, the feet of a blissfully ignorant Maasai child landed smack-dab on my hero and his creation.
I was devastated, but quickly turned my eyes back to my interviewee. All that hard work, toiling in poo, undone by an indifferent human in a matter of seconds. I glanced back to the spot a few times, but saw no motion.
As we left the boma, I spared the flattened dung heap one last look. Lo and behold, a crooked beetle was limping away from the scene of the accident. I smiled. Because bugs, whether you hate them or love them, will always rise from the shit pile to live another day.