Bugs are so gross

The praying mantis stares at me with bulging eyes from a few feet away. Its thin body is no longer than my index finger from where it sits perfectly still on the branch, long neck and triangular head cocked slightly. It watches me as I approach and the plastic bag I hold in my sweaty hand trembles. We’re locked in a standoff. Me, armed with six million years of evolution and a snack-sized Ziplock. The mantis, armed with two barbed arms and the knowledge that I’m more afraid of it than it is of me. It starts to lunge back and forth, moving towards me quickly, and takes off in flight. It lands on my thigh with spidery legs and my soul leaves my body seconds before I shakily place the open bag on top of it. It falls inside and I seal it off. 

Normally, I’d have avoided an interaction with it, or any bug, at all costs- they’re hideous and their little bug legs freak me out- but I need this mantis. It will be bug number 26 out of the 30 I need to have on my bug pin board in Mr. Stanley’s Wildlife Biology class. It’s an assignment worth 20 percent of my final grade and, being someone who values grades a lot, I can’t afford to let any bug get away.

Part of the assignment is that we have to collect, kill, and pin a certain amount of bugs from a few given families of insects to a provided cork board. There are 20 bugs from required families and 10 bugs that are allowed to be chosen at random, as long as you have no repeat species. The praying mantis, for example, was one of the extra 10.

Every other day in class we’d go out to the softball courts or wetlands armed with bright green nets to catch whatever insects we could find. The last 15 minutes of each class were reserved for killing the bugs. To do this, we soaked a cotton ball in acetone and dropped it in an airtight bag or jar with our newly caught bugs. The next day, we stayed in class to pin the bugs to our cork board with thin metal pins and to identify the bug and its taxonomy for our labels.

Let me just be up front, I hated everything about both pin and catch days in class. From watching the grasshoppers throw up when they encounter the acetone cotton ball, to having to watch as a pair of bright yellow butterflies desperately flap their wings to escape the chemical that’s slowly replacing the air in their bag, I hated it.

The worst experience I had was killing the praying mantis. Even though I couldn’t stand to get close enough to it to catch it the night before, having to suffocate it in a bag was almost heartbreaking for me. I know heartbreak is a strong word but it matches my strong feelings of disgust at what I had to do and my regret when it was done. I hated the way their bodies were soft the next day when we pinned them. I hated the way their muscles contracted when the pin slid through their thorax. I could barely touch the bugs I killed with tweezers because, in my mind, they were still alive just like they were when I last saw each of them, dying in an acetone-filled bag. I became so upset some days that I vowed to only use bugs that I could find dead on the sidewalk by my work or in the parking lot at the high school. I even had various students and staff around the building bringing in bugs for me because they took sympathy on me when I told them how much I was struggling to finish my board. It was easier to know that I hadn’t killed them.

There were some days when the more immature kids in my class would mistreat the bugs by either pinning them to the board when they were still alive or leaving them in a bag for many days without acetone to kill them. I can’t explain why the sight of an insect being treated this way bothered me. They’re just bugs–and I know that–but it disturbed me to see people being so careless with a living thing. I know I’ve said a lot of things about the class were the “worst” but the days I saw pinned bugs move were the ones that made me the most upset.

Then something changed. There were two boys in my class that helped me pin my bugs everyday but one day they were gone and I had to do it by myself. That day, I sucked it up. I still couldn’t touch the bug directly but I used the tweezers and I pinned them in neat rows all by myself. After that day, I became more and more confident doing it myself and was even able to open the beetle and mantis wings to pin them so they dried spread apart. Soon, I didn’t even need help getting bugs from the net into the ziplock bag, something I struggled with previously. These are things they everyone almost else could do without problem and now I felt like I could do them too. 

The assignment ended on Friday, September 17th and I was able to pin and label all 30 bugs just in time to meet the deadline. It wasn’t easy, but I did it, and I may have learned something along the way.

Now I know I said earlier that bugs freak me out (specifically their little legs) but that’s not entirely how I feel now, having completed my bug board. I never thought I’d say this, but I’ve developed a sort of appreciation for them. I used to skirt around them when I walked or find someone to get rid of them when I encountered them inside, but now I’ve found myself stopping and watching insects when I come across them. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time staring at each bug before working up the nerve to catch it, but I like to take a second and study them when I get the chance. The other day, a spider was crawling on the carpet in my room. Instead of trying to smash it, I used a glass jar that I dumped coins out of and a folder to catch it and put it outside. I know it sounds strange, but releasing that one little spider made a big difference to me. I like to think that those two minutes I spent relocating it made a difference, even if it was just to one bug. In a way, I feel like it made up for the bugs that I killed in class. I’m not sure if I can attribute my new perspective solely to my Wildlife Biology class, because I was at times genuinely terrified to be in that room, but it’s a big factor in the reason I’m able to withstand bugs now. Killing and pinning the bugs made me learn to appreciate them that much more when they’re alive and moving around in their natural habitat. I still can’t touch a bug, but now, when I see one, I don’t have a gut reaction to steer clear. I can just keep walking because they don’t bother me anymore.

My Completed Bug Board