Critical Insect Studies

by Tom Whalen

Featured art: Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles by Otto Marseus van Schrieck

One more step and we are out of the circle and have entered the domain, equally delineated and autonomous, of a different species.
—Vladimir Nabokov, “Father’s Butterflies”

My wife departed on the day I began in earnest my Critical Insect Studies. Before this date, I had only jotted down a few thoughts and titles, cut and pasted a few class papers, nothing more, but I was sure, as much as I had ever been sure of anything, basking in my certainty like an oiled blonde in Cannes, that I had found, at age twenty-seven, the subject on whose wings my career would soar from campus to campus, lecture hall to lecture hall around the globe, sometimes Sam coming along, though increasingly, I imagined, taken up with his own concerns. Perhaps we would have had children by then, or new avatars, I didn’t know, or perhaps we would have drifted apart, he wanting nothing to do with me or my fame.

Because of his gigantic size and the eyespots on his wings I thought we would be together forever. Whether he bore me children or not didn’t matter. I mean after all, children aren’t everything, or not quite everything. I mean, well, yes, once upon a time a brood might’ve suited me, assuming all I had to do was hold his hand during the birthing and he was responsible for their upbringing, but that time is past. Still, to come home after a hard day’s work on my Critical Insect Studies, funded by a dozen cosmic and federal agencies, and have the kids swarm up my legs, dig about in my pockets, open my wallet, sniff inside it, then smile at me with mouths filled with honey (a sweet viscid material elaborated out of the nectar of flowers in the honey sac of various bees) or peanut butter (a paste made by grinding roasted skinned peanuts), their faces aglow with outdoor play, their hearts filled to bursting, ditto their ears and eyes, their breath as warm as a puppy’s, their hands having dug all day long god knows where, clutching at my glasses, my hair, this onslaught by my and Sam’s offspring might have been, how shall I say, divine. To one child I would give a unicorn beetle, to another a tray of larvae, to another a rose chafer, to another a ball of dried dung, and then tell them about my exploits that day in CIS. “CIS, yes, please,” they would squeal, their jaws going a mile a minute as if ready to eat the entire leaf, while Sam stood in the kitchen doorway waiting patiently until I could peel them off me enough to wade through them to him. The table is laid. A garlic-rich scent from the cheese casserole wafts in from the kitchen. How did he manage it? Ah, Sam . . .

Yes, that could’ve been the life.

One afternoon I compared mayflies, in their sheer constructivist beauty, to the films of Howard Hawks, and then wondered why I shouldn’t put together a proposal to explore these vectors.

When I’m nervous, when I don’t think there is another thought left in my brain or the world, I chant to myself: Insect wing. Mesothorax. Halteres. Metathorax. Whitefly. Dragonfly. Damselfly. Firefly. Alderfly. Dobsonfly. Snakefly. Sawfly. Butterfly. Eselfly. Trichoptera.

Late-afternoon light spread its vestiary over my shelves and sofa. Suddenly Sam’s mouthpart came into contact with mine. Wha? Was he ovulating already?

“Hey,” I said. “I’ve my paper on parasite strategies for contacting vertebrate hosts to write.”

He stepped away from my desk, stared out the window. A man was walking his bicycle home, a woman hers to work.

“You’re not really serious about having children, are you?”

“Well,” I said, adding more sugar to my coffee. I was and I wasn’t. Host immune responses and insect salivary secretions were on my mind, but as long as I wasn’t serious about the house filling with nymphs, or there was the possibility I wasn’t, Sam could only worry, not act upon whatever plans he was concocting. I mean, I was concerned for him and his eggs, too, not only the nymphs. But I couldn’t tell him this, not when his hormones were raging. Yes, I was sure he was up to something. Why else the kiss and the coffee?

To delay my answer, I scribbled randomly in my notebook:

Origin of vector-parasite relationships.

Parasite strategies for counteracting a vector.

Vector immune mechanisms.

Phthiraptera.

Hemiptera.

Siphonaptera.

Diptera.

While sucking, blood-sucking insects may deliver to their hosts, among other things, rickettsia, bacteria, protozoa and nematodes.

Then I quoted from memory and without attribution from The Psychology of Blood-Sucking Insects: “Three types of male Aedes taeniorhynchus have been identified in terms of egg development. Autogenous males, males that become autogenous when they mate, and anautogenous forms.”

“I’ll take the latter,” Sam said, and at the time I laughed, but now I’m not sure, perhaps, I mean, you know, he might have meant . . . or . . .

Then one evening while I was waiting for Sam to come home, without my willing it, I began to think about the importance of blood-sucking insects, how strange their host choices, how complex their mysteries. Sam was at the movies, All That Heaven Allows, I believe. Unlike him, I abhor melodramas (especially those wherein insects are shot in poor light), whereas he can watch them unendingly. This is not the only way we differ, I mean other than our occupations. It wasn’t his brains that attracted me, but some hormone that made me believe he was at base malleable, plastic, subservient to my wishes, tolerant of my whims.

Was I wrong? Until recently I wouldn’t have thought so.

That first night I met him at The Lepidoptera, a bar known for its pheromonal attraction to would-be wives, I saw him sitting alone at a table staring into his drink, and something about the way the yellow light struck his sweptback hair and spilled into his cleavage told me that if he wasn’t to be my future bride, at least he would make an interesting sex toy. He came home with me that evening and did not depart until we were well into our marriage.

Host choice, I thought (it was after eleven; the movie, whatever it was, had to be over), appetitive searching, ingestion of the blood meal. No, first study the location of the host, I told myself. No, first their evolution. No, mouthparts. Then I thought, No, host pain, that’s what I’ll focus on. “Nothing but host pain,” I said out loud as I wandered the apartment waiting for Sam to come home.

Then I heard laughter coming from his attic studio. Who was there?
Carefully I made my way up and, at the top, saw light pooling out from under Sam’s door.

He was home after all! How had I missed his arrival? And he had someone with him, a live model, no doubt. I could hear them chittering in his studio, hear the tick tick tick of the model’s heels on the hardwood floor.

“Host pain,” I said, then louder, “host pain host pain host pain!”

No response. Ignore them, I thought. Think about your work, think only about your work, I thought as I made my way back downstairs. Then I thought, Blood intake, blood storage, the vitalities. Make something of them, go on, you can do it. Work work work. That’s it. Yes. Work work work. Damn him!

“MIDGUT ANATOMY!” I screamed, and for a moment, as my voice
sank into every crevice and corner of our apartment, all was still.

In my cabinets I keep matchboxes filled with desiccated insects and several of their related species. Sometimes I take these husks out at night and put them on the table and imagine a war between the creatures: beetles over here, ants over there, spiders above. I spread them across the desk and move them about strategically until there’s no more room left on my desk (I’ve shoved helter-skelter my papers into a drawer and tossed books onto my sofa already sagging with other volumes), and I get down on the floor, let the patterns of the rug influence the war in ways only the ants can understand. But that’s not the main reason they always win. No, no, certainly not. You know why, I’m sure you do. You don’t even have to pay close attention to recognize that there is strength in numbers.

Anyone entering my study at this point might think, What a child! But what appears to others mere child’s play is for me hard work, for even while busy with my war games, in my head I’m multitasking to beat the band. First they overwhelm the beetles, paralyze them with their toxins, devour them. They order a few workers to martyr themselves within the web, then attack the
arachnids, rip off their legs, puncture their eyes, sever their two body divisions, scour with their acids their enemy’s ovipositors.

Such games, I assure you, are good for my work, my profession, my soul.

Hours I could stare at Sam’s drawings of imaginary insects, horned ants, winged larvae, iridescent blues and greens and reds with giant bug eyes in which I could see deep within, whether he had drawn this or not, clouds roiling within clouds over a landscape of gray fields in which we trembled, the two of us, huddled beneath a blade of grass, our feet digging into the earth, down, down . . .

He offered these drawings to me as a sign of his love; this I understand, but lately he had begun to laugh and, as he took a drawing back from me and tore it in two, say, “I don’t know why you find them so amusing.”

As he sketched his new model in the attic, was he thinking about giving birth to a brood? Was that why he brought the model home with him? Is a blood meal required to activate the egg? Is that the issue here? Perhaps. But had he told me, simply told me he wanted to have children, then, yes, I would have flown about the room, banged my head on the glass a few times, then drifted out the door and stayed away for a few days or weeks. He should think about what he was suggesting before suggesting it. I mean, yes, in principle, but since he made less from his sketching than I did from my research grant, how could we afford to find for the children a proper host species, much less go through the onerous task of teaching them the subtleties of host-insect interactions, things, for example, like morphological specialties you can perform on the surface of the host to make it more amenable and nutritious.

I had expected we would both adapt to our environment, or rather Sam more to mine than I to his, but somehow this wasn’t. . . . Didn’t triatomines also adapt themselves to a domestic-peridomestic environment? Yes, and some of them pass along to their hosts Trypanosoma cruzi, a parasite that causes sleeping sickness.

“Eat or be eaten,” I remember our professors used to say, and I couldn’t agree more. “This is the only way.” All of my professors said this, except for Dr. Hive who didn’t so much teach us biology as prestidigitate it. What a showman! Balder than a baby, on Wednesdays he wore a gray suit and told us it was a special government-issue spacesuit. “Every secret has its little casket, as Bachelard said,” he said (I did not know then nor know now any entomologists named Bachelard), patting his pockets, peeking into them, shaking his head, until finally he pulled from his hip pocket a silver toy zap gun. Or was it a toy? We were never sure. Was its barrel metal or plastic? Did we see or only imagine the red glow at its tip? “Deactivated,” he said, pointing the gun at us, “but I can always reactivate it, so best be careful. With this pistola I can laser
an anopheles mosquito off your nose at fifty meters, slice through a bumble bee’s pollen basket, puncture your left compound eye.” He would settle his haunches on his desk, look out the window for a spell, as if waiting for the skyline to burst forth in a display of insect glory, then turn back to us, and for the next forty-five minutes we were mesmerized by his tales of stalking rove beetles in Colorado, or (the favorite source of his storytelling) of examining, on his hands and knees and assisted by optical devices beyond our fathoming (now I suspect he was exaggerating the importance of his research grant, the only one he ever received), carrion beetles near Cameron, Louisiana, on the Gulf Coast.

“The dominant metazoan, i.e. any animal having a body composed of cells differentiated into tissues and organs and a digestive cavity lined with specialized cells, is the insect,” Dr. Hive said. “For every human, 200 million insects. Think about it.”

He said, “I know no sentence more beautiful than this from Lehane: ‘The microfilariae of many filarial worms display a pronounced periodicity, with microfilarial numbers in the peripheral blood coinciding with the peak biting time of locally abundant vector species.’”

On Fridays he showed us movies. Mikrokosmos I think I memorized, but Mant, Matinee, and Mothra were his favorites. And again and again he would project for us Them! and Starship Troopers, and afterwards say nothing about what we had seen or re-seen, only sit there, his bald head bobbing before us
like a heavy flower bud.

Then he looked up and, as he did at the end of every class, sang us a song:

Sum sum sum, Bienchen sum herum.
Über Stock und über Steine
aber brich dir nicht die Beine.
Sum sum sum, Bienchen sum herum.

Then he said, “Eat or be eaten? No, dream or die,” and walked out of the room, leaving us students wondering about many things, not the least of which was where our next meal was coming from.

But even then I was beginning to think: All those years to wind up at this inner-city public university? That won’t happen to me. From him I’ll learn how not to plan my career.

Is this what is meant by the host’s behavioral defenses?

Weeks wondering how best to increase the chance of parasite transmission, while Sam sketched his live model upstairs.

Chart 1: Density-dependent effects on feeding success.

Chart 2: Transmission of parasites by blood-sucking insects.

Chart 3: Specificity in vector-parasite relationships.

Constant observation, constant observation and study, or else death to the colony, I thought. The spiracles down his thorax contracting, expanding. The laterally projecting area on either side of the posterior part of his trunk tightening as he ascended the stairs.

Sometimes I could hear a flutter as of wings, followed by a sharp cry, then laughter. For days he stayed up there in his studio, coming down only at night to forage for lettuce, grub worms, a bottle of Merlot.

“The size of the red blood meal and the time taken in its digestion are affected by a range of factors including ambient temperature, age of the insect, mating status, stage of the gonotrophic cycle, previous feeding history, and source of the blood meal.”—The Biology of Blood-Sucking in Insects, M. J. Lehane

What were they doing up there, spinning cocoons? Why couldn’t he work more quietly?

We try to imagine what we are, I thought as I plotted an arachnoid cosmograph (spiders are not, strictly speaking, insects, no more than are millipedes, which coil up when disturbed), but we can only learn to calculate in our heads by calculating in our heads.

The night I devoured Sam and his model I dreamed I heard him say over the phone (I know not to whom):

“Different blood-sucking insects respond in different ways to spectral information.”

Or did I only dream I dreamed this?


Originally appeared in NOR 8

Tom Whalen’s books include Elongated FiguresDollsWinter Coat, and The President in Her Towers. His translations of short prose by Robert Walser can be found in Selected StoriesGirlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories, and the forthcoming Little Snow Landscape and Other Stories (NYRB Classics). 

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