M’s treasure, or just some awful bug? (2010.8.1[Sun.])


"My mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones. But there are…”
  from Aliens, directed by James Cameron, 20th Century Fox, 1986

    Strictly speaking, it’s not really an insect. But the nasty little critters I’m about to share with you have generally been grouped in together with what we call “bugs.” Some might say to me, “You’re not being fair – you’re just biased against some species!” but I don’t think so in the least. My view and tastes are quite simple, really. I find a small set of animals, including moths, to be beautiful, but there are lots of creepy bugs that I can’t stand as well. I don’t seek to deny that. I say people who claim that all animals are equally beautiful have no business getting involved in environmental or conservation issues. “Then who does,” you say? I suppose I would accept it if you could still maintain that impartiality if you found yourself in a jungle in Southeast Asia, drifting off to sleep, when a giant cobra appeared, rearing up with its hood flaring, and venom in its eyes…

    The question of what is beautiful and what is not is not an easy one to answer – if it were, perhaps we wouldn’t need to fight about things anymore. Your may remember my friend, M, from last month’s column – his aesthetic sense is a far remove from my own. Once, he somehow got hold of an amblypygid (a relative of the scorpion) and asked O, the proprietor of our favorite insectarium to build a display case for it. What is that thing? In my fifty years, I’ve seen maybe a handful of photos and videos of living specimens only twice. The first of these was in David Attenborough’s disquieting (I flinch sometimes) nature program “Life in the Undergrowth,” which featured two battling males. My wife is an Attenborough fan, but even she shivered when she saw it, saying, “It’s good to be human!” I strongly recommend watching this to anyone who’s feeling unhappy with today’s society of today. These things showed up in the movie version of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” as well, as an animated model of a giant bug you’d never want to run into. I suppose this second video sighting doesn’t count, as the fantasy graphics weren’t really alive, but those images were definitely not just a product of the imagination. That creature of nightmares is alive and with us on the planet today (see Fig.).

    Mr. O is used to making cases for moths, with an occsasional tarantula, or scorpion, or even alligator. He may dress like a dandy, but he’s all business when a job comes in. But when he showed me M’s amblypygid, he said, “Ugh! Who’d want to put this on display?” But M’s case is really something to behold. Dead and behind glass, the creature is not fearsome at all, and its structure is actually fascinating. His collection also includes a giant centipede, a house centipede, even a daddy longlegs. But as he is based in the middle of Okayama, he also has lovely silkmoths alongside in them in the same case. Hard to forgive, but what can you do? That hodgepodge is just a reflection of M’s aesthetics. Everyone who see its mutters, “What an awful collection!” I couldn’t agree more.

    I still remember when he caught the house centipede (a freakishly leggy little monster sometimes mislabeled as a silverfish) – it was a hot and humid day in midsummer, when we were collecting insects in our accustomed spot near a convenience store. That night, an enormous number of bugs were drawn to our lantern — fluttering moths, stag and rhinoceros beetles, as well as giant waterbugs in flight, seed beetles come to feast on the pile of mayfly husks, carrion beetles, and centipedes. A tiger keelback snake even turned up to hunt the tree frogs and geckoes that had themselves come seeking a meal. Witnessing this condensed version of the food chain, it struck me viscerally that we humans don’t really sit at the top. It was there that night that we spotted a monstrously large Thereuopoda clunifera on the damp concrete wall. M was the first to spot it, and he shouted “Look! It’s huge. Don’t let it get away! Kill it!” I always carried a syringe loaded with 10% ammonia, which somehow meant it the killing fell to me. These critters may be relatively benign for a myriapod, but it was still a scary assignment. Seeing it squirming all over the place… I didn’t want to get bitten. I finally hit it with a 25-gauge needle and almost instantly, it began to shed limbs – they were literally dropping off its body. My eyes widened.

    There’s a term, formication, for the dreadful sensation of bugs crawling over your skin. I think everyone is familiar with the concept, but few have actually felt it. But watching that scene, I experienced exactly that. Self-amputation may be just a defense strategy for these bugs, used to distract a predator, but it had a distinctly different effect on me. It was horrifyingly awful. But M wasn’t bothered, shouting “Don’t lose any of the legs!” I thought about yelling back at him to do it himself, but I was overpowered by his urgency, and began to collect the legs off the damp ground, one by one. It always turns out like this. M gets into some crazy adventure and I somehow get carried along by the momentum. I just can’t resist. The same thing happened catching a giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia japonica).

    “Catch it! Catch it! Don’t let it get away!... You caught it? Great! Thanks! Now could you kill it for me? I got stung once a long time ago, so it would be dangerous for me if I got stung again. Hurry! …. Be careful, she’s going to start releasing her attack pheromone! I can’t be here if her hive mates come. I’ll be up on the roof…” So it’s OK if I get stung? If the hornets swarm at me? Anyway, M finally got to bring home the trophy I had caught for him, leaving me to wonder what I was doing out there that sultry night. I should have been enjoying myself collecting delicate saturnids, folding them neatly away into triangles of wax paper…

    When I got to the lab the next day M began preparing to show off his new prize. After attaching the fallen legs delicately with glue, positioning the specimen with countless pins, and drying it for around 20 days, his gigantic house centipede was ready for its debut. And what a sight it was. It definitely had impact. With its myriad legs splayed out, it had a kind of geometric beauty, I suppose, but that still doesn’t change the fact that it’s a house centipede. It recalls the scene of that nightmare beastie wandering in the dark dankness, in search of prey, its innumerable legs writhing as it scurries across a concrete wall. On hot and humid nights, I can still hear M’s voice calling on me. What have you caught this time, M? Which one is it? Ah… this one’s nasty too…