Six Lessons I’ve Learned from Observing Bugs

honeybee-525224_1280Here is another Blog post that started its life as an episode on The Happy Road Ahead. I also thought that this would be a good article to feature on my website, and in some ways it’s almost a companion piece to the other one about Japanese festivals.

Without a question, one of the characteristic elements associated with summer, is… bugs. Insects of all kinds, from mosquitoes to flies, to grasshoppers, to ants. And spiders. Or other arachnids. Summer is the season for flying and crawling creatures of all kinds, and that’s what this Blog post is all about. How so? Well, this summer, I’ve had a chance to spend a lot of time outdoors. And, as you might expect, have been co-existing with many six-legged, and in some cases, eight-legged friends for the past few months. And as I’ve had a chance to reflect, it has occurred to me, that there are some interesting, if not esoteric lessons one can glean from observing the insect world ever so carefully. Now, full disclosure here – not every single lesson here came from being outdoors these past two months. I’m also a huge fan of Claude Nuridsany‘s 1996 documentary film, Microcosmos, which is a beautiful, close-up insight into the world of insects. At least one of my lessons is based purely on footage from this amazing film, but if you’ve not seen it – know that you’ll likely never see insects quite the same again after watching it. It’s fascinating to say the least, and quite amazing.

The one thought that served as the catalyst to this entire theme is the one that I’ll start with. This was the “aha” moment that really got me thinking about how insect behavior can be inspirational in human terms, and how someone could apply these observations to their personal benefit. As a brief disclaimer, in case I have entomologists in the crowd, I do realize that insects do not “think” like people do. I know that an insect’s brain, is very simple, and evolutionarily speaking, primitive – it’s more like an exaggerated ganglion where nerve cells come together. And as such, my intention is not to anthropomorphize. So if I make a statement, like, “the locust doesn’t care…” I do so figuratively and poetically, rather than scientifically. So that said, one of my favourite insects, and one that I never tire of observing, is the ladybug. Ladybugs are small beetles of the coccinelid family, that have brightly colored orange shells, often with a number of black dots on the back. Depending where you’re from, you might ladybug-292488_640also know it as a ladybird or lady beetle, or even lady cow. Whatever you call it, I think they’re really cool. And interesting. Because one thing about them, is that they don’t seem to get riled by much. Compare a ladybug with a grasshopper. Or a fly. You can’t get anywhere NEAR one of those without it flying away or hopping away. The natural instinct for many insects, which makes sense, is to get away from something that might hurt them or eat them. Gone in a flash. But not ladybugs. If you disturb a ladybug? You’ll just make him run faster. In fact, when I observe disturbed ladybugs, they don’t seem to do a lot of flying, even though they are perfectly capable of taking flight. They have wings, and know how to use them. But they don’t, really. You can poke, prod, blow on, or even flick a ladybug, and chances are, it won’t fly… It’ll scurry. If I were a predator, (and yes, ladybugs do have predators – even though they taste bad and excrete a toxic substance when in danger), that ladybug would have been a gonner ten times over before considering flying away. So I pondered that. Why wouldn’t an insect fly away, even though it’s perfectly capable of flight? Well, I wondered if the reason why it doesn’t like to fly, is because it probably requires a lot of energy to do so. It might be very inefficient, entropically speaking, for a ladybug to take flight. So if it’s going to do so, it had better be for a darned good reason and not frivolously. Now, I have no idea whether this is actually true or not – may turn out not to be so at all, but for my purposes, it translates very well to a life lesson.

How often do we spend expending energy on unnecessary things? As I think about some of the challenges that I’ve encountered in my life, I know for a fact that I’ve chosen to fly away, rather than staying the course, only to find out later that if I had only held out a little while longer, I would have benefited. So maybe being a bit more ladybug-like, and not spreading wings to fly away immediately, at the first sign of trouble, as it may end up requiring far more energy than simply just staying the course and getting a better handle of the situation. Now if only I could learn how to bleed through my skin on demand, and produce a foul-smelling toxin to ward off my enemies…

wasp-179015_640The next lesson I’ve learned by watching bugs, comes from first-hand, and somewhat painful experiences with bees and wasps. Anyone who’s ever been stung by these guys knows that it’s no picnic, and allergies, sometimes even very serious or life-threatening ones are common. But I’m more concerned about wasps than bees. What got me thinking about this particular topic was an incident I had with a bee about a month ago, when I got stung. It was my first time being stung by a bee; I had been stung by wasps before, but this was different. First of all, it wasn’t as painful, and second, when it first happened, I didn’t quite know what happened. I had just gotten out of the cab of a truck, when I felt a sharp pain in my pinky finger. As I quickly brought up my hand I saw something that looked like a wood splinter there, so I brushed my finger off a few times and the splinter was gone. But unlike a wood splinter, the finger continued to burn and throb, although it began to subside fairly quickly. I still didn’t know what it was… Then, a few minutes later, walking to the other side of the truck, I came across a bee, writhing on the ground, struggling for life. That’s when it occurred to me. Ahh! It was you, you little bugger. You stung me and now you pay with your life. How different from a wasp sting, though, isn’t it? Like with the ladybug, who seems to need a good reason to do something, the bee is the same way. It needs to have a darned good reason to sting, because it can only do so once. After a bee stings something or someone, it dies soon thereafter, because its stinger is barbed like a fishhook, and when it stings, it leaves its stinger behind, and tearing out a bit of its abdomen along with it. Kind of gross, isn’t it? Well anyway, wasps don’t work that way. A wasp’s stinger is smooth and retractable. It can not only sting multiple times, but it will not lose its life. And what makes it even worse, is that wasps tend to be far more aggressive than bees. Now, that makes you wonder… Are they more aggressive because they can sting with reckless abandon? It’s like they know it. I’m a wasp! Ha! Ha! Deal with it!

So, without anthropomorphizing too much, I can see how this applies to human situations and interactions equally well. Wasps are the jerks of the insect world. They have always been jerks, and they always will be. And we will always have them. In life, it’s the same way, isn’t it? There are jerks too. At work, or some people you’ll meet… And when we encounter them, our initial reaction might be to appease them. Or failing that, try to figure out why they are the way they are. Well, the fact is, it doesn’t matter. Maybe they weren’t held by their mothers enough as infants. Who knows? But the parallels with the wasps I think is apt. Just like you can’t change a wasp’s jerky attitude and aggressiveness, nor can you calm down an angry wasp, your best bet, is just to avoid them as much as possible. If you know there’s a wasp’s nest on a certain path – the easiest solution is just not to go down that path. I realize that this isn’t always possible of course, but we’re talking quick, pragmatic solutions here. It stays true to the jerks we encounter. You probably can’t change them – unless there’s absolutely no other way around, it may be best just to give them a wide berth, and avoid them as much as possible.
The next lesson I want to share, does come directly out of Microcosmos. If you’ve seen the film, there’s a wonderful scene involving a dung beetle, rolling a ball of, well, dung, or it could be mud I suppose, but I like to think it’s a massive ball of crap, about twice the size of his own body, and he’s pushing it along, presumably to his home, wherever that might be. (Note, that the photo in this Blog post is not the same one as in the movie, as the ball of crap was much larger than this). It’s just a three minute segment, but in those three minutes, that poor beetle overcomes some crazy hurdles. First, he tries pushing the ball up a hill, and he fails miserably, with the ball rolling right back down to the bottom, with him along with it. Then, he manages to impale the ball onto a sharp twig or thorn. And try as he might, he just can’t get the thing dislodged. By about the two-and-a-half minute mark, you almost start to feel sorry for the poor thing, until you remind yourself – it’s a dung beetle! But eventually, persistence pays off, and he manages to back the ball off the branch, and continues to roll it along his merry way back to his home.

Now the obvious lesson here, clearly, is the one of persistence. But that’s not all what I see. To me, and indeed to most people, it’s just a dung beetle. And that’s just a ball of crap. But to the beetle, that ball of crap is the most important thing he’s got, and it’s so important, that he’s willing to expend incredible amounts of energy to rescue it from harm, and to bring it home. In our lives, there are many times when people will scoff and see something only as a ball of crap that’s not worth anyone’s energy. But if something’s important to you, even if it IS just a ball of crap, it’s YOURS, and don’t let anyone try to convince you that it’s not worth the energy. To them it might be a ball of crap, but to you, there may be all kinds of value that others just don’t see. Or if you prefer to look at it more philosophically, the dung beetle is both figuratively and literally engaged in a Sisyphean task. And in case you’re rusty on your Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the king of Corinth, condemned for eternity to roll a heavy stone up a hill, only to have it roll back to the bottom when he reached the top. French philosopher and writer Albert Camus reflected on the absurdity of Sisyphus, eventually concluding, as many existentialists might, even though Camus himself rejected existentialism, that even in the absurdity of the task, Sisyphus creates meaning, as he is free to create a life from the void, and by realizing the absurdity, and embracing it for what it is, frees himself. The meaning is in the struggle itself, rather than the absurdity of it. Or to put it in Camus’ terms, all you have to do, is imagine Sisyphus happy.

konik-166725_640The next insect that struck me as rather interesting this summer, is the grasshopper. I haven’t seen too many of them, mind you, but the few I have, provided some great opportunities for reflection. When I was a kid, my friends and I used to catch grasshoppers and locusts by the jarful, probably much to the chagrin of our poor mothers, but anyway, they could be quite difficult to catch. Certainly far more so than a ladybug. The problem with grasshoppers, is they have a keen sense of proximity. The moment you get too close… Hop! He jumps away. Then, when you approach again… Hop! Same thing. To get close enough to a grasshopper to actually catch him takes a bit of speed, and skill. And it’s the skill part that makes up the heart of this next lesson.

What I observed this summer, was that when a grasshopper jumped to avoid my approaching feet, he didn’t jump in the direction I thought he might. In fact, you could say it was rather random. Now, it can’t have been completely random, because the one direction they generally didn’t jump, was towards me. It was generally away. But whether it would be off to the left, or to the right, or straight ahead, didn’t seem to have any particular rhyme or reason to it. The grasshopper didn’t seem to care where he jumped – as long as he jumped.

I see two things in that. First, is the importance of motion. Not remaining static. But also not getting TOO wrapped up in making sure that the direction you choose to move is the correct one. Ultimately, in the grasshopper’s case – any direction, as long as it wasn’t in the path of my impending foot, was a good direction. And in life, I think we can choose many good directions, but it’s easy to get so concerned with weighing and evaluating which one is best, that the foot comes down before we can get out of the way. That’s not to say that a person shouldn’t take into account reasons for taking a direction or making a decision. Just like the grasshoppers generally didn’t jump towards me, indicating that it was NOT an entirely random move. But where they landed was of little concern, since it was just as easy to jump again if the path chosen was still in the way of my feet. And likewise, I think we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking or believing that the decision or move we choose, can’t be followed by another decision or move, one that might be quite different than the one previous.

Second, I saw the value in the grasshopper’s random jumps here and there. From the perspective of avoiding predators, it’s probably a good thing that they can’t guess your next move. And I don’t have to belabour the obvious connection to our own life’s situations – that keeping people guessing, especially if you’re a businessperson, is a great way to keep competitors, detractors, and even enemies a couple steps behind. Keep ’em guessing, as the Disney song in Mulan goes. red-ant-319064_640

One of the most common insects you’ll ever see, especially in summer, are ants. These little critters can make any picnic outdoors into an annoying, sometimes even painful affair. Ants have long been the fascination of many observers, and there are even kits out there for children and young-at-heart explorers to capture them into ant colonies, where you can watch the insects teeming and formicating to your heart’s delight. Oh, and there’s a new word for you. Formicate. It sounds insidious and naughty, much like a similar-sounding word… But to formicate means to behave like ants do. To crawl around and scurry about and teem. Well, that’s one definition. Another involves the sensation on the skin as if though there were ants crawling on it. Ugh! Gives me the heebie-jeebies. So the next time you see a group of co-workers madly scurrying about, you can tell them to quit formicating and get back to work. Ahem! Anyway. Back to the ants. So, this summer, I happened across a colony of them. I’m not quite sure, but they look like European fire ants, which have a fearsome reputation for their stinging ability and aggressiveness. They seem to have taken a liking to a black water hose that went across a path. And these ants would scurry back and forth the length of this hose, kind of like an ant bridge. So as I pondered where they might be coming and going, I assumed they were doing what ants do – foraging for food, and when they find it, they grab it with their powerful pincers and push, pull, or drag it back to the nest. In fact, there’s some great footage of this in Microcosmos as well, and the scene is extra-cool because the camera is basically IN the chamber where the ants are depositing the food they find. So you see this huge mountain of grains and seeds, almost like the treasure room full of gold, in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of The Hobbit, with the scenes showing the dragon Smaug.

That in turn got me thinking about a Zen koan I shared on The Happy Road Ahead some time ago. It was Episode 19, and in fact, the title of this koan was also the title of the episode. When I look back at that episode, it’s really interesting because the meaning I derived from in then, is quite different from the meaning I derive from it now – at least on some levels. Actually, that was the defining point of Episode 19. It’s one of my favourite episodes that I’ve ever recorded, as it talks about stories and parables that can be understood on many levels, and it even includes a clip of Tuvan throat singing to illustrate that. But anyway, here is the koan and I will give my reflections on it THIS time…

Daiju visited the master Baso in China. Baso asked: “What do you seek?”

“Enlightenment,” replied Daiju.

“You have your own treasure house. Why do you search outside?” Baso asked.

Daiju inquired: “Where is my treasure house?”

Baso answered: “What you are asking is your treasure house.”

Daiju was enlightened! Ever after he urged his friends: “Open your own treasure house and use those treasures.”

When I first shared this koan, I reflected on how this could comment on people’s search for spirituality, and truth, or wisdom, and how many will venture outside of their own faith or traditions to find it. While there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, in and of itself, the parable gives one pause, to consider, especially to a non-practicing member of any faith: why am I seeking elsewhere, when the faith I’ve forgotten, forsaken, given up on, or by not practicing the faith from my own family’s tradition – which is itself a valid path and a complete faith. It does not need to be supplemented with other traditions.

But this time around, I see the value in the act of seeking. And that is the lesson I derive. Much in the same way as my earlier commentary on Camus and Sisyphus, and existentialism, it’s the act of seeking the truth and the wisdom that is the treasure. And if you stop seeking and forging your own path, choosing instead to adopt the ideas, interpretations, and wisdom of other teachers, then that is akin to Daiju going to Baso to seek enlightenment.

slug-399764_640The final lesson I have to share today, comes from observing garden slugs. These loathsome little garden pests abound, especially after a rain, and look quite alien to say the least. They inch along, slowly, doing whatever it is slugs do. And this summer especially, for some reason, I’ve seen many slugs. Don’t know why. So what life lesson have the slugs taught me?

Nothing! Not a stinking thing. They’re slugs! I would be grasping for straws if I said anything more. I’m just being honest here. But apart from being facetious and adding some humour to this article, that in itself, is a very good meta- lesson. And that is, not everything has a lesson. Not everything has a meaning. And not everything happens for a reason. That very lesson was the theme of a sermon at church some months ago, and I imagine that our rector, Alastair McCollum is glad to know that people are listening and paying attention. Indeed, in the course of human suffering, many churches and religious people take solace in believing that something bad that happened must have happened for a reason – or a greater purpose, or somehow for the greater glory of God. And while that’s a nice thought, the realist in me says – you know, not necessarily. Sometimes bad things happen because bad people do them. And while some may rile against that notion and refuse to believe that someone’s hardship couldn’t have been for nothing, I find an almost odd peace and comfort in it. But unpacking that would take up far too much space and time for the Blog post. So I’m going to leave it at saying, that there are many cases in life where there isn’t necessarily a lesson to be learned, and it’s best to leave it and move on. Or as Sigmund Freud might have once concluded, that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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