Outside magazine, September 1997
Bugs, as a general rule, are not immediately, fatally dangerous. They're not always even that frightening, unless you really think about them. What they are is creepy — sneaky, invidious things, uncannily proficient at self-defense and survival, and prone to appear in unexpected places (our boots, for example) when we are at our most vulnerable (rolling out of a sleeping bag in the morning). They are utterly alien. They have us seriously outnumbered. And they bring us inexorably around to two questions we've all been asking since we learned to talk. Can they kill me? Yes. But usually not all at once. Can they eat me? Yes. But typically just a little at a time.
Brooding aside, we've survived more encounters with this enemy than we care to remember. Yet none of us knows them as well as we might think, as evidenced by these all-too-intimate portraits, offering a revealing glimpse of what we'd see if tables were turned and we were the ones who were really, really small. Whether you choose to ascribe it to God, Darwin, or the fiendish pranks of cosmic clowns, one thing is abundantly clear: We share this Earth with strange bedfellows indeed.
An east Texas crony still twitches as he recalls slipping a disk into his computer one morning, only to have a horde of bright-red ants come spilling out of the slot. He claims to have accumulated 23 little red welts, each with a yellowish target center, on his hands and arms while hurling his hard drive out the nearest window.
North America has a few native species of fire ant, but they are pallid, limp imitations of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, the unvanquished. Invicta hitchhiked into Mobile, Alabama, aboard freighters from South America before World War II, and these nasty tykes have since spread across the South, despite billions of dollars in government extermination efforts.
About an eighth of an inch long, they can kill not only other insects but small mammals such as mice and squirrels. Their effect on infant birds is so ghastly that even some of the most pious environmentalists have been known to call for pesticides. A single sting is said to be less painful than that of a wasp — but you don't get just one. Drag a boot in their way and they swarm your leg, so tiny you don't feel them until the lead ants reach about knee high when, on cue, they all attack at once. The stinger is a hypodermic in the tail, and their method is to pinch a hunk of skin with their mandibles, hunch that needle into stabbing position, and wham in a dose of venom. They can repeat the performance almost indefinitely.
Fire ant stings are rarely fatal — notable exceptions being the result of allergic reactions or toddlers falling onto mounds — but they have been known to kill perfectly good garden parties, stricken guests fleeing while frantically ripping off their trousers or panty hose. The frequent infections aren't from the venom itself, but from the mad scratching at the itching, oozing pustules. If you find these miscreants in your campsite, don't be tempted to coexist under the auspices of some well-intentioned "all God's creatures" rationale. Pack up the tent and move.
Horseflies are also known as gadflies, and indeed — though their means of annoyance isn't of the hypercritical, nattering variety favored by their namesake — horses, cattle, moose, and other blood-warm creatures have literally been driven mad by the aggressive scourge, sometimes running themselves to death in the frenzy to escape. The relentless flies have adapted to that possibility and will pursue even cars or trains, at speeds of more than 30 miles an hour, apparently thinking they're prey. You, in your clumsy waders, stumbling waist-deep in the stream, are no challenge at all.
An arachnid, the wood tick, like others of its ilk, has legs that seem built less for movement than for clinging. It buries its head in the skin and sucks blood, swelling hugely with a feast that averages about four days. Male ticks will seek a feeding female to mate with during dinner. When fully engorged, she drops off to lay thousands of eggs.
But by then, of course, it's already too late. The saliva that's been spewed into the wound can carry diseases ranging from tularemia to a variety of tick fevers; the most infamous of these, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, can bring on delirium, deafness, and if left untreated, death within a couple of weeks.
The slam-and-scram attacks of most bloodsuckers are irritating enough, but a parasite that cozies in to stay is uniquely revolting. And yet yanking a tick off in disgust can be disastrous. The imbedded mouth is held in place by prongs facing backward. Plucking at the body will decapitate the beast, leaving its head buried in your flesh. Thus sadistic patience is required. Dousing the swollen body with alcohol or gasoline or holding a lit match near the tail may disrupt the tick enough to make it loosen its hold. Do not set it on fire. Use tweezers. Put the corpse of this valiant but vanquished foe in a pill bottle to be identified by experts in case an illness ensues. Wash your hands. Wash your hands again.
Out of all the world's delectable, plasma-rich species, the tiger mosquito's favorite prey is you. Its general apparatus is fairly standard mosquito equipment: Six needles in the snout pierce the skin while injecting an anticoagulant saliva to keep your blood from clotting as the critter feeds. The itch of a mosquito bite is an allergic reaction to the saliva. That saliva carries whatever diseases the mosquito picks up along its way.
And in this, it seems, the tiger is quite versatile. African varieties such as Aedes aegypti and Aedes africanus were largely responsible for the spread of yellow fever on that
Which brings us to the problem of tires. It's hard to get all the water out of a tire that's been sitting in the rain. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, and tires make splendid incubators. Between 1983 and 1985, the United States imported 4.5 million used tires from Asia to be processed for the retread market. In 1985, on a dock in Houston, Texas, a stowaway crowd of Aedes albopictus, Asian tiger mosquitoes, was discovered breeding in the tire heaps from a Japanese shipment. Alas, though safety precautions were introduced shortly thereafter, the damage had been done. Mountains of imported used tires had already been trucked around the country, allowing the tiger, hardy and devious soul that it is, to extend its range from Texas to Kansas City to New Jersey.
As yet there is no clear evidence that the tiger has actually started transmitting diseases in the United States, though some scientists speculate that it's behind Ohio's large incidence of LaCrosse encephalitis, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause major brain damage or death. Whether or not this proves to be the case, experts say the tiger's potential for microbiological mischief is so huge that allowing it to spread is like handing out empty guns on every street corner: Eventually, somebody will find the ammo.
But his skills were mere pranks compared to the toxic talents of the ground beetles known as bombardiers. These voracious predators spend their nights devouring the young of other insects and their days partying under rocks and logs throughout North America, repelling attackers with a pulsing spray of stinking, stinging, boiling-hot gas from their posterior.
This chemical warfare is the result of glands that secrete hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals into a storage chamber. When the ant grabs or the mouse pounces, the beetle opens a valve and squeezes the liquid into an armored combustion chamber, where enzyme catalysts trigger an oxidizing chemical reaction in which the fluid reaches the boiling point and the resulting explosions rip out audibly through a vent at the tip of the abdomen. That abdomen, by the way, is extremely flexible, and the bombardier's aim is deadly accurate. Up to 20 shots can be fired before the bug runs out of gas, so to speak.
The blue-black spray stains human skin and causes blisters. An insect offender may be killed. The mouse halts to rub its eyes and muzzle. Birds scrub their heads against their feathers. Even an ant will roll in the dirt to clean off the reeking irritant while the bombardier scurries away.
Certainly, too, the bombardier has invidious possibilities. Say, for example, that a snide river guide has a few drinks and falls into deep sleep after an exhausting day. Say his eyelid is lifted, gently. Say a beetle, easily found among the rocks near the stream, is lowered onto the exposed eye and the lid is dropped over it. Say you sit up in your bedroll, startled, as the screaming begins.
Photographs by Oliver Meckes