Senior Stories

Good Bugs, Bad Bugs

Bug sighting and collecting probably ranks in the lower one percentile for reasons to travel. Nevertheless, there are those who worship dragonflies and butterflies with the same gusto that some world travelers collect sun rays on exotic beaches. For sure, there are more bugs to be found on Earth than remote, bleached beaches.

Insects make up the largest class in the animal kingdom. There are some 750,000 species of insects creeping or winging about the planet, with a mere 82,000 or so species classified as “true bugs”.

Anti-bug attitude is hardly reason for rethinking travel destinations, but I agree, it’s a serious consideration when you’re headed into the jungle for an adventure vacation.

Then there are friends who visit me in very civilized Florida. They always inquire how the bug population is doing in my indoor-outdoor living quarters before they book space at my place. Adreinne, for instance, nonchalantly wonders out loud if palmetto bugs are over breeding this time of year, or if, perhaps, I’ve spied any scorpions lately.

Of course, I ease her concerns immediately by telling her the fruit rat family living under my shed keeps the scorps at bay, and palmetto bugs, which are nothing more than giant water bugs, rarely venture indoors, even during the rainy season.

More importantly, everyone in these parts knows that lizards eat mosquitoes, a far more despicable creature than water bugs or spiders. I happen to believe the mosquito’s only redeeming quality is nourishment for bats and lizards. So: I assure Adrienne my kitchen and bathroom geckos are performing their duties like troopers, helping to control diseases spread by mosquitoes.

At home, that irritable itching thing is basically all we must contend with unless, of course, you consider the West Nile Virus. Little is known about it except that mosquitoes have infected thousands of people in the US, and since 1999 the flu-like symptoms have given way to deaths in nine states.

But worldwide, malaria could be the most common of all diseases. Thirty thousand North American and European travelers to foreign countries each year get malaria that must be treated when they return home.

Once contracted, malaria’s a nasty tropical disease that continues to recur throughout your lifetime – that is, if it doesn’t kill you.

Mosquitoes are just one of the disease producing, blood sucking insects that may come with foreign travel. Infection for life is also the hallmark of triatomine bugs, better known as “kissing bugs” in South America because they bite you around your mouth while you’re sleeping. Brazilian native Carlos Chagas identified it in the early 1900’s. Lucky boy, Chagas disease was named for him, and roughly 18 million people live with parasites in their bloodstream that destroy muscles and nerve cells, causing severe weakness and, in some people, heart failure. Another 90 million are at risk of Chagas disease.

In Africa tsetse flies and sleeping sickness come to mind whenever bad bugs are being discussed, so clearly, they aren’t confined to tropical environs. Indeed, body lice, which transmit typhus, are worldly.

And the simple bed bug is equally universal. Until recently, only a few thousand cases of its discomfort were reported each year in the US. Though the wingless, reddish brown bed bug hasn’t been associated with death in the past, the question of HIV transmission has gotten some scientific attention. To date, nothing has proven a cimex letularius’ bite to be the equivalent of a dirty hypodermic needle, but an AP story in July 2001 said bedbugs are on the rise in big city hotels: “Pest-control companies have reported a tenfold increase in bedbug service calls in Florida since 1999.”

Bloodthirsty stories and myths about bad bugs have circulated from the time of the ancient Greeks. But, enough about fleas and bubonic plague; good bugs have been around longer than humankind. Bugs are indispensable to the unique web of life. Without insects, life on Earth would be flowerless. Good bugs feed on bad bugs. And let’s not forget about the greenbacks that silkworms produce.

More to the travel point, bugs are nutritious. Whether reviled or revered, people have eaten beetle larvae, caterpillars and locusts since the dawn of man. From North America to Malaysia, cicadas are roasted or fried, and while females engorged with eggs are considered snackier than male cicadas with empty abdomens, you’ll probably agree that even lady cicadas are better than lerp. Lerp, an Australian delicacy, is dried and accumulated excrement from certain bug species.

As stars of the Survivor TV series can attest, bugs can fill your belly in a pinch. (And I’m not talking about plant hoppers’ honeydew or natural honey from bees.)

One more thing traveling amigos to my house might like to know: In Mexico, Egypt and the Orient, giant water bugs (read: palmetto bugs) are an important food source.


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