It's widely known that most people don't like bugs. Entomologists sum up the general public's response to insects in two pithy syllables: Eeeeeek! STOMP!
Given this widespread loathing of insects, it's no wonder we grow up to have such a liberal hand with pesticides. Because, though you may associate heavy pesticide use with commercial growers, the truth is that householders use five times the pesticides, per acre, that farmers do. One-fifth of the 400 million pounds of pesticides used in this country every year are used by us, your average householders.
You see, farmers have a financial incentive for keeping their pesticide use down. Pesticides cost money to buy and money to apply and farmers are trying to make a living. They generally don't spray unless pest damage is going to be so extensive that not spraying becomes more expensive than spraying.
Not so us householders.
Master Gardeners hold plant clinics all over the county to answer people's gardening questions and they frequently hear something like this: "I saw these bugs on my rhododendrons, so I sprayed them with diazinon. What are they?" Note that attitude: Spray first, ask questions later because if it's an insect, you can be sure it's up to no good.
Some experts believe this mistrust of insects is genetic - hard-wired into our central nervous systems. But Sharon Coleman, a local entomologist who has devoted her career to mediating relations between the six-legged and the two-legged, believes that our aversion to insects is only partly nature. Much of it, she thinks, is nurture.
Coleman describes this typical human-insect interaction:
She is introducing a group of children to a group of insects. One small girl gazes curiously at a bird-eating tarantula (larger than a man's hand). Her father approaches. "How'd ya like to find that on your pillow at night?" he guffaws. The child flinches and draws away from the spider, her interest replaced with fear.
How often have you witnessed an adult becoming semi-hysterical over a bee, shrieking at a spider, fussing over a harmless crane fly in the presence of children? It's no wonder that we grow up to fear insects.
I believe that, as a parent, or as any adult who comes in contact with children, one of the most important things you can do for the environment is help children understand and accept the insect world. Perhaps then they'll be less likely to feel the need to slather their surroundings with pesticides when they grow up.
What follows are a number of suggestions for encouraging a sensible approach to insects and spiders. Many of these suggestions may take human/insect relations a lot farther than you are interested in going. That's fine. The important thing is to at least cultivate an attitude of indifference, even if you have to fake it.
Try not to scream, for instance, when a bee floats your way. The bee is busy doing its thing and if you discreetly move away it probably won't notice. The same goes for spiders. Move away from them if they frighten you. Spiders don't chase humans - even ones that flail and emit high-pitched noises.
As a good first step in getting comfortable with insects, buy a field guide to insects and spiders. There are several good ones in print. Keep one handy and, when you're with a child and see an insect, look it up. This is wonderful brain work for children, giving them practice in skills such as observing, describing, categorizing, using an index, and making comparisons. You can keep a list of insects you've identified, just as bird watchers keep lists.
Part of teaching children to be comfortable with insects and spiders is teaching them which insects can hurt them and how to behave in their presence. Most insects can be handled safely, with bare hands.
Wasps, honey bees and bumble bees should not be handled with bare hands (but they can be trapped in jars, see below). When these stinging insects hover uncomfortably close, looking for food, simply wave your hand gently in their vicinity. Don't bat at them; you may hit the stinger and sting yourself.
Centipedes can sting and should not be touched. Very large beetles can nip. Handle them as you would lobsters or crabs: Grab them on their "shoulders," just behind their heads, or hold them on a flat, not cupped, hand, as you would when offering treats to a horse. (See? Insects are just like other animals.)
Some spiders also bite and a couple found around here are poisonous. Teach your children to treat spiders with respect, not fear, just as they should treat strange dogs. Read them "Charlotte's Web" at an early age, and hope it sticks.
When you encounter an unwanted insect or spider in the house, don't automatically flatten it with a rolled up newspaper or the sole of your shoe. If you'd like it gone, use these tools: a drinking glass and a thin piece of cardboard.
Up-end the glass over the insect. Slide the cardboard under the glass - sometimes you need to give the insect a gentle shove - and hold it there as you walk outside. Hold the cup at arm's length and remove the cardboard, pointing the glass away from you. If the insect is a crawler, just lay the glass down on its side where it won't be stepped on and come back for it later.
Practice these small acts of mercy and valor and in two weeks we'll go on to Step Two: Looking for bugs in your life.
Susan McGrath's column runs every two weeks in the Home/Real Estate section. Send questions and comments to: The Household Environmentalist, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA, 98111.