The Curious World of Bugs

The old man crouched slightly as he took small tiny steps forward towards the woman's ass. I didn't see what was in is raised right hand, it was hidden from my view by his body draped with a colorful sarong. He crept closer, still crouched and still silent. She didn't see him coming, but when he finally struck the woman hardly seemed to notice. His hand, it turn out, bore what looked like a hand broom of the type used to sweep the dirt floors of the mud huts and open barazas, but smaller, cleaner, and cut somewhat differently. He used it to strike a fly off her bottom and when the surprised insect hit the ground his foot sprung out as fast as a welterweight boxer's fist mushed it to death.

The old man smiled a toothless grin and the woman, my colleague from the United States whom I was replacing as resident of the Congolese field research site in the Ituri Forest, issued him a perfunctory "thanks" and went back to her instructional about how to run the camp. Then she added parenthetically, "Oh, and then there are the old men. Their main job seems to be to kill the deer flies. Everybody here has Filariasis, just to different degrees, and it's carried by those flies. This guy," pointing with her chin to the old man, now taking a seat in a nearby home made bamboo recliner to wait for the next fly, "and his buddies seem to kill every fly that comes around their village. Don't forget to take your Hetrazan or you'll end up with balls the size of honeydew melons," now pointing with her chin to a young man waiting for clinic hours to start, sitting rather uncomfortably, eying us like we were giant wristwatches and he was in a hurry.

It is true that in the average Lese village in the Ituri Forest, there is one or more old guys who spend considerable effort killing any or all of these flies, the flies that carry what is known in the west as "elephantiasis" or "river blindness," an infection of the parasitic filarial nematode worms. As a Westerner (pardon my assumption) you know of this as dog heart worm, and you know of Hetrazan and related medications as heart worm pills. If you get bit often enough, the worms attach and grow in considerable numbers not far from the bite site, and become long term parasites. The biting flies have strategies that vary regionally. In the Amazon they tend to bite where the blood is near the surface, in the face and hands, which they find using infrared detectors evolved into them. Thus, people in that region tend to get the River Blindness. In the Congo, they tend to bite where they are less likely to be seen by the victim, even if the blood is harder to get at; Behind, on the back, buttock, calf. Here, infections of the lower parts of the body are more common, so you see swollen legs and yes, swollen testicles.

Once a person is infected with a lot of worms, it is very tricky or even impossible to treat directly. Poisons that kill the worms act so effectively that the immune system of a person treated will cause more problems than the worms, potentially killing the patient. For those not yet infected, or only mildly infected, a weekly dose of Hetrazan, in those days (perhaps new meds are used now) would keep the worms in check. But only we visitors had hetrazan, and ever since one of the researchers nearly killed a couple of people a few years earlier administering the drug to long term infected locals, we were instructed to not admit that we had it. We just quietly took it with our anti-malarial pills every week.

It seems strange from a western perspective that any effort to kill a ubiquitous insect, like a deer fly (the closest term I have at hand for the particular insect carrying filariasis in the Ituri) or, for that matter, malaria carrying mosquitoes, would work at all. And obviously, it does not work perfectly. But having seen the process -- the old men in action with their personally made fly swatters deploying their well considered strategies and acting with considerable diligence -- I do believe that infection rates are reduced from what they could have been.

And that is in fact how the original Western flyswatter came about. During a particular nasty epidemic of a fly born disease in the US, in this case, typhoid, a physician named Samuel Crumbine promoted the use of the flyswatter, designed to effectively dispatch houseflies. That is one of many interesting insect related stories you can rad in The Curious World of Bugs: The Bugman's Guide to the Mysterious and Remarkable Lives of Things That Crawl by blogger and bug man and photographer Daniel Marlos.

This is a "bedtime reading" book rather than a field guide or academic treatment. It is full of facts, addresses misconception, reveals may of the dark secrets of the insect world. Despite the title, the book does not deal principally with the Heperoptera (true bugs) but rather with "bugs" in the vernacular sense (insects and other crawling thingies). The book also has handy tips like how to keep bugs out of your bed, how to make money with bugs, and how to remove earwig eggs from your brain.

OK, Only kidding about the earwig eggs in the brain.

The book has is well indexed, nicely illustrated with numerous line drawings, and includes appropriate scholarly reference.

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Excellent, fun intro, Greg. By the way, I (non-scientist) had always assumed that the term "bug" was simly an informal (usually North American) term for any sort of creepy-crawly.

to clarify: i'd never thought there was a formal scientific meaning

I have a hypothesis that the origins of the custom of sacrificing the first born offspring in nomadic herding agriculturists (i.e. as described in Genesis) might be to reduce fly transmitted parasites too, living flesh eating maggots.

Animals like sheep and goats give birth pretty much all at once. Taking the first born, cutting it up, letting it sit for a while before burning it would cause it to attract the local screw worm females, they would deposit their eggs which would then be killed by being burned, depleting the population for a time while the other females in the flock gave birth.

This also has the effect of removing early birthing genes from the gene pool of the flock.

A fnried of mine A fnried of mine had tonic water in a bowl for her 12th birthday years ago. It was neon themed. We put it in a bowl, and painted a little model boat with black light paint. It was awesome.