The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)
The thing most feared in secret always happens.
CESARE PAVESE, August 18, 1950
For a long time I thought only of bees. They crowded out all the others, and this book became just for them. A book of bees in all their bee-ness. All the physical capacities, all the behavioral subtleties, all the organizational mysteries, all the comradeship. All that golden beeswax lighting up the ancient world. All that honey sweetening medieval Europe. All those bees, timeless templates for the most diverse human projects and ideologies. Bees took over.
But then a plague of winged ants invaded my living room, and after they left I began thinking of locusts and then beetles—all those beetles!—and then caddis flies and crane flies and vinegar flies and botflies and dragonflies and mayflies and houseflies and so many other flies. Then one thing led to another, and I came across field crickets and mole crickets and Jerusalem crickets, and then Jessy sent me a weta from New Zealand. And then the seventeen-year cicadas emerged in Ohio, and I discovered the thrips and the katydids, remembered the aphids on California roses and the summer wasps drowning in water-filled jam jars, and then termites and hornets and earwigs and scorpions and ladybugs and praying mantises sold dry in packets in garden-supply stores. And then there were the mosquitoes with long legs and the mosquitoes with short legs and far too many butterflies and moths of all kinds. And I remembered what we all already know: that insects are without number and without end, that in comparison we are no more than dust, and that this is not the worst of it.
There is the nightmare of fecundity and the nightmare of the multitude. There is the nightmare of uncontrolled bodies and the nightmare of inside our bodies and all over our bodies. There is the nightmare of unguarded orifices and the nightmare of vulnerable places. There is the nightmare of foreign bodies in our bloodstream and the nightmare of foreign bodies in our ears and our eyes and under the surface of our skin.
There is the nightmare of swarming and the nightmare of crawling. There is the nightmare of burrowing and the nightmare of being seen in the dark. There is the nightmare of turning the overhead light on just as the carpet scatters. There is the nightmare of beings without reason and the nightmare of being unable to communicate. There is the nightmare of their being out to get us.
There is the nightmare of knowing and the nightmare of nonrecognition. There is the nightmare of not seeing the face. There is the nightmare of not having a face. There is the nightmare of too many limbs. There is the nightmare of all this plus invisibility.
There is the nightmare of being submerged and the nightmare of being overrun. There is the nightmare of being invaded and the nightmare of being alone. There is the nightmare of numbers, big and small. There is the nightmare of metamorphosis and the nightmare of persistence. There is the nightmare of wetness and the nightmare of dryness. There is the nightmare of poison and the nightmare of paralysis. There is the nightmare of putting the shoe on and of taking the shoe off. There is the slithering nightmare and the one that walks backward. There is the squirming nightmare and the squishing nightmare. There is the nightmare of the unwelcome surprise.
There is the nightmare of the gigantic and the nightmare of becoming. There is the nightmare of being trapped in the body of another with no way out and no way back. There is the nightmare of abandonment and the nightmare of social death. There is the nightmare of rejection. There is the nightmare of the grotesque.
There is the nightmare of awkward flight and the nightmare of clattering wings. There is the nightmare of entangled hair and the nightmare of the open mouth. There is the nightmare of long, probing antennae emerging from the overflow hole in the bathroom sink or, worse, the rim of the toilet. There is the nightmare of huge blank eyes. There is the nightmare of randomness and the unguarded moment. There is the nightmare of sitting down, the nightmare of rolling over, the nightmare of standing up.
There is the nightmare of the military that funds nearly all basic research in insect science, the nightmare of probes into brains and razors into eyes, the nightmare that should any of this reveal the secrets of locusts swarming, of bees navigating, or of ants foraging, the secrets will beget other secrets, the nightmares other nightmares, the pupae other pupae, insects born of microimplants; part-machine, part-insect insects; remote-controlled weaponized surveillance insects; moths on a mission; beetles undercover; not to mention robotic insects, mass-produced, mass-deployed, mass-suicide nightmare insects.
These are the nightmares that dream of coming wars, of insect wars without vulnerable central commands, forming and dispersing, congealing and dissolving, decentered, networked; of netwar, of network-centric warfare, of no-casualty wars (at least on our team), dreams of Osama bin Laden somewhere in a cave. These are the nightmares of invisible terrorists, swarming without number, invading intimate places and unguarded moments. The nightmares of our age, nightmares of emergence, of a hive of evil, a brood of bad people, a superorganism beyond individuals, “swarming on their own initiative—homing in from scattered locations on various targets and then dispersing, only to form new swarms.”1 The nightmare of language. The language of bees. Nightmare begets nightmare. Swarm begets swarm. Dreams beget dreams. Terror begets terror.
Where are the bees now? Collapsing in their colonies, gliding through their plastic mazes, sniffing out explosives, sucking up that sugar water, getting fat and weak on corn syrup, locked in little boxes at airports, sticking out their tongues on cue. Who knew the tiny critters were so smart, said the journalist. Fuzzy little sniffers. Buzz, buzz, buzz. Keeping us safe. Helping us sleep easy at night.