July 17, 2013

Creepy Crawlies!

by Gordon
originally published as "Meet Your Neighbors: Bugs of Japan" in The Hyogo Times, 2003

Of the many wonders of Japan [or the American eastern seaboard], you may count the host of creepy-crawly, blood-sucking, gigantic poisonous insects as among your least favorite. Perhaps the likes of the semi, at least, you can tolerate - so long as they hum their unearthly serenade at a respectful distance from you; however, the moment a six-legged guest turns up at home, the standard aisatsu for most of us is AAAA SHIT, WHERE'S THE BUGSPRAY??? But, in your next encounter, why not stay your shoe for a moment, and reflect on what we can learn from these strange denizens of the East?

Asian Tiger Mosquito - link
The Mosquito

First honors go to the ka, Japanese for "blood-sucking fiend from Hell." It's really a summertime invader... but, nonetheless: shortly after I came to Japan, one of these somehow crept into my bedroom; that night, I woke up again and again, batting it away from my face (sort of like a really, really bad date). Around the sixth time, I finally dragged myself out of bed, turned on the light, rolled up a newspaper... but it had simply disappeared. The next night, I was attacked again and tried to find the culprit, and even used a paper fan to clear all the walls and ceiling (sleep-delirium, I suppose)... but to no avail. Prior to night #3, I searched the bedroom again - and... nothing. At that point I quarantined the room and slept elsewhere.

So let's look at what this devious little bastard is doing. A) It infilitrates your home with great ease and without being noticed. B) It stays hidden long into the night, only to emerge at around 3-4AM, just when you are the most tired. At this time (which, incidentally, is called kimon, "the devil's gate," a very unlucky hour), even if the pre-attack buzzing wakes you up, you will likely lack the will or energy to do anything beyond turning over. C) The moment a light is turned on, I believe this particular species has the instinct to hide. Even if you see it retreating, its body is so ethereal that it quickly dissolves into almost any background.

In the spirit of war, let us now analyze our opponent's tactical stance: first, the only major weakness to its subterfuge is its tell-tale buzzing. Unless you sleep with your feet uncovered, the mosquito will have to go for your head - and hence you will hear a buzzing precipitating any attack. Second, the efficacy of the mosquito's timing relies upon your incapacity at 4AM. Since this is generally a guaranteed thing, it compensates for the first weakness. Overall, the mosquito appears to have a strong position.

But there is one effective counter-strategy. However, as much as it is simple, it's also a pain in the ass. What we need to do is this: if we hear buzzing, instantly throw ourselves out of bed, hit the light, and smash the fuck out of the mosquito. The key here is speed: if you move quickly, it will still be somewhere near your pillow. Of course this isn't pretty (especially when you have no choice but to mash it into your pillow with your bare hands), but it will save a great deal more pain and suffering in the long run.

Craft and stealth will get you a long way.
Lesson: Even if you're a crafty, stealthy little bastard, someone may catch on - and then you're screwed.

East Coast brood - link
The Cicada

Now for something different. The semi can be 4-5cm long, it's leathery and fairly ugly, and its nymph form resembles a prototypical movie alien, complete with bulging eyes and spined pincers. Why, then, is it one of Japan's most beloved insects? Well, most obviously, it's noisy - even if you lack the imagination to call it "singing," you know the soft roar of the cicadas is one of the great soundscapes of Japan. I will certainly miss it after I leave.

Secondly, there's a certain spiritual symbolism, a romanticism of sorts, attached to the cicada. As a nymph, the cicada spends up to seven years underground [or even 13, in the case of the recent east coast brood], sucking xylem from the roots of trees; there after it emerges in the late summer, undergoes metamorphosis, sings, mates, and dies before the end of autumn. One can imagine the young cicada lying buried, waiting alone in darkness under the cold soil, feeding and growing ever so slowly, while all the rain and snow and sun of the seasons pass by far above. Then after seven long years, it experiences the first new feeling it has ever had: the urge to leave its tiny burrow, to dig, to climb out of the soil and emerge to face the world beyond. Doing so, it leaves its home, climbs high into a tree, and there metamorphoses.

Once transformed, it breaks free from the shell of its former self; then with its newly-formed wings it takes to the air, breaking free from the earth as well and going forth to begin a glorious new life. It sings, and with luck, finally meets another of its kind, and mates. In a few months, it will be dead.

The Japanese see this as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of beauty, and it is clear it can be seen as an analogy for the human experience as well. As for the particular human experience of spending the winter in Hyogo, there is something about the phrase "spending seven years underground sucking xylem from the roots of trees" that evokes in me images of a gaijin curled up in the fetal position and shivering beneath a kotatsu, sipping box-juice through a straw by the red coil-light. Of course, this image is ridiculous - there's no way to fit your entire body underneath a kotatsu. (How do I know this, you ask?...). Here I have contemplated adding another section devoted to the bear, who is smart enough to hibernate through the winter; however, as the insect angle doesn't really fly there, I'll just leave it at that.

Lesson: If you're going to be loud, you'd better have a sob story or some other excuse to explain it.
Lesson: It's okay to be horrendously ugly if A) you're a great singer, or B) you just haven't metamorphosed yet.

Carpenter ant - link
The Ant

Now this is a bit more serious. To children and the childish, the ari appears to be the lowliest of insects - after all, it spends day after day wandering around and picking up crumbs, building up piles of dirt or sand which we can crush in a footstep, and it makes easy fodder for the pathological seven-year-old with a magnifying glass. However, as many sensitive authors and scientists have noted, the ants are not only among the most highly developed insects, but, in many ways, they have surpassed human beings both in social and moral aspects, strange as it may seem.

The ants, along with the eusocial honeybees and some termites, have evolved a near-perfect society. Interestingly enough, it is a communist-sort of caste system. (As has been said: Marx had the right idea, but the wrong species.) Membership in each caste is determined by the diet and pheromone conditions during maturation; this can result in drastic morphological differences between, say, the gargantuan army ant warrior and the nurse-worker which rides on one of her antennas (think: a basketball-playing gaijin with a mini-obachan perched on his shoulder). The functions of each caste fit together perfectly to fulfill all needs of the colony; the population size of each is also dynamically tailored to the present conditions. The queen, although present, is not a ruler or decision-maker per se (sound familiar?), but it is her welfare, and that of the eggs and brood, which are protected most fiercely.

As the famed author Lafcadio Hearn noted (from yet a further source): morally, the ants have transcended such human concepts as selfishness or greed. To put it simply, there is no selfish action that an ant may perform - there is simply no opportunity for greed or self-indulgence, because the "common good" and the "individual good" are one and the same. (Almost paradoxically, this applies even when an ant sacrifices itself for the sake of its relatives - see below.) When they take food or rest, they take only as much as is necessary to continue their work for the colony. Sex is merely functional; generally, the males die sometime after mating. In sum, all collective efforts of the ants go to benefit the colony. In this sense as well as in terms of organization, the ant colony can be likened to a super-organism - an uber-ant of sorts.

How is this degree of cohesion and cooperation between individuals created? One important difference between the ants and ourselves - which, indeed, may be an unsurpassable barrier to our moral evolution - is that, like all of the species of Hymenoptera, genetic distinction of gender in ants exhibits something called haplo-diploidy. To skip a lengthy explanation: if humans were haplo-diploidy, children from a mother and father would all be girls, but baby boys would be born to women without the need for a partner (à la the divine conception). As a result, men would have neither fathers nor sons, but only mothers and daughters. Neat, huh?

Another change would be the degree of relatedness between family members. For humans, we are 50% related to each of our parents, siblings, and children. From an evolutionary standpoint, therefore, we should be equally close to those relatives - we should consider them equally important. (Of course, this is different if your sister's an incurable bitch or daddy's on death row - clearly "should" is the operative word here.) If we switched to haplo-diploidy, however, the relatedness would become as such:

For men: brother - 50%, sister - 50%, mother - 100%, daughter - 100%
For women: brother - 25%, sister - 75%, father/mother - 50%, son/daughter - 50%

The important shifts are the following: a man would value his mother and daughters as highly as he would himself (100% relatedness). To put it another way, it would not matter to a man if he were to die in the place of his mother or daughter. Even if he were to die childless, all of his genes are contained in his mother. In contrast, the most valued individuals for a woman would be herself (as it is now), followed by her sisters. This sister-sister relation would be closer than any that humans have now, as was the aforementioned relation; a sister would be more than willing to die if it ensured that two or more of her sisters would survive. Lower in importance to a woman would be parents and children (though worker ants are often sterile), and lastly, brothers. The end effect is that the society would be staunchly matriarchal, and males would be disposable. In an ant colony, since all members share the same mother (the Queen), this martriarchy is in fact a giant sisterhood - in which the few males will readily sacrifice themselves for the colony, and the rest (sisters) are very closely bonded.

I also hardly need mention the inventions and innovations of the ant and their brethren (wasps, termites, bees, etc.) which predate those of humans, including, at brief recollection: air conditioning (the termite mound, wasp and bee nests), intricate architecture (including nests submerged underwater), marvelous hunting and foraging techniques, childcare, military prowess, agriculture, livestock, enslavement of other races, and so forth. (Notice that although they do practice war and slavery, the ants stop short of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Pre-Emptive Strikes, fossil fuels, widespread environmental destruction, tabacco, etc.) Physically, they have evolved strength disproportionate to their size; the ability to manufacture variously acid, venom, wax, honey, paper, silk, glue, and all manner of nutrient and pheromone (not including anthrax); the ability to see ultraviolet and infrared spectra; superb aerial prowess and spatial memory; dances and other complex behavior to share information; and the ability not only to crawl, jump, sting, and fly, but also - according to a recent NHK nature show - swim quite gracefully as well (amphibious ants!).

So in the end, sure, they've invaded your kitchen or picnic and are busy raiding your pantries or wicker-baskets, but that's only because you're messy enough to drop food on the ground or leave it lying about. They haven't done anything wrong; they're simply working for the good of their colony; in fact, they're looking after their mother and daughters and sisters in a more upstanding way than you or I ever will. You can spray them if you really want, and you're bound to kill a few of them... but you'll never kill the super-organism. Better to call a truce, and leave a sugary peace offering outside your door in the morning.

Lesson: If we want to create a better society, we'll have to use some pretty heavy 1984-style genetic engineering and developmental direction to create a rigid caste system. We'll also need a Queen.
Lesson: Even though a super-matriarchal, disposable-male sisterhood society works for ants, it wouldn't be possible in humans without some fundamental genetic changes. So looks like that's not happening anytime soon. Ha! Besides, ladies, you like not being sterile, right? And guys, we like to continue on living after mating, yes?
Lesson: Sometimes even the lowliest, tiniest speck which crawls upon the earth would make a more worthy person than many of us: not only is he civic-minded, but the ant treats his fellows with more dignity than do many men.

The Bookworm

If I continue to write any longer, I'm going to die. Therefore I'll leave the (many) other insects for another time. In any case, I hope this short treatise has helped you to appreciate the many interesting facets of insects around us. If you have any questions... then please don't hesitate to ask someone who actually knows what they're talking about. (I know the genetics, but that's it.) So, until next time...

You may now return to your bug-smashing.

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