In Java, my mother and I lived in the center of a rice field, in a house raised on stilts. At dusk, we gingerly picked our way through the rows of rice paddies, just as the fields began to flicker with firefly light. By the time I was tucked into my loft bed, with my nose pressed against the window, the entire field would be twinkling, as if the stars had burned up and fallen like ash across our front yard. The local children knew from experience that fireflies would not eat in captivity (I later found out that only their larvae take in sustenance), but other insects would. One of the locals showed me a delicate walking stick that was only as long as the diameter of a penny, as well as a tremendous beetle, as hard and black as obsidian, with mandibles half the length of its body.
In the States, hordes of potato bugs have brought the Long Island Railroad to a standstill, but at my stateside childhood house, the insect world was more benevolent. Clouds of ladybugs gathered on my south-facing bedroom window, drawing heat and shelter from the eaves as they prepared to overwinter. I watched them through a magnifying glass -- ladybugs like to eat aphids, and their spots fade with age; I wondered at their relation to the dinosaurlike beetle in Java. There are at least 5,000 kinds of ladybugs, 400 of which live in North America. No one knows how many types of bugs there are in the world; more than 1 million species have been recorded, but the estimated number is 10 times that.
Among bug collectors, the grylloblattid -- a living fossil commonly referred to as an "ice bug" -- is like the 1910 Honus Wagner tobacco card of the insect world. It hails from the smallest extant order of insects, eking out a living at high altitudes in subzero temperatures. But it's not much to look at -- something between a cockroach and a cricket -- and certainly could not hold up, in visual terms, if pitted against the iridescent blue wings of the Morpho butterfly, the opalescent hue of a jewel beetle, the majestic horns and patterns of the stag beetle, or the phantomlike elegance of the walking leaves that capture the attention of the patrons who have come to mount bugs at Paxton Gate.
Longtime employee Josh Donald passes by a large wooden apothecary's chest holding raccoon and coyote penis bones, aluminum vials, corks of various sizes, ox-bone knobs, alligator feet, test tubes, pillboxes, and numbered railroad spikes, and then he pulls open one of many slender drawers in an old wooden case holding specimens. Skipping the beautiful red and green Sagra beetles, he invites me to sniff Amblypygi stygophrynus, a whip spider from Peru. Even with its tremendously long legs gathered beneath it like a beached squid and its heavily armed pedipalps crushed under plastic, the frog-eating arachnid is terrible to behold. I close my eyes and inhale. Even through the plastic, the woody, musty, acrid scent Donald just calls "bug" permeates my nose and head, lingering like something I should definitely remember.
I am invited into the back room, past the ostrich and emu eggs, past the taxidermied gar fish, which look like villainous platypus-eels, past the lifelike jackelope head and the skunk-skull dolls dressed up like Marie Antoinette, past the bell jars, the mortar-and-pestle combinations, the vintage compasses, trick locks, glass eyes, fossils, dried lotus pods, and hollow tangerines, past buckets of river pebbles and rare jasmine tea sold by the ounce, past cacti, orchids, prehistoric air plants, and books about moss gardening, into a sunlit atelier overlooking a small garden and a fish pond. Inside, three children and nearly a dozen adults settle down at two school-style lunch tables, with forceps and entomology pins in hand.
"We used to catch locusts when I was a child," says Argentina-born Sergio Feld, "and torture them, freeze them, pull them apart, and perform transplants. You can remove their thorax -- pop it right out -- and transplant it to another bug. Boys, you know, boys torture bugs."
The majority of the men are in concurrence. It is a skill 37-year-old Tom Kennedy learned from his father. "He showed me you can pull all the legs off a daddy longlegs," says the smiling, ginger-haired Paxton Gate regular, "and the legs still quiver."
I sit between Francois Vigneault, a somnolent young man who has a penchant for the "visual aesthetic of early-19th-century museums," and a married couple -- environmental policy-maker Kate Bickert and biologist Joe Drennan -- who attend in hopes of one day spreading and pinning the gorgeous Paxton Gate lantern beetle Bickert received for a birthday present in October. Josh Donald and fellow instructor Brian Flores pass out squares of foamboard covered in graph paper, and Donald begins his lecture on hydrating and pinning a long-horned beetle. Ten-year-old Sam Harris and 8-year-old Jonah Harris expertly line their boards with ento-pins and watch attentively as Donald loosens the legs, antennae, and manacle joints on his large, black specimen. Donald takes us through the meticulous procedure step by step: the placement of the anchor pin through the scutellum or the right side of the thorax, but never between the wing covers; the angling of the positioning pins, which stabilize the legs (working left to right and back to front); and finally the adjustment of the head and the gentle handling of the antennae. Despite Donald's extensive instructions, there are some things you can't understand by speculation, like the amount of force required to open the deadlocked mandibles of a long-horned beetle.
Everyone grabs up beetles with glee and begins the slow, careful process of stretching the insects' muscles. Bickert and I hesitate, wary of the tiny popping noises emanating from the stiff joints.
"They're stronger than you think," heartens Donald, a fact made painfully clear as we then try to uncross the sharp pincers jutting out of the beetles' jaws. "Those are tremendously strong. Used for boring into wood."
At last, I am ready to pin. Emanuel Feld, Sergio's 10-year-old son, is already finished, having replicated a lifelike gait with his specimen and achieved the artful question-mark sweep of antennae that is to become his trademark. Drennan and I are last, compulsively pinning and repinning, angling and reangling, counting squares, inspecting symmetry, accepting failure.
"You could get a little obsessive with this," chuckles Drennan.
"I went for a natural look, a little tilt of the head, a little off center," says 26-year-old Shannon Amidon, who comes up from San Jose at least once a month to purchase bug parts, railroad spikes, eggs, and the like for her assemblage art.
Twenty-seven-year-old Cheri Wong also hopes to incorporate her new skill into her art: jewelry making. Her rings, which feature tiny clusters of ladybugs trapped in resin, have already earned a place at Paxton Gate, but with bigger bugs, there are bigger possibilities. "I broke the antennae on this one," says Wong, indicating a tiny pile of forlorn body parts, "so it'll go in a terrarium like this one." She points to a small citadel made of lead-framed glass and filled with succulents.
Next come the butterflies, yellow-, gold-, and russet-hued Speyeria cyble, captured at Weeley's Landing in Missouri. The scales on their wings are so delicate they may be handled only between pieces of smooth paper. There are a few wing tears here and there throughout the class, but overall, with these bugs, there is less to obsess on; the bodies are largely hidden by the pearly wings.
Bickert recalls taking a butterfly-netting class as a child, where she was taught to stun the insects by pinching their thoraxes before dropping them in the killing jar.
"It was painless that way," says Bickert. The Harris boys seem to appreciate the kindness.
"They've been all through South America," explains their father, Daniel Harris, "and they've collected bugs, but only dead ones. They'd never kill them. They have to find them dead."
"We couldn't figure out if we should pin down [the butterfly] or eat it," says Melbourne native Simon Day with a smirk.
"This class was his birthday present," says Day's companion, a local zookeeper named Lori Komejan.
"Last year, we ate bugs," continues Day, "loads of bugs. Lori made me a birthday dinner of bugs."
"Mealworms and crickets," clarifies Komejan. "With wine sauce and avocado. You have to freeze them first or they jump out of the pan. They don't tell you that in the cookbooks. We had to learn the hard way. ... Mealworms are a bit nutty tasting."
"Roasted Emperor moths burst when you bite into them," says Day, recalling his Scout days in Australia. "Live crickets just taste wiggly. After a couple bottles of beer, you know, you start challenging each other."
"Next year, we're going to eat scorpions," says Komejan.
In the meantime, insects on foamboard will have to suffice. And they do, quite nicely, if you ask me.
Errata: Below is a list of names or awards that were not available last week, as the blood and dust settled at the first annual Power Tool Drag Races: Golden Flywheels were awarded to Argyre Patras for "Most Impressive Crash," Ryon Marc Gesink for "Most Pathetic Machine," and Woodster No. 1134 for "Most Dangerous Machine." Ropesy the Rodeo Clown was named "Most Likely to Get Laid," and Johnny Pontiac re-emerged as Chicken John. A runoff for the "Super Stock" title will be held in secret among Ariel Spear, Scott Anderson, and Don Hurter. Good luck, and don't forget the iodine.