When a Bug Man Loves a Woman
Before I fell in love with a bug man, none of my steamiest fantasies would have prompted me to consult the gold swift moth sutra. But, I had also never modified my grandmother’s cornbread recipe to include beetle larvae. “Couples who eat bugs together stay together,” I tell my friends, but I don’t laud every venture the winged ones have inspired, including a complimentary porn industry.
BugTube, such as it is, remained unknown to me until my thirties, but some 7,300,000 people were already in the know, as indicated by the number of webpages that answer a search for gold swift moth copulation. With a mere flutter of fingers, gratis and ad-free, the sex stars of the insect world trapeze on screen in various acrobatic positions. The pollinators of blueberries and cotton are not the only insects that get exploited.
Gold swift moths, in particular, have evolved some of the most flexible mating behaviors in the insect world. They aren’t provocative in the way that celebrities like Matthew McConaughey or Beyoncé are, but they can elicit an altogether different kind of fantasy.
A French professor introduced me to the entomologist who showed me the ways of six legs, as a photographer once showed me the ways of light and shadow. He was sitting at the faculty table in the dining hall of the university where we all taught.
“Don’s Français est très bon,” Karen said, elaborating in additional French from which I could only distinguish the word immersion. She seemed to be flirting with him, but maybe it was the private romance language they were sharing. Don was handsome, with broad shoulders and warm green eyes. He explained that he had developed his French while researching cowpea weevils in Cameroon and practiced speaking it with Karen and her students. He chaired the agriculture department and hosted them at the university farm during French-immersion weekends.
Since I had grown up on a farm, I asked if I might bring my writing students there for an exercise. He agreed, but months passed in the rush of my first year of teaching. We chatted when some campus event brought us close, but we didn’t sit down together again until the U.N. released a report detailing the high environmental costs of the traditional livestock market. The report recommended edible insects as a forward-thinking alternative for feeding a rising population.
While I was growing up in Virginia, my family raised the tomatoes, peppers, corn, and beeves that graced our dinner plates, but I had since moved into a city apartment that distanced me from my food sources. It was promising to imagine that I might again rear livestock, or mini-livestock, in plastic bins in my laundry room, but should I start with crickets or mealworms? I asked Don if I could buy his lunch in exchange for answering a few questions.
He agreed, and we met at The Lovin’ Spoonful in a booth decorated with paint-by-numbers Jesuses. It was May. Spring peepers were resounding a chorus backed by katydids, but Don said it would be weeks before grasshoppers in the farm’s organic fields would be meaty enough to sample.
“If you want to try something sooner, we could get a dozen crickets from the local pet store,” he said: “The main difference is that they are probably fed wet cardboard rather than plant matter.” Since I was eating chicken salad from conventional chickens, which the FDA admits contain levels of arsenic, one meal of carton-eating crickets seemed harmless.
Encased in the bag of air in which PetSmart packaged them, the crickets jumped and tickled my hand. Though I was accustomed to buying frozen shrimp, I was the agent who would be freezing these land prawns. Three times I reopened the freezer door in hesitation as they settled and stilled in the cold.
When I pulled them out to rinse, as Don suggested, I lifted two cannellini-bean-sized bodies from the colander and turned them in the light. They were the color of mussel shells and perfectly preserved in, as the French say, la petite mort. Unlike the characters in Sartre’s No Exit, they had seized their moment behind the locked door. I showed Don, who grinned and said, “A happy death!”
He drizzled oil into a hot skillet where I tossed the conjoined lovers together to sizzle. While he filled our glasses with the wine he brought, I pearled rice on another eye, but we turned our bodies toward each other to toast the couple still joined in the pan.
My enthusiasm wavered again when a dozen obsidian eyes gleamed from my plate of cricket mushroom risotto. Don blew on his steaming fork. My stomach fluttered. I did not want to back out in front of him, but I also did not want to nosh the same bugs that got into basements and chirped their mating songs to no avail.
Still, I missed being in direct relationship with my food sources. I wanted to rekindle that dynamic, if on a much smaller level. I took a deep breath and popped a peppery cricket into my mouth. The texture reminded me of coconut flakes used to bread shrimp. This crustacean cousin was lighter, crisp as celery and toothy against the mushroom medallions and risotto golden-threaded with oil. Euphoric from overcoming my fear, I beamed across the table at my colleague.
He moved his chair closer to me and pointed out the tiny black dots, or spiracles, through which crickets breathe. “During the Carboniferous period,” he said, “the air was so oxygen-rich that insects grew many times the size they are now. Ancestral dragonflies were the size of hawks.” I pictured enormous dragonflies soughing through that lush world. I imagined cracking into a cricket as thick as a lobster tail.
The next day I ordered one hundred organic mealworms to start my first mini-livestock herd. Their equipment needs were simpler than crickets’, since, being the larvae of beetles whose wings are fused, mealworms cannot jump or fly. Don advised my purchases and methods over the weeks that followed. Some of the initial herd I gave to my yoga teacher, who raised chickens. Some I let mature into darkling beetles to begin the second generation. Their eggs swelled from curry-sized granules into golden commas that wriggled across the bin bottoms as if in search of lost sentences.
When they were the size of cursive letters, they crawled over one another as if writing lurid romance novels. Though they wouldn’t mate until they were adults, they piled in the corners in tangled knots of bodies.
“It’s warm in here,” Don said when he came over to check on their progress. That summer Tennessee experienced a heat wave that chirred with two cicada emergences and amplified the thrum of locusts, katydids, and crickets. Everywhere you looked, if you looked closely, nymphs were fluttering from dappled ponds and leaf litter.
The most startling mating display Don showed me was at a lake during a mayfly hatch, when millions of tiny white filaments electrified the air like a miniature Royal Ballet rendition of La Sylphide. I never imagined anything with “flies” in its name could be romantic, but Don had been watching such performances for years. Gold swift moths were even more ingenious.
Gold swifts do not have one style for attracting mates. Females do not emit a scent and wait. They might, but they also might bump suggestively into a choice male, or a pair might meet midair like bold members of the Mile-High Club. A group of males might follow females out of a swarm and dance for them, calling on a Travoltaesque repertoire. Or a lone male might stretch over a female, link abdomens, and hang from her like a swing set until dawn.
Maybe long hours in a laboratory studying such creatures pique one’s appetite for adventure, or maybe our species is sapient because we have the wisdom to learn from others. Regardless, their creativity is infectious. Don often sweeps me into his arms when we hike past a stand of oaks overhung with mistletoe, or I flit by his house after yoga class buzzing from endorphins.
“Want to try this cicada jambalaya?” he asks one afternoon before we head to Summer Chow, an annual fundraiser for a program that teaches area high school students how to garden.
“Of course!” I say, slicing cornbread I baked for the event using my grandmother’s recipe and iron skillet. If she were alive, she would likely have given me a look of dismay, as my mother did, to learn that I had modified her ingredients to include mealworms. But perhaps she would relish my doing something she never would have, I think, leaning toward Don and the spoon he has extended, ready for anything.
Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one collaboration, and five chapbooks. Her nonfiction has been awarded with first place in the Writers at Work contest, two Peter Taylor Fellowships to the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop, an Individual Artist Grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a fellowship to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her essays appear in Brevity, Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.