My girlfriend loathes being around bugs. She screams, gets all queasy and desperately calls upon me to remove them from the premises. She refuses, however, to stand idly by as I squish any insect with a sheet of toilet paper and flush it down the toilet. Despite her phobia, she feels for bugs and always pushes me to comfortably shepherd them into a Tupperware, then transport them to a pleasant leaf outside, where they can live out a nice, wholesome life as a bug.
I admit, I feel for bugs, too, and while corralling massive spiders into a small Tupperware is an absolutely horrifying assignment, watching them make a new life in some random bush does warm my heart.
However, as I mindlessly pace around my apartment during the coronavirus quarantine, more and more bugs have caught my attention. Transporting each and every one to an individual leaf outside would be, well, impossible. It seems, then, that I have to make some tough decisions about which are brought to the outside world and which are flushed to the sewer. For guidance, I reached out to a bunch of entomologists and asked them to help me rank some common house bugs by how bad I should feel about killing them. I wanted to know not only which ones can perceive fear and pain during death, but also which ones do good for the world while living. What I was told, though, changed my perspective altogether (and made me consider buying more Tupperware).
First, we need to talk about whether bugs can perceive their impending doom. “As far as we know, bugs don’t really feel pain, at least not in the sense that vertebrates do,” says Alec Gerry, professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside.
Michael Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and creator of the Bug of the Week blog, tackles this notion in more depth: “I don’t believe we can separate these according to the degrees of pain they feel as they’re executed. The almost instantaneous crushing of a fly by a fly swatter certainly doesn’t cause more than a millisecond of what we might interpret as ‘pain.’ Pain is very much a human construct. We have receptors in our peripheral nervous system that sense potentially harmful stimuli, such as heat, stretching and pressure, that we interpret as pain. Insects have similar proprioceptors, chemoreceptors and thermoreceptors that receive stimuli from the environment.” But to suggest they feel pain from these receptors in the sense that we humans do, Raupp claims, would be a stretch.
“Fear is a different issue,” Raupp adds. “Certainly, we avoid things that cause us pain. Through experience, trial and error, we learn to fear painful things. Many insects can also learn — that is, form memories and respond to environmental cues. Ground nesting wasps use landscape features to map the location of their nest. This enables them to search for food for their young and find their way back to their nest in the ground. Honey bees share information with their hive mates on the location and quality of pollen as nectar sources. This allows them to forage efficiently. Do insects have fear? Well, some caterpillars can sense vibrations on a plant made by their predators. They may remain motionless or drop to the ground. Many insects, including death-feigning beetles, will lay on their backs and play dead when disturbed to avoid being detected and eaten by predators. Is this ‘fear’? Probably not. Caterpillars or beetles that don’t remain motionless are more likely to be discovered and eaten by their predators. Those that have the ‘play dead behavior’ live to reproduce and pass along the genes for this survival tactic. Those lacking the behavior, well, they perform the Darwin experiment, and their foolish genes are removed from the population.”
All in all, on the subject of pain and fear in insects, as Joe Rominiecki, of the Entomological Society of America, explains, “I don’t have much knowledge on that other than a sense that it’s a fairly fraught, potentially divisive subject.” As is often the case, it can be extremely difficult to understand what other species really experience, as all we can rely on is our own human perspective.
This human perspective deeply impacts my second concern, too — that is, my query about what bugs do the world good. “Good bugs are really those that we think of as being good for humans, meaning that they’re involved in pollination, like bees, moths and butterflies, or are predators of other pests, like wasps, spiders, mantids, lacewings and ladybird beetles,” Gerry explains. “Of course, these can be bad bugs, too: Adult butterflies might pollinate flowers, but their immature forms (caterpillars) will eat and sometimes destroy flowers or food crops. I have no idea how to rank them in terms of importance to humans.”
Rominiecki has a similar perspective. “First, insects are so incredibly varied, diverse and specialized to their particular ecological niches that comparing them across all of Insecta and Arachnida might be kind of impossible, or at least highly subjective,” he says. “Second, the valuation of an insect (or any animal) as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘pest’ is an entirely human-centric point-of-view: Flies, for instance, are important decomposers in nature, but become pests when they wander into human homes. So, context matters (and that’s just one of a myriad possible examples).”
Raupp provides a few more examples of how bugs can be either good or bad, depending on the perspective, pleading that I seriously consider the worth of all living things. “Please remember that all living things have a role to play in helping this world go ‘round,” he says. “Certainly, insects like bees and many flies play super important roles pollinating plants. Every third bite of food we eat depends on pollinators, and insects are the premier pollinators on Earth. Pollination services are valued at hundreds of billions of dollars annually worldwide. Ants are annoying when they enter homes, but many are important predators of insect pests that attack our crops. Spiders can be scary, and some are dangerous, like black widows and recluses, but most are key predators of pests in our landscapes, gardens and farms. We found spiders to be the most impactful predators in residential landscapes in Maryland.”
“The other rascals on your list are also problematic from the human standpoint,” Raupp continues. “Mosquitoes are the most dangerous creatures on the planet, because they vector devastating diseases, like malaria, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile virus and many others. But mosquitoes and their larvae are also important sources of food for fish, dragonflies and vertebrates, like birds. Fleas and bed bugs have their own places in the natural world, but when they’re biting our pets and us, I have no compunction about annihilating them. Same for termites or pantry moths in my home. But outdoors, termites and pantry moths are important recyclers of plant material. So, you see, I have no simple answer to your question, as it’s a complex one.”
And one that seems to have no real, justifiable right answer. The facts have been laid out, and all signs point to one simple conclusion: All bugs matter, or as Raupp pointed out, “all living things” matter (if you want to be virtuous as fuck, I suppose that extends to germs and bacteria, too, but don’t let that stop you from scrubbing every surface in your home with bleach right now).
I guess I’ll be needing more Tupperware, after all — except for bed bugs. If I see any of those, they die.