Beetle Mania

The intense joy of mounting a worthy bug in proper fashion

Somewhere, sometime, someone said I was just knee-high to a grasshopper. They didn't mean anything by it, but the image was instantaneous: that greenish-brown oblong head towering above me, huge compound eyes examining the top of my cranium, 10-foot-long antennae waving wildly in the air, long furry palps dangling from its jaws. Those jaws! Sometime before, I had met a man who kept crickets in a beautifully carved box, inlaid with glass. He fed them fruit and potatoes, and they sang for him in the heat. He told me that crickets sing with their ankles and listen with their knees, and I watched them for hours, sometimes imagining myself among them, living in their insect palace.

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 Donaldpasses 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 Kennedylearned 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 Bickertand 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 Harrisand 8-year-old Jonah Harrisexpertly 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.

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