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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Some seniors golf three times a week, others chase after grandchildren and some knit socks and scarves for the homeless. Me, I’m rescuing and speaking up for bugs.

A year ago I wouldn’t have confessed to that proclivity, but now I have no hesitation. Living rurally for the past decade, and retired from my work as a clinical psychologist, I have become entranced with the wee creatures with which we share this planet. Within five minutes of leaving the house for my daily walk, I spot one ambling down the middle of the gravelled road in front of my house. It’s a woolly bear caterpillar. Of course, I’ve got to rescue her. September through November is woolly bear caterpillar season on the West Coast of Canada. I’ll see three or four of the inch-long black and orange fuzzy creatures on most of my walks. I pick up the wee creature. She immediately curls into a ball. Soft and furry, lighter than a feather, she doesn’t bite or squirt any venom. I place her at the side of the road, hoping she’ll not fall prey to the next vehicle tire.

Insects evolved four hundred million years before we humans came to be. They inhabit every part of this planet. I recently learned that spiders are not insects. Scientists classify spiders as arachnids because they have eight legs, while insects have six. Spiders have two main body parts while insects have three. But I am still in their awe. Given their ability to create perfect and shimmering webs, I have decided that spiders are nature’s artists.

Once, I rescued a cellar spider from my bathtub. Her elegant, fragile legs, no thicker than a strand of thread, weren’t able to get a grip on the slippery sides of the tub. I spread the bath mat over the bathtub edge hoping that might give Miss Elegant Spider an exit route. I checked an hour later and she was half way up the towelled mat. To my delight, half an hour later she was gone.

Living rurally has afforded me an opportunity to observe the seasonal march of insects in ways I couldn’t do in the city. During my city life I was raising two sons and working full time. The work of a clinical psychologist may be as poorly understood, and at times maligned as much, as insects are. Children, teens or adults who have physical or mental health issues often fall through the cracks. Resources for assessing and treating children remain limited in most school systems. They are the ants and spiders who all too often are shunned and stomped on. Would that I could have truly rescued my clients in the way that I have been able to do with spiders and woolly bear caterpillars. On the half-acre property where I live, as spring gives way to summer the insects make their presence known in action and sound. Bumble bees and honey bees buzz around the dandelions, red hawthorn blossoms and blue lobelia. Ants scurry in and out of their nests, sometimes taking up residence in my house. As summer advances, mosquitoes and dragonflies arrive. The former I swat at, the latter I enjoy as they zip and bounce around the gardens. In the height of summer, when our lavender plants are in full bloom with their fragrant purple flowers, the blossoms are overcome with bees. From sunrise to sunset. Sitting nearby with my cup of tea, it’s as if I am sitting next to an insect orchestra.

My wife and friends may tell you that I have become obsessed with insects and frequently manage to bring them into a conversation. It’s true. And my loan requests from the library now include books written by entomologists and biologists. I am continually amazed with the beauty, resourcefulness and creativity of insects. In the Smithsonian Handbook of Interesting Insects there are over 100 colour photographs of moths, beetles and butterflies. I have purchased my own copy so hardly a day goes by when I don’t flip through it and admire the Yellow Umbrella Stick Insect from Borneo. The Flower Chafer Beetle from Europe. The Tortoise Beetle from French Guiana. A Geometrid Moth from New Guinea. Sadly, I am not likely to meet ‘in person’ any of the creatures, as most reside in the southern hemisphere. One of my deepest, and most important learnings has been to discover the myriad of ways that insects contribute to the well-being of human lives. Yes, there are the poisonous spiders, and mosquitoes that carry malaria, but these are vastly outnumbered by the insects that are harmless and necessary for human continuance. Bees fertilize the flowers of all the fruits and vegetables we love to eat. Apples. Strawberries. Raspberries. Cherries. Oranges. Beans and Zucchini, Tomatoes, cucumbers and many more. Bees give us honey. Or rather, we take it from them. There is no other creature on this planet that makes honey. We are eating figs because of the tiny fig wasp that miraculously insert their almost microscopic bodies into the base of emergent figs, thereby fertilizing the fruit. Earthworms keep our soils chewed up. Spiders eat harmful bugs.

It is because of microscopic bacteria and insects such as pill bugs, centipedes and red wiggler worms that all the banana, potato, apple and orange peels we dump into our compost bins are turned into soil. It is because of dung beetles that animal manure is broken down and our soils are enriched. It is because of carrion beetles that dead birds and mice and all creatures, including humans, are broken down and decomposed. It is because of insects that we are eating fishes, chickens and turkeys, because those creatures feed on insects. Over the decades, I have never given a second thought to pesticides and insecticides, all promising to rid your plants of pests. Kill the ants. Kill the flies. Kill the wasps. Kill, kill, kill. Now, I want to sweep all those products off the shelves. Let the insects live! They are doing more good than harm.

Insects, I have decided, are the flowers of the animal kingdom. The Luna Moth, with its lime green wings is as beautiful as any flower or jewel. As is the red and purple Claudina Butterfly. I will continue to speak up for insects and rescue spiders. I will plant a pollinator garden for the bees and butterflies and may explore propagating Monarch butterflies or woolly bear caterpillars. But, in full honesty, I may still swat at the mosquitoes that land on my skin.

Lynda A. Archer lives in Gabriola Island, B.C.

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