In between my sophomore and junior years, I spent a month in Washington, D.C. interning at the Insect Zoo of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Five days a week, I would devoutly feed all the creepy-crawlies of the zoo, making my way from the lab where we kept the hissing cockroaches and silk moths around to the leafcutter ant display (They were my least favorite, simply because of their aggression and determination – they would happily decapitate themselves if it meant they could bite your shoe.), around to the mantids and stick insects before finishing up with the tarantulas (Yes, technically arachnids, in reality this was more of an arthropod zoo).
I had been drawn to biology since I was a preteen, and as a young woman I felt like I had something to prove – a memory prods me to this day, at a picnic for my mom’s work, where the nature center had brought cricket & chocolate chip cookies and the boys assumed I would be too squeamish to try a bite. I shoved that entire cookie into my mouth and ate it while staring them down, thank-you-very-much. Nothing that creeps or crawls bothers me that much, and some of them are quite cute. One of the senior employees at the Insect Zoo certainly thought so – she would coo at the larval bugs “now eat, baby, you need to eat,” remarking “don’t they look just like little alien babies?”
Insects fascinate me precisely because they are so alien to us – we share the planet with them, they have existed far longer than we have, and they outnumber us by the billion. Their bodies don’t just grow, they undergo metamorphosis and change completely, yet retain their memories and DNA. To me, it’s magic.
Sophomore year, I studied entomology and learned even more wonderful things: honeybees demonstrate the location of a pollen source via a waggle dance, with their butt pointed in the angle of the find. Termites produce a chemical found in Bic ballpoint pens that is used for establishing a trail for other termites to follow – so you can draw mazes or masterpieces with these pens and watch a termite pal follow your pen’s every move. Leafcutter ants, aggressive as they are, are natural farmers who cultivate mold (their food) on the leaf pieces they bring home.
For the first two quarters of my junior year, I studied abroad in Ecuador, with a focus on biology. The adventures are innumerable, but one favorite memory is the week spent at the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station, wandering through the rainforest on my own setting up pitfall traps to study bugs. I saw blue morpho butterflies & glasswings for the first time, the clear-winged lepidopterans swarming my shoes and socks. Butterflies are so beautiful, but some thrive off blood and sweat.
My first tattoo was a cicada on my hip, I was drawn to the idea of pupating underground for years, finally emerging as something completely different and ready to take wing.
My second tattoo was a blue rhinoceros beetle, as a sign of strength and tenacity. Also a nod to J.B.S. Haldane’s infamous remark “an inordinate fondness for beetles,” a potentially apocryphal response to inquiring theologians who wondered what, if anything, could be concluded about the Creator from the study of creation.
I’ve since added an atlas moth and two honeybees to the art gallery on my skin. In ancient Greece, corpses were embalmed with honey and bees were believed to be able to speak with the dead. I surround myself with messengers and metaphors in ink, hoping to connect to something greater.