Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Last Firefly

Insects were a big part of my summer on Moose Hill. The mosquitoes welcomed me in June, and remain faithful companions even until now. Cicadas, crickets and katydids provided a sonic canvas for the lyrical paintings of the birds. Butterflies and bumblebees entertained the eye. Fireflies signaled high summer on a solstice ramble.

Children of all ages are thrilled to see the bright yellow flash of a firefly. So many of us fondly remember running through the green grass of childhood summer evenings to capture lightning bugs, keeping them in mayonnaise jars by the bedside, watching the powdery flashes before drifting off to dreamy sleep. Imagine the wonder of early humans, peering into the utter darkness of a mysterious world and suddenly seeing spots of otherworldly brightness moving through the brush. Imagine how it would feel to kill the last firefly.

Stephen M. Meyer is a professor at MIT and is dying of cancer. Meyer, 54, had four to eight weeks to live when the Boston Globe Magazine asked him to write an article. It is likely the last article he will write. Using speech recognition software because his hands are paralyzed, he wanted to leave the world a message about how, by killing the small creatures among us, we - as individuals - may be destroying the world as we know it.

His article, “A Misguided Zap,” appeared in the September 3, 2006 edition of The Boston Globe Magazine. He points out that, in our zeal to avoid a few mosquito bites, we set out bug zappers to lure insects with light only to fry them on a grid of high voltage. In a summer, one of these deathtraps may kill 10,000 insects, but only a couple of dozen of them would be biting insects. The vast majority of the incinerated beings are harmless, maybe beautiful, even beneficial, rare or endangered.

I’ve always considered automatic lawn sprinklers to be somewhat wasteful and decadent. Now, Meyer warns of a new convenience for those with equally abundant money and self-interest: Automatic insecticides sprayers. Like clockwork, plastic dispensers will pop up to emit mists of pyrethroids. One wonders if the sales pitch focuses on the collateral damage to harmless insects, fish, amphibians and other animals up the food chain.

About 10 years ago, one of my home improvement customers asked me to hang a bug zapper in her backyard. Even then I suspected that these contraptions did more with their satisfying sound of crisply frying bugs to make us feel protected than they did in actually ridding the yard of the target enemy. Like using a cluster bomb in a crowded neighborhood to kill a single terrorist, their murder seemed indiscriminant. Even this ostensibly educated, aware, sensitive, progressive homeowner was not interested in my gentle suggestion to consider the consequences of living with this device. I will never hang another, no matter what the pay. At this point, the idea of a monkey wrench in the zapper is feeling pretty good.

As heroic as Meyer’s last message may be, the timing is unfortunate indeed. Just this weekend, a local nine-year-old boy died of mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis. Surely, his warnings will fall on mostly deaf ears. As in the war on terror, in our rush to protect ourselves and our loved ones, we will pull out the big guns first and ask questions later. When the dust and fog settle, I only hope we pause to consider what we have done.


At 2:05 PM, Blogger Lilly said...

Thanks so much for this post. We humans are unconsciously cruel and destructive in so many ways, wasting resources, spewing toxins. We just ignore the consequences of our actions and assume there will be none.

The Jewish concept of keeping kosher is a good example of an alternative, conscious path. You may know that the "kosher laws" are the rules for what is righteous to eat and what is hurtful to eat. Reconstructionist Jews have broadened the concept of kosher, and expanded it beyond the ancient specifics of this animal or that way of cooking.

Kosher, for them, means choosing foods and eating them in a way that is pleasing to their god. It's a way of remaining conscious about what and how we eat. If our god is one who loves diversity, we would want to carefully maintain species diversity. Some may choose vegetarianism because that reflects their god's values, and so on.

Just so, we can be kosher in every choice we make by remaining conscious: is this bug zapper or weed poison or sexual relationship or way of talking to my kids righteous or wrong in my god's god-eye view?

(Thanks for your patience with my god-talk!)

At 11:11 AM, Blogger robin andrea said...

When the dust and fog settle, I'm not sure who will be left to wonder what we have done. I have such a dim view of humans that I think the planet would be much better off without us. Everywhere we go, we leave ruin in our path.

I wonder what the natural predator of the mosquito is.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

RA: Swallows and swifts and bats. I'd guess frogs and toads, too.

Getting people to care about bugs is a hard sell, I think. I can't even imagine an automatic pesticide sprayer like you mentioned - is there really such a thing?

And Lilly - I don't know too much about it - but doesn't the label kosher apply to how an animal was slaughtered, rather than how it is raised?

At 9:39 PM, Blogger Julie Zickefoose said...

I have sorted through the piles of dried insects under bug zappers, and find craneflies, lightning bugs, June bugs, mantids...nobody deserves to die just because they have an exoskeleton, but that's the indiscriminate sentence we put out. I abhor bug zappers, always have, and never pass one without fantasizing about going on a rampage one dark night, shooting them to smithereens from a passing car.This is a great piece.

At 9:56 AM, Blogger Deb said...

Great post. I always thought that bug zappers were ludicrous, and indiscriminate spraying is so wrong. I abhor mosquitoes, but I somehow feel that that does not entitle me to wage war on all flying insects!

At 10:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Mojoman, for another thoughtful piece that champions the smallest life forms. I love (and share) your perspective.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Thanks to all for your feedback! Let's hope more and more people come to understand the stupidity of this approach to pest control. (Osama who?)

Lilly and Laura: The traditional concept of kosher meat involves the type of animal, how it was killed (It must be done by a specially trained 'shochet.'), inspection for various diseases and blemishes and how the final meal is prepared and eaten. The laws of kashrut are very complex - to the point that it could easily seem ridiculous to observe them. Laura is correct in that there is not very much attention paid to the life of the animal before it is slaughtered. Other parts of Jewish law address the etical treatment of animals a bit, but as far as I know, that's not specifically part of kashrut. I like Lilly's suggestion that there are other things to take into account when considering whether or not something is kosher. For example, veal can be perfectly kosher, but I don't like the idea of eating a baby cow that's spent its whole life in a little crate so it's meat will be tender. Also, is meat kosher if all the workers in the slaughterhouse are treated unfairly?

But I digress...

Laura: The article in the Globe was the first I've heard of these pop-up sprayers, but with what I know about my fellow suburbanites, they would not surprise me at all.

Robin Andrea: You seem to have such a wonderful life there in Washington and have so many fine friends and fans on your blog. I hope your mood improves soon as you feel the love again and can feel that there are still many good people out there. I just hope we all come to our senses pretty soon.

Julie: Leave it to you to actually dig through the bug bodies and take a count. Those are the sort of data that are needed to fight something like this. I'd love to sneak through the night with you and blow up some zappers. They would call us "bug-huggers"!

Deb: Those are strong words coming from someone who lives in Minnesota. I've never been there, but on my one trip to Wisconsin, I saw more mosquitoes than ever before or since.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Thank you, too, my anonymous S. I missed your newer comment at the end there. I like to think of myself as thoughtful. (Is that, in itself, an endless loop of thinking?) But also realize that too much thinking can lead to paralysis. This issue, however, does seem like one most of us should be able to understand and do something about.

At 7:30 AM, Blogger Patrick Belardo said...


Is there a link to the article somewhere?

I found some interesting info on the bug zappers. These folks recommend the propane CO2 ones. I know others who have used them with success, but I'm not sure any real study has been done on them.

Also, I found this:
The University of Delaware conducted the best known study where only 31 out of 13,789 insects trapped (0.22%) were mosquitoes or biting gnats.

I've also heard that a bug zapper with the "killing" component removed makes an awesome attractor for a "moth night".

At 8:52 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Update: The last paragraph of this post was printed in the "Letters" section of the September 24, 2006 Boston Globe Magazine.


Post a Comment

<< Home