Making Contact

praying mantis 1st instar nymph on hand

Newborn praying mantis nymph trying to find a way off planet Mike.

Ever notice how aliens in sci-fi movies are usually hostile and bent on human destruction? Once in a while, like say in District 9, the roles are reversed (or at least the humans are the violent ones). The aliens always seem to want to colonize Earth, which I suppose from a naturalist point of view makes some sense as lifeforms compete over available resources. Anthropologically, the whole colonization theme does strike me as a bit ironic, especially in the United States and in the context of Hollywood blockbusters given our histoy with the indigenous peoples of North America. I suppose it could simply be the paranoia of our sleepless age; or maybe it is just a case of what goes around, comes around (which reminds me of a quote from The Dark Knight1). As a storytelling convention, I suppose colonizing aliens doesn’t matter much: the good guys are “people”, and the bad guys are “aliens”; the rest is just costumes.

In the real world, arthropods as aliens sometimes fit into this dichotomy of colonizing villains and colonized heroes. Typically the bugs will be the bad guys, some sort of infestation in the home. (Honeybees typically get a lighter rap though, don’t they?) Even when the bug is the one being potentially eradicated (e.g. the once-believed extinct spider that halted a major construction project in Texas) they sometimes come out looking pretty bad. And that’s about the beginning and end of their typecast roles; they don’t get to put on the good guys costumes, even when human development decimates their habitat and chances for survival. In spite of their amazing adaptability and giant numbers, it is a struggle bugs will probably never overcome if they are pressed to the bitter end (which given the extinction of insect species all the time, said bitter end seems inevitable). I think the bugs would need to evolve into larger beings than humans (but even that doesn’t usually work for them in the movies so who knows). Their only other recourse may be to learn English or Chinese. Of course, that still might not do them much good: lack of communication seems to be a big problem, if not the main one, when aliens meet up with humans.

For me, making contact, figuratively speaking, with bugs is a sort of necessary communication. To get the shots I want, I usually can’t barrel into their space. There are movements and postures to read; environments and potential escape routes to consider. In turn I have to respond with respectful, measured (depending on how nonplussed a given bug may be) movements that won’t disturb them. Unless a bug is feeding, these are usually short conversations. I cannot really blame them; there are a lot of aliens in people costumes. There are times, often to my amazement, of literal contact when bugs will defy that default state of extreme caution, which brings me to the little baby mantis in this post. To get that shot, I had to act fairly aggressively and decisively to direct the bug onto my hand. Typically, this is a bad strategy: reaching for a bug, no matter how oblivious it may have appeared up until that point, is a good way to scare it off. Much like people, different bugs require different kinds approaches if you want to come to a mutual understanding. I have assertively coaxed Luna moths onto my hands and passively watched as a leafcutter ant wandered a bit upon my hand trying to take a bite out of me. There was the rather large (in my experience anyway) metallic wood-boring beetle that buzzed and landed on me like a miniature stealth missile attack. There was another beetle of the same ilk that decided to crawl on me after I had been bugging it (awful, I know) for a while with my camera; it rested on my hand while I calmly maneuvered myself to fire off some shots. There is a wide range, and certain species seem as individualistic and moody as individual persons. So I guess the moral of the story is, open alien-to-people communication makes for good photographs. That, or shoot first, ask questions later (well, in the movies at least).

1.  “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”


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