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The Insect-Human Duet: A Field Guide 

Bug-eyed home companion

Wednesday, Jan 23 2008
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Joshua Abarbanel and Jeff Swimmer, authors of the recently released A Field Guide to Household Bugs, sit at a table in Abarbanel's cozy, modern home in Santa Monica. They leaf through piles of electron-microscope photos of bugs, fully cognizant of the fact that there are more bugs — actual, physical ones — in the cupboards, cabinets, carpets and couch of this home — and all homes. A Field Guide posits the eerie yet fun theorem that we are simply guests in our own houses: "We are not alone," the authors say. Daily we traipse through a microscopic jungle of Cimex lectularius on our pillows, Reticulitermes hesperus in our walls, and Solenopsis invicta scurrying across our floors in the dark as we sleep — we know these species by their common names: bedbugs, termites and ants.

Louis De Vos

click to flip through (3) LOUIS DE VOS - Up close and personal: Fruit fly
  • Louis De Vos
  • Up close and personal: Fruit fly
   
 

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Up close and personal: Fruit fly
(Click to enlarge)

Louis De Vos

Hanger on: Louse on a human hair
(Click to enlarge)

Louis De Vos

Quick silverfish
(Click to enlarge)

A tour of Abarbanel's home reveals absolutely no bugs whatsoever visible to the naked eye (indeed, kitchen to bedroom it is spick-and-span). But, he assures us, the microscopic ones are there. In the kitchen, a grain weevil would hide out in the pantry, Abarbanel says, opening the door with a flourish. He eyes the floorboards and says that bedbugs would hide behind the faceplates of electrical outlets. Cockroaches too. They can flatten themselves to the width of a quarter and squeeze through cracks in the wall.

"Oh!" he continues. "If you've ever gone around town collecting boxes out of dumpsters for moving, you'd be bringing home cockroaches or, even worse, cockroach eggs."

In the living room, bugs called "firebrats" live in the wood on fireplace grates. If you read the paper on the couch, you might unroll the Sunday Times only to have an earwig fall out, then jump back in terror and collapse into the waiting arms of a tick your dog has dragged in from the garden onto the couch. On the carpet, you'd find carpet beetles and dust mites. And don't even get Abarbanel started on the omnipresent dust mites in the bedroom.

His wife now thinks that because he has written a book about bugs, their home has become a safe haven for insects. Does he have bugs in his bathroom?

"I would never go on record with that," he says, smiling. "My wife would not let me back in the house."

"We wanted to look at the most common bugs," Swimmer says. "Not the obscure, horrific ones in Africa or Asia or somewhere, nothing exotic."

Abarbanel, who is a graphic artist by trade, took the lead with the book's design, the cover of which features a portrait of a fly wearing glasses. Swimmer, who is a documentary filmmaker and used to be a foreign correspondent for Reuters (he is still, you might say, a foreign correspondent of sorts, now for the world of bugs), did much of the writing, which was originally geared toward tweens and teens, but has lately crossed the generational divide — the book is doing quite well with adults too.

Swimmer in particular loves the delicious tension between the visible and invisible world, the "strange duet" between bug and human. We and the bugs need each other, he believes, and that symbiosis is horrifying.

"We all love that turned-on-slash-scared-slash-fascinated feeling," he insists. "I mean, thank God our vision is limited or we would be seeing these creatures all the time, right? And yet the closer we're able to see them, the more fascinating they become. Just in terms of the mechanics of their body structures, or how they use antennae to get around in the dark, or how a cockroach can smell water?"


Bugs continue to evolve in time and space. "The old-fashioned TV roach is dying out," says Abarbanel. "Flat-screen plasma TVs are driving them out of the home. The old cathode-ray TVs used to be a nice warm box for them to live in. But now you don't see those kinds of spaces anymore."

"And bedbugs," says Swimmer. "Those are associated with the East Coast. But in the last few years, they have made inroads in the West Coast. Like bees have."

"Lice!" says Abarbanel. "That's another thing to talk about."

"There's something so archaic about them," says Swimmer. "Any child can get them, in any school, rich or poor. They jump from head to head."

"They don't actually jump," says Abarbanel. "They grab. Like Tarzan. And there are different kinds of lice. Some are attracted to cats and some are attracted to humans."

Swimmer's least favorite bug — which also happens to be his most favorite — is the eyelash mite, because it is so intimate. "It's right in your face. They live their entire lives right in your eyes. If you go onto Google, there are thousands of sites devoted to the eyelash mite. There are eyelash-mite fan clubs."

Really?

"No, not really. I'm making that up." Besides mites, he has a fondness for a "gigantic" spider named Charlie, which for a while took up residence in a sage bush near his front door. "He was a celebrity," says Swimmer. "People thought we'd planted him there as a promotional gimmick for the book, but we swear we didn't. Kids in the neighborhood came to visit him every day. He was the size of a dinner plate."

Abarbanel shakes his head. "Please," he says. "He was maybe the size of your palm."

Everything in A Field Guide, however, is true, they insist. The guys even hired entomologists to fact-check the book, which is full of large and small bites of information. Like the definition of the word "bug," for example, which is actually Celtic for "ghost." A bedbug leaves three bites on the arm or leg that people would discover upon waking, suggesting invisible creatures that appeared under cover of night to take "breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Abarbanel's favorite bugs are ants, which he describes as the "storm troopers of the insect world." He loves the way they look. "They are such efficient machines. Their detail is great. They look like Jim Henson characters with these weird little hairdos."

Here is a parallel. The graphic designer loves the ant for the beauty of its structure and form. The filmmaker loves the eyelash mite for its relationship to vision. Both of them say they would be silverfish if they had to be a bug, because it is shiny (Abarbanel) and likes books (Swimmer). In the future, the authors are considering doing a field guide to bugs in the office, or in shopping malls, or in the garden. Instead of "It's a jungle in here," the subtitle will read, "It's a jungle out there." For now, they are consulting with museums throughout the country to develop A Field Guide into an exhibit, possibly in the shape of a house. Families (of humans) will be able to watch families of termites crawling through a cross section of floor. It will be totally gross.

 
A FIELD GUIDE TO HOUSEHOLD BUGS | By JOSHUA ABARBANEL and JEFF SWIMMER | Plume | 115 pages | $12 softcover

Reach the writer at galimurung@laweekly.com

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