Insects are Better than You

Many people I talk to about the expedition, or really any of the work I do in rainforest, bring up the topic of insects.

Whenever I meet someone new, say at a Christmas cookie party, the conversation typically goes something like this:

“I’m a realtor here in town. What do you do?”

“I work in the rainforest and study monkeys. I’m going on expedition in January to Brazil.”

“Really? Monkeys? In the rainforest? Wait—doesn’t that mean lots of…bugs?”

“Let me put it this way, all of the stories about cockroaches the size of bi-planes and tarantulas the size of dinner plates are true.”

“Oh dear god! How do you do it? You must be so brave!”

How do we, and I mean all of us who study in rainforest throughout the tropics, how do we cope with the onslaught of bugs?

People who live in Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil (a city in the Amazon) deal in a civilized manner with insects by using technology. Watch the video of our HBA Team Member Marco’s daughter Flor zap mosquitos in their kitchen! (Yes, every zap is a mosquito!)

For those of us immersed in the daily swarm, we often have these things in common:

  1. A high tolerance for flying and crawling creatures,
  2. Every inch of our skin covered with some form of clothing,
  3. 100% DEET on the clothing and any exposed skin, and
  4. That first thing. We are really tolerant of creatures walking on and around us.

Don’t get me wrong. Almost every time I work in the field I go through about a two-week break in period where I feel super crawled-upon. And then I get back into the routine of it.

It goes something like this: an insect lands on my arm. I take a moment to look at it. Will it bite? If yes, I slap to kill it. If no, I flick it way after I check out how cool it is.

Even so, there are times when an incessant swarm of something like stingless bees can decide you are their favorite target; they land on your face and fly, crawl, and tickle themselves into every open facial orifice. For an hour. That’s when screaming off into the forest seems like the most sensible response.

For bigger things in the forest (like those in the photos of insects on display at INPA), I stop and try to get a photo. Amazon insects are so super amazing when they aren’t trying to touch you!

All of that said there is nothing brave about Tropical Ecologists, but we do share the same kind of crazy. Our normal is vastly more insect intensive than most other professions, and we are (generally) good with that.

We tend to laugh at our own misfortunes of things like accidentally chopping with a machete into an unseen hornet’s nest causing a prolonged howl and dive into the river.

At night on the houseboat we will have some protection under our mosquiteros. We will hear the deafening buzz, rings, and cries of the night insects, but for the most part, they will not sleep with us.

And if they do find their way to our beds -- maybe we will have a few of those tennis racquet zappers to help us out!