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What a lifelong love of insects has taught me

At age 9, I fell in love with insects. A monarch caterpillar rippled across the palm of my hand and became my first guide into the world of the six-legged.

I watched the larva turn into a pale green chrysalis decorated with a gold constellation of stars, and then witnessed the magical transformation to an orange-and-black butterfly.

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My father recently sent me my 1964 "Golden Nature Guide" to insects. The guidebook provided my main reference when I collected insects for my 4-H entomology projects from fourth grade through high school. I turned the old pages between the faded yellow covers, looking at the "225 species in full color." I remembered my dreams of finding a cecropia moth, a walking stick, a katydid, and a giant water bug for my collection. My search for those "wish bugs" provided motivation to carry nets and jars to swamps, groves, and fields.

My mother made my first butterfly net from a wire coat hanger, an old broom handle, and retired sheer curtains. After my collection grew, my father built display boxes with sliding glass covers. My ant colonies lived in deluxe glass hotels where ants, in full view, built tunnels, hauled food, and moved eggs. Insects in various stages of metamorphosis inhabited the utility room in our old farmhouse.

Entomology taught me about discipline – to keep records, to find the correct insect family and name, to mount the insects for display on delicate insect pins, to label with date, location found, and genus species handwritten on tiny tags.

Mounting butterflies was the most difficult. I rigged up several contraptions to preserve the wing scales, legs, and antennae while spreading the wings high and flat to show off their brilliant colors.

I had a few setbacks. During the winter, I stored my first display case under my bed. One night, I couldn't withhold my usually reserved demeanor. I've forgotten the reason for my happiness, but I remember the reason for my sobs.

I'd bounced on my bed in glee until I heard a crack. The mattress had crashed the glass top onto my mounted insects, destroying part of the collection.

Another time, I found my 2-year-old brother smashing my monarch chrysalis on the floor while he yelled, "Bug! Bug!" I cried as if a pet had died.

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The ones I lost were quickly replaced.

We found insects in peculiar places – in a bank or store window, on a car grille, or in a church's choir loft. Envelopes, plastic bags, and candy wrappers became temporary insect carriers until we returned home.

Entomology defined my early attention to nature's detail. I knew the snap of Carolina grasshoppers when they spread their wings to fly, like tiny fans suddenly unfolding, then closing. I learned about different plants, weeds, and trees because I wanted to know what each insect ate and what their favorite habitats were.

I remember the cycle of cicadas buzzing in the summer heat, the hives of blue mud dauber wasps under the barn eaves, the summer evenings when fireflies glowed like meteor showers in the night air, the writhing webs of tent caterpillars in the plum tree, and the orange swarms of ladybugs covering every leaf and branch of a small bush.

Insects draw me to the place where, even in a large city, I feel connected to nature.

My original thrill returns as quickly as the first sphinx moth I see darts like a hummingbird near snapdragons at dusk. When I go for walks, I often stop to watch an ant hill, a darkling beetle cast its shadow on the sidewalk, or a tiger swallowtail flit past. I still look for the yellow, black, and white stripes of monarch caterpillars on milkweed plants.

I never did find those early "wish bugs" for my collection, but it didn't matter. Collected or uncollected, many insects became jewels when my attention focused on them.

Insects gave me something that can't be caught or put on display: a dual vision of life; an expanding awareness of the complex beauty of creation and an inner sense of being part of the infinite.