The Bottom of the Food Chain Bites Back


Photos by wildlife photographer Thom Espinosa

I ever return to the question of whether we can know anything about what it is like to be another kind of creature. And so, while perusing the carefully researched and oddly entertaining new book, Does it Fart?, I learned that we do not know with certainty whether or not spiders pass gas. Theoretically, they do have the digestive capacity, but no one has done the research. We do know, however, that they bite.

Little did I know when I wrote my last post that I had just been bitten by a ragno violino, the Mediterranean version of the brown recluse spider. Sure, I'd felt the pinch, and had taken off my shirt and shaken it out. It just didn't seem a big deal in the context of a summer in which I've been morning and evening meal for a host of insects, mosquitoes fierce and relentless at the top of the list, ticks next—and yes, I do wear protective clothing with repellent oils. And I remove said clothing before reentering the house because I understand with stark clarity that these arachnids are disease vectors. I sometimes long to import some North American possums to feast on the ticks. But I've also been bitten by ants while pulling weeds, and had a wham of wasp stings when I mowed too close to their nest on a stone wall. Bam! Bam-bam-bam!! Yeeooowww!!

The spider got me precisely at the point of my left elbow, where the super-sensitive ulnar nerve resides. No doubt I bent my elbow this fine summer evening just as il violino was walking inside the fabric of my sleeve. A little over twenty-four hours later, I woke during the night to the hottest appendage I've ever had. "Caldo, rosso, e gonfio," I said to the intake nurse in my first visit to the emergency room here, showing her my very hot, very red, and very swollen elbow. I added several new terms to my Italian vocabulary that day, including febbre (fever) and nauseato (yes, that).

All through the noughties, the first decade of this century, I heard college students exclaim triumphantly, "Top of the food chain!" They sounded like winners, striding through the stadium carrying their medals, which always struck me as a little odd because we were talking about eco- and evo-biology and they were unwittingly using that very science against itself. Sure, we are an alpha predatory species, but the food chain is not a sporting event type of competition. Rather, it's one in which every participant depends on all the others for its next meal and continued existence, using a variety of strategies to get to tomorrow and on to the next millennium. All of which is to say that the bottom of the food chain bites back. Mosquitoes are the number one killer of humans on this planet. I recently learned that one of the reasons why this southeast corner of Italy is comparatively sparsely populated is that it was historically a hotbed of malaria.

I've been suggesting that we need to learn how better to live with insects because insects are indeed the bottom of the food chain on which the upper and smaller echelons of the pyramid depend. We've got to become a lot smarter in how we live with them, in how and when and where and why we kill them, a lesson we should have learned from the evolutionary rocket lift we gave to microscopic bacteria by way of our wholesale use of antibiotics. We successfully wiped out some generations of disease-causing bacteria, and in that process we helped nature to engineer some super-bacteria, microscopic bugs undaunted by our antibiotic powers. Might we make that same mistake with insects and insecticides? It stands to reason that the insects—and the diseases they vector—can get better at doing what they do, namely biting back. So we must find ways to be selective, thoughtful, even respectful in our own defense.

I wonder for a moment what it would feel like to be able to spin silk from my own body and to see the rising sun illuminate its perfectly symmetrical patterns. . . to fling myself to the next branch with that silk unfurling behind me. . . to have eight wonderful limbs with seven other available hips to balance me in case one is aching. . . and typically four pairs of eyes, coming all the way round the back of my head. I didn't actually see "my" spider. She must have hurried out of my shirt as unobtrusively as she got into it in the first place. I deduce this from the fact that I had only one spider bite that day.

Looking for the romance in my renewed connection to the arachnid world, I recall Walt Whitman's words:

And you O my soul where you stand,
surrounded, detached in measureless oceans of space,
ceaselessly venturing, musing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold,
till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Well, yes, there is beauty in the insect world, and I am especially fond of spiders. But I'm not so lost in silk and gossamer as to miss the point that these small animals are dangerous. A new insect threat was profiled in today's New York Times: "The Asian long-horned tick, Haemaphysalis longicornis, is spreading rapidly along the Eastern Seaboard. It has been found in seven states and in the heavily populated suburbs of New York City." The article notes that public health officials are not worried at the moment. "Not worried?" I hear myself ask incredulously. I continue reading: "In East Asia, long-horned ticks do carry pathogens related to Lyme and others found in North America. But the biggest threat is a phlebovirus that causes S.F.T.S., for severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome. (Thrombocytopenia means abnormally low levels of platelets, which help the blood clot; a severe drop triggers internal bleeding and organ failure.)" OK. Not worried it is, just because they can keep your blood from coagulating, no biggee.

And of course a Mediterranean recluse bite was a wake-up to all of this: no laughing matter. I am still feeling both the bite and its systemic effects almost a month later. I didn't mean to get close to that one, and I am most unwilling to get close to one again, even were that to offer me insight about how we might experience life in similar ways. Does it fart? I will not be the one to undertake that study. My left elbow is still caldo, rosso, e gonfio, not to mention doloroso, and I am grateful that the wound did not (fingers crossed) ulcerate.

What do violini and I have in common? I bite, and they bite. But I don't bite them and they do bite me. Further, I can tell you with certainty that a brown recluse bite is worse than a black widow bite. In spite of knowing both bites better than I'd like to know them, I still think we've got to rethink pesticides. If we perform wholesale slaughter of the bottom of the food chain, it will certainly come back to bite us.