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Garden in the City: A Single Locust Is as Scary as Plague -- But Why?

By Patty Wetli | October 17, 2015 7:50am | Updated on October 19, 2015 8:28am
 DNAinfo Chicago's resident urban gardener would rather let insects destroy her crops than confront them.
DNAinfo Chicago's resident urban gardener would rather let insects destroy her crops than confront them.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

ALBANY PARK — I've lost my killer instinct.

More to the point, I've lost the ability to act on my killer instinct when it comes to anything that's not a pill bug. Those I could squash all day long by the millions if it meant protecting my garden, but when confronted with a pest bigger than a pea, I'm jelly.

The other day, I caught a plague of locusts — okay, one locust — chomping on my chard and what's left of the leaves on my pepper and tomato plants. And I didn't stop it. I wanted to, but I didn't.

My brain went "RRAAWWWRRR," my body went "whimper."

The display of cowardice was all the more pathetic considering the average locust measures no more than a couple of inches in length and weighs no more than a fraction of an ounce. The average Patty is ... appreciably larger.

Even the bug knew this. As proof: the trail of green slime it emitted from its rear end upon registering my presence.

"I literally scared the crap out of it," I told Dave.

"Do locusts poop?" he asked.

"Everything poops," I said. I admit I wasn't as confident of my answer as I sounded but I have since obtained video confirmation via YouTube.

And still I'm the one who turned tail, retreating from my plot all because of a creature the size of a paper clip.

Swat it, you say.

Are you crazy? I wasn't touching that thing. Just the thought of my hand coming into contact, however slightly, with the insect's spindly exoskeleton gave me the heebie jeebies.

I would have to launch my assault from a distance.

I picked up a rock, then thought better of it. I didn't want to hurt my plants.

I swapped the stone for a scrap of mulch and fired away. Missed. Reloaded. Missed again. Third time I nicked the plant but the bug stood firm.

So I cowboy-ed up and worked around the insect. I harvested what I could from my plot — which is why I was there in the first place — giving the locust a wide berth while simultaneously keeping a close eye on its every movement.

Was that a leg twitch? Did its jaw just snap? Were its wings fluttering?

I went about my business as quickly as possible and then skedaddled before the bug could ... what?

From no less an authority than the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations: "Locusts do not attack people or animals."

And yet I was convinced it was plotting against me.

As absurd and silly and irrational as my reaction was, it's not uncommon.

Most people respond to bugs with either fear or disgust, according to Jeffrey Lockwood, an insect ecologist.

He wrote a book about the human-insect relationship after freaking out himself in the midst of a swarm of grasshoppers (locusts are a kind of grasshopper, FYI).

In "The Infested Mind," he poses the theory of "survival of the scaredest": People who learned to be cautious around and suspicious of things that dart and slither had greater evolutionary fitness.

Among the sources of our fears identified by Lockwood: Insects can bite and sting us, they invade our homes and private spaces (like our gardens) and their bodies seem weird and alien.

Think about that last one. When's the last time a movie was made about peaceful visitors from outer space who look just like us and want to be our friends? Never. It's always bug-eyed locust-like beings intent on conquering and/or destroying our planet.

But perhaps most relevant to my situation is Lockwood's point that urban dwellers have very few positive interactions with insects.

In an interview with Popular Science, he noted that for rural folks, insects are part of their everyday landscape and the greater diversity of bugs they come across — including butterflies — makes for a better experience.

In urban environments, short of cats and dogs, anything that isn't human tends to fall into the category of "vermin" or "pest" — rats, mice, pigeons, cockroaches, bed bugs.

The dichotomy of an community garden like the one I'm a member of is that it attempts to mimic rural life in an urban setting. On one side of the fence, nature. On the other side, Lawrence Avenue. But shutting the gate and closing the city behind me doesn't mean I've left my urban instincts on the sidewalk.

I see a grasshopper or cicada or worm and my first thought is "this doesn't belong here."

They're thinking the same thing.

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