Thursday, April 18, 2013

Drosophila Melonogaster, and other Tropical Curiosities

“You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly, and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.”  ~ Fred Allen

“What would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?” ~ Emile M. Cioran

“All insects with wings are unclean, so don’t eat them.” ~ Deuteronomy 14:19 (ERV)

The insects in PNG are amazing. While we were at our orientation course in 2009, I took countless photographs of all kinds of fantastical bugs.  Moths larger than your hand, beetles of all shapes, sizes, and colours, enormous gangly spiders (OK, I know those are not actually insects), creatures that mimic sticks and leaves … I am ever enthralled by the seemingly endless variety. 

Now that we live in the highlands, the species are more limited, presumably because of the cooler weather.  But we still have our share of moths and beetles, including the infamous rhinoceros beetle.  These in particular can be fun companions – knock them over on their backs and you can remain entertained for hours watching them try to right themselves.  Also, if you grab them by the “horn” there is not much they can do except wave their little legs about and attempt to scare you off with their ferocious hissing.

Also a result of the cooler weather at this elevation, the mozzies are not too much of a problem.  I’m not saying we don’t have mosquitoes – where there is standing water (which is everywhere here for about 5 months of the year), they shall breed.  But, they are not as likely to carry or spread malaria.  It is possible to get malaria here in the highlands, and people do, but it is rarer.  We faithfully took prophylactic regimens while we lived at the coast, but a few months after arriving at 5500 feet, we ran out of meds and decided to throw caution to the wind.

So far, so good.

Now, I recognize that this next confession may strip us of our missionary status, but I suppose I have to be willing to risk it in the name of honest journalism: we have never been offered any entomological delicacies at a meal.  Before we came to PNG, I expected that insects would be a plentiful, and therefore popular, part of the nationals’ diet, but we have not found it to be so. Many Papua New Guineans do eat insects, but it does not seem to be as common as in some other areas of the world.  I found a possible explanation in this article: “Orsak (1993a) laments that New Guineans, to their economic and nutritional disadvantage, are coming to believe that eating insects is "bush behavior" and something to be discarded in their progress toward development.  But it is obvious from the writings of researchers and educators who are familiar with the country that insects are an important part of the diet of Papua New Guineans.”

Interesting theory.

An exception to this diminishing insect interest is the sago grub.  In marshy areas of the country where sago palms abound, this plentiful, squishy grub is still a very common source of nutrition. Paul, having been privileged to ingest such a creature, would surely attest to its “slightly nutty flavor”… if he’d bothered to taste it.  But, I am pretty sure he swallowed it like a pill.

If only I had been so wise.

Last March, just before we went on furlough, the primary campus had its annual book festival.  Theme: “Don’t bug me; I’m reading” (aka, insects).  By way of incentive for the classes to each meet their reading goals, the principal promised that if they did just that, he would “eat bugs.”

That’s why I’m not the principal.  Just sayin'.

There is a certain beetle in this area that the people especially enjoy.  In the dry season, they emerge from the ground and swarm into the trees.  To collect them, the people put a sheet of sorts on the ground and wildly shake one of these trees, evicting hundreds of the little critters at a time from their lofty perches. 

But, March is not quite dry season.  And the beetles are not yet, well, beetles.  While definitely edible, the nationals don’t often eat the larvae because they have to dig them up out of the ground, a painstaking task compared to merely dislodging more mature (and crunchy) insects from their elevated colonies.  But, because book festival takes place in March, what choice did we have, really?  Our school custodian graciously agreed to unearth some of these creatures and prepare them for the big event. 

Boiled and fried, they were certainly well cooked, and Phil popped one in his mouth and swallowed like a pro.  Then he ate a couple more for good measure.

Can’t be that bad, I thought from the sidelines.

Then the chanting started.   Nevermind that I am a woman with delicate sensibilities, the students began asking for me to eat some, too.  And, looking back, wasn’t it nice of Dimeko to prepare not two or three, but a dozen or so of the creatures?  In the moment that the chorus began, it crossed my mind that by eating “a bug,” by engaging in “bush behavior,” I would somehow be inaugurated deeper into the missionary club; that surely our partners back home would be more impressed and touched by my global experiences if said experiences included ingesting something more exotic than fresh pineapple.

Considering I already had a clothespin on my nose as part of my Junie B. Jones (and the Stinky Smelly Bus) costume, and the fact that they had met their goal, how could I not do this for them?  Besides, the kids were just so darn cute.

The problem was, I tried to chew.

As fun as that experience was, my more typical daily insect exposure involves those who frequent my home: sugar ants (who aren’t picky and like many different varieties of food), roaches (yes, American cockroaches, which I assume came over 20 or 30 years ago in someone’s sea freight shipment), and fruit flies (which I learned in high school science do not actually emerge from rotting fruit, but which regularly give me cause to second-guess that conclusion.)

Now, I am certain you are slack-jawed in awe of the exotic life I am leading here.

Perhaps familiarity truly does breed contempt, because I detest them all.  The ants are just a nuisance, appearing in droves almost as soon as something capsizes onto the counter.  My favourite method to eliminate these is to systematically snuff out their little lives with my fingertips.

Die, die, die, die, die … die, die, die …

Maybe it is the sugar, but they tend to stick, and it is not unusual to have seven or eight, or twenty-two, smooshed little guys on each finger by the time I am done.

As for the roaches, I get all creeped out if I so much as hear them crunch, especially if I have to do it myself.  I am not afraid of much, and I suppose I am not truly “afraid” of cockroaches, but when I do see them (which is rare, since Paul made a batch of homemade “roach balls” and placed them strategically around the house), I much prefer to call out to my dear husband with a quivering “Paaauuuullll …. Will you please come be my hero?!”  With a grunt and a roll of the eyes, he appeases me.  Usually.

Fruit flies may not emerge from rotting fruit, but come to find out they don’t actually even need rotting fruit.  I never knew that.  No, all they need is ripe fruit.

Let me just say that I keep no fruit, ripe, rotting, or otherwise, in our bathroom.  So, why I had a fruit fly zipping around while I was curling my hair this morning, I may never know. 

I discovered something about fruit flies, though, that I never knew, or frankly cared about.

Fruit flies bleed when you smoosh ‘em.

My friend said, “are you sure it wasn’t some kind of fruit juice or something?”

Um … this was in the bathroom, remember?

The blood gave me cause to stop and consider … God created these pesky little flies (and ants, and cockroaches too, but we’ll have to have a chat about that when I see him next) … not just with wings and legs and fermentation-sniffers, but with respiratory systems and circulatory systems and excretory systems.  (Yes, all that fruit alcohol has to go somewhere.)  I am amazed to find intricate diagrams of fruit fly internal anatomy on the internet, meaning that someone somewhere (likely with university tenure and tens of thousands of dollars in grant funding) has done detailed research on these critters who at about 3mm long only live about two weeks.

I wonder how much time God put into creating the fruit fly?  Only for me to smoosh his teeny weeny brains out.

Not trying to be sacrilegious here, but it kind of made me wonder if part of Job 38 might have been edited out …

“Where were you when I gave flight to the Drosophila?  Who assigned 28 degrees Celsius as its optimum growing temperature?  Can you number the hundreds of embryos each female deposits in your aging fruit bowl?  Who wrote the male’s courtship song on his wings?  Tell me if you understand.”

I don’t.  I certainly don’t.

But after watching that poor fly bleed on my counter, I think God should have left that passage in there.

That would have given me something to chew on.

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(Updated 13 April 2013)