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April 9, 2011
They were not your standard North American picnic-crasher ants. They were much smaller, and seemed not always to arrive in response to the presence of food, though of course they were happy to share whatever you left lying around. No, their invasion was signaled by something else -- change in light? Change in humidity? Change in temperature? Maybe that was it -- the weather here in California this week has been the way it can be in a Florentine spring: chilly and damp, and now here they are again. But wait -- I think I've entertained the ants of Florence in many different kinds of weather. They must come and go according to inscrutable rules of their own.

Besides, these guys appeared in the shower. Their Italian cousins used to show up in the bathroom, too, come to think of it, as well as in the kitchen. Maybe it's the presence of water. Who knows, maybe they just like ceramic tile.

I am not one to panic at the sight of insects. I enjoy watching them wherever they appear. They're among the most interesting animals God ever decided to make and besides, hummingbirds like to eat them. Ants are especially fine creatures, and I don't reckon they're any dirtier than we are.

And yet many people regard bugs with outsized fear and loathing. Watch someone who doesn't understand how bees work swat nervously again and again at one who buzzes near, rather than just sitting still and letting him satisfy his curiosity. Bees won't hurt you unless you're threatening them or blocking them from being where they need to be, and swatting at one probably constitutes exactly that, in his view. Just stand down and stand still, and you won't get stung.

It's true that some of them don't mix well with us. We do have to be careful with some of them. Germs hitch rides on the hairy legs on flies. Other germs use the proboscii of mosquitoes as a way to gain entry into our bloodstreams, and Bubonic Plague uses fleas. But the key word here is " uses." None of this the bugs' idea. And not all bugs present these dangers. In fact, very few of them do. A minority.

After all, human beings carry our own poisons, and this might be the very worst of them: our disproportionate fear of the other. Our impulse to ascribe to an entire group the characteristics and actions of a few. Some insects are dangerous, and so we think all of them are. One bad experience triggers in us an exaggerated fear of anything and anyone that reminds us of it, however remotely. We quickly create racial and ethnic shortcuts that bypass our rational minds, leaping instead to an injured suspicion that shuts us down and refuses any gift of God that might extend beyond the narrow limits of what we allow ourselves to expect.

This poisonous trait of ours could kill us. We could destroy ourselves in our attempt to exterminate the threat we perceive in one another. If we did, we could take everything living with us. Except, perhaps, the insects.
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