How I fell in love with … bugs. By Afton Halloran

When I was a child, my father contracted a backhoe to dig out a small but deep pond up the back of our property on Vancouver Island. A series of dry summers had put our household’s only source of water – a well – at risk. We had to transport water between my grandparent’s place in the neighbouring town in order to use it for cooking; we saved the well water for reasons none other than personal hygiene.
After the men finished digging the hole for the pond, we rode up to the back of our property to witness the final product. My brother, our dog Tiffy and I piled into the burly, burgundy Dodge. We bounced along the track running parallel to our neighbour’s fence. Tiffy smiled happily – as dogs do – basking in the weak spring sun. Excitement culminated within me: soon we would have our very own outdoor ‘pool’.

A deer sprints through the hazelnut trees on Afton's property. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran
A deer sprints through the hazelnut trees on Afton’s property. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran

We cruised slowly past the young alder trees opportuning the cleared land.  As we neared the pond my father stopped the engine and got out of the truck. Standing at the edge of the excavated hole we spotted some fresh elk tracks. My dad looked around, satisfied at the work.

The hole eventually filled in with fresh rain and ground water. My brother and I were elated. Spring passed, and another hot, dry summer fell upon us. Our new country pool was ready for use.

The steep slope of the pond hadn’t supported much plant life and there was little to stop the mud from sucking me down into the pond. Instead, I cannonballed into the murky water. Tiffy, then my big brother, followed suit with far more grace. While treading water I noticed something swimming around close to the water’s surface, its six synchronized legs propelling it forward. In my 10 meagre years on Earth I had never seen anything like it before. It was utterly alien.

 

A giant water bug. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran
A giant water bug. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran

I reached the bank of the pond as quickly as I could. Pulling myself up onto the mud, I waited for a moment to catch my breath. “Did you see that… thing?” I asked my big brother. “No, what thing?” Having not witnessed the creature I realized the difficulty in describing it to him. Beady black eyes, olive coloured exoskeleton, six-legs, swimmer. What else could I say?

As I lay in bed that night my little head was full of wild images of the pond creature, its beady eyes staring back at me. I vowed to never to swim the pond again.

Another hot dry day fell upon us. It was summer break and we were bored out of our minds. The fruit orchard was in desperate need of hydration, so my father set out one evening before dinner to pump some water from the pond. He called me over to the burgundy truck, asking if I wanted to join him and Tiffy. I paused a moment to reflect on the previous day at the pond. Tiffy waited patiently in the cab, panting profusely while Steve Earl’s Copperhead Road blasted from the tape deck. Ok, I thought as I jumped into the cab. Just this time… as long as I don’t have to swim.

 

Afton Halloran. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran
Afton Halloran. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran

Once again we bounced passed the tall red cedars, the old Dodge pulling us slowly up the hill. We passed the weedy alders and finally reached the pond. I jumped out of the truck, Tiffy in pursuit. I took no less than five strides before freezing solid in my tracks. Nestled into a soft patch of grass those beady eyes stared up at me with legs outstretched. Tiffy scooted off to chase some deer, leaving me alone face-to-face with the thing. I looked around franticly and finally spotted the perfect poking stick. After a few jabs and no movement I deemed the thing dead. I called my father over. ‘Well I’ll be darned,’ he exclaimed, picking up the strange creature, ‘it’s a giant water bug.’

We took the carcass back to the house. I slipped it gently into a transparent glass canning jar, screwing the lid on extra tight.

That night I couldn’t sleep with the thought of the giant water bug in my room. I pulled out my flashlight, took a long deep breath, and then walked over to the desk at the opposite side of my room. I opened up the bottom cupboard and directed the light at the jar. Good, I thought. Still dead.

In the days after the event, I began to shed my fear of the bug. I often took out the bottle from the cupboard and sat on the grey carpet of my room, lost in a state of fascination.

I began to find other things – Robin eggs that had fallen out of trees, small animal skulls and garter snake skin. These, I decided, would be perfect additions to the collection of an aspiring scientist.

A lady selling maeng da (giant water bugs) at the Khon Kaen evening market. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran
A lady selling maeng da (giant water bugs) at the Khon Kaen evening market. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran

***

When studying sustainable food systems and agricultural development at University, insects were always considered omnipresent and a natural part of food systems. They provided pollination services, biological pest control, medicine, food and served as inspiration for biomimicry innovation. When I was offered the rare opportunity to work with edible insects at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2012, I accepted eagerly, embarking on a journey which has led me to where I am today.

Afton Halloran

Afton Halloran. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran
Afton Halloran. Photo: courtesy of Afton Halloran

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