by Venice Williams—

“I really hope you shook out your hair before coming to the dinner table! Mom, you be bringing a whole ecosystem home in your locs,” one of my children would say. “We have to watch creatures emerge from your hair while we are trying to eat!”

Whichever child of mine made this smartmouthed comment would then try not to roll their eyes at me as I sat down to dinner.

It was often true. After I’d farmed or done programming at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm for 6 to 10 hours, an assortment of multi-legged friends might have hitchhiked home with me, snuggled in the roots of my hair. Throughout the growing season, my former loctician (hairdresser), would retighten my Sisterlocks, and ask, seeming puzzled, “Why does your hair grow so much in the summer months?” I would respond, “My hair gets fertilized by creatures that would cause most of your other clients to go screaming and running.” I don’t think she ever really believed me. I am guessing that cosmetology and hair stylist courses do not teach about insects and hair growth.

In general, insects get a bad rap. Even in the Bible, we don’t find the most encouraging and supportive images of our creepy-crawly and low-flying Earth companions—not in the stories that linger most in our memories. This is especially true of the book of Exodus, in which God attempts to reason with Pharaoh regarding the freedom of the Israelites.

Over and over, God has Moses and Aaron try to convince the Egyptian ruler:

Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. (Exodus 8:17-18, ESV)

Or else, if you will not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people, and into your houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they stand. (Exodus 8:21, ESV)

Dense swarms of flies poured into Pharaoh’s palace and into the houses of his officials; throughout Egypt the land was ruined by the flies. (Exodus 8:24, NIV)

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the land of Egypt for the locusts, so that they may come upon the land of Egypt and eat every plant in the land, all that the hail has left.” So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind had brought the locusts. The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever will be again. (Exodus 10:12-14, ESV)

I’m really itching now, aren’t you?

Another biblical moment related to insects has also remained with me, and surfaces every time I hear a sports news story connected to the Charlotte Hornets:

And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites from before you. (Exodus 23:28, ESV)

What can I say? A mighty team they must “bee.” I have always had a healthy relationship with insects, long before they became my hair jewelry. Growing up in the small steel mill town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, when I wasn’t digging for worms on the hillside behind our apartment building, I was crafting a story in my mind about what the ants were all doing before I accidentally disrupted them. Having dinner? A family reunion? In English class? I turned over large rocks, fascinated by the flurry of life beneath them. Until age 7, I didn’t fully understand why the stones never crushed them. And if I came across a piece of decomposing wood? That was like insect Christmas!

Fireflies were my favorite. When I was much older, I learned that the very lights I removed from their bodies to make my decorative rings were there to ward off predators. I apologized to these beetles. Yes, fireflies—or lightning bugs as we called them— are actually beetles and not part of the fly family at all. Did you know there are 2,000 varieties of fireflies?

In my “never a dull moment” mind, when I imagine God creating and birthing in the book of Genesis, I see God with a symphony conductor’s baton. When it came time to create insects, that baton must have been swirling madly! I can just picture the colors, the buzzing and the frenzy of billions of species emerging. And God said it was good.

What would Earth be without insects? Could Earth be without insects? Nope. Indeed, just like us, they have purpose and meaning. If they weren’t nicknamed “bugs” and “pests,” would we understand them differently? I try very hard to not kill these creatures. It is very easy to live into this value system when I am outside. I do not always succeed when I am at home, but I try my best. I will confess, centipedes gross me out, perhaps because they appear so suddenly and scurry so quickly. I pray that none are down the drain each time I pour boiling water or bleach to cleanse the pipes. I also pray that none will emerge in the days to come. Then there were the fruit flies of 2020 that resembled a modern-day plague in our kitchen. They. Had. To. Go.

In the gardens I am clear. So many insects are plant allies and therefore, human allies. I cultivate plants that attract beneficial insects. There are predator insects that eliminate the pests we do not want by eating them. Welcome ladybugs, green lacewing larvae, and praying mantises into your garden. We know many of the pollinators, although we still fear some of them: bees, butterflies, some moths and many flies. Then there are the parasitic insects that lay their eggs on or in undesirable bugs. Once the egg is hatched, it feeds on the host insect, destroying it. The parasitic wasp is a gardener’s friend.

Mostly I practice companion planting to keep away critters I do not want. Nasturtiums to deter aphids, squash bugs and pumpkin beetles. I grow borage to impede tomato worms. I have an abundance of rue, which discourages Japanese beetles. You will see thyme planted with cabbage to ward off cabbageworms. Lots of mint to unnerve those white cabbage butterflies that always want to munch on my mustard and collard greens. Sage frightens carrot flies. Calendula averts the intentions of more harmful insects than can be named at this time.
The list is long, and the resulting Earth’s bounty abundant!

I remind myself that Scripture contains positive and non-itching mentions of insects. One of my favorites is: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). May we all be students of the ant!

Venice Williams is mission developer for an ELCA worshipping community called The Table. She also serves as executive director and herb farmer at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm.

This article is from the July/August 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.