Paul the Beetle: A story about keeping nature nearby… on the piano.
“Your pet has escaped and it’s somewhere in our house.”
This was our younger daughter, calling my office on the day before Christmas. I was avoiding the holiday crowds by hiding at work. She sounded agitated even before we heard a scream from across the room. “Wait,” she said. “I think we found it.”
Our pet is a giant water bug – Belostomatidae, in science nomenclature, using the Latin term for disgusting icky thing. Two business colleagues discovered the insect one week earlier in our company parking lot. Recalling an antiquated illustration in a Golden Nature Guide, I identified the species. Soon the three of us were discussing entomology in a little circle on the frozen asphalt, while the insect patiently awaited an outcome.
Our household adopted the bug, which we named Paul. Once defrosted, he paddled circles in a little terrarium that had been serially occupied by two African frogs, a baby toad, a Wood frog, a Green tree frog, a Spring peeper and a handsome Blue-spotted salamander. At our house we keep nature nearby, on the piano.
Having outgrown Golden Nature Guides, I consulted the Wikipedia entry for Giant water bug.
Belostomatidae are fierce predators which stalk, capture and feed on aquatic crustaceans, fish and amphibians. They have also been found to capture and feed on baby turtles and water snakes. They often lie motionless at the bottom of a body of water, attached to various objects, where they wait for prey to come near. They then strike, injecting a powerful digestive saliva with their rostrum, and sucking out the liquefied remains. Their bite is considered one of the most painful that can be inflicted by any insect, however, though excruciatingly painful, it is of no medical significance. Occasionally when encountered by a larger predator, such as a human, they have been known to “play dead” and emit a fluid. Due to this they are assumed dead by humans only to later “come alive” with painful results…
This report gave me pause, although comparably appalling behavior is practiced by average teenagers. On Paul’s inaugural evening as our house pet, my daughter and I purchased two goldfish from Meijer, where we had been directed for Christmas shopping. Paul promptly ate them both. It’s an amazing scene to witness, and people post YouTube videos of Giant water bugs feeding on their prey. Those people are sick.
On the morning of the incident our house cat, Felis mischievious, had pushed Paul’s terrarium off the windowsill in an evil deed of pet envy. Paul had been receiving too much attention, not to mention fresh live seafood. After the attack Paul sought shelter in a pile of Christmas wrapping paper, which then resulted in the aforementioned scream. The cat was no doubt watching this scene from a safe distance and smugly licking its paws.
We drafted the elder daughter to pick up Paul and place him in a paper bag until I get home. “Explain to your sister that the bite is of no medical significance,” I added encouragingly. I remained on the phone during the rescue, listening to a sequence of new shrieks.
“He’s in the bag now,” our daughter reported. “And we’re going to staple it shut.” I offered to stop at Meijer on the way home to obtain a replacement container and a piscatorial peace offering for Paul. “Do take care not to staple Paul,” I pleaded. “He’s probably upset enough already.”
Three months later, my wife and I were on spring break when our son called us from home. “Paul is dead,” he reported soberly. “Paul the beetle.” I explained that, no, Paul is merely playing dead. He was plotting to shun the goldfish and go for those pink human digits. If Paul was a captive Orca, he would ignore the dangling sardine and go for the entire SeaWorld trainer.
“He is floating upside down and covered with moss,” our son reported. “It’s a very convincing imitation of death.”
This outcome was a great disappointment to me. As soon as the ice melted outside, I was planning to release Paul in a nearby marsh, where he would teach discretion to a loud and promiscuous mob of Spring peepers, Lewdacris crudecris. Every spring we neighbors are forced to shout to each other, just to be heard above a bacchanalian love fest of amphibians. We all like nature nearby, but not at 110 decibels.