Bugging Out in Mississippi

“It is better to understand a little, than to misunderstand a lot”

Anatole France

State 33: Mississippi - March 14, 2018


We woke up at a Walmart in Huntsville, AL well rested and ready for a brand new day. After spending the past 4 days exploring Northern Alabama, we could not wait to see what exciting adventures were in store today! Our first Item on the agenda was a 165 mile drive Southwest to enter the 33rd state on our cross country journey to discover America and find a new state to call home; Mississippi: Birthplace of America’s Music. I was surprised by this motto! Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York City, are typically places that come to mind when one thinks of American Music. I would have never thought of Mississippi as a music mecca, but a quick Google search revealed Mississippi’s roots in American music run extremely deep! Not only is Mississippi the birthplace of Blues, it is the birthplace of the Father of Country Music; Jimmie Rodgers, and the birthplace of the King of Rock n’ Roll; Elvis Presley. Will our experiences in Mississippi have the Cross Country Couple singing “Homeward Bound”, or will we be left singing the “Blues”? We cannot wait to begin our week of exploration in Mississippi!

I have never been a lover of bugs, but something happened when I was 12 years old that scarred me for life. It was recess time, and one of my fellow classmates and I were sitting on the outside steps of the school. He was trying to show me caterpillars and other various bugs he had collected. I told him I did not want to see his bugs, because they are disgusting. As I turned to walk away, he grabbed a huge honking caterpillar from his bug pile, put it down the back of my shirt, and smooshed it against my skin. I remember being angry, mortified, and running away crying and screaming! Fortunately, my teacher took me into the girls room and helped me clean up. That traumatic event has lingered in my subconscious for decades, and I have hated bugs ever since! Honestly, it’s not even the caterpillars fault, and if anything, he got the worst end of the deal (smoosh). Ever since that day, the sight of the tiniest black ant sends me running and screaming across the room with my arms flailing in the air!

One of my biggest fears about my cross country journey was running into weird and strange bugs all across America. I imagined them getting in to the van and crawling all over me at night! Prior to departing on the trip, Nate and I went to couple’s therapy to learn how to adjust to the rigors of life on the road in a 76 sq ft space, and during one such session, my detest for bugs became the topic of the day. Our therapist said something that really made a lot of sense when she said, “They are just bugs doing their own bug things”. I suppose that means their sole purpose is not to scare me or bite me, right? She also suggested I go visit an Entomologist; one who studies insects, so I can really understand bugs. With all the planning involved in our upcoming journey, I never did get around to scheduling an appointment with an Entomologist. A week ago, I was online researching things to do in Mississippi, and discovered Mississippi University offers tours of their Entomology Department. Immediately, I knew what I had to do! I have been running away from bugs for almost 50 years, and today is the day I am going to stop running and face my fear!!! After all, this is what this trip is all about, which you can read about by clicking here. Wish me luck! EEEEEEEEEKKKKKK! Off we went for a 26 mile drive West to the University of Mississippi in Starkville to the Cross Country Couple's "Can’t Miss Attraction"; Mississippi University Entomological Museum and Insect Zoo.

Welcome to Entomology 101!

Before conquering my fear, I first had to learn the basics about bugs. Upon entering the Entomology building, we were greeted by Richard Brown; Professor of Entomology and Director of the Entomology Museum. I had spoken to him in advance so he already knew of my phobia. "Which kind of bug do you fear in particular", he asked, and I replied, "anything fast with lots of legs, especially millipedes, centipedes and caterpillars of course.". Professor Brown explained bugs are classified in a hierarchy known as taxonomy, which provides organization to the animal world. Instead of using a specific bug for an example, Professor Brown used something less scary to me to explain taxonomy: chocolate cake!

The 1st category is Kingdom; Food, because chocolate cake is food

The 2nd category is Phylum: Dessert, because a chocolate cake is dessert

The 3rd category is Class: Baked, because a chocolate cake is baked

The 4th category is Order: Chocolate frosting, the type our cake has

The 5th category is Family: Chocolate cake

There are also Genus and Species categories. These provide additional descriptions of the specific type of chocolate cake such as black forest cake, or German chocolate cake. Now, instead of chocolate cake, let’s use my personal favorite insect; the ladybug!

The 1st category is Kingdom; Animalia, because a ladybug is an animal

The 2nd category is Phylum: Arthopoda, because a ladybug has no spine

The 3rd category is Class: Insecta, because a ladybug is an insect

The 4th category is Order: Coleoptera, because a ladybug is a beetle

The 5th category is Family: Coccinellidae which is the scientific name for ladybug

There are also Genus and Species categories. These provide more descriptions of the specific type of ladybug as there are over 5,000 known species in existence. So far so good! Nothing too scary! I may just get an A+ in Entomology!

Next, Professor Brown asked if I was comfortable viewing dead bugs, and I agreed. I was brought into a room with a table and a microscope. Professor Brown stated he specialized in moths, and presented dozens of trays of mounted moths of varying shapes, sizes and colors. Some were as large as a half dollar, and some were as tiny as the head of a pin. One of the specimen trays he showed me were newly discovered moths, and had yet to be named! He took one such moth, and placed it beneath a microscope. With the naked eye this moth appeared to be just another bug, but when examined beneath magnification, this moth was spectacular! The wings were translucent and speckled with every color of the rainbow. I would have never imagined a moth would be so beautiful! Please see the pictures below.

Next, Professor Brown brought us into the Entomology Library, which was unlike any library I had ever seen. Instead of a café, free WiFi, and shelves of books, the Entomology Library contained hundreds of cabinets each filled with trays and trays of mounted bugs. The bugs were organized by their taxonomy, so they can be easily found. They even send bugs to other researchers throughout the world in need of a specific species. The Entomology Department is currently working on creating a central bug database, which would be extremely beneficial to combat invasive insect species. Generally speaking, an invasive species is a species not native to a specific geographical location, and spreads to such a large degree causing damage to the environment, the economy or to human health. It is estimated the economic cost of combating invasive species in agriculture, forestry, and recreation worldwide is $120 billion per year! There were so many fascinating and beautiful bugs within these cabinets! I cannot believe I just called a bug beautiful! LOL! Have you ever seen a gold beetle? Well your about to see one in the pictures below!

After opening one of the cabinets, the professor pulled out a tray of mounted moths, and shared how to determine the sex by looking at its antenna. The female moth has fuzzy antenna’s, and the male moths have no fuzz on the antennas. He then showed us a moth with one fuzzy antenna, and the other antenna had no fuzz, and stated, “It is important to recognize such variations of moths occur in nature”. I was confused for a moment, and then a light bulb went off, OH....this moth is a hermaphrodite! Very cool! Can you see the difference in the antennas in the pictures below?

The professor estimated there are 20 million different species of bugs believed to be in existence, and scientists have only identified 1.5 million of them. With the heavy use of pesticides and destruction of natural habitats worldwide, it made me wonder how many bugs will go extinct before being discovered? What if one of these bugs proved crucial to balancing our ecosystem, or provided the cure to any number of diseases plaguing humanity? Although I am afraid of bugs, I found myself pondering the future of their existence. What an interesting change of perspective!

Pop Quiz

After meeting with Professor Brown in the Entomology Library, we were led into the conference room, and were shocked by what we saw. On the table were 2 sets of white coveralls and matching white hooded masks. There were two sets of beekeeping outfits! When I decided to visit the Entomology Department, I expected to see dead bugs, and maybe try to hold a caterpillar if I was feeling brave. I never imagined I would be suiting up, and walking into a swarm of bees! It was time for a pop quiz! We were greeted by one of the nations leading authorities on Beekeeping; Extension Professor, Dr. Jeff Harris. After suiting up, we were led outside to the hives, and approximately 30,000 bees were in each! EEEEEEKKKKK!!!! Professor Harris went through each of the trays within each hive in search of the Queen, and we were shocked he didn’t even wear gloves! He found the Queen on the very last tray, and had somehow managed to mark her with a pink dot! Please see the pictures below.

Professor Harris was a wealth of knowledge, and spent over an hour with us explaining how honey is produced, the different types of bees, the roles of each in a colony, the differences in honey throughout the US and world, and the challenges facing the future of honey bees. I found it fascinating how well the different types of bees work together to maintain the vitality of the colony. It's a shame humans haven’t found a way to successfully co-exist like bees. There is clearly much to learn by watching the behavior of bees, and best of all, I didn’t get stung!

Final Exam

I was able to tolerate dead, mounted, and preserved bugs, and was able to withstand swarms of bees while wearing protective clothing. It was now time for my final exam! This was a pass or fail test, and my fate laid in the hands of John Guyton; Professor of Entomology & Plant Pathology and Curator of the Insect Zoo. After heading back inside and taking off our protective suits, Professor Guyton wasted no time getting right down to business! After introducing himself, he introduced me to his gold knee tarantula named Ambassador. First, he went over a few a ground rules.

1. Don’t drop the tarantula!

2. Don’t throw the tarantula!

3. Don’t squish the tarantula!

4. Don’t pick up the tarantula!

5. Don’t scream while holding the tarantula!

After we agreed to these rules, Professor Guyton told me to hold my hands together with palms facing up, and Ambassador walked from the professor’s hands into my hands. Unless you have experienced it for yourself, it is very hard to describe the sensation of a tarantula walking around on your hand. The very tips of her 8 legs made the most delicate contact, and I must admit, she was quite cute for a spider. Please see the pictures below.

Professor Guyson mentioned that Ambassador has traveled with him all over the world, and shared the first time he traveled on a plane with his tarantula. Professor Guyson called TSA in advance to find out their policy about bringing arthropods on board commercial flights, and the TSA agent said, “If you bring a gun into the airport we will shoot to kill, but if you bring a large spider here, we are all heading for the hills!”. The professor then asked why I am scared of bugs, and I replied, “Bugs are disgusting! Professor Guyson replied, “Shhhh, don’t say that so loud! The spider is very sensitive, and you will hurt her feelings”. I appreciated the professor's stories and sense of humor, which made me totally forget a tarantula had been crawling around in my hands for the past 5 minutes. After successfully holding a tarantula, I was ready to hold whatever the Insect Zoo had to offer. I ended up holding a dozen different exotic and fascinating bugs, and some of which included: a Madagascar hissing cockroach, A millipede, and the coolest bug I had ever seen which looked just like a green leaf! Please see the pictures below of the bugs Nate and I held.

After a brief conference between the professors, they unanimously agreed I had successfully met all of the requirements of Entomology 101, and gave me a final grade of A+. I was extremely proud of myself! Prior to visiting Mississippi University Entomology Department, the sight of a single ant would have totally freaked me out, and in a matter of 3 hours, I had a Madagascar hissing cockroach crawling around in the palm of my hand! While I still not a huge fan of bugs, I certainly left with a basic understanding and greater appreciation for them. The vast majority of bugs are not harmful to humans, and are an essential part of world we all share. Surprisingly, my visit to the Mississippi University Entomology Department ended up being one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my year long cross country trip. I would like to sincerely thank Professor Brown, Professor Harris and Professor Guyton for their time, patience and knowledge, which helped me overcome my life long fear of bugs!

After departing the Mississippi University Entomology Department, we drove 67 miles North to a Walmart in Tupelo where we spent the night.

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