TAFN – 8 September, 2022

This week’s share: Beans, Carrots, Escarole, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Parsley, Peppers, Hot peppers, Tomatoes


I find myself sometimes wondering about the social life of insects. I don’t mean their communal work life, how bees parcel out tasks and even body shapes in order to run an efficient hive, or how leaf cutter ants divvy up the various jobs involved in gathering foliage and turning it into a giant fungus factory. I don’t deny that’s fascinating stuff, well worth contemplating, and maybe even a source of wonder—though there is something undeniably patronizing and ignorant about our ability to be surprised again and again by the sophisticated natural systems we not only live along side of, but are part of. I would guess that if one watched Planet Earth with a roomful of assorted creatures they would enjoy the productions values as much as we do, but be nonplussed by us needing David Attenborough to tell us that things are interconnected. Further, unnecessary evidence that as intelligent and terrifying as we are, we have failed to notice a lot of obvious stuff around us because we are too busy admiring ourselves.

But, as I said, that’s not what I am wondering about. When I talk of the social life of insects what I really mean is, do they have friends? It is a question shaped in part, no doubt, by the Ant and Bee books I read as a child. For those who missed them (raised on English books, I am never quite sure what’s known in this country), they are a series of learn to read books about the two very British insects. Most memorably, in one they travel around the world searching for Bee’s lost umbrella.

I know that bees, unlike Bee, don’t have umbrellas—and that ants, unlike Ant, don’t wear bowler hats. And I understand that ants and bees are unlikely to have to sort of friendship humans have—or wish they had. The sort of friendship where you put aside everything else and circumnavigate the globe to help your pal find something meaningful to him.

The flies in our kitchen are mostly just buzzing around looking for food and sex, and trying to avoid the spiders lurking in the corners, not hoping to run into a friend and have a good chat or borrow something or seek solace or swap dirty jokes, though I imagine if a fly told a joke it would be a dirty one. It seems like a pretty simple, brief and largely instinctual existence that leaves no room for meaningful relationships. That’s probably true. But look down dispassionately from a tall building at the streets of a city and you would see much the same thing. It would be hard from that distance to discern much in the way of friendship or sympathy or generosity. That does not mean it’s not happening, but absent the normal cues we would just be guessing at its existence, seeing it where we want to see it.

Maybe we also don’t see it where we don’t want to see it. Life’s a bit more complicated if those two beetles crossing paths by your feet are actually exchanging greetings, remarking on the lovely spell of weather and sending their best to the family. That sort of behavior would put beetles in a rather different class of being for most of us, and one that most of us would probably prefer to keep beetle-free. It’s so much simpler when an insect is just a slender, inexplicable life force away from being a robot.

Considering the possibility of insect friendship might be nothing more than sentimental human twaddle, another failure to appreciate other beings as they are in a misguided effort to understand them in our terms. Maybe a more accurate version of Around the World with Ant and Bee would tell how two insects got stuck together in a shipping crate and carried on with their separate lives—the ant being ant-like, the bee bee-like—because that’s what they do, and a long journey is not going to change that. Maybe, though, we are overstating the case for human friendship, which after all has a lot to do with proximity and common cause and self-interest and just filling time, all things that insects seem to grasp about as well as we do. Maybe insects just lack the ability to romanticize friendship. They have friends, but they don’t go on about it. I am not betting on it, but I am not ruling it out. I will keep watching them to see if I see any hints of amicability—or a tiny umbrella.


Vegetable notes: You have a couple of Jalapenos (blunt, dark green) and a couple of other small hot peppers randomly selected from amongst the ones we grow.  The orange ones are very hot; the slender pointy yellow and red ones less so, but still potent; anything else is about the equivalent of a Jalapeno or milder.  As with all hot peppers, if you want to reduce the power, be sure to remove all the seeds and white pith. Also, the tip is milder, the stem end hotter. You could use them in a salsa, or make a spicy bean salad, or puree them with garlic, parsley, roasted sweet peppers, a little vinegar or lemon juice, maybe a few walnuts, the make a sauce. Or you could make a hot pepper simple syrup, maybe with cilantro or mint or basil, mix it with lime juice and Mexcal, and serve over lots of ice.