Crawling to Order the Altadena Bug Club
By Larry Wilson, Pasadena Star-News
I interviewed the founder of the Altadena Bug Club Monday afternoon, and I’m afraid that it wasn’t but a few minutes into our confab before I had gone native, throwing journalistic integrity to the wind.
Because there I was curled up on the floor in fifth-grader Jasper Bagley’s room faced with an assortment of tarantulas, plus a python, plus the little white mouse said snake, apparently a girl, had declined to eat the other day because, Jasper said, she isn’t feeling up to snuff ’cause she is molting, though I have a feeling the mouse’s days are numbered.
And the tops of the terrariums were coming off, prompting Jasper’s mom Liba to call in from the other room, “Honey, you’ve got to make sure your guest is OK with spiders,” and what was I going to do, go all arachnophobic on Jasper of a sudden?
Jasper Bagley, 11, shakes hands with his idol, E.O. Wilson, among shelves of animal specimens in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. (UC Berkeley photo by Tom Levy)
So he plops the big hairy critter down on my palm and, you know, she was actually kind of cute. Reminded me a bit of our new kitten, Teak, the way she was tap-tap-tapping her paws all over me, except that there were eight of them. She crawled around and declined to bite me in our brief acquaintance, better than I can say for Teak. Other massive spiders were produced, more girls, and the snake, whose name I am not now recalling, as well — “Honey, make sure he is all right with snakes, too; some people aren’t, you know.” The snake and I did pretty well.
Jasper certainly saved the creepiest of the crawlers for last. “Wait till you see this,” he said, rooting around in a hollowed-out log pulled from another glass cage. Something gray jumped out very quickly, then sat there, twitching, not so very far from us on the rug. “Tanzanian whipscorpion,” Jasper said. “Wouldn’t you know it,” I replied. The things a person does for a story.
I actually got wind of Jasper’s story on a recent Saturday on the UC Berkeley campus from my friend Linda Schacht, an Emmy-winning Bay Area journalist who teaches there. “You know the president of the Altadena Bug Club, I’m sure,” Linda said. But I didn’t. “Well, he’s coming up here next week to meet guess who?” Couldn’t guess. “E.O. Wilson, that’s who.” Biggest bug man on the planet. The Harvard emeritus professor was speaking at a celebration of the centennial of the national park system, and Jasper, who shares with Wilson a deep and profound interest in ants, was naturally going to meet up with him on this West Coast swing.
So how’d that go? I asked Jasper. “Good. He was really busy. They were taking lots of pictures. But I just said, ‘Hi, Dr, Wilson, my name is Jasper,’ and he said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about you. So what’s your favorite insect?’ And I said, ‘Chinese praying mantis.’ And he said, ‘Oh, I used to catch those all the time in the bushes in my yard’” when Wilson was a child in Alabama.
These bug fellows always find something in common. I asked Jasper if that was the mantis we see around here. “Not the little one you’re thinking of,” he said. “I mean, they are huge. I mean, hummingbird-eating huge.”
The professor then not only inscribed Jasper’s copy of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Ants” to his younger colleague. He drew a picture of an imaginary ant next to his signature, and named the new subspecies Jasperidris Californicis Wilson.
If not as buggy as my new friend, I shared with him my growing antipathy toward pesticides, and he concurred. “Those things cause cancer,” Jasper said, and pulled out a posterboard describing a recent school science project at La Canada Prep in which he proved the normal things ants actively avoid include salt, pepper and mint oil — a tincture of which he recommends for kitchen problems.
On my way out, Jasper tried to interest me in a Madagascar hissing cockroach for the road — gratis, he insisted, though he gets five bucks a pop for them down at Kidspace. I took a rain check. My kitten would eat the strapping invertebrate alive.