“Getting the Bugs out of Tom Sawyer”
An Entomologist’s View of a Classic
© 2000

I could tell that the gentleman sitting next to me was trying to see what I was reading. His head was pulled back and tilted slightly to the side to get a better view into the valley formed by the book in my lap. He was trying to be subtle but he failed miserably. I glanced over and acknowledged him with a polite smile. He nodded and smiled back, a little embarrassed at being caught. In that quick glance, I got the impression of a giant, benevolent bird—a stork perhaps. His arms and legs were long and thin, and the head above the equally thin neck was crowned with a crest of white unkempt hair. A pair of gold rimmed glasses perched at the end of a beak-like nose and his eyes twinkled intelligently behind them. The quick movement of his head as he nodded was decidedly bird-like —a robin listening for a worm.

As I resumed my reading, he resumed his attempt to peek into my book. I had been in enough airport waiting areas stuck in delays to know how to pass the time. A good book was always my first choice; casual conversation with a complete stranger, my second. The latter was risky, for there was always the possibility of becoming hopelessly entangled in a conversation about Aunt Alma’s gall bladder operation or Cousin Twilly’s rotten second marriage. On the other hand, I have met some interesting people with some equally interesting stories. This gentleman had a unique quality about him that made me decide to take a chance—I tilted the book open in his direction. His head snapped up, but the startled look melted into a smile as he saw that I was not offended by his curiosity. He then unashamedly leaned forward, his neck extending, as he cocked his head and stuck his beak into my book.

“Ahh, Tom Sawyer,” he said, nodding his approval. “One of my favorites.” His voice was soft and melodious, his enunciation precise. “You’re reading it for the first time perhaps?”

I closed the book on my index finger. “For the hundredth,” I chuckled.

He looked at me silently—patiently. I don’t know what reaction I was expecting—shock, surprise, awe, but I didn’t get them. He simply waited for the explanation that was due after such a comment. Perhaps there were books he had read countless times.

“I’m a teacher,” I explained, and he nodded his head in understanding. “I read it year after year with my classes.” I rolled the book over in my hand to expose the title. “I try to find some new approach, a new focus, every once in a while. It keeps it fresh. I’ve studied it from just about every angle. This year I’m leaning toward a biographical approach—many of those adventures were Twain’s. Right now I’m just trying to get the bugs out.”

He threw his head back and let out a short, explosive laugh of delight that startled me.

“Wonderful!” he chirped. “What a marvelous way to phrase it: ‘Getting the bugs out.’” He stroked his chin as he turned that phrase over in his mind, perhaps storing it away for future use.

“Are you a teacher also?” I asked.

“No,” he smiled, “I’m an entomologist—insects are my game.

”We fell silent for an awkward moment, neither of us sure what to say next.

“I wouldn’t think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer would be your kind of reading.” I said picking up the thread of our mutual interest.

“Quite the contrary! Tom Sawyer is teeming with insect life of the most extraordinary variety!” He seemed shocked that one who has read Tom Sawyer so often could be blind to such an obvious fact.

In a race to preserve my professional integrity, my mind buzzed through the plot in search of this teeming horde of insects, but I came up woefully short.

“You must be referring to the tick Tom played with in school —the tick he traded his tooth for with Huckleberry Finn.”

“Well, yes,” he said softly and there was something in his tone that told me that I had blundered. “There was that tick, yes. Technically it isn’t an insect —it’s in the class arachnida. It’s a spider of sorts. Interesting nevertheless. Huckleberry Finn must have captured a common wood tick, Dermacentor variabilis. They like to crawl out on the tips of leaves and then . . .” he extended his arms like a giant crab, spread the fingers of his hands out like talons, and gently rocked back and forth, “they wait for a host to brush by. They grab the host,” (his fingers snapped into tight fists) “and they feed on the blood of the victim. Once a mated female has gorged herself, she drops from the host, lays her eggs, and crawls out on another leaf. If the victim is a human, there is always the danger of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia, or rabbit fever. Nasty diseases. Nasty.”

He shook his head sadly for a moment and then his face lit. “But if you want a disease carrier, you have to go to that fly Tom caught in church just as the minister ended his prayer. It was probably a common house fly, Musca domestica. I guarantee that Tom didn’t know what he had in his hand besides that fly. It’s been calculated that a single house fly carries with it as many as 33 million microorganisms in its gut, and perhaps a half a billion more on its feet, legs, body. It’s a wonder the damned thing can fly!” He chuckled softly to himself. I smiled weakly.

“But they do,” he continued, “ and at a top speed of about five miles per hour. That’s quite a feat with all that cargo. They can’t land anywhere without leaving some of those bacteria behind. Tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, diarrhea and many other diseases can travel around with that fly, and they do travel—up to twenty miles from the place where they were born. And everywhere they land, they drop off some of those nasty little bacteria.” He leaned in confidentially. “You see, the problem is that they can’t chew.”

I raised my eyebrows, and he smiled, “They can only suck up liquids. When they find some solid food, they must first dissolve it. They spit out some saliva which turns the solid into a liquid, and then they suck it up—most of it anyway. It’s what they leave behind that contains the bacteria.

“Their feet present another problem. Their feet are equipped with sticky pads that give them the ability to walk on walls and ceilings. It also gives them the ability to pick up germs: leprosy, gonorrhea, scarlet fever, polio, gangrene—the list goes on. And flies have no social conscience. They’ll land on a rotting carcass or piece of filth and then go directly to your sugar bowl. And in spite of all the filth they contact, they are rather meticulous about their personal grooming, always rubbing their legs together, smoothing out their wings, dusting off their heads. And, of course, that helps deposit more germs wherever they land.”

He paused reflectively. “I was always sorry Aunt Polly made Tom let that fly go. That one fly could lay 100 to 150 eggs at a time. The maggots that hatch mature in about two weeks, and then the females can begin to reproduce. One scientist calculated that a single pair of flies have the potential to produce five and a half quintillion offspring in a single summer! That’s a 15 with seventeen zeros after it (1,500,000,000,000,000,000). Of course, that’s supposing that every single fly survives to reproduce.”

He looked over his eyeglasses and leaned in close. “Imagine how many offspring that fly of Tom Sawyer’s was responsible for over the last 150 years!”

“That would explain my attic,” I said, picturing the thousands of dead flies I find there every spring.