Unsightly Relations: A Meditation On (Not) Being Disgusted by Insects

Scroll this
Editor’s Note: This is the second post in the Ghost Light II: Monstrosities series edited by Caroline Abbott. The 2023 theme of this series aims to problematise the notion of “monstrosity” in the environmental humanities in the interest of illuminating the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and environment.

It’s nearly midnight. Cicada songs meld with the distant hum of a highway, and leaves cackle beneath my feet as I approach a black walnut tree stretching across the forest’s edge. I feel the walnut before I see it: shadows grow darker, the grass thins, and roots bump the ground. And then the light from my phone bobbles, catching one of the walnut’s branches, a drooping limb cloaked in sprawling, silky white webs. Trapped beneath the thickly woven tapestry, the walnut’s leaves hang ragged while a twisting mass of worms slide in and out of the white web-shroud.

I realize I’m holding my breath. I exhale slowly, feeling an urge to pull away from the nest. I know these nighttime crawlers — formally, Fall Webworm caterpillars — and they won’t hurt me. They aren’t hurting the walnut either: although Fall Webworms are defoliators (and considered a so-called invasive species or “pest” where their presence has been documented on other continents), they’re native to the Great Lakes region where I live and work on the Land of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations. Well-attuned to the seasons’ rhythms, they leave most leaves alone until the very end of the growing season in late summer and early autumn. Their sprawling webs are a shield, repelling hungry birds and wasps.

Fig. 1. Photograph of Fall Webworm caterpillars courtesy of Janice Vis.

But just as they repel unwanted predators, the webs also repel the human gaze. The meager attention webworms receive in public publications like newspapers and gardening magazines usually emphasizes the creatures’ creepiness. My city’s newspaper, The Hamilton Spectator, hails them as “nightmarish.”1 In nearby Huntsville, Ontario, the Bracebridge Examiner called them “badly strewn Halloween decorations,”2 and The Detroit News derides webworm nests as “unsightly.”3 Indeed, “unsightly” is an especially popular and long-lived descriptor in these sources: a 1943 article from the New York Times proclaims “[t]he webs or nests are as unsightly as the numerous caterpillars.”4

“Perhaps our interactions with insects invite us to go beyond re-drawing boundaries of belonging and instead dwell with the discomfort of unbelonging. How might we relate to that which feels unwanted? Maybe the opposite of unsightly is not attractive but seen.”

I find “unsightly” a useful word because it so obviously involves relation and immediately implicates a sighted seer. As a visual descriptor, there’s an irony to unsightly: the webworms have to be seen to be registered as visually repulsive. That is, as soon as they are seen, they become something that should not be seen, something the viewer wants removed from their sight. Sara Ahmed explains this dual movement as a disgust reaction. For Ahmed, disgust is contingent on proximity: it is not an independent “quality,” but a relation that is at once boundary transgression and a (re)making of boundaries.5 When I am disgusted, I feel the closeness of something I don’t feel belongs. I enact my disgust by “creat[ing] a distance” between my “self” and the disgust-object, re-establishing my boundaries and my sense of the world.6 Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown that disgust is more likely than fear to illicit violence in order to restore a violated norm.7

Disgust reactions against webworms point towards underlying unspoken rules about who is assumed to belong in “green spaces” like parks and gardens, and the ways in which these rules often centre settler conceptions of desirable visual attractiveness. Flipping through webworm articles, I’m surprised by how often readers are first told that webworms are harmless and don’t need to be removed—but then in sentences immediately following are given instructions for “proper removal,” as if the harmlessness of the creatures matters not at all. But perhaps it doesn’t always matter what we ‘know’ intellectually about our non-human neighbours; our encounters with the non-human are felt. We are feeling creatures. And importantly, we are also felt creatures: as Cherokee scholar Daniel Heath Justice explains, respectful relationships are “not just about how we perceive [other creatures], but how they perceive us.”8

Fig. 2. Photograph of Fall Webworm caterpillars courtesy of Janice Vis.

On a planetary scale, disgust reactions and unsightly relations have catastrophic results. I’ve been writing about webworms specifically, but it’s no secret that many insects are received with feelings of disgust, especially in Western contexts. Research across disciplines has pondered this phenomenon — the short explanation is it’s complicated — and deeply stratified in social learning.9 Indeed, the expectation that people should find insects disgusting pervades the media landscape and English language: phrases like “a bug in the system” tell us that bugs are something to be hunted and removed. Insects are labelled “pests,” and rows of pesticides in every department store support this claim. Meanwhile, the rapid decline of insect populations worldwide has led to an “insect apocalypse.”10 The loss of pollinators, decomposers, and foundational members of food chains will have cascading effects. As scholars Hannah Gunderman and Richard White remind us, “[o]ur life on Earth is highly dependent upon the flourishing of all forms of life.”11

In response to insect crises, Gunderman and White make the admirable and provocative demand that we confront our internalized biases and work toward “an honest and empathic restructuring of our normalized relationships to insects,” re-scripting our assumptions about who belongs and inviting insects into our lives.12 Yet, how is this accomplished? These authors’ storied encounters of their insect meetings reveal nuances to these disgust reactions which are worth further consideration. For example, when Gunderman encounters a bug in her office, she snaps a photo to share on social media. “As a leftist ethical vegan with several like-minded folks on my friends list,” she begins, “I expected to receive many positive comments.” However, she soon finds herself “appalled,” having received many “condescending comments calling the creature ‘disgusting.’”13 Disgust reactions overlap in this encounter: as Ahmed explains, “some disgust reactions name their disgust at the way in which disgust has stuck to the bodies of […] others.”14 By expressing her discomfort, Gunderman distances herself and from the commenters’ insect-repelling and boundary-making habits. Confronted with Gunderman’s disgust, her friends’ normalized responses are called into question.

“While disgust is a reactionary movement that (re)draws boundaries of (un)belonging, monstrosity marks wild knottings: “[m]onsters are bodies tumbled into bodies; the art of telling monstrosity requires stories tumbled into stories.”18 To be a monster is to be a more-than-human creature navigating unstable norms expressed through still-developing stories.”

But even the most well-meaning environmental critiques can become moralizing when aimed at feelings. That is, there’s risk when indicating how peoples should feel towards insects in overly-simple or reductive terms; we can fall into sterile and binaried lines of (un)belonging that separate “good” and “bad” environmentalists, “good” and “bad” emotions. For example, when Gunderman finds herself in an elevator with a large mosquito, she confesses that her “first thought was one of disgust and dread” at the prospect of a bite. Gunderman is quick to critique her discomfort. She’s disgusted by her disgust, and so frames her “dread” of a mosquito bite as an inappropriate emotion. Rather than being repulsed by the insect, she finds part of herself repulsive, and looks outside of herself to find the locus of her repulsion.15

Gunderman’s response in this anecdote serves as a powerful means to problematise the means by which humans can separate themselves from their own responses through thought work, but I find myself untangling more questions. Should I, in my research, strive to simply not be creeped out by webworms? What is the “correct” feeling to have about a webworm nest? Thoughtless violence against non-humans needs to be challenged, but what are the stakes of believing that all more-than-human connections should provoke affection (and that there is something wrong when we don’t feel affectionate)? If I ignore the diversity of expressions presented by other creatures and my own body’s creatureliness, am I really working towards “an honest and empathic restructuring” of human-insect relations?  To return to Ahmed, while disgust can challenge the status quo, it also “does not allow one the time to digest that which one designates as a ‘bad thing’… critique requires more time.”16 We need to dwell in our relations to understand them.

Fig. 3. Photograph of Fall Webworm caterpillars courtesy of Janice Vis.

Moreover, humans’ habits of feeling, seeing, and storytelling emerge alongside non-human expressions: we are always living together in more-than-human story-making. As Metis scholar Zoe Todd reminds us, “non-human beings [are] sentient and agential forces that have the capacity to consent to or refuse collaboration” with us.17 We can’t prescribe a single story to guide our relationships because relationships involve different beings. “We” come from different places and carry different histories. Some have developed trusting relationships with some creatures; others have yet to account for their histories of violence. Other creatures will know “us” differently, just as “we” will see them from our unique positions. Accepting the complex entanglement of stories, bodies, and histories requires embracing the messiness of multispecies living, and to think with webbing contingencies rather than rigid binaries, we can embrace our own monstrosity.

While disgust is a reactionary movement that (re)draws boundaries of (un)belonging, monstrosity marks wild knottings: “[m]onsters are bodies tumbled into bodies; the art of telling monstrosity requires stories tumbled into stories.”18 To be a monster is to be a more-than-human creature navigating unstable norms expressed through still-developing stories. Our relations are amorphous; only through the entanglement of many beings and forces (some of which may feel foreign or uncomfortable) do we live. Of course, monstrosity has both “lively and destructive connections.”19 We can re-make our relations, but we will always move into new forms of monstrosity. Perhaps our interactions with insects invite us to go beyond re-drawing boundaries of belonging and instead dwell with the discomfort of unbelonging. How might we relate to that which feels unwanted? Maybe the opposite of unsightly is not attractive but seen.

Fig. 4. Photograph of Fall Webworm caterpillars courtesy of Janice Vis.

For me, practising monstrosity begins by sitting with webworms, respecting their space and leaving their web intact while noticing my body with open curiosity rather than reactionary shame. The more I look, the more I see—here, a caterpillar spins towards a new leaf; there, a small spider slips into the nest—and the more I feel. I don’t feel comfortable or happy, but the queasiness in my stomach begins to feel odd rather than threatening. How is my gut microbiome a participant in this ecosystem? I breathe, wondering. Perhaps the caterpillars wonder about me too. 

I don’t know where such practises will lead—monsters are, after all, strange creatures with uncertain dimensions—but since working with webworms, I know I’m not quite the same. I trust that space for uncertainty is space for growth.

1 Sheryl Nadler, “A walk into the augmented Bayfront Park world of Pok’mon,” The Hamilton Spectator (Hamilton, ON), Sept. 18, 2019. 
2 “Nature is decking out for an early Halloween,” Bracebridge Examiner (Huntsville, ON), Sept. 12, 2015.
3 Bob Dluzen, “Fall webworms have arrived,” The Detroit News (Detroit, MI), June 25, 2020. 
4 D.H.J., “Plague of Caterpillars,” The New York Times (New York, NY), Sept. 12, 1943.
5 Sarah Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh, United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 85.
6 Ahmed, 94.
7 Spike W. S. Lee and Phoebe C. Ellsworth, “Maggots and Morals: Physical Disgust is to Fear as Moral Disgust is to Anger.” In Components of Emotional Meaning: A Sourcebook, ed, Johnny J. R. Fontaine, Klaus R. Scherer, and Cristina Soriano (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 275.
8 Daniel Heath Justice, Why Indigenous Literatures Matter (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2018), 101.
9 See, for example: Francesco La Barbera, Fabio Verneau, Mario Amato, and Klaus Grunert, “Understanding Westerners’ disgust for the eating of insects: The role of food neophobia and implicit associations.”
10 See, for example, Dave Goulson’s book, Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2021).
11 Hannah Gunderman and Richard White. “Critical Posthumanism for All: A Call to Reject Insect Speciesism,” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 41, no. 3-4 (2021), 493.
12 Gunderman and White, 493.
13 Gunderman and White, 489.
14 Ahmed, 99.
15 Gunderman and White, 500.
16 Ahmed, 99.
17 Anja Kanngieser and Zoe Todd, “From Environmental Case Study To Environmental Kin Study,” History and Theory 59, no. 3 (September 2020), 392.
18 Elaine Gan, Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson and Nils Bubandt, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 10.
19 Ibid, 7.
Feature image: Fall webworms and nest. Photograph courtesy of Janice Vis.
The following two tabs change content below.
Janice Vis is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. Her research engages with several academic fields, including the Environmental Humanities, Critical Animal Studies, and Composition Theory. Her ongoing doctoral project looks at animal tracks and traces within a framework of multi-species writing, and her work considers how our habits of reading and (re)writing stories can shape our relationships with other creatures. Janice has several scholarly and creative publications that can be found on her website at janicevis.wordpress.com.

Latest posts by Janice Vis (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.