Saturday, May 26, 2012

What's the Buzz?

Of all the jokes in the world, there are probably three or four commonly repeated types. Some jokes are based on the surprise ending or punchline, one that you do not expect. The second, for cartoonists, is the sight gag, which relies on an unusual, silly or ridiculous picture of something as the punchline. But by far the most common type of gag, for stand-up comedians as well as cartoonists, is the pun. The cartoon above is one of those, based on biological facts about mosquitoes. In this instance, it refers to the insatiable appetite of the female mosquito, which, as most biologists know, bites not because it is hungry but because it is pregnant, or rather is laden with eggs that cannot be fertilized without blood from a victim.

I just returned from the Texas Gulf Coast, a land where you can wake up in the morning to see a mosquito the size of a Bell Jet-Ranger helicopter hovering in front of your eyes, looking for the most convenient place to land. Sometimes, you don't even have to see them; if you hear a sound, clear and perfect as the C in the pitch pipe used by your elementary school music teacher, you know a mosquito has homed in on you. Mosquitoes carry their own variety of GPS onboard, and they know the exact coordinates of the nearest exposed piece of flesh on your body. You can swat all you want, but for each one you kill, two more will show up ready to draw your blood.
Incidentally, this is the sight gag - a big POW! followed by a ridiculous-looking divot in the wall, made, presumably, by the throbbing human fist in the picture. I conjured up that image on a warm, stuffy October night in Palo Alto when the windows to my apartment were open. Yes, even the San Francisco Bay Area has mosquitoes.

Texas has two varieties of mosquito. The freshwater kind hatch in any rain puddle and are fairly prevalent inland in the summer (which is a season that lasts six months on the Gulf Coast). They are small and fairly innocuous; you can usually swat them away and they'll leave you alone. But the salt marsh mosquitoes are big, ornery and will home in on you thirty seconds after you step out of your car at the beach. I think they have bands on their legs, which leads to them being referred to as tiger mosquitoes. You can swat at them all you want, but they only come back faster and fiercer. They have been known to range inland all the way into Houston, which is why you can always tell Houston schoolchildren - they're the ones with the mosquito bites all over their legs.

And fire ant stings on their bodies; the "far aint", as the locals call them, inhabit every pasture and playground. They're not big ants, but they are aggressive, swarming insects that overwhelm by sheer numbers and the ferocity of their bites. Their mounds are usually ubiquitous except when you're not watching where you're stepping; then you can end up with a rash of itchy ant bites in a surprising hurry. The "far aint" has not arrived in Massachusetts yet, which is a blessing, but its advance has been inexorable; supposedly it can be found in selected spots in Virginia.

Crickets can be found everywhere; they're even mentioned in the Bible. They don't swarm like ants or locusts, but they have been known to get into places and spaces from which they are hard to extricate.
 I never drew a cartoon about cicadas; these large green noisemakers show up in Houston just as soon as the temperature hits 90. Virginia has what are known as 17-year cicadas, which show up in mass quantities like a Biblical plague every 17 summers or so, then disappear a month later, not to be seen for another 17 years. Unlike their Texas cousins, these are brown with bright red eyes. In concert, they can create a din like a jet engine. They last showed up in 2005. However, the green Texas bugs have started showing up in Virginia, just like the fire ant, attesting to the agreeable nature of the Virginia climate; their recent arrival is evidence enough to me of global warming. Another recent arrival in Virginia is the stink bug; a six-sided beetle that you will not notice until you step on it, at which time it will emit a noticeable offensive odor. With that, the entomology lesson has concluded.

But let's not forget our old friend, the cockroach.

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