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A boy, a bug and a different kind of love story

An origami cicada Vargas’s  son made for her.
An origami cicada Vargas’s son made for her. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)

From 10 feet away, across a crowded lunch area at the National Zoo, my 6-year-old son saw a speck of red and darted toward it.

There, on the concrete ground, looking at us with beady eyes, was a cicada.

He went to pick it up and I stopped him. We had to go, I explained. Relatives of ours were waiting inside a building nearby, I told him. Besides, the bug would still be there later.

Or so I thought.

We had walked only a few feet away when he and I both heard the squeals and then saw it: the slaughter. A young boy had run up to the cicada, raised his tiny leg and stomped on it. Not once, but twice.

My son’s heartbroken wails that day were probably heard from the Panda Plaza to the Great Cats’ exhibit.

This week, it’s impossible to walk into any store without seeing symbols of love. Hearts hang from ceilings and pop out of greeting cards. Doughnuts contain not only sweet fillings but also sweet messages.

Well, here is a different kind of love story. It is not fluffy and fuzzy. It is creepy and crawly. It is about bugs. It is also about the unexpected ways children can change us.

You know how Republicans sometimes raise Democrats, and jazz enthusiasts sometimes raise heavy-metal fans? I realized before my oldest son was even a year old that I, a bug despiser, was raising an insect lover.

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He gravitated toward them, always finding the one multi-legged creature crawling in the grass or lurking in the corner of a room. He would watch them and then inevitably reach for them, his face filling with excitement as mine contorted in horror.

I don’t have many fears. I love roller coasters and scary movies. I have roasted marshmallows on a volcano and have gone deep-sea diving at night, guided by just a flashlight. But since I was a child, I’ve had an irrational phobia of bugs.

One summer when my cousins, sister and I stayed at the home of a wealthy woman whose house my grandmother cleaned, all the children spent their days playing in her vast backyard. Except for me. I watched them from a sliding-glass door because those brown, crinkly cicada skins covered everything outside and I recoiled at the thought of touching them.

I spent another year wrapped each night in a cocoon made from my bedsheet after a cockroach crawled across my hand as I slept.

June bugs, those tiny brown beetles that come out in the summer, especially terrified me because every year, I knew at least one would fly into my hair.

Like other bug haters, I saw insects as pests and killed them without guilt, usually in creative ways that didn’t require touching them. I sprayed hair products at them. I threw books on them while standing on furniture. I filled rooms with bombs of chemicals, finding comfort in the fumes.

But then I had my son, and suddenly I found myself raising a boy who saw beauty in the pattern on a beetle’s back and dropped cookie crumbs for ants in case they were hungry.

He was 7 months old when he first reached for a cicada. We were out hiking and one was clinging to a bush. He grabbed it as we passed and I was sure he had squashed it in his tiny, chubby fist. I made sounds at that moment that I am not proud of. But when my husband opened his hand, the bug was fine and it seemed to know it wasn’t in danger. It didn’t rush to fly away.

Since then, that boy has plucked worms from the sidewalk so they won’t get stepped on, he has spent hours watching snails (which I know aren’t technically bugs but they feel as if they should be), and he has taught himself how to fold paper into origami insects, which he then gives to his dad and me as gifts. As a result, our home is filled with dozens of paper cicadas, each a spectrum of colors that go beyond what nature picked for them.

He also did something I didn’t think was possible: He changed how I feel about bugs. He diminished my fear of them.

I now find myself hoping to see an interesting one outside so I can point it out to him. On walks to the park, I have been known to take a bug house with us, just in case we see something worth examining further. When we had crickets in our basement last fall, I didn’t mind it because he woke up so excited to search for them.

Because of him, I also found myself alarmed recently by a report that in the past I might have simply swatted away. The researchers behind the report, which drew some media attention this week, found that more than 40 percent of the world’s insect species face possible extinction.

‘Hyperalarming’ study shows massive insect loss

“Unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades,” reads the report, which was published in the journal Biological Conservation and written about by the Guardian and other publications. “The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least.”

I never thought I would care about the loss of bugs, but suddenly I do. Suddenly, I want others to care about them, too, and for children to want to scoop them up, instead of stomp on them.

On Valentine’s Day, just like many other children, my sons will give their classmates cards. We went shopping for them together recently and faced dozens of choices. There were unicorns and superheroes and cartoon characters that offered kind messages. But one box immediately stood out and made it into our cart.

The cards feature sticky, squishy insects and messages that read, “You don’t bug me” and “You’re no pest.”

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