The Ick Factor

We’re still recovering from the drive down. Cricket spent the morning mixing Bloody Mary’s and I spent it swimming; there’s no pool scooping thing here (we figure it’s a rich people thing – someone will eventually miraculously arrive and take care of the pool), so I swam around and extricated about half a dozen small beetles from the water. They were small, rounded with iridescent green and bronze coats, and reminded me a bit of scarab beetles, which reminded me of Ancient Egypt, where scarabs had the same symbolic power as the cross has to Christians; the scarab in flight pendant shown Wingedscarabhere was on the chest of Tutankhamun, an emblem of rebirth. Scarabs also remind me of one of the most beautiful girls I ever saw, a lithe English woman in the market at Luxor, brown eyes heavily rimmed with kohl, golden skin, her hair bound stylishly in a white cloth turban wrapped with a scarab pendant. I saw her for perhaps five seconds 25 years ago; I will remember her forever.

While I’m not an insect fan, I certainly don’t run screaming from the room at the sound of insect wings rattling against a screen or at the sight of an enormous stick insect crawling across the floor. Which is just as well, as insects are fairly common fellow travelers on bodies. In forensics, insects can help us in a number of ways.

When a body is left exposed, insects will find it (and “exposure” doesn’t just mean “outdoors”: an uncovered body left in a Manhattan apartment in April will eventually attract legions of flies). There’s a roughly predictable sequence: first to arrive are the flies, then flesh-eating beetles, then beetles that feed on the flies or first wave beetles. By looking at the variety and species of insects gathered from the body, examining them and determining how far along they are in their life cycle (egg, larva (maggot), pupa, grown fly, for example), and with knowledge of recent weather and the immediate microenvironment of the body, and with familiarity with the life cycle of the particular species in that particular climate, a good forensic entomologist can determine how long that body would have been in that location to have been colonized with that particular spectrum of bug life.

For me, the ick factor comes with maggots. Flies lay eggs in the sheltered parts of the body – they like it warm, humid, with still air – so mouth, nostrils, any body crevice become filled with eggs (let me increase the ick factor: fly eggs look like crumbled parmesan cheese). The eggs hatch pretty quickly, releasing tens of thousands of maggots on the body. The feeding maggots accelerate decomposition, and can distort wounds and even create artifactual “wounds”. On the other hand, they can help us identify drugs or poisons in the body: any chemical present in the body will be in the maggot that feeds upon that body, so, when a recovered body has been largely skeletonized, the remaining maggots can be used as specimens for toxicology screening. This was depicted on an early episode of CSI, with the redoubtable Warrick Brown carefully dissecting out the gastrointestinal tract of a single maggot for analysis; the sequence had me in hysterics. Luckily, the producers have since learned how it’s done, and now show criminalists blending maggots by the cupful, as God intended. In recent years, forensic biologists have been able to successfully extract DNA from blood recovered from mosquitoes.

I suppose the insect feeding thing goes both ways: insects provide part of the dietary protein intake for a sizable portion of the world population. The lovely J.W. Marriott hotel in Bangkok is located around the corner from one of the city’s most popular bar/nightlife streets, the notorious Soi Nana. Many of the bargirls are from Isaan, in the Northeast, and an army of camp followers has sprung up to feed them. So, if you wander past Soi Nana in the early evening, you’ll find several handcarts with vendors feeding fried grubs, spit-grilled grasshoppers and enormous water bugs (cousins of the cockroach, to you non-Floridian types) to the beautiful and ravenous ladies of the evening.

As a food and travel writer, I have eaten more than my fair share of odd things. Ant eggs in a pre-Colombian restaurant in Oaxaca (where, coincidentally, I first started writing Precious Blood), meal worm trail mix and cricket pizza (at New York’s Museum of Natural History, where a chef friend had whipped up a menu to accompany an insect show), horse sashimi in Tokyo, entire tiny birds deep-fried in the Philippines (the tiny brains in the tiny skulls were the key part of the delicacy, eaten whole, like crunchy ravioli). I have to say that, if a food seems revolting, I generally don’t enjoy it that much; I am weak that way.