That’s not a figure of speech, like when someone says they want to put a bug in your ear about something, an expression that always bugs me, or when someone is said to have a bee in their bonnet, an expression that’s even worse because having any kind of stinging insect trapped inside headgear sounds like a nightmare. Anyway my cousin had a literal bee in his ear, crawling around like it was looking for a lost contact lens. It didn’t sting him because as we’ve all been told since we were small a bee won’t sting you unless you annoy it, and my cousin was letting the bee go about its business. In fact he seemed completely oblivious to the bee in his ear while I was completely freaked out by it.
We were picking blueberries in a field near my uncle’s summer cabin which was perched on the edge of a lake in northern Maine, an area known for long, brutal winters and short, intense summers with long days which causes the local insect population to work overtime to grow, feed, and reproduce. It was there that I learned that the name “horse fly” is a bit of a misnomer—they’re really closer in size to a small pony, but still big enough that we’d have to run for cover when the shadow of one passed over. It was a fun place to stay and I enjoyed picking blueberries with my cousin Stephen, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if he weren’t feeding every bloodsucking insect within a five-mile radius. The bee in his ear, which he eventually prodded out with his finger, was merely passing through, or at least I think it was since I’m pretty sure there was no pollen or nectar in my cousin’s ear and bees don’t build their hives out of earwax, or if they do they get it out of their own ears. He was also surrounded by swarms of gnats and mosquitoes so he always appeared slightly out of focus and it’s a wonder he wasn’t anemic by the end of the week. The insect attention never seemed to bother him, although later that week we would have lobster which is basically a giant aquatic bug so maybe while he was tearing into a crustacean’s carapace he got some kind of revenge.
The real mystery is why the bugs were so drawn to him when they more or less ignored me and other family members. A whole group of us trooped out each morning to pick blueberries and while a few mosquitoes and gnats would go after one of us the vast majority would zero in on my cousin Stephen like he was The Pied Piper of Anopheles.
This is something I’ve noticed in other people too. My wife isn’t nearly the mosquito magnet my cousin was but if we’re outside she’ll draw the attention of ten mosquitoes for every one that lands on me. And I don’t want to complain, but still, hey mosquitoes, what am I? Chopped liver? Maybe I am since every mosquito I’ve ever met has called pate overrated, but that’s another story.
Why insects are drawn to some people and not others is a subject of serious scientific inquiry somewhere, or at least it should be. I know that in laboratories where mosquitoes are studied there’s usually a lucky grad student who gets the job of offering up an arm to feed the subjects and surely scientists have noticed that some are preferable to others. When I was a kid I was told that eating sugar makes you attractive to mosquitoes and swallowing a spoonful of vinegar will drive them away which I would think was a ploy to keep the dental bills down if vinegar weren’t at least as hard on the incisors as a popsicle.
For now, though, it remains a mystery, one that may not be fully solved until sixty-five million years in the future when humans have become a shadowy mystery, a subject of intense study and debate for the insects who dominate the planet and perform a reckless experiment, extracting DNA from an ancient ancestor trapped in amber, so they can revive the hominids who once ruled from pole to pole. I expect the clone of my cousin Stephen to be a major attraction at Cenozoic Park.