By Dr. Jim Ferguson
October in Knoxville is wonderful– or as they say in Italian, “bellissimo.”  About the time you get sick of one season, another comes along.  I went out the other day and I felt it.  The cooler, dryer weather made me know “Fall is in the air.”  I’ve been on five continents and in forty countries and I’m always glad to come home to one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Recently, Becky and I spent several hours perimeter-spraying our mountain cabin.  We do this to prevent infestation by lady bugs.  I don’t recall problems with these insects in the past (whom I no longer consider ladies).  These bugs try to find a warm place for the winter and apparently my cabin is more desirable than the forest.  I’m sympathetic, but swarms of invading lady bugs covering our walls are unacceptable.

If you haven’t seen them you must be blind.  I’m referring to those ugly grey insects we call stink bugs.  These Asian invaders began their infestation of America about fifteen years ago.  They recently made it to Knoxville and seem to be everywhere.  Bugs don’t bother me, but hordes of them can be creepy.  Even birds can be creepy.  Recall the murderous fowls in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds.”

Most Sundays our family and friends often gather after church for Sunday lunch.  We used to go to my Mother-in law’s house, but now we go to a local restaurant. The extent of the stink bug problem became real as a friend told us about her car wreck.  As she was backing out of her daughter’s drive way, the stink bug struck.  The prehistoric looking pest dropped on her and she panicked, jumping out of the slowly rolling vehicle.  She was knocked to the ground and the car ran over her foot.  Amazingly, she wasn’t seriously injured and as she rolled free she looked up to see her daughter flying to the rescue.  Having just gotten out of the shower and clad only in a towel she flew to her Mom’s aid.  I listened in fascination as the daughter dived toward the open car door losing her cape in the process.  “She’s Batman!” I exclaimed.

I don’t have any phobias, but several of my family members do.  It’s not uncommon for me to be pressed into service in the removal of a black snake or a praying mantis from our mini farm.  A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or a situation.  Phobias include fear of animals, heights, insects or enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) such as MRI scanners or elevators.  Sometimes severe anxiety can occur just by thinking about spiders, for instance, or hearing the word spider.  Even shots or having blood drawn can cause panic in some people.   In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen had to save Dian Keaton from a spider in her house.  He ridiculed her until he confronted the “major” spider that was vanquished only with great drama and a broom.

The lifetime risk of developing a phobia is about twelve percent, though a bit higher in women than men.  The condition tends to congregate in families, suggesting a genetic predilection influenced by an environmental stimulus or a traumatic event.  In people with phobias science has found over activation of areas of the brain known as the cingulate insula and the amygdala.  When these areas are stimulated “negative emotional responses” result.

Some phobias are mild and just a nuisance while others cause significant problems in daily life.  Phobias often last a life long, but can be corrected by exposure-based treatment.  Additionally, psychotherapy and medications like Prozac and Valium are helpful.

Most of us don’t suffer from an irrational fear of things.  I have a friend who totally freaks out if she sees a bug in the house.  She wouldn’t do well at our cabin where we sometimes find small scorpions or wasps.  Logically, I ask, which is worse, an occasional insect or a house full of insecticides from Orkin?

Excluding those poor folks with phobias who can’t help their panic symptoms, most of us just want varmints outside.  I often carry granddaddy longlegs outside instead of swatting them.  Even the occasional spider is tolerated because these arachnids prey upon and control insect populations.  Go out early some morning this fall and notice the dew that reveals hundreds of spider webs.  Without these eight-legged creatures we would be quickly over run by the six-legged ones.

The threshold for me is infestation and safety.  I step over bugs on the ground outdoors, but I’m currently battling fire ants that have sprung up all over Thistle Farms and recently stung my grandson, Oakley.  I’ve declared war on these invaders from southern climes.  And I’ve told fruit flies that appear from nowhere on cantaloupe or house flies that try and relocate from the horse manure strewn pasture that they will swatted if they are found within the walls of our home.

Mostly I try and coexist with nature.  I’m less tolerant of the Big Stink that is emanating from Washington.  Insects and other varmints like raccoons are just poor creatures trying to make it in the world.  Obama and the Beltway Boys have chosen to stink up our country.  Perhaps we need an industrial Orkin for D.C.