“Rain” is what my host said as I flew out of my room at 5:30 in the morning, squealing, covered in bugs. He stood there with an unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, wearing nothing but a sarong, a traditional Malaysian wrap. All he did was shrug and walk off, leaving me to sweep thousands of bugs out of the room.
While doing fieldwork at a forest reserve in Sabah, Malaysia, I had the honor of staying with a local host family during a welcome break from the jungle. The evening before the incident, I fell asleep with my stomach full of sugary soda, cookies, and chicken (the typical Malay diet), thrilled to have air conditioning blasting across the bed. Sometime in the middle of the night, I woke up and brushed something off my face before pulling the blanket up over my head. I didn’t think anything of it and fell back asleep.
Around 5:30 in the morning, I was jolted awake by a scream of “OH. MY. GOD. Am I dreaming!?” My fellow researcher and mentor flipped the lights on. I grumpily uncovered my face and immediately felt shivers run down my spine. The room was filled with thousands of flying insects. They covered my body and bed. Their bodies filled the air, and the ground was covered in them.
As I sat there, horrified, my co-researcher kept rambling manically: “Is this real life? Is this actually happening? Oh my god. Oh my GOD.”
I grabbed my blanket and stood there on the bed—too shocked to do anything—while she ran outside, grabbed a broom, and started sweeping frantically. Then we realized the bugs were all dying. Within about five minutes every single bug was dead (and not by our doing). Better yet, as the bugs died, their wings fell off and our frantic sweeping spread them all over the room and all through our backpacks.
Turns out, these bugs hatched overnight due to the rain, were attracted to the light outside our window, got sucked into the air conditioning unit, and were sprayed all over us by the vent. My host was right: it was the rain. While the bugs I encountered all over the jungle didn’t faze me, there was something so disappointing, so wrong, about having a highly-coveted air conditioning unit spew bugs at me. I’m still not sure what type of bugs they were or why they died so spontaneously, but based of the nonchalant reaction of the rest of the host family, this kind of mass rain-driven birth and death must have been fairly common. Of course, in retrospect, the behaviorist in me realized that this is the perfect example of an ecological trap; in this case, a man-made light source that drew organisms into an unfavorable, often detrimental situation.
To this day, wings still occasionally flutter out of my backpack.
Author: Allison Lau studies monogamous primates and the ways in which pair-bond attachments are reinforced. This field fiasco occurred during her 2015 field season studying the duet vocalizations of Bornean gibbons in Sabah, Malaysia.