FEBRUARY
1990

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-23-90

Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Bugs?

The ancient Greeks used the word “entomo” to mean and almost anything creepy or crawly, which likely includes snakes, lizards, frogs, toads and worms of all sorts.  Today, we use entomo as a combining form to mean anything dealing with insects.  For example, entomology is the study of insects.  And a person who studies insects is known as an entomologist.

Not everyone finds insects as interesting as entomologists do.  In fact, some people react quite differently – that is, with and extreme fear of insects.  These folks have a disease known as entomophobia.

A phobia is an unfounded fear of something, and entomophobia is an unfounded fear of insects.  Estimates indicate that nearly 10 percent of the U. S. population suffers from this disease.

Phobias are interesting diseases in that medical science cannot explain what causes them.  Certainly, entomophobia is not a contagious disease – it is not caused by some disease organism that can be transferred from person to person.  Nor is it likely that the disease is hereditary, passed from parents to offspring through their genes.

Most entomologists agree that entomophobia is learned.  We learn to fear the little six-legged creatures because of the behavior and advice of those around us.

Most insects pose little danger to humans.  Some, however, can be hazardous to human health.  It makes sense to be somewhat wary of bees and wasps.  And avoiding biting flies and mosquitoes might prevent the discomfort these insects can inflict.

If there is a real basis for entomophobia, it might be related to the role that insects play in disease transmission.  Insect-borne diseases including malaria, sleeping sickness and typhus, have caused untold human suffering and death.  Consequently, in ancient times it might have been logical to fear insects that were purveyors of death.  Since many insects are difficult to tell apart, except maybe to entomologists, it could have been a matter of survival to fear them all.

This attitude is, no doubt, supported by today by the reality that some insects, such as some flies and cockroaches, prosper under less-than-sanitary conditions.  No one wants to be associated with such filth-loving organisms.

Never mind that the vast majority of insects are not harmful to humans and don't even live in filth.  Most insects are pronounced guilty because of their “cousins.”

Entomophobia may prevent some people from making friends with insects.  But insects probably won't shy away from people.  After all, many insects don't suffer from anthropophobia – the fear of humans.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Carol McGrew