JANUARY
1999

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

01-14-99

Insects are Amazing Animals

Humans have interacted with insects for centuries. Many times the interactions are negative, especially when the insects damage our crops or our possessions. Or even worse, bite us!

None the less, we can't help but admire some of the biological attributes of our tiny armored competitors for the earth's resources. Such is the case with the French writer Louis Figuier. Figuier wrote a number of books on natural history during the latter part of the 1800s. One book was about insects.

The English version, published in London, was titled “The Insect World.” Actually, the title also included a subtitle, which was a common practice in those days. In this case, it was “Being a popular account of the orders of insects: together with a description of the habits and economy of some of the most interesting species.”

The author includes some observations about differences between insects and humans. In those days, as today, it is fun to play the “what if” game. If insects were larger, what would they be able to do?

Biologically, many adult insects have compound eyes. Each eye has many lenses. Figuier provides several examples of the number of lens possessed by various insects. A hawkmoth has 1,300 lenses in each eye. The house fly, 4,000. A dragonfly has 12,544—which one would assume was an actual count, not an estimate. A genus of beetle tops the list in Figuier's book with a reported 25,008 lenses per eye. The question still remains, can insects see us better than we can see them? After all, we are peering at them through a paltry two lenses!

Certainly, when it comes to eyes the insects have it! But what about measures of strength? According to some studies, a human's power of traction is no more than our body weight. Comparatively speaking, that is better than that beast of burden the horse, which has a power of traction of only half of its weight.

A ground beetle, on the other hand, can pull seven times its weight. A burying beetle can pull 15 times its weight and a honey bee, 20 times the weight of its body. So if a 150-pound human were relatively as strong as a honey bee, he could pull 3,000 pounds. If horses were as strong as bees, they could pull 27,000 pounds!

A flea that is no more a one-eighth inch long can jump over a yard. According to Figuier, with the same relative success, a lion ought to jump nearly two-thirds of a mile. If we could do as well, the human long jump record would be approaching four digits!

Many ancient observers have noted that ants can carry exceeding heavy loads—many times their own body weight. Flying insects also can carry heavy weights in flight—weights that make aviation engineers envious of the insects. For instance, almost any flying insect can carry a payload of  0.6 of its weight. A couple of flies, including the common house fly, can carry 1.6 times its own weight. 

Figuier insists that these insect feats of strength pale in comparison to the monuments they construct. Tiny termites construct mounds of such strength that buffalo stand on and use them as observatories. But even more impressive is the height of the termite mounds. The great pyramid of Egypt is 146 yards high. That is 90 times the average height of man. The mounds constructed by termites are more than a thousand times the height of the insect. Thus, these termite homes are more than 12 times higher than the Egyptian pyramid, which is considered a human miracle!

The conclusion of Figuier's book is that we are far beneath the little insects—at least when it comes to strength and working spirit!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox