MAY
2002

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

5-9-02

Download the audio of On Six Legs: MP3, WMV.

Myths About Insects Thick as Fleas on Dogs


When it comes to insects, one thing is certain. Everyone has an opinion! However, many of those opinions are not necessarily based on facts. When dealing with insects, the line between fact and folklore is very narrow. So narrow that it could reasonably described as "thin as a gnat's eyelash!"

Back in the early 1950s, Lucy Clausen wrote a book called "Insect Fact and Folklore." In the book, Clausen recounts many tales about insects. For instance, the East Coast tale of how to kill mosquitoes that are helping themselves to a meal of blood. Our instinct is to swat those mosquitoes. But if you are an individual who has an abundance of self-control, try holding your breath. This is supposed to lock the mouthparts of the mosquito into your skin. You can then capture the insect at your leisure!

Another version of this mosquito-capture technique is to tighten your muscles around the proboscsis of the insect. The trapped insect can now be unceremoniously squashed. Or you can continue to hold the insect while more of your blood is shared with the offending beast. Rumor holds that eventually the mosquito will explode!

As you might imagine, the widespread presence and high numbers of cockroaches provide fodder for several urban legends. Two old beliefs, no doubt, fuel some of the modern myths about cockroaches. First, it is said that cockroaches will gnaw a person's toenails at night, unless the feet are covered with bedclothes. Another European legend holds that if a black beetle--another name sometimes used for cockroaches--flies against you, severe illness or even death will follow.

Such ideas probably lend support to the oft-repeated myth that someone licked the glue on an envelope, cut a lip and got cockroach eggs in the cut. The eggs then matured and eventually the individual had a boil develop at the site of the cut. Ultimately, the boil burst, and all kinds of little cockroaches emerged into the helpless individual's mouth.

Another version relates that the infestation originated from food purchased at some fast-food establishment. The general theme is the same. An individual gets a cut in the mouth while consuming the food. There are cockroach eggs on or in the food. And, well, you know the rest of the story.

Of course, there is absolutely no truth to any such story about cockroach eggs hatching inside a wound on a human. That is not the way cockroaches live. But such urban myths continue to exist.

Cockroaches aren't the only insects that have some rather gruesome lore associated with them. The insect commonly known as an earwig is another example. An old myth holds that this insect will crawl into a person's ear and bore through the eardrum. But it doesn't stop there--it will continue, actually eating into the human brain. Following which, the person goes mad! That myth is the basis for the common name of earwig.

Even fireflies do not escape negative folklore. One such myth holds that if the "fire" from a firefly gets into the eye, the eye will be put out. While the chemicals that a firefly uses to produce light taste bad, there is no evidence that they would cause such a thing to happen. Another saying holds that when a firefly comes into the house, on the following day, there will be one more or one less person in the house. While it is not clear what one more or less person really means, if it is a death or visiting relatives, it could be bad. But don’t worry, it's just another insect myth!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox