MARCH
2003

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

3-27-03

Insects Are Good Teaching Tools

Not many people think of insects as teachers. Generally, we use the word teacher to describe a person. For instance, Miss Taylor, who just happened to preside over my third-grade experience.

While insects may not technically qualify to be called teachers, we do learn things from them. Like to watch out for bumble bees! Or that mosquitoes make a buzzing sound when they fly. And, when you hear that sound, it might mean that you are about to be a blood donor -- to a female mosquito.

Some famous individuals have used insects to help get their point across, including the man purported to be one of the wisest people of all time. King Solomon suggested that ants might have attributes that humans should emulate.

Solomon's advice in the Old Testament book of Proverbs:

"Go to the ant, you sluggard,
Look at her ways, learn sense;
For she has no leader,
No foreman or chief,
Yet in the summer she provides her food
And gathers during harvest days."

Solomon missed the boat a bit, at least in his entomological knowledge. Ants do have a leader. She is the queen. But he was right about planning for the lean times by storing food. The same idea is included in the works of the master teacher Aesop in the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper obviously didn't plan for the future and ended up in dire straits when the weather turned frigid.

Most people think of the bee as the symbol of industry in the insect world. In fact, Solomon also recommended the bee as an insect role model for mere mortals. In the Septuagint, he is credited with the following. "Go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and what noble work she produces; whose labor kings and private men use for their health. She is desired and honored by all, and, though weak in strength, yet since she values wisdom she prevails."

It is somewhat disconcerting to learn that science has now established that the idea of the busy bee is more fiction than fact. The fact is that honey bees spend about 80 percent of their time loafing! So much for the industrious bee.

Ogden Nash, American humorist and versifier, addressed that issue in his poem entitled "Grasshoppers are Very Intelligent." The poem is about the industry of the bees and, in spite of the title, doesn't even mention grasshoppers. The title is a reference to the less than work bridle grasshopper in the fable of Aesop. Nash concludes that bees like birds "don't do anything either, bees just have a reputation for industry because they are sharp enough to buzz."

Nash also suggests that the industry of the ant might not be due to work ethic. Nash's explanation: "So what would you be calm and placid if you were filled with formic acid?"

Whether or not ants work hard is not the issue in Robert Frost's poem "Departmental." In this poem, Frost points out that ants are very regimented in how they go about their lives. It is probably no accident that Frost penned that poem after a stint teaching at a major university. Apparently, Frost's opinion was that universities are somewhat cumbersome in terms of bureaucracy. His conclusion relative to ants: "It couldn't be called ungentle, but how thoroughly departmental!"

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox