NOVEMBER
2004

 

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?

 

 

 

11-11-04

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

Insects: Creatures that are Easy to Hate


Our world is caught up in survey mania. You know, nine of 10 doctors surveyed prefer brand X for headaches! Or six of 10 likely voters think that issue A is important. We even have surveys regarding our attitude about insects. And the results are clear. Most of us don't like insects. In fact, seven out of 10 living, breathing humans say they either hate insects or are apprehensive about them!

OK, I have to admit, I'm not surprised. I even think that the percentage of people who don't like insects might even be a bit low. Most people I encounter can be clearly classified as insect haters.

Common folks that we meet every day at school and the grocery store aren't the only people who don't list insects as their favorite animals. Writer Annie Dillard says, "I ask why of almost every insect I see." Poet Ogden Nash wrote, "God in his wisdom made the fly, and then forgot to tell us why." Karl Shapiro started his poem "The Fly" with the line, "Oh hideous little bat, the size of snot." You really don't need the rest of the poem to conclude that Shapiro didn't think much of flies.

It is easy to understand why insects are hated by most of humankind. You see, insects are clearly the chief competitors of humans for the resources of the earth. And, try as we might, we still haven't gotten the upper hand on our six-legged competitors. And we probably won't.

In his book, "The Insect Menace," published in 1931, entomologist L. O. Howard wrote the following passage. "I have a fanciful thought. I can imagine Nature sitting back with a complacent smile and saying to herself: Now I am going to witness an interesting spectacle. This last thing that I have produced (he calls himself man) I have given the chance to control most things on earth. Let us see what he will do with my especial pets, the insects, which I have developed and perfected for so many ages. The humans are going to have a hard struggle to hold their own, and I am not sure they are going to win."

Insects, it seems, help themselves to almost anything they want. They chew on our garden plants. They destroy our crops. They gnaw holes in our clothing, and eat up our wooden houses. Insects feed on and annoy our animals. Even worse, they attack us!

It is this direct assault that turns most of us into insect haters. Many insects bite us in order to obtain a blood meal. A biting insect generally injects saliva into its victim. Insect saliva causes swelling and itching, because the foreign proteins trigger a defensive reaction by our antibodies.

Some insects can cause skin irritation even though they don't bite. Blister beetles get their name because their hemolymph contains a severe irritant called cantharidin. Several species of insects have caterpillars with hairs attached to one -celled poison glands. When such a hair touches skin, a rash will develop.

Other insects sting directly. Most people know about stinging bees, wasps and ants. The sting of these insects is designed to keep us away from their nests. The strategy works really well, since anyone who has been stung is normally not interested a repeat performance.

The worst thing that insects do is carry pathogens, or germs if you prefer. Some flies pick up the germs on their feet, and they stomp around in our food. That feared malady of travelers, dysentery is one such disease. Other insects transmit the disease organisms through their bite. Mosquitoes are the worst culprits in this area. These blood-sucking insects are responsible for such diseases as malaria, yellow fever, West Nile, and St. Louis encephalitis.

Mosquitoes aren't the only insects guilty of ferrying pathogens around. Fleas carry plague, and lice transmit typhus. The kissing bug carries Chagas' disease. Sleeping sickness is transmitted by the tsetse fly. These insect-carried diseases are estimated to have killed more people than all of our human wars put together.

So maybe it is correct for most of us to hate insects. However, for a few of us, we just have to admire the insects. After all, they were here before us and just might be here long after we're gone!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox