MARCH
2006

 

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?

 

 

 

3-23-06

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

Insects and Spiders Not Immune to Urban Myths


The Internet has made it easy to communicate worldwide via e-mail with friends, relatives and business associates. Too easy, some might say. Especially as we daily encounter all kinds of unwanted stuff lurking in our e-mail "in" box. With such a system, it is easy to perpetuate what have become known as "urban myths."

Urban myths are the modern equivalent to folklore tales. In both instances, there are elements of truth in the story. Which, of course, makes them easier to believe. These are not wild, unbelievable tales. But, generally, the conclusion is tenuous at best. Both urban myths and items of folklore are passed on without any real thought as to the accuracy of the message.

Insects and spiders sometimes star in folklore and urban myths. Currently, the No. 1 urban myth, according to snopes.com, deals with Formosan termites. A widely circulated e-mail suggests that buying mulch from major home improvement stores will spread the Formosan termite. Not all so-called urban myths are untrue. Is this warning about termites fact or fiction?

At first glance, the basis for the myth is plausible. Many wood structures and trees were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans. As a result, wood was being hauled away from the hurricane-ravaged area. It is a fact that termites can be transported in solid hunks of wood. Sounds like it could happen.

The most common termites in the United States are termed "subterranean species," since they nest in the soil. Only sterile workers of this type of termite are found in wood, so even if some termites were transported they would be unable to establish a colony in a new area. Mark up a point for myth!

But this is an area where the Formosan termite is common, and queens of this species do live in wood. In fact, the Formosan termite was introduced into the United States in the wood structure of ships. As a matter of policy, scientists warned that wood should not be transported from New Orleans for fear of moving Formosan termites to new areas. So it could be true.

But we are talking mulch here, not solid wood. To be sure, mulch in piles or even spread on the ground can be infested with termites. But in order to establish a new colony of termites, you would need a queen and workers to care for her. This is very unlikely to happen in mulch in a plastic bag. Besides, wood from New Orleans wasn't being made into mulch. In this termite thing, the preponderance of the evidence comes down on the side of myth.

In recent years, other urban myths have included the "blush spider," which was found under toilet seats in specific restaurants, and had a very poisonous bite. Based on the hiding place of the spider, it is easy to guess where victims were bitten. No such spider, no such restaurants, no such bites! But the rumor spread rapidly.

Another widely circulated myth was one about licking envelopes and getting cockroach eggs into a cut in your mouth. The eggs would then hatch and the young cockroaches would develop in the wound. A similar version held that you could get cockroach eggs into your system by eating tacos. Yuk! But don't believe it because cockroaches don't develop in human flesh.

Other myths hold that maggots might be able to infest the human brain. While it is true that maggots of some flies have been known to attack human flesh, brain-eating maggots have yet to be found -- even if some rock music lyrics proclaim such! One insect actually has a name based on a bit of ancient folklore. Legend has it that this insect would sometimes crawl into your ears and, given the chance, would dine upon your brain. This insect is called an "earwig" and, to my knowledge, doesn't look for the opportunity to live up to its name. It is just folklore, an ancient urban myth. I'll take my chances with mulch from New Orleans, thank you very much!

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox