OCTOBER
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?

 

 

 

10-12-06

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

All Hallows Eve is an Almost Insectless Celebration


Halloween is a traditional European celebration featuring all kinds of ghoulish creatures. A walk through almost any store in the weeks leading up to Oct. 31 provides ample proof in sights and sounds that the tradition flourishes today.

Halloween, or all-hallows eve, began as a Pagan response to a day set aside by the Catholic Church to honor all saints. This day, Nov. 1, was known as all-saints or all-hallows day.

Nov. 1 also just happened to be the beginning of the New Year in the Celtic calendar. During the last day of the old year, Oct. 31, the Celts believed that spirits of all who had died during the year roamed the earth in search of a new body in which to live. People of the time were rather hesitant to allow spirits of the dead to take over their bodies. So the habit of dressing up in grotesque costumes began as a way to ward off the body-seeking spirits.

All kinds of gruesome characters and frightening-looking creatures have managed to be included Halloween's ghastly gallery. There are ghosts, devils, werewolves, mangled and deformed humans, snakes and spiders. But no insects! To be sure, Halloween trick-or-treaters may include a few fairies with insect wings and a butterfly or two. But, as a general rule, insects are not among the creatures worthy of the gruesome nature of Halloween.

It is a bit surprising that insects don't play a more prominent role along with the witches, ghosts and goblins that have come to be part of the modern Halloween celebration. After all, those ancient Celts, who were the original celebrants of Halloween, also gave us the name for that infamous human pest, the bed bug. 

Bed bugs got their name because these insects have the habit of sneaking out from hiding places to feed on humans under cover of darkness. The Celts didn't see the insects that were biting them. So whatever it was that was biting became known as a "boog," the Celtic word for ghost or spirit. Eventually, the undercover biter was discovered and dubbed a "bed boog." That is the origin of the modern term bug, the scientific name for all insects classified as Hemiptera, including the bed bug.

The bed bug is an obvious insect candidate for inclusion among Halloween's scary array of miscreants but there are others: for instance, the burying beetle. This insect feeds on dead animals and is so named because it buries the animal on which it feeds. These beetles are also known as sexton beetles, after the caretaker of the church, who also had the job of grave digger. An occupation fitting for Halloween!

There is a moth called the "death's head." The name is based on a marking on the thorax that resembles a skull. The sinister nature of the name of this insect was such that it was included in Thomas Hood's poetic tale, "The Haunted House."

"The air was thick and in the upper gloom

The bat ­- or something in its shape ­- was winging,

And on the wall, as chilly as a tomb,

The Death's Head moth was clinging."

This moth also was featured in Thomas Harris' 1988 novel "Silence of the Lambs." The novel was made into a 1991 movie staring Jodie Foster. It was the pupa of the moth that played a role, but, it was the adult form, the moth with the skull markings, that was featured on posters.

Another insect that could add to the creepy nature of Halloween is the death-watch beetle. This insect is a wood-boring beetle that makes a tapping sound as it crawls around in tunnels of the wood it infests. The name "death watch" comes from the fact that the tapping sound was easily heard by people sitting around at a wake.

There are other insects that might also add to a Halloween celebration. How about the twice-stabbed ladybug? This black insect has a red spot on each wing cover. Or the dagger moth? Could it be that this moth wielded the weapon against the poor ladybug?

Maybe we should also consider the well-known female mosquito for a nominee for a Halloween insect. After all, the female mosquito must be a vampire. Why else would she take all that blood? And what could be more Halloween than that?

 

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox