FEBRUARY
2008

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

02-14-2008

Valentine's Day Devotees Should Thank Insects

Who do we have to thank for the annual celebration known as Valentine's Day? No one knows for sure. Geoffrey Chaucer, in 1382, is credited with the first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love. In 1415, Charles, the Duke of Orleans, sent what is purported to be the first valentine. Because he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, the Duke couldn't celebrate the occasion with his wife, so he sent her a card.

"Hamlet," written in 1600 by William Shakespeare, includes a reference to Valentines. In the play, Ophelia laments: "Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day." Numerous early Christian martyrs were named Valentine, and two were honored on Feb. 14. So, in Western civilizations, that date has been designated Valentine's Day, a day when lovers express their feelings for each other by sending greeting cards and gifts.

Chaucer made reference to birds finding mates when associating love with Valentine's Day but, to my knowledge, no one has directly associated insects with this day. That, dear reader, might be a major oversight. You see, Valentine's Day celebrations would be entirely different without insects in this world. But before I enlighten you, the name "Valentine" is even connected to the study of insects.

Like those Christian martyrs before them, two historical entomologists were named Valentine. One, Frederick Valentine Melsheimer, is called by some the "Father of North American entomology." Melsheimer was a Lutheran clergyman when he wasn't pursuing his interest in insects; hence the Christian link to the name Valentine was appropriate. Charles Valentine Riley was one of the first federal entomologists. Riley generally was known as "CV," so it may be that he preferred not to flaunt the Valentine name. Or maybe he just didn't like having a name associated with incurable romantics.

So how do romantically inclined people express their feelings for each other on Valentine's Day? Cards. Only at Christmas do we send more cards. And gifts. I am not sure what type of gift is No. 1 on the Valentine wish list, but if comments of friends and advertisements are any indication, it is either flowers or candy.

And that is where insects come in. You see, big, showy flowers wouldn't exist if not for insects. Flowers are reproductive structures of plants and bright-colored flowers function to attract insects for pollination purposes. Without the insect-and-plant pollination connection, all flowers would be small, dull-colored structures. Some plants, such as the grasses, have flowers like that. These plants are either self-pollinated or depend on the wind to carry pollen. So, in the absence of insects in this world, there would be no beautiful flowers for the valentine bouquet.

But there are always chocolates. You know, sweets for your sweet valentine! Chocolate is made from the seeds of the tropical cacao tree. And the cacao seeds are produced when the cacao flower, like all flowers, is pollinated. Guess what? Insects are the cacao pollinators. The primary pollinator of cacao is a small fly called a "midge," although other insects are also thought to be involved. No insects means no cacao seeds, and no cacao seeds means no chocolate. And that means no chocolate hearts to give for a Valentine's Day gift.

No flowers, no chocolate. What is a last-minute shopper looking for a Valentine's Day gift to do? Well, there is always silky stuff. You know, some skimpy little item of lingerie or a pair of heart-adorned boxer shorts. Insects known as silkworms produce silk. So anything made of silk is not an option without insects.

Of course, there are other valentine gift options, How about jewelry, massages, candlelight romantic dinners for two or exotic cruises? Fine and dandy, but flowers, chocolates, and silk are still the essence of Valentine's Day for most of us. For this, we have the insects to thank!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox