NOVEMBER
2008

 

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?

 

 

 

11-13-08

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

Bad Insects Used as Symbols by Humans


As a general rule, humans and insects don't get along very well. Research on the matter shows that human attitudes regarding insects range from hate 'em to love 'em.

On the extreme hate end of the scale, 5 percent of humans are phobic about insects. These folks suffer from a disease called entomophobia and are terrified when encountering insects or, in some cases, imagining that insects are living on or in them. When this is the case, the person suffers from a condition called delusory parasitosis.

An additional 15 percent of the human population expresses fear when they encounter an insect. This happens even if the insect poses no threat to the person. Another 60 percent of humankind falls into a category described as apprehensive. These people are somewhat nervous around insects. So, as they say in TV ads, 8 in 10 people surveyed don't like insects. Not a ringing endorsement for these six-legged creatures.

For the rest of the population, 15 percent claim to be indifferent to insects. These folks really don't have a strong opinion about insects one-way or the other. That leaves 5 percent of the human population unaccounted for, and they are folks who enjoy insects.

So when it comes to approval ratings, insects rank right down there with unpopular presidents and Congresses!

There are good reasons for humans not to like insects. These small animals compete with us for resources, destroy our possessions, and annoy, bite and sting us. But resourceful people have been inspired to take advantage of the nasty nature of some insects in order to help achieve human goals.

Historically, political leaders have on occasion adopted animal symbols to depict their leadership. King Richard I of England became known as “Richard The Lion-Hearted” because of his courage in battle. Sometimes insects fill the bill for such a symbol.

During the first dynasty (about 3100 B.C.), King Menes selected the Oriental hornet as the symbol for his reign. As anyone who has ever messed with the Oriental hornet, or any hornet for that matter, knows, these insects are fierce when provoked and can deliver nasty stings. But hornets are also hard working and social. Good characteristics, one is to presume, for a king.

King Menes' choice of an insect to be the symbol of his reign probably did not raise many eyebrows at the time. Insect symbolism was common in ancient Egypt. The scarab beetle was a symbol for the sun god, and images of this insect showed up in hieroglyphics. Other insects in hieroglyphics include honey bees, locusts and flies. Yes, even the much-despised house fly, was used as a symbol and represented impudence and courage.
 
Napoleon Bonaparte, self-crowned emperor of France and renowned military tactician, chose the honey bee as the symbol of his reign. The honey bee would appear to be an appropriate symbol for such a leader but might have been a bad omen. The honey bee worker, the one that stings, looses her stinger and dies after stinging. And Napoleon? Well, he lost what has become known as the Battle of Waterloo! In the words of country singer Stonewall Jackson in his 1959 song, “Little General Napoleon of France tried to conquer the world but lost his pants.”

Over the years, a few military strategists have used insects as weapons. Romans hurled wasp nests over stone walls, which protected their enemies. During the U.S. Civil War, the Confederacy accused the Union of introducing Harlequin bugs into the South to damage crops. During World War II, the Germans were accused of dropping boxes filled with Colorado potato beetles over England. Neither accusation has been proven.

The ability of an insect to instill fear in the human population has not been lost on those who select sports mascots for schools. The University of South Carolina – Sumter has the fire ant for a mascot. And, at Georgia Tech, a yellow jacket, appropriately named Buzz, represents the school as its mascot. Anyone who has ever been stung by a fire ant or a yellow jacket knows how appropriate these insects are for mascots.

So, it seems that in spite of the human disdain for insects in general, a bad insect can sometimes be good thing to have on your side. Especially if you are a king, a military strategist or on a sports team!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox