Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Insects Fabled The World Over

Almost everyone is familiar with Aesop's fables. One of the most well-known is titled "The Grasshopper and the Ant." It begins: "In the warmth of summer a grasshopper danced and sang in his favorite patch of grass. Crossing a path, he saw a little ant struggling to drag a huge grain of corn to her nest." The grasshopper concluded that the ant was really silly for working when it could be playing.

Of course, the cold winter came and the ant was feeding on the food stored during the summer. The grasshopper found himself cold and hungry, but his request for food from the industrious ant was met with a rather terse, and in today's society, uncaring reply. "I won't feed someone as foolish as you," said the ant. The moral of the story is to plan ahead.

While this fable involves two insects, other ancient fables involve one insect and some larger animal. In general, such fables including insects use the insect in one of two ways. The first focuses on the small size of the insects and is frequently concerned with deflating the self-importance of the minuscule. 

For example, a Babylonian fable describes an interaction between a gnat and an elephant. The gnat had settled on an elephant and inquired if it had been a burden to the large creature. The elephant replied that it was unaware of the presence of the gnat and added insult to injury by announcing that if the gnat left, its departure wouldn't be noticed either.

Another example summarized from the ancient literature by Sir Francis Bacon involves a fly. It seems the fly sat on the axle of a chariot wheel and concluded, "What a dust do I raise!"

On the other hand, some of the ancient fables emphasize that effective action and work are not related to size. In one example, a dove rescues an ant that is drowning and has the favor returned when the ant bites a bird hunter on the foot and prevents him from snaring the dove.

In an ancient Chinese fable, a similar idea is incorporated. In this case, a lion wanted to take a drink from a well that served as a home to mosquitoes. The mosquitoes didn't want the lion to drink from the well, an attitude that upset the king of beasts so much that he threatened to devour them. In the process, he fell in the well and died. One of the lessons is that power and strength are nothing, especially in the absence of wisdom.

In another example of the triumph of the small over the great, we find the story of the eagle and the dung beetle. As the ancient story goes, the beetles were destroying the eggs of the eagle because the eagle had been destroying hares. Ultimately the eagle made a nest in the lap of Zeus for protection. However, the dung beetle throws dung in the lap of Zeus, who jumps up to brush it off and, in the process, breaks the eggs of the eagle. Final score: dung beetle 1, eagle 0.

Even the ancient fable writers recognized that insects are animals that shouldn't be taken lightly. Now that's what I call smart!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann