Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Insects Creep and Crawl into News Headlines

Insects are sometimes newsmakers. These six-legged creatures even grab the headlines on occasion. But, as is the case for news in general, it's the bad things about insects that garner media time.

We read about the number of pools of mosquitoes that are infected with the virus that causes West Nile disease in humans and horses. (Remember to pack the mosquito repellent when headed out for an evening picnic.)

Pictures and video footage of masses of desert locusts in Africa, the destroyed crops and potentially starving people left in their wake, buzz the media. It reminds us that modern technology can't eliminate a scourge of biblical times.

Print headlines herald the discovery of some new exotic pest insect, such as the emerald ash borer, which has managed to sneak into the United States. This invasive species is just the latest in a long line of insect pests, including the Japanese beetle and gypsy moth, which are not natives to these shores.

And who can forget the stories about Africanized honey bees, dubbed "killer bees" by the media. A made-for-TV tale if one ever such existed! But, hey, the movie industry had been using that story line for eons in making horror films. Now the real thing is headed our way -- reality program material at its best.

To be sure, an occasional story about insects that are not considered problems creeps into the media. Feel-good stories about butterflies flutter by on occasion. But even a favorite butterfly, the monarch, garners the most ink when pesticides or habitat destruction have caused its population to decrease.

It is not surprising that tabloid journalists have occasionally turned to insects as fodder for their grocery-store-rack headlines. The widely held human hate for insects is a natural for shock effect. For instance, the producers of the reality show "Fear Factor" have been quick to use insects to gross out participants and viewers alike.

The tabloid writers have not, in my opinion, always stuck to the truth as they tout stories that feature fantastic insect tales. In 1991, Weekly World News reported that an insect specialist was electrocuted by a swarm of African lightning bugs that escaped from a laboratory.

Here's the deal, according to Weekly World News. The victim, Felix Gonzalez, had imported the insects from Ghana and was breeding them in his laboratory in Managua, Nicaragua. The insects have a 600-volt sting, are extremely aggressive and can flatten a grown man with a single sting. More than 200,000 of the insects were released and, when Gonzalez tried to lure them back into the laboratory, they became agitated and stung him numerous times. More than 200 times, according to a source in the article, who explained that the bugs die when they discharge; more than 200 were found near the body of the victim.

The body was so badly scorched that dental records were needed to identify the victim. The swarm was reported to be moving north at 50 miles per week, and nothing could stop it, said helpless scientists. Any part of this story seem a bit far-fetched to you? Just imagine! I grew up thinking all lightning bugs were neat little light producers that were fun to catch on a warm summer evening.

In 1996, Weekly World News published the frightening picture NASA didn't want the world to see. What was it? A photo of life on Mars, that's what. Found in a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite, the alien was not a one-celled organism, but a "bug-like" creature. Indeed, the photo, obtained by David Connert, who was described as a respected molecular biologist, shows the head of a mosquito. I knew it. Mosquitoes are on Mars, just waiting for us to land!

Then, there was the photo of a man who had captured, actually shot, a very large insect. The photo showed the hunter beside the specimen. The insect was as big as the man and looked like a monarch butterfly to me. The magazine offered a $10,000 reward for anyone who could produce a larger insect. I called and tried to determine the guidelines for the contest. After 12 calls, each which resulted in the promise that someone would get back to me, I gave up. I'm no quitter, but insects bigger than humans are very hard to find!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox