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 Can Be First-Class Teachers

Most people probably don't think of insects as teachers. But these six-legged creatures have been known to provide many of us a lesson or two. Take for instance, wasps, or other stinging insects for that matter. Insects sometimes use their stingers to defend themselves or their nests.

The first time a person gets stung by a bee, ant or wasp is what educators call a "teachable moment." For sure, such an event is a memorable one. In some educational circles, an event that causes the light bulb to go on is called an "aha" moment. Getting stung by an insect is definitely such an event. 

One of those moments apparently occurred in the life of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. In his poem "The Bumblebee," Riley says, "You better not fool with a Bumblebee! -- Ef you don't think they can sting -- you'll see!" Riley got stung because, ".I watched one climb clean 'way in a jimson-blossom, I did, one day, -- An I ist grabbed it..." Even without reading the poem, you know what happened!

Not all people are quick learners when it comes to stinging insects. Apparently, boys, for time immemorial, have not always heeded such lessons well. Even the ancient Greek poet Homer recognized the foolhardiness of young boys and described Patroculus at the head of the Myrmidons in this way. The warriors "pour out to battle like wrathful wasps teased and roused to action by irresponsible young boys."

I'll have to admit that ancient Greek boys don't have a stranglehold on such foolish behavior. I can remember my friends and I arming ourselves with tennis rackets in preparation for poking a stick into a bumblebee nest. The ensuing battle was always won by the stinging insects. The sound and the fury of the battle was exciting for a few fleeting moments. Because of this activity in my misspent youth, I have a deep appreciation of the truth in the old saying, "stirring up a hornet's nest."

Like the poet Riley, most of us probably learn negative things from our close encounters with insects. That apparently is true for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard as well. In her book "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," she writes, ".insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another."

From the positive side, it was wise old Solomon who commanded, "Go to the ant O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise." Solomon suggested that the bee was also a suitable teacher for humans and said, "Go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and what a noble work she produces."

Aesop combined the good and bad side of insects in the fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper." You know the story: The industry of the ant in stockpiling food in the summer trumped the live-for-the-moment, happy-go-lucky, fail-to-plan grasshopper, who froze to death during the winter. Another ant returns a favor and shows that one good turn deserves another. Aesop also included other insects in his fables. The small gnat is used to show that the smaller the mind, the greater the conceit. The bee wishes to have a tool to punish its neighbors but also acquires a curs, because if it uses the stinger, it will die. The moral is that if you wish bad things upon your neighbor, you will bring a curse upon yourself!

Even William Shakespeare recognized the value of insects as teachers. In one instance, he came right out and said that insects can teach us. We find these lines in "Henry V": ".honey bees; creatures that by a rule in nature teach the art of order to a peopled kingdom." What is the message that we mere mortals can learn from honey bees? It is that as a society, that, like the bees, we should be able to do more than one job at a time.

American poet Ogden Nash questioned the wisdom of using bees as a model for industry. Nash says that bees just appear to be working hard because they are smart enough to buzz while they work. But, hey, it pays to advertise!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox