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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Do Insects Have Personalities?

In 1924 Dickson and Eddy published a book entitled "Personality of Insects." The delightful book is designed, according to the authors, to present insects to a public that generally lacks knowledge of these creatures.

The book is about the interesting lives of insects. How they make music and produce perfumes and light. It compares insect activities to human professions such as agriculturalists, engineers, aviators and miners. Governance is a topic. But personality, as an attribute of individuals, is not addressed in the book.

To be sure, certain groups of insects, like certain groups of humans, tend to behave in more or less predictable ways. According to the authors, those groups have personalities. But stereotyping insects is as dangerous as stereotyping humans. In insects and in humans, there are exceptions to the rule.

For example, most people would say that bees sting. It is true that many bees do sting. But not all. A few species of bees don't sting because they can't. These are appropriately called stingless bees. There are some species of bees that can sting, but they don't sting humans.

Even within species of bees that sting, not all individuals are able to do so. It is a sex thing. Male bees called drones can't sting. And for a very good reason.  Male bees don't have stingers. That's because bee stingers are modified egg-laying devices called ovipositors, which are part of the anatomy of a female bee. When it comes to stinging, male bees just don't have what it takes!

So Dickson and Eddy in their insect book would be inclined to conclude that the personality of bees is surly.  Right down to their menacing buzz. On the other hand, butterflies are delicate and fragile insects that leisurely fly over field and meadow in search of sips of nectar. That is a warm and fuzzy personality for sure.

The real question is, "Do individual insects have distinct personalities compared to others of their species?" Anyone who has been around animals other than insects knows that individual animals do have personalities. Dog owners know that every dog is not cut out to be a lap dog -- or a guard dog. Cat fanciers also recognize the differences in personalities from animal to animal. That is why individuals might consider cloning a favorite pet in order to have an animal with the same personality.

Apparently the same thing is true of insects. For instance, we are all aware of the well- publicized difference in stinging behavior between Africanized and other lines of honey bees. Bee keepers have always known that different hives of honey bees had different personalities when it came to stinging behavior. Some hives are just meaner than other hives and are more easily disturbed. My old bee-keeping neighbor would always warn about making sure to cover up when working a particular hive because in his words they were mean SOBs.

People who keep insects or other arthropods as pets have also come to recognize differences in personalities in individual animals. Tarantulas vary widely in how gentle they are and how easily they can be handled. Over the years, kids who have made pets of praying mantids have also recognized that individual mantids behave differently. Some mantids seem to actually enjoy being handled by humans, or at least tolerate it, while others are always trying to escape.

The same is true of the Madagascar hissing cockroaches that some folks keep as pets. Some Madagascar cockroaches will always produce the namesake hissing sound when handled. Others seem to be less likely to put on such a show. The difference is probably that of type A and type B personality. I'm just guessing. I don't know of any way to accurately assess the personality of a cockroach. Some would say, "Who cares?"



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox