Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







The Insect Version of TV Quiz show "What's My Line?"

One popular type of TV program, the game show, features common people in physical activity or factual knowledge contests. Such shows began as radio programs. One early successful radio example called “Information Please” premiered in 1938. In the show people on the street tried to answer questions in order to win a prize.

With Groucho Marx as the host, “You Bet Your Life” began on radio in 1947. The show moved to TV in 1950 where it ran for ten years. In the show a pair of guests worked together to answer questions. Guests would bet money from an amount given to them by the show and a correct answer would earn that amount. The money was surrendered for incorrect answers.

In 1950 the show “What’s My Line?” was introduced and in 1952 “I’ve Got A Secret” began a successful run.  Both shows ended in 1967 and both survived the quiz show scandal of 1958 when the big-money factual knowledge show “The $64,000 Question” turned out to be fixed. Afterwards, in order to reduce the stigma associated with quiz shows, the term game show began to be used.

“What’s My Line?” and “I’ve Got A Secret” didn’t have money at stake and featured celebrity panels that tried to determine the job or the secret of the guest. Like today’s reality shows the viewing audience watched common people in the limelight for a few minutes.

Both shows would make good titles for reality TV programs about insects. On “What’s My Line?” the topic was human occupations.  In society a person’s job is probably second only to their name as a way to identify an individual. The same is true of insects, at least in the eyes of humans.

Most people ask two questions when they see an insect. The first is “What is it?” Just like with humans the first thing we want to know is a name. In this case the answer might be a beetle, or a common name such as Japanese beetle, or a scientific name like Popillia japonica.

The second question is many times “ What does it do?” This question is a veiled way to determine if the insect is a pest or not. What the person really wants to know is whether the insect will bite, sting or destroy things. To most people there are two kinds of insects, those that are pests and those that are not. Dividing insects into pest and non-pests would be similar to looking at humans as either criminals or law-abiding citizens. Either grouping is clearly by human definition and neither is very informative.

A better way to look at insects would be to consider the roles that they play in ecology. One such classification is according to the type of food consumed. In such a scheme living organisms are grouped into four categories. Organisms in the first group produce their own food.  These are plants.  All animals fall into one of three other groups. The first animal group feeds on living plants. These animals are called primary consumers. The second group of animals feeds on other living animals. They are called secondary consumers. The third group of animals feeds on dead stuff. They are part of nature’s recycling crew.

In addition to traditional groups based on food consumed, insects also play two other ecological roles. One such role is plant pollination. Insects, primarily bees, pollinate many plants. The final role is that insects become food for many other animals and even a few insect-eating plants.

So the insect version of “What’s My Line?” would be based on specific ecological roles not on an occupation. Dung beetles would be recyclers specializing in mammal manure.  Organ-pipe mud daubers would be secondary consumers that feed on spiders. And cabbage butterflies would be plant feeders or primary consumers. After all insects don’t have jobs but they do have to eat and what they consume speaks volumes about how they live.


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox