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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What if insects played basketball?

March Madness! To gardeners such a malady might mean a last perusal of a seed catalog. To college sports fans, though, the term definitely means that the journey to the NCAA Final Four is underway. This is all part of the hype associated with a tournament to determine a national champion in college basketball.

March Madness means that sports fans debate favorite teams. TV and radio commentators wax endlessly on team records, talent and physical well-being of players; location of venues; and the luck of the draw. Oddsmakers pour over reams of statistical data. Office pools are set up, and people painstakingly fill out bracket sheets that start with 68 teams and end with the national title game. By luck or strategy, those who correctly pick the championship team win bragging rights in the office or, in some cases, the pool's pot of cash. Madness indeed!

dung beetle
dung beetle

What if there was an insect version of the march to the Final Four? What would all the pundits have to say about that? For ball-handling skills, I think that dung beetles would be some of the best among the six-legged cagers. Dung beetles construct more-or-less round balls of mammal manure as food for their offspring. The beetles roll the dung balls around in search of an appropriate site to bury the balls. Dung beetles are also quite adept at stealing dung balls from other beetles, obviously a good defensive attribute for basketball players.

Speaking of defense, some insects are really good at defensive maneuvers. Take bees and wasps, for instance. These insects possess a stinger to defend themselves and their nests. In fact, it is the bees and wasps that clearly demonstrate what some sportscasters describe as a "swarming defense." Something easily understood by anyone who has ever disturbed a yellow jacket nest with a lawnmower. Maybe that is why Georgia Tech adopted the yellow jacket as the mascot for its athletic teams.

Leaping ability comes in quite handy for basketball players. Some insects use the ability to leap as a tool for avoiding predators. Grasshoppers and crickets can often be observed leaping around when disturbed. But the best of the insect leapers is no doubt the flea. These wingless ectoparasites cannot only leap many times their own height but in doing so will do a back flip in the air. For sure, such a maneuver on the part of a basketball player executing a slam dunk would bring the partisan faithful to their feet in uproarious applause.

bombardier beetle

Certainly the three-point shot is an important tool for a successful basketball team. The insects that seem most accomplished in this area are the bombardier beetles. Bombardier beetles are called that because they defend themselves against predators by firing a mixture of boiling hot chemicals from glands in their posterior. Some of these beetles can hit targets 8 inches away. Comparatively speaking, that is a three-point shot for an insect that size. In addition, the beetles are accurate shooters and only launch hot chemicals when there is a good chance of success. I'll bet some basketball coaches wished their players were as selective with their three-point attempts.

Quickness is another desirable characteristic in basketball players. In the insect world some of the quickest insects are cockroaches. Smaller species of cockroaches are especially able to zip around at high speeds. Cockroaches also have the ability to change directions rapidly, something that makes them seem faster than they might actually be. In truth, the fastest cockroaches can only run at about 6 miles per hour. Many humans can walk faster than that. But relative to body length cockroaches move fast.

Another desirable characteristic of basketball players is height and leg length. In the insect world the best example of a tall and long insect is a walking stick. Such stick insects get their name because they resemble sticks. These insects also have long legs - they are the seven-footers of the insect world!

So now that March Madness is in full swing, what would be the make up of an insect team likely to make the Final Four? First, I would want a quick point guard; a cockroach would do the job nicely. Bring in a bombardier beetle as the shooting guard. I want a walking stick as the center. For power forward, a grasshopper with great leaping ability to shore up our rebounding. For the other forward, let's have the dung beetle - a player that isn't afraid to get dirty and that can take care of the ball. I would like to have a defensive specialist, such as a yellow jacket, to come off the bench. Sounds like a bunch of bugs that would be hard to beat!


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox