Thursday, April 19, 2018

Myths, Misconceptions and Insect Lore

by Jean Godawa

In the early years of my career, when I visited nature and gardening groups or was invited to a classroom of eager six-year-olds, I was curious to hear the stories and background knowledge that people had about insects. Sometimes the stories were stated with such conviction that I had to go home and check through my textbooks to make sure I wasn't missing some obscure fact.

I did not enjoy telling a sweet child that the number of spots on a ladybug doesn't indicate its age or that earwigs don't crawl into your ear and nibble on your brain. When it comes to insects, I feel that knowing the straight-up facts makes people less afraid of them.

Myths and misconceptions about insects abound. Insect lore has a long historical tradition that is usually based on the predictive abilities, dangerous potential or valuable qualities of these fascinating creatures.

A common legend says that if a woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) with wide black bands crosses your path in the fall, it will be a long, harsh winter, especially if it is crawling in a southerly direction, trying to escape the northern cold. Narrower black bands, apparently, predict a mild winter.

As tempting as it would be to believe a simple caterpillar over complicated meteorological tools, sadly, the black bands on a woolly bear caterpillar have nothing to do with the upcoming winter. This caterpillar moults several times before it pupates and becomes the adult Isabella tiger moth. With each of the caterpillar's moults, the black bands get shorter.

There is, however, an insect that truly does have a bit of weather expertise. It may not be able to predict upcoming weather but it can tell you the temperature. If you count the number of chirps of the snowy tree cricket (Oecanthus fultoni) in a 13 second period, then add 40, you will get the approximate temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

Long before we were measuring the outside temperature with cricket chirps, people looked to insects for other inspirations.

The ancient Egyptians had a particular affinity for a creature whose behaviour many of us would find repulsive. The scarab beetle rolls up balls of dung to bury and lay its eggs inside. Rather than seeing this as something disgusting, the Egyptians saw it as a symbol of the sun rolling across the sky. Since the young hatched from the dung ball, they interpreted it as a young sun god being reborn every morning. This god, Khepri, was often depicted as a man with a scarab beetle for a head.

Cricket cage of coconut shell and ivory from the Qing dynasty (Smithsonian Institution)

They may not be soft and cuddly like puppies or kittens but some insects are treasured pets. Valued by some Asian cultures for their melodious and calming chirp, crickets have been collected in cages for hundreds of years. Elaborately carved bone or wood cages have been found dating back as early as 960 A.D.

Another insect, cicadas, were also revered in Chinese culture as a symbol of rebirth and immortality. While too loud to keep indoors, they were sometimes kept in cages that hung from the eaves of the house or in tree branches nearby.

This attraction to insects is very much alive today. Bug markets in Shanghai and Beijing have become popular tourist stops where thousands of crickets along with some very decorative cages are sold. Many of these insects are used for sport rather than their soothing sounds, as cricket fighting has continued to be a popular pastime.

Thanks to a lazy grasshopper, I learned early that it was important to prepare for tomorrow. Many of us remember Aesop's story of the grasshopper who spent the summer singing and dancing while he watched the ants collecting food for the winter. When winter came, the grasshopper, near death, begged the ants for help, which they refused to give. Aesop was harsh!

Whether founded in observation or superstition, stories and beliefs about insects are just as common today as they were in antiquity.

I have been told many times that having a ladybug land on you is considered to be good luck. While not one for superstitions, I have to agree. Ladybugs eat plant pests which is definitely good luck for gardeners.

Post written by Jean Godawa

Jean is a science teacher and writer. She has been writing science-related articles for print and online publications for more than ten years. Jean holds a degree in biology and environmental science with a focus on entomology from the University of Toronto. She has also conducted field research in the tropical rainforests of Asia and South America.

Many thanks to Ken Sproule and Joseph Berger for allowing us to use their photographs in this post.

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  1. I loved this fun and informative post. It's fascinating about the snowy tree cricket and telling temperature. The insect might be able to help us forecast this erratic weather we've been having!

  2. I have no idea what kind of crickets are in my yard but I know when their chirping slows down, the temps are going down too.

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  3. Absolutely true Mama Celoni! Because all crickets have less energy to expend when temperatures drop, their chirping slows down. The snowy tree cricket isn't the only one but it is the best indicator of temperature because its chirps are easier to count.

  4. thoroughly enjoyed this delightful post

  5. It was so much fun reading this!
    Thank you, Jennifer, Jean, Ken, and Joseph.

  6. I adore learning about insect lore and truth!


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