Archive for January, 2009

National Post: The Insect Files

??-??-2009
The Insect Files
National Post

[Original article here]

It was altogether appropriate that Professor May R. Berenbaum of the University of Illinois inspired a character on The X-Files, the 1990s TV series about FBI agents who tried, week after week, to uncover the truth that the U. S. government was hiding about flying saucers and similar mysteries.

As a distinguished entomologist, Berenbaum takes great pleasure from her research into many corners of the insect world. But she’s clearly just as enthralled by what happens to the human imagination when it confronts creepy, crawly creatures. She helps run, at her university in Champaign, Ill., the Insect Fear Film Festival, focusing on movies about threats to humanity from beetles and spiders grotesquely overgrown through cosmic radiation.

In 1996, she became a surprised participant in fictionalized etymology when Agent Fox Mulder, in an X-Files episode, investigated a series of deaths caused by cockroaches. Mulder speculated that the killer bugs were outfitted with steel exoskeletons before being sent earthward from some distant planet. The scriptwriter borrowed cockroach data from Berenbaum’s books and, as a tribute, gave the name Bambi Berenbaum to the entomologist consulted by the FBI.

Some professors would find this offensive but Berenbaum was delighted. When an interviewer mentioned that long-ago TV show during a recent Scientific American podcast, Berenbaum said it did wonders for the image of entomologists. Usually they’re stereotyped as nerds with Coke-bottle glasses ( “which I happen to wear”) but the actress who played Bambi was gorgeous enough to excite students with the possibility of careers in entomology. “She was a total babe,” Berenbaum said. Hearing that, I decided May R. Berenbaum is my favourite entomologist.

Her chatty and highly readable new book, The Earwig’s Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends (Harvard University Press), unites her scholarship with her interest in the fantasies insects inspire in humans. It’s a modern equivalent of the bestiaries that excited medieval readers with accounts of the world’s animals, among which the authors frequently included unicorns and mermaids. Berenbaum also includes many an unfounded myth but crisply refutes delusions with scientific truth.

The earwig in the book’s title is named for its alleged habit of crawling into human ears and laying eggs that drive the hosts insane. Somehow the idea took hold, long ago, that the best place to look for an earwig is in someone’s ear. But Berenbaum says that a survey of research over 10 centuries yields exactly one case of ear invasion by an earwig.

She traces the story to Pliny the Elder, a Roman scientist who lived two millennia ago and believed, among other things, that caterpillars originate from dew on radish leaves.

Our belief in the ability of cockroaches to survive catastrophe appears to be equally groundless. Someone, at some point, remarked that if there’s a nuclear war, cockroaches would be the only survivors. That soon became folk wisdom but Berenbaum informs us that many other insects show greater resistance to radiation. She notes that advertising on the Internet suggests that the blood of the beetle called Spanish fly retains the reputation as an aphrodisiac that it acquired in the 17th century (one version is marketed as Kriptonite). It may indeed arouse sexual interest, but Berenbaum believes it’s likelier to produce a painful itch in those who use it, or perhaps kill them.

She writes about bees with great enthusiasm and wants her readers to know that with a brain one-millionth the size of a human’s, a bee conveys precise directions about the location and abundance of desirable flowers — by dancing! She’s among the scholars studying “colony collapse disorder,” the rapid decline of bees in recent years. But on this occasion she takes up the myth

that bees, by flying, defy the principles of aerodynamics.

I remember from childhood the appearance of that notion on a classroom wall poster. It said scientists had determined that, given their weight and wingspan, it’s scientifically impossible for bees to fly. “But, blissfully unaware of science’s judgment, the bee flies anyway.” The scientist who came up with that nonsense neglected to consider that a bee has flexible wings, unlike an aircraft, and flaps them 200 times a second. Berenbaum notes with some sadness that it was an entomologist, otherwise deservedly obscure, who wrote in 1934 that “I have arrived at the conclusion … that their flight is impossible.”

Ever since, the idea has been firmly embedded in the popular imagination. To this moment it’s used on self-help sites for inspiration and on anti-science sites to demonstrate that scientists don’t know everything.

The one fact everyone can recite about insects is that the praying mantis, during mating, kills and eats her mate. The story was first told in 1886, in a Science Magazine article by Leland Ossian Howard, an entomologist, who brought a male of the Mantis carolina to a friend who had been keeping a solitary female as a pet. When they were placed in the same jar the female began biting off bits of the male, finally devouring its head. Throughout their brief relationship the male tried desperately to achieve sexual union and finally carried it off.

Eleven years later a writer named Jean Henri Fabre elaborated the story poetically: “If the poor fellow is loved by his lady as the vivifier of her ovaries, he is also loved as a piece of highly flavoured game.”

Fabre claimed he saw the same female use up seven males. This was a great moment in the history of metaphor. My guess is that it has often provided a nice scientific touch in otherwise arid arguments between men and women. Certainly it enriches fiction, particularly screenplays. And why not? As Berenbaum says, “How many other metaphors evoke sex, murder, decapitation and cannibalism?” She doesn’t condemn it as false but points out that while there are 2,000 or so species of mantis, this bizarre sexual performance has been reported among only a few of them. Moreover, it’s seldom observed in nature: It could be something that happens mainly among nervous and underfed animals in labs, where scientists may not be aware of the minimum daily nutrients their mantids require.

Still, the metaphor retains an element of scientific truth. Berenbaum can’t deny that female praying mantises have been known to eat their mates. But she wants us to know that they don’t do it often.

robert.fulford@utoronto.ca