Entomology?!? How did you ever decide to do that?
Many entomologists we know came to their trade early in life. Sometime during early childhood, they conceived an irrational fondness for insects. They brought things with exoskeleta home—much to the chagrin of their mothers. They made insect collections. They borrowed their mother’s nail polish remover to create “killing jars” to advance their collection. When they got to school, they wrote reports about insects and did science fair projects involving insects. It is only natural that when they got to college, they studied entomology and did their best to keep the discipline of entomology relevant in the next age.
When they reproduced, they gave their children the Latin names of the insects that they studied—if their spouse would permit it. It is almost as if becoming an entomologist wasn’t a choice. It was just part of their DNA from a very early age. Once bitten by the entomology bug, they never reconsidered. They knew what they are going to do for the rest of their lives.
I, Susan Fisher, do not belittle the choice to become an entomologist. After all, I am one—of sorts. But I most certainly did not come to it by the usual pathway referenced above. Until I got to graduate school, I can’t remember thinking about insects on anything but a superficial level. I had the usual appreciation for butterflies—both for their beauty and because of their capacity to morph from a dull looking caterpillar to a spectacularly beautiful adult. I occasionally rescued my younger sister from insect vermin she found particularly objectionable. Throughout life, I have found spiders to be creepy and, if nothing else, a good reason to keep a can of Raid nearby. But, other than that, arthropods had little appeal for me and certainly commanded no more of my attention than was absolutely necessary.
When I got to college, I chose to study botany both because I had had a particularly interesting segment on plants in a high school biology class and because I didn’t want to compete with pre-meds in biology courses. Yes, I was that lazy. Little did I know that we would all take the same chemistry, math, and physics classes so choosing botany was not a way to avoid interacting with pre-medical students. Oh well.
After receiving a B.S. in botany, I took an M.S. in biology. It was also during that time period that I encountered a very influential teacher, Dr. Robert Metcalf. I took several courses of which he taught all or a part and found each one to be intellectually stimulating, enriching and, in a word, fascinating. I was particularly intrigued by the emerging field of environmental toxicology which is a discipline that attempts to understand the fate and effects of toxic material such as pesticides in the environment. Dr. Metcalf was a world-renowned scholar in insecticide toxicology, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and was on the faculty of the University of Illinois from which I had received both my B.S. and M.S. degrees. I knew I wanted to study environmental toxicology in my Ph.D. program and I was also hoping to work with Dr. Metcalf as my adviser—if he would accept me. The problem was there were very few, if any, graduate programs in environmental toxicology at the time.
I finally summoned the courage to make an appointment to see Dr. Metcalf and inquire about becoming a graduate student. He was kind and incredibly gracious. He offered me a fellowship on the spot. And concerning the problem about there being no graduate programs in environmental toxicology at the time, he said: “No problem.” He told me that I could study for a Ph.D. in entomology and do research on insecticide toxicology as an entomologist. All of a sudden, I had a life plan.
Under Dr. Metcalf’s direction, I took a Ph.D. in entomology with a research emphasis in insecticide toxicology. Most of my classmates in the entomology program were devotees who had been keen to become entomologists since they were toddlers. My level of enthusiasm for insects could not rival that but over time, I did learn to be fascinated by insects. And that is a trajectory that I hope the typical reader of this book will follow.
My story is similar to the typical path of most entomologists: for as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by insects. I was approximately three years old when my mother and I were watching ants crawl around on the sidewalk one day. She said to me, “Megan, you really like bugs, don’t you?” I answered in the affirmative and my mother then told me that entomologists were scientists that studied insects. “Well,” I said as best as my three-year old tongue could manage, “I am going to be an entomologist when I grow up;” an answer I repeated to any adult who asked me about my career ambitions, much to their shock, surprise, and amusement.
Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, science classes were always among my favorites and any time we had a choice of project topics I would choose something related to insects. Although I was often teased or picked on for my love of insects, my mother was always there to encourage me to pursue my dreams and to never be shy away from a challenging question. When it was time to apply to colleges, I only considered schools where I could pursue an Entomology Major. That brought me to Ohio State as a freshman in 2004, and it was here that came to appreciate not only insects for the incredibly numerous, diverse, and ecologically important group of animals that they represent, but also how insect researchers have and continue to ask and answer some of the most important and interesting scientific questions. After all, while it might be unethical to chop the heads of two vertebrates oﬀ and glue them together, no one objected when Dr. Vincent Wigglesworth did so with two kissing bugs in 1936, and in doing so, made ground- breaking discoveries on insect growth and development.
It was also during my undergraduate career at Ohio State that I discovered my two other loves: research and teaching. I designed my own unique research project on termites my sophomore year, and learned firsthand about the challenges, pitfalls, and heart- break that are associated with research, but also the rewards that make it worth it. I was able to present the results of my undergraduate research project at regional and national scientific conferences and I eventually published my findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. During my senior year, I taught introductory biology courses for OSU’s Center for Life Sciences Education. While teaching about cell membranes and DNA replication I dis- covered that, for me, there is simply nothing better than being able to share my passion, enthusiasm, and interest in all things related to biology, and entomology in particular, with others.
Like Dr. Fisher, I also had the benefit of taking classes with a brilliant and immeasurably kind professor at my home institution, Dr. David Denlinger. He remains a world-renowned insect physiologist and has devoted his life to studying how insects are able to survive in stressful environments, from Ohio winters to the African savannas and even in the frozen dessert of Antarctica. After taking Dr. Denlinger’s Insect Physiology class, he offered me a graduate position in his laboratory, an oﬀer nearly impossible to refuse. Under his direction I earned my PhD, and confirmed that circadian clock genes (yes, the same genes that we have that regulate our sleep/wake and activity cycles) in mosquitoes allow these pesky critters to measure daylength and thereby appropriately prepare for their overwintering hibernation. After graduating from OSU in 2014, I had the pleasure of honing my teaching skills and developing new courses on insect biology for science and non-science majors at Kenyon College. And now, I am back at Ohio State as an Assistant Professor. Words cannot adequately express how truly blessed and incredibly fortunate I feel that I am able to pursue all three of my now life-long loves (insects, research, and teaching) right here at The Ohio State University where, in many ways, my scientific journey began.
Unlike Dr. Meuti, I came to entomology in a round-about way, similar to Dr. Fisher. However, like Dr. Meuti, I remember being fascinated by insects (and arthropods in general) from a very young age. During grade school recess, I used to play in the dirt and collect roly-polies (also known as pill bugs) in empty milk cartons. My mom was fine with it until the very prolific critters over-populated the milk carton and started taking over the laundry room. From then on, my “pets” could only stay temporarily and then had to be released back outside.
I maintained a general interest in science all through middle and high school, largely encouraged by some amazing teachers. When the time came, I made the decision to at- tend a liberal arts college, Anderson University, where I had a wonderful experience major- ing in biology and minoring in chemistry. My senior thesis was on herpetofauna (amphibians and reptiles), but I wasn’t set on continuing in that field—I was actually more interested in plants (a selling-point being that they don’t run away from you). At this point, I wasn’t even aware that entomology was an actual field of study.
Having spent most of my life anticipating the day when I could attend, and then graduate from, college I wasn’t sure what to do once I had achieved that goal. Fortunately, the opportunity arose to spend a year as an environmental education intern, where I first got a taste of how much I enjoy teaching. From then on, my new goal was to earn a Ph.D. and become a college professor. Still with an interest in plants, I earned my M.S. in Horticulture at Michigan State University. That led to a Ph.D. in Horticulture and Crop Science at Ohio State University, studying forest disturbance. By then I considered myself an ecologist, but was excited to take a post-doctoral appointment in the Department of Entomology. During that time I had the opportunity to teach a general entomology course. Talk about trial by fire—I spent the whole semester trying to stay one step ahead of the students, but I learned a ton and enjoyed it immensely.
Since then I have continued to both learn, and teach, as much as I can about insects. As the Academic Program Coordinator for the Entomology Department, I am able to do so on a regular basis, even to the point of maintaining a small assortment of live insects and other arthropods in my oﬃce for outreach and observation. I find that the more I learn about insects, the more excited I am, and the more I want to learn. I hope that you, the reader, will also find this to be true.
Why would I ever want or need to know anything about insects?
Why should a business person, art history major, nurse, or sociologist find insects fascinating? Let’s begin with the reality that there are more species of insects than of any other Class of animals. As a consequence, every human being interacts with insects—often on a daily basis. It is estimated by those erstwhile entomologists that you, at this moment, are no more than six feet away from some insect in the room where you are now sitting. That should get your attention. A second fun fact is that in addition to being numerous, insects occupy every conceivable environment imaginable. From the binding of books, to the surface film of bodies of water, to (regrettably) hair follicles and human skin, insects and their close relatives (i.e. other arthropods) have found a way to use virtually any niche as a place to call home. And this gives insect profound influence over human ecology in ways that are both positive and negative.
As a consequence of our communal living with insects, insects have been both a blessing and a scourge on human society for as long as our history has been chronicled. This book analyzes both the costs and benefits of living in a world with insects. Certainly, our earliest attempts to account for the impact of insects on humans are reflected in myths developed by diverse societies to explain the way the physical world works and to reflect upon the role of mankind in it. Sometimes these myths have been rendered into other media, e.g. song or dance. Furthermore, song and dance provide a window on human thinking, often with a moral to tell or a political point to be made. The famous song Blue Tail Fly (also known as Jimmie Crack Corn), for instance, is campground fodder for every kid but who among us, in our innocence, understood that allusion to “My Massa’s gone away” made this insect-themed piece a potent antislavery song? Insects in songs of social protest are well-represented, as are insects in classical music where the role of the insect can be onomatopoetic (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee) or metaphorical (e.g. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly). In addition to myths and stories, there are important pieces of indigenous art that help to explain the role of the insect in the physical world as well as the ability of those supposedly lowly insects to inspire the human imagination.
Insects appear regularly in divine texts, including the Bible, Torah, and Quran, as well as Buddhism and other major world religions. This begs questions such as why insects show up in divine texts, what is the rhetorical function of using an insect in these texts, and how our view of human behavior can be understood when using insects as a lens through which to view the world?
In addition to insects’ ability to inspire human creativity, insects bring many tangible benefits to mankind that include ecological services such as the pollination of plants. Although a wide variety of insects (and other animals) can assist in pollinating plants, this benefit is typically associated with honey bees. One of the reasons we have relatively cheap food in abundance in the United States is that we are well-endowed with honey bees upon whose labor we depend upon to grow dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables. Thus, in addition to being a force of nature, insects are a critical part of our economy as well.
Pollination services are important but another benefit insects bring to mankind is that insects are major recyclers of organic waste. Thanks to a variety of insects, dead plants and animals as well as dung and other organic delicacies are ingested, broken down, and the products returned to the environment in forms that are usable by other organisms. Without insects, we would literally be up to our eyeballs in organic waste—a prospect most of us would find quite disagreeable.
Insects themselves can also be a direct source of food for humans. Yes, you can eat them, and many modern societies do eat insects—by choice. It turns out that insects are nutritionally superior to things like cows and chickens, and insect tissue requires less in the way of resources to produce. Admittedly, there is a bit of a “yuck” factor attached to the idea of eating insects, but it is a psychological problem, not a nutritional one.
One of the little-known facts about insects is that over the course of several centuries, insects have been the source of some of our most important and profound scientific discoveries. From the Germ Theory of Disease to the Modern Synthesis in biology, insects have provided key pieces of information that led to the adoption of these theories as cornerstones of scientific thought. Without the information coming from work on insects, we might not have these pivotal theories, or their elucidation would have taken considerably longer. Either way, insects have been making positive contributions to scientific thought for centuries. In modern times, research on insects has yielded new ways to treat dreaded diseases such as glioma. Insects are also providing clues to scientists about how the mechanics of movement work and may lead to improvement in the treatment of orthopedic impairments. Research on fruit flies is also giving new hope in the treatment of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Of course, there are a lot of ways in which insects impact mankind negatively. When people express a dislike for insects, it is usually in recognition of one of several factors that range from the merely annoying to the deadly. First, insects can serve as vectors of human, animal, and plant diseases, all of which can be important to human beings. Surely, the bubonic plague or Black Death that swept across Europe starting in the 14th century, claiming half of the human population in its wake, stands out as a pivotal moment in the human relationship with the fleas that transmitted the disease. Not only was sorrow redefined, but humans were left to reconsider their relationship with the deity, the impotence of the medical community, and the fecklessness of the government as the plague coursed across large swaths of geography and through several centuries. The travail caused by insects, not surprisingly, showed up in literature, poetry, and art as mankind tried to understand the devastation.
Human history was also altered by insects in theaters of war. Were Napoleon’s imperialistic ambitions circumscribed by insects? An argument can be made that the plague in Syria, Yellow Fever in Haiti, and typhus in Russia were important forces in stemming these ambitions. Indeed, during times of war, insect-borne diseases have greatly aﬀected the direction of the conflict and determined who won. It was not necessarily the superior military force, but oftentimes, the army that could withstand the onslaught of insect-borne dis- eases of wartime which proved victorious.
Insect depredation of the food supply has been a source of consternation from ancient times to the present. The ways in which humans have dealt with insects as consumers of human foods have ranged from the creative to the comical. The angst caused by in- sect foraging is captured variously in divine texts, in art, in literature, and in song. Humans have clearly taken this aspect of human-insect interaction to heart and it serves as one of several lenses through which humans understand our relationship to insects. As the human population approaches eight billion, it also makes the study of insects a key element in understanding the issue of global food security.
Insects are often associated with death as an oﬀshoot of their recycling activities. They are also associated with pain as insects often defend themselves with bites or stings, which may be augmented by poisonous secretions that cause a toxic response. These factors make insects a thing to be feared and is not wholly irrational. Sometimes a cautious respect for insects is a logical adaptation. But, occasionally, a reasonable fear morphs into a much more severe reaction and reaches the level of entomophobia or, in some cases, delusionary parasitosis. For the aﬄicted, these conditions can be severely debilitating. On the other hand, there is a market for human fear of insects. Dozens of really bad insect fear films are a testament to the ability of fear of insects to drive cinematic markets.
The overall goal of this book is to acquaint the reader with the many ways that we humans interact with and sometimes depend upon insects. Some of those interactions will be familiar. Others will be surprising. But all are important to understanding why we loathe, fear, and are sometimes inspired by insects.
There are four major sections to the book. They are as follows:
- General Entomology: In the first section, the goal is to provide enough information about insect taxonomy, anatomy, physiology, and ecology so that the reader will be comfortable to allusions to these ideas as we progress through the book. For those who face the prospect of learning any biology, let alone insect biology, with trepidation: fear not. Working from the premise that “we’re not that diﬀerent,” all of these chapters are designed to compare insect processes to cognate processes in humans. Since most non-scientists have at least a basic grasp of the essentials in humans, experience shows that this is a fairly painless way of creating awareness of how insect systems work.
- Insects and Aesthetics: This section teaches that the importance of insects to mankind is revealed in the multiplicity of ways that humans have used insects to explain how the natural world works (primarily mythology, fables, and religion) and as sources of creative inspiration (art, music poetry, literature). Readers will be challenged to consider why insects assume these roles in human culture and what it reveals about human nature and psychology.
- Insects as Agents of Historical Change: This phrase is a euphemism for what would otherwise be termed “the many, many problems” caused by insects for humans. The reality is that insect depredation of food sources and insect borne diseases have caused devastation on a global scale throughout recorded history. The goal of this section is to learn how even so lowly an insect as the common rat flea can wreak havoc on an unimaginable scale. We ponder the resulting influences on the human psyche and whether such episodes could recur in modern times.
- Insects Working for Us: The goal of this section is encourage a holistic understanding of insects by teaching that, despite the difficulties that insects can cause, there are many instances in which insects provide demonstrable benefits to mankind. Several examples revolve around the ecological roles of insects (as a food source and as recyclers of organic debris). In addition, insect activities underlie powerful economic forces (e.g., as providers of pollination services, as the basis for therapeutic drugs, and as producers of valuable commodities such as silk and honey). Finally, research performed on and with insects has been pivotal in establishing the foundations of modern science (e.g., the Germ Theory of Disease and the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis).
It is our sincere hope that reading this book will challenge existing fears and prejudices in ways that expand how readers see the world. Even a little progress down that road will be a source of joy to the authors. It is now a big part of our life’s work as well as a source of fascination and delight. It is our greatest hope that some of you will also be bitten by the entomology “bug”, or at least develop a new appreciation and respect for the insects that impact our lives.