Sunday, May 3, 2020

What the Insects Have Taught Me

A scientific education teaches you not to be anthropomorphic: Do not assign human emotions and sentiments and purposefulness to non-human animals. Be dispassionate in your observations, take phenomena at face value. This is a tactic for eliminating bias, and is useful in proper documentation, but it can rob you of a more fulfilling experience of the natural world. Thankfully, there is room for both a distant and intimate approach, perhaps no better exemplified than by the work of The Bug Chicks. I can certainly appreciate the lessons the world of insects, spiders, and other arthropods have already taught me.

A female dance fly, Rhamphomyia longicauda, from Wisconsin

Beauty has infinite definitions. An organism that is “ugly” to one person is a magnificent example of adaptation to another human. Whether you believe in evolution or creationism, you should have reverence and respect for all of nature. Sure, there are animals I do not particularly like, but I recognize the importance of their roles. Most of my biases have been created by the media anyway, which is not the animal’s fault.

A female Eastern Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus, guarding her eggs in Kansas

Indeed, diversity is the very essence of life, the soul of the planet. It is the very foundation of ecosystems and biospheres. If you begin to undermine that, believe that our species can successfully “manage” nature without all the requisite parts, then you are on a slippery slope guaranteed to end in cataclysmic tragedy at some tipping point you did not see coming.

We are more rigid in our human ideologies than invertebrates are inflexible in their instincts.

Metamorphosis can be a metaphor, but a lot can go wrong. It can take longer than expected. It may require a period of diapause, emphasis on “pause.” Our personal evolution comes only through learning, expansion of our comfort zones, shedding of destructive habits, agreeing to the assumption of risk, and recognizing our personal responsibilities. Unlike insects, which undergo a segregated set of life stages, we frequently revert to old behaviors that we should have outgrown, or we fail to advance at all. We have to forgive ourselves, and each other, in those events. There is no arrival, no final destination that defines individual human success.

A tattered male Four-spotted Skimmer, Libellula quadrimaculata, in Wisconsin

Handicaps are not the same as limitations. A grasshopper’s missing leg barely slows it down. Tattered wings do not ground a butterfly. Resilience, persistence, and an indefatigable relentlessness is the character of most insects. We can learn a great deal from such examples, use them as inspiration for our own recovery from physical or emotional trauma.

Perhaps the most revealing and disappointing conclusion I have reached is this: We are more rigid in our human ideologies than invertebrates are inflexible in their instincts. There is no such thing as a dumb insect. Their ability to solve novel problems and bend their innate programming never ceases to amaze me. They make up for any perceived intellectual deficits through sharper use of their senses and reflexes. Meanwhile, we cling to outdated, self-limiting, negative, hateful, and oppressive social constructs that prevent positive growth in our societies and civilizations. In many ways, we are more “primitive” than those animals without backbones.

The small can triumph over the bully.

We have only to change our minds to accommodate challenges and overcome obstacles. Other animals cannot adapt as quickly because they are designed for specific niches and habitats, confined to certain foods, and/or otherwise limited by their physical bodies. Yes, evolution happens, but at a slower rate than our brains (should) work. This is why protecting biodiversity is so critical. Rapid change is something Homo sapiens can adapt to, but not every other species.

Deer fly, Chrysops sp. biting me in Wisconsin

We are exceptional at creating non-existent enemies we call “pests.” With the possible exception of lice and bed bugs, there is no such thing as a pest. It is a term we assign to any other species we perceive as a competitor for “our” resources. We must start recognizing resources as entities that are shared with other species, and alter our approach to their extraction, growth, use, and/or disposal. Nature always pairs scale with complexity. Vast habitats are complex. Monocultural agriculture is not. Tree farms are not the same as forests.

The most heartening lesson insects can teach us is that the small can triumph over the bully. You need only look at all of our failed efforts to eradicate mosquitoes, locusts, and other insects for inspiration in your own fight for justice, equality, and human rights. Our so-called minority populations, the underprivileged, the underserved, underemployed, and undervalued sectors of humanity will get their due. The sooner that happens, the better for all of us. The economy is just another ecosystem, built on diversity, that functions only when currency flows like energy to all its living parts.


  1. "Resilience, persistence, and an indefatigable relentlessness ..." Sounds like a good motto for these times.


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