Thursday, March 14, 2024

Spooders and Noodles

Recently, I asked my friends on a social media platform to express their opinions on the trend of anthropomorphism as applied to traditionally uncharismatic fauna such as spiders (“spooders”) and snakes (“noodles”). The topic received over one hundred comments, with few people commenting more than once. The responses were all over the map, including some uncharted places in my own mind when I decided to ask the question. Here is my loose appraisal of the landscape.

"Spooder," more properly known as the jumping spider Phidippus putnami

Overall, one’s personal stance on anthropomorphism and use of “cutesy names” fell into three broad camps:

  • Acceptable, if not totally embraceable.
  • At least tolerable, with qualifications.
  • Utterly contemptible.

Those who held a view that anthropomorphism is acceptable seemed to be people who connect to animals in an emotional way, pet owners, and empathetic individuals who may have only a casual interest in wildlife.

The view that anthropomorphism is at least tolerable, but with defined caveats, was most frequently evident in people whom I know to be science communicators. Sci-comm professionals (and amateurs for that matter) deal with both the scientific community and the general public, serving as a diplomatic bridge between the two.

The individuals who responded negatively to the idea of anthropomorphism were overwhelmingly professional scientists, though it is even more telling that few of my scientist friends bothered responding at all.

A colorful "noodle" (milksnake)

Many comments in the thread sparked by my post were highly specific, and we would do well to visit these viewpoints to illuminate the future direction of sci-comm, and improve relations between the scientific community and the general public.

  • Several responses indicated that endearing or comical names for creatures that most of the population considers scary or repulsive were fine, provided that those epithets painted the animal in a positive light. For instance, “noodle” is fine for a snake, but “danger noodle” or “nope rope” was not ok. Those names suggest that the organism warrants disrespect, if not lethal dispatching.
  • Some respondents on the phobia end of the spectrum have found that assigning a name to an individual spider or other creature inhabiting their home, yard, or garden, made the creature less frightening. It is harder to kill, or even hate, “Fred” or “Bertha” than a nameless arachnid.
  • At least one respondent indicated that cutesy names were for plush toys, not the real, living creature. This is interesting, if only because “Lucas the Spider,” an animated plush character created by Joshua Slice, became incredibly popular for a time, between 2017 and 2021. There was a total of thirty-two episodes on YouTube, in fact. Lucas remains a great ambassador for jumping spiders, at least.
  • Several people expressed reservations about the unintended consequences of anthropomorphism, such as turning some species into villains (“nope rope” again), or drawing too much focus to one species while neglecting others (the “Panda Effect?”).
  • A number of people strayed slightly off topic and expressed dismay at the use of the term “bug” for all insects. This included may well-educated non-entomologists who appear to have adopted a stricter scientific view.
  • Turning the “stranger” into the “familiar” seems to be at the heart of many anthropomorphic tendencies.
  • Names that spread disinformation were resoundingly condemned. “Skeeter eater” for harmless crane flies that do not eat anything, let alone mosquitoes, was one example. Using “babies” to indicate small (or “smol”) adult insects is another deal-breaker for those who know otherwise.
  • The most objectionable result of anthropomorphism occurs when emotional attachment or assignment results in irresponsible behavior. An example might be taking an animal out of the wild because it appears to be abandoned by its parent, herd, or flock. You truly can love an animal to death.
  • Giving a pet name to an individual animal, or to a species or category risks devaluing other life forms. This even carries over into human social interaction in the workplace and other settings.
  • On the other hand, assigning a pet name can translate to improved care of, and reverence for, that individual or species.
  • Extra-cute names like “spooder” inappropriately infantilize organisms. It reinforces existing tendencies to find the most human-like faces in baby animals as the most deserving of positive sentiment, leaving all others out in the proverbial cold.
  • The use of novel names may not be the same thing as anthropomorphism. It represents the evolution of language, especially in the digital age. Introverts, the neurodivergent, and others who lacked the anonymous outlet of the internet in previous generations, are now able to contribute a new perspective. That should not be threatening to those of us who grew up with “rules” of grammar and spelling. Accepting these changes is the healthier path for both human society and the other species we share the planet with.
  • Ideally, acceptance and appreciation of other species should not hinge on the introduction of an endearing moniker, but if it helps change attitudes, then what is the harm? There has been, and continues to be, too much of a kill-it-now, ask-questions-later attitude among the general public.
  • Taking a hard line against affectionate expressions risks alienating entire generations of currently young people who could otherwise be the most effective influencers for positive behaviors and views related to the rest of the animal kingdom. You appear elitist, sitting in your academic ivory tower, trying to preserve your privilege and power, demanding that everyone relate to other species on your (scientific) terms, literally and figuratively.
  • ”Anthropomorphism is generally more helpful than Anthropocentrism. I think it’s better to project our understanding of our own existence onto creatures than to treat them like they’re inanimate objects. Our perspectives will always be biased and imperfect through our own eyes, even through a scientific lens.”
  • Use of cute names and anthropomorphism should be done judiciously by science communicators and scientists. Much depends on the audience and the setting. Students in a classroom are expected to be taught, and to learn, proper terminology. With a casual audience, it might be more helpful to achieve connection through the language those people are using, instead of immediately imposing scientific convention. The intent should always be to advance appreciation and understanding.
  • ”I didn’t chastise/degrade/make fun of my coworker who named her yard-Argiope “Big Booty Bertha.” I loved it! She went from a wreck-the-vehicle kinda person (over spiders) to nicknaming one in her yard. I’ll take it as a huge win….I fully believe your audience may need some anthropomorphism to begin the journey of gaining helpful knowledge.”
  • ”From a conservation….perspective, it gets people ‘in the door,’ so to speak….In regards to jumping spiders, it’s amazing how many people have gone from ‘kill it with fire’ to ‘Aww, jumpy boi!’ just in the last few years. Even if this generation doesn’t become entomologists or arachnologists, their children will be more inclined to due to the change in perceptions.”
  • ”I also make the animals relatable (ex: describing a wolf spider with young on her back as a hard-working momma who has several hundred mouths to feed). Treading lightly, you can connect with audiences on even the most hated creatures.”
  • ”I am in support of using them playfully, but prefer that it’s kept to banter and meme pages and to raise awareness and create a good image.”
  • ”Danger noodle” can be an opportunity for a teachable moment, especially if someone in the audience uses the term.
  • ”As the reptile and invertebrate [pet] hobby becomes more mainstream, this [trend in novel names and anthropomorphism] will also become more mainstream.”
  • ”We fear what we don’t understand. If giving an animal a name that appropriately promotes curiosity or endearment happens, great. Then we’re a step closer to being able to educate about the animal’s behavior, benefits, perspective. If that name promotes more fear, revulsion, or misunderstandings, then we’re doing it all wrong.”
  • "I guess in the end, for me, it’s a matter of adapting my filter to my intended audience. As others have also mentioned here, I see the intent, and value, in using ‘cute’ names when attempting, for example, to help a friend reconcile their distaste for certain critters. I also, in these circumstances, offer educational and fun/trivial facts to blend the informal with the formal….And if calling a spider a ‘spood’ helps initially disarm them, which in turn results in their being a more receptive audience for additional information, that’s a win.”
  • ”I refer to the colony of great golden digger wasps [in my yard] as the ‘Golden Girls.’…Anything to make them less scary to people.”
  • ”In my educational communication I like to mix some of the newer cutesy vernacular with descriptive terms, common names, and scientific names – often all in the same piece. My goal….is to provide a point of connection for a diverse audience, sure, but also to enhance storytelling.”
  • I think our fear of anthropomorphizing creatures stems from our anthropocentrism….We are such a strange species in our great interest in setting ourselves apart from (and above) other species, and I think we do our planet a disservice each time we do so.”
  • ”Anthropomorphism has been a part of Indigenous cultures for centuries and builds respect and understanding for all living things, establishing animals as family members or revered elders.”

Hard-working wolf spider momma

The one thing that does strike me, that was not overtly acknowledged, is the impact of novel language and anthropomorphism on interactions between people. One respondent used the term “pedestrian audience.” I know what they meant, but my first thought was that this was condescending and not helpful. We are never going to get anywhere in advancing scientific literacy if we invalidate the standing of others, reduce them to an amorphous, dismissible group, or ignore their personal experiences.

Shoot, we have to be honest with ourselves, and where we are at, where we are coming from. It might not be pretty, and that is ok. My own affinity for “unlovable” animals definitely stemmed initially from feelings of disconnection from my peers as an elementary school student. Our first priority as scientific communicators, maybe communicators in general, should probably be to listen to people who are not like us, to assert that our conversations are in a safe space, and that their experiential reality is valid.

Your comments are welcome here. Whether I reply to them or not often depends on the temperament of my browser in allowing me to do so. That said, understand that I try to approve comments in a timely manner, rarely censor any but spam advertising and profanity, and recognize and appreciate your importance in advancing the dialogue.

Friday, March 1, 2024

How We Can Stop Hating Wasps

Recent studies have shown that wasps are among the most loathed of all insects. Consequently, much time and money is wasted on trying to eradicate them, especially by homeowners. Let’s consider why we have the attitudes we do, and how we can achieve coexistence with wasps.

A trio of Western Yellowjakcet workers dispatches a pest caterpillar.

Why do we hate wasps?

There are three main reasons wasps evoke fear and loathing.

  • The sting. Females of some species can inflict painful stings on us tender humans. This is occasionally for self-defense, but mostly in defense of a nest full of immobile and otherwise vulnerable eggs, larvae, and pupae inside a nest. Only social wasps will bother us this way.
  • Narrow definition of “wasp.” Most people equate the word “wasp” with “hornet,” “yellowjacket,” or “paper wasp.” All of these are social wasps, the ones most abundant in urban and suburban settings, and by far the ones we have the most negative encounters with. Some people recognize other kinds of wasps, particularly mud daubers, but consider their nests unsightly, a nuisance, or a potential threat. In reality, the overwhelming majority of wasps are solitary, like mud daubers, each female making her own nest, or using a host animal or plant in situ. Most wasps cannot sting people. Many cannot sting at all. Most are tiny, only ten millimeters or less in length.
  • Social wasps exploit our habits and weaknesses. Yellowjackets (including the Bald-faced “Hornet,” and paper wasps make their nests in and around our homes and buildings. This is because our architecture mimics the cliff faces, rock overhangs, and natural hollows where they nest “in the wild.” A few yellowjacket species are scavengers, and your barbecue or picnic resembles an abandoned animal carcass that can be exploited. The wasps take protein matter back to the nest to feed their growing larval siblings. Meanwhile, your open soda or beer container offers sugary carbohydrates the adult wasps need to fuel their flight muscles. We like to think we are masters of our domain, or at least our private property, and wasps defy that desire with maddening efficiency.

Most wasps, like this "fairyfly," are tiny, solitary, and don't sting people.

Benefits of Tolerating Wasps

Positive outcomes from tolerating wasps, or even accommodating them, far outweigh any perceived benefits of eradication or control, excepting rare cases where you or another family member has hypersensitivity to insect venom, and there is demonstrable risk of a life-threatening incident.

  • Saving money on products or services. This point is seldom made when arguing against the use of DIY pest control products, or the employment of professional pest control services, but it can be of profound financial consideration. Prevention is easier and more effective. More on that in a moment.
  • Wasps are a pest control service. Most social wasps, even those that scavenge occasionally, are predatory on insects that are problematic in our yards, gardens, barns, and sheds. Solitary wasps are parasitoids of even more species that can be truly pestiferous. Among the hosts for wasps are caterpillars that eat garden plants, aphids that suck plant sap, flies that can potentially spread bacteria, cockroaches both outdoors and indoors, and spiders. There is scarcely any terrestrial arthropod that is not host to at least one wasp species.
  • Wasps are pollinators. Technically, most wasps are “flower visitors,” coming to blossoms for nectar to fuel their flight muscles. They still effect pollination services, and there are some species in western North America that are obligate pollinators of certain wildflowers.
  • Wasps dispose of animal carcasses. Those scavenging yellowjackets make quick work of the remains of small animal carcasses that vultures and other vertebrate scavengers ignore or cannot find. This prevents the accumulation of decaying animal matter, lessens risks to human health from problematic bacteria, and prevents explosions of filth flies that would otherwise use those dead animal resources.
  • Wasps are a source of fascination and intrigue. Wasps can be easily and safely observed as they go about their activities of host-seeking, flower-visiting, and nest-making. You will be surprised by how many wasp species are living in obscurity in your yard and garden. Watching them will reveal amazing relationships with many other organisms.

Paper wasp nests can be safely observed and offer hours of fascination.

How do we get along?

We can prevent most negative encounters with wasps by taking a few precautions. It will literally save you physical pain and financial discomfort.

  • Learn wasp body language. Paper wasps, the ones that make uncovered paper combs under eaves, in door and window frames, and elsewhere, are usually amicable neighbors. If you do approach a nest too closely, one or more wasps will stand on tiptoe and flare their wings. This means “back off.” You risk being stung if you ignore that warning.
  • Inspect your yard regularly. Too often, underground yellowjacket nests, or those above ground, hidden in shrubs or rock walls, are not discovered until the lawnmower runs over one, or the hedge trimmer triggers an attack. Inspect your property thoroughly, including playground equipment, before using tools, or otherwise causing any strong vibration in the vicinity of a social wasp nest. It may take a little patience and keen observation to note the streams of wasps coming and going regularly from a specific location. Your kids may see them before you do.
  • Serve beverages outdoors in clear glass or plastic.
  • Unattended beverages that are sweet or fermented will attract yellowjackets and other wasps that may crawl inside the container. Cans and opaque bottles mean that you will not notice a wasp inside. A sting to the tongue or throat can be a life-threatening experience regardless of whether you are allergic to stings.
  • Cover food served outdoors. When not serving yourself or others, cover meats and sweets at the outdoor gathering. You can also set out a small, exposed plate of meat a good distance away from the serving table, to draw yellowjackets away.
  • Seal cracks and crevices. To prevent wasps from nesting indoors, or seeking shelter in the winter, seal cracks and crevices. Mend holes in, or replace, window screens. Screen the attic vent with fine mesh. Replace worn weatherstripping around doors. This will help save on heating and cooling costs, too.
  • Learn to recognize solitary wasps. Many wasps that are solitary may behave as if they are social. A large number of wasps flying low over your lawn are likely male wasps looking for females that have yet to emerge from the ground. An ominous gathering of iridescent blue mud daubers in a door frame at dusk means that males are bedding down for the night in a large group. Male wasps do not sting. Cicada killers are huge wasps, but solitary. Females may nest close together, making them appear social. Males keep watch over them and may fly “aggressively” to chase away any and all intruders. It is all bluff.

More information about wasps can be found in this blog, in my book Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect, and elsewhere. Online, the most reliable sources remain college, university, and museum websites with a “.edu” or “.org” suffix in the URL. Thank you in advance for sharing a link to this post in social media, neighborhood groups, and other outlets.

A solitary thread-waisted wasp with a caterpillar she stung into paralysis. It will be food for her single larval offspring at the bottom of an underground burrow.

Sources: Schmack, Juila M., Monika Egerer, Susan Karlebowski, Astrid E. Neumann, and Ulrike Sturm. 2024. “Overlooked and misunderstood: how urban community gardeners perceive social wasps and their ecosystem functions,” Journal of Insect Conservation.