Insect lore and legend
Text and photographs Marlies Craig
For me personally, the diversity of insects is a wonderful expression of the creativity of the Creator: the vast and seemingly unnecessary variety, the sheer ingenuity, the visual beauty that has no discernible purpose or evolutionary advantage. ‘It must have’ some would say. Maybe.
I appreciate the evolutionary process, but don’t think everything can be so easily labelled as ‘blind, random chance’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ or even ‘runaway selection’. It is much easier to believe that a divine artist had a lot of fun.
Either way, there is something divine about insects.
The scarab was the symbol of Khepri, the ancient Egyptian god of rebirth and the rising sun. Like the beetle rolls a ball of dung, from which a new beetle will hatch in time, Khepri was thought to roll the sun across the sky, where it hatched anew every morning.
The copper dung beetle belongs to the genus Kheper after the god. This male has collected a ball of faeces. The female will lay an egg inside, then the ball gets buried: baby food for the grub.
The hieroglyph symbol of the scarab appears in King Tutankhamun’s forename: Nebkheperure.
Inset: a scarab ring from his treasure.
There is definitely something divine about insects, both in their benefits, and their deadly powers.
A plague of Biblical proportions
Three religions tell the story of how Moses led the people of Israel out of Egyptian slavery, after God visited upon their oppressors a series of plagues. There is every reason to believe that the events are historical, and that the plagues have solid, scientific explanations. There are several theories regarding the details, but insects feature strongly.
Aside from locusts (plague #8), which are wreaking havoc in that part of the world even as we speak (as mentioned in my previous article), plagues #3 and #4 involved flies and some kind of small swarming insects, variously translated as lice, fleas, gnats or weevils.
Flies could have caused the livestock pestilence (plague #5). The other insect could have caused the boils (plague #6). One dermatologist believes this ‘other’ insect to be a rove beetle of the genus Paederus, that could have feasted on the frog corpses (remains of plaque #2), and whose body fluids contain a nasty toxin ‘pederin’. Crushing the beetle on the skin causes painful burns and blisters – not immediately, but up to a few days later.
The tsetse fly transmits animal sleeping sickness.
This is a local Paederus beetle (photographed in Paradise Valley). They are scavengers and breed in damp conditions.
After their escape from Egypt, the Israelites roamed the desert for forty years, eating a daily diet of quail and manna. Some people believe that the manna was the honeydew of scale insects. It was described as “…flakes like frost on the ground… white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey… when the sun grew hot, it melted away…”
It would be hard to deduce exactly which scale insects this could have been, but several wax insects even here in Durban could fit the bill.
This little wax scale, the size, shape and colour of a coriander seed, grew on my basil bush.
I actually tried eating these wax scale insects, clinging to a tree in Kloof gorge. They were marble-sized, had the consistency of firm sticky popcorn and tasted sweetish with a slight minty aroma. Not bad.
You may think me strange, tasting these insects. But we who prefer not to eat insects are in the global minority. Not only that, but I can practically guarantee that you yourself, dear reader, have eaten scale insects many times, gladly paying for the pleasure, though probably not aware of it. You’ll find out… but first, let’s go back to religion.
Scale insects feature in a holy book of another world religion. The sacred Hindu Mahabharata, an ancient epic tale, features an entire house made of flammable lac and oils. The ‘house of lac’ is burnt down by an enemy, but the family flee to safety.
Lac, or shellac, is a produced by lac scale insects. Shellac is a resin that has been used by humankind for thousands of years. It was, and still is, used as varnish on wood, as sealing wax, in hair sprays, and – since it is perfectly edible – in food glazes. For example on shiny chocolate-coated raisins.
In the early 1900’s, before vinyl was invented, music records were made of shellac.
Dye dye dye
The colours carmine and crimson also come from scale insects, from Dactylopius (cochineal) and Kermes scale respectively. 150 000 individual animals go into making one kilogram of pigment. In the Middle Ages carmine and crimson were used to dye royal banners, the red robes of Roman cardinals, British Redcoats and Hungarian Hussars. Michelangelo and other classical painters used carmine for their art.
Cochineal scale insects grow on prickly pears. As so many other scale insects, they get visited and shepherded by ants, the sweet honeydew is a delicacy.
Individuals are hidden in blobs of stringy, sticky white wax. Squashing them reveals the deep purplish red carmine dye, and hundreds of tiny eggs.
But don’t imagine that carmine is a thing of the past. If you are a fashionable lady in 2022, you are probably putting carmine on your lips; if you have a baby, you are probably feeding these insects to your child; if you have a sweet tooth, you are probably eating them yourself quite regularly.
The red pigment and food ingredient called E120, is a ‘natural’, ‘non-chemical’, ‘organic’ scale insect extract that gets used in baby food, red lipstick, yogurt, fruit juices, puddings and sweets, or just about anywhere. Carmine is a major global trade product, worth millions.
Even 100% pure, carmine looks gorgeous. Bush lipstick!
But let’s go back to the story of Israel.
A land of milk and honey
Once their sojourns in the wilderness were over, the people of Israel entered the promised land of milk and honey. They had fled from Rameses, whose name means ‘The justice of Ra’, Ra being the sun god. In Egyptian mythology, bees grew from the tears of Ra when they fell in the desert sand. The Israelites exchanged the sting and tears of Ra, for the land of sweet freedom.
In ancient Egypt hives were ferried around, like beekeepers still do today. In wild beehives the food and brood cells are mingled. Over time, beekeepers figured out how to separate them: the egg-laying queen bee is cordoned off in one part of the hive, by a divide that has gaps just big enough for the workers to slip through, but too small for the larger royal.
In this wild honeycomb (which we sadly had to remove from a hollow tree, following complaints from our neighbour) some cells contain honey (yellow), others contain larvae (white), and some have fully-grown bees about to emerge (black).
Bee larvae in various stages of development.
Myths about bees abound in the ancient world. Here are just a few:
- The San Bushmen of the Kalahari believed that humans grew from a seed planted by a bee inside a mantis.
- The Baganda of Uganda believed that Nambi, the daughter of Ggulu who lived in heaven, took on the form of a bee to help the first man pass one final challenge, before he could claim her as his wife.
- In ancient Hittite mythology, a bee helped snap the god of agriculture out of a nasty temper.
- In Hindu mythology, the demon Arunasura was vanquished with the help of bees.
- In Aegean culture the bee was believed to be the bridge between the natural world and the underworld.
- In Minoan mythology, the daughters of Melisseus, god of honey and bees, fed the baby Zeus with milk and honey.
Bees (Apis mellifera) are truly divine creatures, miraculously making a most delicious, sweet, fragrant substance with healing powers, that never spoils, stored in beautiful geometrical combs of wax (which itself has countless uses).
Honeybees have special pollen baskets on their hind legs: a polished cavity into which they comb and compress foraged pollen. This ‘bee bread’, also called ambrosia after the food of the gods, mixed with a bit of nectar or honey, is the main food for the colony.
Throughout history, honey has been used not only as food and sweetener, but as a food preservative, as medicine and disinfectant on wounds, as currency for paying dowries, taxes and extracting tribute from conquered nations. It was liquid gold in the ancient world, and contributes over US$8 billion to the global economy today.
See also the article on bees in this edition by Helena Vogelzang.
Insects’ role in politics and world economy takes on other forms:
Slick silk secrets
The ancient Greek name for China was Seres, or ‘land of silk’. Though the term ‘silk road’ was not used until the late 1800s, the trade routes that mark its paths, go back several centuries B.C. and carried a wide range of merchandise of economic and political importance, including paper, gun-powder, metals, spices, tools, language, culture, philosophy and knowledge.
…and of course silk. According to Chinese legend, a cocoon fell into the teenage Empress Lei Zu’s tea cup. When it started unravelling into a long thread, she decided to weave with it. One long string led to another, and so she became the goddess of silk. Sericulture remained a carefully guarded secret for ages. Apparently the city of Huzhou celebrate her to this day during the Qingming Festival.
The luxurious shimmer of silk is produced by the triangular, prismatic structure of the silk fibre, which refracts light at different angles. The right to wear silk was at first reserved for the emperor and the highest dignitaries.
Silk is a fibrous protein produced by many different arthropods, including spiders, caddisfly larvae, bark lice, webspinners, wasps, and more. Though various moth species are used to make so-called ‘wild silk’, including in Africa and Madagascar, 99% of silk today comes from the silk moth (Bombyx mori). Silk moths were domesticated about 5500 years ago, long enough that they have lost the ability to fly. They would not survive in the wild.
Saturniid moths, or emperor moths, are also called giant silk moths. This spectacular White-ringed Atlas Moth was spotted at Cape Vidal.
In West Africa, the Anaphe moth is used for sericulture. Its larvae spin communal silk nests.
Here thousands of caterpillars have covered an entire tree in silk. Imagine how many silk scarves you could make from this!
A million myths
While searching around the Internet on insects in mythology, I started feeling like Alice in Wonderland, straying deeper and deeper into this fascinating subject.
An article on Insects in Art and Religion: the American Southwest lists example after example of how the indigenous people of America viewed the insects they met every day, their beliefs about “moth madness”, the instructor-helper “big fly”, the “humpback flute player” – a cicada in human form.
A beautifully camouflaged cicada. The Navajo creation legend starts with a world peopled by 12 kinds of insects. Cicadas are sent to scout ahead, as the first insect people spread to one new world after another, until the gods finally decide to make humans.
The Haudenosaunee tribe of North America tell a story of two giant bloodsucking monster mosquitoes, the size of trees, who lurked along a river and terrorized passers-by. When at last they were destroyed in a bloody battle, swarms of small bloodsucking mosquitoes spawned from their blood to avenge the death of their giant ancestors.
An Algonquin story tells of how the industrious bees nearly face obliteration, because their hives are constantly looted by other animals. When Wakonda, the Strong Spirit, endows them with stinging weapons to defend themselves, the wasps and bumblebees, as the bees’ cousins, want some too. Though they did not earn it, everyone is in such good spirits that they get what they want.
Another article lists more myths and legends involving insects, such as the Cochiti myth that has an Eleodes beetle in charge of placing stars in the sky, but who drops them in carelessness, forming the Milky Way, or a Cherokee myth about how a water beetle dove down into a lower world and brought up mud from which our world formed.
A local predaceous water beetle, a.k.a. Dâyuni′sĭ, “Beaver’s Grandchild,” who made the world we live in, according to Cherokee myth.
African insect lore
In a West African myth, a wicked farmer accidentally kills a rain-making dwarf. His punishment: to carry forever around on his head an enchanted box containing the dwarf’s corpse. However, the farmer tricks an ant into holding the heavy burden, while he ‘goes shopping’. Ever since then you can see ants running around with burdens that are surely too big for them.
The Sotho idiom “to poke at bees” means to provoke a dangerous person – i.e. rather don’t. “To tie the lice” means your problems follow you wherever you go.
A human head louse, picked off my own head (infestation courtesy of my son’s primary school). Indeed, they follow you.
Consider the lowly ant
So we see how insect lore has accompanied us throughout human history, has been invoked from matters small and practical all the way to the origins of humankind and the very creation of the galaxy. Insects have caught our imagination, have held us spell-bound, have taught us lessons on spirituality, morality and common sense.
Indeed, while reading up on this subject, I stumbled across this fascinating article: “In the Ant’s School of Wisdom: A Holistic African-South African Reading of Proverbs 6:6-11”. By reading this for my personal morning devotion, I have been taught a stiff lesson on laziness and industry, and have been chastised for my habit of watching Netflix, instead of going to bed on time and rising early, to work tirelessly, like nemālâ, the ant.
Plectrotena mandibularis is a local ant that can grow over 2cm long pictured here next to a toy car for fun. These ants live in small colonies of around 50 individuals, forage alone and feed on millipedes. Its common name is ‘ringbum millipede muncher’.
Let’s end with a local legend, about none other than Shaka, King of the Zulu. It is said that when his mother Nandi fell pregnant, his father Senzangakhona denied it (they were not yet married), and claimed she was only suffering from an intestinal condition caused by the ishaka beetle. On https://isizulu.net/ ishaka is translated as gripes, stomach-ache or illegitimate pregnancy. And we all know what became of that little ‘beetle’!
About the author
Marlies Craig is an epidemiologist who used to research malaria, but now works for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though she did originally study Biology and Entomology, her love affair with insects is very personal. In her book What Insect Are You? – Entomology for Everyone, she shares that passion with young and old, see whatinsectareyou.com. She hopes to kindle in people of all ages enthusiasm and a deeper appreciation of nature and show them why and how they can make a difference. She recently started a non-profit organisation called EASTER Action focussing on education and action in biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable living, see EASTERaction.org.