A Crash Course in Human Insect History
by Deidra Wirakusumah, Workshop Designer and Webinar Instructor
By this point in our blog posts, you have probably realized that we, humans, have extensive relationships with our insect allies. Insects teach us things about the environment, they inspire us to rethink our future, and they shine a light on our relationships with each other and with our own bodies. None of this is actually new. As mentioned, many insects have remained practically unchanged for millions of years, when scores of other species died out. Human-insect interactions have existed for as long as Homo sapiens have been on Earth. So let’s cover some of the significant historic relationships between insects and Us…
Yummy in My Tummy
You’ve heard it before, and we’ll say it again, one of the biggest roles insects play in our environment is as sources of food for different organisms. Before our ancestors began to grow their own food and practice other forms of agriculture 10,000 years ago, they had to rely on hunting and gathering. For a long time, our ancestors lived in fear of not just those carnivores that may eat them, but any large animal that was strong enough to hurt them. All it would take would be one strong kick from a hind-leg or the peck of a beak. Insects on the other hand, provided a much more reliable and safer way for us to include protein into our diet. Consider for a moment, that grubs buried in the dirt are a much easier meal than a deer you will need to track, hunt, and overpower. Further, protein, and the amino acids they provide, are integral to the development of brain function. In other words, studies suggest it is a diet based on insects that helped our ancestors become smarter! How’s that for brain food?
Grubs hidden in the soil, a tasty, and safe meal for our ancestors.
Faith, Religion, Mythology, Folklore
In a previous blog post, we mentioned the Ancient Egyptian God Khepri, God of the rising sun who had the body of a man and head of a scarab beetle. Insects consistently show up as characters in mythology, folklore, and religion throughout human history. They are often used as symbols of transformation due to their ability to metamorphosize.
Another Ancient Egyptian myth involves the birth of honeybees from the tears of the sun god Ra. Hindu mythology saw bees as assistants to humans, helping to maintain balance and harmony with nature. Japanese stories often use butterflies as symbols of the human soul. An Ancient Arabic story tells of how praying mantis will point you towards Mecca, while Ancient Greeks saw them as “oracles” that could see into the future.
These stories are countless, and shed light on how closely our predecessors saw, and valued, our relationship to these amazing creatures.
Insects show up all the time in historic artifacts. Can you spot the insects depicted in this photo?
Ally or Foe?
Many different positive relationships between insects and humans have been highlighted in these recent posts. But there are so many different types of insects, and not all of these relationships with humans are positive. Do you know what the most dangerous animal in the world is to humans? Other humans, but do you know what is next on the list? Mosquitos. To be fair, “mosquitos” covers a wide group of species, most of which do not drink our blood. And even within those species, it is only the female mosquitoes that need to drink blood as it helps with the development of her babies. Species such as the Aedes egypti and the Asian tiger mosquito are responsible for transmitting diseases such as malaria, Zika, dengue that kill thousands of people every year.
As you may have heard, in recent months there have been massive swarms of locusts affecting part of East Africa, and into Pakistan, Yemen, and India. On top of the current COVID-19 pandemic, fears of widespread famine affecting these regions are more than warranted, and are even beginning to come true. To say that insects and humans have only ever helped each other, would skim over the fact that many people die every year due to some insect species.
With that said, both of these examples affect an increasing amount of people due to the cumulative effects of climate change. Just another reason to become a sustainability hero!
Did You Know?
What is the difference between locusts and grasshoppers?
Grasshoppers are solitary, and have wings that allow them to only fly short distances. By comparison, locusts tend to form large groups that feed together, and their wings allow them to fly long distances. These two are closely related, and in fact, the term “locust” does not describe a species of insect. Grasshoppers will develop into locusts during specific environmental conditions, generally during a drought, when food is more scarce. Locusts will swarm and fly together in search of food, landing only where they see patches of green. It is this behavior that makes them such a threat to crops. It should be noted however, that occurrences of locusts increase with these periods of drought, which in turn occur more frequently due to climate change.
Insects in the News
A new species of wētā has been discovered in Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand. This and its sister species have been named after sisters in Greek Mythology: Taygete, Merope, Celaeno, and Sterope. Check out the article here to learn more!
Want to Learn More? Check Out Our Sources:
Yummy in My Tummy:
Faith, Religion, Mythology, Folklore:
Ally or Foe?