Nature’s Vampires

We all know about blood sucking bats, but did you know that of all the many types of bats, only three actually drink blood?  Technically this is know as haematology, the practice of feeding on blood.  And blood is actually a great food source – it’s rich in proteins and lipids, is very nutritious and, so long as you don’t over do it on one individual, you’ve got yourself an unlimited cow to milk as it were.

Mosquitoes are another well known vampire, with the females needing to drink blood in order to make eggs.  It’s also common knowledge that they are responsible for the spread of malaria but what you might not know is that they, or other blood sucking flies, have been spreading it for 100 million years.  Mosquitoes can also transmit sleeping sickness, typhus, river blindness and other diseases making them one of the deadliest animals in the world.  In 2015, malaria alone caused 438,000 deaths and cases of dengue have increased rapidly over the last 30 years.

 

As an aside, the mosquito is not therefore evil and nor should it be made extinct.  All animals fill niches in nature and have co-evolved to fulfil a purpose or role that isn’t always clear to us.  In this case, they provide food for birds, fish, frogs and so on and are also pollinators.

Also in the fly family, we find sand flies, bat flies, black flies and midges which all enjoy a drink of blood.  There are also fleas, bedbugs and ticks as well as so called “kissing bugs”, or Triatomine Bugs, which apparently get their name because they like to bite people’s faces…

We also have vampire moths who use their antenna to pierce the skin of their unlucky host and some types of butterflies are partial to a sip of blood.  They can’t inflict injuries themselves so it’s more a case of coming across some spilt blood and indulging.  Sticking with small critters, some worms and arthropods like blood, as do some nematodes, such as Ancylostomids which feed on blood from the gut.  And leeches are well known for their blood sucking behaviour and are utilised in medicine such as to prevent blood from clotting.

Living underwater doesn’t protect you from vampires… Torpedo snails like the blood of electric rays, making small cuts and then using their proboscis to draw blood from the wound.  If this doesn’t work, they will insert their proboscis into they ray’s mouth, gills or anus…

Another threat comes from the Lamprey; an eel like creature which seems perfectly designed for the blood sucking way of life…  They are basically a tube with teeth…  They don’t have a jaw, instead having a suction cup style mouth which contains circles of sinister teeth.  These teeth are stabbed into the fish and anti clotting chemicals are secreted.  This tends to result in the host dying, either from blood loss or infection, at which point the lamprey will detach and move on.

The Candiru is a parasitic cat fish that are best known for allegedly being able to travel up a stream of urine and into a man’s penis.  Regardless of whether that is true or not, these tiny fish do deserve a mighty reputation.  They enter the gills of larger fish to suck their blood and generally make their lives a misery.  Once full of blood, they leave and burrow into the river bed to digest their meal.

And finally birds… The Hood Mockingbird likes open wounds, such as those they may find on sea lions or researchers but don’t rely just on blood.  However, they do increase this behaviour during the dry season suggesting it may be motivated by the need for fluid or moisture.

Vampire finches are a bit more brutal, preferring to peck at other birds, specifically blue footed boobies, until they bleed.  The boobies don’t object as much as you might expect and it’s thought the finches might once have cleaned parasites from the birds and developed a taste for blood along the way.

Oxpeckers are another blood loving bird that eats ticks and insects as well as flesh and blood from wounds on large mammals.  Whether this is a mutually beneficial relationship or not seems to be a topic of debate.  The oxpeckers may be helping with tick removal and grooming of spots that the mammal may not be able to reach.  With regards to the blood consumption, it has been argued that it may help to keep wounds clean and prevent infection and infestation.

The practice of consuming blood has co-evolved in different species, suggesting there is an evolutionary advantage for some creatures to engage in it.  And when you stop to think about it, some humans also take part in haematology… Just think about black puddings…

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Insect Resources

How did we get to the end of may?!  That question aside, here are some of the things I’ve read or watched this month:

 

Cultural Insects

In literature and films, we find certain insects privileged over others.  We find a lot of butterflies but very few dung beetles and this is something that could be considered problematic with the word insect.  Any word which covers such a vast range of different creatures is going to be hard to generalise, for example it’s hard to gauge whether people like insects because whilst most people like ladybirds, very few like mosquitoes.  This means that unlike other themes I’ve looked at, its hard to draw many generalisations so instead I’m looking to examples.

Literature

Children’s books are a good place to find insects.  We have the cricket in Pinocchio, the iconic hungry caterpillar, the insects in James and the Giant Peach and the spider in Charlotte’s web (not an insect but for my purposes we’re lumping them together).  There are also illustrated versions of the old woman who swallowed a fly, but perhaps the author with the most number of anthropomorphised insects is Lewis Carroll with Alice in Wonderland and Alice in the Looking Glass.

““What kind of insect?” Alice inquired a little anxiously.  What she really wanted to know was, whether it could sting or not, but she thought this wouldn’t be quite a civil question to ask.”

Throughout her adventures, Alice finds herself on a train with a beetle, having difficult conversations with a caterpillar and in conversation with a chicken sized gnat, she learns that insects in her world and in the looking glass world are very different.  Horseflies have become rocking horseflies, dragonflies are now snapdragon flies and butterflies, most remarkably, are now bread-and-butter-flies who die if they can’t find the weak tea and cream they live on.  Bread-and-butter-flies have thin slices of bread and butter for wings, a crust for its body and a lump of sugar for it’s head.  The conversation with the gnat leads on to an interesting philosophical discussion about names:

“What sort of insects do you rejoice in, where you come from?” the Gnat inquired.
“I don’t rejoice in insects at all,” Alice explained, “because I’m rather afraid of them—at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.”
“Of course they answer to their names?” the Gnat remarked carelessly.
“I never knew them to do it.”
“What’s the use of their having names,” the Gnat said, “if they won’t answer to them?”
“No use to them,” said Alice; “but it’s useful to the people who name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?”

In a chapter that Carroll would chose to omit, Alice encounters a wasp wearing a yellow wig.

We also find insects in Charles Dickens’ The Cricket on the Hearth, in Aesop’s fables, in Shakespeare’s work and obviously, in Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka which features a character waking up to discover he’s become a cockroach.  Barbara Kingsolver, author of Flight Behaviour, has included insects in her novels, including monarch butterfly migrations:

“The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky.”

Poetry

Writing in the 700s, Chinese poet Du Fu wrote a poem that in the translation by J. P. Seaton begins “House cricket … Trifling thing. And yet how his mournful song moves us. Out in the grass his cry was a tremble, But now, he trills beneath our bed, to share his sorrow.”

In the 18th century, insects were used to write about human desires and sexuality, such as the flea in the poem of the same name by John Donne.  Here we have a flea which mingles blood from two bodies and thus provides a tidy metaphor for sex.  Robert Burns uses an insect in “To a Louse” in order to commentate on vanity and humility.

In The Fly by William Blake, we have a comparison of the insignificance of the fly to man and the insignificance of man to God.

Fireflies in the Garden, by Robert Frost

Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,

And here on earth come emulating flies,

That though they never equal stars in size,

(And they were never really stars at heart)

Achieve at times a very star-like start.

Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.

Apparently Robert Frost wrote 17 insect poems, I didn’t count them myself, ranging from butterflies to wasps.  Similarly, Emily Dickinson was no stranger to insects such as in “I heard a fly buzz”.

More contemporary poets also use insects in their writing.  Lafcadio Hearn observed, in 1901, that Japanese poets had created dragonfly haiku “almost as numerous as are the dragonflies themselves in the early autumn.” Other insects also feature heavily in haiku, possibly as they provide information about the time of the year and perhaps also because of the almost international language of symbolism they bring with them.

Insects in films

When aliens appear in films, they are often in the guise of insect like creatures.  Conversely, when insects appear in films, they are portrayed as alien-esque and bringing with them the threats we tend to associate with aliens – the risk of invasion for example.  Insects feature in science fiction where they are often human sized and this in turn makes their unfamiliar features all the more scary to us.

‘Something in the insect seems to be alien to the habits, morals, and psychology of this world, as if it had come from some other planet, more monstrous, more energetic, more insensate, more atrocious, more infernal than our own.’
—Maurice Maeterlinck

On the other hand, we have the humanised insects like Antz, A Bug’s Life and The Bee Movie which “hold up a mirror to our society by having as their central characters human-like [insects] who feel out of place in a community of conformists, where individuality is undervalued” (Robert Roggeveen).

Insects are also prevalent in superhero films such as spiderman and antman where characters take on behaviours of the insects in order to save the day.

Because of the sheer variety of insects, there is a vast mix of ways that insects are used and portrayed in cultures around the world.  Some are portrayed favourably and others as menaces but because insects inhabit almost every part of the globe, it is inevitable that they will sneak their way into art and literature for decades to come.

Further reading

 

Write your own insect myth

When I was researching insect mythology, I came across an interesting paper which used insect myths to “foster active learning” in undergraduate courses.  It outlines a course approach which begins with discussing what a myth is then the students are asked to read a variety of insect myths from a range of sources.  As we’ve already seen, it is often possible to group these in terms of themes such as creation or explanations for behaviours.  A working definition of a myth is then provided.

Working definition of a myth*
A myth: is a story that explains or relates the origin of a natural phenomenon, cultural belief, or tradition. It often answers a fundamental question (e.g. How was the world made? Why does the sun/moon move across the sky? Where do souls go after death?). Myths may justify existing social systems and/ or account for traditional rites and customs, including cosmological and supernatural traditions of a people, their gods, heroes, cultural traits, and religious beliefs.
A myth may:

  • invoke supernatural events and gods
  • contain elements of a legendary and fabulous nature
  • be associated with religious ceremonies
  • illustrate geographical, historical, anthropological knowledge
  • explain characteristics of plants, animals, and other life forms

*Excerpted from: The Columbia Encyclopedia (1950), New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (1972), and Leach (1984).

Students are then allocated an insect from a list which includes: caddisfly, praying mantis, monarch butterfly, death-watch beetle, drugstore/ cigarette beetle, house/dust mite, green lacewing, mantispid, flea, mayfly; dance fly, water strider, and aphid-tending ant.  They are asked to read through some information about their insect which covers biology, ecology and behaviour.  Once they are familiar with their insect, they then have to write their own insect myth.

Having read this paper around the time I read White Clouds and the BQE; Using Children’s Literature to Explore the Theme of Nature in the City by Susan Karwoska (included in The Alphabet of Trees), I became interested in the idea of myth making.

White Clouds describes engaging with elementary school children (as apposed to undergraduates) and despite the significant age and ability gaps between the two approaches, there were a number of overlaps.  In White Clouds, Karwoska is working with children who live around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) who have a specific view and experience of nature:

“Nature? Ick, disgusting!” said a girl, a bright and outspoken first grader.  “What do you mean I asked her. “Cockroaches!”

Over the course of twelve weeks Karwoska works with the class, asking them to “observe, to dream about, to imagine, and to remember the presence of nature in their city lives”.  They read myths and stories and poems and went outside the classroom.  They looked closely at objects from nature and drew pictures.  As well as a number of other activities, they spend time looking at, and generating, creation myths.

“Young children – like the people of the ancient cultures that gave birth to these myths – lack the scientific knowledge to explain the world around them, and so must use what they know and imagine to piece together an explanation.”

The creation myths they write are about what was here “at the beginning of the beginning” and how what is here now came to be.  There are a number of dinosaurs in the myths they wrote as well as some biblical references but, as you’d expect with children, there are also some really nice nuggets:

“Mother Nature made the plants.  She had magic and she made the seeds out of her magic… The electricity came from a thunderstorm… The Statue of Liberty did not exist until mine workers dug her out of the ground.”

The way children see the world can be amazing, inspiring and eye opening and it’s such a hard skill to hold onto as we grow up and we learn why things are how they are and become vessels of facts.

Having read both of these pieces, I was feeling inspired to attempt my own insect myth but a part of me was reluctant, knowing I could never catch hold of something as so wonderful as miners digging the statue of liberty out the ground.  Nevertheless, here is my first draft:

A long, long time ago, long before the beginning of time even, there was a tree.  Its roots ran deep into the rich, blackness.  Its branches reached tall, grasping towards the light.  Pulling in the wondrous light and sucking up the fertile dark, the treed stood and stood, growing little by little, until one day, on one branch, right at the tip, appeared a twinkling, glowing fruit.  As the tree pulled in more wondrous light and sucked up more fertile dark, more and more twinkling, glowing fruits grew until the tree was alight with hundreds of sparkling lights.

A nibbling insect came along, entranced by the twinkling.  Desperate to take one of the glowing fruits home, the nibbling insect nibbled through the stem of the fruit.  But before the nibbling insect could catch the fruit, it fell from the tree.  Falling and falling and falling through the darkness until at last it came to a stop.  Here it glowed brightly and became the sun.  The nibbling insect kept trying, desperate to take home a twinkling, glowing fruit, but every time the nibbling insect nibbled through the stem, the fruit would fall and fall and fall until it came, at last, to a stop.  And this is how the stars were made.  The nibbling insect is still up there, nibbling away at fruit stems, desperately hoping to take home a twinkling, glowing fruit but never quite succeeding.

I felt it was important to post a first draft as the internet is so full of polished work that’s been edited and edited and we never see first drafts of anything which can feel a bit disheartening.  This is also why I include a lot of half edited, not yet finished, poems on my blog.

Insects in the bible

When we think of insects in the bible, we tend to think of plagues of locusts and destruction, devastation and punishment.  Alternatively you might think of examples where they are held up as pests.  But they are also used as metaphors and occasionally they are just there as observations of actual insects.

The translation of the bible will affect your reading of insects.  The King James version has 120 references to insects but more recent translations have put the number at 98 as a result of differing interpretations, changes include:

  • The word translated as hornet in the king james version is now considered to be more likely the word panic.
  • “Therefore will I be unto Ephraim as a moth, and to the house of Judah as rottenness” – “as a moth” has been changed to “as a festering sore”.
  • Lice, in the context of the plagues, is now considered to be maggots; an animal which makes more sense in the context.

Translation difficulties can arise because words used include that for generic flying creature which could mean bird or it could be a flying insect.  But where particular insect species are referred to there is less ambiguity.

Ants are mentioned as examples of industriousness, gathering food in preparation for winter in the book of proverbs.  They are also held up as a creature which is small but wise along with other animals such as the locust.

Go to the ant, you sluggard, watch her ways and get wisdom, Proverbs 6.6

Bees are another specific inclusion with numerous references to honey eg land “flowing with milk and honey”.  It was thought that bees were collectors of honey and that it was originally from the stars where it was a food of the gods.  The bees collected it from dew on leaves and branches and were thought to store it in their hives.  As with the ant, this industriousness became synonymous with the bee.

Flies on the other hand fare less well, something which is also the case in mythology.

Dead flies make the perfumer’s sweet ointment turn rancid and ferment; so can a little folly make wisdom lose its worth. Ecclesiastes 0:1

If you do not let my people go, I will send swarms of flies upon you, your courtiers, your people; and your houses. The houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with the swarms and so shall all the land they live in. Exodus 8.21

Of course the plagues of locusts are possibly the most dramatic inclusion of insects.  Today plagues of locusts are destructive and can cause devastation but when the bible was written, the impact would have been far greater, the dark cloud being an omen of death through starvation.  Of course, huge groups of locusts occur naturally and whilst it was seen at that time through a biblical eye, later in Europe at least, it would be seen through a legal eye.

If this is something you find interesting, Insect Mythology has a several page table looking at insects in the bible and Simon Roberts has looked at all the animal references in the bible.

Insects and war

Despite my posts about the healing power of insects and why we need insects, there is no denying that they don’t always have our best interests at heart, and why should they?  I am thinking particularly about the insect that bit my shoulder almost two weeks ago and is still stopping me from sleeping on that side.  I am also thinking about the impact that insects have had on soldiers at war.

“History is pocked with the traces of malaria.  Some have said it helped topple the roman empire. It was present during the US civil war, infecting more than half the soldiers.”
– Gordon Grice

Over the course of history, more soldiers have died from insects than from the weapons of war.  They have affected entire armies, affected the outcome of wars and in doing so, determined the direction of the future.

Along with mosquitoes, lice have had an incredible impact on wars.  One of the worst outbreaks of typhus was caused by lice and ravaged the trenches of world war 1.  It causes high fever, headaches, respiratory distress and even death.  It killed three million people in eastern Europe between 1914 and 1915.  It often follows war and natural disasters and “by decimating armies, it has determined the outcomes of battles and entire wars, prompting some writers to call the body louse the most important animal in history” (Grice).

Typhus also affected soldiers in 1814 when Napoleon’s troops were attempting to invade Russia.  Over the three year campaign, 105,000 men were killed by war whilst 219,000 were killed by insect borne diseases. Later in the 1800s, a Russian army was ravaged by hemorrhagic fever.  We can see examples like this throughout history and those countries who are prepared for insect attack and can manage and mitigate the effects are often the ones who come out on top.  As much as it is about fighting the enemy, war is about fighting insects.

As well as directly affecting soldiers, insects have also been used to shape our thinking about wars.

“These battles are more like ant fights than anything we have done in this way up to now”
– Wyndham Lewis

The changing nature of war and weapons reduced the personal interaction with the enemy.  No longer was it necessary to get up close, instead the enemy was reduced to specks on the horizon, dots on the landscape, insects to be exterminated. This brought with it a shift in attitudes, one which Siegfried Sassoon captured when he said of World War One soldiers:

“The solider is no longer a noble figure.  He is merely a writhing insect among this ghastly folly of destruction.”

As war became more about extermination, we became more fixated on exterminating insects.  Chemicals developed for the World Wars would go on to be used as pest controls in agriculture and would lead to the crisis described by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.  However, the need to manage insects in war would also lead to the war office joining forces with entomologists and increased interest in studying insects resulting in the disciplines and knowledge that exist today.

Further reading

Sacred Scarab

When considering the messages of beetles, it would be impertinent to ignore the sacred scarab beetle which was revered in ancient Egypt for hundreds of years.  Within the discussion of the scarab it is also vital to understand that it is actually a dung beetle and therein lies an interesting dichotomy; the sacred scarab and the mundane dung beetle. Perspective is clearly what matters here.  The way you view your world, shapes your experience of that world.

This seemingly straightforward creature is deceptively complicated.  When most people talk about the scarab beetle in terms of being a symbol, they are talking about the sacred scarab beetle associated the ancient Egyptians.  The sacred scarab beetle is one of the species in the dung beetle family which in turn is part of the Scarabaeidae family, which is commonly referred to as scarab.  See the confusion?  For clarity, here I am talking about a sacred scarab.

For ancient Egyptians, the scarab beetle was a common and important symbol and images of this significant creature have appeared carved into bone, ivory, stone and on precious metals.  Scarabs were placed on the heart of the dead to help them move on to the afterlife.  It was also used to ward off dangers after death.

Associated with the god Khepri, the rolling of the dung ball was likened to the action of the god rolling the sun across the sky.  As the sun dies and is reborn on a daily cycle, the scarab became a symbol of transformation and rebirth.  Interestingly, whilst not all dung beetles roll their balls, those that do get their cues from the sky, be it the sun, the moon or even, in one case, the milky way.  This orientation of self to the universe is one I find myself compelled to unpick.  Could it be an invitation to explore astrology? To turn your eyes to the skies for advice and omens?  Is it asking you to consider your place in the world, your purpose and your reason for existing?  Another option is that it’s a reminder we are all made of stardust, or that we are tiny on the stage of the solar system.  If we recall the myth about the beetle who accidentally created the milky way we add another dimension to some of these questions.

One of the beliefs surrounding the scarab was that they reproduced only from males.  Ancient Egyptians had observed young beetles emerging from the balls of dung and thought that the male beetle had injected his sperm into the ball and thus female beetles were superfluous to the process.  This had parallels with the god Atum whose name is thought to come from the verb tm, meaning to complete or finish.  Associated with the creation or the world, and the end of the world, he is a self created god who is linked with pre and post existence.  Along with Khepri, Atum was a sun god, representing sun set where Khepri represented sun rise.

If we consider the metaphorical implications of the scarab in the context of Khepri and Atum, we find ourselves asking questions about how we start and finish projects, what we are starting and finishing at the moment, what we should be starting and finishing.  The endless cycle of death and rebirth also comes up, a theme that is echoed by the metamorphosis of the beetles, the nature of regeneration, resurrection and immortality.  The process of metamorphosis brings with it ideas and questions around transformation, the letting go of one self to make space for another, a process which cannot come without pain; a phoenix rising from the ashes must first go through the pains of fire.

Naturally we also have themes of recycling, of cleaning, of the importance of small creatures in keeping the world functioning and as such it would be worth reading the general beetle post as well.