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…

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

House Guests, House Pests

Whilst I have commandeered the title of this post from the book by Richard Jones, and whilst I am using his book as part of my research, I am focusing specifically on the pest side of things today.  As is true throughout this month, I will not be looking at spiders… *shudders*

What makes an insect into a pest?

The world is filled with insects, they live everywhere and fill all kinds of ecological niches but we don’t consider them all to be pests.  We value butterflies for their beauty but we consider moths in our home to be a nuisance.  What is the difference?

Well, Richard Jones highlights a crucial divide between our inner and outer worlds, our private homes and the space outdoors.  This invisible line, when crossed, can turn an insect into a pest.  We pay to encourage nature to come closer but we also pay to remove nature when it crosses the arbitrary line of the doorstep.  What seems interesting or magically suddenly becomes unwelcome and disgusting.  The home is a scared space, it’s private and shared only by invitation.  By violating these symbolic boundaries, animals become intrusive.

Why do insects like our homes?

All of the things we value about our homes are the very same things that insects value.  They are looking for somewhere dry to shelter, somewhere warm where food is available.  In winter, for example, butterflies seek the warmth of buildings but then central heating can cause them confusion about the time of year and affect their behaviour.  The same is true for ladybirds.  And wasps and bees can hide in cavity walls until unwittingly disturbed when they may attack.

“Our houses, our food, our belongings and our very existence are under constant attack from a host of invaders eager to take advantage of our shelter, food stores and soft furnishings.”
– Richard Jones

Because of how successfully these insects have lived alongside us, many of them no longer exist in the wild.  They have become so specialised and so well adapted to live in our homes that they cannot survive without us.

When we started wearing clothes 100,000-40,000 years ago, lice evolved to live on us.  There are three kinds; crabs, head lice and body lice.  The latter actually lived in clothes and spread typhus and relapsing fever but is now thankfully rare.  If you could afford a change of clothes you could escape the lice and as such it was something which predominantly affected the poor and reports of 30,000 lice on one person was not uncommon.  It is likely because of these murderous body lice that head lice have such a bad reputation.

Our homes are also an excellent place to find something else that insects like; us.  The blood of mammals and birds is a high protein source and comes helpfully available as a liquid for easy consumption so it is no wonder than some creatures chose to nibble on us.  In mosquitoes, it is the female who goes after our blood and we can’t blame her too much, she needs it to get enough protein for the eggs which are developing inside her.  These vampiric bloodsuckers carefully insert a needle into the bloodstream and have anticoagulant chemicals they use to stop the wound from clotting.  It is the immune response to the chemical that causes itching and swelling but with it they can also transmit malaria, sleeping sickness, the plague, typhus and viruses.  For humans, the amount of blood lost is trivial but the diseases contracted can be deadly.

Another answer to why we have pests in our homes is explained by Danish folklore – the flea was sent to pester mankind as a punishment for laziness!

Today about 3000 animal species pollute human habitations.  This includes obligate parasites such as lice, facultative parasites such as fleas and commensals which are organisms that live with us without harming us or our belongings.  But those which do harm us shape our attitudes to the rest.

Attitudes to pests

It is very revealing that when I was searching google for information on this post most of the results where about extermination or the horrors of insects and creepy crawlies in the home.

As we saw with the lice example, pests and infestations of insects has social meaning and stigma attached and often the presence of bugs in the home is taken as a sign of dirt, of poor living and of laziness even which this isn’t true.  We see pests as symbolising people who are lower in social status than ourselves even though we can all be affected by them – think of how quickly head lice can run through a primary school.

“Scientists have found that some pillows, even in clean houses, are 40% dustmite faeces by weight.”
– Gordon Grice

Towards the end of the 19th century, entomologists who had previously contemplated nature, invoking the creator’s wisdom and artistry, began to view insects as pests in need of eradication.  This was happening alongside the industrial revolution and the discovery of bacteria, which spelled bad news for insects, in particular for house flies.  This also opened up a market for pest control chemicals and it was thus in the interest of industry to perpetuate the negative attitudes to insects.

As time went by, we got more and more sure that humans could and should control nature and Silent Spring is a good commentary on the negative impacts this had.  It was written after the harsh chemicals, developed during the war, began to feature in households and in agriculture.  Through Carson, we get a glimpse into how we perceived, and still perceive, insect life in the western world.  They are very much viewed as something to eliminate.  And some of these attitudes can be seen in words and phrases such as buzz off, stop bugging me, a swarm of teenagers, pests, he’s a cockroach, nitwit etc.

Even where our house guests don’t cause us harm, we still rail against them.  We are precious about our belongings and feel violated when insects nibble on clothing and furniture, somehow the insect existing feels like a personal attack on us.  But of course, some do more than make holes in your favourite jumper.

The danger of pests

Most household insect pests pose little risk unless you happen to be allergic to them.  It’s unlikely to be a problem for you, unless you are not a land dweller, but in 1593, larder beetle larvae nearly caused a ship to sink as the hull had been reduced to honeycomb.

Having said that, some insects are better at killing us that any other animal.  Cockroaches can bite and are attracted to the milk around the mouths of sleeping babies which is pretty unsettling.

“In areas where they pose a serious hygiene problem, roaches outrank even spiders as a focus of phobia”

Given that they invade orifices of the human body I think this is a reasonable fear, especially as their legs are covered with bristles which cause immense pain on our sensitive inner body surfaces. Again, they are a vector of disease and the dust they create is the leading cause of asthma in inner city children in the US.

But the deadliest of our enemies, according to Grice, is the fly.  The most dangerous of which is the mosquitoes.  It’s the mechanism by which the mosquito sucks blood which makes it so deadly – there is a regular exchange of blood and saliva and it is this which opens up opportunity for disease to spread.  And this can include malaria which kills over 2 million people a year and makes many more ill.  The most deadly forms of malaria evolved alongside the agricultural way of life in Africa.  People settled in one place, they needed to be close to water, and in doing so they found themselves living near the breeding places of mosquitoes.

More than 40 diseases are spread by flies and they don’t even have to bite us to spread them.  Drinking water invested with eggs is a major reservoir of cholera.  The common house fly spreads at least a hundred different disease causing agents including typhoid, cholera, dysentery and anthrax and can infect us in three different ways; the bristles on their legs and abdomen carry bits of whatever they’ve previously landed on and so by walking on humans can spread diseases, they defecate indiscriminately and digestion is partly exterior – they vomit digestive fluids onto a substance and then suck up the half digested mess.

Another deadly disease spread by insects is the plague.  Through transmission by fleas, this disease which ravaged many people and shaped our culture and history.

In a later post I’m going to look at the ill effects of insects outside the home and we’ll see more ways in which these creatures have shaped human history.  I will also be balancing this out with a look at the benefits of them and of course, we should value all animals for themselves, not for what they do or don’t do for humans.

Further reading:

Insect mythology

Specific insects tend to have specific features and qualities attributed to them in mythology, for example ants are used positively to symbolise industry, thrift, forethought and service to the community.  This use of ant symbology is near universal but there are exceptions.  The pueblo Indians believe ants are vindictive and cause diseases and the industriousness of ants is considered excessive in Hinduism and Buddhism.

Bees, butterflies, moths and dragonflies are seen widely in insect mythology but I’ve already touched on their use in symbolism as part of my animal spirit series.  Here instead I will be looking at other types of insects including flies and locusts.  There will be a separate post for the beetle as it’s one of the animal allies I haven’t looked at yet.  I’m also going to look at cicadas separately because they seem quite interesting.

So, let’s start with crickets and locusts which are popular insect when it comes to mythology.  They were held in high esteem and were emblems of good luck and happiness.  They also symbolised summer, courage and, again, resurrection.  The singing of the Japanese Tree Cricket represented the chanting of Buddhist priests.  In Brazilian folklore, the singing of crickets foretold coming rains or financial windfalls.  Similarly, in Barbados, crickets in the house must be treated with respect because they bring money with them.  Obviously in the form of plagues, we find locusts to be less revered.  En masse the behaviour and nature of crickets changes and becomes more destructive

Flies are really interesting, at least I think so, in terms of myth.  We tend to consider them as pests, as annoying and as something we don’t want around us and these attitudes are reflected in a lot of the mythology around them.  They are used to signify insignificance, feebleness, corruption and are associated with demons – Beelzebub was a Syrian god of flies.  Other ways the fly is depicted include as greedy, as worthless and as impudent. Comparing the fly with other insects is one way of highlighting their lack of virtues.  In an aboriginal Australian myth “a lazy tribe becomes bothersome flies while an industrious tribe becomes bees” (Kritsky and Cherry).

There is also a clear association between flies and death, but not in the way that cicadas and crickets are positively associated through resurrection.  Demons of disease and death take on the form of flies and there is also a fly demon of decomposition.  In Zoroastrianism, Nasu is a demoness of dead matter and is depicted as a fly.

Big Biter was a fly who was the overlord of fish and appeared when fishermen were taking fish from the water.  He appeared to check how the fish, his subjects, were being treated and to warn the fishermen against greed and wastefulness.

Big Fly is more positive depiction of a fly who is benevolent and who mediates between man and god.  When heroes get into trouble, it is Big Fly who will guide them.  Another interesting use of flies as symbols is from ancient Egypt where large golden flies were awards for valour and tenacity in battle, possibly because of the way a fly will return to try and bite it’s victim even after it’s been swatted away.  A particular type of fly with a metallic green or blue appearance was considered to be the spirit of a person and so shouldn’t be killed.  And a fly helped the goddess Inanna in an ancient Sumerian poem.

Being a bit more specific about flies, we find the mosquito in a number of interesting myths.  In Mayan mythology, the mosquito was a spy who learned about people by biting them.  The Tahltan of British Columbia have a tale about a mosquito which explains the behaviour of the woodboring beetle.

“A long time ago, Wormwood (the larvae of a beetle) and Mosquito lived together.  Day after day, Wormwood saw Mosquito come home swollen with blood that he had eaten.  When questioned, Mosquito, not wishing to give away his secret, replied that he had sucked it out of trees.  Wormwood immediately attacked the trees, and to this day he and his descendants bore into the wood looking for blood.”
– Gene Kritsky and Ron Cherry

Other stories explain the existence of mosquitoes as the result of ash from significant fires, such as the burning of a cannibal or the burning of an immortal giant.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we find mosquito monsters in myth.  The Great Mosquito features in stories from some native americans and it is told that the monster swooped down into villages and destroyed many people.  In Thai mythology, mosquitoes the size of chickens inhabit the World of the Dead.

Turning from specific species to the themes covered in insect mythology, we find insects feature in creation myths, stories of metamorphosis and we also find them playing positive and negative roles including helpfulness, industriousness, evil beings and plagues.  Myths are also told to explain the behaviour of different insects.

Kritsky and Cherry considered the different groups of insects and the different types of myths they star in and found that whilst most groups of insects feature reasonably equally in creation myths around the world, flies very rarely do.  When it comes to considering metamorphosis, Charles Hogue said:

“It is logical that the changes attending developmental metamorphosis led unrelated cultures to a parallel adoption of winged adult insects as symbols of the soul.”

And indeed, we find that butterflies, moths and other insects which transform are featured in regeneration and immortality myths around the world.

Beetles, ants, wasps and bees are rarely depicted negatively whilst flies overwhelmingly were and conversely, whilst most insects feature in positive roles the flies do not.

There is also a role for insects in mythology as punishers.  One particularly nasty example is from China where the sixth hell is for those guilty of sacrilege.  The punishments included being devoured by locusts.  The ninth hell, for incendiaries and obscene painters, is divided into 16 smaller hells and punishments include being devoured by wasps, ants and scorpions.  Something to remember when you’re painting obscene things…

Further reading: