Archive for the ‘Insect Mythology’ Category


Fig. 00. Young specimens of Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria), NE Kazakhstan. The photo demonstrates distinct colour differences between solitary (left), intermediate (middle) and gregarious (right) forms. © Victor V. Glupov (Novosibirsk, Russia).

It seems that apart from Locust (and perhaps fleas) there are no other insects which could have been so destructive to human affairs and civilizations. When conditions are favourable, vast migrating swarms of Locusts can appear as a cloud that darkens the sky and rapidly devour all plant material on their way, from field crops to the foliage on trees. So great is their apocalyptic quality in human minds that, since the time of the Pharaohs, Locusts have been seen as a symbol of destruction – the wrath of God or a sign of cosmic disorder.

At first glance, Locusts look like large, short-horned and harmless grasshoppers, but their behaviour is different. Unlike grasshoppers, when Locusts are present in large numbers they tend to crowd together, forming vast swarms that can migrate long distances and cause catastrophic plagues. Large swarms can invade an area of Africa and Asia that extends across 57 countries and covers more than 20% of the land surface of the Earth (Fig. 1).

A single swarm may contain many million individuals, with an overall mass of several tonnes. Since these insects eat approximately their own mass of vegetation daily, they cause immense destruction of crops and pastures. For instance, 2.5 square kilometre’s worth of locusts – 100 to 200 million individuals – can consume 220 to 270 tonnes of food, which is enough to feed 200,000 people. In a single day, an average swarm can eat the same quantity of food as 2,500 people.


Fig. 1. The invasion area of the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) and areas in which outbreaks are known to have occurred (from Logunov, 2006).

The apocalyptic quality of Locusts in human minds seemed to be the reason why their grotesque figures – gargoyles – were sometimes carved into the architecture of churches and monasteries (Fig. 2), perhaps creating a symbolic representation of hell. Furthermore, of some 98 bug species mentioned in the Revised English Bible, the Locust is referred to at least 31 times (see also here). For instance, “…When morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. …They devoured all the vegetation and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had spread.” – The Bible, Exodus (10: 13–15). Indeed, it could be an apocalypse for those people who observed Locust swarms in action.


Fig. 2. A Locust gargoyle in the two-storey cloister of the Jerónimos Monastery (16th century, Lisbon, Portugal). © Dmitri V. Logunov (Manchester, UK).

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that ecclesiastic institutions of early medieval Christian Europe portrayed Locusts as chimeras, demonic and malevolent creatures (Fig. 3, on the left). Such visualization reflected the prevailing theological conceptions of Locust as an instrument of divine vengeance. Its more or less human-like head reflected the mind needed to separate sinners from pious people; the strong wings were needed to fly over humans in order to administer the justice; the scorpion-like tail was the main tool of chastise; etc. Such depiction of the Locust is a striking example of the distortion of human perception induced by the symbolic view of reality, which was introduced by theologians. No doubts, even in the sixteen century people knew very well how real insects look like (Fig. 3, on the right).


Fig. 3. Two contrast depictions of Locusts. On the left: A section of the Monogrammist HW, “Natuerliche Contrafeyhing…”, dated 1556, a diabolic depicting of the locust (Zürich; modified from Ritterbush, 1969: fig. 2). – On the right: A section of the plate from “Archetypica studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii”, dated 1592, a realistic depiction of the locust; from the archives of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (from Smith, 1986: plate 13).

Despite some Locusts are great pests in many parts of the world, human attitude towards them is not particularly cruel. In India, when a swarm of Bombay Locusts (Nomadacris succincta) comes, people just try to scare them away by lighting fires, beating brass pots, and ringing the temple bell. In Uttar Pradesh, people catch one Locust, decorate its heard with a spot of red lead, salaam to it, and let it go; thereupon people believe that it will immediately depart with all its companions.

There is at least one benefit of having locusts in swarms: they can be harvested and used as food (Fig. 4; see also here). The Arabs boil them with salt, and then add a little oil or butter; sometimes they toast them by the fire before eating them. In Madagascar, there is a common saying: “One needs to waken early in the morning to catch grasshoppers”. About 80 grasshopper/locust species are consumed worldwide. In Morocco, even the price of provision falls when the Locusts appear. The main problem with consuming Locusts is that due to their status of agricultural pests they may be sprayed with insecticides in governmental control programmes, which makes them a polluted food.


Fig. 4. Locusts are ready for consumption. © J. Princess.

In some other cultures, for instance, those of Native Americans, the relationships between Locust-like insects and man were less dramatic than in medieval Europe, although not fully friendly. The following animation ‘Banquet’ is loosely based on an old folktale by Yaqui people from northern Mexico. It is about a Grasshopper and a Cricket that attended an Indian banquet. They ate and drank with the Chief but behaved badly, so that Yaqui people did not want them coming back.

Created by Eva Akesson, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. Music composed by Peter Byrom-Smith and performed by the Guild Hall Collective, conducted by Rod Skipp.

Control of Locusts is a challenge. Some says that no attempt to control locusts or bring down the swarm has ever succeeded – in each case the plague disappeared only when nature had run its course. Globally, the costs of combating this plague were colossal, over 300 million US$. It is believed that recent plagues happened mainly due to the decline of co-operation between neighbouring countries. Survey and control operations often have to be carried out in important breeding areas in which access is severely restricted due to civil conflicts and general insecurity (some regions of Algeria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and others). Thus, the true key issues of locust control now are not the lack of scientific knowledge or technical means, but a problem of socio-political organization which cannot be controlled by scientists. Unless this basic issue is resolved, alas, humans will always be at the mercy of nature when it comes to dealing with locust plagues.

 Further reading

Chapman, R.F. 1976. A Biology of Locusts, Studies in Biology no. 71, Edward Arnold, Great Britain.

Logunov, D.V. 2006. Locusts: God’s wrath or revelation. Biological Sciences Review, 19(1): 6-9.

Kritsky G. & Cherry R. 2000. Insect Mythology. Writer Club Press, San Jose, New York, Lincoln, Shanghai.

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A view of the cockroach collection of the Manchester Museum.

Any online dictionary (e.g., here) can provide a clear definition of what is a human civilization. For instance, it is “the stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced”. Such advanced stage is achieved by bringing out of a savage, uneducated or unrefined state, and is commonly measured by a high level of culture, science, industry and government (whatever the latter could mean). Certainly, such definition is rather egocentric and likely to reflect human’s own pride. Possible side effects of any human civilization are rarely considered, not to mention that all such civilizations are developed and thrive at the expense of the Nature surrounding them.


Fig. 1. A visual history of the cockroaches, from the world it shared with dinosaurs to the urban world it shares with man, by Brian Raszka, 1999 (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

All human civilizations create a specific urban environment, which is not sterile and inhabited by plethora of living beings, such as: rats, fleas, bed-bugs, mosquitoes and other wicked bugs. Collectively they are called synanthropic species, i.e. associated with man. These creatures live with us only because we have provided them with a suitable environment and food. More importantly, their presence is difficult/impossible to control (Fig. 1) – they always are and will be wherever humans do. They share the civilization with us regardless of what we think of them. Thus, why not to accept them as a legitimate part of a ‘human civilization’?


Fig. 2. Cockroaches as victims of the humans, ‘Executions’ by Catherine Chalmers (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

Cockroaches are among those wicked bugs that are particularly hated by humans (Fig. 2). They are regarded as public health pests, but hardly deserve such a bad reputation. Cockroaches do not sting and do not eat our crops, though may occasionally transmit some pathogens (e.g., salmonella, staphylococcus, etc.) on their feet or their presence may cause an allergic reaction. They have been living alongside the man for hundreds of years, apparently from the time of cave man. The main problem with cockroaches seems to be that we cannot control them. If the environment is suitable (i.e., the right humidity & temperature and the availability of food) – which is usually correct as far as human dwelling concerned – they will always be there. Thus, if it is us who provide cockroaches with a suitable accommodation and lots of food, should we really blame/hate them for staying with us?

In human dwellings, cockroaches hide in cracks/crevices and service ducting. The following short animation was created by Eifion Crane, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. The story tells us about our unwelcomed neighbours who share our civilization with us.

Cockroaches feed on almost anything, from conventional foodstuffs to any kind of organic waste, including faeces. The main reasons why cockroaches become pests are because they are highly mobile, able to feed on almost anything and very prolific. For instance, during its life one female of the German Cockroach can produce 8 egg cases of 40 eggs in each, thus giving birth to some 3,200 youngsters.

There are about 4,500 described cockroach species worldwide (compare with 5,400 described mammal species); of them about a dozen are considered pests. Cockroaches are one of the oldest insects on the planet, dating back 350 million years (Fig. 3). As Don Marquis put it in his ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ (1913), “…I do not see why men should be so proud, insects have the more ancient linage…”.


Fig. 3. The comparative evolutionary history of the cockroaches and humans, based on Lippman cartoon (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

Cockroaches are gregarious, tending to live in large groups and fouling the environment with their droppings, castings or regurgitated food; they also produce specific smell. This is why in most human cultures cockroaches represent the clichéd symbol of dirtiness, and their presence can cause great distress to housekeepers. The most common house cockroach-mates in Britain (Fig. 4) are the Oriental Cockroach (Blatta orientalis), German Cockroach (Blatella germanica) and American Cockroach (Periplaneta americana).


Fig. 4. Oriental (two on the left), German (in the centre) and American (right) Cockroaches; from the collection of the Manchester Museum, UK.

Is there any real remedy to get rid of cockroaches? Well, at least one can be suggested straight away. Based on the experience of our ancestors from the 19th century, it could be prudent to appeal to cockroaches’ common sense and intelligence, and to write them a letter: “Oh, Roaches, you have troubled me long enough, go now and trouble my neighbours”. This might help, but if not, then you are right: these cockroaches do not belong to such advanced civilization in which we all live. Something else is to be done (e.g., see here or here).

Cockroaches have had the long-standing relationships with humans, living alongside them since cave dwelling, and will apparently live after we’ve long gone. Knowing that the lethal dose of radiation for a cockroach is many times higher than for a man, one can say with certainty that they are more likely to survive an atomic explosion than us. Cockroaches have a resilience to survive, thriving off our cast-offs, and as humans, we have unknowingly fostered the creatures, which became part of any human civilization.

The following short animation was created by Emily Dobson, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. Music composed by Peter Byrom-Smith and performed by the Guild Hall Collective, conducted by Rod Skipp. Enjoy the animation.

It seems that now there are fewer/no cockroaches in many houses than there used to be. Some say that this is because of electromagnetic waves generated by computers, smartphones and other gadgets we all use. Hooray!  The final remedy to get rid of cockroaches is found. However, is it really a good thing not to have cockroaches in/around our dwellings? If even cockroaches – the most resilient creatures on the planet – cannot survive in our dwellings, we could ask ourselves whether such dwellings are really healthy and suitable for us?


The fable of the cockroach and the housewife, both do have the long-standing relations (from M. Copeland, 2003, ‘Cockroach’).

“When cockroaches roam, through your family home,

Don’t panic, just do what I say,

Remember with love, the Lord up obove

And say to each other ‘Let’s pray’ (Let’s spray).” – John Seville

Finally, we do need cockroaches to thrive and be around; if they gone, the existence of our own civilization will be at great danger as well.

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On the second day of our staying in San Jose (11th June), we had a chance to visit the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum (Museo del Oro) – the archaeological museum organized by the Central Bank of Costa Rica in 1950. This Museum hosts temporary exhibitions on a variety of themes and also houses a remarkable permanent gallery of pre-Columbian gold objects crafted between 300 A.D. and the 16th century, the time of the first contact with Europeans.

Objects manufactured during this period present a mixture of styles generated by contact and exchange with neighbouring regions such as modern central Panama and modern Colombia. Objects exhibited in the Museum were used as trade goods between regions and as ritual ornaments and funerary offerings. Many figures depict men with animal masks, apparently pointing to some superhuman qualities of those leaders who wore them. There are many animal figurines, including those of frogs, which are especially numerous, jaguar, alligators, bat, and others. Of the arthropods, only figurines of butterflies, crustaceans and spiders were displayed.

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, San Jose, Costa Rica

Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, San Jose, Costa Rica

In traditional stories of the indigenous people of Talamanca, the butterfly is a woman who serves as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds. This role of messenger and special being is reflected in the criteria used to select the woman who can be trained to carry out ritual tasks. They must have positive traits such as honesty, bravery and dedication.

Butterfly-shaped pendants, with the body representing alligators - the common practice of combining animals within a single object.

Butterfly-shaped pendants, with the body representing alligators – the common practice of combining animals within a single object.

During the pre-Colombian period the marine environment was intensely exploited for edible species such as shrimps, crabs, lobsters and fish. Figurines of all these animals were manufactured as shown below.

Crab-shaped pendants.

Crab-shaped pendants.

Lobster-shaped pendants and circular pectoral (in the centre). The pectoral was a symbol of high rank among pre-Columbian people.

Lobster-shaped pendants and circular pectoral (in the centre). The pectoral was a symbol of high rank among pre-Columbian people.

I could not photograph the autentic gold spider-shaped pendant in the Museum, and here is a photo of nice replica manufactured by a contemporary artists from the open-air market near the National Museum of San Jose.

Replica of the spider-shaped bell, with a hanging smaller bell.

Replica of the spider-shaped bell, with a hanging smaller bell.

The explanatory text provided above is based on the captions displayed in the Museo del Oro and the book by P. Esquivel (2012) ‘Extraordinary pieces from the Pre-Colombian Gold Museum’

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One of the important aspects of the Manchester Museum’s work is to engage with the visitors, particularly children, in order to stimulate interest in the world around them. As part of this campaign to stimulate interest in the collections the Manchester Museum runs regular Big Saturday events across the year, which encourage visitors (of all ages) to directly interact with museum collections. Members of the museum staff are also available at these events to explain and answer questions about the objects presented on handling tables.

In 2011-12 academic year, the Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department was involved in a collaborative project with Arts, Design & Media students from the Stockport College (tutor – Ian Murray). Working with Dmitri Logunov, the Museum’s Curator of Entomology, and Anna Bunney, the Museums Curator of Public Programmes, the students were given the challenge to create artworks in response to different groups of creepy-crawlers (e.g., flies, cockroaches, butterflies, dragonflies, cicada, sacred scarab, spiders, scorpions, etc.), exploring not only the physical appearance of the creatures but also their historical and symbolic meaning.

In this collaborative project, students were asked not only to develop various artworks (artist books exploring bugs, 3D models or toys of various bugs, badgers with their images, and even bug animation), but also to contribute to a Museum’s Big Saturday event through their art and design skills. Such Big Saturday, called Bug Art, took place in the Museum in partnership with the Stockport College on 28/01/2012. During that day the visitors could get a closer look at some of the insects from the Museum’s collection, watch a family friendly Bugs and Insects film or watch maggots creating abstract art. Activities also included making origami Cicadas, bug headbands, bug badges, printing and stop motion animation.

Here is the short film produced by the students involved in Bug ArtBig Saturday who presented their own view on that great event. Just enjoy it!

Bug Art Big Saturday at the Manchester Museum

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The Sacred Scarab, apparently the most famous beetle on the Earth, was a symbol of resurrection and reincarnation in ancient Egypt, called there Khepri – the life giving force deity. Occasionally, the Scarabs roll their pellets from the east to the west, the same path taken by the sun, that evoked the metaphor of world as dung ball.

Dr Campbell Price (Curator of Egyptology and The Sudan) and Dr Dmitri Logunov (Curator of Arthropods) discuss the Scarab beetle and it’s meaning to the people of Ancient Egypt.

You can read more about the Scarab Beetle on one of our older posts.

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The Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department welcomes a wide array of visitors. Behind-the-scene tours are one of our regular activities. Such tours give our visitors an opportunity to see the Museum’s extensive insect collections (over 3 million specimens) that otherwise are hidden behind the scenes. Helen Clare, who attended one of the tours to the Entomology Department, is a poet and Science teacher (her personal blog). Helen was so inspired by that particular visit that she wrote about 20 insect sonnets. The one devoted to the famous Manchester Moth is given below alongside some of Helen’s impressions of her visit to the Museum.

“I came to Manchester Museum to see the Manchester moth almost a year ago on a bright autumn day. I remember the time of year very clearly because I very pleased with myself in my new bright green coat. By that time I’d been writing a series of sonnets inspired by insects for many months and was looking for fresh inspiration. I’d seen an article about the Manchester Moth in a local paper and followed it up on the internet and wanted to see the insect in the flesh.

 The moment I walked through the museum doors the fire alarm sounded. I almost went home, but decided to be patient and went for a coffee. Eventually the throng of people in the museum courtyard started to funnel through the doors and I went back and talked to the member of staff on duty at reception.

 She told me I wouldn’t be able to see the moth as the specimen was so fragile but that there was a video I could watch. I went up and watched the video, which is very interesting and made notes. I was a little disappointed because while facts are important, the stuff of poetry comes from having an emotional reaction to something and it helps to see it for real.

 But I was glad to have found out more and went up to visit the snakes and frogs in the top gallery – something I’ve done on a regular basis since my student days and then made my way out, ready to console myself shopping.

 As I was about to leave the building the assistant, recognising my coat, called me over and told me that there was a tour of the Entomology stores about to start. A little group of people had begun to gather and Dr Dmitri Logunov, Curator of Insect Collections, came to take us all of to the hidden and rather less imposing part of the museum.

 It was a wonderful session. Looking at my notes now I can see that we looked at a brilliant collection of tortoise beetles, we learned that elephant beetles can push 80 times their body weight, that taxonomists must extract the genitals of butterflies to identify them and that the brilliant colour of butterflies that derives from structure rather than pigment never fades. All of which was shared with us by the infectiously enthusiastic Dmitri.

 At the time I was most impressed by the sheer numbers of insects tucked away, by the sense of being among things that had fascinated and perhaps even obsessed many generations of people, of being somewhere that was part of the bustle of a working museum and also a strangely chaotic contemplative space.

 I drafted the first part of the Euclemensia woodiella sonnet (see below) almost immediately, but it took almost another year to get the final six lines in place. Many other things I’d seen and learned about on that visit also made their way into other poems – including the idea that it was perhaps cockroaches as much as dogs and horses which have been humans most loyal companions since our cave days.

 I was very glad that the fire alarm had gone off and delayed my visit to the museum until the tour was imminent – and that my bright green coat had made me so recognisable!

The Manchester Moth that inspired Helen to write a poem

Sonnet on Euclemensia woodiella (the Manchester Moth) by Helen Clare


Through an unmarked door, we climb the stairs,

concrete and unadorned. The insect store

smells of mothballs. Three million specimens


are under glass, in Dymo labelled drawers, pinned

through their ID cards like meat on skewers.

But only one is ours, is Manchester’s –


this one – small and brown, no abdomen

no legs, three wings, its one antenna broken –

one of three netted by Cribb and passed to Wood.


Cribb, robbed of nomeclature, accused of fraud,

sells the boxful for ten shillings, five up front,

then leaves it with a landlady in lieu of rent.


She burns the lot. He slips into Salford’s

seeping slums, his moth not seen before or since.


Please, visit Helen’s personal blog in order to enjoy by other insect sonnets she has written.

I am very grateful to Helen for sharing her impressions with me and for the permission to post her excellent sonnet devoted the Manchester Moth to our blog (Dmitri).

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The Sacred Scarab (Scarabaeus sacer) is the most famous species of scarab beetles (family Scarabaeidae), and one of many thousands species that make their living from utilizing dung. On average, about 40% of the food intake of animals is either excreted as urine or passed out of the body as faeces. This waste is decomposed and returned to the soil by insects that use dung as food for themselves and for their larvae, thereby preventing it from building up. If left unprocessed, livestock wastes may present a serious health risk to the human population, because they contain some pathogenic microorganisms.

 The Sacred Scarab is famous for making spherical dung balls, rolling them away and burying intact in shallow burrows. Occasionally, the Scarabs roll their balls from the east to the west, the same path taken by the sun. This activity of the Scarabs provided an ideal allegory for the movement of the sun across the daytime sky.

 When the ball of dung has been buried, beetles lay their eggs in it. The eggs would then be incubated by the warmth of the sun’s rays, and newly hatched larvae would feed on dung in the safe harbour provided by parent beetles. Ancient Egyptians saw in the life-cycle of the Scarab a microcosm of the daily voyage of the sun emerging from the Duat to cross the daytime sky before sinking below the horizon again at sunset. Furthermore, the Sacred Scarab was a symbol of resurrection and reincarnation in ancient Egypt, called there Khepri – the life giving force deity. See here for more details.

 The photographed specimen is just one specimen from the large Manchester Museum’s collection of scarab beetles, numbering over 3,000 species.

A specimen of the Sacred Scarab from the Manchester Museum's collection

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