Public perceptions of the vast majority of insects and terrestrial arthropods tend to be fairly negative. Indeed, the word “insect” alone can elicit a visceral response in some. Attitudes towards insects in the general public of many developed countries are dominated by Fear, where many people are afraid of insects, and Power, where they may want to control insects (The Buzz of Insects, 2007).
Fear may arise from psychologically intrinsic characteristics of humans that were adapted initially to avoid dangerous arthropoid (arthropod-shaped) species. In addition, negative views may arise, or be reinforced, by cultural cues from peers and parents, teachers and authority figures (i.e. learned). Using myself as an example,
I can confirm, EVEN AS AN ENTOMOLOGIST (you heard it here first) I jump when a house spider (Eratigena sp.) moves across the floor. This is an initial response of self-preservation, intrinsically in-built into my own personal psyche from some distant ancestral beginning. Granted, this intrinsic ‘jump’ seems to be stronger in some people (e.g. arachnophobes). But let me clarify, I am not fearful and it is completely unnecessary; after the less-than-a-second jump, I am likely to liberate the spider into the outside world, probably after some time of joyful examination. However, many are instilled with paralysing terror, preventing them from taking any meaningful actions for hours at a time, unable to let the specimen out of sight. I find this unfortunate; these are incredible species that play an important ecological role and, most importantly, pose little threat to people in most circumstances. I wish everyone would love these creatures as much as I do, seeing them for what they really are: important, interesting organisms that have adapted very different ways of living than humans. Some can climb walls and create silk, some can fly and sing, some create flashes of light, others emerge and die within a day. Little marvels of life.
As a child, I explored the environments close to the ground, and consequently came into contact with many insects. I wasn’t actively encouraged or discouraged to do this, and I believe most children have this fearless sense of discovery. However, at this stage in a child’s development, if someone is to strongly discourage this type of discovery, perhaps it remains throughout life because of the intrinsic ‘jump’ we have of fast moving arthropoid shapes. Could this then develop into the more visceral Fear found in adults? It certainly seems the more knowledgeable and experienced someone is with insects, the less afraid they tend to be – an axiom that rings true of many phenomena we are afraid of.
With the Fear comes the associated desire to control insects. Of course, there are perfectly reasonable circumstances to want to control insects and related arthropods (e.g. crop farmers, food stores, hospitals, lumber yards etc.), but an unhealthy culture has emerged; a total obsession with 100% eradication of any and all ‘bugs’ in the house, or even the garden. In many cases, these species do not cause the issues people believe them to cause (e.g. there seem to be strange and unsubstantiated beliefs that crane flies are deadly poisonous, wasps will destroy your garden, and a bite from a house spider is dangerous – all completely untrue). The Buzz of Insects report (2007), categorises most cases of controlling insects in the following ways: “controlling one’s territory; addressing or confronting fears; harming insects for fun; contempt for the inferiority of insects; and using insects to scare others”. The central theme is that people want to control insects when they start to ‘interfere’ in their lives, be it through annoyance, fear, or for hygiene. To repeat, it may be reasonable to control insects, but to eradicate 100% of species using various chemicals because of an irrational fear or desire to arbitrarily exert dominance over them probably does more harm than good. It also follows that people with a greater base of knowledge and experience of insects (and allied taxa) deal with them in a more measured and healthier way, literally and psychologically.
As an entomologist, it is demoralising and sometimes infuriating to see the widespread negative media sensationalism towards spiders and insects (and, as an extension, general wildlife). These articles only perpetuate and disseminate ignorance, fear, disgust, and misinformation about insects and spiders. The only positive message they bring is that it shows informed readers that newspapers are an extraordinarily poor source of information about the natural world.
The above headlines are all exceptionally misleading and the vocabulary used in the headlines and articles can only be described as scare-mongering; words like “invasion”, “killer”, “giant”, “plague”, and “swarm” seem to be regular additions to headlines, even when the species in question is not invading, a danger to humans, giant, or plague forming. This exploits the intrinsic ‘jump’ people have of insects, but has no relevance to a modern general public. If people were properly informed about insects perhaps they would be at least partially liberated of the fear or disgust towards them. Dare I say, maybe there’d be more entomologists?!
These sorts of headlines play on the misunderstanding and intrinsic ‘jump’ most adults have towards insects, reinforcing negative perceptions of insects and allied taxa. Could this then be handed down to children playing in wild environments, discouraged by their parents and authority figures to explore microhabitats? The negative attitudes of irrational fear and delusions of dominance should surely be quashed, whilst reinforcing positive attitudes of discovery towards insects at an early age; a good first step would be delivering accurate, accessible information (once the function of newspapers) about insects to the public.
Until next time.
Article written by Max Tercel (Twitter: @MaximumInsect; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Taken by me! (Max Tercel)
Photo 1: Taken by one of my parents, ca. 1995.
Neves, C. M. P., Paydar, N. and Drury, A. (2007). The Buzz on Insects: A Study of Attitudes and Knowledge Among Visitors to the National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institute, Office of Policy and Analysis Washington, DC 20013.