Part I: 7 reasons why we hate bugs
I was in the shower (…) when, out of nowhere, a three inch water bug dropped from the bathroom ceiling and landed at my feet. I admit it: I screamed. Wouldn’t you? (…) And then there we were, the water bug and I, trapped and defenseless and covered in soapsuds (…) One of us was very calm. One of us… began to carefully groom her antennae.” Hugh Raffles, Insectopedia
Even before that day when Gregor Samsa woke up as a monstrous, verminous bug, people have disliked bugs.
The bug hatred can be deleterious for science and for the way the public perceives science. Studies have quantified how people (adults and children) are repulsed by arthropods and do not grasp the invertebrate’s impact in agriculture and our economy. In Part I of our series we’ll try to get to the bottom of the issue before we move on to a plan (on Part II) for how to encourage the public to appreciate bugs. So let’s consider “bugs” arthropods and break down the hatred in a Buzzfeed-type list:
1. Disgust. People are disgusted by bugs, and some argue that this behavior evolved to help us stay away from toxic, poisonous substances. One study mentions that “ugly, slimy, erratic moving animals, including many invertebrates, provoked withdrawal responses among vertebrate neonates, despite no overt or obvious threat.” Arguably, that behavior could help humans stay away from bugs that carry…
2. …disease. Many bugs are vector for infectious, potentially fatal diseases. Mosquitoes transmit yellow fever, dengue fever, and malaria. Ticks can spread Lyme disease, lice cause typhus, and fleas were responsible for the plague.
3. Dirt. Many bugs are associated with dirt, when it turns out they found the perfect niche to feed from leftovers or remains. Cockroaches evolved eating crumbs in human houses, and maggots act in decomposition.
4. Bite or sting. Some bugs cause harm to humans in the form of toxic or allergic reaction. Spiders specifically get a bad rep for biting and stinging humans, when in fact that is not true. Arachnologist Chris Buddle has written extensively on this topic, going so far to say “If you want to reduce risk, it’s far more dangerous to get in a car than be bitten by a spider.” Rick Vetter debunks spider bites: “every month in California more people are diagnosed as having brown recluse bites than the total number of brown recluse spiders EVER collected in the state.”
5. Culture. However, people might have never been exposed to harmful bugs and yet are still afraid or dislike them. They are trained to do so. This reaction is almost Jungian, already part of collective unconsciousness, even though kids are not innately afraid and even act curious towards bugs. Different cultures even view different bugs differently, such as delicacies or even pets. Still on the topic of spiders, Rick Vetter reiterates reasons of bug hatred on our list:
“unfortunately, humans have a low tolerance for spiders in their homes, either because spiders are symbols of danger, unkemptness or arachnophobia. Folks want spiders out of their homes because of fear and/or repulsion. The assumed risk of spiders in one’s home is much greater than the actual risk they pose and home owners probably do more harm to themselves by using large amounts of pesticides inside a home to kill spiders than any harm the spiders could actually do to them. (…) phobia is based on people’s willingness to believe the worst about a situation and the sensationalistic news media (…)”
6. Multiplicity. The high number of bugs (50,000 bees or 500,000 ants in one colony, or the fact that there are more than one million species of beetle) intimidates human imagination. According to psychologist James Hillman, it “threatens our fondly cherished human notions of individuality and independence… Imagining insects numerically threatens the individualized fantasy of a unique and unitary human being.. [and] indicate insignificance of us as individuals.”
7. The Unknown. I saved for last the most abstract of the items in this list. We don’t identify with bugs. Hillman mentions that “for most humans, invertebrates are largely unfathomable and alien”. Kellert suggests most people associates many bugs with metaphors of madness (perhaps Kafka started it and Cronenberg perpetuated it). Finally, Insectopedia author Hugh Raffles describes:
“We simply cannot find ourselves in these creatures. The more we look, the less we know. They are not like us. They do not respond to acts of love, mercy or remorse. It is worse than indifference. It is a deep, dead space without reciprocity, recognition or redemption.”
So fear and disgust are definitely there. How do we get kids are more exposed to bugs so they don’t hate them, and become more accepting adults? Stay tuned for Part II of this bug series, when we’ll show several clever initiatives to encourage the public to appreciate bugs.
- Snaddon JL, Turner EC, Foster WA (2008) Children’s Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion’s Share of Environmental Awareness?PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579
- KELLERT, S. R. (1993), Values and Perceptions of Invertebrates. Conservation Biology, 7: 845–855. doi: 10.1046/j.1523-1739.1993.740845.x