Who’s Afraid of Bugs?
Though insects are a part of our daily lives, they provoke strong and often negative emotions. And yet, they are precious allies of biodiversity. What if we learned to get to know them, so as to better appreciate them?
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“It’s here! It emerged from its chrysalise!” My uncle’s feverish text arrives on a beautiful September morning. For several months, he has been diligently watching the milkweed plants in his garden, on which several graceful monarch butterflies took up residence early in the summer. He might not have seen their miniscule eggs first-hand, but very little else escaped his careful attention: caterpillars striped with white, yellow, and black; chrysalises with the iconic butterflies forming inside, with their orange and black colours emerging little by little. At every stage, he has kept me up to date with photos and video, and today is no exception. A few minutes after the text, I receive a call. “I saw it! It was magnificent!” His emotion is contagious. I spend the rest of the week telling the story to anyone who will listen, showing off photos of the butterfly as if it were my newborn baby.
A yelp of disgust when you glimpse a silverfish in your bathtub? One thing is certain: our well-being is intimately linked to that of insects. They perform a multitude of essential roles, as pollinators, workers of the soil, and meals for animals. They also inspire us with grandiose works of art, provide us with honey, and allow us to gauge the health of an ecosystem. As their habitats shrink — largely a result of deforestation and urbanization — it’s essential to build a better relationship with these little beings that surround us.
“When I started working at the Insectarium 34 years ago, people didn’t like bugs; they were afraid,” says entomologist Marjolaine Giroux. “Now, people want to learn to live with them.” Giroux works in Entomological Information Services at the Montréal museum — she cites cases when people have contacted her to move wasp or bumblebee nests, not wishing to kill them. “We can’t move them,” she says. “But we can teach people how to tolerate them.”
Even for the most enthusiastic amateur entomologists — like me! — there is still work to be done to get past prejudices associated with insects. “In most cases, our attitudes toward them are cultural in origin,” says Carolina Torres, Science Recreation Coordinator at the Insectarium. It’s true that our negative reactions are often not very rational; in Québec, the great majority of insects are harmless. Torres notes that it’s often parents who react with fear when they visit the museum, while children exhibit curiosity above all.
“In some cultures, where people live more immersed in nature, fear is less present. You’ll see children playing with insects and even letting them walk over their bodies.”
I must admit, this idea still gives me the shivers.
Our Judeo-Christian heritage may also be partly to blame for our negative attitude toward bugs, explains journalist Andrea Appleton in an essay for the philosophical magazine Aeon. “By one count, the Bible includes just four positive and 46 negative references to [insects].” Conversely, she directs our attention to Japan, where insects seem to evoke limitless curiosity and where a French entomologist — Jean-Henri Fabre, forgotten even in his country of origin — is idolized.
To know is to love
“Many people write to us because they’re afraid of Lyme disease,” says Marjolaine Giroux. “But ticks are not insects.” Not insects? I nearly fall out of my chair when I learn this simple fact. To be admitted to the exclusive club of insects, your body must be separated into three parts, and you must have six legs. “Spiders are not insects, either,” she continues, at the other end of the line, unaware of my turmoil. That’s all well and good, but to birds and many other animals, an insect or an arachnid amounts to more or less the same thing: both make a highly nutritious meal.
This discovery highlights one of the main challenges we must face: insects — and other little critters — are generally unfamiliar to us.
But don’t they say that in order to stop being afraid of something, you have to first get to know it?
Over 25,000 species of insects and other arthropods can be found in Québec. If you pay attention to your surroundings, you’re bound to come across a species you don’t know yet. So step outside into your garden or back alley, or walk through the nearest park — in Montréal as elsewhere, hundreds of bugs are hidden in plain sight, under the leaves of the bushes or between two blades of grass. Hear those dog-day cicadas, the ones we associate with hot summer days, who use their muscles to emit a shrill cry?
Butterflies are an ideal doorway into the world of entomology. Who could be afraid of such a graceful insect? With their vibrant colours, they can easily be seen carrying pollen from one flower to another. Try to spot a swallowtail or a hummingbird moth! From butterflies, you could opt to push your exposure therapy a little further. Consider seeking out a less appealing insect. When I was little, I was terrified of earwigs, convinced (falsely) that they would eat my brain at the first opportunity. Before facing my fears, I might head out in search of the dobsonfly, which resembles the earwig a little too much for my taste, but whose intimidating mandibles are actually mainly used for mating.
Insects have been the subject of a vast number of scientific studies. We now have plenty of proof linking the decline of their populations to urbanization and climate change, and it has become essential to take steps to ensure their survival. This summer, why not overcome your fears and stop to contemplate the work of virescent green metallic bees, those solitary insects with twinkling bellies? After all, as Jacques Cousteau once famously said, “We protect what we love.”
Carolina Torres is convinced that a better relationship is possible.
“We must accept the relationship we have with our fear,” she says. “We must not close the door, because on the other side, we may find an extraordinary world.”
Gabrielle Anctil is an independent journalist. Her articles have been published in Québec science, BESIDE, and Continuité. She appears regularly on the radio program Moteur de recherche, as well as on the airwaves of Savoir média, on the program La bataille pour la forêt. Gabrielle is the author of the essay Loger à la même adresse, published with éditions XYZ. Winter or summer, she can be found, rosy-cheeked, riding her bicycle.
Space for Life includes the Insectarium, the Biodôme, the Biosphère, the Jardin botanique, and the Planétarium. These five prestigious institutions of the City of Montréal form the largest natural sciences complex in Canada. Together, they are launching a daring, creative urban movement, urging everyone to rethink the connection between humankind and nature and cultivate a new way of living.
Like the other institutions in Space for Life, the Insectarium wishes to form a bridge to a better understanding of nature and a deeper relationship with insects.