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Why We Hate Insects
by [?]

The desire of the moth for the star.

We remember that it is for the moths that the pallid jasmine smells so sweetly by night. There is no shudder in our minds when we read:

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream,
And caught a little silver trout.

No man has ever sung of spiders or earwigs or any other of our pet antipathies among the insects like that. The moth is the only one of the insects that fascinates us with both its beauty and its terror.

I doubt if there have ever been greater hordes of insects in this country than during the past spring. It is the only complaint one has to make against the sun. He is a desperate breeder of insects. And he breeds them not in families like a Christian but in plagues. The thought of the insects alone keeps us from envying the tropics their blue skies and hot suns. Better the North Pole than a plague of locusts. We fear the tarantula and have no love for the tse-tse fly. The insects of our own climate are bad enough in all conscience. The grasshopper, they say, is a murderer, and, though the earwig is a perfect mother, other insects, such as the burying-beetle, have the reputation of parricides, But, dangerous or not, the insects are for the most part teasers and destroyers. The greenfly makes its colonies in the rose, a purple fellow swarms under the leaves of the apples, and another scoundrel, black as the night, swarms over the beans. There are scarcely more diseases in the human body than there are kinds of insects in a single fruit tree. The apple that is rotten before it is ripe is an insect’s victim, and, if the plums fall green and untimely in scores upon the ground, once more it is an insect that has been at work among them. Talk about German spies! Had German spies gone to the insect world for a lesson, they might not have been the inefficient bunglers they showed themselves to be. At the same time, most of us hate spies and insects for the same reason. We regard them as noxious creatures intruding where they have no right to be, preying upon us and giving us nothing but evil in return. Hence our ruthlessness. We say: “Vermin,” and destroy them. To regard a human being as an insect is always the first step in treating him without remorse. It is a perilous attitude and in general is more likely to beget crime than justice. There has never, I believe, been an empire built in which, at some stage or other, a massacre of children among a revolting population has not been excused on the ground that “nits make lice.” “Swat that Bolshevik,” no doubt, seems to many reactionaries as sanitary a counsel as “Swat that fly.” Even in regard to flies, however, most of us can only swat with scruple. Hate flies as we may, and wish them in perdition as we may, we could not slowly pull them to pieces, wing after wing and leg after leg, as thoughtless children are said to do. Many of us cannot endure to see them slowly done to death on those long strips of sticky paper on which the flies drag their legs and their lives out–as it seems to me, a vile cruelty. A distinguished novelist has said that to watch flies trying to tug their legs off the paper one after another till they are twice their natural length is one of his favourite amusements. I have never found any difficulty in believing it of him. It is an odd fact that considerateness, if not actually kindness, to flies has been made one of the tests of gentleness in popular speech. How often has one heard it said in praise of a dead man: “He wouldn’t have hurt a fly!” As for those who do hurt flies, we pillory them in history. We have never forgotten the cruelty of Domitian. “At the beginning of his reign,” Suetonius tells us “he used to spend hours in seclusion every day, doing nothing but catch flies and stab them with a keenly sharpened stylus. Consequently, when someone once asked whether anyone was in there with Cæsar, Vibius Crispus made the witty reply: ‘Not even a fly.'” And just as most of us are on the side of the fly against Domitian, so are most of us on the side of the fly against the spider. We pity the fly as (if the image is permissible) the underdog. One of the most agonising of the minor dilemmas in which a too sensitive humanitarian ever finds himself is whether he should destroy a spider’s web, and so, perhaps, starve the spider to death, or whether he should leave the web, and so connive at the death of a multitude of flies. I have long been content to leave Nature to her own ways in such matters. I cannot say that I like her in all her processes, but I am content to believe that this may be owing to my ignorance of some of the facts of the case. There are, on the other hand, two acts of destruction in Nature which leave me unprotesting and pleased. One of these occurs when a thrush eats a snail, banging the shell repeatedly against a stone. I have never thought of the incident from the snail’s point of view. I find myself listening to the tap-tap of the shell on the stone as though it were music. I felt the same sort of mild thrill of pleasure the other day when I found a beautiful spotted ladybird squeezing itself between two apples and settling down to feed on some kind of aphides that were eating into the fruit. The ladybird, the butterfly, and the bee–who would put chains upon such creatures? These are insects that must have been in Eden before the snake. Beelzebub, the god of the other insects, had not yet any engendering power on the earth in those days, when all the flowers were as strange as insects and all the insects were as beautiful as flowers.