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Why We Hate Insects
by [?]

It has been said that the characteristic sound of summer is the hum of insects, as the characteristic sound of spring is the singing of birds. It is all the more curious that the word “insect” conveys to us an implication of ugliness. We think of spiders, of which many people are more afraid than of Germans. We think of bugs and fleas, which seem so indecent in their lives that they are made a jest by the vulgar and the nice people do their best to avoid mentioning them. We think of blackbeetles scurrying into safety as the kitchen light is suddenly turned on–blackbeetles which (so we are told) in the first place are not beetles, and in the second place are not black. There are some women who will make a face at the mere name of any of these creatures. Those of us who have never felt this repulsion–at least, against spiders and blackbeetles–cannot but wonder how far it is natural. Is it born in certain people, or is it acquired like the old-fashioned habit of swooning and the fear of mice? The nearest I have come to it is a feeling of disgust when I have seen a cat retrieving a blackbeetle just about to escape under a wall and making a dish of it. There are also certain crawling creatures which are so notoriously the children of filth and so threatening in their touch that we naturally shrink from them. Burns may make merry over a louse crawling in a lady’s hair, but few of us can regard its kind with equanimity even on the backs of swine. Men of science deny that the louse is actually engendered by dirt, but it undoubtedly thrives on it. Our anger against the flea also arises from the fact that we associate it with dirt. Donne once wrote a poem to a lady who had been bitten by the same flea as himself, arguing that this was a good reason why she should allow him to make love to her. It is, and was bound to be, a dirty poem. Love, even of the wandering and polygynous kind, does not express itself in such images. Only while under the dominion of the youthful heresy of ugliness could a poet pretend that it did. The flea, according to the authorities, is “remarkable for its powers of leaping, and nearly cosmopolitan.” Even so, it has found no place in the heart or fancy of man. There have been men who were indifferent to fleas, but there have been none who loved them, though if my memory does not betray me there was a famous French prisoner some years ago who beguiled the tedium of his cell by making a pet and a performer of a flea. For the world at large, the flea represents merely hateful irritation. Mr W.B. Yeats has introduced it into poetry in this sense in an epigram addressed “to a poet who would have me praise certain bad poets, imitators of his and of mine”:

You say as I have often given tongue
In praise of what another’s said or sung,
‘Twere politic to do the like by these,
But where’s the wild dog that has praised his fleas?

When we think of the sufferings of human beings and animals at the hands–if that is the right word–of insects, we feel that it is pardonable enough to make faces at creatures so inconsiderate. But what strikes one as remarkable is that the insects that do man most harm are not those that horrify him most. A lady who will sit bravely while a wasp hangs in the air and inspects first her right and then her left temple will run a mile from a harmless spider. Another will remain collected (though murderous) in presence of a horse-fly, but will shudder at sight of a moth that is innocent of blood. Our fears, it is evident, do not march in all respects with our sense of physical danger. There are insects that make us feel that we are in presence of the uncanny. Many of us have this feeling about moths. Moths are the ghosts of the insect world. It may be the manner in which they flutter in unheralded out of the night that terrifies us. They seem to tap against our lighted windows as though the outer darkness had a message for us. And their persistence helps to terrify. They are more troublesome than a subject nation. They are more importunate than the importunate widow. But they are most terrifying of all if one suddenly sees their eyes blazing crimson as they catch the light. One thinks of nocturnal rites in an African forest temple and of terrible jewels blazing in the head of an evil goddess–jewels to be stolen, we realise, by a foolish white man, thereafter to be the object of a vendetta in a sensational novel. One feels that one’s hair would be justified in standing on end, only that hair does not do such things. The sight of a moth’s eye is, I fancy, a rare one for most people. It is a sight one can no more forget than a house on fire. Our feelings towards moths being what they are, it is all the more surprising that superstition should connect the moth so much less than the butterfly with the world of the dead. Who save a cabbage-grower has any feeling against butterflies? And yet in folk-lore it is to the butterfly rather than to the moth that is assigned the ghostly part. In Ireland they have a legend about a priest who had not believed that men had souls, but, on being converted, announced that a living thing would be seen soaring up from his body when he died–in proof that his earlier scepticism had been wrong. Sure enough, when he lay dead, a beautiful creature “with four snow-white wings” rose from his body and fluttered round his head. “And this,” we are told, “was the first butterfly that was ever seen in Ireland; and now all men know that the butterflies are the souls of the dead waiting for the moment when they may enter Purgatory.” In the Solomon Islands, they say, it used to be the custom, when a man was about to die, for him to announce that he was about to transmigrate into a butterfly or some other creature. The members of his family, on meeting a butterfly afterwards, would exclaim: “This is papa,” and offer him a coco-nut. The members of an English family in like circumstances would probably say: “Have a banana.” In certain tribes of Assam the dead are believed to return in the shape of butterflies or house-flies, and for this reason no one will kill them. On the other hand, in Westphalia the butterfly plays the part given to the scapegoat in other countries, and on St Peter’s Day, in February, it is publicly expelled with rhyme and ritual. Elsewhere, as in Samoa–I do not know where I found all these facts–probably in The Golden Bough–the butterfly has been feared as a god, and to catch a butterfly was to run the risk of being struck dead. The moth, for all I know, may be the centre of as many legends but I have not met them. It may be, however, that in many of the legends the moth and the butterfly are not very clearly distinguished. To most of us it seems easy enough to distinguish between them; the English butterfly can always be known, for instance, by his clubbed horns. But this distinction does not hold with regard to the entire world of butterflies–a world so populous and varied that thirteen thousand species have already been discovered, and entomologists hope one day to classify twice as many more. Even in these islands, indeed, most of us do not judge a moth chiefly by its lack of clubbed horns. It is for us the thing that flies by night and eats holes in our clothes. We are not even afraid of it in all circumstances. Our terror is an indoors terror. We are on good terms with it in poetry, and play with the thought of