Insects
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When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug. He lay on his back, which was hard as armor, and, when he lifted his head a little, he saw his belly – rounded, brown, partitioned by archlike ridges – on top of which the blanket, ready to slip off altogether, was just barely perched. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his girth, flickered helplessly before his eyes. (Franz Kafka)
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Trinity

They all have a head, a thorax with six legs, and an abdomen. But apart from this not always clearly visible triad, adult insects of different species often resemble each other less than sharks resemble bats or humans resemble chickens. With some million known and probably at least as many unknown species – estimates run up to twenty or even thirty million! – insects are by far the largest class of the animal kingdom. To put things into perspective: all known mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and birds put together, add up to less than a hundred thousand species. Barely nine hundred of these are found in Belgium and the Netherlands, less than half of which are indigenous. The class of insects, however, is represented by over eighteen thousand species native to the Low Countries. Small wonder that, both on this site and in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat, they truly are in
a class of their own.


Maya the monstrosity

Ask someone to think of a random animal and the odds that he or she spontaneously comes up with an insect are practically non-existent. Strange, because not only is the number of insect species to choose from simply baffling, many of those species also have millions, billions or even thousands of billions of individuals. When you see an animal, it's nearly always an insect. In nature, that is. In the cuddly pets department of a toyshop insects are remarkably underrepresented. With some luck, you may find a lonely ladybird, a legless fantasy butterfly or a seriously disabled honeybee. The bee is usually called Maya. She's missing a couple of legs, a thorax and one of the two pairs of wings all other bees are equipped with. That wasn't always the case. In 1912, when Die Biene Maja und ihre Abenteuer* by the German author Waldemar Bonsels is first published, Maya still looks perfectly normal. But she soon acquires ever more human traits. To begin with, she starts walking upright on her hind legs. Subsequently, she gets a child's face. Finally, she loses a pair of wings and legs. By now, her chubby head is almost as large as the rest of her body and her eyes face forwards. No doubt about it: Maya's changed into a winged human moppet with two hatpins sticking out of her skull. In The Panda's Thumb, Stephen Jay Gould, the late American palaeontologist and science writer, draws attention to a similar, be it less radical evolution in Mickey Mouse. Both cases are good examples of progressive juvenilization. This is no coincidence. Most people find babies and rug rats irresistibly cute and feel attracted to anything that somewhat resembles them. From koalas and pandas to puppies and kittens: they make us melt. But bees? No, we don't dote on bees. Many of us like ladybugs and butterflies well enough, but all other insects leave nearly everyone cold, including the vast majority of self-proclaimed animal lovers. To win the
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In less than a century, Maya evolved from an anatomically correct bee into a winged blonde with the build and physiognomy of a young human child.

hearts of people all over the world, Maya had to undergo a total makeover. Anatomically speaking, and perhaps pedagogically too, by now the poor beast is about as unsound as an albatross with the head of a hippo, the legs of a crocodile and the behind of a baboon in heat. Insects, of course, know a thing or two about metamorphosing, but this is way over-the-top. From a bee's point of view, Maya is a monster. The Gregor Samsa of the hive.


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Wir müssen es loszuwerden suchen

You wake up to discover that, overnight, you've changed into a giant insect. That's what happens to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of The Metamorphosis, one of Franz Kafka's best-known stories. Perhaps Gregor's parents and sister could have lived with a horse, an ostrich, a tortoise or even a gigantic frog. But a monstrous dung beetle? No way! When Gregor eventually dies of hunger and misery, everyone's relieved. Good riddance to bad rubbish! The fact that Kafka, of all possibilities, has his hero changed into an insect – something the story doesn't actually say in so many words – should not really surprise us. After all, in the course of their lives many insects really go through a complete metamorphosis. In many ways, a beetle looks more like a human than a caterpillar resembles a butterfly or a maggot resembles a bluebottle. Moreover, the strokability factor** of almost all insects is just about as negative as the absolute zero expressed in degrees Celsius. We find them revolting. To keep young viewers glued to the telly, Maya changes into a little girl; to drive his family to despair, Gregor Samsa changes into an insect. "We must find a way to get rid of it", his tormented sister decides after going through yet another terrible ordeal. Fortunately, the very next day they find poor Gregor dead in his room. The family relaxes. They go house hunting and face the future with renewed confidence. Just like dozens of B-horror movies featuring killer bees, giant army ants, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, mutated flies, monstrous wasps and genetically modified cockroaches, The Metamorphosis capitalizes on our deeply rooted aversion to just about anything that moves on six legs. They give us the heebie-jeebies. We relentlessly persecute insects with spray cans, mothballs, scented candles, repellent plug-ins, sticky flypaper, electrocution grids, swatters or the soles of our shoes. If necessary, we even deploy an air force of crop dusters. The ancient Egyptians worshipped scarabs and many Jugendstil artists were wild about butterflies and dragonflies. In some cultures, at some moment in time, some insects appear to be pretty popular after all. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule. In 2002, Belgian artist Jan Fabre coated the ceiling panels and a chandelier of the Hall of Mirrors of the Royal Palace of Brussels with the elytra of some one and a half million Thai jewel beetles. Is this art, kitsch or just megalomaniacal home craft? Beats me, but it's definitely mass murder and further proof of the fact that we are anything but mad about insects.

* The Adventures of Maya the Bee. Click here for a free English copy.
** The word
aaibaarheidsfactor or strokability factor is a neology invented by the late Dutch writer Rudy Kousbroek. It refers to the ability of animals to make humans love them. According to Kousbroek, cats have the highest strokability factor. That of fish is close to zero.

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Metamorphosis

"Now I have to undergo just one more metamorphosis, hopefully not for another quarter of a century, the last transfiguration, you know, that one morning you wake up and notice that you're dead." (Midas Dekkers)

Children are human larvae. Around the age of twelve, they retire to their teenager rooms to pupate. Mom and dad are worried sick. After all, one never knows what may emerge from that room in a couple of years. In any case, it's almost always a disappointment. No human imago is perfect. But mom and dad can't be choosy. They are only too pleased not to find a dung beetle sitting at the dinner table. In 1928, American anthropologist Margaret Mead achieved fame by claiming that puberty was a cultural, mainly western invention. Primitive people, like those of the Samoan Islands, weren't bothered by it. We now know that Mead was duped by a couple of Samoan teenage chicks with overheated imaginations and by her own prejudices. A biologist like Midas Dekkers is not so easily led up the garden path. Not because he's so much brighter – Margaret Mead was an exceptionally intelligent lady – but because he regards humans as just another animal species.

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Caution: stray bullets!

Not a single animal is born as an adult individual of its own species and the transition generally involves a far from uncomplicated metamorphosis. Samoa, America, the Netherlands or Belgium: being a teenager is never easy. "I am not a child!" junior shouts when mom and dad once again and for perfectly good reasons reprimand him. He runs up the stairs, slams the door of his garishly decorated cocoon and swears he'll never become as boring, reactionary and bourgeois as his parents. Of course, twenty years on, when he's often pestered by teens himself, that's exactly what he is. A good thing too, for teenagers are unguided projectiles. They take irresponsible risks, are cocksure, indulge in binge drinking and unsafe sex, experiment with party drugs, blindly fall into the clutches of religious sects, gurus, terrorists, charlatans and marketers, commit suicide for no reason at all, sometimes collectively, or go to school with a semi-automatic gun in their trendy satchel. Hell is a world ruled by adolescents and so-called young adults. Release all 18 to 25 year olds and prison populations collapse. According to Dutch neurobiologist Dick Swaab this is because their prefrontal cortex, the front part of the cerebral cortex that suppresses impulsive behaviour and promotes moral behaviour, is not yet completely developed. Add an extra dose of testosterone and you have a very explosive cocktail. At sixteen, most children are sexually mature but not yet 'brainy mature'. That will take at least another seven years. Dick Swaab sets his face against the populist call to lower the age at which children are regarded, treated and especially tried as adults. At eighteen, you are not yet an adult, let alone at sixteen or even younger. You may adopt an image, but you're still a nymph.


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Hemi or holometabolous

Two things can emerge from the egg of an insect: a larva or a nymph. To a certain degree, most nymphs already resemble their parents, like a chick resembles a hen or a baby resembles a human. Like the newly hatched green shield bugs in the photograph, however, they still have a long way to go. After each moult, the nymphs grow a little and progressively show more features of an adult individual or imago. Insects that go through such a series of incomplete metamorphoses are called
hemimetabolous. Larvae, such as maggots or caterpillars, don't look anything like their parents. No matter how many times they moult and grow, they always look more like a worm than an insect. Many larvae don't even have legs. But then something extraordinary happens: The larvae pupate and, given enough time and the right conditions, from those pupae emerge ready-made adults. These holometabolous species undergo a complete metamorphosis: in one go, a more or less cylindrical bag of blubber is transformed into an imago with all the trimmings. For centuries, this complete metamorphosis has been a godsend for mediocre poetasters and histrionic versifiers. They mainly wax lyrical about hideous, hairy caterpillars transforming into gorgeous, delicate butterflies. Larvae like the maggots of bluebottles or the grubs of cockchafers appear to be far less inspiring. Even though their metamorphoses are just as complete and impressive, they nevertheless leave most poetic souls unaffected. What do butterflies have that other insects don't? Why is it that there are so many butterfly collectors and so few wasp, bug or fly collectors? Without so much as a second thought we mercilessly swat mosquitoes to the happy stinging grounds. Who cares? But don't you dare to crush a butterfly between your thumb and index finger, unless you don't mind being called an utterly heartless, psychopathic plebeian. When you want to prevent the destruction of a forest or the development of a wasteland, the presence of a rare butterfly is always a strong argument for conservation. A hoverfly that's just as rare, however, won't win the day. Butterflies are in everyone's good books.


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From greedy-guts to sex maniac

Butterflies are sex machines. Many species are so obsessed with sex that they hardly eat or don't eat at all. Some even don't have a mouth! That's not the case for the peacock butterfly in the photograph to the left. It visits flowers to fill up with nectar. Flying consumes a lot of fuel. Butterflies do not fly to feed, they feed to fly and reproduce. And then that's it. Most adult butterflies live for only a few weeks. Their life as an imago is usually much shorter than their life as a caterpillar. The same is true for most holometabolous insects, with the ephemeral mayfly as the proverbial pinnacle. But many hemimetabolous insects, such as most European dragonflies and damselflies, also spend far more time as nymphs than they do as adults. While many adult insects only think about sex, their larvae or nymphs only think about food. They have to grow, after all, and that takes far more time than a quickie.

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Not omnipresent

From the poles to the equator, from the highest mountains to the deepest valleys, from deserts to marshlands: insects are everywhere. In the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat they occupy every nook and cranny. From high up in the trees to deep down in the soil, the garden is swarming with insects. Even the pond and the water surface are inhabited by dozens of insects and their larvae or nymphs. Yet insects are anything but omnipresent. Oceans and seas cover over seventy percent of Earth's surface, but are virtually insect free. There are marine mammals, marine birds and marine reptiles. The ancestors of whales and seals, albatrosses and penguins, marine iguanas and sea turtles returned to the oceans. But except for some five wingless tropical water striders of the genus
Halobates over 350 million years of evolution did not produce a single species of marine insect. The sea skaters in question spend their entire lives on the surface of the open ocean. They feed on floating plankton and lay their eggs on feathers, driftwood and increasingly on plastics. But just like all other water striders, they can't dive. Therefore, their biotope is not really the open ocean, but the flimsy layer of air just above the water. Their world is almost two-dimensional. Are the oceans too salty? They certainly are for amphibians, but not for insects. Quite the contrary: in saline lakes, insects often dominate. According to most biologists, that's because such lakes are too salty for fish and crustaceans, so that insects have neither enemies nor food competitors. But in the oceans, things are different. They are brimming with rapacious fish and every niche insects could possibly occupy is already filled by other, perfectly adapted arthropods. Moreover, insects can't dive much deeper than some ten meters without running out of oxygen. Therefore, unlike crustaceans, they can't escape their enemies. Since insects are conspicuously rare in deep lakes with decent fish populations, it appears that their respiratory system has indeed prevented them from conquering the oceans as well. But never say never.


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A fly can't mosquito

You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish! You can tie a knot, but knot a tie! A mosquito can fly, but a fly can't mosquito! Most small children love these what's-the-difference riddles with a somewhat absurd solution. Most adults like them far less or even not at all. An interesting difference, but I'll leave it aside. The fact is that mosquitoes can indeed fly, just like dragonflies, butterflies, bees and most beetles, bugs and other adult insects, including of course nearly all flies. Millions of years before the evolution of birds, bats and jumbo jets, insects took off. Most species are equipped with two pairs of wings, but flies and midges show that one pair is all that's needed for the most amazing aerobatics. Like penguins and ostriches, quite a lot of winged insects, such as firebugs, can't fly. In ants, only males and queens can. During the nuptial flight, males perform their conjugal duties and die soon after. The fertilized queens lose their wings and start new colonies. Some insects, like dog fleas and crab lice, lost their wings in the course of their evolution. Why waste energy on building wings when you live on and off a very mobile host? Still other insects, such as jumping bristletails and silverfish, never had wings to begin with. Therefore, according to some taxonomists, these very primitive species do not really belong to the class of insects. The fact that they are neither holometabolous nor hemimetabolous seems to corroborate this. They are born as nearly perfect miniature versions of their parents and they moult and grow their entire lives. Worldwide, only a few hundred such enigmatic species are known. Even though there are many different explanations for the staggering profusion and diversity of insect species, the evolution of wings undoubtedly played an important role. It's no coincidence that there are almost twice as many species of birds as there are species of mammals or that one in five mammalian species is a bat. For animals that know how to fly, it is much easier to conquer new territories and end up isolated from their parental populations. Subsequently, driven by genetic drift and natural selection, in a relatively short time, new species can evolve. Flying lends wings to evolution.

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Every advantage has its disadvantage

Every actor and drama student assigned the task of interpreting an insect – a classic exercise the point of which still eludes me – will confirm that it is extremely hard to put yourself in the shoes of a fly, a beetle or a bug. Not because insects don't wear shoes, but because humans simply can't even begin to imagine how they experience the world. The way they see, feel, taste, smell or hear is completely different from the way we do it. They see other colours, feel other textures, taste other tastes, smell other smells and hear other sounds. Their senses create a world that will always remain hidden to us. Moreover, from our point of view, they are turned inside out. A human is a collection of muscles, fats and other tissues, supported by a skeleton made of calcium and collagen, wrapped in watertight skin. An insect is a mushy mass in a hard exterior skeleton made of chitin. The advantage of having an exoskeleton like that is that insects are less vulnerable. They are, as it were, armour-plated. However, as the celebrated Dutch philosopher and soccer hero Johan Cruijff once famously remarked: "Every advantage has its disadvantage." One of the disadvantages of an exoskeleton is that insects can never grow much larger than the giant dragonflies of the Carboniferous, some 300 million years ago. Gravity won't allow it. An insect as large as a cat would collapse under its own weight, like a spineless knight in heavy tournament armour.


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Gargantuan small giants

Meganeuri monyi may well have been the largest insect ever. This prehistoric dragonfly had a length of some 40 cm, a wingspread of over 70 cm and a weight of possibly up to 150 grams. That's twice as heavy as the modern record holder, a deformed specimen of the New Zealand giant weta Deinacrida heteracantha. Adult giant wetas usually weigh no more than 19 grams, but just before they lay their eggs females can weigh over 40 grams. The record of 71 grams is held by an abnormal female that produced eggs but, for some unknown reason, could not dispose of them. Therefore, the title of World's Largest Insect is usually bestowed on some five gigantic beetles. With a length of 16.7 cm, the longhorn beetle Titanus giganteus is by far the longest of them all. Some tapeworms, however, attain lengths of over 30 meters, but no one in his right mind will claim that they are larger than the whales they live in. Length isn't everything; volume is at least as important. When you take size and weight into account, a few scarab beetles of the genera Goliathus and Megasoma are serious candidates. The match, however, remains unresolved. It's not easy to objectively measure the size or weight of an insect and both can diverge widely in individuals of the same species. In general, it is safe to say that all living adult insects are no longer than 17 cm and, except for pregnant females, weigh no more than 35 grams. For comparison: the cockchafer in the photograph above, one of the largest beetles in the Low Countries, is shorter than 3 cm and weighs only about 2.7 grams.


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Limits to growth

The largest living dragonfly, the Australian giant petaltail (Petalura ingentissima), is over 12 cm long and has a wingspread of 16 cm. Impressive, but still not much larger than the emperor dragonfly (Anax imperator) in the photograph to the right. It measures over 8 cm, with a wingspread of some 11 cm. In the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat this dragonfly is by far the largest and most conspicuous insect. Compared with a prehistoric monster like Meganeuri monyi, however, the emperor is a dwarf. Why are there no such truly gigantic dragonflies and other gargantuan insects today? Most biologists agree that, once again, the respiratory system of insects is to blame. Today, the air we breathe contains about 21 percent oxygen. In the Carboniferous, when giant dragonflies and mayflies ruled the air, oxygen levels were probably as high as 35 percent. Therefore, insects could grow much larger without running out of breath. In today's relatively oxygen-poor atmosphere, a giant like Meganeuri monyi would simply suffocate. By now, of course, the planet is populated with insectivorous reptiles, birds, mammals and other animals with an internal skeleton and lungs. They don't bump into the limits of what is physically possible quite as soon and even the largest of them are often exceedingly agile and swift. But no matter how small most modern insects are, they necessarily outweigh all insectivores put together. If they didn't, insectivores would starve. Quite possibly, the total biomass of insects exceeds that of all other terrestrial animals, including the recently exploded ape Homo sapiens. Considering that ants and termites alone are said to represent over thirty percent of the animal biomass of the Amazon rainforest and maybe fifteen percent of the total biomass of all land animals worldwide, this may very well be the case. As usual, some caution is in order. Since estimates of the number of insect species diverge by no less than 29 million species, any statistics concerning this class of the animal kingdom are best taken with a pinch of salt. But whether the counter of Earth's Butchers has 300 or just 30 kilos of insect for every kilo of human, one thing's for sure: insects rule. And boy, don't they let us know it!

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

"So Moses stretched out his staff over the land of Egypt, and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day and all that night. When it was morning, the east wind had brought the locusts. The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled on the whole country of Egypt, such a dense swarm of locusts as had never been before, nor ever will be again." (Exodus 10: 13-14)

No matter how you look at it, judged by modern standards the God of the Jews, the Christians and the Muslims is a dangerous lunatic and a war criminal. The vast majority of his present-day followers do not like to be reminded of this. (The rest bomb refugee camps, assassinate employees of abortion clinics or blow themselves and as many bystanders as possible to pieces.) When pressed, many believers will say that the genocides and mass murders their God allegedly committed, at least according to their own Holy Book, are just stories invented by primitive, tribal people. Why they insist the rest of their Tanakh, Bible or Quran is different, will always be a mystery to me. Some babies are truly better thrown out with the bathwater. The eighth plague that the Almighty, in his loving kindness, sees fit to punish the Egyptians with for the stubbornness of one man, an unparalleled locust plague, is a masterly example of biological warfare. Whether or not you believe the story,
Exodus is one of the oldest sources revealing that since time immemorial humanity and many species of insects haven't exactly hit it off. Small wonder, for ever since the rise of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, insects have been our main food competitors. Even today, in spite of the massive deployment of pesticides, they still destroy a substantial proportion of the world harvest. Figures diverge widely and differ for different crops, but 15 percent is a conservative estimate. Our monocultures, of course, are many insects' equivalent of the Land of Plenty. In an organic kitchen garden, however, some species can be a real nuisance too. You just have to learn to live with them.


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Sound the charge!

Most old school farmers and gardeners know only three kinds of insects: beneficial insects, pests and the rest of the lot. The last category leaves them cold. Pests, however, are a source of great concern. To the detriment of the first category and other allies, such as insectivorous birds, many feel they should be destroyed by any means available. Naturally, insects don't take this lying down. Agriculture unleashed an arms race and it's very unlikely humanity will ever conclusively gain the upper hand. Quite the contrary: In 1945 only a handful of pest insects were immune to insecticides. Half a century later, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the number had already risen to over five hundred species. Just like ever more pathogenic bacteria become resistant to ever more types of antibiotics, ever more pest insects become immune to ever more types of insecticides. Genetically modified crops that produce some kind of insecticide themselves, such as the Bt corn that for some unfathomable reason still scares the shit out of most Europeans, may bring temporary solace. Eventually, however, insects will learn how to deal with these GM crops too. From time to time, farmers and gardeners may still win a battle, but the war's already lost. The sensible thing to do is to humbly admit our defeat and do everything in our power to secure the peace. Unfortunately, humans are sore losers. No matter how painful or humiliating, after every thrashing we always want to get even. We produce new weapons and recruit more cannon fodder. Who knows, what we could not pull off with only four billion of us, we may very well achieve with six or twelve billion. The insects don't care a fig. The more people, the less other enemies and the more grub they can scoff. They never suffer from a bad conscience and are superior in almost every way. They outnumber us, reproduce much faster and adapt more readily to whatever is thrown at them. Basically, insects are nanotechnological wonders. The next step in the arms race could be the development of teeny-weeny, solar powered and perhaps even self-reproducing anti-insect robots. My guess is that the pests those microbots are targeted on will swiftly outsmart them. Wanna bet?


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Modus vivendi

Each to his own, but I've buried the hatchet, conceded defeat and granted insects dominion over what is, after all, so manifestly their planet. That doesn't mean I stand by and watch how the maiden sorrel in the kitchen garden is eaten bare by knot grass caterpillars or green dock beetles and their larvae. I'm no pushover. I remove the caterpillars and let them feast on the leaves of the hawthorn or the sheep's sorrel in the orchard. The beetles can fly, so I respectfully squeeze them to death. Sometimes there are so many of them, there is nothing for it but to cut the sorrel just above the ground and throw all the leaves in the compost container. A fortnight later, I harvest fresh, tender maiden sorrel that I immediately stew and freeze. As soon as we have sufficient supplies to last us through the winter, the caterpillars and beetles are free to regale themselves on the maiden sorrel. Meanwhile, I count on the seven-spot ladybirds to control the aphids on the climbing roses and amuse myself by observing other insects, such as the amazing yellow dung flies above or the endearingly fragile large whites to the left. I realise, of course, that madam will eventually lay her eggs on the leaves of a cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, Savoy cabbage or curly kale. I manually destroy most of the eggs and feed young caterpillars to the chickens. But the small or large white caterpillars on the sea kale, an edible plant that I grow as an ornamental perennial, are left alone. They eat their fill, look for a sheltered spot to pupate and secure the next generation of small or large whites in the garden. It's a matter of give and take. Some years, carrot fly maggots cause more damage than I care for and I'm not always charmed by the silly whims of the nut weevil either. When the shells of over 80 percent of the hazelnuts you gather turn out to be eaten out by the larvae of this funny looking beetle, it's hard not to get annoyed. But it's not a disaster. It's a different matter, of course, when you have to live off the produce of your hazel shrubs. I have a soft spot for organic farmers and I admire growers that opt for so-called integrated production systems and minimize the use of chemical pesticides. But I also sympathize with farmers and gardeners that, with or without scruples, liberally spray their fields, sometimes using harmful chemicals that have been banned for years. They should not do it and there are alternatives, but the competition is deadly. The God of the globalized free market is a merciless monster too.


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Busy bees and biting beasts

Honeybee workers can sting. In some people their venom provokes an allergic reaction that is so excessive it can be fatal. Fortunately, European honeybees are anything but aggressive. That's because, for many centuries, beekeepers have selected the queens of productive hives with relatively tame workers. Honeybees are domesticated insects. All the same, many people are scared of them. Their fear of bees, however, is nothing compared to the virtually universal terror of wasps. Yet most wasp species, like the European paper wasp to the right (middle), are rather good-tempered creatures. If they have a sting at all, they only use it in self-defence or to stun a prey. Regrettably, many people lump all bees, wasps and everything that somewhat resembles them together. Nothing to be ashamed of, for many non-human animals make the exact same mistake. It's no coincidence that so many perfectly harmless insects resemble honeybees, bumblebees or common wasps. There's no doubt the yellow and black pattern on the abdomen of the migrant hoverfly scares the daylights out of many potential enemies. A bee sting is unpleasant, but the pain isn't so bad and usually short-lived. Some insects, however, are vectors of serious, often life-threatening diseases. In the 14th century, for instance, fleas living on black rats infected people with the bacterium that caused the plague, an objectionable habit that is estimated to have killed at least a third of Europe's then population. Mosquitoes transmit the parasites that cause malaria, a disease that may still claim up to a million victims each year. Tsetse flies are vectors of sleeping sickness, while blood sucking insects like tiger mosquitoes spread the dengue and West Nile viruses. Sandflies spread Leishmaniasis and infect over 600,000 people each year, one in ten of whom will not survive. Of course, humans are not the only animals that are susceptible to viruses, bacteria and all kinds of dangerous parasites spread by insects. In August 2006, for instance, in Belgium and the Netherlands cases of bluetongue were found, a viral disease that mainly affects sheep and is spread by midges. It wasn't until the 19th century that scientists found out that insects can transmit diseases. Needless to say, this discovery did not exactly improve the already tarnished reputation of insects. At the start of the 1980s, when it became clear that HIV could not only be transmitted through sexual intercourse, but also through blood transfusions and by contaminated needles, many feared mosquitoes and other blood sucking insects could spread the virus that causes AIDS. A false alarm, thank goodness, but next time we may not be so lucky. A terrifying thought, isn't it?

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Of taste and colour

"God, Satan, Paradise, and Hell all vanished one day in my fifteenth year, when I quite abruptly lost my faith. (…) to prove my new-found atheism, I bought myself a rather tasteless ham sandwich, and so partook for the first time of the forbidden flesh of the swine. No thunderbolt arrived to strike me down." (Salman Rushdie)

By explicit order of Yahweh or Allah, his junior collegue, Jews and Muslims are not allowed to eat pork. This perfectly arbitrary interdiction is much older than both religions and probably based on an ancient taboo of some obscure desert tribe. Most religious people, however, find it hard to accept their God is just talking through the back of his neck. When asked, many will come up with an avalanche of so-called rational reasons that make no sense at all or have been refuted by science many times over. It usually boils down to the fallacy that eating pork is a health hazard. To Christians, that's ridiculous, and for once they are right. Just like billions of Asians, Africans, Oceanians and Latin Americans are right to ridicule Westerners that turn up their noses at the beetle larvae, caterpillars, bugs, grasshoppers and other insects they themselves relish. The delusion that people in the rest of the world only eat insects to keep them from starving is a good example of Western arrogance. They do it because, to them, some insects are a delicacy. When chimpanzees, our closest relatives, spend up to half an hour every day fishing for ants with a stick, that's not because they are hungry. It's because, to them, ants are a treat. In the eyes of both Yahweh and Allah, however, entomophagy is an abomination. Insects are not kosher; they are haram. There's one exception: locusts. For some unfathomable reason – or simply because Muhammad and his gang found them irresistible? – Muslims are allowed to eat locusts. They are halal. Unfortunately, Jewish dietary rules are less clear: Four kinds of locusts are kosher, but nobody knows with certainty which kinds those are. Just to be on the safe side, orthodox Jews steer clear of it. You wouldn't want to provoke the wrath of God by accidentally biting into the wrong kind of locust, would you?


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Fancy a cockroach sandwich?

Roasted, baked, cooked, fried, dried, smoked or simply raw and sometimes alive and wriggling: Worldwide, people are known to eat some 1,400 insect species. In many cases, they are a seasonal delicacy, comparable to hop shoots and asparagus in Belgium or soused herring in the Netherlands. The insects are gathered in the wild, usually by women and children, and sold in the local market, often bringing in more than half the family's income. Since the nutritional value of insects is perfectly comparable to that of meat, some people advocate large-scale, intensive breeding of all kinds of edible insects. Sounds like a great idea to me. Compared to pigs, cattle, sheep, goats or chickens, insects convert a far larger portion of their food into proteins and fats that are fit for human consumption, partially because they are cold-blooded and don't waste energy on keeping their body temperatures constant. They need far less food and water, often live off organic waste, produce hardly any excrement and other waste products, and take up far less space. Moreover, insects don't experience anything that even remotely resembles pain, nullifying at least one of the ethical arguments against the consumption of animal products. Given that the demand for animal proteins and fats will continue to grow for at least a few more decades, intensive breeding of insects opens up a potential gold mine. So why isn't more money being pumped into it? Probably because, in spite of their pretensions to the contrary, most substantial investors and companies are appallingly conservative and short-sighted and because, for the time being, most of the world's wealth is still concentrated in Europe and Northern America. Today, research into the possibilities of what is sometimes called mini-breeding – though this term also refers to breeding guinea pigs, worms, snails, frogs and other small creatures – is still mainly conducted in universities and other non-profit institutions. As the space available for breeding large animals and growing their feed decreases, while associated environmental impacts escalate, intensive insect breeding will eventually become an attractive and lucrative alternative. There's no doubt in my mind that, within twenty years, insects will appear on the menus of our gourmet restaurants and subsequently soon find their way into local supermarkets. Trendy, delicious, healthy and one hundred percent organic!


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Thou shalt not eat red M&Ms!

In Matonge, the Central African neighbourhood of the Brussels-Capital Region, roasted caterpillars and other insects have been for sale for many years. Today, of course, you can also order them on the Internet, but the assortment is very limited and, to put it mildly, rather expensive. A Dutch producer asks over 12 euros for less than 30 grams of freeze-dried locusts. For that price, in 2012, you can get two kilos of mixed mince in any supermarket. European producers of edible insects have my sympathy, but our climate is less or even not at all suited for the intensive breeding of most species. In tropical areas, where traditional livestock farming is often impossible, it is easier and far less expensive to breed insects. In fact, only two things are lacking to start doing it on a large scale right now: money and know-how. There's no question that intensive insect breeding is not only possible but can be profitable too. Honey, for instance, used to be a luxury product. Today, almost everywhere you can buy it for next to nothing. Silk is still relatively expensive, but no longer practically unaffordable. I wonder how many owners of silk pyjamas know their costly nightwear is made of the pods of a couple of hundred silkworms, the pupae of which, incidentally, are edible? Another great example is the cochineal. This Latin American insect thrives on certain cacti and has been intensively farmed for many centuries. Pulverized pregnant females of this scale insect produce carmine, a red colorant that is widely used in paints, cosmetics and food products. In the last case, at least in the European Union, the label should mention the product contains E120. Many lipsticks, soups, yoghurts, soft drinks, milkshakes and sweets owe their pink or red colour to this pigment extracted from insects. Red M&M's, for instance. A public secret, but when God-fearing Muslims found out about it, they reacted as if it was yet another hidden infringement by the perverted, ungodly West on their already so highly contested identity. For years they had unwittingly violated one of the commandments of a God that apparently concerns himself with trivialities: Thou shalt not, except for locusts, eat insects and therefore no red M&Ms either. Stark raving mad, but so what? Everyone has the right to make him or herself look foolish.

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A class of their own

According to the
Belgian Species List, in Belgium the class of insects (Insecta) is represented by 18,469 species. They belong to some twenty orders, most of which are represented in the garden at 37 Heuvelstraat. Six of these orders have so many species I treat them in a separate section. This way the species galleries remain orderly and uncluttered, which should allow visitors to quickly identify species and learn more about them. The disadvantage, of course, is that you have to know to which order the insect you are looking for belongs, which is not always obvious. With some luck, however, the photographs to the right will set you on the right track.


All in good order

The shell-like fore wings of Coleoptera or
beetles protect the fragile hind wings and usually completely cover them. Most species can fly, be it often somewhat clumsy. Beetles are holometabolous: their eggs produce larvae that moult, grow, pupate and undergo a complete metamorphosis.

The order
Odonata comprises the dragonflies and damselflies. They are hemimetabolous. The nymphs are aquatic and only leave the water just before the last partial metamorphosis. This final transformation is almost as spectacular as the emergence of a butterfly, which explains why the nymphs are often called larvae. Dragonflies are larger and more robust than damselflies. Their wings are always spread, even when resting.

The order
Hemiptera includes bugs, cicadas and aphids. Unlike beetles, these insects have a beak or rostrum. In the photograph of the dock bug to the right, it is clearly visible under the animal's head. Many Hemiptera species look like beetles, but both orders are anything but closely related. This is apparent from the way they reproduce. Hemiptera are hemimetabolous: Their eggs do not produce larvae, but nymphs that go through several incomplete metamorphoses.

The suborders Brachycera and Nematocera constitute the order
Diptera or flies. They have only one pair of wings. The hind wings of their ancestors evolved into halteres, small club-shaped organs that help to stabilize flight. Most Brachycera, such as domestic flies and robber flies, have short, sometimes barely visible antennae. Nematocera, such as crane flies and mosquitoes, usually have longer, often feathered antennae. Many Brachycera look like bees or wasps, while some Nematocera resemble moths. Butterflies, dragonflies, scorpionflies, sawflies and yet other insects commonly known as "flies" belong to entirely different orders.

The order
Hymenoptera comprises the bees, wasps, ants and sawflies. Except for some wingless species, they all have two pairs of wings. The hind wings are usually much smaller than the fore wings to which they are firmly attached by tiny hooked bristles. This explains why Hymenoptera often appear to have just one pair of wings. In the field, their antennae and the absence of halteres help to distinguish them from Diptera. Some species form colonies founded by a queen that takes care of reproduction. A remarkable way of living they share with termites, an insect order that is (as yet) not represented in Belgium and the Netherlands. Hymenoptera are holometabolous.

The order
Lepidoptera is commonly divided into diurnal butterflies and nocturnal moths. Since many so-called moths are more closely related to butterflies than to other moths, this doesn't make much sense. Lepidoptera are holometabolous and have two pairs of wings, long antennae and, usually, a long curled tongue or proboscis. Females of some species, such as the rusty tussock moth, have vestigial wings and are flightless.


Insect hotchpotch

Of the 18,469 insects in the Belgian Species List only 785 do not belong to one of the six orders above. The best known of these species are probably the grasshoppers. In the species gallery of the section Other insects you will also find earwigs, scorpionflies, mayflies, lacewings and species that belong to yet other insect orders. A bizarre mishmash.

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Sources and links to more information

  • Nils Møller Andersen & Lanna Cheng, The Marine Insect Halobates (Heteroptera: Gerridae): Biology, Adaptations, Distribution, and Phylogeny, Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review, 2004.
  • Heiko Bellmann, Insectengids, Tirion Natuur, 2010.
  • Waldemar Bonsels, Die Biene Maja und ihre Abenteuer – Roman für Kinder, Schuster u. Loeffler, 1912 (HTML version Project Gutenberg).
  • Book of Insect Records, University of Florida, 2009.
  • Buginfo, Smithsonian Institution, 2012.
  • Chris Buskes, Evolutionair denken: de invloed van Darwin op ons wereldbeeld, Uitgeverij Nieuwezijds, 2006.
  • Michael Chinery, Nieuwe Insectengids, Tirion Natuur, 2007.
  • Midas Dekkers, De larf – Over kinderen en metamorfose, Uitgeverij Contact, 2002.
  • Dimensions of need – An atlas of food and agriculture, FAO, 1995.
  • Stephen Jay Gould, A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, Natural History, 1978 (PDF).
  • Stephen Jay Gould, De duim van de panda - Over evolutie & ontwikkeling, Uitgeverij Contact, 1993.
  • Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism – Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Back Bay Books, 2008 (Chapter 10, Food for Life).
  • Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung, DigBib.Org, 2011 (PDF).
  • Franz Kafka, Verzameld werk, Querido, 1985.
  • Nick Lane, Oxygen – The Molecule that made the World, Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Simon Hugh Piper Maddrell, Why are there no Insects in the Open Sea?, The Company of Biologists Limited, 1998 (PDF).
  • Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa – A Study of Adolescence and Sex in Primitive Societies, Penguin Books, 1978.
  • Jelle Reumer, De ontplofte aap – Opkomst en ondergang van de mens, Uitgeverij Contact, 2005.
  • Salman Rushdie, Imaginary homelands – Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, Penguin Books, 1992.
  • Dick Swaab, Wij zijn ons brein – Van baarmoeder tot alzheimer, Uitgeverij Contact, 2012.
  • Arnold van Huis, Insecten als voedsel, 2006 (PDF).
  • Edward O. Wilson, Het Veelvormige Leven, Uitgeverij Contact, 1994.

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Geraardsbergen, 5 June 2012.
Latest revision: 5 June 2012.