A Box of Buggy TalesJul 30, 2020 11:25AM ● By Michael Gerardi
In loving memory of James K. Grimm, professor of biology at James Madison University.
Folklore is a collection of tall tales and unbelievable beliefs that are shared by the young and the young at heart.
You don’t learn folklore in school. Folklore is too cool for school. Folklore is passed from person to another, over and over. Sometimes when people tell a tale, the tale gets taller—that is, people tell more than what they were told. Although the tales are not true and the beliefs are not believable, folklore is truly unbelievable!
Popular tales include Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby, and the giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. There you go! That’s a tall tale: an ox with a blue tail.
There are tall tales and popular beliefs about bugs, too. That collection of collectible tales and beliefs is known as insect folklore.
Insects bug us every day. Bed bugs sleep in our bed. Cocktail ants drink in our house, and that little stinker, the stinkbug, leaves stinkers wherever he goes. That’s all he doo! There are gazillions of insects. They can be found in many sizes, shapes, and colors. They crawl over and under your footsteps. They buzz around your head and in your nose and ears. Sometimes they get stuck on you.
When we did not understand the habits of our little bedfellows and housemates, insects became the source of many tall tales and beliefs. They were given funny names, and they were used to predict the weather, make potions for the sick, and play cupid. Perhaps the best way to enjoy some of these tall tales and beliefs is to open a box of insect folklore. Let’s call it a Cracker Jacks® box—one filled with caramel corn, peanuts, and...insects! Go ahead. Sit down. Open your box and munch on a bunch of caramel corn and peanuts and enjoy, if you can, whatever surprise crawls, jumps, or flies from your box.
So, what’s in your box? Some of the insects rushing out of it, or hiding inside, have funny names. And here they are: bombardier beetle, pot-carrier beetle, dung beetle, and inchworm.
The bombardier beetle “dive bombs” you and squirts you with a boiling hot liquid. It zings and stings. The pot-carrier beetle can’t dive bomb, because he can’t fly. His wings are too small to carry his weight, and they look like tiny pots. He carries his pots and crawls on you and gives you a scratch, or is it an itch? So you itch the scratch, or you scratch the itch.
Pee-yew! What is that awful smell? It’s not those stinkbugs, even though they do stink. Running from the box and looking for a place to go is the busy dung beetle. She’s collected the dung or poop of an animal (that’s the stinky part) and shaped it into a ball. She’ll lay her eggs in the ball and roll it away. Where? I hope not in a Cracker Jacks® box!
You can’t overlook the caterpillar slowly crawling to the top of the Cracker Jacks® box. It’s the inchworm. It has legs on the front of its body and legs on its back. But it has no legs on the middle. So this caterpillar walks with a looping motion, as if it were measuring inches without a ruler.
Here come the first weather forecasters. Ants, crickets, and others were used to predict everything from temperature, the arrival of the first frost, dry and rainy days, and how bitter the winter would be.
Did you know that crickets chirp faster when warm and slower when cold? Because they do, some people considered crickets to be accurate thermometers. To know the temperature, they counted the number of chirps a cricket makes in fifteen seconds, then added forty to that number.
If you listen to the music that some insects make, you might hear a symphony that predicts the arrival of the first frost. Crickets would squeak, chatter flies would chitter-chatter, cicadas would rattle like tiny tambourines, and, three months before the first frost, katydids would bleep like a goat. However, if the katydids bleep just “Kate” instead of “Kate-ee-did,” the first frost was soon on its way.
The smallest of the weather forecasters are the ants. You could watch ants at work and quickly tell if it would be dry or rainy. If ants were widening the opening of their nest or piling dirt high around the entrance to their nest, dry weather was soon to arrive. However, if ants were closing the entrance to their nest or carrying their eggs from one nest to another, rainy weather was coming.
How cold might the coming winter be? Look at the two-toned wooly bear caterpillar and make your prediction. The beginning and end of winter would be colder than the middle if the colored bands at each end of the caterpillar are larger than the middle band. All of winter would be mild if the bands at each end of the caterpillar are smaller than the band in the middle.
If your box of folklore is not empty, you may want to gather ’round with the kinfolks as the last of the insects leave. Itty bity bed begs and dirty cockroaches no longer hide in the caramel corn and peanuts, and butterflies get their chance to open their wings and dance. From bug stew to Cupid’s crew, take a view at what the kinfolks thought these insects could do.
A mix of bed bugs, cockroaches, sweet oil, red pepper, and lard were boiled together to make a bug stew, or is it a witch’s brew? A sip-a-day of this stew would do to cure earaches and red eye. And its smell was sure to keep the doctor, and other family members, away.
The subject of love is as old as man and insects. So it’s not surprising to find that insects, especially butterflies, are associated with many affairs of the heart. In insect folklore, Cupid’s arrows were butterflies, so many folks watched the flight of butterflies to find their sweetheart. For instance, if a little girl made a wish for a sweetheart with a white butterfly in her hand, the direction the butterfly flew when released would show the little girl where to watch for her sweetheart. Easy, right? If you already have a sweetheart, what wish would you make with your white butterfly? Would it be for another box of insect folklore?