“I like insects for their stupidity,” wrote the American author Annie Dillard in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk. “I hope we seem as endearingly stupid to God – bumbling down into lamps, running half-wit across the floor, banging for days at the hinge of an open door.” Even those of us who like insects, such as Dillard and myself, have to admit they don’t do themselves any favours. They are, with a few exceptions, irrefutably ugly and they do seem pretty stupid – or perhaps it is just that, since they live out their lives in near silence, they never make the point of their bumbling behaviour clear to us.
A new series of events at London’s Wellcome Collection, titled “Who’s the Pest?”, aims to make us look anew at these disparaged but actually quite indispensable creatures, who pollinate our flowers, turn waste matter into fertile soil and, if we could just get over a bit of cultural conditioning that makes the thought of eating them revolting, are the most reliable and sustainable protein source on the planet. The Welcome Collection’s programme of events includes “a gastronomic evening of insect appreciation” at which insect canapés will be served. The whole series aims to explore the “entwined, co-dependent and timeless love story between humans and insects”.
Love story may be pushing it a bit. In human imaginings, insects have mainly been used as a metaphor for futility and insignificance. “God in his wisdom invented the fly,” wrote Ogden Nash, “and then forgot to tell us why.” The insects of the Australian jungle on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, eaten in bushtucker trials or dumped en masse on ex-soap stars and celebrity chefs, suffer an extreme version of this centuries-long condescension and revulsion.
It is true we have always reserved a grudging respect for the Hymenoptera, the insects like bees and ants that build elaborate nests and form social groups. Ever since Plato, who admired the way ants could lead such complex social existences without need of the philosophical meaning-making that he considered a condition of human life, we have been fascinated by the tiny, self-contained universes these insects create. Virgil looked inside a beehive and saw a little model of Roman society, “the marvellous spectacle of a tiny world and great-hearted leaders”. But this respect for the efficient hierarchies of ants and bees has usually been accompanied by a feeling that there is something alien and soulless about their overly structured lives. “Still we live meanly, like ants,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. “Our life is frittered away by detail.”
There are, however, signs that we are learning to pay more attention to insects, as more of us recognise that without them, the world’s ecosystems would collapse. This growing awareness is partly thanks to the charity Buglife, which has just begun a project to create “living roofs”, transforming the tops of urban buildings into wildflower meadows to provide havens for insects. A recent series on BBC4, Alien Nation, was devoted entirely to the insect world. It included a jaw-dropping programme, Planet Ant, which recreated a million-strong colony of leafcutter ants at the Glasgow Science Centre, in specially designed tunnels that allowed cameras to see inside. Within weeks, the colony had built a whole working metropolis, with everything from ant crèches to ant graveyards. Ants do not live quite as meanly as Thoreau thought. The study of the application of ant behaviour to human society – so-called ant-colony optimisation – is a growing field, used to work out things like traffic flow, the efficient delivery of goods and the positioning of emergency exits in buildings.
We are starting to realise that insects are pivotal to our lives, not something to be noticed only irritatedly as we squirt them with fly spray or swot them away. Our ignorance and dismissal of them is part of the universal human urge to step over the things commonest and closest to us, to ignore the unglamorous and ubiquitous in favour of the rare and beautiful. It says more about us than it does about them.