The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-Legged Legends

Michelle Harvey gets to the bottom of some of the most popular tales of horror surrounding insects

October 15, 2009

Bestiaries served, particularly in the Middle Ages, as tales of real or mythical beasts, presenting moral and other lessons as integral facets of the tales. In a current-day context, society still embraces such stories in the form of urban legends. And it is no surprise, given their ubiquity, that insects and arthropods, the creepy-crawlies of nightmares for many, have become the focus of such stories.

The Earwig's Tail is a compelling exploration of arthropod-related urban legends. Berenbaum explores the stories' origins - occasionally scientific but more often not - from the etymological issues of how the earwigs got their name through to the plausibility of cockroaches growing inside one's tongue.

It is a fascinating collection of short, sharp chapters, each starting with a common myth that Berenbaum investigates through the popular media and more reputable scientific research. She looks for the origin of the legends, and assesses the scientific credibility behind the claims. Written in an entertaining and engaging style, this is a light-hearted and enjoyable critique of some of the public perceptions and misconceptions surrounding our six-legged friends.

Some of the chapters are not for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached, exploring issues in entomophagy, the eating of insects. Arthropods are an important part of the staple diet in many cultures, and, as Berenbaum explains, also play a role in cheese production. Altenburger, a German cheese, is said to be deliberately infested by a species of mite, which transforms during production into a grey powder that includes the mites, their excrement and cast-off skins. Should this not appeal, a Sardinian cheese is infested by cheese skipper maggots. When ingested, the maggots can pass through the digestive tract unscathed, but often cause unpleasant side effects. While it is illegal to sell the cheese owing to these effects, the author claims there is a healthy black market.

Wartime creates wonderful habitats for some of the insect parasites living on the human body. A combination of factors such as climate, reduced personal hygiene, and surrounding death, debris and squalor, provide ideal breeding and transmission opportunities. Berenbaum describes the "sand fleas" - an assemblage of arthropods including biting midges and fleas - that plagued American troops during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. The use of flea and tick collars designed for cats and dogs was apparently widespread, sent from well-meaning family and friends back home to help repel the biting menaces. What the senders did not consider was the effect of the chemicals impregnated in the collars on a human host, with some troops reporting ill effects from the neurotoxins. When ear tags developed for horses and cattle began to appear in care packages, intervention was required to protect the troops.

While the US troops were keen to rid themselves of their ectoparasitic companions, deliberate infestation and transmission is apparently a popular pastime. In various forms of zoophilia, humans derive pleasure from insect residents, including ants and pubic lice. Berenbaum cites research that indicates, however, that despite an apparent love of these creatures by some individuals, the incidence of sexually transmitted pubic lice is decreasing rapidly. The increased popularity of the "Brazilian" wax has led to extensive habitat loss, and the author questions whether a conservation plan will be warranted before their extinction. That is certainly one to ponder.

Do drunk ants really always fall down on their left sides? Is it true that the cockroach would be the only organism to survive a nuclear holocaust? Can a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil really cause a tornado in Texas? If you have ever wondered about any of these issues, or received a warning about an insect and questioned its veracity, Berenbaum has the answers. She leaves the reader with some interesting questions, some entertaining anecdotes, and some possibilities that even an entomologist might not want to consider. A must-read for the entomologist, the entomophobic and anyone who has ever wondered whether mutant insects with six-foot wingspans could take over the Earth.

The Earwig's Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-Legged Legends

By May R. Berenbaum

Harvard University Press

216pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780674035409

Published 24 September 2009

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