There’s more to ‘bugs’, or invertebrates, than just natural history. For centuries they have entered our lives and thoughts in countless ways. They please and annoy us in equal measure. We have given them nicknames, found parallels in their existence and ours, harnessed them for our own use, and invested them with symbolism and magic.
Here we explore the always fascinating, often amusing and occasionally revolting meeting ground between people and bugs.
The phlegmatic snail
PG Wodehouse thought that snails were rather dull animals “lacking in sustained dramatic interest”. Others admire them. Snails carry their ‘houses’ on their backs – a brilliant idea – and their shells suggest that they are prudent, too. In old manuscripts, knights can be seen praying in front of snails, or fighting them. Their coiled shells might have been emblematic of the tomb of Christ, but they were also a symbol of sloth.
Today’s snail fans can attend the World Snail-Racing Championships at Congham in Norfolk (the appropriately named Snailwell in Cambridgeshire hosts a rival contest). Up to 200 molluscs slug it out over a 35cm course. The prize? A tankard full of lettuce.
The insatiable leech
In ancient myth, the leech was the most gluttonous of all creatures. It would drink blood, and go on drinking until it burst. It was said to hatch spontaneously from the dung left by drinking animals, which meant that the next blood meal was never far away. The Roman naturalist Pliny was struck by how this humble ‘worm’ could turn the tables on the mightiest of animals, even the elephant.
The leech also lent its name to leechcraft, the art of lowering blood pressure as a cure. Leeches were gathered from ponds, mainly by poor countrywomen using their feet as bait, and kept in marble jars. They are still bred for medicine; the slogan of Britain’s top leech farm is “the biting edge of science”.
The terrifying spider
What causes arachnophobia? Children are naturally inquisitive and tolerant of creepy- crawlies, but they will always be guided by the reactions of their parents. Some people have been turned off for life by a leggy house spider dropped down their blouse. Others associate spiders with dirt, though they are, in fact, clean and pernickety. Most of all, perhaps, we think they have too many legs.
We are so afraid of spiders that we invent tales to make them even more fearful. They were said to be living bottles of poison, hence their old folk name of attercop or ‘poison-head’, and they supposedly lick spittle from our lips as we sleep. All nonsense, but based on their alien appearance and sinister lives.
The resplendent butterfly
Why are they called butterflies? Maybe the original butterfly was the butter-yellow male brimstone, often the first species to appear in early spring. Some say that butterfly is only ‘flutterby’ backwards, or speculate that it was originally ‘beauty-fly’.
But there is no doubt that ‘butter’ means butter. The word goes back more than 1,000 years, and is the same in Dutch and German. A clue lies in the alternative German name schmetterling, meaning milk or cream, and the folk name milchdieb, or milk-thief. Butterflies, it turns out, really are attracted to milk churns, perhaps by a pheromone. However, in modern enclosed dairies they rarely get the chance.
The inscrutable woodlouse
Bibble bug, monkeypede, tiddy-hog, grammar-zow, coffin-cutter, slater: there are more than 80 country names for the woodlouse. Some recall the way in which it curls up tight when disturbed, resembling a round cheese (‘cheesy-bob’), pill (‘pill-pig’), pea (‘pea-bug’) or old-fashioned silk button (‘Billy button’). But most of all, we see the creature as a little pig, as in choogy-pig, an affectionate West Country name for a piglet.
We also invent private monikers for the woodlouse. Research for Bugs Britannica uncovered such delightful epithets as ‘Johnny Crump’ and ‘Dougal spider’, the latter based on its resemblance to the dog in the animated series The Magic Roundabout.
The bewitching moth
What do moths and dreams have in common? As winged creatures of the dark, these insects have long haunted the human imagination. Most of us are asleep when they are active, though we may glimpse them at a lighted window or bright light. Some believe that pale moths are the souls of the dead, while large, dark ones are known in Caribbean folk culture as ‘witches’.
In ancient times, the personification of the soul was the goddess Psyche, often represented by artists and romantic poets with moth wings, or even as a moth. Her name survives to this day in the word ‘psychology’, and of course ‘psychiatry’ – Sigmund Freud’s science of dreams.
The iconic stag beetle
Around London in the 1940s, the baritone drone of flying stag beetles sounded a bit like incoming V1 buzz-bombs, earning them the nickname of ‘doodlebugs’. The British capital remains a magnet for these splendid beetles, with three-quarters of all UK records coming from the city’s suburban gardens and hospital grounds.
Stag beetles are named for their outsize jaws, similar to the horns of a roe deer buck. Males use them to wrestle, sumo-style, with rivals (the loser is tossed out of the tree). Boys used to keep the pugilistic insects in matchboxes to stage tiny gladiatorial battles.
The humble earthworm
Unfortunately, the English language is hard on worms. To call someone a worm is to insinuate that they are the lowest form of life; wormy means grovelling abjectly. A worm’s-eye view is to see things from the very bottom. Think ‘worm’ and we picture something wriggling on an angler’s hook.
Yet we wouldn’t last long without worms to aerate the ground and fertilise it with their droppings. Worms, said Aristotle, are the intestines of the soil. Gilbert White thought that their loss would result in a “lamentable chasm”; the earth would be left “hardbound and sterile”.
After getting On the Origin of Species off his chest, Darwin spent countless hours studying “the politic worm”.