MURDER HORNETS, KILLER SPIDERS, AND GIANT MOSQUITOS, OH MY!
Today's guest post is by ALLISON ZAHOREC, a PhD student in the Department of Entomology at Michigan State University
If you’ve been active on social media over the past couple months, chances are that articles such as “Murder Hornets Invade the United States” or “’Murder Hornets’, with sting that can kill, land in US” have come across your Twitter feed or Facebook wall. While the buzz about murder hornets, more accurately known as the Asian giant hornet, is the most recent sensational insect story to go viral online, it is far from the only one. In the summer of 2018, a post warning “NEW DEADLY SPIDER SPREADS ACROSS USA”, accumulated over 2 million shares on Facebook, making it so far as to receive some local coverage in the states where the alleged “SPIDER FROM HELL” was spotted.
New stories about insects and other arthropodal ‘creepy crawlies’ such as these can rapidly spread over social media platforms. Sometimes twisted from fact – two Asian giant hornets, the infamously dubbed ‘murder hornets’, were found in Washington State this May – or pure fiction as with the ‘SPIDER FROM HELL’, these stories share several key elements: they are overly sensationalized, highly scaremongering, and play upon the West’s cultural revulsion towards insects. The negative attitudes many harbor towards insects have a number of different causes that have deeply ingrained the fear and distrust of insects in American society.
For the insect aficionados that see these posts for what they are, it might feel easy to scroll past posts with an eyeroll, as I know I have in the past. “No one would buy this nonsense” I’d think. But the comment section, filled with exclamations of “disgusting!!!” and barfing emojis, tells a different story. For much of the general public, these alarmist stories spread on the internet may be the only insect-related news most people will come across. These stories reinforce the negative perception many hold towards 6 and 8-legged animals. In their eyes, as is most reflected in the common comment of “kill it with fire”, they are a confirmation that insects and spiders are dangerous pests that the world would be better off without.
While these attitudes towards insects and spiders are by no means new, their propagation and proliferation on social media sites come at a time when insects are facing much more than bad media coverage. Numerous studies have uncovered that insect numbers are declining worldwide. News on the state of the world’s insects reached the public in 2017 with the Krefeld Entomological Society’s finding that total insect biomass, or the total weight of insects collected from traps across Germany, had declined significantly – over 75% percent – since insect surveying first began almost 30 years prior to the study’s publication. In April, Roel van Klink at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research and his colleagues re-analyzed earlier studies and found that global insect abundances are falling at a rate of almost 1% per year. The possible explanations for these losses are numerous and vary across regions and habitats. However the major culprits are exactly those currently threatening countless other species: habitat destruction, the introduction of invasive species, and global climate change. Facing such immense threats as these, insects can no longer afford the bad PR on social media sites.
While there is certainly a need for people to call out viral insect hit pieces when they arise, pointing out what makes them problematic isn’t enough, especially when many people already perceive insects as something to fear or loathe. Whereas insect eating, or entomophagy, is commonplace around most of the globe, European and American societies lack the historical and cultural association between insects and food. Instead, people from these societies more commonly associate insects with disease, filth, and destruction. The fear of insects may also be partially instinctual, though the threat of insects and spiders today in the age of modern medicine are disproportionally small relative to the horror and disgust many still hold on to. To successfully combat them, root of the problem needs addressing: much of what the public knows about insects is negative. Most people know that bees ands wasps can deliver painful stings, that mosquitos and ticks spread harmful diseases, that termites can damage homes. What doesn’t spread with the same impetus are the stories about how wonderful insects are. Fascinating insect tales abound for those that look for them. One example: Olli Loukola at Queen Mary University of London and colleagues found bumblebees could be trained to “play ball” when offered a reward, further indicating that insects are capable of complex learning . There are countless positive stories about the many benefits insects have on humans as well. For instance, caterpillar cells are now used in the production of the flu vaccine Flublok Quadrivalent, which provides better protection for older adults and the elderly than its egg-based counterpart. Furthermore, the energizing buzz we get from a cup of coffee wouldn’t be possible without insects, as coffee plants (and all other natural caffeine sources) evolved caffeine as pesticide against the insects that feed on them.
There is no shortage of stories showing how amazing insects are and all the good they do for us and the environment. The issue is that it can be hard to share them. As asserted by Dr. Adrian Smith, a professional entomologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences & North Carolina State University who also runs the YouTube channel “Ant Lab”, “it can be physically hard to appreciate what (insects) do because they do it on a scale that’s completely different from our own”. The average person is unable to observe the intricate society and division of labor in ant colonies yet will quickly understand their defensive capabilities when accidentally stepping on an ant hill.
A study conducted at the Smithsonian’s Bug Zoo found that a single negative experience with insects could change a person’s perception of insects. To change the public’s perception of insects from alien monstrosities to awe-inspiring animals crucial our continued existence, people need a chance to experience the many positive aspects of insects in ways that are just as poignant. While museums, outreach programs, and zoos offer such opportunities to guests through intricate displays, demonstrations, or hands-on activity, they only reach those who are able or willing to come to them. Social media platforms on the other hand allows entomologists and SciCommers to reach an unprecedented number of people from around the world.
There are already numerous talented and passionate SciCommers within entomological spheres that have been leading the push to spread the wonderful world of insects with a wider audience. Dr. Smith’s use of macro videography offers viewers an up-close view of ant life that is otherwise mostly hidden below ground. The Ask An Entomologist twitter page provides answers to peoples’ questions in addition to posting an abundance of bug-related topics, and The Bug Chicks have produced numerous videos and educational materials on the wonderful world of insects for all age groups.
These and other entomologist science communicators are leading the push to change people’s perceptions of insects. But the fight to win over a trepidatious public is far from over. It is now easier than ever before for entomologists at any career stage to take promote their science to broader audiences, it’s now up to us to take advantage of these opportunities and help squash the spread of insect fear mongering.