Writing about insect life by Edmund Gordon, James Meek, Miriam Rothschild, Richard Fortey, Hugh Pennington, Inga Clendinnen, Thomas Jones and Ange Mlinko.

Insects dart suddenly towards you. They lurk in crevices; they take to the air. They can seem indestructible. It probably isn’t true that cockroaches could survive a nuclear explosion, but they can withstand much higher levels of radiation than humans; fruit flies can withstand even more.

There is something reassuringly democratic about the maggot nurseries our bodies become if they are left in the open, or in a shallow grave. The insects make no distinctions of race, rank, sex, age or wealth. We’re just a place for them to grow up and feed. It’s more than humbling: it’s heartening – we’re organic, too, and in the end nature recovers the meals we’ve taken from it, by eating us back.

Disturbingly Slender Waists

Miriam Rothschild, 25 October 1990

When one considers that these insects are apparently impervious to hard radiation, that colonies exposed to caesium-based irradiation seem unaffected, and that some species survive when exposed to industrial pollution, then one may feel that the future as well as the past may well belong to the ants.

Tasty Butterflies: Entomologists

Richard Fortey, 24 September 2009

Insects were recruited into the debate about the reality of evolution through natural selection, a tradition that still continues with the universal use of the fruit fly Drosophila as the model organism for genetic experiments. Unlike leopards, insects really can change their spots, and colour can be used to aid deception.

Bug-Affairs: Bedbugs!

Hugh Pennington, 6 January 2011

Bedbugs can hitch-hike long distances and ride about town. But how good they are at very local travel remains undetermined. Urban myths have been around for a long time. ‘Bedbugs are popularly credited with an amazing amount of intelligence,’ observed the British Ministry of Health’s ‘Report on the Bedbug’ in 1934.

Vlad the Impaler: Hairy Humbert

Inga Clendinnen, 10 August 2000

Ever since Lolita ignited the American literary scene in the late 1950s Vladimir Nabokov has been the most famous lepidopterist in the world – indeed, the only one most of us have ever heard of. The covers of books written about him quiver with these interesting insects; even the name ‘Nab-o-koV’, properly spread, seems to have a butterfly look to it.

We routinely use figurative language drawn from the human sphere when talking about ants – queen, soldier, worker – and there’s a long literary history of comparing people to ants: the Trojan soldiers leaving Carthage in Book Four of the Aeneid, for example. But in both cases it’s important not to confuse resemblance with identity.

Poem: ‘Moth Orchid’

Ange Mlinko, 12 August 2021

I like – don’t you? – that it has an insect tattooed/in its sanctum sanctorum, a suitor’s pseud./That’s one aspect of its ghostliness, its moon-tones,/its utter prescience, not to mention cojones.

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