Here comes Halloween – let’s eat candy, dress up, and get scared out of our minds!
If you’re anything like me, quite a few things freak you out – any killer in a horror film, zombies, heights, tight spaces, and, as much as I love the bugs in the Biosphere, insects.
Anyone who has ever watched My Girl knows what I’m talking about.
Insects are small, easily crushed by a boot or swatted by a newspaper, and yet, I am convinced that all the animated bug movies in the world still couldn’t make me less likely to squeal when I feel an insect crawling on my skin. It is estimated that 25 percent of our population is intensely afraid of insects and spiders, with even more people falling somewhere along the spooked spectrum. There are thousands of insects, but only 1-3 percent of those are harmful to humans. So why are people so afraid of them?
Because some insects ARE dangerous:
Most bites and stings aren’t too dangerous to humans, but a very small number can be quite harmful. Mosquito bites – deadly diseases. Wasps and bees – severe allergic reactions. Black Widow venom – a potential hospital visit. It’s not a large number of insects, but those few can do some damage. There is a human phenomenon in which, despite the statistic improbability, we still believe something will happen to us. The likelihood I will get bitten by a shark is 1 in over 3 million. Am I still a little terrified to swim out in the ocean? Absolutely. So, while it is statistically improbable that you will be seriously injured by an insect, you still might run away when one gets too close. Funnily enough, that’s the insect’s first line of defense too – running away. Bites and stings are often an insect’s last resort if they sense danger.
Because they give us the ick:
Fear of insects is not purely fear, it is often also wrapped up in disgust. Disgust can be influenced by culture, but also comes from biology. Psychologists say disgust involves a “rejection response”, an overwhelming feeling that you need to get away from something immediately. Disgust intermingled with fear keeps us safe by triggering a flight response. But, sometimes that flight response is not necessary because we are not in as much danger as our disgust leads us to believe.
Because they’re different:
In terms of appearance, most insects just aren’t approachable. I know, I know, it’s shallow of me to say, but think about all those legs, eyes, pincers, and antennae. Their movements are unpredictable, and their small size makes them hard to keep track of. Their alien appearance contributes to our fear. The insects we are usually less afraid of like butterflies and ladybugs appear more delicate and pretty, while centipedes with their never-ending legs and tarantulas with their sharp fangs are scary enough to make us scream and run in the opposite direction. Our Chief Entomologist Marissa Harrison says, “The legs get people, the different mouth parts, not knowing if they can bite you or not. Even for keepers, the feet are bothersome because they have little sticky pads and hooks. So especially grasshoppers and katydids, the combination of Velcro, magnet, glue, they just catch on to anything and it doesn’t feel great on your skin.” Our fear also escalates when their numbers increase. Just thinking about a pit full of beetles or a swarm of hornets makes me squirm.
Whether or not insects creep you out does not change the fact that they are a crucial part of any ecosystem. Marissa says, “The best way to combat your insect fears is getting desensitized. Look for them in your habitats, get comfortable seeing them close to you, and learn about why they are important in their habitat. They usually play some significant role whether they’re a decomposer, a pollinator, or they hunt other bugs or feed birds.”
It’s almost Halloween, but insects really aren’t as scary as they seem! There are still a few days left of Spooktakular in the Biosphere – check out some cool bugs, go on a scavenger hunt, learn about the pumpkin science experiment, and see if you can spot the special orange and black butterflies fluttering in the conservatory!