Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Bugs and the Victorians
By John F Mcdiarmid Clark
Yale £25, 322 pages
FT Bookshop price: £20

Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War
By Jeffrey A Lockwood
OUP £15.99, 376 pages
FT Bookshop price: £12.79

The Lives of Ants
By Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon, Translated by James Grieve
OUP £14.99, 252 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99

The Super-Organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies
By Bert Hölldobler and Edward O Wilson
Norton £30, 522 pages
FT Bookshop price: £24

While the American press was ragging on Barack Obama recently for dithering over how tough to talk to the Iranian government, the president did hit one target to lethal effect. With a whiplash swat, he took down a fly that had the cheek to buzz him during a television interview. “Got the sucker,” he said, urging the cameraman to film the tiny corpse lying on the White House carpet, hairy feet in the air.

The quarry may have been small but the president was doing his bit for public health and safety. Insect literature has long been divided between viewing flies as noxious pests or pollinating benefactors; plagues or blessings. Along with fleas, lice, cockroaches and mosquitoes, houseflies have always triggered our instincts of extermination.

In 1915, for example, as JFM Clark’s teemingly rich Bugs and the Victorians tells us, Kansas’s secretary of health organised a public sanitation parade, which featured a giant housefly “dragging 13 black empty baby buggies”. The crap-happy bugs were denounced all over the “civilised world” as baby-killers, vectors of shigella bacteria that carried off multitudes of the young in dysenteric and diarrhoeal diseases.

A campaign was launched to advertise its lethal threat by changing the insect’s name from the misleadingly cosy “housefly” to “typhoid fly”. “Regard every fly as your enemy,” boomed an advisory from the American Medical Association. Children were taught to chant the “Song of the Fly”: “Straight from the rubbish heap I come/ I never wash my feet/ And every single chance I get/ I walk on what you eat.”

Not much has changed since, as shown by a succession of books on the subject to the present day. In 1951, Luther S West, author of a 584-page encyclopedic work on the housefly, warned that his pet topic was “the most dangerous insect in the world”. In 1993, the Chinese government launched a nationwide extermination campaign. From a capture of nearly 400,000 flies, it discovered that each insect from a slum area carried 3.6m bacteria; flies from smarter neighbourhoods carried a mere 1.9m.

Even today, the World Health Organisation estimates that 164m cases of shigellosis – an infection often caused by fly-borne contamination – occur around the globe each year. About 1.1m die from the illness, mostly in developing countries. Common houseflies, with icky stuff carried on their hairy probosces and feet, are baby-killers: 69 per cent of fatal cases occur in those aged under five.

Of course none of this deterred Bruce Friedrich of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals from protesting to Obama about his cruelty to the offending fly. Peta recommends “compassion even for the most curious, smallest and least sympathetic of animals”. A humane trap, it promised, was on its way to the White House so that in future, flies could be caught and released – delivering a promise of shigella landing somewhere other than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

You could, of course, make a case that it is we humans who are the true pest and have created the enemy-insect. Housefly-born gastric diseases became an urban plague in the 19th century, says Clark, an environmental historian. This enabled insects to feast on mountains of manure dropped by carriage horses. Ticks carried by white-tailed deer and mice turned into a public health problem in the US, he adds, when suburban sprawl brought Bambis and gardeners into constant proximity.

This idea that it was humans, not insects, who were at fault has been a pervasive idea. No schlock-horror B movie of the 1950s was complete without a stern moral message, delivered by a Wellesian oracle in a white lab coat, that insect infestation was caused by man’s Interfering Ways with Nature. Them! (1954) featured giant mutated ants; Monster from Green Hell (1958) (my favourite, seen in an Algarve movie house with punters spitting sunflower seeds at the back of my neck) sees man attempt to fight a plague of giant wasps with hand grenades.

This theme is taken in quite a different direction in Jeffrey A Lockwood’s painfully compelling Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War. As the entomologist chronicles exhaustively, it is not insects’ fault that, from antiquity onwards, they have been “weaponized”. The Hatrians of Mesopotamia hurled scorpion-loaded vessels at their Roman besiegers, the arthropods sedated with monkshood until landing on their targets. The Emir of Bokhara specialised in having assassin-bugs gnaw away at the flesh of his English prisoners. And the US government worked on dropping black-faced leafhoppers to destroy the Cuban sugar cane and rice crops as a weapon against Fidel Castro’s revolution.

But one culture’s noxious abomination might be another’s dainty dish, as Lockwood notes. Locusts, for example, were often Jehovah’s weapon of choice against the foe, but turn out in Leviticus to be kosher – they’re a species in which, bafflingly, their knees extend down to their feet. Yemeni cookbooks recommend them baked in clay. And alongside an ingrained aversion for the creepy and an adversarial literature chronicling the stingers and the stung, is an equally rich tradition of entomological wonder, reaching all the way back to antiquity.

The beehive, with its miraculously regular hexagonal cells, became a favourite model for poets, playwrights and political philosophers searching in the animal kingdom for an exemplum of a productive and well-governed commonwealth, with its orderly division of labour between worker drones and sedentary sovereigns (for centuries mistakenly mischaracterised as kings) and its prolific production of wax and honey. Dynasties such as the Barberini of baroque Rome and the Bonapartes annexed the image of the busy bee as an emblem of beneficent tirelessness; the rulers armed to sting in the interest of the hive. As an instance of how man and insect could live in harmonious interdependence, the tended hive testified to the Creator’s genius at complementing the needs of the humble and the mighty.

Clark’s elegantly written book documents the ways in which early 19th-century entomologists such as William Spence, and his friend and Tory clergyman William Kirby, projected on to their studies of the insect world their own predilections for ordered governance. It also records, touchingly, a growing sense of affection for nature’s little helpers. Thomas Nutt’s Humanity to Honey Bees (1832), dedicated to William IV’s consort, Queen Adelaide, declared that since “no colony of bees deprived of its queen, ever prospers or long survives such loss” he had devised a “rational hive” with interlinked chambers that would obviate the need to smoke out the swarm and destroy the bee republic to collect the wax and honey. Were Nutt still around to witness the widespread collapse of bee colonies over the past few years, with its threat to wipe out whole varieties of horticulture from loss of pollination, he would doubtless warn that where bees die, human culture, or at any rate its fruit, perishes not long after.

So the story of the insects is, inevitably, also a history of man’s relative place in creation. And the more we know about the former – and thanks to great pioneers such as Harvard biologist EO Wilson that knowledge has become a revolutionary illumination – the more sobering the evaluation of our own species.

Darwin described himself as a “decayed entomologist” after he abandoned beetle-hunting but used evidence of complex insect behavioural skills to refute those who argued the unbridgeable difference between animals responsive to brute instinct and rationally-instructed humans.

Insects were a spectacle of wonder to those who thought like Darwin. Nineteenth-century politician and biologist John Lubbock kept the elaborate structure of an ant nest on show in glass-sided cases in his house, where he welcomed visitors such as Bismarck and Gladstone. Its passages and chambers, and the co-operatively mapped pathways of foraging, seemed proof enough of insect sentience. “The brain of the ant”, Darwin wrote, “is one of the most marvellous atoms in the world, perhaps more so than the brain of man.”

While Victorian entomologists were happy to complete an unbroken chain of sentient nature from insects to man, however, they resisted Darwin’s principles of natural selection, arguing that all the traits that made for “learning” in bees and ants had been there from the start of the Great Design. We now know better.

As EO Wilson and Bert Hölldobler explain in The Super-Organism, social “wasp-ants” trapped in amber have been dated back to the Cretaceous period, between 60m and 100m years ago; specimens of primitive “missing-link” ants dwelling in much simpler colonies than their hyper-sophisticated kindred species have been found in Australia. Moreover, the difficulty for Darwinian theory of immense populations of sterile female worker ants being incapable of passing on genetic material is set aside once the unit of transmission is redefined not as individual agents but the nest or hive as a whole.

The evolutionary triumph of those collectivist societies is set out in startling detail, in both text and photographs of Wilson and Hölldobler’s The Super-Organism, as well as in the excellent layman’s introduction to myrmecology, The Lives of Ants by Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon.

Though there are long passages of hardcore genetics in Wilson and Hölldobler, it’s impossible to make your way through either of these books without regular interruptions of forehead slamming amazement. Ants constitute about the same biomass on the face of the earth as humans, even in our present demographic explosion. Leafcutter ants, the most developed of the lot, go in for fungal farming from which sustenance and shelter are derived; other species are nourished through regurgitation from foragers who bring it back to the nest.

There are astonishing images in The Super-Organism of one ant considerately delivering regurgitated liquid into the delicately parted mandibles of another. Such is the collective reciprocity and resourcefulness of the colony, which finds ways to nourish both its queen and worker population, the authors characterise these habits as those of an indivisible “social stomach”.

A solitary leafcutter queen recumbent in the nest with nothing to do but reproduce will lay 20 eggs a minute, 28,000 a day, and 150m during her lifetime of twentysomething years. Following her mid-air mating flight she will also have, in her “spermatheca”, several hundred thousand dormant eggs, which she self-fertilises at the prompting of sterile female workers. Those prompts are coded in the rich and varying forms of sustenance supplied to the queen. In some species this includes the excreta of aphids husbanded for that purpose and known winsomely as “honeydew”. Other ants will go in for sacrificial supersizing, gorging on food retained in their abdomens until they distend almost to rupture, after which they hang upside down as the “honeypots” until their reserve tanks of food are called on by other ants.

It seems there’s nothing other than composing string quartets that ants can’t do – and who knows, their squeaking “stridulations” may be more than just alarm codes? As The Super-Organism and The Lives of Ants reveal, they communicate through chemical pheromones and body language; they form living chains and bridges to convey food and prey. Army ants on the march can build temporary “bivouacs” to house all the necessary elements of the colony; weaver ants make nests in trees by working co-operatively to stick and glue together the sides of leaves with silk secreted from the bodies of larvae.

Ants loot, invade and enslave, armed to the mandibles with ferocious shearing weapons. To avoid mutual destruction, some species stage ritualised “tournaments” with workers strutting their stuff on stilt-legs to intimidate the opposition. Once I caught EO Wilson sitting with my then six-year-old son on the curb in front of a Harvard building, explaining in his soft Tennessee drawl that what they were both witnessing was an all-out “ant war” – “just like the Greeks and the Trojans”, he said.

And once you have immersed yourself in the astonishing micro-universe revealed in the work of Wilson and his fellow explorers in the world of social insects, the word “epic” is inescapable. Though such colonies are not immune from disaster – the calamity of the lost honeybees is a case in point – it seems almost certain that when our own human race is run on the ashcan planet, the formica and the myrmica will still be out there amid the debris, searching, in their disciplined fashion, for a way to a better nest.

Simon Schama is a contributing editor of the FT and author of ‘The American Future: A History’ (Bodley Head)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.