Bees and beetles

Published : Nov 04, 2011 00:00 IST

Asian, African and Australian Aborigine myths and folklore, unlike European ones, are generally filled with reverence for insects.

"The scientist does not study nature because it is useful. He studies it because he delights in it and he delights in it because it is beautiful".

- Jules Henri Poincare (1845-1912)

THE ecological relationships between humans and insects would not have taken long to get established. Insects were flourishing in almost every niche of the earth when the human species evolved. And insects seem to have treated humans as just another niche to fill. As a result, they now share our dwellings and eat through them; weave cocoons for our exquisite silks, which other insects feed on with relish; give us nutritious honey and a sting; recycle our waste; pollinate our plants; till the soil; feed on our blood, saliva and tears; and, in short, treat us as we do them. They have been with us at every stage of our evolution. And humans have at various stages revered and despised them with equal intensity.

Symbols of divinity

Asian, African and Australian Aborigine myths, folklore and legends, unlike European ones, are generally filled with reverence for insects. The one insect that is revered across all cultures is the bee. Bees have been symbols of regeneration, relationship, creation and continuance of life. They have even been seen as messengers to the netherworld.

Iyam prthivi sarvesam bhutanam madhu... (This earth is the honey of all)

Ima apah sarvesam bhutanam madhu, asam apam sarvani bhutani madhu... (This water is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this water.)

Ayam agnih, sarvesam bhutanam madhu..., (fire...)

Ayam vayuh sarvesam bhutanam madhu... (air...)

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter II1

And so on the verses extol how fire, air, sun, moon, space, lightning, thunder, ether, law, truth, mankind and self are the honey of all beings. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, composed in the first millennium BCE, contains a chapter called Madhu Brahmana, which is devoted entirely to metaphorical references to honey (madhu). Madhu Vidya was a Vedic rite through which one could save lives. Through the description of honey, one is made aware of not only the life of bees and the medicinal nature of honey but also the web of life. It is the first recorded association of humans with insects.

The Egyptians believed that the sun god Ra created bees from his tears as is evident from this text, which also dates from the first millennium BCE: When the Sun weeps a second time, and lets fall water from his eyes, it is changed into working bees; they work in the flowers of each kind, and honey and wax are produced instead of water.

In Lithuania, bee-keeping has been a sacred way of life for many centuries. Austeja is the Lithuanian goddess of bees. To this day, certain traditions continue, and bees are not bought or sold in certain parts of the country as it is believed that their presence and honey are sacred. The Lithuanian Museum of Ancient Bee-keeping has displays on these customs and also exhibits of the intricately carved logs that were traditionally used for bee-keeping.

Let the wax raisegreen statues, let the honey

drip in infinite tongues, let the ocean be a big comb

and the Earth a tunic of flowers, let the World

be a cascade, magnificent hair, unceasing growth of Beedom.

Pablo Neruda

It was a custom in certain parts of Europe to inform the bees when a bee-keeper died, in a ceremony called telling the bees. When Sam Rogers, a cobbler and a postman from Shropshire2 died in 1961, his children went round his 14 hives to inform the bees. When the family gathered round his grave, the bees from his hives (which were more than a mile away) came in a swarm and settled on his coffin for about half an hour and returned to their hives, ignoring the flowering trees that were nearby.

Bees were not the only insects to be revered by the ancient Egyptians. They believed beetles, too, were a representation of gods.


A group of theologians once asked the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane what he could infer about the Creator from his studies, to which he is reported to have quipped, An inordinate fondness for beetles. In evolutionary terms, beetles are an old order of insects. The oldest beetle fossils are known from the Permian Period (299-350 million years ago). With nearly 400,000 identified species, beetles represent one in five living species on earth. It may not be an exaggeration to say that they are perhaps the one group of animals that are evolving with the world rather than in it.

Beetles belong to the order Coleoptera. The word derives from the Greek word koleopteros, meaning sheath-winged. The forewings of the beetles are hard and protective in function. A pair of membranous hindwings used for flight is kept folded under this hard forewing, which is generally referred to as elytra. Beetles can be found everywhere, from the stored grains in the pantry to on and within trees, in animal fur, below the soil and on decomposing matter. There are jewel beetles, lizard beetles, flea beetles, fungus beetles, leaf beetles, rhinoceros beetles, fireflies, ladybirds, blister beetles, tiger beetles, and so on. But the beetles that have been well studied for their frequent reference in culture are the scarab beetles of the family Scarabaeidae.

The family Scarabaeidae includes a vast diversity of beetles. The Goliath beetle, the giant in the beetle world, belongs to this family. Commonly called scarabs, they are medium- to large-sized insects with lamellate antennae that open like a small fan and close to form a club. In colour, scarabs can be both brilliant, especially the June beetles and chafers, or dull and black.

The dung roller is the most commonly met scarab. This scavenger feeds on dung and other decaying organic matter, playing an invaluable role in recycling waste. The dung of herbivorous mammals such as cows and elephants is mostly composed of half-digested grass and liquids. The dung rollers feed on the sap and use the semi-digested grass to line their nests, which are the dung balls. Their strong mandibular teeth and front legs are the tools to dig into the soil and the dung.

This scarab first carefully makes a ball with a hollow in the centre where the egg is laid. The ball is therefore made with a careful selection of the partly digested fibres from the dung to line the innermost region of the ball. This serves as food for the larva that hatches from the egg. The scarab then adds more layers of dung to this nest, which results in a strong, compact ball. Dung balls can be small or large. In forests, elephant-dung balls are sought out by bears as they know there will be a juicy beetle grub inside them.

It is fascinating to watch a dung beetle moving the ball to its burrow. The first and last pairs of legs are used as levers and pivots, propelling the scarab forward, while the middle pair of legs is used to hold on to the ball and manoeuvre it to the burrow. The last pair of legs are lifted or held down and used to push and change direction.

Not all dung beetles are rollers. Some are tunnellers that dig and bury the dung, whereas some others are dwellers, residing in the dung.

One would never weary of admiring the variety of tools wherewith they are supplied, whether for shifting, cutting up and shaping the stercoral matter or for excavating deep burrows in which they will seclude themselves with their booty. This equipment resembles a technical museum where every digging-implement is represented, wrote the French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre in the opening essay, The Sacred Beetle, of his classic Souvenirs Entomologiques.

The rhinoceros beetle is a dung roller with a horn-like protuberance on its head. The horn is used in combat with other males to win over their favourite females.

People of ancient cultures who watched the insect emerge from a ball of mud attached a deeper meaning to it. So the scarab became a symbol of resurrection to the ancient Egyptians. The beetle moving its dung ball symbolised the movements of the sun. Khepri, the scarab-like god, was considered the manifestation of the sun god Ra. The beetle is named Kheper aegyptiorum. This beetle, not seen easily any more, has been replaced in symbolism with the more commonly observable Scarabaeus sacer. During the reign of various Egyptian pharaohs, scarabs were fashioned from ivory, stone and precious metals to record events or commemorations or to serve as seals. Scarabs were also of great significance in the rituals associated with funerals. Heart-shaped scarabs fashioned out of precious stones were placed on the chest of the deceased. A large piece of heart scarab made from Libyan glass was part of the provisions entombed with Tutankhamen. The Luxor temple has massive sculptures of scarabs.

However, there is no record of flesh-eating scarabs of the kind depicted in films such as The Mummy. All ancient cultures revered these beetles, and they were not depicted as evil.

An ancient Tao text says: The scarab rolls his pellet, and life is born in it as an effect of non-dispersed work of spiritual concentration. If even in manure an embryo can develop and cast his terrestrial' skins, why should the dwelling of our celestial heart not be able to generate a body too, if we concentrate our spirit on it?

Flower scarabs are beetles that display vibrant, shining colours. They are variously known as flower chafers, flower beetles, June beetles, May beetles, and so on. They are diurnal in nature and feed on flowers, pollinating them in the process. Some of them feed on dung too. Unlike many others in the beetle family these can fly well. The flower scarab has iridescent elytra. This iridescence is retained even after death, making the beetle a sought-after item for jewellery and art. Beetles belonging to the Buprestidae and Chrysomelidae families, generally referred to as jewel beetles, are also collected for their iridescent, shiny wings.

One-quarter of all beetles are weevils, which most orchard owners think of as pests. They attack anything from stored grain to cotton crop to fruit and are a farmer's headache. But as a species, they stand out for their sculpted body design and Pinocchio-like nose, a cartoon created by nature. Weevils may be recognised easily by the pair of antennae that arise not from the head but from the elongated nose. The mouth parts are found at the end of the snout. These snouted beetles use their long snouts not only to feed on plant parts but also to make cavities in them to lay eggs. The developing larvae thus have ample food to feed on and grow.


Dragonflies are among nature's earliest insect creations. A cursory comparison of a dragonfly and a beetle would leave one with mild disbelief; how could two creatures with so many differences be classified under the single umbrella called insects? The beetles have a hard forewing, thickened to form a protective elytra, and only the membranous hindwing is tucked away. The dragonfly's wings are completely membranous but cannot be folded on the back of its body.

The dragonfly's acrobatics in air are a marvel in flight engineering; the insects hang in mid-air almost stationary and suddenly dart off at lightning speeds. Dashing, darting, hovering, gliding, flying backwards or manoeuvring turns, it can attain speeds of more than 30 kilometres/hour and has the ability to fly across oceans. Despite this, dragonflies have not been able to conquer as many habitats as or proliferate as much as beetles, many of which indeed have lost the power of flight. Dragonflies have not been able to move away from water sources. There is a delightful children's story from the Solomon Islands to explain this behaviour.

Once upon a time, a firefly wanted a drink but did not want to go to the water during daytime. Its friend, the dragonfly, agreed to accompany it at night and carried a lantern to light the way. Once the firefly had quenched its thirst, the dragonfly gave the lantern to it and started drinking. But the selfish little firefly walked away with the lantern, leaving the dragonfly groping in the dark. So the people of this island believe that fireflies roam the night with the lantern, while dragonflies sleep at night and wander near the water during daytime.

Dragonflies were amongst the earliest insects to have evolved on earth, pre-dating dinosaurs by 100 million years. Fossils indicate that giant dragonflies roamed the earth at the time of the dinosaurs. These insects have survived for millions of years retaining many of the characteristics of their ancestors. Along with the damselfly, their petite relative, they are classified under the order Odonata, a Greek word meaning toothed. However, dragonflies do not have teeth. Rather, they have strong mandibles, which they use to crush their prey. Their antennae are small and insignificant.

The dragonfly's entire demeanour evokes admiration and a childish wish to catch and hold them. Its large eyes, occupying most of the head, are capable of 360 vision and are responsible for its ability to capture prey in flight. Dragonfly young are aquatic and develop in water. Both adult and young are voracious carnivores, feeding on other insects. For children growing up in rural environs, catching a dragonfly is still a pleasurable pastime. If one were to sit still near a waterbody, watching dragonflies and damselflies would be time well spent.

The Japanese have a special place in their culture for dragonflies. Two delightful stories tell of how Japan was once called Akitsushima, or the Island of the Dragonfly. Legend has it that the dragonfly ate the horse-fly that bit the mythical founder of Japan, Emperor Jinmu. In gratitude, he named the island after the dragonfly ( akitsu in Japanese). According to another tale, Emperor Jinmu climbed the highest peak to survey his country and noticed that it looked like a dragonfly and hence named the country after the insect. As a result, the dragonfly became the country's emblem. The dragonfly also stands for strength, courage and good luck in Japanese culture. It is referred to as Katsumushi, or the invincible, and is etched on to the swords and armour of Samurai warriors. Family crests bore symbols of dragonflies. Not surprisingly, the Japanese were the first to create a dragonfly nature reserve.

Other cultures, too, acknowledged the dragonfly. While to the Navajo Indians of the south-western United States it symbolised pure water, to the Chinese it was a symbol of instability and to the Tahitians, it was a shadow of Hiro, the god of thieves. To the Zuni Indians, killing the dragonfly was taboo as they believed it possessed supernatural powers. These myths and beliefs illustrate how humans closely observed insects and tried to arrive at explanations for their behaviour and weird structures.

The other member of the order Odonata, the damselfly, is smaller, with similar looking hind- and forewings. Unlike the dragonfly, it can fold its wings over the body. It is a weak flier and does not find much mention in human culture.

Insect entertainers

Crickets' sounds may be perceived as irritating today and the loud call of cicadas may earn it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, but to ancient Greeks, Chinese and Japanese, crickets and cicadas were delightful companions. Singing and fighting crickets were part of a 2,000-year Chinese culture3. Before the Tang dynasty, people listened to cricket songs for information that helped them with their agricultural activities.

During the Tang dynasty, crickets were kept captive in cages as pets. Poems were written about them; glyphs were made showing cicadas and crickets; expensive and exquisite cages, sometimes in gold, were built for them; and generally, it was considered an elegant hobby to keep singing insects. Joining crickets in this exalted position were katydids, which were viewed as symbols of luck and virtue. The wings of crickets and katydids were treated with special oils to make their music more pleasing to the ear. There are no crickets or katydids in autumn and winter, but so deep was the adoration of the Chinese for these insects that they began rearing them in captivity so that autumns would not fall silent.

This obsession resulted in the proliferation of paraphernalia for insects and insect rearing, and these soon became status symbols. At the height of this fad, professionals were hired to take care of the insects so that they could be presented at important events or in the emperor's court.

With the beginning of the Song dynasty, cricket fights began to flourish as a sport. Cricket fights were taken so seriously that noblemen would never hesitate to trade a good horse for a cricket. Books were written and manuals developed to take this sport to exhilarating heights. History records a cricket king who actively encouraged the sport and a cricket minister, Cu Zhi Jin, who compiled Book of Crickets, which became the Bible for cricket fans! Since then, cricket fights have been alternately banned and raised to the status of national sport. Cricket fighting, despite its ups and downs, has survived to modern times. The concluding scene of the film The Last Emperor in which the emperor passes on his 60-year-old cricketpot to the young boy aptly depicts the place crickets occupied in Chinese culture.

Crickets and katydids were not the only insects to be valued as songsters. Grasshoppers and cicadas were also welcomed with equal fervour by the Chinese, Greek, Japanese and American Indian cultures.

Whether as oracles, religious symbols, musicians or entertainers, insects benefitted ancient and medieval human civilisations. What about modern humans? Will insects always remain creepy-crawlies to us?

Records of anthropologists show that more than 700 species of insects are well known and used by different hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari. Yet the San, one of the central Kalahari tribes, consider insects goowaha, meaning useless things, and look upon ethno-entomologists with nothing but amusement. The San may have hit the nail on the head in describing how humans today view insects.

Geetha Iyer is an author, a nature enthusiast and an independent consultant in the fields of education and environment.


1. Swami Krishnananda; Fifth Brahmana: Madhu-Vidya The Honey Doctrine'; The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter II;

2. Schull, Bill; adapted from Life Song: In Harmony With All Creation'. Excerpts available at

3. Cultural Entomology Digest -Insect articles.

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