Insects As Omens And Soothsayers

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Insects that are most commonly featured in human folklore are those that most closely associate with humans or impact human affairs. It is not surprising then that insects such as cockroaches, mosquitoes, and bees are some of the most common subjects in stories and superstitions in which an insect's presence or activity is related to significant events in people's lives.

Because humans have practiced honey hunting and beekeeping for thousands of years, it is not surprising that there is much folklore surrounding these activities. The discovery and collection of honey is reason for merriment and joy in many hunter—gatherer societies and much significance has been attributed to the presence of bees and their role as makers of honey. The activities of foraging honey bees are used to predict the weather. When bees forage far from the hive, good weather is expected, but when they forage nearby, poor weather is sure to come. In ancient Rome, swarms of bees foretold impending misfortune. The significance of the timing of bee swarms is exemplified by the following rhyme:

A swarm of bees in May, is worth a load of hay.

A swarm of bees in June, is worth a silver spoon.

A swarm of bees in July, is not worth a fly.

This saying is relevant to the beekeeper whose summer swarms of bees heading off into the distance mean lost assets.

In addition to bees, the presence and behavior of other insects are used to predict the weather. The most widely known insect-mediated weather forecaster is the larvae of some tiger moths (Arctiidae), known as woollybear caterpillars. These caterpillars, in particular those of the banded woollybear, Pyrrharctia isabella, are thickly covered with erect black hairs and have a band of reddish brown hairs encircling the middle of their body. The width of the central band supposedly predicts the weather conditions of the coming winter. Narrow bands indicate a long, cold winter, whereas wide bands indicate a short, relatively warm winter. Other insects associated with weather forecasts are butterflies, flies, wasps, and ants. The Zuni of the American Southwest say to expect rain when the white butterfly flies from the southwest. American folklore tells us that when the gnats swarm, rain and warmer weather are believed to be coming, and when hornets build nests near the ground a harsh winter is expected. Rain is expected when ants withdraw into their nests or if someone steps on an ant. The European stag beetle, Lucanus cervus, is supposed to be able to attract thunderbolts. This association is perhaps explained because these beetles were commonly found in old oak trees that were often struck by lightning. Because of this belief, these beetles were sacred to Thor, the Germanic god of thunder.

The association of particular insects with common events in distant parts of the world sometimes depends on the characteristics of a particular taxon. Praying mantids are considered pious prophets or soothsayers in various parts of the world. There is also a considerable body of folklore associated with ladybird beetles. Named after the Virgin Mary (Our Lady), these beetles are widely equated with good luck and are often associated with the ability to portend happy events. These beetles are reputed to have been sacred to Freyja, the ancient Norse goddess of love. To harm one of these insects would certainly bring bad luck. That the most common European species of ladybird has seven spots is the basis for one explanation why this beetle is venerated in this part of the world. The number 7 has long been considered a mystical, powerful, and "perfect" number. In southeastern France, a young girl can predict the year when she will marry by placing a ladybird beetle on her finger and counting the years aloud until the beetle flies away. In other instances, an insect's significance depends on characteristics or behaviors shared between quite different taxa.

In general, the insects found in the folklore of a particular place are drawn from the local fauna. Consequently, significant events common to people worldwide are associated with different species of insect. In British folklore, the presence of deathwatch beetles (Anobiidae) is correlated with the demise of someone in the household. These beetles that live in wood, such as that framing an old English house, send telegraphic messages to each other by tapping their heads on the tunnel walls. This tapping sound is audible to people when all else is quiet, such as in a silent room during a bedside deathwatch. In parts of the Neotropics, the activities of termites fulfill this role as a harbinger of death in a similar manner. Other insects associated with impending death include the appearance of lice in one's dreams, cockroaches flying in one's room, and the sighting of a death's head hawk moth (Acherontia atropos). The scales on the dorsum of the thorax of this moth form the readily recognizable image of a whitish human skull against a dark background. The association of this moth with death in the minds of humans was inevitable.

Often the appearance of a given insect conveys a different meaning in different places or at different times. For example, in some parts of the world, a cricket in the house means good luck, but in other places the presence of this insect means ill fortune. According to one superstition in Brazil, careless contact with fireflies can cause blindness, but in the hands of a curandeiro (folk healer or medicine man), fireflies can be used to cure blindness.

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How To Become A Bee Keeping Pro

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  • tiina heinil
    2 years ago

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