Tales That Explain Observed Phenomena

Many folk tales dealing with insects are based on fanciful explanations of natural phenomena. The ancient tale of the bugonia apparently originated from such confusion. Bugonia comes from a Greek word that means ox progeny, and is based on the notion that a swarm of honey bees could be spontaneously generated from the rotting carcass of an ox (Fig. 1). This was not merely a description of something perceived to occur in nature, but was a means whereby people could generate many new individuals of these beneficial insects. For this to be successful, precise instructions had to be followed regarding the proper methods and timing of the slaughter and preparation of the ox carcass. This European tale is also found in Chinese and Japanese folklore, and similar beliefs existed for the generation of other bee-like insects from the

FIGURE 1 A 16th century depiction of spontaneous generation of honey bees from a dead ox. [Illustration modified from Bodenheimer (1928).]

carcasses of other animals, namely wasps from horses and hornets from mules.

The bugonia tale originated in ancient Egypt, in a place and time at which the ox and the bee were revered as gods. A Biblical reference to this phenomenon (Joshua 14:8) attests to the antiquity of this belief. This tale of ancient times persisted well into the 1600s, when more careful observations of insect biology led to other explanations. In 1883, the eminent dipterist C. R. Osten Sacken proposed an explanation for the origin of the bugonia story that led to it being discredited. The supposed bees and wasps occurring in the carcasses of dead animals were in fact the drone fly, Eristalis tenax (Syrphidae). This fly, a Batesian mimic of honey bees, breeds in putrefying organic matter and could easily be mistaken for a bee by the untrained eye.

The presence of particular forest clearings in western Amazonia is ascribed to the activities of forest gnomes known as chulla chaqui. These mischievous creatures live near the clearings and eat the fruits of the only shrub that grows in such places, Duroia spp. (Rubiaceae). Like many other figures in zoological folklore, these gnomes can take on the appearance of other forest creatures. They take particular delight in transforming into a brilliant blue morpho butterfly, whereby they attract the attention of human visitors and lure them into the forest, only to disappear and leave the disoriented humans lost. In reality, these clearings are formed and maintained by ants that live in a symbiotic relationship with Duroia. The ants clear potential competitor seedlings from areas around their myrmecophytic host plants in exchange for a place to live. This folk explanation is similar to that for small clearings in temperate forests or fields that serve as

FIGURE 2 A typical insect-winged fairy. [Illustration by Ellen Edmonson from "Honey Bees and Fairy Dust," by Mary Geisler Phillips (1926).]

places where woodland fairies commonly gather. Fairies, those furtive, entomologically inspired imaginary beings of diminutive human form that typically bear insect-like wings (Fig. 2), are common figures in European folklore. In fields, the clearings known as fairy rings, supposedly caused by dancing fairies, are in reality caused by underground fungi that make their appearance in the form of an ever-expanding ring of mushrooms that encircles a bare patch among the surrounding vegetation.

Another example of transformation surrounds the explanation for the name of a famous insect used by people as an object of adornment. In Mexico, the jewel-adorned ironclad beetles that serve as living brooches are known as MaKech after a legend about a Mayan Prince of Yucatan who is said to have escaped his lover's guards by transforming, with the help of the Moon Goddess, into this beetle. His lover was so impressed by his resolve that she uttered "MaKech. " This phrase not only means "you are a man" but also means "does not eat," and refers to this insect's and the Prince's ability to go without food for long periods of time.

The phenomenon of crypsis (imitating the background in form, color, pattern, or behavior by an organism to avoid detection) is explained by some indigenous peoples using yet another example of transformation. It is said that leaves can transform into insects such as katydids and mantids. This is a reasonable explanation given the striking leaf-like appearance of these insects. The transformation of plants into insects was also implicated by some early European naturalists in their explanation of the issuance of insects from galls, nuts, and fruit. This fanciful theory supposed that the various insects brought forth from these sources were generated by the "vegetative and sensitive soul" of the plant. The origin of another organism associated with insects is similarly explained. The elongate fruiting bodies of certain fungi (Cordyceps spp.) that commonly attack insects in the American tropics are thought to be the first stage in the development of particular jungle vines that are used for binding poles.

Explanations for insect behavior often take the form of folk tales. Several stories and rhymes tell the tale of the origin of the katydid's song. These short tales typically center on a girl or young woman named Katy who is accused of committing some bad deed such as deceiving or killing another person. The shameful act is immortalized by the singing insects in the trees that continue to debate whether "Katy did" or "Katy didn't." Some insects spend the greater part of their lives boring through and feeding upon living or dead wood. According to a story from the Tahltan of British Columbia, these insects were tricked into searching for their food in this manner by another insect. Long ago a beetle larva and a mosquito lived together. Every day, the larva watched his friend the mosquito come home engorged with blood. Upon being asked by the beetle larva where he was able to regularly find food, the mosquito, not wanting to give up his secret, replied that he sucked his meal out of trees. The next day the larva began boring into wood looking for food, an activity that continues to this day.

In addition to biological phenomena, stories about the origins of some geophysical entities similarly incorporate insects. The origin of fire has been attributed to the actions of fireflies that were responsible for starting the mythological first campfire. According to the Yagua Indians of the upper Amazon, the origin of the river is a result of the misguided actions of insects. Before the existence of the river, the water used by people came from the "tree of water" that, when cut, would release some of this precious liquid. In an effort to liberate more water, wood-boring insects were deceptively used by some children in a plan that damaged the tree such that it released all its waters at once. This resulted in the formation in the mighty Amazon River.

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