“Life is a beautiful and strange winged creature that appears at a window, flies swiftly through the banquet hall, and is gone.” — The Venerable Bede
There are about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000 insects in the world. One per cent of this total are ants. Their biomass alone exceeds that of all the humans that have ever existed (approximately 90 billion). There are more insects in one square mile of empty field than there are people in the world.
We don’t even know how many species of insect exist; new beetles are discovered at a rate of one an hour. There are 350,000 named beetles, plus perhaps eight million more as yet unnamed; if you lined up all the animal and plant species in a row, every fifth one would be a beetle.
The basements of the world’s natural history museums are crammed with packing cases full of never-opened packing cases full of newly discovered insects.
The largest insect stash in Britain is at the Natural History Museum in London. The second largest is the Hope collection in Oxford, where they claim to have somewhere between three and five million insects. They will probably never be counted: there is neither sufficient time nor staff to examine them.
Insects don’t flap their wings like birds do: an insect’s wings are directly attached to its exoskeleton, and by contracting their muscles, insects force their whole body to vibrate. This causes the wings to vibrate like a tuning fork.
Insects only have one blood vessel, a single tube with the heart at one end and the aorta at the other, which pumps blood up to the brain. When the blood flows back it fills all the spaces in the insect’s body, so that all the internal organs are floating in blood.
The word “bug” should, strictly speaking, only be used for insects in the order Hemiptera, from the Greek hemi, “half”, and pterygo “wing”, because their wings are hardened near the base and membranous near the ends, giving the appearance of a half wing.
True bugs — including up to 50,000 species of cicadas, aphids and shield bugs — have sucking mouth parts to extract sap from plants. Other insects – like ants and beetles — have mandibles for chewing.
The word bugge appeared in the 14th century and meant something frightening (from the Welsh bwg for “goblin”).
Cicadas are the world’s loudest insects, with some of the 2,500 species reaching 120 decibels — the equivalent to what you hear when sitting in the front row of a loud rock concert.
The longest-living insect is the termite queen: they have been known to live for at least 50 years and some scientists believe they may live to 100.
The giant weta (Deinacrida heteracantha), a type of cricket endemic to New Zealand’s offshore islands, is the heaviest insect alive today. The largest specimen, a female, weighed 71g (2.5oz), three times heavier than the average house mouse, and was more than 85mm (3.4in) long.
Harvester ants eat more seeds than all the mammals and birds put together. Like squirrels, they often forget where they’ve put their stashes, so they are accidentally responsible for planting a third of all herbaceous growth.
Others raise livestock by “milking” the honeydew from aphids. More than 200 species of ant are arable farmers, farming fungi for food. They gather compost for it to grow on, fertilise it with their dung, prune it and even fumigate it with a powerful bacteria to keep it free from parasites.
Little Miss Muffet
The first book on insects ever published in Britain was written by Little Miss Muffet’s father.
Insectorum sive minimorum Animalium Theatrum (The Theatre of Insects or Lesser Creatures) was written by Thomas Moffet (1553-1604), though he didn’t live to see it published.
It was 30 years before the first edition was published in 1634, and it became the standard work on insects for more than 100 years after Moffet’s death, superseded only by John Ray’s Historia Insectorum in 1710.
The nursery rhyme Little Miss Muffet was originally written about Moffet’s daughter, Patience (spiders were considered to be insects in the 17th century).