1.5. Insects in popular culture and commerce

People have been attracted to the beauty or mystique of certain insects throughout time. We know the importance of scarab beetles to the Egyptians as religious items, but earlier shamanistic cultures elsewhere in the Old World made ornaments that represent scarabs and other beetles including buprestids (jewel beetles). In Old Egypt the scarab, which shapes dung into balls, is identified as a potter; similar insect symbolism extends also further east. Egyptians, and subsequently the Greeks, made ornamental scarabs from many materials including lapis lazuli, basalt, limestone, turquoise, ivory, resins, and even valuable gold and silver. Such adulation may have been the pinnacle that an insect lacking economic importance ever gained in popular and religious culture, although many human societies recognized insects in their ceremonial lives. Cicadas were regarded by the ancient Chinese as symbolizing rebirth or immortality. In Mesopotamian literature the Poem of Gilgamesh alludes to odonates (dragonflies/damselflies) as signifying the impossibility of immortality. For the San (“bushmen”) of the Kalahari, the praying mantis carries much cultural symbolism, including creation and patience in zen-like waiting. Amongst the personal or clan totems of Aboriginal Australians of the Arrernte language groups are yarumpa (honey ants) and udnirringitta (witchety grubs). Although these insects are important as food in the arid central Australian environment (see section 1.6.1), they were not to be eaten by clan members belonging to that particular totem.

Totemic and food insects are represented in many Aboriginal artworks in which they are associated with cultural ceremonies and depiction of important locations. Insects have had a place in many societies for their symbolism — such as ants and bees representing hard workers throughout the Middle Ages of Europe, where they even entered heraldry. Crickets, grass- hoppers, cicadas, and scarab and lucanid beetles have long been valued as caged pets in Japan. Ancient Mexicans observed butterflies in detail, and lepidopterans were well represented in mythology, including in poem and song. Amber has a long history as jewellery, and the inclusion of insects can enhance the value of the piece.

Urbanized humans have lost much of this contact with insects, excepting those that share our domicile, such as cockroaches, tramp ants, and hearth crickets which generally arouse antipathy. Nonetheless, specialized exhibits of insects notably in butterfly farms and insect zoos are very popular, with millions of people per year visiting such attractions throughout the world. Natural occurrences of certain insects attract ecotourism, including aggregations of overwintering monarch butterflies in coastal central California (see Plate 3.5) and Mexico, the famous glow worm caves of Waitomo, New Zealand, and Costa Rican locations such as Selva Verde representing tropical insect biodiversity.

Although insect ecotourism may be in its infancy, other economic benefits are associated with interest in insects. This is especially so amongst children in Japan, where native rhinoceros beetles (Scarabaeidae, Allomyrina dichotoma) sell for US$3—7 each, and longer-lived common stag beetles for some US$10, and may be purchased from automatic vending machines. Adults collect too with a passion: a 7.5 cm example of the largest Japanese stag beetles (Lucanidae, Dorcus curvidens, called o-kuwagata) may sell for between 40,000 and 150,000 yen (US$300 and US$1250), depending on whether captive reared or taken from the wild. Largest specimens, even if reared, have fetched several million yen (>US$10,000) at the height of the craze. Such enthusiasm by Japanese collectors can lead to a valuable market for insects from outside Japan. According to official statistics, in 2002 some 680,000 beetles, including over 300,000 each of rhinoceros and stag beetles, were imported, predominantly originating from south and south-east Asia. Enthusiasm for valuable specimens extends outside Coleoptera: Japanese and German tourists are reported to buy rare butterflies in Vietnam for US$1000—2000, which is a huge sum of money for the generally poor local people.

Entomological revenue can enter local communities and assist in natural habitat conservation when tropical species are reared for living butterfly exhibits in the affluent world. An estimated 4000 species of butterflies have been reared in the tropics and exhibited live in butterfly houses in North America, Europe, Malaysia, and Australia. Farming butterflies for export is a successful economic activity in Costa Rica, Kenya, and Papua New Guinea. Eggs or wild-caught larvae are reared on appropriate host plants, grown until pupation, and freighted by air to butterfly farms. Papilionidae, including the well-known swallowtails, graphiums, and birdwings, are most popular, but research into breeding requirements allows an expanded range of potential exhibits to be located, reared, and shipped. In East Africa, the National Museums of Kenya has combined with local people of the Arabuko-Sukoke forest in the Kipepeo Project to export harvested butterflies for live overseas exhibit, thereby providing a cash income for these otherwise impoverished people.

In Asia, particularly in Malaysia, there is interest in rearing, exhibiting, and trading in mantises (Mantodea), including orchid mantises (Hymenopus species; see here and here) and stick-insects (Phasmatodea). Hissing cockroaches from Madagascar and burrowing cockroaches from tropical Australia are reared readily in captivity and can be kept as domestic pets as well as being displayed in insect zoos in which handling the exhibits is encouraged.

Questions remain concerning whether wild insect collection, either for personal interest or commercial trade and display, is sustainable. Much butterfly, dragonfly, stick-insect, and beetle trade relies more on collections from the wild than rearing programs, although this is changing as regulations increase and research into rearing techniques continues. In the Kenyan Kipepeo Project, although specimens of preferred lepidopteran species originate from the wild as eggs or early larvae, walk-through visual assessment of adult butterflies in flight suggested that the relative abundance rankings of species was unaffected regardless of many years of selective harvest for export. Furthermore, local appreciation has increased for intact forest as a valuable resource rather than viewing it as “wasted” land to clear for subsistence agriculture. In Japan, although expertise in captive rearing has increased and thus undermined the very high prices paid for certain wild-caught beetles, wild harvesting continues over an ever-increasing region. The possibility of over-collection for trade is discussed in section 1.7, together with other conservation issues.

Chapter 1