It’s a given that for most books, there is an element of travel. It might be as far as knowledge takes you, or it might be just across the road to the next tavern or nightclub. Either way, insects might be hitching a ride with humans or pets, as they have done since the first of us poked their large nose out of the cave and wondered what exactly was over that mountain range.

Insects adapt and evolve – like every other creature – to take advantage of their environment, with the goal of reproduction and survival. Some of these skills are toxic to humans, some benign, and others beneficial. Of course, insects play an important part of the ecosystem – one which many ignore in their efforts to eradicate them.

Some of these aspects relate to scale. For instance, we all have small mites that live and breed on our skin, eyebrows and eyelashes. Like mouth bacteria, these can be transferred by close contact – so characters kissing and the parent-child relationship transfers these readily. However, if you write scifi, it is worth looking at some of the electron microscope images of these, and you will have some brand new monsters to terrorise your readers! I’ve talked about this here.

A little bigger in size are insects like fleas, ticks, bedbugs and lice. These creatures have plagued humans forever- there are head lice combs found at Vindolanda in Roman Britain 2,000 years ago, lice infected soldiers with typhus in WW1 and was a leading cause of death. Fleas are obviously important as carriers of the Black Death, and their companions rats and mice. Even in a romance, a character might be dealing with their child with head lice (not a pleasant thing to deal with on all sides) or these things would be found in historical fiction. There is an amusing scene in a Gerald Durrell book, where his mother gets a flea in her corsets in a crowded movie theatre. Another in a James Herriot, where he enters a house with a flea infestation. In Ruth Park’s books ‘Harp in the South’ series, the slum dwellers fight an unending battle with bedbugs, which take on a symbolic aspect of dealing with the evils that affect slum dwellers such as crime and grinding poverty. The fact that we are still dealing with them gives you an idea of just how successful they are in surviving. I’ve discussed this in more detail here.

Moving up in scale, we have creatures like beetles, moths, bees, and spiders. Most people are or should be aware of their role in the ecosystem, in breaking down dead material (think of all the ghastly maggot descriptions in crime scene shows) (don’t google maggots). Or pollinating, providing food, eating pests etc. spiders can travel well on their own, via ballooning. While the image of a spider in her own little hot air balloon is charming (steampunk, anyone?) it is the spider, after hatching, spins a thread of web, and the wind takes them away to find a new home. While the mortality rate is high, spiderlings have been found 5km in the air, and hundreds of kilometres from their start point.

This size creature is often a hitchhiker with humans. They infest seeds, plants, bedding, ships and vehicles. Things like cockroaches, slaters, bedbugs, fleas, lice, etc are found worldwide, probably spreading out from trade routes initially. It is more than likely that they will end up travelling with us into the stars. Heinlein explored this in ‘Friday’ with predicting the next plague, and Andre Norton had cats as ships mousers, for more alien pests. Lack of water may send hygiene levels back to the middle ages, with all the possibilities for infestations.

In a story, this could affect a quest, when someone catches a new disease, a nasty bite, or the town they relied on for supplies is down with plague.

However, it’s not all one-way eating going on. The cockroach is universally disliked as a carrier of disease, yet they can be farmed for flour and some produce a kind of milk that is extremely nutritious. Crickets and mealworms also are commercially farmed, and a few minutes on the internet will show you people like deep fried tarantulas and make rissoles out of gnat swarms.

The scale can be the difference between nuisance or monster. A small spider is ok, but one bigger than you? That’s Aragog and Shelob territory. In the 60’s there was a flood of insect monster movies, mostly grown large due to humans messing around with genetics/radiation/space travel. Ants are quite popular for an alien with a tendency towards obedience, I use them as a model in my recent short story ‘When the Earth Needed Heroes’. Mathew Reilly had a preying mantid variant in his ‘Contest’, as a hunter. Even in ‘The Nun’s Story’ by Kathryn Hulme, there is a horrific scene involving ants.

Insects have also been the subject of myth. Arachne, doing a good job and being proud of her weaving, fell foul of the envious goddess Athena. In dying, she became immortalized as a spider. Insects have been a symbol of being reborn (caterpillars-butterflies), good luck (scarab beetles – although after seeing the Mummy, I am not sure about that), transformation – bees, industry – ants. In Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Huck accidentally kills a spider, which he thinks is bad luck. The fear of bad luck dogs his thoughts for some time and is a great plot device in terms of foreshadowing. A deathwatch beetle, ticking down the moments of life for someone on their deathbed is a fine example of Victoriana. These sorts of superstitions are an interesting way to show both character and customs in different lands.

So while insects are perhaps a small part of our thoughts when writing, they can be a good way to show customs of a place, or a characters personality. Do they squash or save? Scream or observe? Or do they get out the frying pan?

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World Building: Hitchhiker bugs
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3 thoughts on “World Building: Hitchhiker bugs

  • March 24, 2021 at 01:46
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    This post is going to bug me for a while, especially the flea and head lice part. Just thinking about those 2 insect sets me to scratching. Great post.

    • March 24, 2021 at 10:03
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      I know – yuck! But everyone has either had lice or dealt with them, so think of it as bonding with your reader!

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