Big is Best but not for Bugs

Friday 11th April 2014

This week's blog is a guest feature – by Germaine Greer. Germaine is Buglife’s President and has been helping the charity to champion the cause of ‘saving the small things that run the planet’ for over 10 years. Stimulated by my recent blog on speciesism, Germaine meditates on the role of size in our attitudes to wildlife and concludes that the negativity that humans feel towards many bugs is about more than just size.

Enjoy. Matt Shardlow.

While it seems likely that most invertebrates are too small to count (in all senses of that word), being bigger does them no good. In most people's eyes the bigger an invertebrate, the less it deserves to live. When an unfamiliar beetle 2.6 inches long turned up in a piece of timber in a furniture restorer's workshop in Wales a few years ago, the workers' first impulse was to grab a two-pound hammer and smash it; others more merciful wanted it thrown out of the window, simply because it was in the manager's words, 'bloody huge for a beetle'. (It was probably the Great capricorn beetle (Cerambyx cerdo), long considered extinct in the UK and protected in mainland Europe.)

The biggest bugs are also the baddest bugs. Huge (i.e. bigger than usual) means 'yuck!' One viewer of on-line images of the foot-long larva of the Goliath beetle (Goliathus goliatus) on a website that rejoices in the name 'Real Monstrosities', called it 'obscene'. In fact it is no more obscene than the Witchetty grubs (caterpillars of the Australian moth Endoxyla leucomochla) that I have eaten with relish – just bigger. Harmless, useful huntsman spiders are routinely sucked into vacuum-cleaner hoses simply because their leg span is deemed excessive. We can tolerate squid but not giant squid; we can let money spiders run up our arms but the mere thought of a spider the size of a dinner plate has some people heaving.

Titan beetle (Titanus giganteus) (c) Bernard Dupont

The Titan beetle (Titanus giganteus) has been dubbed 'the creepiest crawly of them all' when its only fault is to be big. Its role as a recycler of rotting wood is already essential to rainforest survival and the beetle may yet prove to be the saviour of tropical rainforest because it fetches high prices in the pet trade, as much as $400 apiece. Even so, almost nothing is known about it; scientists have been so incurious about it that they have yet to glimpse its (probably enormous) larvae.

Even though the Goliath beetle (Goliathus goliatus) is now being bred as a pet nothing is known about its behaviour. In the wild it is vegetarian; in captivity it lives on dog food and shows a tendency to cannibalism, which suggests that captivity renders it psychotic. Similarly, the life cycle of the Elephant beetle (Megasoma spp.) is not understood; nobody has any idea how long the larval stage endures.

Elephant beetle (Megasoma spp.) (c) kibuyu

Only when it comes to invertebrates is size positively correlated with malice. The Giant (six-inch long) camel spider (which is not a spider, but a venomless solifuge) has been accused of jumping up to eat camel's stomachs when all it is doing under the camel is hiding from the sun. To see a Stag beetle (Lucanus cervus) zooming overhead is to get 'the fright of your life'. The phasmids are timid vegetarians with neither fang nor sting, but half-wit celebrities in receipt of huge fees for camping out in pretend jungle will faint at the sight of a stick insect.

Racism and speciesism are both born of ignorance. While I would wish that information about our fellow earthlings was not presented on the web from such a silly, sensationalist and anthropocentric perspective, the websites and blogs do go some way to dispelling the general ignorance.

We can only hope that an increasing number of clever young ‘natskis’ will soon succeed in getting funding to sit in the canopy or grub around on the forest floor in the hope of finding out how the not-so-small members of the small majority live, move and have their being. In the meantime thousands of scientists are hard at work on the phylogeny of the microscopic fig wasp. Size is not the issue.

Germaine Greer


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