Throughout recorded history, the relationship between humans and insects has been a bit frosty. Probably for good reason. Insects, it seems, have the audacity to help themselves to whatever they want, even if it is a human possession. Or even more dastardly, using us for a meal! For example, mosquitoes, fleas and lice.
Modern research has shown that 5 percent of humans have a phobia about insects, 15 percent fear them and 50 percent are apprehensive when they see one of the little six-legged creatures. So 70 percent of us, we can reasonably say, do not like insects.
But in spite of our historical disdain for these small creatures with the exoskeleton, antennae and multifaceted eyes, some have squeezed their way into our religious beliefs anyway. One of the first to do so has an unlikely name to be held in high regard by humans – the dung beetle.
Dung beetles, also known as scarab beetles, literally rolled their way into our good graces some 4,500 years ago in ancient Egypt. These beetles have an unusual behavior that begins when they construct a ball out of mammal manure. The dung beetles then roll the ball around as they seek a place to bury it. Once buried, the ball is used as a food source by immature beetles.
The ancient Egyptians viewed the dung beetle as the earthly symbol of the sun god Khepri who rolled the sun across the sky each day. Khepri came from nothing as the dung beetle appeared to do, and the dung ball the beetle rolled around was symbolic of the sun. Consequently, the dung-ball-rolling scarab became the symbol of transformation and resurrection in ancient Egyptian religious practices.
On the other side of the world and during about the same time period, beetles were also associated with the beginning of the earth. A Cherokee Native American myth held that in the beginning all was water. There was no earth. A diving water beetle was said to have established the land by carrying soft mud from below the water. That mud expanded once it touched the air to form the earth's land mass.
The Cochiti Pueblo Indians of the Southwest U.S. also associated a beetle with a creation myth. These Native Americans believed that this beetle, now classified scientifically in the genus Eleodes, had the job of transporting a bag of stars that would be placed in the sky one at a time.
But there is more to this myth. Eleodes beetles have the interesting behavioral habit of appearing to try to stand on their heads. Based on the myth, the reason for such behavior was that the beetle that had been entrusted with a big and important job got a little careless. The beetle dropped a whole batch of stars, an accident that resulted in the Milky Way. According to the myth, the Eleodes beetles are expressing their embarrassment over the incident by trying to bury their head in the sand!
Christian religious traditions also include insects. There are some 120 references to insects or their products in the Bible. In general, such references can be classified into two groups: benefits of insects or problems with insects.
On the positive side, honey is referenced more than 50 times. Sweets were certainly prized in ancient times, and that relationship shows up in biblical references. Even today we might be inclined to say something about a land "flowing with milk and honey."
A second food item mentioned in the Bible is manna. Today we will still hear references to "manna from heaven." Most likely the biblical manna was crystallized honeydew. Honeydew is the excreta produced by scale insects, some species of which were very common at the exact time and in the geographical location described in the Bible.
A third food item from biblical times would be locusts, a type of grasshopper that has been a food source for humans throughout history. These same locusts, though, were also major pests.
The eighth plague inflicted upon Egypt consisted of a great mass of locusts "so that the land was dark." Insects also caused two other biblical plagues. The third plague was lice. The fourth plague was flies. Other damaging insects identified from the Bible include the clothes moth, olive fly, human flea, a hornet, seed ant and the human body louse.
But leave it to wise Old King Solomon to point out that we can learn a few things from insects. He said, "Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." (Proverbs 6:6). What did Solomon want us to learn? Aesop captured the same idea in the fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper": Work hard and plan ahead!