Most insect scientists (and I’d guess, most people in general) express a general sense that there are lots of people that don’t like insects. We probably could all come up with anecdotal evidence of this. For instance, my mother-in-law talks about trouble eating in our apartment because I have a poster of grasshopper in our kitchen, and this makes her queasy. I’d guess, however, that most people just ignore them. Angela talks gave me some anecdotal evidence of this: She always helps out with an exercise at the Konza prairie to get kids collecting insects, i.e. the insect grab at the Konza Visitor’s Day. After collecting insects, the kids have a booklet to fill out that asks them to give the scientific name of an animal. Even though they are looking right at a terrarium full of insects they all try to think of a mammal to list. Also as qualitative evidence, I can find lots of blogs / blog posts (like this or this or this) and newspaper articles (like this or this or this) that express the perception that insects are often disliked. But, I had only read one or two studies that actually tried to quantify this.
For this post, I wanted to delve deeper into these questions: has it been shown lots of people generally dislike insects? And, if so, why do people dislike insects? Does this differ among social groups, ages, or genders? Does this differ culturally?
Avoidance, ignorance, and dislike of insects
The reason that I hadn’t read a lot of studies about how people perceive insects is that there aren’t all that many out there (although, admittedly, my search has been rather limited thus far). The studies that I have found that actually take some measurement of how people feel about insects (especially relative to other groups of animals) do tend to generally find what we all expected: both adults and children generally negative attitudes towards or ignorance / avoidance of insects. I was a little dismayed that all studies that measured a gender difference reported that negative attitudes towards insects (or more generally invertebrates) seem to be stronger in females than males. There have been conflicting findings about age, however, some report people dislike insects less as they get older, and others the opposite trend. I could not find any studies outside of the US and Europe, so this discussion is unfortunately represents Western attitudes, only. (Also, if anyone is aware of studies from non-US or European places, we’d love to know about them. I suspect Asian attitudes towards insects could be different, as insects can be culturally important in some Asian cultures, as we discuss here.)
Here are some examples:
- US adult aversion to insects: A survey by Kellert (1993) showed that of 214 residents of a small town in Connecticut, members of the public and farmers generally viewed invertebrates (insects and spiders in particular) “with aversion, anxiety, fear, avoidance, and ignorance”, while scientists and conservation organization members were more positive and knowledgeable of them In accordance, most of the general public disapproved of major expenditures to protect threatened invertebrate species. Most people seemed to better understand the roles of lepidopterans in relation to agriculture and gardening, but didn’t know the taxonomy or general importance of other groups. Positive attitudes towards invertebrates were greater in males than females, those with above a high school education, and in younger respondents compared to older.
- Norwegian adult aversion to insects: Bjerke and Østdahl (2004) showed that in one Norwegian city, the majority of people dislike most invertebrate species, as compared to mammals and birds, which were generally liked by most people. Butterfly species were liked, and grasshoppers were considered neutral species. Men were the ones that were most likely to prefer the disliked species, like insects, and, for some invertebrate species, there was a tendency for invertebrates in general to be more well-liked by older people.
- Children’s general ignorance of insects: Children tended to underappreciate the importance of insects and their diversity to different ecosystems, and ultimately, humans. Drawing on children from Nebraska and New Jersey, Strommen (1995) found that children had very little awareness of insects as members of forest ecosystems (only 13 % of them included them in drawings to depict forest systems) As an aside, boys had more knowledge about forest life than girls. Barrow (2002) found that most students (K-6) interviewed had more knowledge about the harmful effects of insects than their helpful effects. Snaddon, Turner and Foster (2008) showed that children visiting the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge vastly underrepresented insects as a component of rainforest biodiversity in drawings to depict the biodiversity in a rainforest, and then analyzing these drawings. Previous work by Snaddon and Turner(2007) in the UK has shown that children know more about groups of insects represented in popular culture, and that their knowledge was not necessarily about insect groups that were most common or threatened in the UK.
Why do we dislike and / or ignore insects?
I found very little evidence of this, largely just speculation in discussions of the papers above (and other). As such, I’ll put forth what I’ve always the two things that I’ve always thought contribute most, which is partially in line with what the above authors have said, and in line a couple of points from Hillman’s “Why we hate bugs”.
First, because we are more closely related to mammals, we can understand them better and appreciate the “beauty” they possess more easily. I think that many people are just very confused by insects. They look very different than us. They have different life cycles, reproduce differently, and behave in very different ways than us. Confusion and misunderstanding of insects often leads to aversion and fear.
Second, a handful of insects that can potentially harm people or resources they depend upon have given the rest a bad wrap (I can think of other animal groups that this has happened to, such as snakes and sharks). This phenomenon may be more prominent for insects, however, because nearly everyone has firsthand knowledge of the potentially harmful (at the very least irritating) effects of insects via insect bites, and we all hear news of insect outbreaks harming agriculture or disease outbreaks spread by insects. We fear and avoid that which may do us harm, and since most people know very little about insects, they fear and / or avoid insects in general.
So…what can change these negative perceptions?
There are certainly many on social media that are aiming to change this general dislike. For instance, an insect natural history class at Berkeley actually reviewed bug blogs, and certainly a main goal of many of these is to get people to appreciate the insect world more. There are lots of admirable people and organizations that actively seek out opportunities to educate the public about insects and their roles in ecosystems. For instance,The Bug Chicks have a wonderful blog, do events and media all to teach the public about insects and arthropods. And, with regards to children’s perceptions of insects, Chris Buddle has posted about how well-received (and fun!) his outreach with kids about bugs has been.
With the growing awareness that insects are very important to humans, including the recent UN recognition of their potential as an important food source, human perceptions must change at some point. Other than those of us that actively seek out local opportunities to change human perceptions about insects, is there a way to do this at a larger scale? If I am right about why people dislike insects, this change in perception would mean: 1) fostering a better understanding of insects to dispel fear and avoidance, and 2) showing that most insects are beneficial, and educating people about those that are potential harmful. I’m guessing one cornerstone of this would be to start with kids, as many public awareness programs do.
We’d love to hear any ideas that are floating around out there about both why people dislike and fear insects, and what can be done to change this widespread perception.