Peter Marren: Why the insect world should be celebrated – even the dreaded midge

Share this article

HA! WHARE ye gaun, ye crawlin ferlie!" The bug crawling up a lady's bonnet in Rabbie Burns's great poem, To a Louse, won the poet's reluctant admiration for its boldness and impudence.

But it is also a reminder of our instinctive dislike of "bugs" and creepy-crawlies: ticks, fleas, scuttling house spiders, buzzing flies, biting midges. They swarm in unbelievable numbers, and when they are not annoying us, they are laying waste to our crops and gardens. Look for a bug in the Bible and the chances are you'll find a plague of grasshoppers or a moth "fretting a garment".

Our more gentle instincts are reserved for bugs which are beautiful or useful. Ladybirds have always had a benign image, partly because they are cute, partly because they were once seen as heavenly messengers in mysterious touch with the Virgin Mary. Their images crawl along Tesco shopping bags and on soft woollens for toddlers. Dragonflies have attracted designers because of their wonderful shapes. And butterflies have been borrowed by advertisers to sell products as different as shampoo and cars.

As Burns concluded in his famous line, "O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as others see us", it is all in the eye of the beholder. In Bugs Britannica, I have tried to portray insects and other creepy-crawlies as we see them, not just in a factual way, but as we imagine them. It explores how bugs have influenced fables and stories, films and artwork, poems and songs. It is, as far as I know, the first cultural record of British invertebrates, celebrating the imaginative meeting ground of bugs and us.

You get some idea of what we think of bugs by their names. Not the formal names used by naturalists but those coined by country folk who saw them every day, indoors and out. There are as many folk-names in Scotland as anywhere, and, helped by the many Scots who contributed to the project, we have harvested a fine crop of them.

We found, for example, around a dozen Scottish names for earwigs, among them clipshears, coachbell, forkie, gowlach, switchpool, and my favourite, twitch-ballock. There is an even richer batch of names for bumblebees, which I can remember were often called "bummie-bees" when I lived in north-east Scotland. I love the name "foggie-toddler" for the bee that "toddles" through the "fog" or grass to find its nest. And "sodger" or "red arsie" for the distinctive bee with a red tail.

Among the Scottish names for ladybirds is "Lady Lanners": "Lady, Lady Lanners, Tak up your clowk about your heid/ An flee awa to Flanners". The point of the rhyme is that the direction it flies off in will tell you where your marriage partner will lie. But true to its female image, the ladybird will only perform this trick for girls, not boys.

Watching insects could also foretell the weather. In Gaelic parts of Scotland, they say "if a bee keeps close, a storm is coming". Snails, too, could be weather forecasters. "Snailie, snailie, shoot out your horn, Tell us if it will be a bonnie day, the morn". There is a grain of truth in the rhyme for snails tend to be more active when wet weather is on the way, and they sense the damp air with their "horns". They say black beetles running on the kitchen floor are another sign of rain (made all the more certain if you stamp on them).

Finally, there is the midge. Is it possible to say anything positive about that maddening, minuscule bloodsucker? On their ideal peat bog, I learn, there can be up to a quarter of a million of them per cubic yard, not that anyone is counting. But perhaps Anthony Bennett's sculpture of a giant midge outside Inverness Museum and Art Gallery is a back-handed compliment to an insect that, whatever else it is, is part of Highland life. And who has not sat on a west coast porch and watched the swarms entering the midge-eater like insecticide spray in reverse?

Bugs Britannica is a celebration of the life that swarms at our feet and in the air. Love them or hate them, bugs deepen our experience of life, whether through feelings, observation or imagination. We may not always sympathise with them but they are our fellow travellers, colourful, fascinating and always full of life.

&#149 Bugs Britannica by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey is published by Chatto & Windus this week, priced 35.