Bitten By The Alien Bug

I confess, I have a real thing for insects.

So much so, that I repeatedly creep out my hubby and colleagues whenever I play with insects and give them names, instead of hunting them viciously or chasing them away. If I find a stray insect in the house, I mostly direct it to freedom, or stare at it enthusiastically enough for it to become embarrassed and back away from the two-legged creep. And outside, in the grass… oh boy! One day I’m definitely gonna get a terrarium with a few exotic specimens, and I will call them Sunny, Pepper and Butch and tend to them diligently until we grow old together and tell our great-grand-children stories of our adventures.

Ahem. So… where do I even start to tell you how excited I am about insects?

Insects have always generated a cautious curiosity in humans, and they’re represented in art and fiction since the dawn of our societies. Insects have also inspired technological advancement, particularly the development of robots capable to master difficult environments, as well as various other engineering applications. Modern art even combines the two, and has inspired some really amazing pieces!

In present day fiction, insects are mostly found in the horror and science-fiction genre, usually spiders, scorpions, bees and flies. In the case of science-fiction, there’s also the occasional alien parasite or aggressive insectoid, the most famous of which probably are the Starship Troopers bugs, and the parasitic larvae of our good old Alien. I’m sure you know of several more, some better some worse.

However, beyond the repetitive use of the same handful of insects in popular fiction, the well is far from dry. There are some insects on Earth that are more interesting and sometimes far weirder than most of us bipeds would ever imagine, and they make for some awesome inspirational material—especially in science-fiction!

I’m fascinated with all kinds of arthopodes, from the beautiful and fragile (like butterflies and dragon flies), to the creepy and downright dangerous (like hornets, wasps and ants). Insects are incredibly varied and some species have really amazing abilities, complex and regulated social lives, and behaviors very similar to humans—sometimes even surpassing our versatility and adaptability.

It truly pays to be indiscriminate.

Butterflies taste with their feet; ants smell as well as dogs; dragonflies accelerate faster than race cars; the eye of a housefly has 4,000 lenses; the average mosquito has 47 teeth; bees have five eyes; some wasps zombify cockroaches and keep them as live snacks; some worms will eat themselves if they don’t find food; termites have extensive fungi farms in their burrows along with intricate ventilation systems; fire ants can build living rafts by holding on to each other to cross a river; to survive winter, some insects replace their blood with a sort of “antifreeze” glycerol; the chitin of a scorpion reflects UV light and honeybees vote on every big decision of the swarm, such as relocation.

In short, insects are awesome!

I’ve used only a small fraction of the wonders I found in the insect world to create my aliens, some that are more obvious (an insectoid species similar in their hive lifestyle to ants) and some that are more subtle (like the technologically aided adaptation of a species to a hostile environment, or an ingrained social behavior of another species that gets triggered by a specific circumstance). And there is much more still to come!

There are so many way in which insects can be used in science-fiction directly and indirectly. From creating alien species that are less like humans in rubber suits and more like creatures that sprung from a different family tree altogether, to creating intriguing, futuristic technologies. I love nanobots and multi-functional starships, androids and terraforming facilities, self-repairing computers and artificial intelligence webs. But my greatest passion will always be the lifeforms giving all of these things utility.

You know…

Who says advanced or alien technologies will be distinguishable from lifeforms?

Who says alien societies won’t have found a way to manipulate biological life in such a way as to create machines built of other species instead of mechanical parts?

And how about intelligent fungi capable of subduing other intelligent species by wide-scale infestation and the deliberate modification of their behavior?

But—I’m giving too much away. *snicker*

To me, the most amazing thing about insects, in their superb variety and their unsuspected complexity, is that they can push our imagination beyond the limits of our own way of life and our understanding of what’s possible. I’ve only just started to tap into their rich reserve of inspiration, but I already know it’s the beginning of a marvelous friendship. 😉

Besides, they are just the cutest little monsters out there! Aaw.

25 Replies to “Bitten By The Alien Bug”

  1. So I’m not alone in liking insects! Note that there’s not only what insect-based societies would do that we wouldn’t have; there’s also what sentient insects would think of our society…

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  2. I’ve always been fascinated by insects–particularly leaf cutter ants. Here’s another species, every different from our own, with agriculture, a military, and waste management. Many of our sciences have drawn inspiration from the insect world and brought us technologies like those you describe.
    When I watch a colony of ants working together, I wonder how much better off we’d be if the social scientists looked at them as closely as the robotics people.

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    1. Leaf-cutter ants are great! Their powerful jaws are really awe inspiring, and humans can really learn something from how these tiny workers handle huge gardens and underground plantations. As well as from bees…

      Thanks for stopping by & commenting, Jeff! Nice to meet another insect fan. 🙂

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  3. *jumps up and down*
    I love-love-love this post! Yes, “Tracy the squeamish loves Vero’s bug post.” 😀 Let me count the ways…
    1. In general, I love to learn new pieces of interesting fact (e.g, butterflies taste with their feet).
    2. Okay, even though I can freak out around bugs (is it touching me? is it touching me? arrrhhhh!), I also think they’re fascinating. I admire how some form societies and hierarchies like you mentioned above. Ants, honeybees. They get a healthy dose of respect from me.
    3. My mind is blown by the thought of blending lifeforms with technologies. I don’t know if Farscape was ever on your radar, but I watched the first 2 or 3 seasons and I was captivated by the idea of a living spaceship (Moya, operated by a being called Pilot).
    4. My geology professor told us if cockroaches were the size of humans… Yeah, I wouldn’t be typing this now. Scary – and yet still fascinating.
    5. And even squeamish types like me have to stop and marvel. Light shows? “Lightning Bugs” anyone? Colors, grace, and beauty? Butterflies? Legends, with a whisper of magic in our imaginations? Dragonflies? And the moral of the story, my little Grasshopper, said the Ant… I could go on and on. 🙂
    I think it’s exciting, Vero. I’m happy that you not only have found inspiration for your writing, but wonderment for the (usually) tiny creatures under your fingertips.
    Say hi to Sunny, Pepper, and Butch. 😉

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    1. Thanks, Tracy! I’m glad you enjoyed the bug-feed. 😉

      Of course I know and love Farscape! Hubby & I even named our van “Moya”! LOL. Oh, good times. I love Claudia Black’s performance throughout the series (Aeryn Sun), and Nigel often made me roar with laughter! Also I bet you can imagine how much I loved Scorpius, eh? 😉

      Oh, insects are amazing… there’ll be more to come about them and how they crawl into fiction, teehee.

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  4. Forgot to mention that I just learned of a species called Army Worms. Not exactly a wanted creature here (or likely anywhere), as they are decimating some field crops here in NY. A farmer friend said it was scary. She watched as the worms marched en masse across the road from one field to another. She said the road “looked like it was moving.”
    *shudder*

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    1. Now that must be a sight to behold! Reminded me of the mayfly invasion in Germany a few weeks back. Mayflies hatched in the billions on the same day, mated and died, and the authorities had a tough time keeping the roads safe because of the carpet of flies that formed. Poor gentle creatures! They’re an important food source for fishes & other creatures, and are completely harmless, but in those huuuge numbers they became a local problem…

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  5. Excellent article, Vero! I took loose inspiration from the insect world for a couple of the aliens in my space opera. A running theme throughout the manuscript ended up being Organic Technology. (Tracy, you should if at all possible finish watching the Farscape series. It has an incredible ending [which almost never saw the light of day cuz the network cancelled the show prematurely]. If there’s anything I still ‘geek out’ about today, it’s Farscape. There was nothing like it at the time and still nothing like it to this day IMHO) One of the main vessels in my book is living (though unlike Moya it is NOT sentient).

    Insects have some fascinating behaviors. You’ll have to excuse me now, I’m rather ravenous so I think I’ll go and….uhmm…eat my toes. Yeah. And it’s rather chilly in here so I’m going to inject some glycerol in my veins. UhhhUhh. Maybe you should have prefaced that paragraph by “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME” for those crazy people like me out there. Hahaha!

    Anyway, Vero, I would very much like to read your novel. Be sure to let me know when it’s ready for human consumption. 🙂

    Keep on keepin’ on!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Tim! 🙂

      Damn, now I really miss Farscape… it really is one of my favorite shows, mostly because it dared to be different and excelled at it, but also because of the actors’ performances which still beat most other TV series (regardless of genre). Sigh…

      Organic Tech is an awesome theme to explore in fiction, it has so many possibilities. Talk about the setting being treated like a character! 😀

      Thanks for everything, Tim!

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  6. Insects are indeed really neat. I remember when I was in Boy Scouts I was collecting insects for the Insect Study merit badge. I’m not quite sure whether I finished it or not, but I have quite a bunch of insects in display cases.

    It is also a little surprising that people eat insects.

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    1. An Insect Study merit badge! How awesome is that! Wish I had one… 😉

      Oh people eat all kinds of insects in Asia and India, and fried crickets are supposed to taste just like potato chips. If I’ll ever get the chance, I’m gonna try them. But apart from the prepared insect food, people also accidentally eat insects in their sleep and in their salads. *giggle*

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew! Hope I didn’t gross you out just now. 😉

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  7. Insects ARE fascinating. I’m fine with them on paper or in the wild (as long as they are not crawling on me or biting me). Not so crazy about the ones who come to visit me inside.

    But pictures are awesome.

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    1. Well, if you really think about it, insects don’t invade our homes. Our homes are planted in the middle of their territories, so we’re the ones who are trespassing. 🙂

      Insects are so tiny we rarely, if ever, look at them more closely—that’s why images like the ones I’ve posted, or even taking the time to look at a common ant through a magnifying glass, takes us by surprise and shows us unexpected things.

      Thank you very much for stopping by to comment, Cindy! 🙂

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  8. I think what freaks us out about insects is that they greatly outnumber us, and we know that even some of the smallest ones have some sort of venom that could kill us. Maybe that’s why many sci-fi movies have used buggish aliens (Independence Day, Starship Troopers)

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    1. You’re right, Jay, it’s the danger of poison and the inability to control insects due to their minuscule size and great number that instills fear in us humans. It’s an old instinct that’s hard to control, and is usually only surpassed by another powerful human instinct: curiosity. 🙂

      Bugs make for great “villains” in horror movies precisely because of this, and in sci-fi as well. Thank you very much for stopping by!

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  9. Great post! Love the links and bits of info that you sprinkled throughout, and how you connected it to writing. 🙂

    I wish more denizens of science fiction would look to nature for inspiration. There are so many examples of life here on Earth that seemingly defy imagination. Many species of insect, like the ones you mentioned here, are great examples! I’m not as keen on creepy crawlies as you are when they invade my homestead (especially our arachnid friends), but I’m fascinated by them in general. If I ever delve into alien life with my fiction (it’s inevitable, I think), I’m definitely going to be taking cues.

    And speaking of which, ocean life is another plethora of awesome examples of alien-like creatures found right here on earth, especially when you get into the really exotic deep-water species. The spectrum of life on our planet is amazing, which is why there’s just no excuse for an abundance of rubber-forehead aliens in scifi these days!

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    1. It’s been very common in science-fiction to create alien species based on human traits that were taken to extremes, because the genre was mainly used to present a scientific idea or to voice social criticism.

      But science-fiction has evolved since the golden era, and with the apparition of its many subgenres and a wider audience because of the internet and very engaged fans, it’s no longer enough to present a technological breakthrough (we have those every week in the real world now) or to emphasize a human flaw through an entire alien species (we use more complex character arcs for that now).

      So yes, to cut my long reply short, you are absolutely right. Science-fiction writers of today have no excuse to write alien races that are two-dimensional. And a practically bottomless well of inspiration is our own fauna right here on Earth.

      Thank you very much for your comment, James. As always, right on spot. And I’m very glad you enjoyed the “bug post”. 😀

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