Compiling Bug Tales In 'Insectopedia'

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Author Hugh Raffles, professor of anthropology at The New School in New York, traveled the globe meeting insects and the people who love them. From deep-fried grasshoppers to cricket fights, Raffles recounts some of the stories from his new book Insectopedia.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow. We're going to continue talking about spring insects with my author who's here, Hugh Raffles, an author of "Insectopedia." And why did you -you're not an insect scientist, are you?

Dr. HUGH RAFFLES (Author, "Insectopedia;" Professor of Anthropology, The New School): I'm not a scientist at all.

FLATOW: No. I - so why is an anthropologist writing a book about insects?

Dr. RAFFLES: Well, it's really a book about relationships between people and insects rather than just insects themselves.

FLATOW: And tell us about that. What interests you about this? What's your motivation here?

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. Well, you know, when I actually started this, I did want to write a book about insects.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RAFFLES: But I quickly figured out that I just wasn't able to do that. Insects and cells are just too difficult to make sense of. So I looked for people who have entrusting relationships with them and try to get inside those relationships a little bit.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RAFFLES: And part of what motivated me was that, you know, as we all know, insects are everywhere. We don't understand them very well. And partly, also I didn't know very much about them and it was a way for me to find out something about them.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. RAFFLES: But they're also extremely important in our lives in many ways, but we both tend not to notice them, and also in general, in the U.S. and in Europe, have pretty negative responses to them.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you're right about the negative and positive responses to insects and how insects have been used in the course of literature, in the course of anti-Semitism and the course of all human interaction, somewhere, there are insects found.

Dr. RAFFLES: It seems to be that way, or at least you could say that if you start by looking at insects, you can open up very, very large worlds, actually. The example of Jews and lice, I think, is a good example of that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Let's hone in on one of these, then. Let's talk about a cricket fight, like the one we saw in China. It's fascinating where you spend...

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. I mean, you know I am an anthropologist so I spend...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAFFLES: ...a kind of fair amount of time doing fieldwork going to...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. RAFFLES: ...interesting places, talking to interesting people. And one of those is some time I spent in Shanghai. And in China, as I'm sure many people know, there's a long-standing - I don't know what you'd call it, more than hobby, not different from a sport but an activity or something of fighting -people training in fighting crickets. And people have developed, you know, tremendous expertise over there. Actually, over the centuries, the first manual of cricket training and fighting is 900 years old.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. RAFFLES: And people still refer to that and work with that, although it's obviously been updated a lot.

FLATOW: And if you go to a cricket fight, what do you see? Are the crickets tearing each other apart?

Dr. RAFFLES: Well...

FLATOW: You could - I mean, when you go to a cockfight, you know...

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...chickens, you'd see them, you know, pecking away at each other.

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. Well, it's not as bloody as that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAFFLES: I mean, crickets are tiny and they're in this little clay plastic arena. But it's very dramatic. It's very, very dramatic.

FLATOW: Because they're representative of something else?

Dr. RAFFLES: No. Just because they're pretty dramatic themselves.

FLATOW: Themselves.

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. They're very, they're very exciting fighters and it's very compelling. And...

FLATOW: How do you select the good cricket to be a...

Dr. RAFFLES: Well, you know...

FLATOW: I know you don't, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAFFLES: I don't know how to do it, but I talked to a lot of people who did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RAFFLES: And people have extremely elaborate and sophisticated ways of doing that.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah, really. There's this very complicated taxonomies. Very, very different than (unintelligible) or biological taxonomies. But people have -they start off with, I think 72 personalities or something like - well, actually, they start off with a series of different colors, which even in the time that I was spending looking quite closely, they were indistinguishable to me, actually.

FLATOW: Right. But they could tell.

Dr. RAFFLES: But then, people can tell very, very, very carefully, very closely, and they can - they look for differences inside the shape of the antennae, the translucence of the exoskeleton, the shape of the wings, the scent. What they're looking for are signs of the - something like the fighting spirit of the cricket.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. RAFFLES: What it's likely to be when it gets into a fighting - when he gets into an arena and starts fighting.

FLATOW: You know, you say about crickets being revered in China.

Dr. RAFFLES: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Can you imagine an insect in this country - I mean, that kind of cultural connection that the Chinese have with the cricket, what kind of insect we might have in the West? I mean, there is no such thing. (Unintelligible) like that.

Dr. RAFFLES: No. I don't think there's anything like that.

FLATOW: Yeah. Why? Why is that?

Dr. RAFFLES: No. Yeah. It's a really good question. And I don't have a good answer for this. I mean, what I did find was that in many other - in other places, people have very different attitudes to insects and very different relationships with them. I suppose in China and Japan, particularly, which are the two countries in East Asia that I spent time in, there's a long history positive representations of insects, or certain insects, in literature, in painting, in all kinds of arts.

And that people - and you know, it continues today. So in Japan, you get all kinds of insects appear in all kinds of forms in, you know, in manga and in anime and, you know, contemporary cultural forms.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And then closer to home here in the book, you take us to New Mexico, and how insects are changing as a result of the climate change.

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. There's a chapter in the book about a sound artist called David Dunn, who has - who lived in Santa Fe and - or still lives in Santa Fe, I think. And during the period of the drought that affected the juniper pinyon pine forests in, I think, 2000, 2001, that period, he started trying to find out what was going on with the trees - and the trees were being affected by these severe invasions of bark beetles - because he was searching to sound and had done environmental sound recordings.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RAFFLES: He started - he developed a way to record the sound inside trees. And he figured out what was happening was that the - essentially, I suppose, the trees and the beetles were getting delinked from each other. So whereas before, there had been low levels of infestations and the trees could cope with them.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. RAFFLES: Because of the drought, the trees didn't have the defenses to cope with the...

FLATOW: Oh, they're weakened.

Dr. RAFFLES: ...beetles anymore. They were weakened.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. RAFFLES: But on the other hand, the insect's reproduction...

FLATOW: It's an opportunity, right?

Dr. RAFFLES: Very much, yeah. They speed it up in every way.

FLATOW: Right. Right. Tell us what you were looking for when you went to Niger, when you went there.

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. Well, I went there because I knew that people had - you know, people have these very close relationships with grasshoppers, which were both positive and negative. There were locusts that invaded fields and caused famines and that were really, you know, a severe problem. But at the same time, people ate grasshoppers and locusts as...

FLATOW: It's source of protein.

Dr. RAFFLES: Very good source of protein. But they're mote than a source of protein. They were also like a luxury food and sort of like a fun food that people ate. So...

FLATOW: Like popcorn or something.

Dr. RAFFLES: Well, they're crunchy, yes, a bit like popcorn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Do they have special recipes who to cook them and prepare them and...

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah. People have great ways of cooking them. They fry them. They cook them with chili and salt and lime, yeah.

FLATOW: Wow. We should put one of those recipes up on our Web site. Well...

Dr. RAFFLES: Well, don't want to encourage eating insects.

FLATOW: Why not? I mean, and what's wrong with eating insects?

Dr. RAFFLES: Well, you know, I'm a vegan. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That explains it. You're a vegan. And so did you have to force yourself to - you had a sample it, right, when you went over there? You couldn't judge it without taking a bite.

Dr. RAFFLES: You know, I sort of have a little bit - you know, when I'm in control of my diet, then I'm vegan. But when I'm somewhere that - I don't like offending people with food. You know, food is very personal.

FLATOW: Yes. Yes. You don't want to offend them and not eat what they're eating. They're offered the food, you eat it.

Dr. RAFFLES: Pretty much, yeah.

FLATOW: And so what did it taste like?

Dr. RAFFLES: Crunchy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Did you hold your nose and you say, I'm going to take a bite? What happens after...

Dr. RAFFLES: You know - and, you know, everybody else is very enthusiastic, so it's easy, you know, enthusiastic, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So how do they deal - when locust come around...

Dr. RAFFLES: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...do they - if they're eating them - you said there's like this love-hate relationship, they're pests, on one hand, and then they're - are they going to gather them up and fry them later? Or do they just have to try to make sure they don't eat up the crops?

Dr. RAFFLES: No. I think when it's a really severe invasion of locust...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. RAFFLES: ...then there's not much that people can do. People just have to pretty much get out of there. And from talking to people, it appears that mostly what happens is people abandon their fields and abandon their villages -or eventually, they often have to do that.

But one of the things that I found from talking to people that I was very unaware of, and this is all just came out of talking to biologists in Niger, was that while locust are this very dramatic problem - which...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RAFFLES: ...stimulate a lot of international, you know, international response because...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. RAFFLES: ...it creates such a crisis - there's a bigger problem, insect problem, which is the sort of every day and every season just presence of grasshoppers, which are more closely coordinated with the millet crop, and they can consume maybe 20 to 50 percent of people's crops. But they don't - there isn't really much international attention on them.

FLATOW: There isn't?

Dr. RAFFLES: No. Very little. So - because...

FLATOW: Although they're devastating.

Dr. RAFFLES: Even though they're devastating, because they create this sort of continual attrition, which is very debilitating to people's farming, but it doesn't have the kind of drama that attracts international attention.

FLATOW: Yeah. Mosquitoes and kids dying and things like that.

Dr. RAFFLES: Exactly. Again, it's not - you know, there's so much drama associated with the farming...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. RAFFLES: ...with the locusts. It's very - the locust infestation invasion.

FLATOW: Unless they're making a movie about it.

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah, exactly.

FLATOW: And then people pay attention.

Dr. RAFFLES: Yeah.

FLATOW: Right. Well, it's an excellent book. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us.

Dr. RAFFLES: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: And good luck with the book. It's called "Insectopedia." It's alphabetically listings, interesting how people interact with insects that you might never have thought about before. Hugh Raffles is the author. Thank you for being with us.

Dr. RAFFLES: Thanks so much, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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