How Bugs Fit Into Global Society Focus Of Study

Cultural impact of insects under microscope at WSU.

Published on: Oct 3, 2013

Helpful parasitic wasps that can wipe out pest populations in a crop are getting a close-up look by Washington State University researchers who proclaim beneficial bugs as good guys on a global scale.

A WSU class, "Insects, Science and World Culture," taught by entomologist Robert Zinna tries to give students a leg up on how important the role of the helpful insect can be  on world cultures.

"By examining how insects impact civilizations, art, what we eat and what we wear, my hope is that it diminishes the 'ick' factor  associated with insects," he explains. "In this country, there's a tendency to view all bugs as bad. And, they're not. Far from it."

Robert Zinna shows students insects caught during a sweep of a row crop at WSUs organic farm.
Robert Zinna shows students insects caught during a sweep of a row crop at WSU's organic farm.

Ink and dyes, beeswax in candles, crickets ground into flour, honey on our toast, silk threads in our scarves – all are examples of how we benefit from bugs, he says. But we also harness them for their work among crops and flowers, and that's what Zinna wants his students to understand.

"Rather than say to students, 'This is  bug; you should like it,' I take them on field trips so they can actually witness the beneficial things bugs do.

On one September trip to an organic farm, the class witnessed a parasitoid wasp hatching out of the inside of a pest, something Zinna describes as  similar to the scene in the movie "Alien," when the creature burst out of a human where it had incubated.

WSU sophomore Sierra Dwyer who joined the class pulls no punches. "I don't like bugs," she proclaims. "My hope is that buy learning about them, I can get over my fear. Just maybe, I'll come to admire them."

Whether that fondness will extend to spiders remains iffy.

Zinna also  tries to dispel bug myths, like earwigs crawling into ears when they sleep to lay eggs on the brain. Just not so, he says.