The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)

In the Beginning...

In the beginning, a long, long time ago, a time before any people were here, a time close to the primordial gas and ooze, a time not too long after the time (we are, after all, talking geological time) when those heroic protozoa created the planet’s first encyclopedia by turning themselves into mitochondria and chloroplasts within other cells, which in turn formed alliances that grew into yet other beings, which joined up with yet others to make invisible cities, worlds within worlds … Sometime after that time but still long before our time, there were the insects.

For as long as we’ve been here, they’ve been here too. Wherever we’ve traveled, they’ve been there too. And still, we don’t know them very well, not even the ones we’re closest to, the ones that eat our food and share our beds. Who are they, these beings so different from us and from each other? What do they do? What worlds do they make? What do we make of them? How do we live with them? How could we live with them differently?

Imagine an insect. What comes to mind? A housefly? A dragonfly? A bumblebee? A parasitic wasp? A gnat? A mosquito? A bombardier beetle? A rhinoceros beetle? A morpho butterfly? A death’s-head moth? A praying mantis? A stick insect? A caterpillar? Such varied beings, so different from each other and from us. So prosaic and so exotic, so tiny and so huge, so social and so solitary, so expressive and so inscrutable, so generative and so opaque, so seductive yet so unsettling. Pollinators, pests, disease vectors, decomposers, laboratory animals, prime objects of scientific attention, experimentation, and intervention. The stuff of dreams and nightmares. The stuff of economy and culture. Not just deeply present in the world but deeply there, creating it, too.

There are too many insects, uncountable numbers, more all the time. And they are so busy, so indifferent, and so powerful. They’ll almost never do what we tell them to do. They’ll rarely be what we want them to be. They won’t keep still. In every respect, they are really very complicated creatures.