The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)

Ex Libris, Exempla


December 26, 1934. A famous episode in the history of Surrealism. In a Paris café, André Breton and the up-and-coming writer Roger Caillois quarrel over two Mexican jumping beans.

* * *

Three years later, Caillois founded the Collège de sociologie with two other dissident Surrealists, Georges Bataille and the anthropologist Michel Leiris. (He also participated, halfheartedly, in the charismatic Bataille’s Acéphale [Headless] group, a secret society whose few members, the story goes, having reached agreement on the radical gesture of a human sacrifice, found plenty of volunteers among themselves to play the victim but none to perform the execution.)1 Two more years passed, and Caillois left France to sit out the Nazi occupation in Argentina. Nine years after that, he began a career as a cultural bureaucrat at UNESCO. Twenty-three years later, he was elected to the Académie française. Along the way, he wrote a series of erudite, idiosyncratic, and barely remembered books on unusual topics, among which insects—and in particular praying mantises, lantern flies, and other masters of mimicry—held a special place.

* * *

Sometime on December 27, 1934, perhaps nursing a hangover (he was twenty-one), Caillois sent a letter to Breton in which he declared his break with Surrealism. “I had hoped,” he wrote, “that our two positions were not as deeply divided as they turned out to be during our conversation yesterday evening.”2

* * *

The enigmatic beans sat in front of them on the table. Why did they jump like that? Were those irregular twitches a symptom of some strangely suspenseful life force? Caillois took his knife to break them open. Breton, nearly twice his age, recently expelled from the Communist Party, the author of the Surrealists’ founding manifestos, a prominent figure in French intellectual life, made him stop.

They knew that each bean contained a larva of the Laspeyresia saltitans moth and that its spasms were the creature’s movements inside its hollowed shell. But Breton didn’t want this type of confirmation. “That would have destroyed the mystery, you said,” wrote Caillois.3

* * *

Caillois described the dispute as between poetry and science. But his science was distinctively poetic even then. He threw himself into the “utter confusion” that he identified as the hallmark of inquiry in a contemporary world characterized by “the debacle of the evident.4 Like any good scientist, he saw confusion as a provocation to systematic inquiry. But he was developing his idea of “diagonal science,” “the science of what exceeds knowledge,” a science that would encompass “what science doesn’t want to know.” He was in search of “an order that will allow disorder itself to enter into the order of things.”5Revealing the larva inside the bean would hardly end the mystery, he wrote to Breton: “Here we have a form of the Marvellous that does not fear knowledge but, on the contrary, thrives on it.”6

* * *

The natural world is full of marvels. Maria Sibylla Merian came across one in Suriname. The lantern fly, Laternaria phosphorea, she discovered, creates enough light by which “to read a book printed with the same type as that used for the Gazette de Hollande.7 Actually, she was mistaken; the lantern fly creates no phosphorescence—an odd, uncanny mistake that affixed itself to the insect for more than 100 years and lives on in its Linnaean name. Caillois suggests that the appearance of this creature so surprised Merian that she unconsciously made sense of it by the substitution of a different, unrelated strangeness, the strangeness of animal luminosity.

And L. phosphorea is a startling animal. Like the praying mantis, it fills the world around itself with myth, storytelling, and legend. Henry Walter Bates, the British naturalist who lived eleven years in the Amazon basin and discovered, among many other things, a form of butterfly mimicry crucial to Darwin’s theorization of natural selection, retold stories that circulate in the region about lantern flies that attack and kill men on the rivers. In Amazonia, Bates says, the insect is known as the crocodile head because of its long, snoutlike proboscis.8 This empty box extends from its face and “imitates an alligator’s head exactly,” writes Caillois (who was not really one for biogeographic precision); “color and relief combine to simulate the savage teeth of a powerful jaw.” The effect is “absurd, even ridiculous,” but undeniable.9How strange that a small fly that lives among the trees should have this resemblance and, accordingly, such power to intimidate.

* * *

There is, Caillois proposes, “a repertoire of frightening appearances,” a set of prototypes in nature upon which both the crocodile and the lantern fly draw. Mimicry is not about disappearance, about hiding in plain sight. It’s more often the capacity to reappear, to induce panic by the sudden substitution of one appearance by another, like a Haida shutter mask. Out of nothing, out of empty space, the praying mantis abruptly rears up over its prey, revealing its intimidating eyespots, emitting sinister sounds; its victim is rooted, paralyzed, hypnotized, incapable of fleeing its presence, and the mantis “seems supernatural, unrelated to the real world, coming from the beyond.”10

And so does the lantern fly. Behind its reptilian “false head, dwarf and giant at the same time,” Caillois makes out another head, “the tiny head of the insect,” with its “two bright, black, almost microscopic points—the eyes.”11 The crocodile face is a mask, a mask that corresponds in its effect and method of use to the mask of the human shaman. The lantern fly “behaves like a spell-binder, a sorcerer, the wearer of a mask who knows how to use it.”12

* * *

Caillois was a dedicated collector of rocks and stones. Toward the end of his life, he published The Writing of Stones, a lavishly illustrated guide to the highlights of his collection, in which he describes each stone with his singular combination of biological reason and analogical poetics. He finds the same kinds of correspondences in stones as those that draw him so relentlessly to insects. Just as insect mimicry shares the decisive characteristics of sorcery, just as the animal’s mimetic ornaments are equal in practice and effect to the shaman’s mask, just as the alarming eyespots on the wings of the Caligo butterfly call to mind the evil eye (“The eye is the vehicle of fascination in the whole animal kingdom”), so the gorgeous stones of Caillois’ collection—“and not only they but also roots, shells, wings, and every cipher and construction in nature”—share, along with the human arts, a “universal syntax,” a connection to the “aesthetics of the universe.”13

If categorical segmentation is always the first step in scientific reasoning, this is a world that at all times exceeds its compartments. It is the dissolution of boundaries—self, other, body, animal, vegetable, mineral. The dissolution into space. At the end of one of his most famous essays, Caillois quotes the final ecstasy from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony, “a general spectacle of mimicry to which the hermit succumbs”:

“Plants are no longer distinguished from animals.… Insects identical with rose petals adorn a bush.… And then plants are confused with stones. Rocks look like brains, stalactites like breasts, veins of iron like tapestries adorned with figures….”

Anthony, writes Caillois, “wants to split himself thoroughly, to be in everything, ‘to penetrate each atom, to descend to the bottom of matter, to be matter.’”14

The inky-smoky-vibrant polished surfaces of jasper and agate can take Caillois there. A riled hawk moth can take him there. A rearing mantis can take him there. A lantern fly can take him there. “No one,” he writes, “should say it is nonsense to attribute magic to insects.”15


Writing from what is now Mexico City, the Franciscan chronicler Juan de Torquemada described how, after Hernán Cortés had taken Moctezuma II prisoner in the Aztec ruler’s own palace in 1520, the conquistador gave his men free rein to explore the royal compound. Among the Spaniards’ discoveries, wrote Torquemada, were a number of small bags, which they at once assumed were filled with gold dust.

When they cut the bags open, the Spanish were dismayed to find that instead of gold, they were filled with lice. In Torquemada’s story—a story he attributes to two of Cortés’s lieutenants—the lice were an expression of the profound sense of duty that even the poorest of the emperor’s subjects, those with nothing else to offer him, felt toward their sovereign.16

Torquemada credited the discovery of the bags to Alonso de Ojeda, the notoriously brutal governor of Urabá who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the Indies. But Ojeda had died five years earlier, in Santo Domingo, following a rout by Indians at Cartagena and a subsequent shipwreck. If Torquemada, writing nearly a century after the event, was wrong about Ojeda, perhaps he was mistaken about other details too?

* * *

In another version of this story, the lice made their way to the palace through the efforts of elderly people conscripted for the task by Moctezuma. Incapable of more onerous duties, these men and women were charged with visiting their neighbors’ houses, delousing the occupants, and delivering their bounty to Tenochtitlán as tribute. Given that the earliest medical text from the Americas—the Aztec codex of 1552 (unearthed in the Vatican in 1931)—lists indigenous herbal treatments for head lice, phthiriasis (eyelid lice infestation), and “lousy distemper,” it could be that this tribute was an initiative of imperial public hygiene.17

* * *

Far to the southwest, the Inca ruler Huayna Capac was touring the limits of his empire. Arriving at Pasto, a frontier outpost close to today’s border between Colombia and Ecuador, he supervised the building of defenses and pointed out to the leaders of the district that as a consequence of the empire’s investment in their welfare, they were now in his debt. According to Pedro de Cieza de León, one of the most important Spanish chroniclers of the Incas, the local notables replied that they were entirely without the means to meet new taxes.

Resolved to teach these lords of Pasto the reality of their situation, Huayna Capac issued instructions that “each inhabitant should be obliged, every four months, to give a rather large cane full of live lice.” Cieza de León says that the lords laughed out loud when they heard this command. Soon enough, though, they learned that no matter how diligent they were in collecting, they were unable to fill the designated baskets. Huayna Capac provided them with sheep, writes Cieza de León, and it wasn’t long before Pasto was providing Cuzco, the Inca capital, with its full complement of wool and vegetables.18

* * *

Further south, the Urus retreated to floating reed islands in Lake Titicaca in an effort to stave off Inca conquest. (These artificial islands and the few people who live on them are today one of the area’s principal tourist attractions.) The chroniclers report that the Incas regarded the Urus as so lowly that the word with which they named them meant “maggot.” The same accounts explain that the Incas levied the Urus’ tribute in lice simply because they considered them unfit to pay in any other currency.19

* * *

Nothing like this is documented for the Wari, the Maya, the Mixtec, the Zapotec, or the other great pre-Columbian empires. Often the records are just too scant. However, it is known that in battle the Maya were able to create a formidable panic among their enemies by bombarding them not with lice, but with missiles constructed from live wasps’ nests.20


From a remote district of mountainous Guangxi Province, the renowned Tang-dynasty poet and philosopher Liu Zongyuan described the character of owl-fly larvae.

* * *

Owl-flies are ancient creatures. They have been identified in amber from the Dominican Republic that is more than 45 million years old.21 The adults resemble dragonflies, but the larvae look like the larvae of ant lions: they have dark-brown oval armored bodies about an inch long, with powerful pincer-shaped mandibles. Unlike ant lion larvae, which set a shallow trap in sandy soil and lie in wait for ants and other prey to drop in, owl-fly larvae camouflage themselves by pulling debris over their bodies. Only the outsize mandibles remain uncovered. When an insect wanders too close, the large jaws snap shut, and the larva sucks the pinioned body dry.

* * *

In A.D. 805, Liu Zongyuan was banished from the cosmopolitan imperial capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an) for his involvement in a failed reformist coup. Chang’an, says Liu’s biographer Jo-shui Chen, was “the ‘hometown’ to which he dreamed of returning” but never would.22

In “My First Excursion to West Mountain,” one of the eight short essays he completed between 809 and 812 that are “considered to have inaugurated the genre of the lyric travel account,” Liu wrote:

I have been in a state of constant fear since being exiled to this prefecture. Whenever I had a free moment, I would roam about, wandering aimlessly. Every day I hiked in the mountains accompanied by friends with similar fates. We would penetrate into the deep forests, following the winding streams back to their source, discovering hidden springs and fantastic rocks—no spot seemed too remote. Upon reaching a place, we would sit down on the grass, downing bottles of wine until we were thoroughly drunk. Drunk, we would lean against each other as pillows and fall asleep. Asleep, we would dream.23

Liu died in 819 at the age of forty-six. More than 500 years later he would be recognized as one the eight masters of Tang and Song dynasty prose.

The year he died, in A Record of Fu Ban, he described how, when an owl-fly larva catches its prey, it carries it “forward with its chin up.”

Its load is getting heavier and heavier. Though very tired, [the larva] does not fall down as it cannot rise to its feet once it has stumbled. Some people take pity on it and lift off the load so the insect can continue walking forward. However, it soon takes on its burden once again.24

* * *

Elsewhere during these years of exile, in a meditation on the nature of heaven and human responsibility, Liu Zongyuan asks: “Were someone to succeed in exterminating the insects that eat holes in things, could these things pay him back? Were someone to aid harmful creatures in breeding and proliferating, could these things resent him?”

No, of course not, he says. The fact of the matter is that “merit is self-attained and disaster is self-inflicted.” He is near the end of his time in this melancholy place. “Those who expect rewards or punishments are making a big mistake.… You should just believe in your [principles of] humanity and righteousness, wander in the world according to these principles, and live [in this way] until your death.”25


After the defeat of the Nazis, Karl von Frisch returned to Munich to resume his work as director of the Institute of Zoology. In 1947, he published Ten Little Housemates, a small book for nonscientific readers in which he tried to show that “there is something wonderful about even the most detested and despised of creatures.”26

* * *

He begins with the housefly (“a trim little creature”) and moves on to mosquitoes (which, he admits, “can never be pleasant”), fleas (“An adult man wanting to compete with a flea would have to clear the high-jump bar at about 100 metres and his long-jump would have to measure about 300 metres.… At one jump he could leap from Westminster Bridge to the top of Big Ben”), bed bugs (“We must remember that all living creatures are equal in the eyes of the great law of life: men are not superior to mice nor bugs to men”), lice (“With its forefeet alone a louse can carry up to two thousand times the weight of its body for a whole minute. This is more than the strongest athlete could ever hope to do; it would mean holding up a weight of 150 tons in his hands!”), the cockroach (“a community that has come down in the world”), silverfish (“Lepisma saccharina—the sugar guest.… They are entirely harmless housemates”), spiders (“It is astonishing how little the inborn [web-making] skill of these animals is bound to a rigid system, how greatly their actions differ in detail according to local conditions and according to the weaver’s character”), and ticks (“As there is good reason for the female’s bloodthirstiness, we cannot blame her. Anyone who has to hatch out a few thousand eggs can do with a good meal”).

* * *

Von Frisch devotes one of his longer chapters to his tenth housemate, the clothes moth. He begins with the caterpillar. Like the dung beetle, it turns out to be an essential scavenger, feeding off the planet’s suffocating mountains of surplus hair, feathers, and fur. Like the caddis fly larva, it fashions itself a protective case, spinning a tiny silken tube, a minute padded sock, which it covers with trimmings from the keratin-based world around it. To eat, it peeks its head out of the tube and nibbles the landscape beside the opening. When everything within reach is gone, it explores by extending its case further into the underbrush.

Soon the caterpillar is fully grown and leaves its tube. Awkwardly, it makes its way to a new location, from which the moth will easily be able to take to the air. Maybe it’s the surface of your grandmother’s fur coat or perhaps your favorite winter sweater. Once it arrives, the caterpillar spins itself a new home, gussies it up as before, and prepares for pupation.

* * *

Like many lepidoptera, the adult clothes moth cannot eat or drink. In its few weeks of life, it exhausts the energy stores it accumulated as a caterpillar, losing 50 to 75 percent of its body weight in the process. The female, heavy with up to 100 eggs, is reluctant to fly and spends her days hiding in the dark. Von Frisch is irritated by uninformed violence. “When a lively moth flies around the room,” he says, “there is no point in the whole family chasing it. It is only a male. There are plenty of male moths, actually about double the number of females. So the birthrate will not be affected if a few more or less are killed.”27

* * *

Von Frisch’s little housemates are extraordinary and, in their own ways, exceptional. He explores the extremes of their existence, explains their extravagances, examines their exuberances, and excluding exaggeration, exalts in their extravagations. With his characteristic exactitude, he examines his own experiments and expands on his experiences. In extensive and exhaustive excurses—often external to the exegesis—he extends excuses and extenuations for their excesses. Still, each of his chapters ends with recommendations for his little housemates’ extirpation, that is, for their extermination.

Houseflies should be trapped on flypaper or poisoned. Clothes moths are susceptible to naphthalene and camphor. Silverfish can be controlled with DDT (which “does not harm human beings or domestic animals if it is used in reasonable quantities and according to the instructions”). Lice should be mass-killed by fumigation with prussic acid and its derivatives (“one useful product of the war”). Mosquitoes require more drastic measures: you should drain their wetland habitats, flood the area with petroleum, or introduce predatory fish into their breeding pools. DDT should also be used against cockroaches.

“It is doubtful whether insects feel pain at all as we do,” says von Frisch. And he tells a story to demonstrate his claim. He goes back to his beloved bees, the little comrades to whom he devoted his adult life. “If you take a pair of sharp scissors,” he begins, “and cut a bee in two, taking care not to disturb it while it is taking a drop of sugary water, it will go on eating.”28

Von Frisch’s even, good-natured tone doesn’t change. Roger Caillois encountered something like this too, something that brought death, pleasure, and pain into one claustrophobic space. But Caillois, conscripted by a different type of science, found himself bound and subject to his animal: “I am deliberately expressing myself in a roundabout way,” he wrote as he tried to explain the peculiar power of the praying mantis, “as it is so difficult, I think, both for language to express and for the mind to grasp that the mantis, when dead, should be capable of simulating death.”29

But the bee just keeps on drinking. It doesn’t seem to raise questions beyond the experiment. It appears to have lost its magic. Its “pleasure—if it feels any—is even considerably prolonged,” von Frisch observes. “It cannot drink its fill, for what it sucks trickles out again at the rear, and hence it can feast on the sweetness for a long time before it finally sinks dead of exhaustion.”30 Ex-animal, ex animo. He extends, exhibits, and exanimates. It excretes, exhales, and expires.

But let’s not forget: just as there are forms of the marvelous that thrive on knowledge, there is knowledge that despite itself adds to the marvelous; just as there are those who underestimate the lowly multitude, there are people who understand only too well its many-sided power; just as there are those who subject the animal to the steel of experiment, there are those who take pity and lift off its load, even though it soon takes on its burden once again.