The Least of These, Our Insect Teachers

Let’s face it, most of us, most of the time, assume insects are simply too tiny and primitive to interact with in any meaningful way except to objectify as pest, mindless bug, or at best, ecological agent (e.g., pollinator, predator, or even food). After working with bees and wasps, I’m convinced there is so much more to them, and I have updates on my carpenter bee saga to share in the next few posts. But here, I want to look at age-old attitudes toward insects and their surprising lack of representation even among indigenous wisdom traditions where you would expect to find them.
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After working with bees and wasps, I’m convinced there is so much more to them than most of us believe, and I have updates on my carpenter bee saga to share in the next few posts. But here, I want to look at age-old attitudes toward insects and their surprising lack of representation even among indigenous wisdom traditions where you would expect to find them.

Despite all the work being done in honeybee conservation, and despite the way that spiders have always retained a bit of a mystique (think Charlotte’s Web), most of us, most of the time, assume insects are simply too tiny and primitive to interact with in any meaningful way except to objectify as pest, mindless bug, or at best, ecological agent (e.g., pollinator, predator, or even food). Even among the indigenous wisdom traditions I’ve encountered over the past thirty years, I barely remember any mention of insects. There was Spider Woman, but my memories of her are more achetypal, sort of as a goddess type of figure than specific to spiders themselves. Beyond that, I could remember very little.

Insects in Indigenous Traditions

Of course, I couldn’t let it go at just that. I knew someone would call me out for making half-assed uninformed statements, so I searched online for information on insects in indigenous traditions. I did find some art and lore, particularly among the Navajo and the Hopi.[1] I also found scholarly statements about the frustrating lack of understanding about the role of insects in Australian Aboriginal cultures beyond certain food insects.[2] This rather dated page, Native American Insects of Myth and Legend, compiles sources from across the internet, but many of these links point to the cultures of the Desert Southwest. It has been noted that as a whole the tribes of America’s Desert Southwest retained more of their cultural integrity than those in other parts of North America because they were conquered relatively later than the rest.

Squashed Out of Existence

As I pondered that fact, I couldn’t help but suspect that the lack of information on insects in Australian Aborginal studies (mind you that’s academia) cascades from the brutal nature of that peoples’ subjugation. It also occurred to me that even within indigenous traditions less brutalized by Western colonization than the Australian Aborigines, that lore related to insects could very well have been lost simply because it couldn’t find purchase in the Western mind. Here in the United States we embraced the Eagle, claiming it as a powerful national symbol. But spiders and flies? Pfft. Even I noticed my reflex to brush aside the stories of Big Fly from the Navajo. He’s an important figure in Navajo mythologies, a teacher and a helper, acting as a medium for relaying messages from the ancestors.

Hopi, Watching the Dancers, 1906. Photo by Edward S. Curtis (American, 1868 – 1952) via Wikimedia Commons.

If I hadn’t had my own telepathic-seeming communications with wasps and bees, I might have flinched and brushed the stories aside like an annoying fly… Now I’m going to have to start checking out flies. Although I have started taking them outside! Ha ha ha.

Navajo insects. Big Fly is shown at upper left.[3]
Insect drawings found on Mimbres pottery, ca. AD 1100.
Insect drawings found on Mimbres pottery, ca. AD 1100.[3]
Hopi butterflies [3]

Great Mysteries

But there may also be something related to the power and the mystery of some of the teachings which were deliberately kept opaque by native peoples, as this article provides some insight into: Canyon de Chelly & Kokyangwuti: Spider Woman. The deeper I go into the world of insects, the more do its dimensions unfold in surprisingly psychic ways. We in the modern world barely accept that large intelligent mammals might have feelings or a personality or, God forbid, rights of personhood. Although an Indian court declared dolphins non-human persons with right! The notion of psychic insect communication remains so far out of the realm of accepted reality that I fully expect push-back. Fortunately, I don’t care!

Rock art at Canyon de Chelley, spider web.[4]

The Secret Life of Insects

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

Matthew 25:40

In every meaningful way, insects are among the least of these, meaning that they are widely deemed among the least important and least intelligent of creatures. For this reason alone I find it wonderfully appropriate that they have led me on this journey of discovery to gaze in all new ways at the purposefulness, intelligence and personality of nature. I can’t wait to share with you my recent discoveries with the carpenter bees. But first, I promised a wasp that I would give credit to them for inducting me into the secret life of insects. I will admit I am not always sure these conversations happen anywhere other than in my imagination! But the fact remains that without working with wasps and hornets, I would never have undertaken the deeper journey in which I find myself this spring. Their responsiveness to me against all expectations gave me hope to undertake that journey.

I shared stories and my method for working with wasps, hornets, and hive bees in “Talking to the Bees” (Episode 23). That story alone should dispel the notion that insects are nothing but pests, dumb bugs, or simple ecological agents. Right after I published that post, I tried my method with the borer bees in the eaves of a friend’s house. My efforts failed, which led me on my current odyssey, the beginnings of which I shared in “Consider the Borer Bee” (Episode 24). To dance with the carpenter bee has not been as straightforward as with the hornets and wasps, but it has swept me up in an initiation that is still unfolding. The next steps in the saga are Borer Bees II: The Bee House Saga (Episode 26) and Borer Bees III: The Carpenter Bee As Native Pollinator (Episode 27).

Episdoe 24, Consider the Borer Bee

References

  1. Capinera, J. L. Insects in Art and Religion: The American Southwest. American Entomologist, Volume 39, Issue 4, Winter 1993, Pages 221–230, https://doi.org/10.1093/ae/39.4.221
  2. Si, A., & Turpin, M. (2015). The Importance of Insects in Australian Aboriginal Society: A Dictionary Survey. Ethnobiology Letters6(1), 175–182. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26423615
  3. Native American Insects of Myth and Legend. Retrieved May 24, 2022 from Native Languages of the Americas website http://www.native-languages.org/legends-insect.htm
  4. Canyon de Chelly & Kokyangwuti: Spider Woman. Retrieved May 28, 2022 from Okar Research blog http://balkhandshambhala.blogspot.com/2013/04/canyon-de-chelly-kokyangwuti.html

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