Beetles on the Fringe

The TV show, “Fringe” has an episode, “Immortality” that features beetles as a weapon used by a bio-terrorist. These particular beetles will lay their eggs inside humans and cause a ghastly death. In a scene scripted to elicit fear and loathing, one of the characters captures a beetle emerging from the nose of one of the victims. Do beetles eat living breathing people? Not in our world. However, the TV beetles come from an alternate world, the products of biological engineering run amok. After they caused sheep to go extinct by their feeding habits, the scientist had no choice but to rear them on unsuspecting people without their consent.

What is fact and what is fiction in our world?
Insects that lay their eggs inside other insects (and spiders) exist. They are called parasitoids.
Most parasitoids are either wasps or flies. There are no beetle parasitoids.
Most wasps (over 70,000 described species) are parasitoids that lay eggs and develop inside other insects.
There are flies, such as bot flies, that will lay eggs on humans and develop under the skin. However, these are small relative to the size of a human and do not kill the person. Reports of bot flies colonizing humans are rare.
Ectoparasites such as human lice and ticks are far more common.
Most of our internal parasites are worms.
Far more dangerous than parasitoids are biting insects, such as mosquitoes, that can transmit deadly diseases such as malaria.

A number of beetle species feed on dead animals. Carrion beetles and burying beetles are attracted to the odors of dead animals. Burying beetles will bury small dead animals such as rodents as a way to sequester the food resource for themselves, protect their offspring and deter other scavengers away. However, these beetles only feed on the dead, not the living.

Where do insect horror ideas originate? The Deadbolt interviews the writers of Fringe and asks the question:

THE DEADBOLT: From watching the trailer of “Immortality,” it reminded me of the scarab beetles in those Mummy movies. Where you do you guys get the ideas for these things?

JEFF PINKNER: Well, typically they come from nightmares.

J.H. WYMAN: They come from a lot of dreams, a lot of nightmares. Just like thoughts, Jeff and I try and freak each other out. I think that inherently human beings have the same fears, like bugs, feeling of being alone, not being able to breath, drinking something, ingesting something that you can’t get out of you. These are things that we like to [utilize].

JEFF PINKNER: We read an article recently that human beings are psychologically far more afraid of bugs than they are of driving a car. Whereas people get killed by cars every single day, and there is hardly ever a story of people getting killed by bugs. It’s because it’s part of our reptile brain. You know, way, way, way, way back in our ancestry, bugs were a threat and parasites were a threat.

People dislike being adversely affected by the actions of others, no matter how noble. Science without consent or consulting surrounding the effects on others stirs passions of unfairness, injustice and demand for democracy. Many people do have irrational fears of insects and other arthropods. The combination stirs a pot of emotions that makes good theatre.

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is a retired Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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