African dung beetles navigate by star light. More impressive still, they can use the light from the Milky Way to orient themselves.
In part due to the fact that dung beetle stories make for amusing headlines and in part because journalists rarely get to use phrases such as “balls of precious dung”, this recent discovery has attracted significant mainstream news coverage.
But dumb dung jokes aside, researchers say:
“This finding represents the first convincing demonstration for the use of the starry sky for orientation in insects and provides the first documented use of the Milky Way for orientation in the animal kingdom.”
Humans and a few other species are known to navigate by starlight but only dung beetles rely on the light from the Milky Way itself to chart their course. Dung beetles are the only species in the animal kingdom known to have this ability.
I hope the findings make you pause and consider the fact that humans do not have exclusive access to information about the natural world. We are oblivious to so much that others perceive and rely on so if their decisions and their behavior sometimes baffle us it may be because we lack some key information that influences them.
We can learn a lot from the lessons that insects offer us. We probably cannot learn to navigate by using the light of the Milky Way; it’s likely that dung beetles will remain our superiors in that respect. But we can learn much about compassion from insects.
Three Examples of Compassion for Insects
1. In Joanna Macy’s memoir Widening Circles, she relays an anecdote from her time in India. She was dining with two Buddhist monks and noticed a fly fall into her tea. While she tried to ignore it, her dinner companions noticed her discomfort. She insisted it was not a problem and laughed dismissively to assure them that she was not bothered yet she writes:
“[the monk] continued to focus great concern on my cup. Rising from his chair he leaned over and inserted his finger into my tea. With great care he lifted out the offending fly—and then exited from the room.”
“When Choegyal reentered the cottage he was beaming. “He is going to be all right,” he told me quietly. He explained how he had placed the fly on the leaf of a bush by the door, where the wings could dry. And the fly was still alive, because he began fanning his wings, and we could expect him to take flight soon.” (Widening Circles, p. 97)
While Macy could not hide her feelings of discomfort that resulted from a fly landing in her tea, the monks assumed her distress was for the well being of the imperiled fly and not merely a matter of sanitation.
2. In Heinrich Herrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, he explains that during his travels in Tibet, he observed the extraordinary lengths Tibetan monks would go to so as to avoid killing insects even bringing building projects to a halt if need be.
“After a short time in the country, it was no longer possible for one thoughtlessly to kill a fly, and I have never in the presence of a Tibetan squashed an insect that bothered me. The attitude of the people in these matters is really touching…The more life one can save the happier one is.” (188)
“Typical of this attitude toward all living creatures was a rescript issued in all parts of the country to persons engaged in building operations…It was pointed out that worms and insects might easily be killed during the work of building, and the utmost care to avoid this was enjoined on all…I saw with my own eyes how the coolies used to go through each spadeful of earth and take out anything living” (188-189)
It is, for me, quite difficult to imagine being part of a society with such a reverence for life.
3. A secular example could be found in The New York Times Science section on May 8, 2012. A question and answer style article took up the matter of whether insects would suffer and die if they were to fall from a great height. The person who submitted the question said she sometimes places bugs on the outside window ledge of her 19th floor apartment to remove them from her living space. The bugs presumably either crawl or fall from there. C. Claiborne Ray answered the article on behalf of the newspaper suggesting that the bugs were probably unharmed from such a fall given their small size and the air resistance they would benefit from.
Ray cites J.B.S. Haldane’s delightful 1928 essay “On Being the Right Size” in which Haldane explains that, “[f]or every type of animal there is a most convenient size” and that due to air resistance “[a]n insect…is not afraid of gravity; it can fall without danger.” In fact, Haldane explains that gravity is not much of a threat to any animal who happens to be the size of a mouse or smaller.
I was delighted to read The New York Times column. The simple fact that the prospect of potential harm to bugs set on a high ledge could prompt someone to write to the newspaper in hopes of finding an answer was heartening.
Are these acts of compassion for insects wasted effort or simple foolishness?
There is evidence that insects do feel pain, do make intelligent decisions, and that they may be capable of counting. Cockroaches recognize their peers and experience loneliness. Some ants are known to engage in agriculture. And as noted above, dung beetles navigate with the help of light from the Milky Way. But I am not currently concerned with making the case for insect sentience and am not in a position to say whether such evidence is decisive or if the view is widely shared by relevant experts.
I am impressed by these acts of compassion partly due to the fact that the evidence for the sentience of insects may be less than certain. The people who carry out these acts may feel confident that the individual insects they care for are as intelligent and as self-aware as other animals or they may simply be erring on the side of caution. In either case, they are aiming to alleviate the suffering of others who are in no position to return the favor.
Imagine a world in which the well being of even the smallest, seemingly most inconsequential individual was worth stopping conversation for and tending to; where those deemed annoying or bothersome were not therefore expendable. A world where even if an action that could potentially harm others was to be carried out that it would not be done unthinkingly or without considering its impact on everyone who might be affected.
Like other animals, insects are individuals who can generally be killed without social sanction. Indeed, killing insects is often deemed praiseworthy and is a service that people pay money to have done. Caring for them is liable to bring ridicule beyond that which is commonly directed at those who care for other (i.e. larger, more charismatic) animals.
Insects present us with an excellent opportunity to expand the reach of our compassion; we should be thankful for that opportunity.