Creepy Crawlies: Entomologist debunks myths about insects


CW / Andrew Littlejohn

Andrew Littlejohn l @AndrewLittlej19, Contributing Writer

John Abott, chief curator and director of museum research and collections, is an entomologist, which means he studies what some fear most: creepy crawlies. Though his specialty is in aquatic insects, more specifically dragonflies and damselflies, he answered everything we wanted to know about insects and why we fear them. 

Q: What are some popular myths that you’d like to debunk?

A: First of all, all bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. There is a specific group of insects, the Hemiptera. Those are your true bugs. Technically it’s improper to refer to other things as bugs. That’s a specific group just like butterflies, dragonflies, ants.”

A lot of times people think bugs are creepy or problematic. But actually, most of them are beneficial.

There are more insects out there than any other group of animals, by far. They occupy just about any niche in aquatic or terrestrial environment … The world would be completely different without insects. We would not be able to survive for example. But if we were gone, insects would do just fine … They really do run the world.”

Q: What are some things about insects that you should not be afraid of? 

A: Most insects are completely harmless, and beyond that even beneficial … They really make the world in which we live in. From pollinating plants to the food products that we need, to cleaning up carrion (dead flesh), dung and things like that … Most insects are beneficial to us, and create the world in which we live, in a lot of ways.

Q: What are some things about insects you should be afraid of?

A: There are obviously some that are problems. The biggest one would be biting flies like mosquitoes and black flies that transmit diseases that cause problems … That’s certainly an issue. At any point in time, about a sixth of the world’s population is infected with a fly-borne illness.

Q: Should I be afraid of ants when they’re in my house?

A: Actually, most ants won’t come into the house. There are a few species that do, and they’re just looking for food products, and they can be a nuisance for sure. Some ants like fire ants can sting and bite and can do more than that and be painful … Some exceptions are carpenter ants, which can cause some destruction to the house. They’re certainly not like termites.

Q: When do termites swarm?

Termites that we have around here swarm in the spring. The common termite that affects most people’s houses, is called the subterranean-termite … The reason that they swarm is that in the spring they have a colony and they basically disperse. Swarming is a mechanism for doing that where you have a bunch of winged individuals that will all take off at once. The kings and queens will mate and start a new colony. They’ll lose their wings and the queen will become an egg-laying machine, and that’s how a new colony gets started.

Q: Will they abandon their old colony once this happens?

A: The colony itself will keep going. It’s not all the individuals that leave, it’s only the reproductives. In social insects, you have what we call ‘castes.’ These are just basically different divisions of labor within the colony – soldiers, workers, reproductives –  the reproductives will all leave and start a new colony or colonies. But then the original colony can continue with that original queen.

Q: Have you seen any termite nests here in Alabama?

A; They’re common in logs lying on the ground, any kind of wood lying on the ground. They can be very destructive in houses, but the majority of the individuals in a house are usually behind the wall. Until you dig into the affected area, you won’t see them in large numbers. In fact, what happens is that people will see a big swarm inside their house of the reproductives flying around. That’s usually the first clue that there is a problem inside the house.

Q: Should I be killing spiders when I see them in my house?

A: I think you should just leave them or carefully remove them and put them outside. There are exceptions, though; the black widow, the brown recluse can be problematic. And they’re not rare by any means. But most spiders are not a problem at all.

Q: Where do you find black widows?

A: Basically they like to be somewhat secretive – so a good place is actually in water-main drains or a hole in your yard where the main water stick-it turns on and off. That’s a good place to start looking.

Q: How venomous are black widows if you were to get bit? And what should you do once you get bit?

A: The black widow bite can be quite painful. It’s a neurotoxin, and depending upon the reaction it can actually stop you [from] breathing. If you’re small like a kid, you would definitely want to take it very seriously. Even adults, depending upon your reaction to it, may need to go to the hospital just for if nothing else, pain management … The brown recluse, on the other hand, is a hemotoxin, meaning what it does is it stops the flow of blood to the bite site. So basically, that’s where you get necrosis. But that can basically be treated with antibiotics.

Q: What should people do if they want to find out more about these insects?

A: There are a lot of resources online, but if you wanted to contact me so I could direct you to them, I would be happy to do that. We are always looking for volunteers to help in the collections here.

To reach John Abott, his email is [email protected], or to find out more about the university collection, go to