News, Science & Research

Lecture highlights integral role of insects in modernity

Edward Melillo delves into intertwined histories of humans, insects, highlighting insect products

By
Science & Research Editor
Friday, March 24, 2017

Edward Melillo, associate professor of history and environmental studies at Amherst College, has been drawn to insects since childhood.

He first felt a connection to the six-legged creatures in an entomology class at age 11 when he watched a butterfly drink from a juicy slice of watermelon on a sweltering day. He felt the same “interspecies kinship” as a doctoral student when he traveled thousands of miles to reach the West Coast and gazed at masses of Monarch butterflies, thickly clustered on trees in Natural Bridges Park after their own long migration.

Melillo is now working on a book titled “The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World,” which he discussed Thursday in the top floor of Pembroke Hall. Expansive literature exists describing insects’ damaging effects on humanity, Melillo said, but he wanted to explore some of the “other kinds of relationships we’ve had with our insect cousins.”

The pervasive influence of insects reverberates across societies, their bodies and products playing an integral role in areas ranging from genetics research to the execution of delicate surgical techniques. Beyond our dependence on pollinators and love of honey, insects are deeply enmeshed in human systems.

Melillo’s work “challenges us to rethink modernity,” said Claire Brault, postdoctoral fellow in political science.

Modern times have seen a resurgence of many insect products. As one example, shellac is produced from lac insect secretions harvested from tree branches and used in the creation of various products, including vinyl records. “If you listen to a shellac record, you can really hear the substance in the sound. It does sound like bacon crisping,” Melillo said. “The shellac is part of the genesis of the sonic landscape.”

Humans have taken advantage of insects and their products for thousands of years. The use of cochineal insects holds a long history in the Americas — the Aztecs inherited the tradition from their predecessors. The female insects are crushed and used in a deep red dye, which retains its vibrant color over decades and even centuries. The product pleased Europeans during the colonial period, as they took red to symbolize virility. “Imagine ship after ship crossing the Atlantic loaded with cochineal bricks, each of which took 70,000 crushed female insect bodies to make,” Melillo said.

Silk, produced by silkworms, has also wielded a strong influence in historical and contemporary societies, Melillo said. When the Parthians of northeast Persia revealed large banners of silk during battle with the Romans, their opponents were so enthralled by the spectacle that they were distracted from fighting. The modern fabrication of silk bears a close resemblance to the manufacturing process used in ancient times, but this old-fashioned procedure has been combined with twenty-first century marketing to secure silk’s central place in the fashion industry.

Grace Gagnon ’18 was impressed by the pervasive influence of silk production on many activities, “whether it’s empire building or even just daily life,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t be surprised by the extent to which insect products have made their way into our culture.”

Melillo hopes to reveal a deep and intertwined bond between insects and humans that takes into account more than just their monetary value in society. “If we just place an economic value on our relationship with insects, what do we lose?”