I’ll admit that an advantage of being in an academic environment is that I don’t often suffer the question, “Why do you study bugs?” Sure, my peers may recoil in horror when I gleefully (but, I assure you, with benign intentions) show them a container with a writhing selection of live forest floor creepy-crawlies. They may politely grant me a wane, tolerant smile as I wax poetically about beetle mating behavior or the subtle grace of a parasitoid life cycle. But they never ask me, “Why bugs?” Ostensibly, science is about finding connections to help understand reality – an infinitely complex and multi-dimensional connect-the-dot puzzle. However, a scientist not only has to connect the dots but, first, has to go through the trouble of finding the dots.
Science is built of data. Data is generally synonymous with details. Science is all about the details. The question, “Why bugs?” rarely comes up because it is an accepted (if rarely stated) fundamental truth that our understanding of reality is based on specific details stemming from circumstances that would seem absurd in any other context. One of the most potent antibiotics, penicillin, owes its discovery from casually observing a moldy slice of bread. Much of what we know about genetics comes from countless generations of fruit flies and almost as many generations of patient researchers tracing the ebb and flow of characters. Details make the world. The interplay of details form trends and from trends we can detect patterns. From patterns we can predict and infer giving us the ability to know about things we can’t directly see – a powerful ability indeed.
So the question of, “Why bugs?” is equivalent to asking a microbiologist, “Why mold?” or a geneticist, “Why flies?” We study these things because they are the lenses through which we can view the world. These are our models for reality. Wearing human bodies, we are bound to a narrow range of human senses and perceptions. Just because we can’t feel it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Time and events have occurred before this moment and will continue to unfold well after our passing. The full nature of reality is beyond our direct grasp, but every little bit helps.
To directly address this question, “Why bugs?” I can simply respond, “Because they represent the majority of life on Earth.” Truly. I’m not kidding. Depending on your definition of “bug”, in this case I’ll use it to mean pretty much all arthropods – those crunchy critters with far too many legs for comfort – and so include crustaceans (things like crabs and lobsters), arachnids (mites, spiders and scorpions to name the most notorious but including nearly a dozen other minor groups) and, of course, insects, “bugs” represent about 80-90% of all described types of life. There are about 5000 species of jumping spider (family Salticidae); for context, there are about 5000 species of mammals (mostly mice and bats but also things like humans, squirrels, dogs and seals). With over a million species of insects already known (and more being discovered on a regular basis), it would be more reasonable to ask, “Why would anyone study anything else?”
However the real reason of, “Why bugs?” is likely less practical but infinitely more personal. Some do study bugs for very practical reasons. There are economic reasons since many products are derived from or effected by invertebrate activity such as silk from moths, food dyes from beetles and the countless hungry mouths challenging us for our crops. Health and medical reasons are obviously valid justifications, ranging from relatively rare (botflies) to all too common (fleas) and from the irritating (pesky mosquito bites) to the fatal (malaria and dengue transmitted by mosquitoes). Perhaps the bug isn’t being studied necessarily for its own sake but simply out of convenience as in the case of fruit flies in genetics research: they’re easy to take care of in the lab and reproduce quickly. These are all valid and reasonable reasons for studying bugs. Despite this, I suspect these are also rare motivations. Most people who study bugs (or crustaceans, or arachnids, or millipedes… the list trails on) do so not out of duty or obligation but out of fascination and wonderment. There is a unique joy to be found looking into the jeweled facets of a beetle eye or hearing the staccato snap of a grasshopper’s wing. Ten minutes of quiet observation at a spider’s web will reveal subtle and surprising patterns both in form and behavior, especially if the spider makes a capture. Even the squeamish will have to marvel at the delicate grace of a mosquito alighting on a bare arm and probing for a blood meal. These creatures, they surprise and shock us in countless ways, even more than they may frighten or disgust us. I study bugs because they are one of the many lenses through which I view the world. I study bugs because the view through that lens is, in a word, majestic.