In Humboldt, people will usually see spiders and bugs of all kinds, some freakier than others. They do not need to have entomophobia, the phobia of bugs, to be freaked out by creepy crawlies. There are good reasons why people are so scared of bugs.
Many people are just scared of bugs. However, that fear is not the same as the fear of a mountain lion attacking. If anything, the fear people have for bugs is more related to the feeling of disgust. The brain doesn’t think that a bug is going to overpower and eat them.
The Department of Biological Science is the place to go when looking for answers regarding this phenomenon. Jose Szewczak, a professor of Zoology at HSU, speculated on the origin of this discomfort.
“People fear bugs because some can bite and get in places where you don’t find them, and so they can surprise you,” Szewczak said.
Psychology Professor Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania traced the evolution of revulsion across the animal-human boundary. Those reactions evolved from instinctive reflexes to a more complex, culture-molded emotion. Disgust shifted from a reaction to avoid physical harm to one that wards off harm to the soul. That feeling some people get when they see a giant spider crawling towards them is a rejection response. The rejection response is an instinctive reaction towards things we find downright gross and is shaped by upbringing and genes. The rejection response is on the same level as our fight or flight response, and it’s all meant to protect ourselves. Even bugs like the cute pumpkin spider, famous in Humboldt, are not safe from this fear response.
In California alone, there are quite a few hazardous bugs, according to the Insect Identification website, a non profit organization that uses the findings of fellow scientists. Take the infamous black widow. While she’s living her best girlboss life, she’s also a danger to human life. Her venom has neurotoxins that can cause muscle cramping, raised blood pressure, and even damage your nervous system. Due to the similarities between a bug that stings or bites and one that does not, it’s hard for the brain to automatically differentiate between the harmless and dangerous bugs. As a result, our brains tell us to stay away from bugs altogether.
Assistant professor Catalina Cuellar-Gempeler said that there are many different kinds of bugs, even ones you can’t see.
“My work focuses on microbial organisms – fungi, bacteria, microscopic animals, and plants.” Cuellar-Gempeler said. “I guess you can call them bugs! Other people say bugs referring to insects, or arthropods if you include spiders, mites, roly-polies, even snails and millipedes.”
“There may be different reasons why people like or dislike these different groups, including disease, poison, or just too many legs or slimy,” said Cuellar-Gempeler. “Oftentimes, it is a cultural response passed on generation after generation. My grandmother had all these magical opinions on how moths would bring bad luck.”
There are so many different and even personal reasons for this fear of bugs. Whether it’s a fear of spiders or a fear of snails, it’s all valid. When people point out not liking the creepy, slimy look of a bug or a bad experience of waking up to something with too many legs crawling across your face, it’s a universal fear.
I asked Michael A Camann, a Zoology and Ecology Professor, what his thoughts on bugs were and if he had some reasons to be grossed out by bugs.
“I’m an entomologist, so I’m not generally grossed out by insects,” Camann said. “There are some I won’t handle alive, but that’s because they’ll bite or sting and I’d rather not be bitten or stung. I don’t have anything good to say about bedbugs. Physiologically, insects have lots in common with other animals, including vertebrates, so they are often model organisms of choice in laboratories. They have complex interactions with their environment so they’re interesting ecological subjects. They perform valuable ecosystem services, like pollination and connecting different trophic levels in food webs.”