4) Cultural Zoology

heartfieldI will start Cultural Zoology with two facts: Without insects we had little to eat  PLUS  we spend huge sums to fight insect-borne diseases and crop pests. In medical entomology, our research challenges urban myths about the biology and health consequences of bedbugs. In cultural entomology we reconstructed the population dynamics of bedbugs over the last hundred years from how well people can recognise bedbugs, from the appearance of bedbugs in fiction and from museum collections. We also use biology to augment historical information. The research protocols of the Entomological Institute of the Waffen-SS at Dachau showed that Nazi-Germany carried out offensive warfare research. This work was intensely covered by the popular press. Picture left: Photomontage by John Heartfield.

The cultural and natural history of the bedbug is covered in my books Literarische Wanzen and Bedbug. Antje Graf and me are currently exploring the connotation of bedbugs in the German-speaking fiction literature in the twentieth century more systematically. Stay tuned for our new book Das Jahrhundert der Wanze.

How long does it take for scientific results to perfuse into fiction (e.g., 20 years in the case of traumatic insemination)? How much does fiction literature feed back into popular science reporting? And how much of this is still correct after this transformation? For example, some recent statements about bedbug biology can be traced to fiction (e.g., ‘200 times sex per day’ as reported by the Focus is entirely based on Bernard Werber’s novel). This happens when natural scientists are completely underrepresented in the German media…, or have you every heard a natural scientist present a radio show, but you’ve probably heard dozens of scientists from the humanities or social sciences.

Finally, here is the not so atypical career of an East German entomologist and early evolutionary ecologist, Günter Köhler from Jena.

Further reading:

BEDBUG – A history of the bedbug, written by a zoologist (link) in ReaktionBooks’ prestigious Animals series.

DISGUSTING? – Using live bedbugs sparks the interests of school kids but does not make them less appalled by bugs. Link

HOPI BUGS – Native Americans DID have a name for bedbugs. However, it turns out they were not bedbugs but eagle parasites. Paper here.

BUGGING FORECAST – See here that only 12 per cent of Germans recognise a bedbug, and most do the wrong thing, if they had them.

REPETITION DOES NOT MAKE THINGS TRUE. At least not when it comes to bedbugs. Here.



LITERARISCHE WANZEN – a fiction book by a zoologist (youtube link).

*Reinhardt K. Phantastische Tierwesen und wo sie zu finden sind. Ein Kurzbesuch an der walisischen Grenze enthüllt ein weltweit einzigartiges Gewerbe. Heteropteron 62: 33-36.