Fantastical Biology – Part Nine: Fantasy Insects
Insects represent more than half of all known living organisms on our world. They’re found in nearly all environments, even in the ocean. And yet, it’s so rare to see them in fantasy fiction, even if it’s just swatting away an annoying fly. This just means there’s lots of room for insects to crawl into our fantasy stories.
Insects belong to a group of creatures called invertebrates, which means they don’t have a boney spine like us. Or bones at all, actually. Instead they have something called an exoskeleton, which is a hard outer layer that protects their squishy insides. Most modern bugs are small—though some can reach over a foot in length—but they weren’t always tiny.
Before the dinosaurs lived, you could find dragonflies with two-foot wing spans buzzing around. What might a fantasy society do if their world was populated with insects the size of dogs, cows, or dragons? Would their hard shells be used to fashion armor? Jewelry for noble lords and ladies? Maybe sorcerers would keep giant dragonflies as familiars, or use them for parts in magic spells.
Colonies and Hives
Most insects live solitary lives until it comes time to mate, but a few species develop complicated social systems. Ants and bees are probably the best known examples of this. The colony co-operates in taking care of the young and has a division of labor that creates different castes. What makes this so different from other social systems seen in nature is that one type of caste will lose some of the ability to perform the function of other castes. For instance, an ant that takes care of the young won’t have the weapons to defend the colony from attackers.
Bees are well known for defending their hives, using their stingers which deliver venom even after they have detached from the worker bee. But when defending their hives from other insects such as hornets, they do something called “balling”. Dozens of them will surround the intruders, forming a ball of bee bodies around them. The excess heat and lack of oxygen basically cooks and suffocates the victims. Since a worker bee dies when it loses its stinger, this method ensures that the hive’s attackers die without losing workers. All these defensive measures are usually to protect the queen of the colony, who is often the sole producer of offspring.
Insects in Our World
Humans and insects have lived together for millions of years now, but most of us don’t appreciate how important they are to life on this planet. Insects are the world’s major pollinators. Without them, our ecosystem would probably collapse. Does your fantasy world have bee keepers? I was pleasantly surprised to see them in Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. Not only do we need them for our produce, but bees also produce honey. It’s been used for food, medicine, make-up, and even occult purposes throughout history, stretching back to Ancient Egypt. And bees aren’t the only commercially important bug: silkworms helped shape the history of Asia via the Silk Road.
And you can eat them! Yum.
Insects are an excellent source of protein, and in many parts of the world they are part of a normal diet. When fantasy protagonists go on quests, they usually bring rations such as dried meat or bread. Perhaps they should be carrying roasted grubs or fried ants instead?
What would a fantasy society based on the bee or ant colony look like? There aren’t many examples of insects in fantasy, but a few authors have garnered inspiration from them. The world of Bas-Lag, created by China Miéville, is home to a species called khepri, which are humanoid scarab beetles.
Another series, called Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky, features the kinden, which are humans who have taken on some characteristics of different insects. These are both examples of anthropomorphized bugs, but creating a unique fantasy creature based on an insect, like the mantis, would work too. If we can have magical horses, why not magical beetles? Hopefully this article inspires some more creepy-crawlies in the fantasy genre.