People like to look for signs and symbols in the natural world, and what creature invades our daily lives more often than the humble insect? Much folklore and tradition has grown up around insects, from the wealth-giving properties of spiders to the ability of a snail to cure warts. So the next time you go to squash a bug, perhaps it's worth pausing to consider if its very presence is trying to tell you something.
1. BEES // PART OF THE FAMILY
Due to their attractive appearance and helpful role in nature, bees are associated with productivity, industriousness, and creativity. Many superstitions have sprung up around the bee, including a Central European tradition instructing a bride to walk her future husband past a beehive to test his fidelity; if a bee stings her intended, it indicates that he will not be a faithful husband. In Greek folklore, if a bee lands on your head, it is said to mean that you will be very successful in life, and if a bee touches the lips of a child, the child will grow up to be a wonderful poet.
In Britain and Ireland there is a strong tradition of bee folklore—one superstition tells that if a bee flies around your house or buzzes at your window it means a visitor will soon arrive, but if anyone kills the bee the visitor will bring nothing but bad news. Bees are also believed to be very sensitive creatures and in Britain they must be spoken to politely and informed of all the family news (indeed, if you wish to rid yourself of bees the quickest way is to swear at them, as they despise bad language). The tradition of “telling the bees” varies from region to region, but the most important information to impart to your bees is when their owner dies—the bees must be sensitively told of the death or they will desert the hive, cease making honey, or die. In some cases in Britain and America, treating the bees as part of the family became so well-integrated that bees would be invited to family weddings or funerals and given a piece of the wedding cake.
2. SPIDERS // LUCK WITH MONEY
Despite the fact that many people are terrified of spiders, they are often associated with good luck. Indeed the Linyphiidae family of tiny spiders are popularly known as money spiders and some believe that seeing one signals luck with money; in English tradition, if one crawls across your palm you will soon come into money.
Spiders are perhaps thought to be associated with wealth because they work hard building their webs, which then bring them rewards—this industrious imagery has meant that spider symbolism is traditionally used on jewelry and good luck charms across the world. It is considered very bad luck to kill a spider because their presence in your home symbolizes good health, wealth, and cleanliness. Some cultures have a tradition that if you absolutely must kill a spider then you can negate the bad luck by apologizing profusely to the creature first.
In Vietnam, it is believed that when you are asleep your soul leaves your body and becomes a spider, therefore to kill one is taboo and regarded as a tragedy.
3. BUTTERFLIES // TINY MESSENGERS
Butterflies symbolize renewal and metamorphosis because of their journey from humble caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. In Japanese folklore, butterflies represent the souls of people and so are treated with great reverence. If a butterfly flies into your home it is said to predict that the person you love most will soon visit. In other traditions butterflies may portend good luck, especially if the first butterfly you see in a year is a white butterfly; however, if the first butterfly you see is black, it's not such good news.
In some traditions it is believed that butterflies can predict the weather. The Zuni tribe of Native Americans believed that the color of the first butterfly you see in a season will indicate the weather to come: a white butterfly signifying the start of summer, a yellow butterfly predicting plenty of sunshine, and a black butterfly indicating stormy weather.
4. LADYBUGS // OUR LADY’S BEETLES
These very cute bright red beetles with black spots are generally associated with good luck. Many folkloric traditions relate to counting the number of spots on a ladybug’s back—some say the number of spots will reveal how many children you will have, others that it indicates how many months of good luck you will have, or how much money you are about to receive.
In the Middle Ages ladybugs were seen as a sign of protection. If a farmer’s crops were being devastated by aphids, they would pray for ladybugs, who would come and eat the aphids—thus saving the crops. Ladybugs have long been associated with the Virgin Mary—she is the “lady” of their name—and the spots on their backs have been variously described as representing Mary’s seven sorrows or Mary’s seven joys. In English folklore it is said that if a ladybug lands on your hand you will be married within the year.
Ladybugs are also associated with renewal. It has been thought that a ladybug landing on some old clothes might be indicating that the clothes will soon be replaced, and that a sick person might find a ladybug flying away with their illness—gifting them with a renewal of health.
5. SNAILS // WARD OFF ILLNESS
Snails were sometimes used as amulets to ward off illness. In Brittany, France if a villager was sick they would go to their local chapel in the month of May and harvest some snails from the chapel walls. These snails would then be placed into little linen bags and worn around the neck until the fever lifted. Once cured, the patient would return to the chapel to bury the body of the snail in thanks.
Snails were also believed to cure warts. One classic old wives' tale comes from Wales, where black snails were rubbed onto warts alongside a certain rhyme before being placed on a thorn bush and fastened there with as many thorns as there were warts. It was believed that once the snail had rotted away, the warts would disappear.
6. MOSQUITOES // BUZZING FOR LOVE
Mosquitoes do not have the quaint associations of some of our cuter insects, but are almost universally perceived as a menace due to their nasty bite. It’s therefore no surprise to learn that most superstitions around mosquitoes relate to ways of preventing them from biting. One such superstition is that if you eat green vegetables on Maundy Thursday (which is also known as Green Thursday), then mosquitoes will not bite you for an entire year. An old wives’ tale also states that if you make your bed on new hay during the harvest time then the mosquitoes will not bite.
A West African folktale explains why the mosquito buzzes in your ear: A long time ago, Ear was a beautiful woman and was courted by all the animals. Mosquito also wanted to marry Ear and asked for her hand. Ear refused, telling mosquito that she could not marry someone who only lived for a week. Heartbroken, every time Mosquito saw Ear he would buzz at her saying “Here I am, I’m not dead!”
Not all superstitions are based on fantasy, however: When the British arrived in Somalia in the 1850s they dismissed the local belief that mosquitoes spread malaria as a superstition—much to their cost.
7. DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES // TOOLS OF THE DEVIL
and dragonflies belong to the same insect family (Odonata) but the damselfly is distinguished from the dragonfly because they have four wings of roughly the same size whereas the dragonfly has large wings at the front and smaller wings at the back. In English folklore damselflies were known as “The devil’s knitting (or darning) needle,” because it was believed that if you went to sleep next to a stream the damselflies would use their long bodies to sew your eyelids shut.
The idea of dragonflies and damselflies as the devil’s tool pervades European folklore and the many names colloquially given to the creatures reflect this. In German, they’ve been given a number of folkloric names including Teufelspferd (“Devil's horse”) and Wasserhexe (“Water witch”), whereas in Danish they were known as Fandens ridehest (“Devil's riding horse”). In Sweden it was believed a dragonfly would pick out your eyes, and in Old Swedish the insects are called Blindsticka (“Blind stinger”).
In Norse mythology dragonflies and damselflies are associated with the Freya, the goddess of fertility and love, perhaps because when two dragonflies mate their wings appear together in the shape of a heart. In American folklore, dragonflies were thought to be “snake doctors,” since the two creatures are often seen together. It was believed that if a snake was cut in two, the dragonfly would use its long, thin body to sew the reptile back together.
8. CATERPILLAR // WEATHER PREDICTORS
American Woolly Bear caterpillars, with their brown and black stripes, are traditionally said to be reliable predictors of winter weather—the thicker the black stripes, the worse the weather is going to be. In European folklore, it is said to be bad luck to handle a hairy caterpillar, which may have something to do with the fact that touching one can leave nasty spines in your hand. However, it is said that the bad luck can be negated by tossing the poor creature over your left shoulder.
All images via iStock.