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Hugh Raffles grew up in London, England. He has been an ambulance driver, a nightclub DJ, a theater technician, a busboy, a cleaner, and a scrap metal yard worker. Currently,[…]

People tend to think of insects as having very rigid and well-developed social organization. During the Cold War, insect colonies were considered examples for how communist social systems should work.

Question: What surprised you most in your research? 

Hugh Raffles:  Well, when I first started doing this research and writing this book, I didn’t really know very much about insects.  That was actually part of the reason why I wanted to do it.  So, I wasn’t one of those kids who spent all their time just running around in nature. I’ve always been really a city person.  But, I’m very curious about things, so I really was very interested in trying to find out something about them.  So, it was sort of amazing to me to just discover more and more about these animal’s capacities and actually to start thinking about them as animals, because people tend not even to think about insects as animals, at least not in the same category as other animals. 

So, there was just so many - there's just so much that’s really amazing about them, about their behavior, about their capacities.  I mean, they can do such incredible things.  So, there was that whole side of it.  There was the way that - now I’m going blank trying to think of things - particular things that are so interesting.  Well, one thing, which I talk about in the book is how there are these studies done in the 20’s, which I think were still being done in the 70’s actually, where people tried to figure out how many insects there were in the air and they were figuring this out.  They were interested in this because they were trying to track the movement of insect pests, particularly ones that were attacking cotton fields in the south of the US.

So, they sent planes up just to try to count.  They have these little traps under the wings and they were trying to count the insects and what they found was that there were just these vast numbers of them in the air and that they were at really high altitudes too.  They were at 10,000 feet, 15,000 feet and what they figured out over the decades, they didn’t really realize then, at that time, they just felt that they were - they’d been sort of wrenched off by the air and were just floating around.  Well, they figured more recently, probably from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, was that the insects were actually deliberately getting themselves carried away.  Often took off and then found air currents and then were also able to bring themselves down.  So, even tiny, tiny, tiny insects that can’t actually fly would get themselves up into the air and would take themselves off places where they’d have more of the resources that they wanted or just a place that they preferred.

And when they first did these studies over Louisiana they found that in a square mile, like a column of air, a square mile, there were something like between 25 and 35 million insects, depending on the time of day and time of year.  So, it’s a huge, huge amount and so I often think about that.  When you look out of the window that the air is just full of these things that you can’t say and that they’re all going somewhere and that they sort of - I think many of them, they know where they're going.  They're going deliberately.  And it’s just like this completely different world that’s going around us that we’re almost - most of us are just unaware of.

What do others find surprising about insects? 

Hugh Raffles: I think what people are surprised about is that - are the cognitive abilities of social insects.  So, people know that they have these very - well, people tend to think that they have - people know they have very developed social organization.  They tend to think of it as very rigid and I think that’s partly because insect social organization, particularly bees and ants, were - they were used during the Cold War as - what’s the word - sort of like as an example - as metaphors for socialist society or communist societies.  They’re often worker bees and worker ants and faceless non-individuals in comparison to all us individuals west.

So, people tend to think of them as very rigid societies and that actually doesn’t seem to be particularly true.  Bees anyway and I think it’s the same with ants.  I don’t know that much about ants, but bees are actually very flexible.  So, although they're in what biologists have often called castes, like the workers bees and whatever, they're very flexible in terms of the tasks that they do, very adaptive.  So, they - actually, and they’ll - like many animals do, particularly fish, they’ll change their physical characteristics depending on environmental conditions.

So, they’re really very flexible animals and their behavior is also quite flexible.  So, there seems to be something like 40 percent of their time which is completely unaccounted for.  So, they’ll spend - they’ll be doing other things that we think of as busy bees a lot of the time, but then they’ll also be - there's this large almost half the time when they’re basically just hanging around.  Nobody’s quite sure what they're doing.  At least nobody I’ve talked to is quite sure what they’re doing.  Their just in their hives in the dark and they’re just sort of like hanging out with each other doing stuff and it’s not quite clear what they’re doing.  They’re doing a lot of touching.  They’re doing a lot of exchanging substances with each other.  A lot of social things, but nothing that seems necessarily to have any particular function, just like most of what we do doesn’t have any particular function.  They’re just doing stuff or doing nothing.  Maybe they're resting or they’re just hanging out with each other. 

And that’s the stuff that  I think people are less aware of because we have these very strong stereotypes of these rigid societies and this constant activity and I’m sure it’s quite like that.

Recorded on March 22, 2010