The expanse of the sea separates the wife and son of Tsar Saltan from home, after wrongful exile by the jealous sisters of the Tsaritsa. The Tsarevich laments this great distance and longs to return to his father. The Swan-Bird, a mystical creature which has helped him and his mother to prosper by raising up a city in the son’s name, assists him once more by changing him into a bumblebee, so that he can traverse the sea and see his father, albeit in secret. This is the part of the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan which leads into one of the most famous and instantly recognizable pieces of classical music, “Flight of the Bumblebee”.
For much longer than you’ve been alive, insects have provided inspiration for music of every conceivable genre, spanning from classical to heavy metal, from popular music to the most obscure and experimental musique concrète.
One way that insects provide inspiration in music can be through the varied sounds that they make, many of which come from either their flight or through the rubbing together of body parts, which is called stridulation. In the example in my introduction, composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is inspired by the buzzing heard from a flying bumblebee. He imitates this sound with the rapid alternation of musical notes which are close in pitch, also called trill. In many Eastern cultures, the sounds of many different Orthoptera, comprising crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids, are so loved that many are kept in cages as pets, so that their sounds may be heard more often. Combinations of different caged orthopterans will yield a new song. Many musical recordings will utilize the sounds of insects to invoke a certain tone in their sound, whether it is the beginning of the song “1st of tha Month” by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, where crickets provide a relaxed, summery vibe to the song, or the ending of “East Hastings” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor, where the sound of an overwhelming swarm of flies plays in with the apocalyptic tone of the whole album. In a more extreme example, there is a whole album made entirely of manipulated insect sounds titled Adaptation and Survival by the experimental outfit Tribes of Neurot. The artist is a side project of the band Neurosis, whose typical metal-oriented crescendo is traded for an expansive droning soundscape that is left open to interpretation by the listener. My classmate, Caroline Leggett, has posted an article to this blog which touches on appreciation of the sounds and bioacoustics of insects, linked below. The sounds of insects, whether directly or figuratively, are heard in many kinds of music.
A number of artists reference insects in their name. Of course you can’t discuss insects and music without mentioning one of the most influential bands of all time, The Beatles. The Fab Four are most likely the first example anyone will think of when associating the two. Inspired by the late Buddy Holly and The Crickets, John Lennon thought to make a portmanteau of a musical beat and beetles. It seems appropriate that they named themselves after the most diverse insect order in the world, given that they produced such a varied musical catalog over the mere decade in which they were active. Representatives of different insect orders are found in all genres. Wu-Tang Killa Bees, which are affiliates of the Wu-Tang Clan, are aptly named in that Wu-Tang Clan works with so many artists, making them like a swarm, and because they possess a highly aggressive approach to hip hop, akin to the hostile Africanized honey bees which they take their name from.
A vast number of songs show their insect inspiration in their name or lyrics, with countless thematic variations. “March of the Fire Ants” is a sludge metal song by the band Mastodon, so named for the intro riff which sounds like marching, as well as the lyrics which could be loosely taken as a statement on humans as being trivial yet passionately ambitious creatures in the grand scheme of the universe, much like the industrious fire ant. Typically, insects will be referred to by their common names, but occasionally, the more entomologically inclined artists will incorporate scientific classifications into their work. Such is the case with the song “Oh, Odonata” by the relatively little known indie rock band The Brave Optimistic, off of their album Odonata which bears a wood-burned image of a dragonfly as its artwork. In this tune, the lyricist compares himself to a burrowing land creature which desires the lifestyle of a dragonfly, “[flipping] and [flittering], eating all the bugs out on the lake.” In context, it actually seems to be about an ex-significant other portrayed as heartless and cheating. A great number of instrumentals will also take on insect names. “Dance of the Honeybees” is an old Irish folk tune said to be based on the figure eight-shaped “waggle dance” of the honeybee, which could be gleaned from the cyclical nature of the tune. There are countless songs with insect names that aren’t quite as evident in their connection, aside from acknowledgement of the creature by the composer.
As I said, virtually all genres touch on insects in some capacity, and specific orders seem to have particular connotations and patterns in their usage. Hymenoptera, comprising bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies, seems to have the greatest representation of all insects in music. Bees and ants are both noted for industrious, busy behavior, with the former sometimes taking on more aggressive tones. Wasps are often used in reference to their stinging and swarming behavior. Lepidoptera, which include butterflies and moths, are also quite common. Most references to these creatures use their aesthetic beauty and generally more carefree flight patterns for inspiration, but they appear to be the order to go to for an example of metamorphosis. Diptera, including flies, mosquitos, gnats, and midges, are vastly used in order to invoke pestilence, likely due to their association with carrying disease and being attracted to rotting things. Many songs, however, seem to use the old “fly on the wall” idiom, to show themselves as unwatched observers. Hemiptera, which are cicadas (the most common example in music), aphids, shield bugs, leafhoppers, and planthoppers, are used similarly to the order Orthoptera, including crickets, katydids, grasshoppers, and locusts. Examples in these orders are typically referenced specifically for their stridulations in order to give that relaxed, muggy, summer night kind of vibe. Conversely, the destructive behavior exhibited by some towards crops may inspire more to write of loss and devastation. Beetles, which are from the order Coleoptera, are most often represented in music by fireflies and ladybugs, both of which have positive associations which tend to invoke playfulness and good spirits. Many songs simply use the term “bug”, which may connect to any number of themes, but most often seems to refer to pests and swarming to express stress.
Certain genres seem to use particular orders more. Metal music has a strong tendency to use orders with negative associations, such as Diptera and Orthoptera. This plays in with the themes of death and devastation so often approached in the genre. Hip hop has surprisingly often used bees in its lyrics, but with the frequent name-dropping that occurs in the genre, it is possible that Wu-Tang Killa Bees has made the insect symbolic. More danceable forms of electronic music will often include fireflies in names and iconography, likely a testament to the light shows put on by gatherings of fireflies which are akin to those seen at EDM shows. Country music shows a liking for stridulating insects, honeybees, ladybugs, and fireflies, which ties into the love of relaxing summer evenings and enjoying the outdoors which can be found in these songs. Clearly, the cultural connotations of different insects are magnified when used in song.
On the flip side of insect-inspired music, there are at least two examples of music-inspired insects. Scaptia beyonceae is a horse fly with a golden bunch of hairs at the end of its abdomen (basically the butt). For the entomologists who discovered this fly, another posterior was brought to mind, which was that of Beyoncé Knowles. Her “Bootylicious”-ness was enough to have this species named after her. Aleiodes shakirae is named after Shakira for the way that this wasp makes caterpillars twist their abdomens like the singer. Anacroneuria carole and Anacroneuria taylori are both stoneflies named after Carole King and James Taylor. Cephalonomia pinkfloydi is a wasp which takes its name from one of the most influential progressive rock bands of all time. Each of the four members of Queen has a damselfly named after them. Metallichneumon neurospastarchus is a parasitic wasp which references Metallica in both its genus name and species name. The species name is roughly Greek for “ruler of puppets”, an allusion to the song “Master of Puppets”, as well as the way the wasp takes over its host. Many other examples exist; clearly entomologists love their music.
Dr. Prather has a Spotify playlist comprising just a sampling of the huge number of songs and bands drawing some inspiration from the insect world. In addition, her and her students have provided some of the first entries on a growing list on Wikipedia of insect-inspired songs. Far larger, however, is the list compiled by Dr. Joe Coelho, which includes well over 1,000 entries of songs, bands, and albums which all pertain to insects. Coelho published a wonderful paper about insects in rock (Coehlo 2000). It touches on many genres outside of rock & roll and shows the representation of each order in song, artist, and album names.
Insects may be generally small and initially unnoticed by humans, but they are absolutely ubiquitous and endlessly diverse. People build myriad connotations with the various members of Insecta, drawing positive and negative connotations from their behaviors and appearances. While these creatures carry out the same routines which they have for millennia, we can’t help but take note and pay homage. So the next time you hear the buzzing of a bumblebee, you can simply smile knowing that it might just be the lost Tsarevich frenetically returning home to see his father.
–Sean Aaron, Biology Major/Chemistry Minor, Radford University ’16
Coelho, J. R. 2000. Insects in rock and roll music. Am. Entomol. 46: 186-200.
This post is the part of a series of posts written by students in my Insects and Society class. The topics were chosen by the students, and expanded on material covered in this class. We’ve written about insect sounds previously here.