It’s Time For God’s Ugliest Little Bugs To Be Represented In The Beautiful Tradition Of Haiku

The poet Kobayashi Issa wrote thousands of haiku before his death in 1828 in his native village of Kashiwabara. More than 500 of these brief poems centered arthropods: he wrote 150 about flies, dozens about fleas and mosquitoes, and many more about fireflies, cicadas, grasshoppers and other tiny invertebrates. One of Issa’s most famous haiku—the first one of his I remember encountering—is about one of the most maligned arthropods, translated by the poet Robert Hass:

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house
casually.

It is fitting that some of the world’s smallest animals star in some of the world’s shortest poems. Traditional Japanese haiku included a word or phrase called a kigo, which were associated with particular seasons. Invertebrates often served as kigo. Mentions of horseflies, butterflies, or snails heralded spring; praying mantis, katydids, or silkworms denoted autumn; a swarm of fleas, flies, slugs, ants, fireflies, or caterpillars welcomed summer. In a haiku, a bug can take up space and be the center of thoughtful attention in a way that is rarely afforded invertebrates in other media.

But this attention is not doled out evenly among arthropods, a phylum that accounts for 80 percent of all known living animal species, including insects, crustaceans, arachnids, centipedes and millipedes, horseshoe crabs, and others. If chimps, elephants, and dolphins are the charismatic stars of nature documentaries, crickets, fireflies, and butterflies are the charismatic stars of haiku. At least, that is what two researchers predicted before analyzing nearly 4,000 haiku that reference arthropods, publishing their results in the journal PLOS One. The researchers wanted to understand which insects and their relatives appeared most frequently in the poems, as well as what aspects of their lives and biology the poets touched upon.

The researchers read journals, books, collections, and poetry contests to collect thousands of haiku written between 1549 and 2022. A third of these haiku were written for the Hexapod Haiku Challenge, an annual poetry contest held by Penn State’s entomology department that focuses on short poetry about arthropods. The authors then scored each haiku for any mention of biological complexity, such as details about an arthropod’s locomotion, reproduction, anatomy, physiology, ecology, behavior, and more. Issa’s spider haiku would have scored low on this scale, with just +1 for a mention of its habitat (a house). But this haiku, penned by Issa in 1812, scored much higher, with points for anatomy, metamorphosis, life stages, and ecology:

the hairy bug
becomes a butterfly…
summer moon

While the researchers found many mentions of species’ habitats, color, and movements, very few haiku referenced an arthropod’s reproduction or physiology, meaning the functions of their bodies. (Issa clearly dropped the ball in writing absolutely no poems about insects’ thermoregulation or chemosensory abilities!) This was somewhat expected, as was the researchers’ findings that certain charismatic or highly visible taxa were overrepresented relative to their species diversity and likelihood of human encounters. There were 510 references to butterflies and moths, 347 to ants, wasps, and bees, 314 to mosquitoes and flies, 310 to fireflies and beetles, and 220 to spiders—the unsurprising celebrities of the arthropod world.

Surprisingly, one rather unlikable group also came out with immense overrepresentation in haiku: fleas. Although fleas represent just .18 percent of arthropod species, they made up more than one percent of references, which the authors chalk up to the fact that pest control, pet hygiene, and urbanization were less developed in the golden age of haiku. Relatedly, bed bugs did not appear in haiku until 2010, as they had a global resurgence in the 1990s after near-eradication in certain parts of the world. But I was still glad to see there were haiku about bed bugs and fleas in the first place.

Perhaps the most distressing takeaway from the paper is that nine higher-level taxa of arthropods did not appear in any haiku. It was crushing to know that these insects have lived alongside us on Earth for millions of years yet were not thought to be flamboyant enough to helm a haiku, if they were even thought of at all. Although I admit that I hadn’t heard of several of these insect orders before reading this paper, I would like to right this historical wrong and ensure these fine bugs see themselves represented in the hallowed archives of haiku. I am now pleased to share with you my haiku of varying biological complexity for these nine unsung, unseen, often anatomically baffling groups of insects. If you are so inspired, drop some haiku in the comments.

Snakeflies (Raphidioptera)

Not a snake or fly
but its own peculiar thing—
not much else to say

A species of snakefly, which is a predatory insect named for its elongated prothorax, which is a little snake-like. | Beentree, CC by-sa 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jumping bristletails (Archaeognatha)

Your group’s range is like
Sarah Jessica Parker—
cosmopolitan

an insect called a jumping bristletail in the genus Lepismachilis
Jumping bristletails are a wingless, evolutionarily primitive order that can sometimes jump up to 4 inches. They live in many environments, including soil, chaparral, and deserts. | Fritz Geller-Grimm, CC by-sa 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Webspinners (Embioptera)

What’s up MTV!
Welcome to my crib of silk
Spun it with my foot

a long dark segmented insect webspinner of the species Metoligotoma tasmanica
Webspinners or footspinngers live in the tropics in elaborate colonies in silk-lined chambers and tunnels built amongst stones, mosses, and lichens. Their log-shaped bodies are the perfect shape to scuttle through these tunnels. | Kristi Ellingsen, CC by 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ice crawlers (Notoptera)

A freaky ice queen
Who forages on glaciers
Well, at least for now…

One of the world's rarest and least understood insects, a grylloblattid ice crawler (Grylloblatta sp.). Photographed live at night on an ice field
A Grylloblattid ice crawler, a wingless insect that needs to live in the extreme cold; if heated to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it will die, and that is not an empty threat so don’t go picking one up! | Alex Wild

Angel insects (Zoraptera)

Hello little mouse
Sure you’re alone in your nest…
You’re not! I’m here too

a tiny translucent angel insect Zorotypus from Los Bancos, Pichincha, Ecuador
The angel insects are eyeless termite-like insects a little more than twice as wide as a strand of spaghetti. They live under rotting wood, bark, and piles of sawdust. According to a list of fun facts about Zoraptera published by NC State University, “Some species of Zoraptera have been found living in the nests of termites and mammals. No one is sure what these insects are doing there.” | Graham Montgomery, CC by-sa 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Alderflies, dobsonflies, fishflies (Megaloptera)

Minnow, tadpole, crunch—
never underestimate
an invertebrate!

a gray and white insect called a fishfly on a white surface
Fishflies, one of the taxa within Megaloptera, lay their eggs near bodies of water. The hatched young crawl toward water, where they live aquatic lives for up to three years as they eat and molt. Fishfly larvae are known to eat small minnows and tadpoles. | Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Other Wondrous Things: Dark Fishfly, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia CommonAndy Reago & Chrissy McClarren – Other Wondrous Things: Dark Fishfly, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Twisted-wing insects (Strepsiptera)

I loved my mother
and I devoured her body
What will bee will bee!

a photo of the endoparasitic insect Stylops protruding from the abdomen of an Andrenid bee
Three parasitic twisted-wing insects embedded in the abdomen of a bee. The female parasites enter their bee and wasp hosts as larvae, develop inside it, mate with males while inside the bee, lay their eggs inside the bee, and wait as the eggs hatch inside of her. When her eggs hatch, they eat her body until they are big enough to leave the bee and start the cycle anew. Cool! | Aiwok, CC by-sa 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Stoneflies (Plecoptera)

As a stream baby
I breathed through gills by my ass
Jealous? Just say so.

a salmonfly, a kind of stonefly, on a thimbleberry leaf
Stoneflies like this salmonfly are found across the world except Antarctica. They spent their juvenile years in streams, hatching as eggs and developing into aquatic nymphs, and eventually spend their final weeks of life on land. | Walter Siegmund (talk), CC by-sa 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Caddisfly (Trichoptera)

To be a baby
and a found-objects artist?
Marcel Duchamp who!

Fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra), larva on stone at the bottom of a water body in spawning waters, next to caddisfly (Trichoptera) larva, underwater photo
Caddisflies are another group of insects with aquatic larvae, and often use silk and found objects like gravel, debris, sand, and shells to build protective cases. In a cool collaboration with caddisflies, the French artist Hubert Duprat offered larvae gold flecks and pearls to create some incredibly beautiful cases. | imageBROKER/Farina Grassmann via Getty Images

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