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This paper deals with the semiotic meanings which are given both to …

Biology Articles » Ethnobiology » "Cricket singing means rain": semiotic meaning of insects in the district of Pedra Branca, Bahia State, northeastern Brazil » Results and Discussion

Results and Discussion
- "Cricket singing means rain": semiotic meaning of insects in the district of Pedra Branca, Bahia State, northeastern Brazil

Twelve kinds of insects were associated with both beneficial and harmful events, as well as with the weather forecast. The types of semiotic meaningattributed to insect species, their taxonomy, theinterviewees' observations, and the gender prevalence as well as the degree of consensus are shown in Table I. Apparently, people can accurately trace sounds to the actual insects producing them since the insects that call are all very common and well known species. The way local people perceive and interpret the appearance and/or behavior of certain species of insects depends on the beliefs and knowledge of each inhabitant. Thus, the same observation may have very idiosyncratic semiotic meanings in accordance with the interpretation given by the individuals themselves: fatal, funereal, auspicial, meteorological, societal, monetary, and of abundance or scarcity. The term entomoindicator is used here to refer to those insects whose behavior people think of it to indicate, predict, bring or foresee natural phenomena.

Cicadas, for example, are taken as meteorological entomoindicators because they indicate "when it is near to thunder, [when] the summer is coming" (P., 18 years old). According to the interviewees, the time of the year in which these insects show up and stay active goes from December to March. This period coincides both with the blossom of the cashew trees and with the Christmas parties. Some informants, however, state that cicada appears from September, while others say that it "squeaks all year round" (Mr. A. J., 74 years old). Indeed, cicadas appear in the hottest months of the year (in the south hemisphere) because temperature means to be a very significant environmental parameter in the regulation of the sound production and, consequently, in the reproduction (Sanborn and Maté 2000). In the "winter", on the other hand, they disappear: "It is winter now. They're all under the ground. They pull their wings out and bury themselves into the ground", Mr. A., + 40 years old.

Different cultures associate the activity of cicadas with times of winter and/or summer. To the Yukpa Indians who live in the Colombian Amazon, cicadas perform an important function in the cultivation cycle as indicators of climatic changes. The sowing of corn begins when the "tipaína" starts to sing. When this "ballad" finishes the Yukpa know that the rainy season has arrived (Ruddle 1973). In Zambia the emergence of adult cicadas is considered as an indicative of coming rains. Then the farmers begin to prepare the fields to be cultivated. The level of intensity of their singing predicts the quantity of rain that will fall. The louder the sound, more rain expected (Mbata 1999). To the members of the Hñähñu tribe who inhabit the Mexican state of Hidalgo, Proarna sp. indicates when the day begins to become warm because it initiates its calling at ten o'clock (Maya 2000). On the other hand, cicadas are a bad omen for the Kalam people from New Guinea when they sing at a wrong time of the day or very close to the houses (Bulmer 1968).

Crickets' singing can be interpreted as a sign of rain ("There is one that, when it is near to rain, it sings. We are about to get deaf. It is a bother noise. It sings near to the rain", Mrs. M., 60 years old) or of monetary gain ("Cricket singing is calling money", Mrs. M., 55 years old). Crickets predicting the approach of rains sing inside the houses and on the roof: "There is a time that at 7:00 pm they sing until later in the night. The black cricket sings inside the house for calling rain" (Mr. A., 73 years old). Apparently, these interpretations do not have any special meaning to local cultural practices, like planting.

Omens about crickets are common in otherparts of Brazil, but they have different meanings. In the city of Caraguatatuba, São Paulo State, a black cricket in a room is a sign of sickness; a gray one a sign of money; and a green one a sign of hope (Lenko and Papavero 1996). In the state of Alagoas, northeast Brazil, a cricket announces death. That's why it is killed as soon as it sings inside the house (Araújo 1977). In the village of Capueiruçu, Bahia State, the omens with crickets occur in agreement with the constancy of their singing: pregnancy is foretold if the insect performs a non-stop singing. If it sings and stops, then some money is expected (K.L.G. Lima, unpublished data). In the history of Brazil this insect was the announcer of a good event for the crew of the captain Álvares Nuñes Cabeza de Vaca. The reserve of drinking water was gone when a cricket, which had been silent until that moment of the travel, started to sing foreseeing the proximity of lands (Lenko and Papavero 1996).

According to Kritsky and Cherry (2000), the cricket occurs in different roles in folklore and superstition. As a prognosticator, they state, "the cricket forecasts rain, death, or the approach of an absent lover." The Chinese used to shut a cricket inside a little cage in order to have good omens(Carrera 1991). In Barbados, the presence of a noisy cricket in the house indicates that money is coming to the house, so nobody must kill or evict the insect; another type of cricket, which is not as noisy as the first, is associated to illness or death in the family when it comes into the house (Forde 1988).

Scientifically, only male crickets can "sing". At the base of each forewing the male has a thick vein with a protruding row of teeth. Like a file, the vein is etched with from 50 to 300 ridges. On the upper side of the wing is a thick hardened area that serves as a scraper. A "singing" cricket simply raises his forewings to a 45º angle over his back, and rubs the file of one wing against the scraper of the other, to produce the chirp (Berenbaum 1995). It is known that the snowy tree cricket of the United States is sensitive to heat, and chirps faster as the temperature rises; if one adds 39 to the number of chirps in 15 seconds, it is possible to determine the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit (Dolbear 1897).

The presence of a mole cricket, locally known as "paquinha", "jeguinho", "cachorrinho-d'água", and "cava-chão" (genera Scapteriscus and Neocurtilla, Gryllotalpidae), has a double meaning since it brings both luck ("It is said that it is good when it appears inside the house. It gives luck", Mrs. C., 32 years old) and rain. The mole cricket digs tunnels under the soil. So, people almost always interpret this behavior as a meteorological sign because "when it is near to rain it digs the ground, it softens the land. It foresees the rain" (Mrs. E., 65 years old). Maybe there really is a connection between the act of the insect digging new galleries and rainfall. It is said that Gryllotalpidae "just appear on the surface of the ground after heavy rains or during their flights of dispersion to colonize new areas" (Fowler 1994). In Zambia, Gryllotalpa africanus Pal brings luck to everyone who sees it (Mbata 1999).

The gypsy ant (Iridomyrmex sp.?) is another insect that indicates rain by its presence: "When it gets out [appears] it is rain" (Mrs. L., + 60 years old). In the city of Soledade, Paraíba State, two insects are indicators of rain (Lucena et al. 2002). The stingless bee called arapuá, Trigona spinipes (Fabr. 1793), indicates the closeness of rain "when it makes the mouth [the entrance of the nest] turned up toward. If it makes it turned down toward it is not going to rain". The ant indicates the rain "when it makes a tall nest" or "when it closes the nest's mouth [opening]. Rossato (1984) recorded several folk interpretations about weather forecasts linked to the leaf-cutting ants (Atta spp.) in the state of São Paulo. For example, if someone breaks an ant's nest on a rainy day it is believed the sun will reappear; ants opening "olheiros" [nest entrances] in humid localities indicate that the year will have less rain; ants trying to open "olheiros" in an arid area indicate a year with much rain; agitated ants are a sign for abundant rains in the next few hours; a lot of new dirt around the "olheiros" indicates the proximity of rain. Literature says that these ants prefer to do the cutting of leaves at night in order to avoid predators, but when they sense the arrival of rains in the evening, by unknown mechanisms, they work during the day (Oliveira 1990). A recent Stanford study concluded that the movements of ants are undoubtedly tied to weather conditions (Lauck 2002).

Pedra Branca's villagers interpret the appearance of fireflies (Coleoptera, Lampyridae) in the houses both as a sign of rain and money arrival: "If you see a firefly inside the house you can be sure of rain" (Mrs. E., 52 years old); "People say that firefly inside a house attracts money" (Mrs. L., 57 years old). In the countryside of India a bunch of fireflies seen at night on the trees in the forest indicates that the monsoon will arrive soon (Rahudkar 1998).

Some villagers believe that the "bichinho-da-fartura" (abundance bug, as it would be called in English) has the power to indicate abundance or scarcity of food. Specimens of the "bichinho-da-fartura" were not collected, but they are probably the larvae of lacewings of the family Chrysopidae (order Neuroptera). It is known that the larvae of Leucochrysa and Ceraeochrysa show hooked bristles on their backs to which they fix minute bits and pieces of debris to give them a kind of camouflage. For that reason, they are called as trash-carrying bugs too (Hogue 1993).

"People here in the county know when the year is going to be good, when it is going to be bad, when it is going to have abundance. People say: 'I've found the bichinho-da-fartura.' It carries on itsback that little bundle of that height like this [showing the height of the bundle]. [The things] that is going to give in the next year. But it takes the flesh (cast skins) all on its back. It's even funny. The bichinho-da-fartura, there is a time that it is all white. Then people say: 'Uau! Next year we will have a lot of manioc, a lot of manioc flour, because the bichinho is loaded.' And then it is a really flesh (cast skins). Then, there is a time people find it bare-naked" (Mrs. E., 52 years old).

"When the year is bad it comes naked. I've already seen it bare, naked. When the year is [of] good time, having a lot of thing, it comes with so many things, that even little bits of a thing looking like sticks it has on its back. A little beautiful thing, that bug. It is tiny, but it has so many things on its back that we just see the little beak of that size" (Mrs. L., + 60 years old).

Hogue (1993) points out that the larval habitats vary considerably and include vegetation, sandy soil, bark crevices, and cavities under objects on the ground. By observing the presence (or absence) and the type of material fixed to the bristles people interpret it as times of abundance or scarcity of resources. In some occasions, the "bichinho-da-fartura" was named as "aranha-da-fartura" (abundance spider). According to the given morphological description it is possible that some informants have confused it with a velvet ant: "Its back is all striped with white and black" (Mrs. A., 63 years old). In the north of the state of Minas Gerais, "fartura" refers to Pseudococcus setosus (Hempel 1900) (Homoptera, Pseudococcidae); its name comes from the great quantity of waxy secretion, similar to flakes of cotton, which covers its body (Buzzi 1994).

A group of nymphs of grasshoppers, known as "soldadinhos" (little soldiers), when concentrated near to a residence, indicates the occurrence of a fight between the inhabitants of that house: "When there is a lot of them people say: 'There is going to be a fight over there"' (Mrs. L., + 40 years old). This is an example of a societal entomoindicator. In the Andean region, when the dragonfly Aeshna cornuta (Förster 1999) flies near to or inside a residence, it is said that the family will receive a letter (Venero 1987).

Depending on the ethnospecies of katydid (Orthoptera, Tettigoniidae) people see, they are supposed to be considered as good or bad omens. For example, the green-eyed katydid is a good sign, while the black-eyed katydid and the brilliant-eyed katydid are bad signs. There is also an ethnospecies that "has a coffin on its back that harbingers the death" (Mrs. L., 52 years old). Katydids of green color are, sometimes, perceived and identified as praying mantises. Their appearance is interpreted as a good thing. Local names in Portuguese and Spanish given to katydids mean "hope", in reference to the green color of so many species in the family, the symbolic color of this emotion (Hogue 1993). Other cultures see these insects in a similar way. The inhabitants of the village of Marituba do Peixe, in the state of Alagoas, interpret the appearance of the white-mouth katydid inside a house as an indication of a coming visitor; on the other hand, the black-mouth katydid is a signal of a bad omen (Costa Neto 2000a). In the village of Capueiruçu, Bahia State, the appearance of katydids is considered as an auspicious entomoindicator since these insects bring good luck: "I am frightened when a katydid rests on me, but I do not remove it from me. Otherwise my luck goes away" (K.L.G. Lima, unpublished data).

Different cultures see the appearance of other insect species with funereal signs. The Aymara people from Bolivia took the presence of a certain rare moth as an omen of death. And the ancient Mexicans feared one of the large night-flying moths as a messenger of death (Clausen 1954). And the death's-head sphinx moth, a large moth that sometimes makes a strident sound when it flies and has a skull-shaped marking above its thorax, represented Satan and was thus an emblem of death (Lauck 2002). On the other hand, the Japanese treat any butterfly that comes into their houses friendly because they believe souls usually take butterfly shape in order to announce that they are leaving the body for good (Lauck 2002).

The beliefs in the augural power of insects in the village of Pedra Branca are deep-rooted in thelocal tradition and are transmitted from generation to generation through oral culture: "The cricket, when it is singing, the older ones said that money is going to arrive (Mrs. L., 57 years old). Some of the observations appear to be widely shared among individuals. This is the case for the augural sign ascribed to crickets' calling songs as indicative of coming rains; it presents a 50% of consensus. Another example is the augural sign ascribed to the larvae of lacewings as harbingers of abundance or scarcity: 41% of consensus. Others are more idiosyncratic. This is the case of the mole crickets whose appearance inside a house is meant to be auspicial; just 3% of the interviewees have mentioned it.

Apparently, those insects that harbinger pleasant events are not driven away or killed by those individuals who believe in their augural capacity, such as the green-eyed katydid ("People say that the green one is a good thing. Nobody kills it", Mrs. R, + 30 years old) and the "bichinho-da-fartura" (We do not like to kill it because it is said it is not good to kill, Mrs. M., 73 years old).

Symbolic considerations apart from superstitions, the reading of certain entomoindications finds scientific support for the current condition, if not for prediction. For example, the absence of certain species of insects can be taken as a sign of environmental pollution, while the presence of other species can indicate unhealthy conditions (Posey 1987). Species that have a larval aquatic period, such as the dragonflies, are indicators of anthropogenic environmental disturbance, just as the presence of horseflies (Tabanidae) near the margins of river banks indicates the presence of game for the Brazilian indigenous hunters (Lenko and Papavero 1996). Besides, insect-based artifacts and their own remains are used as chronologic and topographical indicators in archeological works: numerous insects are depicted in prehistoric petroglyphs andpictographs in Europe, South Africa, and NorthAmerica (Hogue 1987).

Insects, like all other living organisms, aresubjected to changes in the abiotic and biotic components of their environments. As Albuquerque(2004) points out, these changes include both predictable and unpredictable events. The former are long term changes associated to the seasons of the year, but also include short and long term changes that vary in their predictability levels, such as the diary cycles of daylight, temperature, and humidity. The latter are characterized by prolonged droughts and brusque increases and/or decreases of temperature associated to the approach of a cold or warm front. The understanding of how insects deal with the length of environmental changes, both predictable and unpredictable, is essential to comprehend how these animals have supplanted the adversities of their environs.

The ethnoentomological knowledge of insect species and their interactions to human beings is meant to be of relevant importance as a significant source of information on the species, their life cycles, and behavior. By studying the folk entomological knowledge of a given human culture would not only assist researchers in their understanding on the social-cultural-ecological roles played by insects, but also would help them to comprehend how native cultures interact deeper with their environments and use their resources appropriately (Blake and Wagner 1987). Thus, it is hoped that the data now available will be incorporated into a curriculum by those researchers interested in insect conservation and ethnobiology as well. Additionally, decision-makers would be able to apply proper conservation programs and management practices only if they recognized that the cultural perspectives is to be taken into account in every debate focused on biological conservation policy (Costa Neto 2000b).

Some insect auguries, such as abundance or scarcity, auspicial, funereal, fatal, societal, and monetary can be explained by metaphor. For example, when one sees the abundance of object carried on larva of Chrysopidae he associates it with abundance of food; or when one interprets the color of katydids as a bad or good omen. On the other hand, the meteoric auguries should be reasoned by the synchronicity and the ecological triggering (cicada - summer; Atta ants - rains), since they will be based on accurate ecological observation and may have direct practical consequences.



I am very grateful to Dr. Luis O'Brien and Miguel Alexiades, as well as to two anonymous referees, for their useful criticisms and suggestions on the manuscript.


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