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


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

Eraldo M. Costa Neto

Departamento de Ciências Biológicas, Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana Km 03, BR 116, 44031-460 Feira de Santana, BA, Brasil

This paper deals with the semiotic meanings which are given both to the appearance and/or behavior of insect species according to the ethnoentomological knowledge of the inhabitants of the village of Pedra Branca, Bahia State, Brazil. Data were collected from February to May 2001 by performing open-ended, recorded interviews with nine men and twenty-five women, whose ages ranged from 19 to 82 years old. Data were analyzed by using the union model, which involves considering all available information on the surveyed subject. Twelve kinds of insects were associated with both beneficial and harmful events, as well as with the indication of changing weather. The way local people perceive and interpret the appearance and/or behavior of certain species of insects depends on the cultural background of each inhabitant. The following semiotic meanings were recorded: fatal, funereal, auspicial, meteorological, societal, monetary, and of abundance or scarcity. The beliefs in the augural power of insects in the village of Pedra Branca are deep-rooted in the local tradition and are transmitted from generation to generation through oral culture. 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.

Key words: bioindicator, ethnoentomology, folk knowledge, semiotic meaning.

An. Acad. Bras. Ciênc. vol.78 no.1  Rio de Janeiro Mar. 2006.


People from different cultural backgrounds worldwide look at the elements of nature as significant signals to predict a great range of situations. The behavior of animals and the appearance or characteristics of plants has guided the first observations and deductions human beings have had about the weather and other day-to-day events (Clausse 1973). For example, in Western Kenya individuals use toads, birds and white ants as indicators of the arrival of rains, while in the northeast of Tanzania the changes in the behavioral patterns of birds, insects and mammals are important signs (Prendergast et al. 1999). In Japan, the names of invertebrates are used metaphorically as synonymous of the seasons. Different names of arthropods, such as flea, housefly, mosquito, firefly, spider, and cicada are meant to be synonymous of summer (Dunn 2000).

Traditional knowledge about sensibility of animal species to the approach of bad or good times has been handed down by word of mouth throughout generations. It is very probable that a meteorological-sensibility allows certain animals to react to atmospheric variations and then indicate important weather phenomena. Insects serve as crucial examples in the listening of these phenomena. For the old Chinese farmers they were the best climatic indicators of change (Jin 1997). The cricket wodey mekeri (several species of blackish crickets are labeled under this name) appears in the passage from the dry season to the rainy season, which means the fields can be prepared (Seignobos et al. 1996). Among the Bushmen of the Kalahari the annual emergence of several insects was used as an indicative of the passage of time, and many insects had their names taken from the events that coincided with the time of their appearance (Green 1998).

Ladybugs are considered as foretellers of luck in many parts of the world (Majerus 1994), while wasps are used as indicators of danger in Japan (Ramos-Elorduy 2000). In some parts of Russia and France people think of a cockroach as a protecting spirit, and its presence in the house is viewed as fortunate; if the cockroach leaves, its departure is taken as a sign of bad luck (Lauck 2002). The common name of death-watch beetle, given to Anobium tesselatum F. (Ptinidae), sufficiently expresses the popular prejudice against this insect. It is believed that the solemn death-watch beetle clicks to hour of someone's death (Cowan 1999). In Northwestern Melanesia some native groups diagnose the illness of patients by the presence or absence of lice. Slight fevers can cause an exodus of body lice that indicates oncoming illness (Posey 1987). The good luck associated with the spiders is frequently related to money matters, and the belief in a money-bringing or gift-giving spider is widespread (Lauck 2002).

The science of semiotics refers to the study of signs and symbols in various fields, especially language (Thompson 1995). Considering animals, their images and transmitted signals are frequently transformed into perceived meaningful signsand then can be investigated through a semioticapproach. The semiotic significance of animals was studied by Marques (2002) from the point of view of the ethnoecology who said the semiotic approach assumes that the cultural/informational web is formed by intermingling not only the knowledge which is generated through the direct interactions between human experience and the stimuli of the environment, but also the feelings, beliefs and behaviors that human beings express.

The present paper aims to record the semiotic meanings that are given both to the appearance and/ or behavior of insect species according to the ethnoentomological knowledge of the inhabitants of the village of Pedra Branca, Bahia State, Brazil.


Materials and Methods

Data presented here are part of a broader research project that aims to record the ethnoentomology of Pedra Branca's villagers. A former settlement of the Kiriri Indians that was established by the Portuguese pioneer Gabriel Soares de Souza in the sixteenth century, the village of Pedra Branca is situated at the Middle Paraguaçu, west central region of Bahia State, northeastern Brazil (Paraíso 1985). (The Kiriri people do not live there anymore.) It is inside the municipality of Santa Terezinha (which is also the capital), but it is about 13 km away from it. This village is located at the base of the Serra da Jibóia, a mountain range of about 225 km2 of area whose peak elevation is 805 m above sea level. It lies between 12º46¢ south latitude and 39º32¢ west longitude (Juncá et al. 1999).

In 1991, the resident population in the municipal area of Santa Terezinha was 8,851 individuals (Centro de Estatística e Informação 1994). The population in the district of Pedra Branca in 1991 was nearly 400 persons (about 80 families according to the local Health Assistant), who depend on cultivation of cassava (Manihot esculenta Crantz) as their main economic activity. Livestock production is also important, mainly cattle and goats.

This region, which is totally included in the Drought Polygon, has a semi-arid climate with a mean annual temperature of 24.3ºC and a mean annual rainfall of 582 mm. The rainy period lasts from November to January. The vegetation of the Serra da Jibóia includes campo rupestre savannas on the peaks; dense, ombrophilous Atlantic coastal forest in the valleys and on the slopes; semi-deciduous forest at the base; and arboreal Caatinga in the north. The soil is good for agricultural activities and suitable for livestock-raising (Centro de Estatística e Informação 1994).

Fieldwork was carried out over 64 days from February to May 2001. Open-ended interviews followed ethnoscientific principles by recording information on an emic approach (Sturtevant 1964). By using this kind of approach, ethnobiologists record the native's knowledge in just the way the local culture organizes, perceives, and uses its universe, not by imposing a Western understanding (Posey 1986). Nine men and twenty-five women, whose ages ranged from 19 to 82 years old, constituted the sample universe. Interviews were conducted in Portuguese since the villagers are Portuguese-speakers. Most of the interviews were recorded in microtapes; semi-literal transcriptions are deposited at the Laboratory of Ethnobiology of the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana (UEFS).

Data were analyzed qualitatively by considering all available information that informants have provided on the surveyed subject. Controls were performed both through consistency checking tests and reply validity tests, which make use of repeated inquiries in synchronic and diachronic conditions, respectively. One tests consistency by asking different people the same question within a very short time period. Reply validity is tested by asking the same question to the same interviewee at different times.

During the fieldwork projective tests were also conducted. These consisted in displaying both the photographs and the recent captured specimens themselves to the informants in order to promptthem to talk about the insects. Some specimens were collected and handled in accordance with the usual patterns for scientific collections, and were deposited in the entomological collection at UEFS.

Results and Discussion

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