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Strange Superstitions About 8 Everyday Insects From Around the World

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People like to look for signs and symbols in the natural world, and what creature invades our daily lives more often than the humble insect? Much folklore and tradition has grown up around insects, from the wealth-giving properties of spiders to the ability of a snail to cure warts. So the next time you go to squash a bug, perhaps it's worth pausing to consider if its very presence is trying to tell you something.

1. BEES // PART OF THE FAMILY

Due to their attractive appearance and helpful role in nature, bees are associated with productivity, industriousness, and creativity. Many superstitions have sprung up around the bee, including a Central European tradition instructing a bride to walk her future husband past a beehive to test his fidelity; if a bee stings her intended, it indicates that he will not be a faithful husband. In Greek folklore, if a bee lands on your head, it is said to mean that you will be very successful in life, and if a bee touches the lips of a child, the child will grow up to be a wonderful poet.

In Britain and Ireland there is a strong tradition of bee folklore—one superstition tells that if a bee flies around your house or buzzes at your window it means a visitor will soon arrive, but if anyone kills the bee the visitor will bring nothing but bad news. Bees are also believed to be very sensitive creatures and in Britain they must be spoken to politely and informed of all the family news (indeed, if you wish to rid yourself of bees the quickest way is to swear at them, as they despise bad language). The tradition of “telling the bees” varies from region to region, but the most important information to impart to your bees is when their owner dies—the bees must be sensitively told of the death or they will desert the hive, cease making honey, or die. In some cases in Britain and America, treating the bees as part of the family became so well-integrated that bees would be invited to family weddings or funerals and given a piece of the wedding cake.

2. SPIDERS // LUCK WITH MONEY

Despite the fact that many people are terrified of spiders, they are often associated with good luck. Indeed the Linyphiidae family of tiny spiders are popularly known as money spiders and some believe that seeing one signals luck with money; in English tradition, if one crawls across your palm you will soon come into money.

Spiders are perhaps thought to be associated with wealth because they work hard building their webs, which then bring them rewards—this industrious imagery has meant that spider symbolism is traditionally used on jewelry and good luck charms across the world. It is considered very bad luck to kill a spider because their presence in your home symbolizes good health, wealth, and cleanliness. Some cultures have a tradition that if you absolutely must kill a spider then you can negate the bad luck by apologizing profusely to the creature first.

In Vietnam, it is believed that when you are asleep your soul leaves your body and becomes a spider, therefore to kill one is taboo and regarded as a tragedy.

3. BUTTERFLIES // TINY MESSENGERS

Butterflies symbolize renewal and metamorphosis because of their journey from humble caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. In Japanese folklore, butterflies represent the souls of people and so are treated with great reverence. If a butterfly flies into your home it is said to predict that the person you love most will soon visit. In other traditions butterflies may portend good luck, especially if the first butterfly you see in a year is a white butterfly; however, if the first butterfly you see is black, it's not such good news.

In some traditions it is believed that butterflies can predict the weather. The Zuni tribe of Native Americans believed that the color of the first butterfly you see in a season will indicate the weather to come: a white butterfly signifying the start of summer, a yellow butterfly predicting plenty of sunshine, and a black butterfly indicating stormy weather.

4. LADYBUGS // OUR LADY’S BEETLES

These very cute bright red beetles with black spots are generally associated with good luck. Many folkloric traditions relate to counting the number of spots on a ladybug’s back—some say the number of spots will reveal how many children you will have, others that it indicates how many months of good luck you will have, or how much money you are about to receive.

In the Middle Ages ladybugs were seen as a sign of protection. If a farmer’s crops were being devastated by aphids, they would pray for ladybugs, who would come and eat the aphids—thus saving the crops. Ladybugs have long been associated with the Virgin Mary—she is the “lady” of their name—and the spots on their backs have been variously described as representing Mary’s seven sorrows or Mary’s seven joys. In English folklore it is said that if a ladybug lands on your hand you will be married within the year.

Ladybugs are also associated with renewal. It has been thought that a ladybug landing on some old clothes might be indicating that the clothes will soon be replaced, and that a sick person might find a ladybug flying away with their illness—gifting them with a renewal of health.

5. SNAILS // WARD OFF ILLNESS

Snails were sometimes used as amulets to ward off illness. In Brittany, France if a villager was sick they would go to their local chapel in the month of May and harvest some snails from the chapel walls. These snails would then be placed into little linen bags and worn around the neck until the fever lifted. Once cured, the patient would return to the chapel to bury the body of the snail in thanks.

Snails were also believed to cure warts. One classic old wives' tale comes from Wales, where black snails were rubbed onto warts alongside a certain rhyme before being placed on a thorn bush and fastened there with as many thorns as there were warts. It was believed that once the snail had rotted away, the warts would disappear.

6. MOSQUITOES // BUZZING FOR LOVE

Mosquitoes do not have the quaint associations of some of our cuter insects, but are almost universally perceived as a menace due to their nasty bite. It’s therefore no surprise to learn that most superstitions around mosquitoes relate to ways of preventing them from biting. One such superstition is that if you eat green vegetables on Maundy Thursday (which is also known as Green Thursday), then mosquitoes will not bite you for an entire year. An old wives’ tale also states that if you make your bed on new hay during the harvest time then the mosquitoes will not bite.

A West African folktale explains why the mosquito buzzes in your ear: A long time ago, Ear was a beautiful woman and was courted by all the animals. Mosquito also wanted to marry Ear and asked for her hand. Ear refused, telling mosquito that she could not marry someone who only lived for a week. Heartbroken, every time Mosquito saw Ear he would buzz at her saying “Here I am, I’m not dead!”

Not all superstitions are based on fantasy, however: When the British arrived in Somalia in the 1850s they dismissed the local belief that mosquitoes spread malaria as a superstition—much to their cost.

7. DRAGONFLIES AND DAMSELFLIES // TOOLS OF THE DEVIL

Damselflies and dragonflies belong to the same insect family (Odonata) but the damselfly is distinguished from the dragonfly because they have four wings of roughly the same size whereas the dragonfly has large wings at the front and smaller wings at the back. In English folklore damselflies were known as “The devil’s knitting (or darning) needle,” because it was believed that if you went to sleep next to a stream the damselflies would use their long bodies to sew your eyelids shut.

The idea of dragonflies and damselflies as the devil’s tool pervades European folklore and the many names colloquially given to the creatures reflect this. In German, they’ve been given a number of folkloric names including Teufelspferd (“Devil's horse”) and Wasserhexe (“Water witch”), whereas in Danish they were known as Fandens ridehest (“Devil's riding horse”). In Sweden it was believed a dragonfly would pick out your eyes, and in Old Swedish the insects are called Blindsticka (“Blind stinger”).

In Norse mythology dragonflies and damselflies are associated with the Freya, the goddess of fertility and love, perhaps because when two dragonflies mate their wings appear together in the shape of a heart. In American folklore, dragonflies were thought to be “snake doctors,” since the two creatures are often seen together. It was believed that if a snake was cut in two, the dragonfly would use its long, thin body to sew the reptile back together.

8. CATERPILLAR // WEATHER PREDICTORS

American Woolly Bear caterpillars, with their brown and black stripes, are traditionally said to be reliable predictors of winter weather—the thicker the black stripes, the worse the weather is going to be. In European folklore, it is said to be bad luck to handle a hairy caterpillar, which may have something to do with the fact that touching one can leave nasty spines in your hand. However, it is said that the bad luck can be negated by tossing the poor creature over your left shoulder.

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Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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