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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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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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16 Playful Facts About Otters
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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the California coast, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

This ancient monotheistic religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed rot. They would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to mark territory and communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and must eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first 6-8 weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. They forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum graduation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea while on land. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and that duo will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their blubber stores and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO SET FOOT IN ALASKA WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

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Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on mainland Alaska after getting separated from its sister ship. Steller was the first European to set foot on the icy land. Over the course of a rough Alaskan winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift “playpen” for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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