From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Worldbuilding With Legs: Incorporating Insects into Your Stories

So I hear you’re writing a fantasy story! May I suggest the addition of some charismatic microfauna? What about uncharismatic? Um, what if we make them macrofauna? No?

Arthropods get the short end of the stick in the average fantasy tale. Oh sure, there are biting flies in the Marshes We Must Cross to Deliver the MacGuffin; a local witch keeps a few hives of Slightly Strange Bees; the heroes might defeat Scorpions Of Unusual Size now and then. But what if we developed more unusual candidates and gave them some power in the plot? Real insects provide us with everything we need for a variety of fictional functions! Consider the worldbuilding potential for:

Attacking your enemies: If you wanted to wholesale invent a weapon to target a lot of enemies at once, you could do worse than a social species like ants, bees, or wasps! Many social species evolved stinging behaviours and venom in order to protect dense nurseries of defenseless young, whereas (for example) solitary bees are likely to be stingless. What about a magical breed of wasp controlled by your military wizard with a spell keying attacks to the other side’s uniforms? Imagine how many soldiers you could incapacitate before they figure out that they have to strip out of their tunics and armour—plus, this type of insect can be easily induced to swarm in large numbers!

Also good options: Giant bombardier beetles to spray boiling, high-speed corrosive chemicals out of their butts, sort-of living armoured tanks with a gun turret; velvet worms to glue down entire battalions with ultra-sticky polymers from two wiggly nozzles; crafty bolas spiders to tangle the mounts of the opposing side in specially-crafted silk bolas.

Transmitting secret messages: Supposing your heroes need to send a message without some Dark Lord or his minions intercepting it? In my novel A Broken Darkness, I have a character genetically and magically engineer dung beetles to do just that—taking advantage of their flying ability, incredible sense of smell, and ability to navigate by multiple sources of polarized light to act as messengers who will only go from sender to recipient and vice-versa.

Also good options: Magic fireflies who can casually float through enemy territory to your captured spy and flash a coded message using their chemically bioluminescent butts; ultra-fast flying damselflies with microdots attached to the dark parts of their wings (fantastical microdots? Look, I don’t know; use your imagination. Magical runes or something).

Lunch: “Getcherself a little sweet treat,” shouts the hawker. “You’ve had a long day; you deserve something nice. Hey pal, want a snack?” You examine his tray, where dozens of enormous honey-pot ants catch the light like amber beads, each tethered with a silken leash. It has been a long shift. You pay your tuppence and choose a blueberry-sized ant, carefully sucking the sweet liquid from its abdomen and returning the emptied ant. Consider: in a world where sugar beets, sugar cane, palm sugar, or honeybees didn’t evolve, might people start selectively breeding or magically modifying these “living larders” to be a reliable source of sweetness? Or perhaps they’re a delicacy—not sold by street merchants but only found in the heavily-guarded food gardens of the Empress and served only at royal feasts.

Also good options: Tarantulas make very good eating and taste like shellfish; surely some enterprising folks in a fantasy world can breed tarantulivestock big enough to get large chunks of meat for things like lobster rolls and crabcakes. Witchetty grubs (the larval form of a moth) are packed with fat and protein and would make nourishing meals during The Long Quest to The Faraway Place . . . but beware of foraging in the lands of the Moth Deity, who will object, possibly terminally, to you eating its young!

Producers of useful things: I barely knew where to start, or where to end, with this category. But you could do worse than extracting the venom of Giant Asian Hornets to daub onto your weapons for cheating at duels or performing enhanced interrogations! Even if the victim isn’t allergic, a high enough dose of this neurotoxin and enzyme-crammed venom will melt skin and flesh. If I were a potion-maker, assassin, or just a generally unscrupulous person in a fantasy novel, I would have a supply of this stuff on hand at all times (magically harvested and stabilized, of course).

Also good options: Our world already uses snail slime as a moisturizer; what properties might you gain, aside from smooth skin, if you let a snail who’s been blessed (or hexed) by the local fairy crawl on your face? Spidersilk and silkworms have been explored in fiction, but what about giant moths allowed free range in your family’s valley until they live out their natural lifespan, and then have their duvet-sized, multicoloured wings harvested to make a luxurious cloth?

Bioweapons: If your army lacks such items as the above-mentioned swarms of stinging allies, and if you as a general perhaps lack such items as “military ethics” and “a sense of fair play,” why not launch a few plague fleas (on rats, so they have something to snack on) over the enemy stockade at night? Epic fantasy is very comfortable with plagues; it needn’t be anything so prosaic as the Black Plague. What about a magical plague cooked up by your recently-hired mercenary wizard? The enemy gates are guarded so well that you’ll never get an infected Trojan Geoffrey into the camp, but the beauty of insects is that they pass entirely without notice.

Also good options: The evil vizier’s poison garden needs to be put into its place, don’t you think? A daring midnight raid with your trained dragon dropping a packet of agricultural pests (nightshade worms? Deathberry beetles?) might solve that. A surreptitious (and very careful) hand-off of pubic lice would absorb most of the attention of the palace guards if you can’t get close enough to the walls; you would just have to wait a few days for maximum efficacy. Going for grimdark fantasy? Hideously painful long-term revenge on an enemy (or a population) can be easily secured by dosing their wells or ponds with the copepods that carry guinea worm infections.

Of course, this is just a mite-sized sample; I had a thousand candidates in each category, so the sky is really the limit for letting our chitinous friends participate in your story. Why not have magical practitioners alter a bug’s size or sentience, or incorporate them right into a magical system as an unusual familiar, envoy, or apprentice? They could be pets, beasts of burden, cryptids—what’s so great about a unicorn, anyway? Imagine the narrative possibilities if the mystical creature in the woods is a giant praying mantis. I hope I’ve made a strong case for weaving more bugs into your worldbuilding!

INTRODUCTORY READING LIST

Dance of the Dung Beetles, Marcus Byrne and Helen Lunn

For the Love of Insects, Thomas Eisner

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms, Richard Fortey

Six-Legged Soldiers, Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Edible, Daniella Martin

The Woman With A Worm In Her Head, Pamela Nagami

Jungle Bugs, Bruce Purser

The Sting of the Wild, Justin O. Schmidt

Wicked Bugs, Amy Stewart

Extraordinary Insects, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson

Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed

Premee Mohamed is an Indo-Caribbean scientist and speculative fiction author based in Edmonton, Alberta. She is the author of novels Beneath the Rising (Crawford Award, Aurora Prize, British Fantasy Award, and Locus Award finalist) and A Broken Darkness, and novellas These Lifeless Things, And What Can We Offer You Tonight, and The Annual Migration of Clouds. Her next novel, The Void Ascendant, is the final book in the Beneath the Rising trilogy and is due out in March 2022. Her short fiction has appeared in many venues and she can be found on Twitter at @premeesaurus and on her website at premeemohamed.com.