Monday, August 13, 2012

Undomesticated Peeves Part 2

“Oh, no, he’s crawling on the fruit salad!”

“Watch out—he’ll sting you!”

I have complained before—quite eloquently, I believe, and at length—about people’s deeply irritating tendency to refer to any animal they see as “he,” regardless of the fact that they’re likely to be wrong at least half the time. This is bad enough.

What’s even worse is when people refer to individuals of social-insect species—like most common bees and ants—as “he,” because in this case they’re virtually guaranteed to be wrong.

All those scurrying ants transporting bits of smushed candy bar or lifting huge beetles or biting each other’s limbs off? Female.

All those bees rolling with orgiastic ecstasy in the nectar-filled bowls of flower blossoms? Female.

Those wasps circling your picnic table with alarmingly predatory glints in their faceted eyes? Female.

Among most of the true “eusocial” animals—species that live in colonies and whose members have divisions of labor based on reproductive ability or function—a male’s only role is as a sex object. (Considering that, it’s a shame that they’re called “drones” rather than, say, “gigolos.”) There are definitely exceptions to this rule—that’s what’s so great about animal behavior and ecology: there are always exceptions to rules—but by and large, that’s the case. You’ll have one (sometimes more) reproductive female, and then a bunch of (often sterile) females that do all the work of cleaning, caring for offspring, gathering food, and defending the nest/hive/colony.

Eusociality is a fascinating set-up (for more detail, read Nicola Plowe’s Introduction to Eusociality), most common among bees, wasps, ants, termites, and aphids. Researchers have (so far) found only a very few non-insect species that are eusocial: sponge-dwelling snapping shrimp (Synalpheus spp.) and naked mole rats.

But back to my point: the ant heading towards that puddle of Coke, the bee thrumming with excitement among the wild roses, the wasp that stung you three times on the arm—don’t call them “he.”

Now, don’t feel too bad about not having known this. Practically any movie (or commercial) with anthropomorphized social insects has gotten this wrong, thus ingraining erroneous information into our collective consciousness. Nevertheless, it is wrong—not just half-wrong-tinged-with-chauvinism, as is the case with most “he” attributions—but almost completely wrong.

There are exceptions: if you spot a male bee mating with a female, for example, then you can say “he,” as in, “Oh my god! His penis broke off inside her and now he’s falling to his death?!?” (Trust me, I’m not making this up.)

Otherwise, though, for the bees and ants, stick with “she.” It’s safer all around.

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


pattinase (abbott) said...

I admit to doing this all the time. I try for it rather than he but don't usually succeed. Animals seem male to me-unless they wear mascara. (I don't).

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Ah, but fight it, Patti! Fight it! Other animals are no more male than people--and, in parthenogenic species, are a lot less male!

biobabbler said...

=) One of my pet peeves (having improved my rate of calling ants "the girls") is when people (close to 100% of the time) "distinguish" between people and animals. *sigh*

Again, I want to ask, well, if people aren't animal, are they vegetable or mineral?

It's mostly a hopeless crusade, but even yesterday, when watching a mystery on TV, someone found 30 year old bones and they were trying to figure out "Is this an animal?" *sigh*

Of course the implied 2nd half of the sentence ("or a human"), but it made me laugh and say (perhaps to the cats?):

"Uh, YES, it's an animal. It has BONES..." Very few plants, minerals, or monerans have bones. 'Far as I know. =)

Rock on, Olivia! =)

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

Thanks! --And, yes, the non-human-animals thing is a real problem--one that I too am guilty of, even though I *know* we humans are certainly not mineral or vegetable (well, most of us aren't--there are exceptions).

Keep fighting the good fight!

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