Inaugural Speech

Perpetual President of the Italian National Academy of Entomology


The president of a newly formed association is morally committed, at the first public meeting of the assembly, to make known the reasons for its establishment.
In our case, the speaker, elected by the unanimous and supreme benevolence of the Academic Colleagues, will comply with this commandment by inviting those gathered to take a glimpse, at a glance, into the world of Insects, so that those of our listeners who, by necessity, are not immersed in the mysteries of their prodigious life, may have the opportunity to glimpse them at a distance (very far away) and, knowing them, to assess the general importance of the discipline that has their study as its aim.
We begin by presenting the Insects in the number of their species, the time of their origin, their behaviour and their constitution. Over a million described entities and five or six million, to make a conservative guess, actually exist (the most formidable grouping of beings, therefore, living on, Earth), 200-300 million years of life (the oldest fossils date back to the Middle Devonian), as opposed to the half million years of age of the human species, a behaviour that is exceedingly complex (even in its smallest forms) and admirably adapted to the most varied environments, the most incredible dietary regimes, the most unimaginable life cycles, and the most impressive fecundities. As far as the constitution is concerned, it is evidently impossible, in a speech such as the one I am delivering, to mention it, albeit briefly. I will limit myself to recalling very few things that are necessary for understanding what I will say next.
Insects are armoured creatures, and the lining of their bodies consists mainly of plasticised proteins, chitin and lipoids secreted from an underlying matrix, which remains active throughout postembryonic development. If I were to entertain you on its intimate structure, it would take me several hours. However, I will inform you that it comprises several secondary layers and is covered by an extremely thin waxy film, the orientation and compression of whose proximal molecules are responsible for the tegument’s impermeability. This coating is more or less powerfully sclerificated (by taninisation of proteins by quinones), however, it has flexible territories that make it free to move and is changed several times during youth in order to allow growth. It is to this armour that Insects owe, among other things, the possibility they have had, in the course of their very long existence, of decreasing their size, to the point of sometimes becoming smaller than the largest Protozoa, but they probably also owe certain limitations in their evolution.
The food intake and ingestion apparatuses, principally the mouthparts, show us very diverse factories, and allow for the most varied modes of nourishment and, correlatively, the most singular dietary regimes, with forms that feed by chewing, licking, absorbing surface liquids, or by picking them up inside plants or animals, after piercing the tissues that defend them. Their alimentary canal naturally responds adequately to the exceptional nature of many of these dietary habits and provides the enzymes necessary to catalytically govern the digestion of the strangest of substances, at least from our point of view as vertebrates. There are, in fact, Insects that feed on dry and decayed wood, wool and other horny substances, wax, blood, those that eat what they find in urine deposits and oil puddles, those that exploit dead bodies at every stage of their decomposition, excrement, the most heterogeneous leftovers, etc. When they find themselves in entanglements, we see them allying themselves in physiological symbioses, often transmissible to their offspring, with Bacteria, Fungi and Protozoa, which take charge of digesting what the insect would not be able to do, or of supplying it with vitamins. Among the social species, even nutritional functions sometimes take on very singular orientations: cultivation of mushrooms on substrates of specially collected and mangled leaves, the search for secretions of other animals, the use of vomit and faeces, the transformation of complacent family members into reserve wineskins to be tapped in times of need, and finally, a phenomenon of enormous value, the so-called ‘trophallaxis’, i.e. the reciprocal exchange of regurgitated food or glandular secretions between members of the same community. Not only do Insects swallow the most varied substances, they often swallow extraordinary quantities of them. Thus, there are carnivorous larvae that do not, at all, take in masses equivalent to several tens of times their own weight in a meal, and phytophagous larvae that consume food tens of thousands of times their initial weight during their development. In contrast, some species (by intricately folding the alimentary canal into one or more loops) have chosen the route of placing the ends of its medial tract, the main seat of digestion, in intimate histological contact, and causing a large part of the introduced liquids to escape (skipping the portion in charge of the need) undigested. Many others, on the other hand, with a decision unknown to the vast majority of animality, close themselves off, once they have reached the state of image, in complete abstinence, and then present the mouthparts involuted or atrophied and the mouth physiologically or even morphologically closed.
As for sense organs, Hexapods possess them of varying construction and complication, but the sensitivity of these arthropods is quite different from ours, because while we live particularly in a world of light and sound, they live mainly in a almost silent world of smells. However, they achieve extremely delicate reactions, as well as the possibility of coupling two kinds of sensitivity, the chemioreceptor and the tangoreceptor, into one, chemotactile, essentially unknown to us. This is not to say that they have renounced their eyes, on the contrary, they have several types, and the compounds, which also consist of tens of thousands of ommatidia, i.e. tens of thousands of groups of sensory neurons with their own dioptric and catoptric systems, represent, along with the lens-shaped ones of vertebrates and cephalopods, the only devices existing in nature capable of forming a distinct image, which Exner, in the Lampyris splendidula, managed to photograph. It was also recently discovered that in Bees and other Hymenoptera, which can use the polarised light of the blue sky for orientation, the rhabdomata of these ommatidia function as analysers.
Blood bathes all the viscera because it circulates for the most part lacunarly, but it has a modest importance in respiration, which is carried out, in general, using a tracheal apparatus consisting of a variable number of tubules that generally flow outwards with openings, or stigmas, located in symmetrical pairs, and dichotomising internally, until they arborize into minute branches filled with liquid, which reach the tissues and supply them directly with oxygen. Respiratory openings are equipped with protective means and closure systems that make long resistances possible in asphyctic environments. Aquatic species solve this problem either by breathing at the surface like Cetacea, or, if stigmas are lacking, by using oxygen dissolved in the water, which they diosmise through the general tegument of the body or that of the tracheobranchs, or by carrying air supplies of various thicknesses and thus inaugurating true physical gills, which allow them to live, for some time or permanently, in immersion.
Even in the emission of light, Insects are exceptional organisms.
Several luminescent species in fact have lamps (let’s call them that for the sake of clarity) with almost cold light and impressive efficiency (92-98% compared to the 4% efficiency of an electric, incandescent lamp).
Let us pass over the exocrine secretory apparatus, which is extremely rich and responsible for the elaboration of the most varied substances (some of which, like silk, wax, lacquer, are well known because they are used by man), with which many Insects cover themselves, sometimes, in such a way that they are no longer externally recognisable, but let us recall the discovery, recent, of a complex endocrine apparatus (represented by particular glands, as well as by some territories of different organs, such as the brain), which governs their physiology and which has finally allowed us to reveal the determinism of diapause, moulting, metamorphosis and other phenomena of capital importance.
When it comes to reproduction, it must be said that the Hexapods amaze and often astound us. First of all, we have fecundity, which sometimes appears exterminated, as in the queens of various elevated Termites, who can lay a few tens of thousands of eggs a day and give rise, during their long existence that often exceeds half a century, to hundreds of millions of descendants. Secondly, there is the capacity for polyembryonic reproduction, which, although known in other animals, among vertebrates and even in Man, with a number of offspring that can scarcely be counted on the fingers of one hand, presents itself in our arthropods in paradoxical aspects, since a single egg can produce up to a thousand and a half viable germs. Thirdly, we very frequently witness the detachment of the female from the male, proliferating virginally (as an adult or as a larva) and thus reproducing by parthenogenesis (‘lucina sine concubitu’, as the ancients called it), parthenogenesis that can produce male offspring, female offspring or offspring of both sexes, and that, while commonly alternating with biparental reproduction in heterogonal cycles, can nevertheless be constant telitocytosis and achieve the exceptional condition of species represented by the female sex alone.
Insects, as you know, undergo, during their postembryonic development, superficial and undemanding modifications in the species that emerge from the egg in a state more or less resembling the perfect state, radical or subversive metamorphoses in the forms that emerge into the light in a state quite different from the adult. In the first case, the changes that the organism has to undergo take place gradually and at the time of the exoskeleton’s moults, in the second case, the profound upheavals that must, for example, manufacture a butterfly from the flesh and viscera of a caterpillar, take place all at once (or at least apparently so) at the end of larval life, when the young have finished eating and growing.
What about many other admirable structures and functions? And I should be silent. Not, however, on the organs that enable large movements in space, to which we must necessarily refer. In fact, Insects, together with Birds and Bats, are the only existing animals on Earth capable of flight, but while the latter have solved the problem, with a renunciation, by transforming their forelimbs into wings (in Bats, the skin duplication that constitutes the wing membrane even bridles the hind limbs and sometimes the tail), the former, although more gifted in terms of legs, have been careful not to touch them, and have pulled out not two but four wings, laterally expanding the tegument of the thorax and providing these extroversions with a network of linear selerifications forming a skeletal nervous system that is mechanically and phylogenetically very interesting.
Now we have to ask ourselves where and how this prodigious, teeming mass of armed people who have filled the world with themselves lives. Where does he live? ‘Ubicumque’ the Latins would reply. Everywhere. There is, it may be said, no inch of the earth’s surface and its immediate subterranean domain, no puddle, no rivulet, no thermal water, no plant, no organic matter in transformation, no dead animal or vegetable body, no excrement, no leftover of any kind, no foodstuff, no product of human labour, no building, no dwelling, no cavern, no cave, from hyperboreal to equatorial latitudes, that does not host Insects. In short, there is no corner of the Earth where an insect cannot live. They reached, almost, the attainable. Some have ventured into the tropical oceans up to hundreds of miles from the coast, where they develop by sucking on small organisms and laying their eggs on the floating bodies and plumage of aquatic birds, many attack other animals and other insects and evolve externally or internally at their expense, constituting that enormous phalanx of predators and parasites, about whose glories and nefariousness in the history of life and humanity one would need to speak for days.
How do they spread? By all means: by pawing, by winging, by divining and peristaltic contractions of the somatic musculature, by walking, running, crawling, jumping, flying, by being carried by other animals, by water and, above all, by the wind. The best equipped transverse continents, seas and oceans, and migrate, sometimes in flocks of millions and billions, the weakest and least well-equipped are not discouraged by this and face destiny by making use of the enormous numbers of their individuals and sowing the road of the dead. What do you want beings to fear who, like a parthenogenetic female aphid, to cite just one example among thousands, can give birth in three hundred days to a number of offspring corresponding to the 15th power of 210, i.e. 68 followed by 33 zeros, which is, approximately, the number of molecules contained in 200,000 tonnes of hydrogen?
How do they conquer the environments they reach? How do they settle there? How do they resist? The motto of our, Academy: ‘Cerebro faucibus utero ab orbis origine tenent‘. With their brains, with their jaws and with their wombs, they have ruled the earth since time immemorial. We have already referred to the jaws and the uterus, it remains for us to consider the brain and, with the brain, the instincts which, in these arthropods, have peculiar and amazing characteristics.
Men regard what we, in the Insects, have christened ‘instinct’ with benevolent complacency. I say men to refer to those (and they are few in truth) who from time to time, either for trade or pleasure, look around and think. The others, the countless others (the ‘chewing and dreaming herd’, as it was recently called), ignore everything and see only themselves and their fellow human beings. They live with their heads in their sacks (to express myself more accurately, I will say with their august heads enclosed in seven waterproof sacks) and proceed, ignorant and undaunted, with an impoliteness for which there is only one adjective available in our dictionary, that of ‘grotesque’. Well, the men in the first category are wrong. The ‘instincts of Insects’, different from those of Vertebrates, constitute a phenomenon that is both grandiose and frightening at the same time, the more grandiose and frightening the more we insist and progress in probing their behaviour. Verlaine considers the instinctive acts of the Hexapods to be the natural conclusions of other intelligent people, which ceased to be so when they stabilised in a unique form, the best they could come up with. The concept is admittedly a little simplistic and a little hasty, but it gives a great idea of the matter and does not get lost in irrational and nebulous speculation as many modern hypotheses do. The fact is that the Insects behave just as if, through an experience of millions of centuries, they have chosen the path that leads directly to the harbour and disregard the rest. But what do you think this ‘instinct’ is? A negligible manifestation for the human mind? A manifestation not worthy, for us, of the deepest meditation? Are you aware of the formidable problems that Insects have solved with ‘instinct’ in the long run of millennia, and millennia of millennia? Did you know that the Beetles were the first to ‘think’ of transforming sliding friction into rolling friction by building bullets out of dung in order to transport the julep to their underground lairs with greater ease, greater celerity and less fatigue? And that when they have to prepare the pabulum for the offspring they make, always with dung and in their dark abodes, wonderfully moulded pears to place the egg inside the stalked end so that it can breathe properly? Did you know that the Wasps taught us how to make paper out of wood? That various social Hymenoptera regulate the temperature of their nests by appropriately deploying workers who beat the air with their wings, or by bringing in water to evaporate? That many social insects build nests that, in terms of grandeur and solidity, subjugate, comparatively speaking, our most mammoth monuments? That the so-called predatory Hymenoptera, in order to solve the problem of the freshness of the prey the female hunts for her own food, which she will eat when the mother is no longer around, inject venom into (or near) the nerve ganglia of their victims, using the sting like a syringe wielded by a sanitary man, and leaving the paralysed but living sacrifices at the disposal of their still defenceless young? Did you know that these Hymenoptera, once the prey has been placed, lay the egg on it, placing it in a spot that seems to have been chosen, after mature consideration, by a committee of competent technicians? That there are solitary Apidae nesting in the empty shells of Molluscs, which, after gathering pollen and nectar at the bottom of the shell and laying their eggs there, protect their germs and provisions by closing the cavity to the outside with two or more very solid partitions made of pebbles or other fragments cemented together with plant resin, and filling the compartments thus limited with all sorts of junk? And that they also sometimes turn the shell over by placing it with their mouth against the ground? Did you know that there are Hymenoptera that use tools to work, and that sometimes (in certain Ants) these tools are nothing more than the larvae of the insect itself, equipped with enormous silk-secreting mandolae, with which the workers ‘sew’ the leaves to build the nest? And that in order to bring the flaps closer before sewing them together, our insects grasp the edge with their mandibles and pull them to themselves, and if the flap is too far apart, they grab a partner at mid-waist and push it forward, and this in turn grabs a third, and the third a fourth until they form a sort of ‘cantilever arm’ that achieves the goal? Did you know that Insect societies (or, at least, the most populous and advanced ones) are communities of such rationality of organisation that ours, by comparison, sin, says W. M. Wheeler says, of infantilism and immaturity, and in which the enormous majority of the individuals have been voted to sterility, leaving to one or a few females, monstrous egg-factorys, the task of reproduction, and to all the others, sterile and frigid virgins, the managerial functions, which they exercise, in a way still obscure to us, with a complete subjection (which goes as far as self-sacrifice) to the needs of society, showing a perfect correlation between these functions and the capacity to sustain them? And that there are some (among those we have investigated in this regard) whose constituents have the ability to communicate with each other in such a demanding manner that it is permissible for a foraging worker returning from a scouting trip to instruct her companions on the location, direction, distance (ranging from less than a hundred metres to several kilometres) and precise location of the discovered food source, and to do so in such detail that the companions who have heard her message then reach the indicated spot ‘alone’? Did you know that many Insects, especially social ones, show undoubted signs of various emotions and present associative memory, memory of objects and their relative position in space, attention, will, notion of time, possibility of discrimination and choice, aptitude to learn, ability to progressively correct one’s acts from initial errors, the capacity to modify one’s habits according to individual experience and to adapt one’s actions to conditions of life that require a cerebral, sensorial and associative activity that is entirely different from the usual one and enormously more complex, in conclusion, a brain power and plasticity and a series of behaviours that incontrovertibly fall within the faculty that we can define as intelligence, which at least it presents itself in us in its elementary manifestations? And to say that we have barely lifted a few of the veils that conceal from us the mysteries of their lives and that we are still a long way from knowing sufficiently not only the nature and determinism of their actions, but even the intimate structure and functions of entire categories of their organs. What will future investigations reveal to us, when we particularly think that today, even for entomology, a revolutionary era has begun?
We find ourselves before a boundless world of beings endowed with all the means necessary to conquer, as they have conquered, a boundless field of life on Earth, before a boundless world of beings built very differently from us, but extremely complex in factory and in the structure of their soma, extremely elevated in their instinctive mentality, extremely plastic, penetrating and resistant in their struggle for existence. Of their dominating power we have a wealth of historical and experimental evidence that should make us thoughtful and supremely cautious in our judgments.
These beings, after many tens of millions of years since they had emerged from the presses of evolution and spread like a tide over our planet, had, shall we say, mankind appear in their midst. And so began the duet of the two ‘great powers’: Men and Insects. Not big the former (in size, that is), small or very small the latter. Provided one with intelligence, the other with instinct. Armed with different weapons. In different ways superior to all other living organisms. The philosopher Bergson, in ‘Creative Evolution’, expresses it as follows: ‘It is indisputable that “success” constitutes the most general criterion of superiority. The two terms are in fact, in a certain respect, synonymous. When it comes to living beings, ‘success’ must be understood as an aptitude to develop in the most diverse environments, to overcome every obstacle and to spread accordingly over the widest possible territory. A species that looms over the entire Earth is surely a dominant and, therefore, superior species. Such is the human species, which represents the apex of Vertebrate evolution, but such also are Insects’.
For a long, long time in the history of the centuries, however, these two powers ignored each other. Each went their own way and each, in their own way, won a place in the sun. In short, they peacefully divided the dominion of the World. And even if, from time to time, the hematophagous Insects, inoculators of the germs of death, gave formidable shocks to mankind, Men did not react, because they did not know where the blow came from, and ignorance. then as now, has always been a big troublemaker. The relationship between the two powers changed when humans, with the cessation of nomadic life and the emergence of agriculture, took it upon themselves to alter the natural environment, albeit to a very modest extent for the time being, and to spread their crops in the presence of the Hexapods. From that moment on, an unrelenting struggle began, on the scales of which Men placed the gradually ripened fruits of their ingenuity and reasoning, and Insects the formidable power of their ancient preparation, instincts, adaptations and fecundity. But it can be said that the outcome of the battle appeared problematic until very recently, if, a few years ago, scientists of undoubted authority were able to assume that the final outcome of the conflict between Insects and Humans would be favourable to the former and not to the latter.
With the advent of organic chlorine derivatives and other products obtained by synthesis, the production and application of which developed, as everyone knows, immediately after the last intercontinental war, things have changed, however, and Man now seems in possession of the means to win the game. I say ‘seems’ with good reason, because the Insects may have some surprises in store for us. In the meantime, they have timidly begun to offer us breeds or populations that are partially or fully resistant to some of our infernal preparations.
Here, however, that trouble-making ignorance I mentioned earlier resurfaces. In the frenzied enthusiasm to which industrialists, merchants and farmers have abandoned themselves, hoping to make money (some) and save crops (others), no one, or hardly anyone, has thought to ask what would happen to nature when soils and waters and plants and houses were covered with a layer of such insecticides, no one, or hardly anyone, has looked a hand further than the tip of their nose, nor a year or two beyond the time of their action. And we have arrived at the beginning of the showdown. Why is that?
It is well known that there are useful Insects, harmful Insects and indifferent Insects. However, many have rather vague, sometimes curious, sometimes even comical ideas on the subject.
Indifferent insects, i.e. those whose activity does not affect our interests, are myriad, not infrequently, however, they are only apparently so, and some of them may be considered indirectly useful, others potentially harmful: they will reveal themselves at the first favourable opportunity. Harmful insects are certainly not few in number, but neither are the numbers (I mean, of course, the species, not the individuals) that would seem to arise from the chorus of lamentations rising from the mouths of those concerned. We do not conceal from ourselves the possibilities and dangers of their presence, we simply wish not to exaggerate them. Useful insects are many, many more (inversely to what happens with harmful ones) than is generally believed, and, if we take out those from which we obtain secretions or other valuable substances, ignored by most. Let us abstain from such gratuitous purveyors of labours and products, and instead draw the attention of our listeners to the enormous number of those who are our auxiliaries and guardians of our crops, such as plant pollinators (remember that 85% of Angiosperms depend on Insects for fertilisation), parasites of harmful Insects whose phalanxes they decimate, eliminators of decomposed organic matter, the substrate in which many dangerous organisms develop, etc.
By spreading a deadly mantle that submerges myriads of Hexapods, without discrimination and without criterion, we involve an immensity of useful species in the ruin, we bring down our brutal hand on the miraculous relationships that exist between living beings, we upset the natural balance, already so battered by so many forms of human activity, and we necessarily pay the price for our greed and presumption. These are the days of the worrying reappearance of various non-indigenous harmful insects that for decades, after their introduction, had been living in the shadows and in silence, governed by their enemies, whom we had painstakingly imported and acclimatised, these are the days of the emergence of new harmful insects (as new as harmful), which, following the carnage of their persecutors, have certainly multiplied in silence, as is their custom, only to explode suddenly, the rarefaction of microfauna in the regions most subjected to the incriminated treatments, the repercussions that these upheavals have had on vertebrates, and, finally, the serious danger that the use of organic chlorine derivatives on edible substances represents for human health is well known.
The associations of naturalists and friends of nature, as well as the hygienists, have raised their anguished cry of alarm throughout the civilised world, but how can they be expected to be heard by the kaleidoscopic congregations of men who live tied to material interests and have their eyes blinded to the beauty of the Universe? The voice of biologists has no hold on the crowds. They are not politicians, military personnel, industrialists, athletes or film-makers, they are individuals who silently scrutinise the mysterious phenomena of life and death, inconvenient individuals who occasionally put their finger on the wounds and spoil the festivities.
So what? What science does not achieve in its grandeur and objectivity, it can perhaps achieve, given the air on Earth today, in its profitability. Let those who have an interest in doing so be persuaded that by proceeding at this pace we will be setting ourselves up for a future full of unknowns, let men of good faith be persuaded that the fate of our well-being will be jeopardised if we do not learn to act with greater shrewdness, with greater prudence, with greater prudence and, above all, with greater and far-sighted knowledge of the reality of things.
We, however, will not abandon the field and will not give up telling, at every opportunity and with anyone, the truth. We will also pass on the torch of our mission to those who will succeed us. This must be well understood by all.
We can now conclude our discourse.
It is from the study of Insects that many of the laws that scientists have established to explain the most complex vital phenomena have arisen, only with their study has it been possible to solve gigantic problems concerning the health of humanity, It is only through their study that it has been possible to face many of the calamities that threaten our crops and, consequently, the possibility or otherwise of Man being able to count, in space and time, on the nourishment he needs, it is from their study that it has been and will be increasingly possible in the future to arrive at an objective conception of life on Earth and to modify many of the concepts that dominate our philosophy today.
For this reason, a number of biologists, directors of university institutes and experimental stations, aware of the opportunity to coordinate their research and the results of the work of their schools, of the usefulness of seriously directing young people’s energies and collegially giving directives to the men, organisations and institutions involved, of the duty to provide the national government with those scientific findings that alone can ensure the fruitfulness of general deliberations and laws to be enacted on the subject, have founded the “Italian National Academy of Entomology‘, which is officially inaugurated with this simple ceremony.