Beautiful Buzzes: My Favorite Songs and Band Names Inspired by Insects
by Bryan G. Spohn
edited by P.M. Dillon
Music lets us enjoy some of the sound that surrounds us. Over the centuries, insects have played significant roles in music production. Insects have inspired musicians to record many pieces in a number of styles of music. Musicians also sometimes play in bands that have insect-inspired names.
Some insects have inspired folk and other popular musicians to write songs. Edvard Grieg rearranged a Norwegian folk song originally from Mathias Lindeman's Mountain Melodies Old and New, Said the Gadfly to the Fly, in 1870 (Horton 1974). Insects have inspired such Mexican folk songs as La Cucaracha (Hogue 1987), and such American folk songs as Boll Weevil, The Blue-Tailed Fly, Shoo-Fly Don't Bother Me, and Stompin' the Bug (Hogue 1987). Popular music in the U.S., starting with the folk songs of the 1960's and 1970's, and continuing with grunge and various forms of punk, has inspired more music than any other time period (Berenbaum 1996). Two of my favorites include Pearl Jam's Bugs, from Vitalogy , which mimics insect walking while exploring the totality of insects'
relationships with people. The Dave Matthews Band's Ants Marching, from Under the Table and Dreaming , uses some ant colony's linear locomotion as a metaphor for Western culture's rigid uniformity.
Insects have also inspired classical musicians. One of the most famous pieces of insect-inspired music is Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. The song mimics the sound of adult bees in flight (Frost 1959). Flight of the Bumblebee is part of an opera, composed in 1899-1890, The Tale of the Tsar Saltan, a story about a swan princess based on a Pushkin fairy tale (Rimsky-Korsakov 1923; Seaman 1988). The song comes in the opening scene of the second act, when a bee buzzes around the princess swan (Rimsky-Korsakov 1933). Rimsky-Korsakov's friend Sergei Rachmaninoff first transcribed the song, and used it as an encore to his
concerts, where Flight of the Bumblebee achieved worldwide recognition (Seaman 1988). Additionally, Bartok's From the Diary of a Fly mimics a fly's aerial acrobatics, and a successful attempt at pest control (the fly is swatted in the last movement).
In addition to songs, insects also influenced some rock bands' and singers' names. Adam Ant and Sting are two
possible examples of insect-inspired musician names. Buddy Holly had a band called The Crickets (McKeen 1989).
Early in The Beatles' history, Stuart Sutcliffe (eventually replaced by Ringo Starr) wanted to call their band "The
Beetles", as a play on Buddy Holly's band's name, but John Lennon changed the name to its present form (McKeen
1989). Other insect-inspired names of rock bands include Iron Butterfly, Steel Caterpillar, WASP, Insect Surfers, and Halo of Flies.
This was first inspired by a seminar in Cultural Entomology organized by D.A. Potter (University of Kentucky Department of Entomology). Thanks go to all who participated in that seminar for their insightful comments. I am grateful to D.A. Potter and R. Hilgarth for their critiques. Dana L. Wrensch (Ohio State University) provided a list of bands with insect-inspired names.
- Berenbaum, M. 1996. "Let me tell you 'bout the birds and the bees". Amer. Entomol.
- Frost, S.W. 1959. Insect life and insect natural history. 2nd ed. Dover Publications, New York.
- Hogue, C.L. 1987. Cultural entomology. Ann. Rev. Entomol. 32: 181-199.
- Horton, R- 1974. Grieg. Dent and Sons, London.
- McKeen, W. 1989. The Beatles- A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press, New York.
- Rimsky-Korsakov, N. 1923. My Musical Life, 2nd ed. Alfred Knopf, New York.
- Rimsky-Korsakov, N. 1933. Flight of the Bumblebee. Kalmus Miniature Orchestra Scores #77.
- Seaman, G.R. 1988. Nikolai Andreevich Rimsky-Korsakov: A guide to research. Garland Publishing: New York.
- Listen to recordings of some of the folk, popular, and classical music mentioned in this article.
- Let the music guide your imagination. Draw a picture of something suggested by what you hear in the music.
- Learn the words and tune of an American or international folk song. Explore other aspects of the culture it came from--dress, food, customs, etc.
- Many insects "sing" their own songs--for example, catch or buy some crickets (be sure to provide a good home for them while you observe them). Listen to their chirps--do you hear any patterns? Can you copy their sounds with your voice?
- Read aloud some of the poems from the book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman and Eric Beddows (illustrator)(1992, Harper-Collins Juvenile Books, ages 9-12). Do you think the poet has captured the pattern of insect sound in the poems' words? Compare the poem about crickets with the chirps of live crickets.
- Insects do not use their voices to make sounds; often they use special structures on their bodies, wings, or legs. How do crickets chirp? How do katydids and cicadas make noise? How does a Madagascar hissing cockroach hiss and why? What other insects make noise and how and why do they make it? Use the resource materials at your school or local library to find the answers to these questions.
Original document: 2 March 1999
Last updated: 19 April 1999