Moving away from the direct consequences of COVID-19, leaving behind me the sense of loss and the suffering, I find myself taking a look at our species from an entomologist perspective. I’m not the first to use biomimicri to understand social behaviour. In the nineteenth century Peter Kropotkin published a series of essays under the title ‘Mutual Aid; a factor of evolution’. Like him I draw lessons from positive examples of mutualism, but I also see an important warning: plagues tend to either be controlled by natural enemies or because they ‘implode’ as they consume the basis of their existence. Let’s learn from locust and see if we can be more like fungi.
Locust: our menacing mirror image
How a swarm of locust appears to come out of nowhere has puzzled scientists for years. It turns out locust are so adaptable to their environment they actually change their behaviour as well as their physical appearance. They transform according to opportunity. When food is scarce, locust lead a solitary life. When food is abundant locust tend to breed rapidly and they start to swarm. Taking a closer look at these adaptive behaviours, they are strikingly similar to our own.
Solitary locust behave in a sluggish fashion, from a need to conserve energy. They’re brown grey and look rather drab. But as they transition to ‘swarm state’ they start to consume large quantities of hyoscyamine, a toxic alkaloid found in plants. By eating those plants and assuming their toxicity, they start to change colour to yellow and black. So they actually look like a completely different species. But in fact they are just wearing their warrior colours. Our swarming of the cities and their surroundings appears to be built on similar toxicity and our fashion shows it. Even our diets transform in the same direction. Whereas the solitary locust eats more proteins, swarms become greedy for carbs.