Bugs have an image problem.
But those creepy-crawly pests have a defender in May Berenbaum, head of the University of Illinois' entomology department. For the past three decades, Berenbaum has hosted the annual Insect Fear Film Festival in hopes of dispelling stereotypes people hold about bugs. She screens films, cartoons and shorts with an insect theme—past festivals include "Mantis Movies", "Alien Arthropods!" and "Pesticide Fear!"—and discusses the movies, and their biological inaccuracies, with the audience afterward.
Berenbaum was not always a lover of the six-legged. She was afraid of insects until an entomology course in college helped conquer her fear. Now, she uses her festival to convert others.
"I can totally relate to people who don't like insects,"she says. "It's probably because they don't know very much about them. This [festival] is an enjoyable, pleasant way to overcome any aversion to insects that arises from, at least, a lack of familiarity people have."
Here are some of Berenbaum's favorite movies featuring arthropod antagonists—and where, in their plot lines, the screenwriters stray from actual science:
The Tuxedo (2002): An unlikely bug-thriller lead
In this Jackie Chan action flick, an evil-doer wants to taint the world's water supply with a special kind of bacteria that somehow causes water to dehydrate rather than quench thirst. The bacteria are disbursed by water striders, the bugs that skate along the surface of water.
"An unlikely insect group to feature in any movie," says Berenbaum, but it's critical to the plot. The insects must be able to land on water supplies without triggering any surface alarms. The bad guy keeps a queen water strider in an underground lab to help carry out his plan, but, as Berenbaum told famed movie critic Roger Ebert when the film first came out, water striders don't have queens.
"There are about 500 species of gerrids in the world and, as far as I know, not a single one of those 500 species is eusocial (i.e., has a complex social structure with reproductive division of labor and cooperative brood care)," she said. "I don't even know of an example of maternal care in the whole group."
Mosquito (1995): Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets bug horror
When mosquitoes feed on the corpses of aliens who crash-land in the Michigan wilderness, they grow into 3-foot-long blood-sucking monsters that prey on campers.
"I don't know of any example of a blood meal containing a nutrient that would cause an exponential increase in size," says Berenbaum. Bug spray isn't enough to send these insects packing. In the film, Gunnar Hansen, the actor who also plays Leatherface in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, uses a chainsaw to dispatch the beasts—"a very novel biological control mechanism," notes the entomologist.
The Bees (1978): Horror, with a stinging message
A new, deadly species of killer bees descends upon mankind, and a team of scientists works to stem their spread. The researchers, one played by John Saxon, develop a system for translating the communications of the bees, which, as it turns out, are super intelligent creatures with some strong opinions on how humans are treating the environment.
In the end, Saxon's character interprets a message from the bees to the United Nations, calling on humans to take better care of the world. Berenbaum says while bees do communicate among themselves, a sentence-for-sentence translation doesn't seem likely.
Also, she says with a laugh, throughout the movie, scientists say "pherones" instead of "pheromones."
Monster from Green Hell (1958): Space-bound wasps strike African jungle
What happens when scientists expose wasps to outer space radiation? The insects mutate into giant killing machines—or, so say the filmmakers of Monster From Green Hell.
In the movie, a rocket filled with the wasps crashes in the heart of the African jungle, and the heroes must embark on an expedition to find the oversized bugs. "The biological attribute that I like best about these giant wasps is that they indeed did have compound eyes, like wasps do," Berenbaum says, "but the compound eyes rolled in their sockets, which compound eyes don't do."
Mimic (1997): Designer bugs wreak havoc in New York's subways
"Sometimes, what is regarded as cinematically good is biologically just as ridiculous," says Berenbaum. So is the case with Mimic, perhaps the most acclaimed film of Berenbaum's picks.
Scientists develop hybrid insects genetically engineered to kill cockroaches that are spreading a strange disease plaguing New York City. But soon, the lab-created bugs evolve so they can attack their human prey in the New York subways by imitating 6-foot tall people.
Mimic is one of many insect horror films featuring larger-than-life monsters, but bugs really aren't meant to be big, explains Berenbaum. "Their physiology, their basic body plan does not work well for large organisms," she says. "An insect is built to be small. That's why they're so successful."
Berenbaum likes this movie's back story: Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino struck up a friendship with famed entomologist Thomas Eisner to prepare for her role. Later, Eisner named a chemical excreted by beetles after her, calling it "mirasorvone."
Beginning of the End (1957): Giant grasshoppers on the prowl
Grasshoppers grow to enormous proportions after digging into some irradiated food at a U.S. Department of Agriculture test facility in central Illinois. They terrorize small towns as they close in on Chicago, and the military scrambles to respond. "We can't drop an atom bomb on Chicago!" says researcher Dr. Ed Wainwright, played by Peter Graves, after hearing the military's pitch for a particularly aggressive containment strategy.
Eventually, Wainwright broadcasts a frequency to lure the grasshoppers into Lake Michigan. So, what do the filmmakers get wrong?
"A shorter list would be about what is accurate," Berenbaum says of Beginning of the End, one of her favorite insect movies. "Radiation-induced mutations rarely produce giant vegetables—and even more rarely produce giant grasshoppers," she notes. But there are shades of truth in the film's climax. Grasshoppers do indeed use acoustic communication, but Berenbaum isn't sure they'd respond to the siren song in the movie.
Tail Sting (2001): Sky-high scorpions
Mutated scorpions escape the cargo hold of a jumbo jet flying from Australia to Los Angeles in this low-budget film. The large bugs were developed to cure disease, but they end up terrorizing the plane.
"The whole concept of scorpions the size of Volkswagens ...," Berenbaum says with a chuckle. "Arthropods, with the exception of marine crustaceans, don't get that big."
Berenbaum says many insect horror films follow the same structure: Scientists invent something, something goes awry and a hero saves the day. What changes is the technology itself—from radiation in the 1950s to genetic engineering today. "You can learn a lot [about the development of science] from bad science fiction," she says.