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B-movies, bats, and beetle larvae: The UK's creepiest creepy-crawlies

Copyright: BBSRC

Creepy-crawlies and giant insects are an unwelcome sight for many of us, especially in this season of decomposition and decay. Yet for some reason, at this time of year we give permission for these monsters to invade our homes through our television screens: from the plethora of brutal bugs in The Mist, to the not-so-scary scarab beetles in The Mummy.

The Deadly Mantis movie poster.

And then we have b-movies.

Birthed during the 1950s, the ‘golden-age of Hollywood’, this low-budget commercial movie sector has introduced us to hundreds of skin-crawling beasties.

But there are entomological horrors in the UK that would serve as perfect antagonists for any Halloween b-movie.

With Halloween here, we asked Dr Simon Carpenter, an entomologist at The Pirbright Institute, to pick out some UK insects ripe for b-movie ‘reinterpretation’.

Selecting a subject inspired by nature for b-movie stardom should be a relatively straightforward task. The first rule, unfortunately ignored by the 1972 classic ‘Night of the Lepus’, is ‘fluffy doesn’t usually work, unless it’s actually supposed to be funny’. Hence ‘Pandamonium’, a film in which the popular bears suddenly decide that human beings are far more tasty and nutritious than bamboo, is unlikely to get much traction with the investors. Luckily, the insect world is stuffed to the gills with bizarre and fearsome candidates for this role. The second rule is, ‘it’s not actually real’. Hence you don’t necessarily have to consult the Schmidt sting pain index to find out exactly how much pain your characters are in, or worry about how your giant creation is going to breathe. The only people who are going to care about this are entomologists and it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will be laughing at the film, anyway. So, all thoughts of reality put to one side, here are some suggestions for subjects from the stuff that not even David Attenborough probably doesn’t like.

Creepy critters!

Copyright: Alan Walker on Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 3.0 1. Nasal Bot Fly ('I've been having some sinus trouble, recently') 

First up, no list would be complete without an endoparasite. From ‘Alien’ to John Carpenter’s remake of ‘The Thing’ and a whole host of other less glorious progeny, there is something deeply queasy about being parasitized. Familiar to many farmers in the UK, the nasal bot fly (Oestrus ovis) has the delightful habit of developing as larvae in the nasal passages of sheep and can grow to a very plump 12mm long before being sneezed out or dropping of its own accord. Disappointingly, this charming creature was entirely overlooked by the otherwise excellent New Zealand-based ovine horror flick, ‘Black Sheep’.

Copyright: Alan Walker on Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 3.0.

Copyright: Gilles San Martin on Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 2.0 2. Bat Fly ('What's that on the back of your head?') 

For those wanting an ectoparasite that can move alarmingly quickly and looks like something from another planet, try a bat fly. These bizarre critters have lost the ability to fly secondarily and have the ideal prerequisite bald, flabby appearance for splatter when being crushed or shot, as would invariably happen in a b-movie. Their association with bats also provides classic double act potential, kill the host and you still have to deal with the sidekick.

Copyright: Gilles San Martin on Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 2.0.

Copyright: John Hallmén on Flickr by CC 2.0 3. Robber Fly ('I don't like it, it's too quiet...) 

These incredible insects are the favourite of Erica McAllister, author of The Secret Life of Flies, and doyen of Dipterists at the Natural History Museum. The hornet robber fly (Asilus crabroniformis) is about as rapid and ferocious as UK insects get and has great, up close and personal, piercing mouthparts just made for characters you just can’t be bothered to develop or give names to. In contrast to dragonflies, which have made an occasional cameo in monster movies past, its powerful and dextrous legs really add a further dimension. Harmless to humans in reality, but able to turn a picnic into an Olympic standard arm waving contest in seconds.

Copyright: John Hallmén on Flickr by CC 2.0

Copyright: Steven Falk on Flickr by CC 2.0 4. Tiger Beetle Larva ('Don't step on th...') 

From ‘Tremors’ to the Sarlac in Star Wars, some sort of underground beast is always handy for shock value, particularly when it can appear without warning. Tiger beetle larvae (such as Cicindela campestris) have taken this to an extreme level, digging burrows that leave their flat heads above the surface like a deeply unpleasant manhole cover. Admittedly, you would have to be pretty stupid to stand on one in its scaled-up form, but then we’ve all seen ‘Alien: Covenant’, and it would be worth it for the sound effects alone.

Copyright: Steven Falk on Flickr by CC 2.0

Copyright: Jan Hamrsky 5. Water Scorpion ('I'm just off for a swim') 

So, for obvious reasons, there is a scene in most creature features where the characters decide it would be great to go for a swim. As insects don’t really do salt water, we’re talking lakes. The water scorpion, Nepa cinerea is another ambush predator with a long snorkel that would look great appearing without warning on panning shots behind the frolicking swimmers. It also moves slowly enough that the classic chase scene between monster and human to shore won’t look quite as ridiculous as usual (I’m looking at you, Suspiciously Slow Crocodile).

Copyright: Jan Hamrsky.

So after watching this evening’s horror-flick and you curl up in bed, goodnight and sleep tight - we hope the bed-bugs don’t bite…

Tags: fundamental bioscience The Pirbright Institute entomology animals image gallery feature