The Bugs at the Heart of Modernity

Edward Melillo

Photo by Samuel Masinter ’04

Edward "Ted" Melillo, associate professor of history and environmental studies, explores the past, present and future of beneficial relations between humans and insects.

What is the subject of your current research?

I am writing a book called The Butterfly Effect: Insects and the Making of the Modern World, which Alfred A. Knopf will publish in 2018. My research explores the histories of three ancient products made from insect secretions: silk, shellac, and cochineal (a deep-red dye). These substances have recently reemerged as extensively traded global commodities, showing our enduring reliance upon domesticated insects. Additionally, I investigate three realms of the modern world that depend upon arthropods: genetic science, crop pollination, and global food security.

How did you become interested in this topic?

For many years, I have taught an upper-level history seminar called "Commodities, Nature, and Society." Students study the environmental and social histories of nine commodities: sugar, silver, silk, coffee, tobacco, sneakers, microchips, units of bandwidth, and  human body parts. As I read more about silk, which is made from cocoons of silkworm larvae, I began to find numerous connections to other insect products in world history. I was so intrigued by this that I wrote an article on the topic. An editor at Knopf convinced me to develop a book based on my research.

Have other historians written about similar things?

Most historical accounts have concentrated on the destructive impacts of insects. Few have looked at the productive relations between humans and our six-legged cousins.