Have you heard the news? The cicadas are coming—and some have even started to arrive already. In a matter of days, trillions of the once-every-17-years species of Brood X cicadas will emerge from their burrows and blanket much of the Eastern United States in a wave of ear-splitting mating calls and discarded molt shells. To commemorate the occasion, we here at The Ringer present to you Bug Day: a celebration of all things insects, and their influence—for better or worse—on sports and popular culture.
Bugs aren’t the sexiest creatures. They creep, crawl, slither, fly, and strike fear and disgust into much of the human population. But that hasn’t stopped them from becoming a forceful cultural entity.
From the ugliest, ooziest, most irradiated bugs in horror movies, to the cute and chirpy ones that often accompany animated protagonists on their journeys to self discovery, bugs are everywhere in pop culture. So, with bugs on the mind of The Ringer at large (and because we absolutely adore ranking absurd things), my colleague Miles Surrey and I decided to rank the top 25 bugs in pop culture. A couple notes before we begin: No spiders were included in the making of this list, both because they sort of feel like their own separate category, and because they scare the bejeezus out of us. And second, some bugs had to be grouped together because, if you know anything about bugs, they tend to travel in packs.
Now without further ado, the list. —Megan Schuster
25. Human Centipede, The Human Centipede
Schuster: I’m so sorry. From the bottom of my soul, you have no idea how sorry I am to remind you that this movie—this abomination—exists. Miles and I thought about leaving it off of this ranking; about shielding you from the unimaginable horror that is three people stitched anus-to-face together in a twisted experiment conducted by (of course) a fictional German surgeon.
But, well, we’re only human. And let’s be honest, it’s gonna take a lot more than just the two of us to protect you all from something that villainous. So here it is: the human centipede. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to say 10,000 rosaries.
Miles Surrey: I mean, at least we had the good sense not to include the sequels. It’s not the stuff of BuzzFeed quizzes, but for what it’s worth, I’d prefer to be at the front of the centipede. One sec, I’m getting a call from HR!
24. The Giant Bugs That Still Give Us Nightmares From Peter Jackson’s King Kong
Surrey: When Merian C. Cooper directed the original King Kong in 1933, he included an infamous “spider pit” scene that horrified audiences from the movie’s first test screening. Not only was the scene cut, but Cooper apparently tossed the film canister in the trash, never to be seen again. Peter Jackson recreated Cooper’s vision as a side project, using an old shooting script and stop motion techniques. But while the scene is an impressively creepy sequence for something originally aimed at 1930s theatergoers, Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake gets its own giant bug scene that is pure nightmare fuel.
To this day, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen—a sadistic descent into hell where giant slugs latch on to Andy Serkis’s limbs and slowly devour him while his character’s still alive and (futilely) trying to fight them off with a machete. Jackson’s bravura filmmaking deserves a much higher place on this list, but Megan and I can’t forgive King Kong for all the sleepless nights we’ve endured thinking about the giant slugs and their giant teeth.
23. Z, Antz
Surrey: Released just under two months apart in 1998, Antz and A Bug’s Life had such suspiciously similar premises that it led to a public feud between DreamWorks and Pixar—specifically Pixar’s John Lasseter and DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was a former Disney executive. (If Katzenberg’s name rings a bell, he also had this brilliant idea for a streaming service called Quibi.)
Picking between Antz and A Bug’s Life might be a matter of individual taste: They both got favorable reviews and accumulated decent box office totals. But I’ll stick to A Bug’s Life, since its diminutive protagonist is a lot more likable and wasn’t voiced by Woody Allen. (Granted, Kevin Spacey was the grasshopper villain in A Bug’s Life, but at least he was brutally devoured off-screen by a bunch of chicks at the end of the movie.) Z needs to take an L here.
22. Flea Circuses
Surrey: One of the reasons flea circuses were a booming industry in the 1800s was because [holds back vomit] the insects were so prevalent in households you could just scoop a whole show’s worth out of someone’s mattress. If that’s what prevents flea circuses from still being a popular attraction in the 21st century, I’m all for it.
Schuster: I will go to sleep tonight knowing the history of flea circuses, and let me just say, my life is now worse off for it.
21. The Bugs From James and the Giant Peach
Schuster: On the surface, this is supposed to be a sweet story about a boy who finds belonging and comfort in a magical, unexpected way. In reality, it’s an extremely concerning tale about neglect and human-sized insects who terrorize New York City and cultily convince a lonely child that they should be his family. Just look at this segment from the Wikipedia page of Tim Burton’s 1996 film adaptation:
Mr. Centipede runs for New York mayor and is now James’ father, Miss Spider opens a club and is now his mother, Earthworm becomes a mascot for a skin-care company and is now James’ uncle, Mrs. Ladybug becomes an obstetrician and is James’ aunt, Mr. Grasshopper becomes a concert violinist and is now James’ grandfather, and Glowworm becomes the light in the torch of the Statue of Liberty and is now his grandmother.
The bugs in this story run the gamut from “not so scary” to “certified nightmare inducers,” and the Tim Burton of it all just adds to the creep factor. At least Mr. Centipede was probably a better mayor than Bill de Blasio.
20. The “Judas” Bugs, Mimic
Surrey: From the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth to the Fish Man Who Fucks in The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro has been responsible for some of the coolest and most original creature designs in Hollywood. Given the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s reputation in this space, “big bugs” probably aren’t going to be listed among his greatest hits, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to like—or more accurately, be grossed out by—in del Toro’s 1997 horror film Mimic.
Mimic is set in New York City, a few years after a plague spread by cockroaches was eradicated by a genetically engineered “Judas” bug. (It’s a cross between a mantis and a termite.) Naturally, the bugs continued evolving underground to the point that they’re the size of a human and want Josh Brolin for dinner. Mimic is an appropriate title for a movie that takes many of its cues from Alien and the works of David Cronenberg, but its disgusting bugs still hold up—even though I’ve definitely encountered weirder things underground commuting on the MTA.
19. Irradiated Ants, Them!
Schuster: Them! was a pretty revolutionary concept for its time. The 1954 film is about two groups of irradiated ants that escape the New Mexico desert and attempt to establish colonies in Los Angeles. It was the first film to feature Big Bugs as a villain, and one of the earlier nuclear-related movies that would eventually grow to have a huge (pun intended) effect on that era. All in all, though, it’s hard to take the ants as seriously today. First, they’re ants, which aren’t the scariest of antagonists even when they’re 8 feet long. And second, irradiated supervillains (and even superheroes!) are a pretty played-out idea in 2021. Still: These ants paved the way for some important future filmmaking tropes, so they earned a spot in the top 20.
Surrey: Japan came up with a much better nuclear metaphor in the 1950s. Giant thicc lizard > big ants, no contest.
18. “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band
Schuster: The opening sequence to this song is unforgettable: A horn-y ’90s relic that has transcended its era thanks to features in countless movies and TV shows (and specifically at least three episodes of Community—there must have been some major DMB heads among the producers!). But outside of the song being popular for being popular, there’s not a whole lot going for it. It’s another jam about how life is monotonous (original!) and we’re all just ants marching toward, well, death basically, which is a pretty dark fucking sentiment even when you mask it with an upbeat backing track. Apologies to all the DMB fans we have on staff, but while “Crash Into Me” may deserve to live on, this one does not.
17. The Scorpion King
Surrey: [Record scratch] [Freeze frame] Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation:
It was a rough debut for Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, with PlayStation 2–level graphics that didn’t necessarily age poorly—they looked flat-out awful to begin with. (If it’s any consolation, Johnson still won Choice Movie Villain at the 2001 Teen Choice Awards.) The Scorpion King would ultimately redeem himself with a spinoff movie that’s quite entertaining in a “what if the Rock tried cosplaying as Conan the Barbarian?” sort of way. Still, the sting (sorry) of the Scorpion King’s original CGI monstrosity will haunt us for years to come.
16. Flea, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Schuster: Honestly, Flea could have been higher on this list. I don’t think Miles or I would necessarily consider ourselves Pepper Heads (correct me if I’m wrong, Miles!), but between his incredible success as the bassist of the band, his, like, third life at this point as a basketball commentator/Lakers historian, plus the epic one he led before he even joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the dude has gone through a lot. Not to mention the fact that he titled his autobiography Acid for the Children, which is one of the single coolest things I’ve ever heard?
Like the Chili Peppers or not, Flea seems like someone who always has a story to tell—for better or for worse—and is probably a great hang. And isn’t that really what we’re all striving to be?
Surrey: Agreed, this is the one Flea I wouldn’t mind having over in my apartment.
15. Barry B. Benson, Bee Movie
Schuster: Jerry Seinfeld as the voice of a bee who decides to sue the human race for exploiting his kind and stealing their honey. What could go wrong?
Turns out, uh, a lot. The Bee Movie did decently well at the box office and got pretty mixed reviews from critics. But as with any movie that’s written by or features a comedian of Seinfeld’s level, that’s not enough to match expectations. Barry’s jokes were mostly funny, and the voice cast—which also features Renée Zellweger, Matthew Broderick, John Goodman, Chris Rock, and freaking Oprah—was rock solid. But stack this one up against almost any Pixar offering and it’s going to fall short. Even with Jerry Seinfeld making wisecracks about getting an ant tattoo or shacking up with a grasshopper.
Surrey: Forget the grasshopper: Barry B. Benson is out here trying to hook up with a human woman! Talk about shooting your shot.
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Surrey: I don’t know about you, Megan, but with over 20 movies and now a steady rollout of Disney+ shows, Marvel fatigue is beginning to kick in. (I’ll try to type the rest of this out before I get jabbed with a poison dart by one of the Ringer-Verse folks.) But one area of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe that I’ll never tire of are the Ant-Man movies. Taking Paul Rudd’s lead as the superhero Ant-Man—sometimes he gets very small, other times he gets very big—these films are very charming because they refuse to take themselves seriously. Michael Peña’s rambling monologues belong in a museum.
Meanwhile, Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp—sometimes she gets very small, sadly she does not go very big—does more of the requisite superhero ass-kicking in the Ant-Man-Wasp dynamic. And as long as the Wasp doesn’t share the actress’s views about social distancing in a pandemic, she can certainly hang, too.
Schuster: I’m personally pro any film where I can act like the Leonardo DiCaprio meme whenever the titular character(s) appear on screen, especially when they’re teeny tiny and look like a clue from Where’s Waldo?.
13. The Mutant Frog-Insect-Thing That Crawled Into a Girl’s Mouth in Twin Peaks: The Return
Surrey: David Lynch calls it a “frog-moth,” the Twin Peaks fan Wiki refers to it as a “Hatchling,” I’ve gone with a more simple “Hell no!” Whatever you want to name it, the closing image of Twin Peaks: The Return’s superlative eighth episode, where said mysterious creature crawls inside a sleeping girl’s mouth, will be hard to shake off:
Even for Lynch’s standards, this is horrifying stuff. Make sure to close your windows at night, to make sure this doesn’t happen to you!
12. The Alien Bug, Men in Black
Surrey: Not a lot of creativity went into the extraterrestrial antagonist of the first Men in Black: Taking off the human skin suit reveals that the creature is basically just a giant cockroach. (Not that squaring off against a giant cockroach wouldn’t be terrifying.) What really makes the alien bug so memorable and disgusting in equal measure is Vincent D’Onofrio. His nonstop convulsing as the dead farmer whose skin is being used as the bug’s human disguise is a top-tier performance in terms of physical acting. I can’t decide whether we need to give him an award or douse his entire body with Raid.
Schuster: Is “both” an option?
11. “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Schuster: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov went off on this one.
Seriously: Has a piece of music ever better reflected its subject matter? “Flight of the Bumblebee” was written for the opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan in the year 1900, but it’s still used throughout pop culture today. I played piano for over a decade so I have my moments as a classical music geek, but this is a piece that pretty much everyone knows, regardless of whether they’ve ever looked at a piece of sheet music. It’s both an epic and dainty score, and one that has lasted for over a century.
10. The Arachnids, Starship Troopers
Surrey: The alien bugs, referred to as “the Arachnids,” aren’t the real draw of Starship Troopers, a glorious anti-fascist satire that was inexplicably misunderstood upon its 1997 release. (I’m not sure what more director Paul Verhoeven could’ve done beyond putting Neil Patrick Harris in an SS uniform.) Still, on a scale of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs to the Scorpion King, the Arachnids’ CGI has held up surprisingly well over time.
Verhoeven makes great use of the Arachnids’ swift, animalistic movements for Starship Troopers’ many gnarly death scenes in which nameless soldiers get hacked apart. But nothing compares to the scene near the end of the film where the “Brain Bug” lives up to its name and literally slurps the gray matter out of a dude’s cranium like it’s a smoothie. To be fair, I’d also go to war against a bunch of giant alien bugs for the chance to spend more time with Denise Richards.
9. Bumblebee, the Autobot
Surrey: I’m a sucker for robots with a soul, which is not something you’d associate with Michael Bay’s mindless Transformers movies. But the spinoff Bumblebee, released in 2018, went in a new direction for the franchise best described as “Iron Giant copyright infringement.” The film focuses on the bond between teenager Charlie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) and Bumblebee, the amnesiac Autobot taking the form of a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle. (OK, so there’s some Herbie copyright infringement, too.)
But just because Bumblebee is derivative of other human-machine companionship stories doesn’t make it any less moving. Did I start sobbing in a crowded theater watching a Transformers movie when Charlie and Bumblebee parted ways at the end of the film with an emotional hug? Of course, I’m not a machine! But Bumblebee, clearly, is a perfect one.
8. Cri-Kee, Mulan
Schuster: Cri-Kee’s introduction is such a classic Disney scene. With Mulan running late for her matchmaker appointment (natch), her grandmother buys what’s supposedly a lucky cricket to help with the process. Of course she has to prove it’s lucky—but rather than doing something sensible like flipping a coin or guessing a number someone else is thinking of, she closes her eyes and walks out into traffic.
It’s an epic disaster: She causes a 10-cart pileup that disrupts the entire thoroughfare and probably gets her on the shit list of every merchant in town. But she made it through unscathed, so Cri-Kee is deemed to be a lucky one.
Fast-forward to the rest of Mulan’s adventures—stealing her father’s armor, illegally joining the army, falling in love, getting kicked out of the army, and eventually saving the Emperor—and Cri-Kee is there all along the way. Unlike Mushu, the talking “dragon” (voiced by Eddie Murphy), Cri-Kee doesn’t say a word. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t get his point across through looks alone—like this one he gives after his adventure with grandma.
Surrey: My feelings about Disney’s live-action Mulan remake are best summed up by the fact that they turned Cri-Kee into a human sidekick. Tell me your movie sucks without telling me your movie sucks.
7. Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio
Schuster: The most famous song in all of the Disney extended universe isn’t sung by one of the original princesses, or a fairy godmother, or a lion or bear or popstar. Rather it’s performed by a lowly cricket, in a movie about a wooden boy who dreams of becoming real—and it’s so much more meaningful because of it.
In the 80-plus years since it was originally performed, “When You Wish Upon a Star” has become Disney’s calling card. But it was written to be Pinocchio’s main theme, and it’s beautifully sung by Cliff Edwards, who plays the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the film. Jiminy serves as both the narrator of Pinocchio the movie, and also as the titular character’s conscience. It’s his duty to help his charge stay pure of heart and prove himself worthy of becoming a real boy. There’s a lot about Pinocchio that isn’t pleasant—the puppet lies, vandalizes, gets drunk, and at one point even grows donkey ears and a tail because he’s acting like such a jackass. But Pinocchio eventually gets his wish, and Jiminy is with him every step of the way.
6. Seth Brundle, The Fly (1986)
Surrey: A movie so disgusting it gives The Human Centipede a run for its money, so I’m sure I’d hear from HR if I linked to any scenes or screengrabs from it. The body horror god David Cronenberg is in fine form with The Fly, which sees hot-shot scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) inadvertently fuse with a fly while testing out his homemade teleportation device. The transformation from attractive, 30-something Goldblum to a deformed monstrosity with acidic vomit—OK, here’s a link, but you’ve been warned—is not for the squeamish. But there’s no denying the power of The Fly’s Oscar-winning makeup and creature design, even if its enduring imagery is something you absolutely don’t want to spend a lot of time looking at. Thank God I already ate lunch.
Surrey: Here are some of the top Google searches for Mothra:
I ship them, and I adore this gorgeous kaiju in her different on-screen forms. The biggest beef I have with the Warner Bros. MonsterVerse is that it had the audacity to kill off Mothra in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which should be a federal crime. If Mothra doesn’t come back in future MonsterVerse films to plan the wedding of her dreams with Godzilla, we riot.
Schuster: Miles, in the future, please give me a heads-up before you screenshot my browser history, thanks.
4. Flik, A Bug’s Life
Schuster: Flik has seen some shit, man. This ant is just out here trying to be an inventor, and instead of getting even one ounce of support from the rest of his ant colony, he’s ostracized and eventually exiled (granted he deserved that last part a bit, as he did knock a year’s food supply into some water with one of his inventions). After that, though, he meets a traveling circus troupe; convinces them to pose as warriors so they can get him back into his home colony; builds a fake bird to try to save the ants from the grasshoppers; gets exiled again; then gets captured, beaten, and mocked, before he goes on to save the colony once and for all.
I don’t know about you, Miles, but I’m exhausted just reading that! Imagine trying to save the world as literally an ant; what a dreamer Flik is to not only conceive of the idea, but to bring it to fruition.
Surrey: Not even sure how you can sum that up on a résumé. But shout-out to Flik, especially since he’s very high on our list without committing insect category fraud.
3. Herbie the Love Bug
Surrey: It’s the end of an era for the Volkswagen Beetle. The company discontinued production of the iconic car in 2019, and in the years and decades to come, we’ll be seeing fewer Beetles out on the road. But at least we’ll always have the nostalgic comforts of Herbie. The anthropomorphic Beetle, which first appeared in the 1968 film The Love Bug, was perfectly geared (no pun intended) for any kid obsessed with cars. It certainly didn’t hurt that Herbie looked adorable, either, or came with a boisterous theme song that goes down like a heaping spoonful of sugar.
I’m sure most folks our age associate Herbie more with Herbie: Fully Loaded, a bland nostalgia play masquerading as NASCAR propaganda. (Herbie belongs at Le Mans, not the Indy 500!) But my heart still belongs to The Love Bug and its ridiculous climax that saw Herbie finish a race with two spots on the podium. Your fave could never.
2. The Beatles
Schuster: Here come the trolls, do do do do.
I don’t know who’s going to be angrier about this one: music fans, or the spelling police. Yes, we’re aware that the Beatles are not beetles, but we’re going phonetically here. And yes, the Beatles are an all-time group! They changed the face of music, brought the British Invasion to American shores (well, the musical version), and shoehorned bowl cuts back into the cultural lexicon. I’m honestly not sure which is the biggest achievement of that bunch.
But there is one force the Beatles can’t top, and unfortunately for them, he’s also a part of this list ...
1. Bugs Bunny
How could it be anyone else? No matter how animated or irradiated, no pop culture bug is bigger than Bugs. Bugs Bunny has been around for over 80 years, and as it stands could easily be around for 80 more. He’s hilarious—his continuous roasting of Elmer Fudd is some of the funniest children’s programming I’ve ever seen—cunning, clever, and also chill. Rarely is he fazed by anything, and if he is, it doesn’t last long.
Kwame Opam said it best in a Verge piece titled “Why Bugs Bunny is the greatest cartoon character ever”: “As a culture hero, Bugs punches up … He’s rarely ever in an empowered position. So often, he’s lost and disoriented when the bullets start flying. But he is uniquely able to take on the establishment and win. He even cut Florida away from the Union, just to show people he could.”
Who doesn’t want to root for someone like that?