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Very common trope in action/horror science fiction: insectoid aliens. Especially common as an enemy, since people naturally dislike ants and spiders and creepy crawlies in general; see the Galactic Federation, the Terminids, the Tyranids, the Fallen, the Hive, some of the Covenant, the Rachni, Ender’s Game bugs, Stargate-1's replicators, ad infinitum. TVTropes has a very long list of places where insectoid aliens make an appearance, very frequently as enemies.

Sometimes (not always) the “bugs” are depicted as being more animals than intelligent beings (see the Terminids, the latest example). I genuinely like the idea of highly-advanced civilizations still having to shove their way through the equivalent of overevolved ants that are barely even intelligent and are just looking for the next source of food rather than trying to further any goal in particular; the issue that arises is how do the non-intelligent definitely-non-spacefaring bugs keep advancing all over the galaxy? It's not fun if the High Council notices the infestation of giant razor-legged heavily-armored insect aliens on one planet, just sterilizes the planet because nobody was living there, and moves on; generally even when these insects are depicted as unintelligent, they still manage to find their way across the black ocean without any explicit form of space travel.

So, here's the question that I inevitably have to answer to make my bug-infested galaxy make sense: how does this unintelligent species of bug keep popping up on planets across the galaxy without FTL or spaceships of any kind?


Specifics:

  • The bugs originated on a single planet - like any other species - but now are somehow able to spread to adjacent planets and even stars, overtaking the biospheres of worlds they find to turn into giant breeding worlds to keep populating themselves; if left undealt with, they can get to an adjacent star over the course of a few years, even if it's more distant than the speed of light would allow
  • We have FTL in this galaxy, so we know that that's not physically impossible, but it's fairly complicated to implement, and definitely beyond the mental grasps of the bugs, which do not show any signs of sentience or even complex thought beyond "mmm tasty" and "eww bullets"; the bugs do not demonstrate any sort of intelligence beyond what would be expected for an animal of their size
  • We can send down soldiers who can clear up the bugs without much trouble (bringing air support to a clawfight) and kill the breeding population of the planet and even monitor the planet for high-speed spore ejection or anything like that, but find nothing; still, despite constant surveillance, bugs just start showing up on neighboring planets without warning and terrorizing the wildlife and citizens of the planets
  • The galaxy is about 0.01% explored: approximately ten million stars have been colonized, with life ending up being fairly common across all of them (intelligence is much harder to come by, and intelligent civilizations tend to nuke themselves out of existence before they make first contact). One of the many species of life found elsewhere in the galaxy is the carbon-based bug, which has somehow overtaken thousands of stars in one region of space
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    $\begingroup$ How did the real life red fire ants Solenopsis invicta, which are native to South America, colonize Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Europe, the United States, and many Caribbean islands? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 8 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ I think Stargate SG-1's Replicators deserve an honorable mention here as they are a type of bug with a complete backstory and good reasons for doing what they are doing. $\endgroup$
    – marts
    Commented May 9 at 7:55
  • $\begingroup$ Indeed they do! I apologize for not including them. I'll add them in a moment once I'm back at a computer. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ They spread via microscopic spores. These are low mass enough that some wildy energetic process could get them going 0.85c or even 0.9c, which will get them to nearby star systems in a few years. Even stuff 100ly away could be survivable if they sent enough spores (just one survives out of hundreds). $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented May 9 at 19:12
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    $\begingroup$ Many of the space-bugs you mention are bad examples since they're intelligent -- often Hive Mind -- and have built their own spaceships. And you don't have to give examples why your question is good. You can just say you want ways stupid space bugs can spread. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 21:23

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Sloppy Quarantine procedures and Ships have lots of places to hide

I live in NZ - we have very very very strict Biosecurity rules. We have a lot of unique wildlife here that can easily get decimated by foreign species, pathogens, insects etc.

We spend a lot of time and effort to this end...

But we still have outbreaks and issues: Here is a link for a few of them

Whilst we do have to worry about someone deliberately wanting to breach the rules and bring in a species for reasons - the biggest cause of pests coming into NZ is a combination of:

Cargo ships are big, Containers are big - there are lots and lots and lots of places for nasties to hide within these spaces. And if the workers are not vigilant with policy and procedure (and when you are behind schedule and the dock foreman is breathing down your neck...) and if the people on the other end are cutting corners...

Then that is how it happens.

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    $\begingroup$ Upvoted - noting that fire blight has sneaked through the quarantine into NZ and now us Aussies are trying to keep it from jumping across the Tasman Sea to affect our orchards. For those visitors wondering why there are detector dogs checking arrivals on flights into Tasmania, they are checking for fruit, not drugs. $\endgroup$ Commented May 8 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ "Welcome back from Infestation 1029, soldier. You sure you don't have any eggs or other biomaterial on you?" "Uh, sure. Can I go home now?" (+1) $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 0:17
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    $\begingroup$ @controlgroup - You laugh, but I have a story about that when coming back into NZ. TL;DR - We get asked about any Plant or Animal Material "No, but we have this" - pull out 100 rounds of (deactivated) 7.62mm ammunition in a belt with ammo links. "That's fine, you can bring that through - but any Fruit or Vege or Animal products?" $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 0:26
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    $\begingroup$ @Vesper - Should work... I agree... Hey Bob! Hurry it up we have 1,000 containers to get through and we are 4 hours behind - Did you Rad those you are about to load? Yeah Jimmy said he did the Rad before lunch. Etc. You get the picture - when you go from one-off scientific missions to the reality of Logistics and commerce, suddenly things start to go wrong... $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 9:02
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    $\begingroup$ Weyland-Yutani really should've nuked it from orbit while they still had the chance. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 14:37
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How do bugs get into your house? Via holes. How do your ships do FTL? With wormholes. How do the bugs infest planets? They dig holes into the ground, and in some way that still baffles scientists, the insect-dug holes can span interplanetary distances.

There ain't no spaceships to shoot down, just an endless ground war across the galaxy. Eradicate them from one planet, and if there's a bug-infestation nearby they'll just start appearing out of the ground again after a few months.

But the insect-dug holes are an asset as well. Unless collapsed, they can be used by human explorers. So bug-tunnels on cleaned worlds are often used as fast/cheap interplanetary transport, limited by the standard size of the bug (For maximum awkwardness for humans make it 0.5m or so). Explorers/soldiers operating in bug tunnels have to be aware that the planetary atmosphere may change, and if tunnels collapse they may be completely unable to communicate where they are because it could be a separate star system.

How can the bugs do this? No-one really knows. Maybe they were engineered as a galaxy-scale-terraforming-probe designed to build transport infrastructure. Perhaps they were engineered as a military weapon. Perhaps they evolved naturally, and some quirk of evolution just gave them this ability. Perhaps somewhere is a 'queen' who controls this galaxy-spanning empire of insects. Some explorers have seen strange things in the tunnels, as other aliens parasite on the bugs infrastructure.

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Oh, they originated on a single planet all right...

But they didn't evolve. What you have, my friend, is the million-year-old devolution of a very clever weapon of mass destruction (aka a bioweapon) used in an ancient galaxy-spanning war so long ago that no one has found remnants of the participants. In other words, they were put there!

The slow devolution occurred because they're not native to those worlds. Indeed, they're not native to any true ecology on any world — including the world of their creation. As such, rather than being an invasive and pestilent species trivially ousting native evolutionary niche dwellers, they're required to struggle a bit more with each passing generation as their engineered DNA gives way to the awesome power of natural selection.

Which explains why on a few planets you don't find them... at least not without looking really hard for the evidence of their destructive passing.

Buahahahahaha!

Why is my answer better than all others?

  • It provides a destructive purpose for your bugs can be tailored with an actual intent.
  • Everybody loves a mystery!
  • The engineered solution lets you tailor the extent of each planet's infestation with justification.
  • And they're freakin' awesome. 😎

In the well-plagiarized words of the immortal Bender...

Fry crack bugs, and I don't care!
Leela crack bugs, and I'still don't care!
Bender crack bugs and he is great!...
Take that you stupid bugs!

Mad scientists unite! Buahahahahaha!

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    $\begingroup$ Gotta give props for the mad scientist rant :D $\endgroup$ Commented May 8 at 23:53
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    $\begingroup$ This is a most convenient answer - I can have my bugs have unnaturally-thick armor, razor-sharp blades on their arms, abnormal resiliency to small-arms fire, and it's all justified because that was exactly what they were meant for. Why bother justifying an evolution if they never evolved at all?! (+1) $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ This is a major plot point of the Odyssey One series. The bugs are essentially the big bad in the first book, but by the 3rd book its solidly confirmed they are actually more of a bioweapon and each new generation is less intelligent and more animalistic than the last. I think there's like 7 books and a couple in-universe spin offs now, but was one of my favorite series for a long time. $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ @TitaniumTurtle WHAT? My answer wasn't original? Dang nabit! Oh, well... there's only nine stories in the world. An infinite number of ways to tell them, but just nine. Or was it seven? Maybe nine... the argument continues! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented May 9 at 6:26
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    $\begingroup$ There is a possibility at one point these bioweapons did have a built in organic FTL capability, but because of the genetic frailty of such a complex adaptation it was one of the first thing to be devolved. $\endgroup$
    – Anketam
    Commented May 9 at 12:23
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Their being unintelligent is a consequence of their thinking so differently than we do that it's not useful to refer to our forms of thinking and theirs by the same name.

They do have a form of FTL travel, which does not involve ships and goes directly to planets. None of them have ever been observed outside a gravity well No human being has verifiably gone in an alien hive and come out on another -- though there are plenty of stories -- and no human has managed to even hypothesize how they do it, besides that it must be very alien indeed.

A major question would be whether pumping a gas weapon in one hive would affect other hives. If not, there is a form of isolation; if so, the hives of all worlds are somehow connected.

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    $\begingroup$ This is excellent. In the hands of a malicious humanlike intelligence this would be an instant game-over, but an inscrutable alien entity with Clarkean teleportation (hives can show up anywhere, and be empty when we muster a response!) can explain an ongoing threat that's impossible to contain/eradicate. Why haven't they wiped everyone out or consumed everything? Because whatever it is that they're trying to do, that doesn't seem to be part of it. Yet. $\endgroup$
    – Jay McEh
    Commented May 9 at 13:59
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They were a companion-species to a race now gone.

Once upon a time, there was a race of such proud magnificence that it overcame the great barriers all technological civilizations must face - and survived to launch itself to the stars.

They colonized vast regions near their local system, all the while accompanied by their genetically engineered helper-species. The insects (for so they appear) were industrious. They would help build cities and infrastructure, help defend their masters from harmful incursions by wild creatures intent on getting a fleshy lunch, generally be around as life--partners for the colonies as they grew and spread. They were handy for invading already-occupied star-systems as their fierce-devotion to their masters and their hardy bodies made them formidable in battle.

Capable though they were, the insects were dependent on being given purpose by their masters - just as colony insects here on Earth are bound pheromonally to their queen and obey chemical imperatives shared by the hive. The queens of your species were strictly farmed and held separate from the workers, their existence being purely for breeding.

The masters matured, learned the secrets of the universe beyond what we can even conceive as possible, and passed beyond the veil of this fleshy existence. Their gift to their long-bound companions was that of freedom.

The queens were now released and the worlds were turned over to the masters' successors.

Time has erased any other legacy of the past, the millennia upon millennia have leveled and turned to dust any remnant of the ancient masters, but the insects remain.

Perhaps enough time has passed that the star-system islands of life may have evolved, different forms now can be encountered, different traits now appear - some are similar and would be recognized by their former masters should time return them to their past homes, some are large and deceptively docile, some small and fierce, some timid some even cunning and ingenious with technology. One trait remains constant however, they cling on to life and to their fierce devotion to their colony's queen.

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    $\begingroup$ "Food when?" / "Sorry Major, my friends and I are off to transcend this mortal realm. Here's the passcode to the food lockers, go nuts." / "Yumyum!" (+1) $\endgroup$ Commented May 9 at 0:16
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My solution would be that it was an invasive species that can survive in space (tardigrades on earth can survive in space). Though much effort has been done to eliminate the cross contamination from other planets, pirates and other illegal trades do not kill off (electrify their hulls because the equipment is broke or it messes with their ability to be tracked which this equipment is required by an interplanetary agreement) these species prior to travel. They then deposit them when they land on these other worlds. Once on these other worlds these "tardigrades" can evolve and turn into small bugs on some worlds, or large ravenous creatures on others; due to radiation, gravity, rapid evolution or food surplus.

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They were there all along - at least, from our perspective. They probably started millions of years ago, when some other inquisitive race was visiting the galaxy's many worlds, and stowed away on that race's space vessels. As the trope likes to say, they must have been "highly adaptive" because they quickly learned to survive in each of the wide array of environments they were brought to. And they have life cycles involving incredibly long periods of hibernation or gestation or whatever, so at any given time most individuals are dormant and very well hidden deep below the surface. You might think they've been eradicated from a given world, just to see them reappear there again some time later (maybe months, maybe decades). The signals that activate the dormant ones might be tied to colonist activity in some way that's not obvious but appears to imply interstellar migration.

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I will offer one straight-forward reason:

There is no good reason to eradicate the bugs.

Why? Because the level of technology required to deal with bugs on a planet-basis is too great.

Think of green planets like the earth. They are massive. As humans, we have already produced many wastelands, but we are far from conquering nature. Humans, and any other further advanced races would likely fall on the K-strategist side of the r/K selection theory. Bugs on the other hand, are r-strategists. Even races with cloning technologies tend to not clone indefinitely.

Advanced galactic civilizations of K-strategists simply do not benefit from the extinction of something so hard to get rid of. Worlds are massive, and bugs are tiny. To think of some kind of planetary super-scanner to detect every bug immediately begs the question, how is that powered? Sure, advanced civs have advanced power sources, but they always have some limit. And with high power comes high cost- be that in the form of capitalist currency, time or effort. And that begs the question- why bother?

The cost-benefit ratio of keeping very specific areas bug-free and leaving the rest of the planet to figure it out themselves is much better. Again, assuming that all technological prerequisites could be met, it would still need a very good reason to employ those options- such as existential threats.

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Not all bugs are stupid

What many of these bugs have in common is a controlling caste. Look at Starship troopers, where 'brain bugs' exist. Or at the Flood from halo, where they in all sense and purposes are stupid unintelligent things that only shamble and run at new prey to spread, only sparingly using weapons they might still have. Despite that we see them terraforming their environments at a blistering pace, as well as repairing spaceships and getting them spaceborne. They can show some intelligence on a basic level, and this increases when enough get together and form super creatures with intelligence and strategies far surpassing our own.

This could be the way your bugs spread. Though they are generally the stupid horror you want them to be. Basic instinct and creepy. And then something smart can give some semblance of strategy and intelligence. This can repair spaceships and use them, or simply have ways for the eggs to spread through the cosmos by some bug technology, the eggs being more resilient against the harshness of space.

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I have two main proposals, but warning: one is kinda stupid and the other is just "look at this other thing," so feel free to ignore both. 1: Maybe they were spread about by some malicious organization, lurking in the shadows? 2: Maybe take a look at the Yuuzhan-Vong from Star Wars. They were a species that did a lot of stuff that's not really relevant, but the important thing is their technology. Instead of computers and devices, they had specially bred and modified creatures, including corally things used as spaceships. So maybe some bombardier beetle type critter got a vacuum seal or something? Just a potential bit of inspiration, have a good day.

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Hive Minds

Most of the bugs are stupid. They are more like swarms of robot drones than individual thinking organisms.

But there are "hive queens" (or kings or something alien) that can do human-level thinking and strategizing. Or there is a communal intelligence which arises when there is a high enough density of bugs. On Earth, beehives seem to be like this. The hive exhibits greater intelligence than any bee, even the queen. (The cells in our bodies exhibit much greater intelligence than single cells! )

I hesitate to say "definitive", but Orson Scott Card Ender's Game.

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Many many planets are or were connected with traversable wormholes

Go into a cave on planet A, when you exit the cave through a different opening you're on planet B. That's a natural wormhole at work!

Generally planets are different enough that fauna and flora keep to their own planets, but some species (such as the giant bugs) are able to thrive in ecosystems from different planets.

In places where the wormholes still exist, you might even get multiplanetary hives! Even with advances in geometry detection technology, mapping out alien bug hives is still the best way to find undiscovered natural wormholes. Laying claim to such a wonder will immediately transform you into a wealthy transportation tycoon!

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    $\begingroup$ The trick, of course, is to clear out the bugs without collapsing the wormholes. Whoever can figure that out will have an exclusive monopoly, at least so long as the patent holds $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Commented May 10 at 12:59
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Nano-scale eggs. Your bugs have eggs/spores that are at nano-scale. Some are also much lighter than air due to their special nano-structure. Then some eggs will float to the top atmosphere where they will blown away by solar radiation. They lay so many eggs, some end up on another world eventually. This trait can be evolved overtime as it will also help dispersing eggs to other continents. Only one species evolving like this is enough to get them to the entire galaxy.

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The bugs are part of a inter-planetary cash-crop, that is rugged and grows almost everywhere. The queen is embedded in the plants DNA, but the DNA expresses itself and gestates the queen only every nth generations. Upon which a new hive is spawned in peaceful fields, simultaneously everywhere and nobody has the slightest idea where the bugs originate.

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They may be too unintelligent to make an FTL-capable vehicle, but that doesn't mean they can't launch one. It's easily plausible that some bugs could get onto a poorly-secured cargo spacecraft with a built-in guidance system and, given enough time, accidentally launch themselves to another inhabited planet with lots of food and more ships. Based on this they'll learn that banging on ship controls will get them to places with more food and less predation, leading to them repeating the behaviour and thus becoming an interstellar menace

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The Bugs Are Already There:

Your creatures have already devastated the galaxy - several times, in fact, when the fossil record is looked at. They didn't need to get there quickly Or recently. But they consume all available organic resources on a world. When there's nothing left but a blighted shell, they leave buried cysts all over the planet that sit for hundreds, thousands, or possibly even millions of years (given a sufficiently tough cyst). On their home world, the other life has evolved to keep them in check. But not elsewhere.

The ecosystem of the planet slowly recovers until something disturbs one of the cysts. Then the whole cycle starts over. But any given planet is virtually guaranteed to be in a recovery phase when humans arrive. How convenient! There is a weak ecosystem, easy for colonists to plant Terrestrial life on. Few, if any, rival intelligent organisms to challenge them for the world. Since the bugs have similar requirements, humans of course are attracted to bug worlds.

But humans are the source of their own problems. They show up on a world, start disturbing all sorts of things, and keep triggering outbreaks as they expand. The harder they push to expand, the more outbreaks they have to contend with. If things get sufficiently bad, planets are evacuated in a huge panicky rush. Then the chaos allows bugs to sneak along on the outsides of refugee ships. The chaos spreads along with them.

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