19 july book insect science 1

Simon & Schuster, 235 pages, $26

A recent study by Purdue University finds that cockroaches threaten to become invincible thanks to their resistance to pesticides. If this is disturbing, consider as an antidote ecologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson’s book about insects and discover plenty of less distressing-related news. For example: “Cockroaches’ resilience, not to mention their robust physique and spectacular motor skills, can actually be useful to us.” Her explanation in Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects involves roach squads wearing tiny backpacks fitted with microchips and transmitters helping in earthquake rescues.

Sverdrup-Thygeson, a Norway native with a doctorate in conservation biology, employs scientific knowledge, splendid facts, and good writing to make it clear that perceiving insects as any sort of bother is not an option. The annoying ones are a disappearing minority, she notes, especially when compared with “the teeming myriads of tiny critters that all do their little bit to save your life, every single day.” There’s that, too: insects are key to the survival of humans. So humility is an appropriate human response to bugs, and the author builds an unrelenting case for why.

Humankind, Homo sapiens, has been around for about 200,000 years, but by comparison, insects have managed to navigate quite well through five rounds of mass extinction. There are more than 200 million of them for every human being living on the planet today. The next time we either remorselessly squash a bug or gently escort one outside, it may be helpful to remember that they make up more than half of the known species in the animal kingdom; resistance is futile. They live everywhere from inside caves to 20,000 feet up in the Himalayas. They can even thrive at Yellowstone’s hot springs (120 degrees Fahrenheit). On the other hand, for those still concerned about those indefatigable roaches, there’s this helpful note: “Snowy weather is one of the few things a cockroach can’t deal with.”

The author generally employs a conversational style of nature writing, as when she makes statements, like “the romantic relationship between the cacao tree and the chocolate midge is complicated,” followed by an engaging explanation of why this is so. In the world of this book, “six-leggers” are crucial tiny helpers. And they are busy. Termites grow fungus for food, many insects turn dead plants and animals into soil, wasps pretty much invented making paper from cellulose, dragonflies are skillful hunters (boasting a 95 percent success rate), and fruit flies have been so important to medical research experiments that they’ve been central to scientific research that has led to six Nobel prizes.

The author also has news for city dwellers who battle insects in their apartments. “It is time to acknowledge,” Thygeson says, “that even our cities are ecological systems, in which crawling critters are an essential ingredient.” She is impressed by urban ants based not only on their stellar work habits but also on their sheer numbers. “On a pedestrian island on Broadway alone there are 13 different ant species. In all, 40 ant species have been found in New York,” which, she adds in a random aside, represents “almost two-thirds of the ant species in the whole United Kingdom.”

Sverdrup-Thygeson manages to offer elegant details in other areas, including biblical reference. For instance, she explores Exodus 10:13-15 in ecological terms, noting its insect scenario remains accurate to this day. “Only when the khamsin, a warm southeasterly wind, has blown for at least 24 hours can swarms of locusts reach Egypt from the areas where they originate further east.” This is, indeed, an awful sight because a single locust, she notes, can eat its own body weight, about 2 grams or 0.07 ounces, in food every day. “And once we grasp that a swarm can contain 10 billion of these starving, flying, jumping creatures, distributed over an area about the size of a city of a half-million people, we begin to understand how the sky would be darkened and why they left not a single stalk of grass behind them.”

The cumulative effect of Sverdrup-Thygeson’s insight is revelatory, but she also ponders what is next for them and us. The lives of insects are changing, and not for the best. “Global data suggest that while we humans have doubled our population in the past forty years, the number of insects has been reduced by almost half.”

Earth’s ecosystems have “altered more rapidly in the past hundred years than at any previous time in human history.” After reading this book, at the next instance of an insect fluttering, skittering, or crawling by, you may consider that creature’s importance to the ecosystem. Even in a world packed with other urgent concerns, it’s an awareness that ought not be swatted away. 

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