Saturday, January 14, 2012

Review: Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart

Most insects we encounter are benign, even beneficial, performing pollination services or breaking down waste and debris. Even spiders and centipedes, the arthropods most likely to creep me out, are unlikely to pose a threat to humans and help control various household pests like flies, silverfish, and roaches. However, there are a proportionately small number of arthropods that can be annoying, destructive, or worse in their interactions of humans. Many of these are treated in Amy Stewart's latest book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects.

The "bugs" of Wicked Bugs are not strictly true bugs, insects in the order Hemiptera. Stewart uses the term in its popular sense to refer to small creatures with jointed legs, and even to some that are not strictly arthropods. These include insects, spiders, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, worms, and more.

Each "wicked bug" is treated separately, with its own short account of incidents in which the species figured prominently. Stewart follows up with the bug's life history and what, if anything, can be done to prevent or cure outbreaks. Interspersed among the individual accounts are short chapters treating groups of insects together, such as garden pests, stinging ants, or destroyers of books. (The latter account contains a quote attributed to Desiderius Erasmus: "books, to be saved from the worms, must be used.") The accounts are labelled with scary-sounding terms like "painful," "destructive," "horrible," or "deadly." Where possible, Stewart includes major contemporary issues like Formosan subterranean termites undermining the integrity of floodwalls (and other structures) in New Orleans or swarms of sand flies attacking U.S. soldiers stationed in the Middle East.

The book has some bias for pests that affect North America and Europe. Many of the most serious insect pests in these two regions were imported, usually accidentally. However, the book covers dangerous insects from all over the world. Some of the most fearsome insects come from tropical regions. Some were already familiar to me, either from first-hand experience or from reading about them, but many were not.

I would recommend Wicked Bugs to anyone with an interest in insects or who wants to learn more about preventing insect pests. Despite its cringe-worthy subject matter, the text is engaging and informative and may appeal even to people who do not like insects all that much. When it comes to problem insects, knowing what they are and how to deal with them is half the battle.

Here is an interview with the author:

The High Bar w/Warren Etheredge & Amy Stewart from The High Bar on Vimeo.