I got an email with this book's name in the title, and well, obviously. I had to get a copy. WHO WOULDN'T? It's BUGS! I waited eagerly for my copy in the mail.
The cover was promising, nice and dark red with artistically done black bugs on it. I attacked the first few pages with a fervor normally seen only in bed bugs as they find an unsuspecting homeowner. And at the end of it, well, I got to ask the author some questions! My review and the interview is below the fold:
Wicked Bugs, by Amy Stewart.
Amy Stewart's book is actually about more than the kind of bugs which are actually BUGS. The word "bug" really only applies to insects in the order Hemiptera, as most entomologists (people who study insects) will let you know. But this book isn't intended for entomologists, it's intended for the rest of us. And to the rest of us, "bugs" refers to things that crawl or slither or just have WAY too many legs. And when you're talking about the kind of bugs that can cause severe pain (like a bullet through the leg, for one ant) and death (either from the insect itself, or from disease), whether you call it insect, spider, worm, or what have you kind of becomes semantics.
While Stewart admits early on that bugs have many virtues (of course they do! Hold your hand and let the spider live!), they also have caused untold horror, pain, death, and destruction. These little critters have, in fact, changed the course of human history many times over (the louse that conquered Napoleon's army is only one example, and of course we've all heard of the fleas that spread the Plague). This book covers many of the gross, frightening, disgusting, and awful things that bugs can do to you. And it's COOL.
Sci has long had a fascination with bugs. I took an entomology class when I was a kid (I went to a super geeky science summer camp where we took classes, entomology was one of them. It was amazingly nerdy and I LOVED IT), and will never forget the way the moths looked under the glass, the smell of the stuff in the bottles that killed and preserved them, and...the way they tasted. Yup! Part of the class was eating bugs, and my 11 year old self thought dining in lightly fried grasshoppers was just about the creepiest (and therefore the coolest) thing ever. I still remember how they tasted. Not bad, would nom again.
As I grew up, this fascination faded, and accompanied by a few...interesting experiences, I don't exactly love bugs anymore. But even if you hate them, you can't help but be fascinated. Insects, spiders, worms. They are so DIFFERENT from us. So many legs. Such shiny carapaces. Such weird modes of movement. Sometimes they seem like aliens crawling around on the surface of our planet, even though they've been here a lot longer than we have.
While some people may expect in-depth coverage, this book is lighter fare. A few pages on each bug at most, with a brief synopsis of what kind of damage they have done to humans (from diseases to crop failures) and how that damage is caused. It's a good introductory book, as I think many people don't even know some of these bugs exist, let alone how they do what they do. The giant hornet was certainly a rather unpleasant surprise for me. :) While I admit that I sometimes wanted more in depth coverage, this is more of a primer, and a fun primer at that. Bugs become less gross, and a lot more interesting, when put into the context of how they have changed human history.
And NOW...my interview with Amy Stewart! Thanks so much for taking the time, Amy!
1) With the exception of a book on earthworms, I noticed that your previous books have been about plants. Do you have training in botany? What drew you to writing about plants? And what made you consider bugs as a subject?
I'm not a botanist or a scientist by training--I'm a writer. I'm fascinated with the natural world and I think there are a lot of interesting stories to tell out there. As a writer, I'm most drawn to human stories--tales of murder, intrigue, exploration, conquest, love gone wrong--and those stories can all be found in the scientific world. After all, science itself is a story--it's the story we tell ourselves about what's happening all around us. It's how we make sense of it all.
2) What's your favorite bug of the ones in your book and why?
The rat flea is pretty amazing. I couldn't believe I got to write about flea vomit and actually get paid to do it. What a gig. I am partial to the assassin bug--it's a large and beautiful creature with a strange history. Darwin encountered it in Argentina during his voyage on the Beagle, and was possibly infected with Chagas disease as a result. Chagas was unknown at that time, and wasn’t discovered until we humans started pushing our way into the jungle to build plantations. We moved into its habitat, and it, in turn, shared with us a disease that it had previously only been shuttling between little rodents in the undergrowth.
3) Have you ever intentionally eaten a bug?
Ugh! No. Never. I'm a vegetarian, and while people have different definitions of what they will and won't eat if they're vegetarian, mine is "nothing with a face." So no, I'll pass on bugs! You enjoy that, though.
4) Your book is both very informative and very entertaining, what are the main ideas that you hope readers will take away from it?
As with Wicked Plants (the prequel to this one, about the dark and dangerous side of the botanical world), I want people to understand that nature is powerful, that we need to respect that power, and that we need to remember that the world does not revolve around us.
We assume that any plant growing out of the ground is good for us, when in fact plants employ all kinds of poisons and thorns and spines designed to keep us from eating them. We equate "natural" with "good" and "healthy," even though strychnine, cyanide, and ricin are all 100% natural, plant-derived substances.
And with bugs, we are excessively terrified of the most wonderful, benign, helpful, interesting creatures--creatures we literally owe our lives to. But there are a few bugs we SHOULD be terrified of! You have my permission to be phobic of the hundred or so wicked bugs I rounded up for this book--but otherwise, it's time to relax about bugs.
5) Were there any bugs that you wanted to put in the book that didn't make it in? What were they?
Not really--I had the freedom to wander far and wide through the bug world and beyond. As any entomologist will tell you (and as I explain in the introduction to the book), I ventured far beyond what are called "true bugs" and insects to include worms, arachnids--all manner of creepy, crawly, slithering creatures that have had some terrible impact on human affairs. That was my definition of 'wicked'--has it hurt people and society in some profound way? And--equally important--could I find a really compelling story to tell? I didn't care if it COULD kill someone, I wanted to know WHO it had killed.
6) I know that you did a lot of research for this book, did you have difficulty studying any of the bugs due to either disgust, or lack of information? Which were the most fun to study, and which were the hardest?
Lack of information was not much of a problem, thanks in part to the willingness of so many entomologists to talk to me about their own particular field of study. For every one of these bugs, there is someone, somewhere, who has devoted their career to the study of it!
I confess that I most enjoyed the parasites. Tapeworms, maggots--those were fascinating to me. The more disgusting, the better. The hard ones were actually the very common ones, like mosquitoes. There's so much information out there, and so much that people already know, that I had to work hard to come up with something interesting, obscure, and surprising to say about them.
7) Do you think you'll be writing more on "bugs"? Where do you think your next efforts will focus?
The next book is not about bugs--it is, believe it or not, about botany and booze (ooooh this sounds so cool! - Sci)! Stay tuned….