Buzz, Sting, Bite

Buzz, Sting, Bite

Fond of our position atop the species pyramid, humans enjoy flaunting our superiority.

But in numerous categories, we’re inferior.

Take numbers. As Anne Sverdrup–Thygeson writes in her engaging “Buzz, Sting, Bite”: “There are more than 200 million insects for every human being living on the planet today.”

A Norwegian ecologist, Sverdrup–Thygeson details her subjects’ attributes, sex lives, culinary tastes, interplay with animals and plants and contributions to human life. And she does so with breezy erudition.

Along the way, she provides multiple eye-openers, such as:

Antarctica has but one species, a flightless midge that perishes at temperatures 50 or above.

The longest insect is a Chinese stick insect that measures 24.5 inches.

“One species of swallowtail butterflies has eyes on its penis! These help the male to position himself correctly during mating.”

Such details naturally amuse and enlighten, but Sverdrup–Thygeson’s larger purpose, of course, is to explore the multiple methods by which insects benefit the world and its inhabitants:

They produce specific substances, such as honey, shellac and silk, and their pollinations make much of our food supply possible.

They clean or consume the planet’s organic debris.

They ease our lives through medical, manufacturing and technological discoveries.

But despite those assets, we imperil their existence.

“We humans have long taken the free services of insects for granted,” Sverdrup–Thygeson writes. “Through intensive land use, climate change, insecticides, and the introduction of invasive species, we now risk altering conditions so quickly that insects will have difficulty delivering as they have done to date, despite nature’s adaptability. … Taking care of them is a form of life insurance for our children and grandchildren.”

Sverdrup–Thygeson’s work won’t make you want to step on a yellowjackets’ nest, encounter a cockroach darting through your Super Bowl pizza buffet or witness termites swarming in your attic.

But you’ll emerge from this educational and entertaining book with a healthy new respect for insects and a profound admiration for the ways they improve our lives.

As the author writes, “Insects are nature’s little cogs that make the world go round.”

Jay Strafford, a retired Virginia journalist, now lives in Florida, where the palmetto bug is jokingly referred to as the state bird.

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