Catch a Buzz With Two New Books About Bugs

BUZZ, STING, BITE
Why We Need Insects
By Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson
Translated by Lucy Moffatt

THE MOSQUITO
A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator
By Timothy C. Winegard

If you happen to hit the beach at any point this summer, here’s a little thought experiment. Scoop up some sand and try to count the grains. Then look left and look right, and try to estimate all the trillions of grains around you. And when you finish that, chew on this fact: By some estimates, there are more insects on earth than there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches combined.

The sheer scale and variety of insects are impossible for most of us to contemplate, but Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson provides at least a glimpse of their wonder in her charming “Buzz, Sting, Bite.” In essence, the book is an extended meditation on a question that Sverdrup-Thygeson, an entomologist at Norway’s University of Life Sciences, gets asked all the time: What good are bugs anyway?

For one thing, the delightful weirdness of insects opens our eyes to new possibilities in nature. As they age, many species shape-shift (e.g., caterpillar to butterfly) in ways rarely seen outside of fairy tales. One type of beetle, if denied food, actually ages backward, devolving from advanced to simpler stages and shrinking in size.

And there’s a whole chapter about the outré sex lives of bugs. Some fruit flies have sperm almost 2.5 inches long. Indian stick insects can mate for an “insane” 79 days, she writes (in Lucy Moffatt’s lively translation), “an extreme-sport version of tantric sex.” One type of swallowtail has an eye in its penis, to help guide it when mating. “If there are 50 ways to leave your lover,” she notes, “I can assure you that there are an awful lot more ways of eating other creatures — including your lover.”

Another answer is that insects have shaped human civilization in unexpected ways. Without durable, waterproof oak gall ink — produced when wasps inject chemical irritants into trees — countless medieval and Renaissance manuscripts would have deteriorated into illegibility. And while we don’t often thank heaven for maggots, they’ve been cleaning wounds and preventing infections for centuries. Genghis Khan supposedly never entered battle without a cartful of these larvae for his warriors.

But the most compelling reason to care about insects, Sverdrup-Thygeson says, is self-interest. Insects sit at the base of the food chain, fodder for innumerable other critters. They also pollinate dozens of vital food crops. One survey estimated that insects contribute nearly $577 billion to the world economy through agricultural activity.

Insects might also help preserve civilization in the future. Livestock contribute significantly to climate change through the methane they belch up, and they exacerbate water shortages and deforestation. Sverdrup-Thygeson argues for eating insects instead. Their bodies convert food to protein far more efficiently, and they produce virtually no dung or greenhouse gases. Plus, they willingly eat our garbage. Atkins-friendly mealworms can even digest plastic. The only problem (at least for Westerners) is that many people find insects disgusting. But if we all learned to love sushi within a generation, are bugs that big a stretch?

The famous biologist E. O. Wilson once said: “If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on with little change. … But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.” Sverdrup-Thygeson makes much the same case. But while Wilson’s quote is laced with doom, Sverdrup-Thygeson strives to make you like insects, too, highlighting them in all their buzzing, stinging, biting glory.

Sverdrup-Thygeson urges us to “talk nicely about bugs” — but if there’s one insect that deserves our scorn, it’s the mosquito.

Unlike other insects, mosquitoes don’t pollinate plants or break down waste. Contrary to popular belief (even Sverdrup-Thygeson falls into this trap), they’re not a major, irreplaceable food source for other animals, either. In fact, as Timothy Winegard explains in his wide-ranging “The Mosquito,” about the only thing they’re good for is wreaking havoc.

Mosquitoes are the deadliest animal on earth, and the competition isn’t even close. Since 2000, they’ve killed an average of almost two million people yearly, vastly more than snakes (50,000), dogs (25,000), crocodiles (1,000), lions (100) and sharks (10) combined. In fact, mosquito-borne diseases, especially malaria, have killed nearly half of all 108 billion human beings who’ve ever lived.

[ Read an excerpt from “The Mosquito.” ]

Winegard is a historian, not a scientist (he teaches at Colorado Mesa University), and whereas Sverdrup-Thygeson’s book flits from topic to topic like a bee in an orchard, “The Mosquito” is more systematic. Winegard marches forward from antiquity to the modern day, showing how mosquitoes have repeatedly upended history. “More than any other external participant,” he writes, “the mosquito, as our deadliest predator, drove the events of human history to create our present reality.”

Topics covered include Alexander the Great’s campaigns, the rise of Christianity, the African slave trade, the Panama Canal, apartheid, and the Haitian and American Revolutions. In fact, much as Mozambique honors the AK-47 on its flag, according to Winegard’s telling, the United States and Haiti should probably honor mosquitoes on theirs. The bugs were that decisive in winning independence, devastating the invading European troops who (unlike native-born rebels) lacked much disease resistance. It’s not guns, germs and steel here — it’s all germs.

And we’re still dealing with the fallout of mosquitoes today. In Italy, China and the United States, the northern half of each country has long dominated the economy, while the southern half lagged. Why? Winegard argues that the warmer southern lands were historically prone to malaria, which killed many people and sapped the strength of survivors. Even in places where we’ve eliminated malaria today, those age-old patterns persist.

As these examples show, Winegard isn’t afraid of sweeping explanations, but his enthusiasm sometimes gets the better of him. One chapter unpacks the American Civil War, noting that disease caused nearly two-thirds of Union deaths and three-quarters of Confederacy deaths. But dysentery, pneumonia and typhus actually killed far more people than mosquito-borne diseases during the conflict. Not every last event in history traces back to bugs.

Winegard’s enthusiasm trips up his prose sometimes, too. Referring to the effects of yellow fever (a.k.a. Black Vomit) in Cuba, he writes of the mosquito, “And though her lethal yellow fever viral weaponry remained undetected … with the mosquito … embroiled with both the Spanish and yellow fever in Cuba since April 1898, to reap the whirlwind of the island’s capitalistic opportunity, the Americans needed to defang the dreaded Black Vomit once and for all.” Whew. His excitement is genuine, but passages like that are rough going.

Still, “The Mosquito” is one of those (compound-) eye-opening books that permanently shift your worldview. Every time I read about ancient battles from now on, I’ll always wonder how much credit the generals deserve and how much the mosquitoes do. This isn’t a flattering view of history — reducing our Great Men and Women to secondary roles. But it’s probably more accurate.

Readers should pick up “Buzz, Sting, Bite” if they want a wide survey of insect oddities. Those who crave a deep dive into one world-shaking bug should grab “The Mosquito.” But both books drive home the idea that ours is an insects’ world — and that if human beings want a place here, we’d best make nice with our six-legged friends.

Sam Kean is the author, most recently, of “The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb.”

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