An entomologist is standing on the porch at a party, watching sphinx moths flit around. A guy asks him if the moths have ears. Who knows? He pulls out his car keys and shakes them at the moths. They dart away, alarmed by the ultrasonic noise the metal generates. (The chunks of plastic we carry around now are useless for party tricks like these.) Back at his laboratory, he pokes around until he finds two ear-like structures near the moth’s mouth. Its trick for evading bats at night by dodging their high-pitched cries is finally understood.
Stories like this make scientists easy to love. The dashing fellow on the porch nursing a sweaty old-fashioned (I like to think he’s a bourbon drinker), casually making scientific breakthroughs by rattling his car keys? That’s a fine protagonist.
Gilbert Waldbauer’s “How Not to Be Eaten” shines at moments like these. A collection of essays on the defensive mechanisms of insects should be dramatic enough without a supporting cast of charming entomologists, but readers crave human contact. This is the problem facing nature and science writers: Without dialogue or some kind of personal drama, there is no story, just an accumulation of curious habits and mating practices. But place too much emphasis on people, and you veer toward biography. It’s a difficult balancing act.
Waldbauer — a professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Illinois and author of several other popular books on bugs — won me over when he shared his recipe for bait to attract night-flying moths. He ferments molasses, sugar, canned peaches and stale beer for a couple of days, then brushes it on tree trunks at sunset. Later in the night, he returns to find slightly drunken moths sipping the nectar. Moth collectors call this “sugaring.”
Although Waldbauer packs his essays with tidbits like these, the collection still reads more like a surprisingly interesting textbook than a compelling tale of popular science. Readers will certainly come away with a renewed appreciation for the ways in which insects use mimicry, deceit and poison to survive. The oleander aphid that sucks poisons from the shrub to protect itself is fascinating, as is the 11-spotted ladybird beetle that eats the aphids and takes in the poison for its own protection. But these bite-sized, easily digestible facts were at once too much and not enough to keep me turning the pages. I kept wanting to get back to that entomologist standing on the porch, jingling his car keys in the dark.
Waldbauer’s work also appears in a new collection, “A World of Insects,” which draws on 50 years’ worth of insect literature published by Harvard University Press. Here the editors have gathered some of the finest and most entertaining entomological writing I’ve ever read. Mark Winston, a professor at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, offers a clever essay on killer bees called “The Creation of a Pop Insect.” His own fieldwork helped measure the spread of the bees throughout South America, where they disrupted hives of docile European bees and terrified the public. He delivers a lively critique of the media’s coverage of the phenomenon and even pulls back the curtain on the linguistic debate among scientists over terms such as “killer,” “African” and “Africanized” to refer to the bees. It’s a juicy tale, an intriguing blend of science, politics and tabloid sleaze.
Forensic entomologist M. Lee Goff’s “A Fly for the Prosecution,” about a murder in which the time of death was determined through his analysis of the insects living in and around the corpse, is as exciting as any murder mystery, making it one of the high points in this collection. And the late Cornell entomologist Thomas Eisner’s “The Love Potion,” about a blister beetle known as Spanish fly, works for the same reason: Eisner was willing to put himself at the center of the story.
He explored the question of whether a poison excreted by the beetles could cause priapism (prolonged and painful erections) in men who had eaten frogs that fed on the insects. The question had been around since 1869, when French soldiers stationed in Algeria experienced a number of alarming symptoms, including priapism, after eating frogs’ legs. Eisner fed blister beetles to frogs and analyzed the uptake of poison. Sure enough, the poison lingered in the frogs’ tissue for a few days without seeming to harm them, making them the likely cause of the French soldiers’ predicament. (Wondering if the poison was immediately distasteful, Eisner considered sampling it but thought better of the idea.)
Unfortunately, this collection has its boring bits, too. Statements like “For any particular concentration of stimulating solution the intensity and duration of response is related to the threshold of the central nervous system” made me want to drop the class, until I remembered that I wasn’t in school but reading for pleasure. This is not the fault of that particular author, who might not have been aiming for a popular audience when the piece was written decades ago. I just wish the editors had dug a little deeper given that their goal, stated in the introduction, was to demonstrate that science writing need not be dull.
I also wish the editors could have located the work of a single woman to include in this collection. Although females rule the insect world with nonchalant brutality, female scientists haven’t (yet) resorted to biting off heads to get their point across. Their contributions are notably absent from this volume. Entomologist May Berenbaum publishes one vibrant, interesting essay collection after another, biologist Marlene Zuk writes salacious tales of insect sex, and infectious-disease specialist Pamela Nagami has published three dazzlingly frightful books on parasites and insect bites. Apparently voices like theirs have escaped the attention of Harvard University Press, and the book is a bit duller because of it.
HOW NOT TO BE EATEN
The Insects Fight Back
By Gilbert Waldbauer
Univ. of California. 221 pp. $27.95
A WORLD OF INSECTS
The Harvard University Press Reader
Edited by Ring Carde and Vincent H. Resh
404 pp. Paperback, $19.95