Case of the Creepies

‘Wicked Bugs’ author Amy Stewart profiles toenail-burrowing chigoe fleas and more

October 19, 2011

Sometimes, scary things come in small packages. A mosquito sentenced George Washington to a lifelong battle with malaria. Rocky Mountain locusts, in a swarm the size of California, devastated the American West in the late 1800s. Author Amy Stewart chronicles 100 such crimes against humanity in “Wicked Bugs” ($19, Algonquin).* If you’re brave enough to read it, the book will give you a new perspective on the creepy crawlies that outnumber us 200 million-to-1.

Which story most freaked you out?
Christopher Columbus and his crew, on voyages to the Caribbean, encountered these terrible sand fleas called chigoe fleas. They burrow under your toenails and lay eggs. Members of Columbus’ crew actually cut their toes off to get rid of these fleas. I was always searching for stories about famous people. Marquis de Sade is in there — there’s sort of a kinky bug story involving him.

Please share.
It’s about the Spanish fly, which was believed to be an aphrodisiac — and it’s not. It severely irritates the urinary tract, so men would experience erections as a result of having ingested [powdered] Spanish fly. Marquis de Sade, thinking that the Spanish fly had what I guess we could describe as Viagra-like powers, slipped it onto some candy and offered it to prostitutes. They got very, very sick.

Were bugs to rise up and take over the world, ants would be the biggest threat, because there are so many of them and they’re so organized. True?
Exactly. The estimate is that there are 200 million [insects] for every one of us, and most of that 200 million probably is ants. Given the fact that they run little armies, we would not want them to wage a military campaign against us.

How can we become less afraid of insects?
By becoming better informed. Somebody who runs away from any spider they see is simply not educated. A kitten can hurt you more than most spiders can. A kitten can break your skin. Most spiders simply can’t, and even if they could, they certainly don’t want to.

* Stewart uses the term “bugs” as a nonscientific catchall for tiny, creepy, crawly creatures. We know a spider is not a bug.

Brookside Gardens, 1500 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton, Md.; free (event is with Silver Spring Garden Club), 8 p.m. Mon.; 301-962-1400.
 U.S. Botanic Garden, 100 Maryland Ave. SW; free, 12 p.m. Wed.; 202-225-8333. (Smithsonian)
 Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, 4155 Linnean Ave. NW; $20, 6:30 p.m. Wed.; 202-686-5807.
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Katherine Boyle · October 18, 2011