Bugs are notoriously hard to love, but three new books about insects (and even smaller microfauna) celebrate that fact. These authors embrace the weirdness of our tiny neighbors to spin compelling stories about everything from forensically useful corpse-eating blowflies to the vital beasties that live in our guts.
1In A Planet of Viruses (Univ. of Chicago, $20), science writer Carl Zimmer accomplishes in a mere 100 pages what other authors struggle to do in 500: He reshapes our understanding of the hidden realities at the core of everyday existence. The question “Who am I?” is as old as Moses, but Zimmer suggests that on a fundamental DNA level, each of us is actually more virus than “I.” He digs into the head-spinning adaptability and variety of viruses, while revealing lots of interesting information, such as the potential healing power of bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). That last topic is particularly newsworthy as we stride into an era when the over-use of antibiotics may have helped bacteria develop increasingly tough skins and bad attitudes. “It’s clear now,” Zimmer writes, “that phage therapy can treat a wide range of infections. . . . Scientists at the Eliava Institute [in the country of Georgia] have developed a dressing for wounds that is impregnated with half a dozen different phages, capable of killing the six most common kinds of bacteria that infect skin wounds.” Whether he’s exploring how viruses come to America or picking apart the surprisingly complicated common cold, Zimmer’s train of thought is concise and illuminating.
2Amy Stewart takes a decidedly less high-minded approach in Wicked Bugs (Algonquin, $18.95). Her book is a cavalcade of terrors that jumps from the stinging caterpillars of Peru to the malaria-carrying mosquitoes of sub-Saharan Africa to the merely annoying millipedes of the Scottish Highlands, which cluster in such numbers near light and water that a trip to the privy can be an entomological horror. Stewart’s guidebook approach prevents her from having much of a thesis (the common ground between the death-watch beetle, the tarantula and the rootworm is tiny indeed), but it makes for an entertaining tour of creepy-crawly territory. “We are seriously outnumbered,” she notes ominously in her book’s introduction, which suggests the deleterious effect of insects on humans through the ages.
3While Stewart’s wicked bugs are goofily diverse and menacing, the parasites and bacteria in Rob Dunn’s The Wild Life of Our Bodies (Harper, $26.99) are disciplined and awe-inspiring. A biologist and science journalist, Dunn uses these organisms to tell a story of evolution, adaptation, illness and possible redemption. He carefully lays out the relationship between parasites and hosts, and then turns it on its ear. The parasite, he argues in great detail, may be good for the host. Taking this thesis into startling new territory, he addresses newly prevalent diseases (such as the digestive disorder known as Crohn’s disease) with an eye to how our increasingly sanitized society has changed the ancient balance of power within our immune systems. A lack of internal parasites and exposure to dirt, he argues, is actually wreaking havoc on the complicated ecosystem of beneficial and hazardous things that live within our digestive tracts. The book roams far and wide, and you’re left appreciating little things, such as the way humans domesticated cows (and vice versa) with important aftereffects for the parts of the world that drink milk and the parts that do not: “Even today,” Dunn writes, “it matters whether your people were the ones who crawled under a primitive cow or the few others who looked on from a distance and took the time to point and laugh.”
Norton, who edits a Midwestern food journal called the Heavy Table, is the author of “The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.”