Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World

By Marlene Zuk Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 262 pp. $25

If nothing else, “Sex on Six Legs” will make you think twice the next time you step outside — or anywhere, really. Biology professor Marlene Zuk’s look at the insect world is often insightful, especially for the parallels she draws between bugs and people. What sets us apart from insects now that scientists have shown that some can count, recognize individuals and communicate geography? Maybe just their torrid, ruthless sex lives (if you think the Washington dating scene is rough, you don’t know the half of it). Woe to the female dung flies drowned or irreparably injured by over-eager suitors.The less titillating material is just as buzz-worthy: More than 80 percent of all animal species are insects, including more than 350,000 species of beetles, one-fourth of all the creatures on earth.

Zuk conveys an obvious affection for the tiny critters, and her expertise, including her knowledge of other scientists’ research, is impressive. Sometimes, though, the text veers too far into academia for the layperson, sounding more like a digest of studies than a narrative. Even readers with a basic biology background may find their eyes crossed after attempting the passage on insect sex ratios. Still, Zuk peppers her writing with geeky wit and the underlying possibility that, when it comes to evolutionary superiority, humans may not be so big after all.

‘Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love, and Language from the Insect World’ by Marlene Zuk (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)