[Fun Stuff] A Wicked Good Read

Features - Fun Stuff

PCT says you should pick up a copy of ‘Wicked Bugs.’ It’s an enjoyable read that will give you new-found respect for bugs. (And in this industry, that’s saying a lot!)

September 26, 2013
Anne Nagro

You battle bugs every day, but did you know…

The Mayans used wasps and bees as weapons, launching hives at their enemies? Napoleon Bonaparte suffered so badly from scabies he often tore apart his own skin? Or an estimated 200,000 Chinese died after the Japanese dropped bombs of plague-infected fleas during World War II? These tales and more appear in Wicked Bugs, a collection of stories about painful, destructive and disease-carrying critters by award-winning author Amy Stewart. Life-like etchings by artist Briony Morrow-Cribbs give spooky appeal to featured creatures, which seem to scuttle, fly and squirm off the pages.

Stewart, who uses the term “bug” broadly, digs into the dark side of ants, cockroaches, spiders, bed bugs, ticks and mosquitoes. She tells how Formosan termites are chewing away floodwall seams in New Orleans, with insights from Gregg Henderson of Louisiana State University, and shares famed biologist E.O. Wilson’s view of fire ant suppression efforts (expensive, time-consuming and ineffective — the “Vietnam of entomology” she says).

Unusual and creepy characters get plenty of ink, too. Some highlights: the ticking death-watch beetle that infests old-home timbers (remember Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart?), the Marquis de Sade’s run-in with the Spanish fly beetle and the human bot fly. Transmitted by infected mosquitoes, bot fly larvae grow under your skin, actively moving around and causing lumpy, oozing sores until the pests pop out or are extracted. Ugh.

Parasites and Maggots.
Stewart’s favorite wicked subjects? Parasites and maggots, to which she provides good coverage. Unfortunately, talk of these “fascinating” pests can “clear a room” of book tour attendees, so she had to stop discussing them in public.

Entertainment is Stewart’s goal. “I really wanted to tell the stories” of villain and victim, of bugs’ terrible impact on human affairs. “I think there’s not enough story-telling out there in how we talk about the natural world,” she said. “People remember stories.”

She had this author’s attention, with accounts of bugs that have halted soldiers, driven farmers off their land, devoured cities and forests, and inflicted suffering and death on hundreds of millions. “Yipes,” “ewwww” and “Oh, my gosh” were common refrains as I shared gory details with anyone who would listen (some more briefly than others).

“There are all kinds of instances where people are not nearly fearful enough,” warns Stewart. She tells of a young Canadian woman who stepped on stinging caterpillars while walking barefoot in Peru and died an agonizing death. When traveling to countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America, get your immunizations and take precautions, she admonished. “This is not Disneyland where you’re going. You need to wear shoes,” she said.

More Books by Amy Stewart

  • The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks
    Anne Nagro’s one-sentence review: This book made me thirsty.
  • Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities
    Anne Nagro’s one-sentence review: The Body Snatchers have nothing on good, old-fashioned weeds.
  • Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers
    Anne Nagro’s one-sentence review: You’ll never buy grocery store flowers again.

Bugs also do good deeds, she reminded. They pollinate plants, decompose matter and are useful in medicine. “We could not live without them,” said the avid gardener. Compared to plants, relatively few bugs “can do us any harm at all.” In fact, it was tough coming up with enough bugs that deserved the wicked label, she admitted.

Most people have an “absurd, oversized fear” of bugs. She gives readers permission to be afraid of those in the book, otherwise, get over yourself. “We need to have a little respect for Mother Nature’s power, and hopefully a sense of proportion, too.”

She urges people to use “common sense and an open-minded curiosity” in making distinctions between the harmless garden spider on the windowsill and blood-sucking assassin bugs you might encounter in South America. The latter transmit the fatal Chagas disease, and were used as instruments of torture in Uzbekistan bug pits.

A fear of bugs can cause people to sometimes use pesticides indiscriminately. This often is worse than the danger posed by the bugs, said Stewart, a supporter of Integrated Pest Management principles. Though she gets Argentine ants in her northern California home on occasion, she has yet to call in a professional control service.

“I would not want people to read this book and immediately start reaching for the bug spray,” she said. “I’d want them to be much more educated than that and really balance the safety issue.”

She also says she hopes readers in the United States and Europe realize how privileged they are compared to people in countries without simple, effective pest control strategies, cost-effective medications, and clean drinking water and sewage treatment systems, which have “saved our lives.”


The author is a frequent contributor to PCT. She can be reached at anagro@giemedia.com.


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