Despite its rather menacing title — “Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects” — this is a real cornucopia of insect lore.
Written by Anne Sverdrup-Tygeson, a Norwegian entomologist, the book’s original title was simply “Insektenes Planet” (Insect World).
And what a world it is! Insects have been on Earth for 479 million years, compared with only 200,000 for us homo sapiens. There are 1.5 million different species, ranging in size from the Kikiki huna wasp, which is too small to see, to the Phryganistria chinensis Zhao, which is 24.5 inches long.
They reproduce by the millions, but only a few survive, fortunately for us. Most are eaten or die before reaching adulthood. They spend most of life eating and trying not to be eaten. Even so, the estimated weight of the world’s ants is equal to the weight of all its people.
All species have a two-part Latin name, thanks to 18th-century Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus. Often, an insect’s name helps to describe it, as in vespula vulgaris, the scientific name for the common wasp. But sometimes the scientists get rowdy. For instance, we have the bean-shaped beetle Gelae baen, and the parasitic wasp Heerz lukenatcha.
Some other fun insect facts: the scent we love given off by oregano is carvarol, an insecticide the plant produces to ward off ants. Dragonflies are such great mosquito hunters because they have four wings that move independently, allowing them to fly backward and upside down.
More seriously, the book lives up to its subtitle. Sverdrup-Tygeson quotes E.O. Wilson, who said, “The truth is that we need invertebrates but they don’t need us.”
The book illustrates this with numerous examples. For instance, fruit flies have been integral to the work of six Nobel Prize winners. The Declaration of Independence was signed in ink made from oak galls, which are created by a type of wasp. Pollinating insects contribute an estimated $577 billion to the world economy each year. Shellac is derived from a resin created by the lac bug and is used in varnish, paint, glazes, jewelry, dyes, false teeth, cosmetics, perfume and glue, to mention a few.
Architects have even copied the design of a termite tower found in Africa to build a large mall in Zimbabwe, which, like the ant tower, uses passive cooling. It consumes only 10% of the energy required in standard air conditioning.
The author ends with a warning. Insecticides, monocultural agriculture, light pollution, intensive land development and climate change are all taking their toll on insects. As Wilson said, “If invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could live more than a few months.”
Dick Seaton is an attorney in Manhattan.