When first asked to review Michael Engel’s new book, “Innumerable Insects: The Story of the Most Diverse and Myriad Animals on Earth,” I expected that what I would read would be reminiscent of Engel’s first book, “Evolution of the Insects.” That inaugural book (co-authored with David Grimaldi) is the go-to text for learning more than you ever thought you needed to about insects, their diversity, and entire evolutionary history. “Innumerable Insects” does indeed dive into the impressive diversity of insects, but will prove much more accessible to the average insect lover, with or without a background in entomology.
The book begins with an introduction that outlines how truly staggering the total number of insect species is (roughly 1 million known to science!), provides examples of some of the many ways that insects interact with and influence human life, and touches on the importance of records found in historical texts. I found the initial chapters to be a bit of a slow-starter, but by the third chapter Engel hits his stride.
With the material involved, he arguably could have written multiple books. Delving into how and why insect orders have succeeded — from flight and complete metamorphosis to communication or camouflage — Engel manages to cover a wide variety of material in a comparatively short number of pages. He may not offer deep insight, but there are glimpses of inspiration that will motivate some to seek out more reading.
What really sets this book apart from other tomes on insect life, however, is not the prose but the images used throughout. All are taken from the archives of the American Museum of Natural History’s rare book collection.
The use of these illustrations, produced by some of the field’s earliest workers and most-detailed scientific illustrators, highlights how insects have captured people’s imagination and attention for centuries. I was pleased to see illustrations from not only workers that I already knew and expected (John O. Westwood, 1805-1893) but also to be introduced to illustrators (Edward Donovan, 1768-1837). Images include classic plates of all the life stages of an insect present on its associated host plant, renderings of honeybee architectural accomplishments, and impressive examples of insect camouflage and biological mimicry.
I was delighted when I turned a page and found the illustration of lantern flies and cicadas on pomegranate flowers from Maria Sybilla Merian’s “Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium” (published in 1705), an image which I have proudly tattooed on my shoulder and upper arm. There were many other times that I lost my place in the text on a page, because I had stopped reading in order to simply stare at the illustrations.
Many books praising the beauty of insects tend to focus on some of the already well known, brilliantly colored examples, such as the jewel beetles or the birdwing butterflies. As an entomologist who does not specialize in something bright and brilliantly colored, I gave a silent cheer when Engel matter-of-factly states that “butterflies are nothing more than garish, day-flying moths, comprising about 18,800 species, and yet they are perhaps the most familiar and beloved of all insects.”
While there are quite a few images of pretty butterflies, Engel does not play favorites, and includes images from throughout the groups of insects not usually appreciated for their attractive coloring, even making use of some surprisingly lovely illustrations of lice. It was refreshing to see so many images of true bugs, crickets, fleas, and many of the lesser-known orders mixed in liberally with the typical crowd-pleasers.
Engel clearly has deep affection for the world of insects and great respect for the workers who established and advanced the field before him. By pairing his review with historical illustrations, he has created a visually mesmerizing entry point for anyone interested in exploring insects and the history of their study.
Robin Thomson is the curator of the University of Minnesota Insect Collection in the Department of Entomology. The collection includes almost 4 million specimens representing more than 50,000 species.