“There are more than 200 million insects for every human living on the planet today. As you sit reading this sentence, between 1 quadrillion and 10 quadrillion insects are shuffling and crawling and flapping around on the planet, outnumbering the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches. Like it or not, they have you surrounded, because Earth is the planet of the insects.”
For those people who think they are the dominant organism on the planet, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson clears up that misconception in the introduction above to her new book “Buzz Sting Bite: Why We Need Insects.” And if you didn’t know just how essential insects are to modern life, you will by the final page. She makes a convincing case that all those pesky insects are far more beneficial to our existence than most people are aware.
The first chapters take readers through a brief crash course in general entomology. By offering anecdotes of insect anatomy, metamorphosis, means of communication and sensory perception, Sverdrup-Thygeson paints a picture of life as an insect, story by entertaining story. One entire chapter is dedicated to examples of insect sex lives, a fascinating topic which could easily fill many more pages. After reading, you may feel compelled to Google the article published in the British newspaper The Sun: “Male Bee’s Testicles EXPLODE When They Reach Orgasm.”
Satisfied that readers have a basic understanding of insect life, Sverdrup-Thygeson describes how insects fit into the world around them. For example, have you ever looked at the oregano on a pizza and thought about the complex relationship that it has with not one but two insect species? Reading about the interactions between oregano, Myrmica ants, and a butterfly known as the large blue will make you realize just how involved plants and insects really are in their mutually dependent relationship.
The author goes on to highlight how insects and humans interact every day, both directly and indirectly. Most people can easily list all the ways insects annoy them, but it turns out that our lives are made immeasurably better by insects. Sverdrup-Thygeson does a great job outlining the disproportionately large impact insects have on people’s daily lives, in proportion to their small size.
• How insects influence our diet: Food plants that have been insect-pollinated, vs. wind- or self-pollinated, taste better.
• Services provided by insects: Thanks to ants, the junk food scrap equivalent of 60,000 hot dogs gets cleaned up from Manhattan parks and streets every year.
• Insight into better design that can influence our quality of life. Termite mounds in Africa provide a blueprint for designing energy-saving skyscrapers and mapping the genome of the fruit fly allowed us to make discoveries about chromosomes, mutations and genetic damage.
The last chapter turns the tables, focusing more on how humans affect insects, challenged by things such as light pollution, climate change, insecticides and changes in land use.
Despite these sobering thoughts, Sverdrup-Thygeson remains hopeful. She tells of the tree lobsters, gigantic stick insects once found on an island off the coast of Australia. The tree lobster was declared extinct in 1920 after rats were accidentally released on the island.
In 2001, however, scientists found a small colony of tree lobsters living on a sea stack off the coast of the island, from which they were able to establish a breeding program. Plans to eradicate the rats and reintroduce the sticks to their original island habitat are now underway.
If the tree lobsters are able to live on a rock off an island off the coast of Australia, waiting secretly to be discovered for 80 years, what other insects are just waiting for us to find them and learn about their strange lives? Reading “Buzz Sting Bite” will make you want to know.
Robin Thomson is curator of the University of Minnesota Insect Collection in the Department of Entomology.