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Bugged

Bugged: The Insects Who Rule the World and the People Obsessed with Them

David MacNeal
St. Martin’s Press
2017
320 pp.
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A journalist by trade, David MacNeal awakened his “inner entophile” after pinning a large lubber grasshopper for the first time. In Bugged, he sets off on a journey to understand insects and the people who study them.

Bugged provides summaries of a range of fields, including integrated pest management, forensic entomology, and entomophagy (the practice of eating insects) while highlighting their important role in varied aspects of human society. Topics include the many parts played by these versatile creatures, from pet and pest to producer of honey to potential food source and vector of disease. Complex phenomena like the practice of releasing sterile mosquitoes into the wild to control diseases and honey bee colony collapse disorder are also well explained.

Each chapter introduces the reader to a given field of entomological study, describing its beginnings and explaining where it is today. Interspersed throughout are interviews with relevant experts, including scientists, pest control operators, curators, chefs, and a diverse array of others.

In a chapter entitled “First Responders,” for example, MacNeal explores the importance of less charismatic insects in cleaning up the environment and solving crimes. Here, he interviews ecologists in Ithaca, New York, who explain the concept of ecosystem services, describing how pest-controlling insects save as much as $4.5 billion each year in the United States alone. He also excitedly tags along on visits to labs and a body farm with forensic entomologists in San Marcos, Texas.

MacNeal does not shy away from the details of insect life, never passing up an opportunity to elicit “gross-out” reactions. While preparing an insect for pinning, for example, he gleefully describes removing the viscera and arranging the specimen in detail.

MATT CARDY/STRINGER/GETTY IMAGES

A curator at the Bristol Zoo holds a Lord Howe Island stick insect, one of the rarest insects in the world.

His childlike enthusiasm for insects is contagious. He frenetically lists facts (e.g., a yellow fever epidemic—precipitated by favorable breeding conditions for the Aedes aegypti mosquito—temporarily disbanded George Washington’s administration in 1793) and embraces irreverence (naming a cyborg cockroach Bill “F—ing” Murray, for example), making for an entertaining, if not occasionally scatterbrained, read. I noted several decidedly unscientific recommendations (he extols the virtues of natural pest control remedies after conducting a quick-and-dirty home experiment with tinctures that include everything from ground deer antlers to olive oil, for example), but overall the book would be an informative starting point for a reader unfamiliar with, but curious about, insects.

Entomology is a vast field of study populated with many passionate and unique people, and MacNeal takes full advantage of this. His interviews are where this book really shines, showcasing the passion typical of entomologists for insects and the living world at large. It’s as much a book about the oddities of the insect world as it is about the idiosyncrasies of the people in it, neither of which turn out to be as alien as they first appear.

About the author

Department of Entomology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA