Wicked Bugs (and Spiders and Worms and Other Creepy Crawlies)

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Let's face it, we don't like bugs. Sure, they do plenty of good---such as keeping their naughty brethren in check, contributing to the world of medicine, providing key roles in the food webs that are essential to healthy ecosystems---but we can't help but focus on the bad. And so does Amy Stewart in her new book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects, which is being published today. I was excited to see this little volume come across my desk, having read Stewart's Wicked Plants two years ago, and it didn't disappoint.

The book has entries about specific species (kindly labeled "Painful," "Dangerous," "Destructive," "Horrible" or "Deadly") and categories, such as stinging caterpillars or parasitic worms. There is a ton of well-researched, fascinating information with terrific and terrifying stories from history.

The deathwatch beetle, for example, may be familiar to those who have read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" or Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer; it has been considered an omen of death since at least the 1700s. But the beetles' true destructive power comes during its larval stage, as it consumes old, damp wood, leaving little but dust behind. Oxford University recently had to replace the roof of its Bodleian Library, with its beautiful decorative ceiling, due to these beetles.

Earthworms, usually considered beneficial soil dwellers because they can move nutrients and improve drainage (as well as serving as great bait for fishermen), have wreaked havoc after moving into new regions. European species that have become established in Minnesota, which lacked a native earthworm because it was covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age, wiped out native trees and wildflowers in some areas. The earthworms devoured the leaf layer that had previously provided sustenance to the greenery.

Spanish fly has a reputation as an aphrodisiac, but it's really a beautiful, green beetle that when consumed by men inflames the urinary tract and causes priapism, as though someone had taken a dose of Viagra. In women, though, it just causes pain. That pain is caused by a poison that the blister beetle, as Spanish fly is also known, uses to repel predators, though it does have a bit of a real romantic side---the male passes some to the female during mating and she uses it to protect herself and her eggs.

Mosquitoes, bed bugs, millipedes, botflies, cockroaches, black widow spiders; they're all in there. I wouldn't recommend reading this during your lunch hour, or at all if you can't handle a bit of the willies. But as Stewart writes, "we are seriously outnumbered." It's best we know our enemies.

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