For all my two and six-legged friends

For Love of Insects
November 26, 2004

If you want to understand what drives a man to spend his entire adult life researching an apparently obscure topic, you should read For Love of Insects . In this inspiring book, Thomas Eisner recalls his colleagues and his insect subjects with genuine affection, and the effect on the reader is equally warming. Although this semi-autobiographical account of his life's work follows a fashion set by other eminent American biologists, it is a particularly good and interesting example of the genre because, throughout, the scientific explanations of his discoveries are interlaced with anecdotes and comments on where, why, how and with whom the work was instigated and done.

A prologue gives a brief account of Eisner's early life. He was born in 1929 in Germany, which he and his family fled in 1936. He spent time in Spain, France, Argentina and Uruguay before settling in America after the war. During these moves, he developed a strong childhood interest in natural history. He graduated from Harvard University and stayed on as a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher, befriending E. O.Wilson, before moving to Cornell University in 1957, where he remains to this day.

Wilson has written an interesting foreword to the book and strongly defends Eisner against any possible accusation that, having worked on so many insect species, his contributions are haphazard. Wilson says: "Biology is a science with a high level of particularity. Many of its phenomena make no sense unless profusely illustrated by induction. How could astrophysics exist without a map of the stars?"

The heart of the book comprises ten chapters, each devoted to a particular theme to which Eisner contributed original discoveries, so helping to develop a "star map" for insect chemical ecology. Catchy titles - including "Wonders from wonderland", "Ambulatory spray guns", "The love potion" and "The sweet smell of success" - emphasise that the author has a much wider audience in mind than his specialist peers.

In the first chapter, "Bombardier", Eisner recalls how he was probably predisposed to the study of insect chemistry thanks to his chemist father's interest in perfumes and lotions. As a boy in Montevideo, he noticed how secretions discharged by millipedes and cranefly had a particular noxious odour and stained his fingers brown. Years later, Eisner the graduate student collected beetles that made popping sounds and squirted out liquid with the same pungent smell remembered from his past. This was the soon-to-be-famous Bombardier beetle species. By serendipity soon after, he met a young Uruguayan chemist who was researching the chemicals produced by the cranefly he had handled as a boy. She told him that the smell was due to a group of chemicals called benzoquinones. Again by chance, another friend told him he had discovered that when agitated, a cockroach species produced a smelly liquid containing benzoquinones. This made Eisner think that these chemicals must have some special purpose, probably defence, if such different arthropods were all producing them.

At Harvard, he had learnt the importance of bioassay: it is all very well discovering that an insect makes a special sound or produces some particular chemical when stimulated, but this does not get you very far unless you know what effect it has on friends and enemies.

So Eisner first tested how the cockroach sprayed the chemical in response to a simulated attack on a leg; he found the spray was surprisingly directional. He went on to test the effect of a real predator (ants borrowed from Wilson) and recorded how the spray response by the cockroach caused attacking ants to flee.

He was then ready to tackle the Bombadier beetle. Eisner and co-workers ran experiments showing that the beetle shoots its spray with uncanny accuracy, that the spray was hot (100C) and was fired in pulses of 500-1,000 drops a second, like a machinegun. Finally, they discovered how such rapid fire and high temperatures are achieved (but you will have to read the book if you are inquisitive).

The other nine chapters have equally fascinating stories of how biological mysteries were unravelled by painstaking observation and experimentation.

Although written from his own perspective, Eisner is generous in highlighting collaborations and his book shows how research thrives when a researcher works with and around other very able scientists.

Who, then, in Britain is going to read this book? It has an affordable price and, if suitably promoted, should appeal to anyone with an interest in insect natural history because it shows how apparently complicated research is taken forwards in easy steps. Sadly, however, I fear that it will be bought only by people working in the field of chemical entomology and mostly by the older scientists who personally know Eisner and the other famous "American names" he mentions.

Graham Elmes is research fellow at the Natural Environment Research Council's CEH Dorset laboratories.

For Love of Insects

Author - Thomas Eisner
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 447
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 674 01181 3

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