Get the bug, get a buzz

Insects through the Seasons - The Wisdom of the Hive
June 14, 1996

We grow up with insects all around us. We accept them as part of our everyday life. No matter how house-proud or fastid ious our parents, they cannot exterminate all cohabiting insects nor prevent the occasional invasion of our homes by houseflies and ants. The most protective of mothers cannot eliminate the risk of insect stings and bites when her child ventures outside. Grandmothers tell us "Be careful, it will sting you." "Flies carry germs." "Earwigs will hide in your ear." It is hardly surprising that many of us grow up with insect phobias.

Yet, the same adult who will panic at the sight of ants in his kitchen, can delight in the summer flash of colour provided by butterflies and dragonflies. He will tell his child that the bees that might sting her are responsible for the delicious honey on the breakfast table -although he might be rather vague as to how bees make honey. If a child has a bent for natural history and is drawn to entomology in particular, most parents will encourage the study of butterflies but will fail to comprehend the fascination in the life history of the fleas that infest the family cat.

These two books should help the layperson to understand entomologists' enthusiasm for their subject. The first, Insects Through the Seasons, provides a mass of factually correct, scientific background to entomology that is supported by numerous interesting anecdotes. The second is a more specialist book dedicated to the behaviour of honey-bee colonies by Thomas D. Seeley of Cornell University in the United States. Taken as a pair the books complement each other. Waldbauer's book provides the backdrop against which the meticulous behavioural studies on just one, albeit an important one for man, of the world's 900,000 known insect species can be judged.

Gilbert Waldbauer is a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois. He ties the rather loose structure of his book together using the life cycle of the cecropia moth (related to the silk moths), which is apparently well known to most American children. At first I thought this was going to disadvantage the British reader and that I would find the book "too American". I was wrong. Although it is heavily oriented towards a US readership, I found it a delightful read.

It begins with a few facts and figures concerning insects that evolved 400 million years ago. Many species achieved their modern form long before the first human emerged: 75 per cent of all animals known to science are insects and it is estimated that insects outweigh the world's human population by a factor of 12. Waldbauer takes the reader through the life cycle of insects with chapters devoted to looking for a mate, subsequent courtship, reproduction and care for their offspring. He outlines insect defenses against predators and the specialist way of life of parasitic insects. Further chapters are devoted to the essentials of food recognition and the specialisms associated with nourishment.

Waldbauer's prose is easy to read and never becomes over-scientific. He is not afraid to digress when an anecdote illustrates a point: the ubiquity of sex pheromones is highlighted by recalling in some detail the research that demonstrated how apparently odourless extracts of human armpit secretion can attract the opposite sex. Interesting quotations from the works of other naturalists are sprinkled throughout. Insectphobes might enjoy the extracts from the diary of Lawrence Dunn. This entomologist deliberately introduced bot fly maggots onto his arm where they burrowed into his skin. He then recorded the experience over the 50 days in which they grew by consuming his living flesh, eventually emerging to pupate.

There are no photographs but the book is amply illustrated by line-drawings. (One nice feature is a drawing of cecropia at the bottom corner of each facing page, which flies when the book is flipped.) Although, clearly aimed at laypersons who have an interest in natural history, I can recommend Insects Through the Seasons to professional biologists and students at all levels. In fact, I have given it to my own teenage, A-level biology student daughter to read because it expresses more clearly than I can ever hope to do, the reasons for my own fascination for insects.

Part of the section on offspring-care is devoted to the highly complex behaviour of the social insects, especially that of the honeybee. Waldbauer recounts how Martin Lindauer devised a robot bee that he used to tell bees inside the nest where to find a source of food.

How did the robot do this? It mimicked the famous waggle-dance of returning foragers that was first described by the Nobel prize-winning behaviourist, Karl von Frisch. If this whets readers' appetites for more of the same, then they need look no further than The Wisdom of the Hive.

Thomas Seeley's book is very different from the large number already published on bees and beekeeping. Although it concentrates on the colony as an organismic whole in the same vein as many older books, asking questions under headings such as "How a colony acquires information about food sources" (the waggle dance) and "How a colony acts on the information about food sources", it answers them by reference to the most recent individual-based researches.

The book is split into three parts. The first introduces the honeybee, its evolution, life cycle and basic behaviour. This is not merely a rehash of older books, it forms a thorough introduction to the second part, which contains the meat of the book. Part two begins with a fascinating account of the methods and equipment used for studying bee behaviour.

Student behaviourists and beekeepers wishing to start observations of their own will find this chapter most valuable. It is followed by five chapters devoted to different aspects of the beautifully intricate social behaviour that enables a honeybee colony to function so efficiently. The third part integrates the previous chapters to give an overview of the social organisation of the hive.

The work is aimed at students of social behaviour. It should be in all university and college libraries. Most social biologists will want to own their own copy and I would strongly recommend it to all beekeepers, both amateur and professional. It is not a flashy book, containing relatively few black and white photographs. However, it is in an interesting format; the pages are approximately 205mm square; the text forming an inner 100mm- wide column, which leaves the outer 75mm free for the numerous clear and easily understood graphs and diagrams that illustrate the nearby text.

The Wisdom of the Hive is very different in approach and style to Insects Through the Seasons; even so, they have several features in common. The layout and style from both books give the impression of a naturalist's diary or notebook. It was no chore to read them both from cover to cover. Seeley's enthusiasm for the complexities of insect evolution shine through, especially in his last chapter, "Enduring lessons from the hive". Although more moderately expressed, this book contains the same awe and wonder at the role of insects in creation that Waldbauer brings to life in his essay on entomology.

Graham W. Elmes is a Natural Environment Research Council senior scientist attached to the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, Furzebrook, Dorset.

Insects through the Seasons

Author - Gilbert Waldbauer
ISBN - 0 674 45488 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 289

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