The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects
Algonquin Books • 2011
From the world’s most painful hornet, to the flies that transmit deadly diseases, to millipedes that stop traffic, to the “bookworms” that devour libraries, to the Japanese beetles munching on your roses, Wicked Bugs delves into the extraordinary powers of six and eight-legged creatures. Lavishly illustrated with more frightfully fascinating etchings by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.
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Q&A with Amy Stewart
What made you decide to write a book about wicked bugs?
In some ways, it was a natural follow-up to Wicked Plants. I’ve always been interested in creepy-crawly creatures. My second book, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, gave me a chance to investigate not just earthworms but a whole range of inhabitants of the underground. Like most gardeners, I’m very interested in all the living things that inhabit my backyard. But this book goes well beyond the backyard, of course.
How do you define a “wicked” bug?
As with Wicked Plants, I made my choices based on the impact these creatures have had on human affairs. In every case, I looked for a good story-a victim, a villain, a dramatic turn of events. I found bugs that spread disease, inflict pain and suffering, cause destruction on a large scale, or otherwise change the course of civilization. Some have been used to commit crimes, some have helped destroy great cities, and some have even broken up marriages!
So ordinary garden pests didn’t make the cut?
Generally speaking, a bug that eats plants in the garden is not really wicked enough for me – after all, most bugs eat plants. That’s how they survive. But I did include a “Gardener’s Dirty Dozen” of the most-loathed garden pests-with a few surprising facts about each one. And some insects that have caused widespread crop damage are included as well, because their backstories turned out to be surprisingly interesting.
Do wicked bugs include spiders and other noninsects?
In this case, yes. An entomologist will tell you that the term “bug” refers to a subset of insects in the order Hemiptera that has piercing and sucking mouthparts. But most of us use the word to describe any number of tiny slithering and crawling creatures, and that’s how I’m using it here. Spiders, worms, centipedes, slugs, and scorpions all made it into the book.
Have you had any personal encounters with these bugs?
Sure! I think most of us have met the ticks that transmits Lyme disease, the termites that destroy homes, and the mosquitoes that transmit deadly diseases. I’ve never had a bad spider bite or scorpion sting, thankfully, but I’ve gotten up close and personal with a bed bug, and that was no fun. I packed my bag and walked right out of the hotel.
Do you have any favorites?
I admit that I am fascinated by the strange and intricate life cycles of some of the parasites. Here’s an example that’s not too gross: in a section called “Zombies” I write about bugs that take over the bodies of other bugs. The green-banded broodsac is a worm that lives in the gut of a bird and excretes its eggs in the bird’s droppings. In order for those eggs to survive, they have to enter the body of a snail, grow to the next lifecycle, then move up into the snail’s tentacles and make them wave around, hoping that a bird will catch sight of them and eat the snail, delivering the worm into the bird’s gut so it can finish its lifecycle. What are the chances of that happening? It’s extraordinary.
Where did you go to do bug research?
I visited a number of living bug collections, such as the terrific bug zoo at the L.A. Natural History Museum and the Insectarium in New Orleans, and I interviewed scientists all over the world. But some of the most interesting stories came from the oddest places, like newspaper crime reports and case studies in medical journals.
What was your biggest surprise as you were researching these bugs?
I was truly astonished to realize the extent to which people around the world live with so many parasites and insect-transmitted diseases. We all hear about malaria, but when I learned that one in four people on the planet is infested with roundworms – which are larger than earthworms – it changed how I saw the world. I’ve been donating to organizations like the Carter Center that fight these diseases since then.
Aren’t people already too paranoid about bugs? Do you really want to add to their phobias?
I think we should all learn to be more accurate and specific when it comes to our feelings about bugs. I don’t want people to run screaming from the room anytime they see a creature with more legs than they have, and I certainly discourage indiscriminate pesticide use. But we should all be better informed: the common garden spider on your windowsill deserves affection, but the blood-sucking assassin bug you encounter on a South American vacation should be given a wide berth. Learning to make such distinctions doesn’t require an entomology degree; a little common sense and an open-minded curiosity is all you need. I hope that Wicked Bugs inspires both – and delivers a few thrills along the way.
What’s the most wicked bug of all?
The mosquito. The diseases carried by mosquitoes have killed more people than all wars combined. Five hundred million people are infected with malaria worldwide, and that’s only one of the many diseases mosquitoes can transmit.
Intrigued? Read an excerpt here: