Book Review: Wicked Bugs


I’m good when it comes to bugs.  For the most part.

I mean, I generally do not become hysterical when I cross paths with a 6- or 8-legged creature.  In fact, there are some bugs I actually enjoy.  I’m captivated by a trail of ants going about its journey; I love the sultry summer chirp of cicadas; I’m totally in love with praying mantis; I’m mesmerized by the flicker of lightning bugs; I’m completely overjoyed by the arrival of a butterfly (which is why it received top billing);  and when it comes to bees, we have a firm understanding.  I’ll let them do their work, if they let me do mine.

When I think about all of the outdoor bugs, the only one I think I have a very low tolerance for is the grub – pale and moist and writhing in my soil.  Yes, when it comes to grubs, I am a cool and calculated serial killer.

Indoor bugs are a whole other game.  Should a bug enter my house, I go into all-out defense mode.  Their insect temperament determines if I use my catch-and-release, my catch-and-flush, my catch-and-squash, or my you’re-way-too-big-so-I’ll-just-vacuum-you technique.

But I am never hysterical.

At least that’s how things were until I read Wicked Bugs (The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects), by Amy Stewart.  Now, I’m rethinking my whole bug philosophy.  I’m also quite itchy. 

Photo courtesy of http://amystewart.com

Consider this: “To date, over one million species of insects have been described worldwide.  It is estimated that there are ten quintillion insects alive on the planet right now, which means that for each one of us, there are 200 million of them.”

Oh.  My.  God.  Not only is that the first time in my life I have ever written or said out loud the word quintillion, but we are clearly outnumbered.  If these creepy crawlies should ever organize and collaborate and decide to enslave us, we’re seriously screwed.  I mean, what if they mutate and become enormous?  You have seen the sci-fi B movie Kingdom of the Spiders, haven’t you?

With an easy-to-read style, Stewart’s book walks a fine line between entomology, history, and horror.  Her insect tales are divided according to their modus operandi: deadly, dangerous, painful, destructive, and horrible.    

Take, for example, the Emerald Cockroach Wasp – a sort of zombie bug.  Yes, zombie bug.  This little bugger, a native of Asia and Africa, needs a host cockroach in which to lay its egg.  A pregnant wasp will hunt down a cockroach, immobilize it with a sting, and then insert her stinger into the cockroach’s brain, essentially disabling the victim’s ability to flee.  The wasp can then lead the roach around “by its antennae like a dog on a leash.” 

Photo courtesy of http://todayifoundout.com

Once inside the wasp nest, the wasp will lay an egg on the roach’s underbelly.  When the egg hatches, the larva will then chew its way into the roach’s abdomen, feast on the roach’s internal organs, and create a cocoon for itself.  After about a month, a full-grown adult wasp emerges, leaving the roach corpse behind. 

And you though Alien was just a movie! 

Still not convinced that we all need to be vigilant?  Allow me to introduce you to the Chigoe Flea, native to tropical regions around the globe.  Measuring just 1 mm, this tiny sand flea helped make Columbus’ second voyage to the New World a literal living hell.  (Note to self: Remove travel to the tropics from the bucket list.)

For starters, the female chigoe tears into the host’s skin (and when I say host, I am including humans), and burrows in for the mating process.  She prevents the wound from healing so she can a) breathe and b) receive male fleas.  She then lays about a hundred eggs over the next week or so, and these tend to stick to the open wound in egg clusters until they drop out and land on the sand.  The mother flea, after settling in for about a month, will die and fall out of the open wound – which at this point has great potential of being infected.  In fact, Stewart goes on to write, in poorer regions of the world, infestations have resulted in gangrene, loss of toes, and severe pain. 

And these two examples only “scratch” the surface.  Meticulously researched and descriptive, Wicked Bugs is one of those books for campfire reading – you know, when you can hear the buzz of your hunters just beyond the glow of the embers, when you really want to hide in your sleeping bag but you can’t because your mind will be thinking if that thread is just a thread or a zombie bug.

As for me, I’d like to thank Ms. Stewart for arming us with the knowledge to protect ourselves from the coming insect conquest. 

And to the bugs of the world, I’d like to say, “I am so sorry.   Maybe I got a little carried away earlier with that grub serial killer phrase.  Just some creative license.  Please, don’t hurt me.”

28 thoughts on “Book Review: Wicked Bugs

  1. Well that’s just great! Thank you very much!
    I was just about to turn off the ol’ computer & drag myself up to bed for some well earned beauty sleep when up popped this posting. I pondered if I should leave it for tomorrow to read…but no! I couldn’t wait…and now look what you’ve done!!!
    My skin is crawling at the reminder of all the bugs out there & now I’m gonna have nightmare!! Thanks a bunch!!!

    • Sorry about that. I never know how to time a post to account for all of the time zones. Nighty night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite. 🙂

  2. Ew! Where’s you dislike button? That’s gross. I just found earwigs in some weeds I was pulling and now I’m wondering what in the heck else is out there. Did something burrow into my skin? Eeeeek! I am NOT reading this book.

    • Absolutely. She is able to take her subject matter and make it palatable and entertaining. As I read each chapter, my mouth would drop open and I would say, “No way. Listen to this.”

  3. Kevin, like you I find SOME bugs fascinating. Anything entering the house, however, is fair game! Except for spiders – they are carefully scooped up in a sheet of paper and brought outside to spin their webs and lay their eggs. But, I don’t think this book is in my future – 200 million to one – nope, don’t need that reminder! It’s bad enough that, after planting our flowers and veggies, or raking and trimming, we have to examine every possible body crease for ticks, those evil little blood-suckers! I’ll remain oblivious, thank you, to the existence of all the other species I will never have to see! But, I will continue to watch the spiders spin their webs, the dragonflies flitting around my yard and dipping down to the pool for a drink, and, of course, the beautiful butterflies coming to the yard to savor the nectar of my Buddleia davidii and will continue to be amazed by the wonder of their differences and their benefits to humankind. Thanks for the wonderful chuckles this morning!

    • And long before there was “Empire of the Ants,” there was “Them!” Growing up, I was a total b-movie geek. And to this day, if the weather is right, there’s nothing like a pillow, a blanket, and an old sci-fi film. Glad you liked the post!

    • This was my first Amy Stewart book — and I really enjoyed her style. It’s great how she put a whole new spin on bugs. Enjoy the read.

  4. I am quite sure I would enjoy this book! I wouldn’t have had any idea of the statistical measures you shared, but I’ve never been bothered by “bugs” in general. I’m the one in the office who will go ahead and pick up the spider and take her outdoors…of course, I’ve really no experience with dangerous insects, so I shouldn’t be so cavalier! I enjoyed a good book review, Kevin. Do share again! Debra

    • Those measures came right from the book. They’re just dropped in there, and as you read them, your jaw drops. By all means, get the book and read away!

  5. Damn I feel very itchy now! I laughed really loud when I read your catch-and-… tactics, because I use them all too! Except the catch-and-hoover (just because i’m scared they find their way out once the hoover is off!) which in my case is don’t-catch-but-sweep-that-thing-out-quickly.
    Love your book even though I can’t believe you read it all, did you? Anyway the cover is very cool and I wish I had a book like that to show off on my shelf!

    • Alberto, so glad you liked the post. And yes, I read the entire book. It’s a quick, skin-crawling, scalp-itching, spine-tingling read. Happy sweeping. 🙂

  6. Oh, my! I’m not sure I’d want to read this book. It sounds more like the makings of a horror movie! Now I’ll be worried about every flea I see! And as much as I hate roaches, I have to feel sorry for any that become the slave of the wasp. FYI – I have a garden book review meme on the 20th of each month and would love for you to join in sometime. 🙂

  7. Hilarious review but not sure I could handle reading this. Bugs have unnerved me since I was a kid – yup in the hysterical kind of way. I’m better now as long as I have my garden gloves on but the thought of all those creepy crawlies, ugh.

    • Hi Marguerite, glad you liked the review. As for those bugs — I think we should start making nice-nice. They could totally whoop us! 🙂

  8. What a hoot! I long ago developed a fascination for bugs, as I discovered the world through the eyes of my three sons. My oldest was particularly driven to catch and examine them. I was surprised that he didn’t grow up to become an entomologist. I think I will buy this book for him!

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