Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Wicked Bugs by Amy Stewart

Quick, as far as humans are concerned what's the world's most dangerous animal? Great white shark? Nope. Try the mosquito. The mosquito is incredibly good at spreading diseases (including, but hardly limited to, malaria) among bigger animals and can thus be held responsible for more deaths than any other.

If you pick up Amy Stewart's Wicked Bugs, you might expect to read a lot about the big nasty critters with pincers and stingers and venom. And she doesn't disappoint, describing such fearsome insects as the Asian giant hornet which has a potentially deadly sting that feels like a "hot nail" through your flesh. She covers some of the usual suspects, too, such as the trifecta of "killer" spiders (brown recluse, black widow, tarantula) none of which turn out to be all that scary. But Stewart also includes the far deadlier mosquito and any number of other disease-carrying creatures which wreak far greater havoc than even the fiercest creepy-crawly (which in my opinion is the giant centipede, a foot long and as much as an inch across).

In fact, it turns out that bugs can mess you up in so many ways, that Stewart handily places each specimen in the particular category that best describes its particular type of horror (painful, dangerous, destructive, deadly) and gives each bug a baseball-card style list of stats, just so you can keep track.

Not only is the wickedness of bugs on display in a big way here, so is the overall strangeness. Bugs ain't like people. Not at all. Many of them have multiple life stages, and weird weird sex lives. One of the creatures holding down a spot at the intersection of bizarre and horrifying is the guinea worm. This worm first infests a microscopic crustacean called a copepod. If a human drinks water containing and infested copepod, the copepod will die, but the human will inherit its guinea worms. Inside a human the guinea worm can grow to two or three feet in length resembling as Stewart lovingly puts it, "a long strand of spaghetti." The worm eventually moves toward the skin which causes burning wounds to appear. The victim wants nothing more than soak those wounds in water. Once he does, the worm emerges slightly to distribute larvae into the water. The larvae will look for copepods to eventually deliver them to new human victims. The cure for guinea worms is to wrap gauze around them when they emerge so they can't sneak back inside. Fortunately, it's a very effective cure and guinea worm infections are becoming more rare.

It's this kind of horrified fascination that awaits you throughout Wicked Bugs. If you like that sort of thing.


Debra said...

I got the Wicked Plants book in the series as a gift one year. It's a totally fun series.

mr chompchomp said...

Wicked Plants is on my list to read. Stewart also has a book about earthworms that looks fascinating and one of interest to the over 21 set on the plants used in making cocktails.