A classy and brightly informative appreciation of insects—all you could ask for in a popular natural history.



A fun introduction to the world of insects.

They have existed for some 479 million years; have (mostly) six legs, four wings, two antennae, and a three-segment body; make up over half of known multicellular species; and number 200 million for every single human being living on the planet today. Indeed, we live on the planet of insects, and Sverdrup-Thygeson (Conservation Biology/Norwegian Univ. of Life Sciences) brings it to life in this sharp, good-humored presentation. Why are there so many insects? “Put simply: because they are small, supple, and sexy.” It also helps that they can live nearly anywhere, including ice, hot springs, deep in caves, high on mountains, in baptismal fonts, and even your nostrils. The range of species runs from the tinkerbell wasp, which can land on the tip of a human hair and hardly make a disturbance, to the Chinese walking stick, which grows up to 2 feet in length. Insects are a fascinating topic, and the author milks their peculiarities for all they are worth: molting and metamorphosis, communication through scent, tasting with feet, seeing with knees, and listening through ears in their mouths. But the curios are only part of the bigger picture that situates insects in the great schemes of pollination, decomposition, soil formation, food for other creatures, keeping harmful organisms in check, dispersing seed, and even demonstrating solutions to problems that humans can adopt. In other words, insects could get along happily without humans, but humans could not survive without insects. The author’s panoptic investigation keeps the narrative fully engaging as she alternates between anecdotes about specific insects—the aggressive mimicry of the spotted predatory katydid, the cicadas that “dig their way down—down into seventeen years of darkness”—to richly telling slices of science—e.g., the causes of decline in insect numbers.

A classy and brightly informative appreciation of insects—all you could ask for in a popular natural history.

Pub Date: July 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-982112-87-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!


It should come as no surprise that the gifted author of The Sea Around Us and its successors can take another branch of science—that phase of biology indicated by the term ecology—and bring it so sharply into focus that any intelligent layman can understand what she is talking about.

Understand, yes, and shudder, for she has drawn a living portrait of what is happening to this balance nature has decreed in the science of life—and what man is doing (and has done) to destroy it and create a science of death. Death to our birds, to fish, to wild creatures of the woods—and, to a degree as yet undetermined, to man himself. World War II hastened the program by releasing lethal chemicals for destruction of insects that threatened man’s health and comfort, vegetation that needed quick disposal. The war against insects had been under way before, but the methods were relatively harmless to other than the insects under attack; the products non-chemical, sometimes even introduction of other insects, enemies of the ones under attack. But with chemicals—increasingly stronger, more potent, more varied, more dangerous—new chain reactions have set in. And ironically, the insects are winning the war, setting up immunities, and re-emerging, their natural enemies destroyed. The peril does not stop here. Waters, even to the underground water tables, are contaminated; soils are poisoned. The birds consume the poisons in their insect and earthworm diet; the cattle, in their fodder; the fish, in the waters and the food those waters provide. And humans? They drink the milk, eat the vegetables, the fish, the poultry. There is enough evidence to point to the far-reaching effects; but this is only the beginning,—in cancer, in liver disorders, in radiation perils…This is the horrifying story. It needed to be told—and by a scientist with a rare gift of communication and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Already the articles taken from the book for publication in The New Yorker are being widely discussed. Book-of-the-Month distribution in October will spread the message yet more widely.

The book is not entirely negative; final chapters indicate roads of reversal, before it is too late!  

Pub Date: Sept. 27, 1962

ISBN: 061825305X

Page Count: 378

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1962

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet