A global sampling of the clever lives and loves of our six-legged friends.
Zuk (Biology/Univ. of California, Riverside; Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are, 2007, etc.) begins with an impressive array of the ways bugs benefit humans: They aerate the soil, dispose of dung, pollinate the majority of the world’s plants, provide bait for bigger prey and even control pests (good bugs eating the bad ones). That they represent 80 percent of all species and will no doubt outlive humans on this planet should give readers pause. How do they manage? In myriad ways, the author demonstrates. As for sex, readers may know about the cannibalism of lady mantises and how queen bees consort with drones, but Zuk also examines species where males produce giant sperm to out-compete rivals, conduct sperm wars in which a later-copulating male scoops out a previous lover’s deposits, pursue both long and short-term couplings and even engage in same-sex behavior. Parenting is also diverse, and provides Zuk with some of her most colorful examples. The tiny emerald cockroach wasp, for example, can sting a cockroach to stun it but not render it immobile, enabling the mother to lead the cockroach by its antennae to the nest to serve as food. Of particular interest (and some controversy) are studies indicating the existence of personality traits such as aggression or passivity, learning ability and communication in bugs. Zuk’s chapters, particularly on social insects, are rich in examples, but she invites questions on why there isn’t more research on genetics and insect nervous systems to fathom what’s behind all this complex behavior.
Plenty of intriguing questions to ponder as Zuk informs adults in a droll style that may also turn on younger readers. After all, entomology is still a field that can begin, as it did for her, with venturing into the yard to collect stuff in a glass jar.