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Book Review: Insectopedia by Hugh Raffles

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Although very few people in the world claim to “like” insects, we are all fascinated by them. Those little critters (and big ones for that matter) inhabit a world all their own, with a social structure, code of ethics, and mating habits that are totally alien to us. They were here long before people, and will undoubtedly be here long after we are gone. While there have been literally thousands of books about bugs over the years, there has never been anything quite like Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia.

The book presents 26 short essays, ranging from A to Z, which relate to insects and the world they live in. The book begins with a chapter titled “Air,” and winds up with “Zen And The Art Of Zzzs.” It is a unique method of discussing the various insect related topics to be sure.

For example, in “Chernobyl” Raffles introduces us to painter Cornelia Hesse-Honneger. Cornelia collects deformed insects from nuclear sites, then paints them exactly as she found them, on a large canvas. What may look like an inconsequential flaw on a minute beetle’s abdomen suddenly speaks volumes about the effect that unchecked radiation has on living things. Especially now, with Japanese officials doing everything they can to minimize the truth of the radiation disaster after the massive earthquake, people need to be aware of the extreme danger the situation poses.

Over in the “Q” entry, “The Qualities Of Queerness Is Not Strange Enough” we are presented with more thought provoking observations. Citing dozens of examples of both male and female homosexuality in the insect kingdom, the old mantra that nobody but humans treats sex as both pleasurable, and flexible is shown to be a complete falsehood.

The author has a winning way of presenting the social lives of insects that make them very relatable to those of us who do not consider ourselves scholars. This is well shown in the chapter titled “Temptation.” By studying the balloon fly, researchers found that the males went to great lengths to entice the females – mainly by offering them ever escalating “baubles” to win them over. Raffles compares the whole cycle to the mid-fifties film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He also mentions how both male and female seem fine with this arrangement. Evidently women’s lib has not been adopted by balloon flys as of yet.

Insectopedia is a breezy, yet informative book backed up with a great deal of research. A great deal of the essays are extremely thought provoking, and show that in many ways even bugs have the same emotions (or at least instincts), needs and wants – as us sophisticated mammals do.

The publication of Insectopedia comes just in time for the annual springtime ritual of all sorts of insects emerging from their various winter retreats. Here is an opportunity to find out all you need to know and more about your favorite nuisances.

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