Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon

“A beetle of some sort,” said my husband, casually waving his hand to the side of the trail as he walked by. I stopped and was thrilled to see an iron cross blister beetle (Tegrodera aloga). Back in our Owens Valley motel room, I read about blister beetles (family Meloidae) in Amy Stewart’s delightful entomological romp, Wicked Bugs. I was surprised to learn that the species of blister beetle known for producing Spanish fly (Lytta vesicatoria), a purported aphrodisiac, led to the imprisonment of the infamous Marquis de Sade, and that a related beetle found in alfalfa fields can, if not removed from livestock feed, be responsible for the death of even large animals: a mere one hundred beetles can kill a twelve-hundred-pound horse. Cantharidin, the defensive chemical produced by blister beetles, is a deterrent to predators, but it can also act as an attractant. For instance, Stewart informs us, male fire-colored beetles (Neopyrochroa flabellata) use cantharidin taken from blister beetles to attract mates. Although cantharidin appears to act as an aphrodisiac for female fire-colored beetles, Stewart describes in detail the quite different—and unpleasant—effect it has on humans of either sex.

Wicked Bugs features many equally fascinating insects, other arthropods, and members of a few other phyla grouped into categories such as Painful, Dangerous, Deadly, Destructive, and, my personal favorite, Horrible. Asian giant hornets, bed bugs, bombardier beetles, and tsetse flies are just a few of the subjects that attract the reader’s attention. We learn that, in Brazil, the sting of one species of caterpillar may cause death; that a Formosan termite queen can live up to twenty-five years; and that, in Venezuela, monkeys use the defensive secretions of one species of millipede as a mosquito repellant. Chapters such as Bugs of War, Arrow Poisons, and Corpse-Eaters all beckon the reader; for the gardener, turn to The Gardener’s Dirty Dozen. If you have a fear of insects, begin reading Wicked Bugs by, first, turning to Have No Fear, where you can identify if you are a victim of spheksophobia, myrmecophobia, or, possibly, delusional parasitosis.

As author of the Pacific Horticulture series, Garden Allies, and coordinator of an entomology outreach program, it was suggested that I might disapprove of a book entitled Wicked Bugs. Far from it! Stewart’s book engages the reader and seems likely to encourage further exploration of all things entomological. Even professional entomologists, most of whom specialize in a restricted range of insect groups, will find some tidbits of engrossing information as they page through Wicked Bugs. The superb and accurate illustrations by artist Briony Morrow-Cribbs, sprinkled generously throughout the book, are a wonderful bonus. Stewart has authored an entertaining book, but it seems likely that more than one reader will avoid a potentially harrowing experience with wicked bugs as a result of the practical knowledge she imparts. Familiarity with insects—both the wicked and beneficial—allows us to better appreciate the world we share. Towards that end, Wicked Bugs also includes well-chosen and useful resources and a bibliography for any reader interested in learning more. In introducing us to wicked bugs, Amy Stewart has undoubtedly increased interest in and fostered a new appreciation for the world of insects and their relatives.

Frederique Lavoipierre, garden ecolologist
Sebastopol, California